La traviata
A scene from Shawna Lucey’s production of La traviata | Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

To say mezzo-soprano Sarah Saturnino is busy would be somewhat of an understatement. Having appeared in a number of Los Angeles Opera productions, including Otello last May (her mainstage debut), El último sueño de Frida y Diego in November, and most recently, The Dwarf, Saturnino is now singing the role of Flora in La traviata from April 6–27 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

In addition to being a Domingo-Colburn-Stein young artist with the company since the 2022–2023 season, the Mexican American singer is also a choreographer, fight director, and intimacy director, as well as having been trained in fencing. Her work in those latter fields includes productions of Joe Illick’s Feel the Tango, Michael Ching’s Speed Dating Tonight! and The Marriage of Figaro, all for Shreveport Opera.

“They are all kind of linked, in my opinion,” said the Los Angeles-based Saturnino, who grew up in Grass Valley, California. “Intimacy, fight direction, choreography are all very much the same. You’re working with different people’s bodies and their comfortability levels. Intimacy — people might shake their heads at that and say, ‘We don’t need that,’ but it’s good to have an extra pair of eyes in the room.”

Sarah Saturnino
Sarah Saturnino | Credit: Amanda Bottoms

The 30-year-old Saturnino, who graduated cum laude from UCLA with a degree in vocal performance and earned a master’s degree from the Yale School of Music, explained that intimacy directing offers a “different solution to get the storytelling across. Maybe it’s not comfortable for the [singers] to talk out loud about it; maybe it’s not the safest environment. My job is to say, ‘If you don’t want to be touched on the shoulder or waist, we’ll find some other way to tell the story. Is it OK if they touch your wrist?’

“My job is not to inhibit creativity or anything like that but rather to help with the storytelling. The best way to help people experiment is to give them ideas and just let them run with it. [As for] fight direction, people don’t realize how much crawling, falling, and dying on your knees happens in opera. I know a lot of people who can’t do fights anymore or fall to their knees anymore because they’ve done it too many times.”

As an apprentice artist with the Santa Fe Opera, Saturnino worked with the father-and-son fight and intimacy team Sordelet Inc. (Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet) on a 2022 production of Carmen, for which she was the fight captain and also covered the lead role. Last October, the mezzo made her Opera Santa Barbara debut as Carmen, and Saturnino said she had been glad to have an intimacy director on set for that role, which requires a great deal of physical interaction.

Saturnino also sang the title character in LA Opera’s concert version of The Rape of Lucretia at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall in 2023, and thanks to her background, she knew just how demanding that part could be. “In Lucretia, even though it was a concert version, if it had been staged, we would have needed an intimacy director because it is an extremely violent and physical show.”

Concert performance
LA Opera’s 2023 concert performance of The Rape of LucretiaCourtesy of LA Opera

Having worked as a choreographer on Feel the Tango, Saturnino will next be singing in the world premiere of Illick’s musical fable Zozobra: The Revenge at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe in August. And since being named a 2023 winner of the Metropolitan Opera Laffont Competition (formerly known as the National Council Auditions), the singer is getting more bookings, including returning to LA Opera next season as Maddalena in Rigoletto.

“That [competition] impacted my career in a fantastic way. It was one of the most incredible experiences,” Saturnino enthused. “It was my first time singing on the Met stage. People who heard me sing on that stage have been offering me opportunities, and I’m grateful for that. It’s such a great way to say to the operatic world, ‘Hey, I’m ready. Let’s go.’”

Because she’s on the operatic ascent, Saturnino said that this will be her last season with LA Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program. “I’m ready to go out and do the private contractor style of singing now. The program has given a lot to help me develop toward becoming a solo artist. I’m really grateful for the time that I’ve had here.”

La traviata
A scene from Shawna Lucey’s production of La traviata | Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

For now, though, Saturnino is concentrating on singing Flora in La traviata. A staging new to Los Angeles, the production is conducted by James Conlon and directed by Shawna Lucey. The cast also features Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Violetta Valéry, Liparit Avetisyan as Alfredo Germont, and Kihun Yoon as Giorgio Germont.

“I’m really excited about this production,” Saturnino exclaimed. “It’s my first time singing in Traviata, and it’s my favorite opera to watch. I hadn’t worked with Shawna Lucey before, but she is so much fun, and this Traviata is such a blast. It’s provocative without being too in your face. There’s such a colorful, vivacious party of people onstage, and the singing is just fantastic. Audiences are really going to enjoy this.”