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The diva of Pasadena

International opera star Milena Kitic talks about "Carmen," the demise of the heavyset diva, discipline and philanthropy.

Carmen, the title character of Georges Bizet's opera that premiered in 1875, is well-known as a beguiling siren. The Spanish gypsy wins the love of corporal Don Jose but leads him down a path of destruction. The opera ends tragically when Carmen's affections turn to the matador Escamillo, and, out of the fierce passion of a lover scorned, Don Jose kills Carmen.

If anyone knows this strong, seductive and fiery character, it's Milena Kitic. The 38-year-old opera star has donned a brunette wig as Carmen 150 times, performing in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic and the United States. Kitic made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Carmen in October 2005, a mere five years after coming to America. She lives in Pasadena with her husband, international businessman and former Prime Minister of Yugoslavia Milan Panic, and their 4 1/2-year-old son.

Kitic has played Carmen and Delilah numerous times because mezzo-sopranos don't have very many title roles. Carmen remains her favorite. The role requires singing, dancing (including flamenco), acting and fluency in French.

"It's a demanding role from all perspectives," said Kitic in English with an accent from her native Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia. "It's a fantastic role if you give your best."

Because of her international performances, Kitic recognizes the importance of tailoring the part for the audience. "Being sexy, for instance, here in the United States is not the same as being sexy in Germany or in France," said Kitic. "It's a different culture. You know how in France everything is subtle, and everything is like Catherine Deneuve. Marlene Dietrich is very German. She has something cold, but still something appealing. Latino cultures are very warm. Italian and Spanish cultures would have more similar taste than Scandinavian cultures, for instance. Marilyn Monroe was very American."

In general, Kitic interprets Carmen in a more philosophical way. "I don't think Carmen is vulgar. I just think that she is a free woman, a free spirit. She is obviously a very young woman and sexy, but it has to have some subtlety also in it. I don't think Carmen is all about sex," she said matter-of-factly. "I think it's about liberty. I think it's about women's liberation in fact."

Of course, stage directors do their share of interpretation, too. While Kitic did have the chance to play a blond Carmen in Germany, her debut at the Metropolitan Opera was in a traditional, though decidedly lavish, Zepherelli production that featured live horses, donkeys and dogs and even falling snow. Kitic said it was "fantastic and really impressive."

While set design can be exuberant, heavyset women are no longer taking center stage. For Kitic, who was a competitive gymnast as a child, health concerns are the main reason that the fitness trend in opera is a good thing. But, more importantly, operatic roles can be physically demanding and require endurance.

"The Met stage is an enormous stage," said Kitic. "You get sweaty if you just cross it once or twice running or dancing. Plus, you have to sing and you have to look cool and seductive. [You can't be] sweaty and dying and overweight, so you have to take care of yourself and be persuasive."

Add working out, which Kitic takes very seriously with a trainer in her home gym, to the already demanding list of talents required by the opera singer - singing (in Italian, German, French, Russian or English), dancing and acting - and you've got a challenging career.

Kitic, who earned a master's degree in opera and concert singing at the University of Belgrade, credits diligence and discipline for her success.

"I think I worked a lot," she said laughing. "I did work a lot. I put an enormous amount of time in learning how to sing and how to be very disciplined about it, and I was just stubborn."

In the den of her gorgeous Tudor home, surrounded by museum-quality oil paintings in ornate gold frames and sculptures in crystal, bronze and marble, Kitic pointed out a framed photo arranged among numerous others on one of her three pianos. The photo was of the teacher Kitic considers herself lucky to have found - Biserka Cvejic (a name that looks impossible to pronounce but rolled quite beautifully off Kitic's tongue), a star of many world opera houses. Kitic said of Cvejic, "She actually developed this love for singing and opera in me, and I think all that I learned I owe to her. I would give her most of the credit. Of course, my family also gave me absolutely fantastic support in whatever I wanted to do."

While studying opera, Kitic said, "I was always hungry to ask more: Please tell me what you think about this, and what can I do with this, and let me try that. Even if I fail, I still want to try. If I fail, then I leave it for a couple of years and try again. I always believed that I could succeed. And I hope I did. I think I did." She paused, then added, "That sounded like a choo-choo train: I hope I can, I hope I can," and laughed heartily.

Her hard work paid off, and she has gone on to become an award-winning international opera star. Critics have described her voice as "arresting and powerful." She debuted in 1989 as Olga in Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" in the Belgrade Opera. In 1998, she made her U.S. debut with the Palm Beach Opera. Among her numerous awards was the title of "Diva of the Year" by the Opera Pacific Guild in 2004.

Kitic is also a teacher herself, personally training students and giving master classes at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and at USC. "Even if I work now with students, I really get into it, I really try to give them my best. I want them to succeed so badly."

To help students even further, she also donates to various young artist programs in Florida and California. Kitic feels that generosity is essential to the future of the arts. In 1997, she donated her prize winnings (about $1 million) from a charity concert in Venice, Italy, to La Fenice, the Venice opera house. In 2004, she donated a performance with The Pasadena Symphony to their music program, and she is involved in fundraising, sometimes singing to the accompaniment of the piano on the outdoor patio of her home to raise money for the L.A. Opera and Opera Pacific, where she frequently performs.

"[Giving] is important because this system here functions differently from the European," she explained. "Here if people don't give into their culture, their surroundings, their environment, it will not develop. It's not funded, like in Europe, by the state; it's funded by private people and private institutions and if you want to see blossoms, if you want to leave something for your children, if you want them to be exposed to something, and to something with a good quality, you have to put money into it."

The results of that generosity, as Kitic has found, can be astounding.

"Classical and opera music are developing rapidly, and I think that's fantastic," she said. "And some of the people from the board of the L.A. Opera and Opera Pacific commented that L.A. Opera will soon be competing with the Met opera. It's possible. It is possible."

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