As he planned the new opera, he approached Ms. Luna, who had already ventured to a high G as the sprite Ariel in Mr. Adès’s adaptation of “The Tempest” at the Met in 2012.
“I’ve practiced up to a C above high C in the past,” she said in an interview in her dressing room. “So I know it’s in me. But it’s just nothing I’ve performed on any stage before.”
“When I saw Ariel the first time, it was like a dare,” she added, referring to the “Tempest” score. “And this is a double-dog dare.”
In “The Exterminating Angel,” based on the 1962 Luis Buñuel film, Ms. Luna plays Leticia, an opera diva who is part of a blue-bloods dinner party, the guests of which find themselves mysteriously unable to leave at the end of the evening. The vocal demands are a workout for almost every performer onstage.
“The note,” Mr. Adès said, “the range, the tessitura, is a metaphor for the ability to transcend these psychological and invisible boundaries that have grown up around them.”
Adding to the excitement of the high A is its placement in the score. Unlike in other high-flying parts — the imperious Queen of the Night in “The Magic Flute,” the spunky Zerbinetta in “Ariadne auf Naxos,” the long-suffering title role in “Lucia di Lammermoor” — there’s little time for Ms. Luna to warm up: The A is her very first note, sung before she’s even visible onstage. (She sings it again a short time later, as the party guests, in a surreal portent, leave the stage and re-enter.)
“It’s a moment of arrival,” Mr. Adès said. “It had to be on this note.”
Growing up in Oregon, Ms. Luna sang the daunting Queen of the Night when she was still in high school “just because it was fun,” she said. “And I liked the sensation it made in my bones in my head, in my sinuses. It just gave me a high. It still gives me a high.”
Credit Emon Hassan for The New York Times
Her topmost register is unusually lucid and effortless. Even in those notes unattainable by most other sopranos, and even when those notes are held far longer than the pecks requested by most other composers, Ms. Luna’s tone is full. She manages to avoid shrillness in what she aptly calls the “Wagnerian coloratura spectacle” that is her final “Exterminating Angel” aria, a flood of sustained superhigh sound up to F.
Even if nothing in previous Met history has equaled her high A, other singers have come close, sometimes adding unwritten interpolations and transpositions to show off their personal stratospheres. A number of the highest notes in Met history have emerged from sopranos singing the title part in “Lucia di Lammermoor”; it’s no coincidence that this is the role Ms. Luna’s character performs just before the dinner party at the start of “The Exterminating Angel.”
Ellen Beach Yaw, born near Buffalo in 1869, sang a G above C as Lucia in her single Met performance in 1908. The review in The New York Times praised her “flutelike Santos-Dumont notes,” comparing her to a Brazilian aviation pioneer, and added, in a reference to a Wild West gunslinger: “She hit that high G as promised, but it is like Bat Masterson hitting a tomato can with a .44 at four paces.”
The celebrated French soprano Lily Pons sustained a high F in the final mad scene from “Lucia” — sung, at her Met debut in 1931, “in legitimate note, not bird whistles or falsetto,” according to The New York Post. At the turn of the 20th century, Sibyl Sanderson, as Massenet’s Manon, hit a G, known as her “Eiffel Tower note.” Mado Robin, a French coloratura, was recorded shrilling up to a B flat, but she never sang at the Met.
Video by operabeauty
More recently, Natalie Dessay was known in New York for her crystal-clear G’s as the mechanical doll Olympia in Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann.” Just this fall, Erin Morley’s Olympia ornaments brought her up to A flat, a feat Rachele Gilmore achieved in the role at the Met in 2009.
The company admits it is possible that an even higher note could have slipped through the archival cracks. “There’s no record keeping of such things, especially of improvised stuff,” said Peter Clark, the Met’s archivist, who remembers hearing Pons’s F on a radio broadcast as a child. “So it’s not to say that in 1908, say, something higher didn’t happen. But I doubt that it wouldn’t be mentioned somewhere.”
“The Exterminating Angel” isn’t the first time Mr. Adès has pushed a singer to extremes, nor was “The Tempest.” In fact, one of his very first works, “Five Eliot Landscapes” for soprano and piano, from 1990, ends on a sustained G flat.
Video by Thomas Adès – Topic
“It’s a certain amount of useful cruelty involved,” he said with a chuckle, before correcting himself. “Not cruelty, but the callowness of youth.”
Callow or not, he’s still at it. Mr. Adès said that in the score of “The Tempest,” which had its premiere in London in 2004, he had placed a high G in brackets, indicating a note that at the time he only dreamed of hearing.
When she sang the part at the Met, Ms. Luna could reach the G. Now, more than a decade later, the score of “The Exterminating Angel” has a high B in brackets — yet another seemingly impossible note, waiting patiently for a soprano who can crack yet another music-stave ceiling.