Former Dalton resident Stella Zambalis has been enjoying a homecoming of sorts while staying in Chattanooga and preparing for her performances this week in the opera “Don Giovanni.”

“I miss my home. I miss my community. Dalton is in my heart,” Zambalis said of the city she called home for more than nine years.

Zambalis, who is originally from Cleveland, Ohio, moved to Dalton in 1996 to teach voice at the Creative Arts Guild. She left for New York City more than a year ago to continue her career as a soprano.

Currently Zambalis is in Chattanooga preparing for her role as Donna Anna in the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera’s production of “Don Giovanni,” which will be performed Thursday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Tivoli Theater.

Zambalis described the character of Anna as a “hard sing,” and explained that a singer “has to really pump (her voice) out” for this role.

“Don Giovanni” is the story of Casanova, one of history’s most notorious lovers, as told by composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Zambalis has performed in this opera more than any other in her 25-year career. She has played all three soprano parts previously and says she loves all the characters.

Having taken on the role of Anna before, she said she did not have to prepare as intensely as in the past.

“For someone who is playing a part for the first time, you might spend six months to a year learning the role and the songs and preparing your voice,” she said. “It’s just like an athlete preparing for a marathon. They don’t just get up and run, they have to train first.”

John Hoomes, who is directing “Don Giovanni” for the fourth time, said Zambalis is the strongest Anna he has worked with.

“She’s terrific. It’s rare to find someone in the opera community so respected. Everyone has nothing but praise for Stella,” he said.

Hoomes directed Zambalis two years ago in the CSO’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca” and will direct her again in April for the Nashville Opera’s production of Puccini’s “Turandot.”

When Zambalis first entered Florida State University she had plans of becoming a music teacher, but at the urging of the voice faculty at FSU she entered the graduate program and was awarded a voice assistantship.

Later that year she entered three voice competitions and won all three. She auditioned for the Houston Grand Opera and was one of three chosen from 500 to enter the studio program there.

Soon after entering the program Zambalis began getting professional jobs and has since become a regular guest of opera companies around the world, including the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Opera, the Houston Opera and the Seattle Opera.

While living in Dalton she filled her time between performance engagements by teaching at the Creative Arts Guild. Her students at the Guild were disappointed to see her leave, said Lisa Elders, the current music director.

“When she was in the building you always heard her before you saw her. You could always hear her singing,” Elders said. “Stella was a very down-to-earth person, considering how successful she was. She was always laughing and smiling.”

This will be Zambalis’ first opera at the CSO since last April, when she performed in “Madame Butterfly.” This production of “Don Giovanni” is part of a celebration of the life of Mozart.

“We are approaching Mozart’s 250th birthday this Jan. 27,” maestro Robert Bernhardt said in a press release. “The CSO is overjoyed to be joining the rest of the music world in celebrating this landmark and we begin with his operatic masterpiece, ‘Don Giovanni,’ with performances the day before, and the day after, his birthday.”

The opera begins with a disguised Giovanni inside the home of the Commendatore, a famous military commander, attempting to woo Donna Anna, the Commendatore’s daughter.

Anna chases Giovanni from her home and her father wakes up and challenges Giovanni to a duel. The Commendatore is killed, Giovanni flees, and Anna and her fiance, Don Ottavio, vow to avenge her father’s murder.

Considered by some to be his best work, Mozart produced “Don Giovanni” in his early 30s and it is by far his most performed opera, said Hoomes.

The term ‘dramma giocoso’ (playful drama) is used to describe the opera, and because the story walks the line between humor and tragedy, different directors can present different versions of the story.

“The words and the music would be the same,” explained Hoomes. “But a director can interpret the story differently.”

Zambalis said that this production of “Don Giovanni” will be more intense than others because of Hoomes’ interpretation.

Hoomes describes the story as “one of the most incredible operas ever written. It walks a fine line between comedy and tragedy like no other work in the operatic repertory.”

Speaking of the character played by Zambalis, Hoomes said: “Anna can sometimes be viewed as a flat character, but Stella looks for things to make the character more interesting. She makes the character stronger than usual.”

Zambalis gives the credit to Hoomes.

“Anna is typically a little ‘woe is me,’ but John Hoomes is giving Anna more depth than normal,” she said.

“Don Giovanni” will be performed in Italian with English “supertitles” projected above the stage. Zambalis said it is important for opera singers to have an “understanding knowledge” of the four “opera languages”: Italian, French, English and German. Although operas are performed in almost every language, she said a singer should be able to know enough of the four “opera languages” to communicate, or at the very least, know the words of every part in a production.

“You need to know what you are singing and what is being sung to you,” she explained.

The cast of “Don Giovanni” began rehearsing together two weeks before opening night and only the last five days of rehearsal are held in the theater.

Zambalis said audiences should expect a beautiful opera and should be ready to be entertained. She said it is not necessary for one to know the story to enjoy the production, but recommends operagoers arrive early so they can read the synopsis in the program.

“I would love for everyone in Dalton to come out and see me. I promise they’ll love the opera. I promise,” she said.

Though her home is in New York City, Zambalis spends about six months of the year at various locations performing. Since leaving Dalton she has returned to the area several times to perform in concerts and visit friends.

When she is home, she teaches voice and says she really enjoys her students.

Zambalis said when she was younger, she might have spent as much as 10 months on the road, but that a woman’s singing voice is an instrument that needs to be taken care of.

“As a singer gets older, there are some roles you can not perform as well as others, so you eliminate those roles,” she said. “Once she is in her late 40s or 50s, a woman’s voice will begin to get weak. A man’s voice will last about 10 years longer than a woman’s. It’s not fair,” she said.

Zambalis said she does not know where she’ll end up years from now, but plans to stay in New York for at least the next two or three years.

Even if she never moves back to Dalton, she said she will always have ties to the city she once called home.

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