An interview by Jean-Marc Berns
1. You have become famous in Rossini roles. Then you embraced the universe of baroque singing : what has this universe brought you ?
I think the two worlds of bel-canto and baroque are very complementary. Where Rossini generally focuses on the duet or larger ensemble, with brief solo opportunities, the baroque is primarily based on the solo singer. It’s a much more intimate form, where one singer is often alone on stage for up to 10 minutes, exploring one emotion, one dramatic moment.In some ways it’s more challenging than Rossini where the action moves along quite a bit quicker, but it is also more liberating because you are given the time to really delve deeply into an aria. The sounds of baroque instruments have also been very inspiring to me because the timbre is so different from that of the modern orchestra, and they use so many colors to illustrate what the singer is feeling.
2. Does your experience of singing Rossini help you to understand the heritage of the eighteenth-century Italian opera ?
I think the experience in baroque opera has enriched my understanding of Rossini. In baroque opera I most often sing roles written for castrati ; in Rossini’s time, the use of castrati was no longer prevalent, but it is interesting to see that the roles of young heroes (Malcolm in La Donna del Lago) as well as heroines (Angelina in La Cenerentola) were still associated with the castrato range, rather than tenor or higher soprano. Understanding that during the baroque these roles were written for the castrato because that voice was considered the most beautiful, most able to portray the heroism and altruism in these characters, it is really flattering to see Rossini choosing the mezzo or contralto voice as the heir to this type of role.
3. Do you think that your work with Claudia Pinza (Ezio Pinza’s daughter) brings you a direct connection with the heritage of the great style of Italian bel-canto ?
Working with Claudia Pinza has opened not only the world of Italian singing, but also the world of Italian language and culture, all of which have been very important for me in understanding the music I’m singing. I have studied in Italy for the past 10 years whenever I’m not performing, and feel a very strong connection to the country and its heritage. In addition, I have always loved reading biographies on the lives of other artists, and in studying with Ms. Pinza I’m given a glimpse of the wonderful singers she herself worked with during her career in opera, including her father Ezio Pinza. Prior to Ms. Pinza I also studied with Dorothy Dow, Virginia Zeani and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, all of whom have given me a feeling of being connected to the history of the music I’m so fortunate to be singing today.
4. Baroque composers wrote more or less for individual performers. These singers and their art disappeared. How can today’s singer draw on this historical information ?
I depend very heavily on the input of musicologists, conductors, and fellow musicians to develop my interpretation of this music. I think one of the most incredible things about René Jacobs in this light is that, in addition to his being a great musicologist, he is also a great singer. That enables him to interpret the treatises, essays and historical documentation we have access to from the singer’s perspective, bringing it to life. Once one has learned the “language” of baroque music, however, I think the key to its interpretation is in the freedom given to the singer to *be* an individual, using the cadenzas and ornamentation that show off the best parts, as well as the particularities of his or her voice. While it is true that the baroque composers were most often writing with specific singers in mind, the structure of the music is very much like modern jazz where it depends entirely on the musician “filling out” the composer’s outline with his own interpretation and individual expression. It’s rather like handing a copy of “Mack the Knife” to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong; both used the language of jazz, yet each had a very distinct interpretation which is unmistakeable with any one of their contemporaries. So while one can learn from treatises and historical documentation about the musical language specific singers of the 18th century used to flesh out the ideas of the composers, as modern singers we are still very much encouraged to express our own individuality to make the music come alive.
5. Your voice’s tessitura and color will often lead you to interpret “trouser-roles”. What do you feel you have learned from these roles, and do you enjoy them ?
At first I was rather timid about portraying a man on stage because I am not particularly tall, and have a relatively small physical stature. That taken together with the novelty of imagining a male role sung by a higher voice was a challenge to me at first. I watched a lot of counter-tenors and how they used their voices to interpret roles such as Polinesso in Handel’s Ariodante; roles which to the contemporary ear would typically be portrayed by a bass or low baritone because of his evil nature. That was such an extreme for me, seeing the villain singing in a higher tessitura, and very effectively so, that it made the idea of singing the role of the protagonist less daunting. I’ve learned that rather than trying to emulate a man’s voice or physical stature, it’s more a matter of creating physical and vocal colors you can add to your own palette to interpret the male roles, which contrast from those being used in the female roles. That said, I do think that the “problem” we as a modern audience have with seeing/hearing the trouser-roles interpreted by a higher voice, whether mezzo-soprano or counter-tenor, is something that was not at all a consideration at the time this music was written. The fact that Farinelli himself sang the role of Cleopatra in Hasse’s Marc’ Antonio e Cleopatra, while the role of Marc’ Antonio was sung by a female contralto, says that the 18th century listener was much more accustomed to hearing not only men’s roles interpreted by women, but also having men interpret female roles on stage, something that the modern-day audience would probably still have difficulty with today!
6. Your recording devoted to Farinelli is made up of eight very different arias. They show at the same time the large vocal range and the richness of the famous castrato’s art. What personal idea do you have of this particular voice ?
Farinelli most definitely had a very wide spectrum both in vocal and emotional colors. The arias represented on this CD are quite varied in style. For example, “Qual guerriero in campo armato” shows the vocal fireworks he was known for, while “Ombra fedele”, also composed by Riccardo Broschi, portrays the character’s constancy and determination to follow his beloved beyond death through beautiful long, slower phrasing. In “Quell’usignolo”, written for Farinelli by Geminiano Giacomelli we have some of Farinelli’s original ornamentation where he uses all manner of trills and rapid cadenzas, employing practically his entire range to imitate the roulades and songs of a nightingale.
7. Your career seems to be devoted to opera. Is that by chance or through choice ?
I generally sing more opera than concert repertoire because the opportunities to work with opera companies are more plentiful. I do, however, enjoy recital and concert work, and look forward to doing more as my career progresses.
8. Do you have future projects with René Jacobs ?
I will be singing the title role in Handel’s Rinaldo with René Jacobs this summer in Montpellier and in Innsbruck.