Interview with Barbara Frittoli

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At the Metropolitan Opera opening of “Don Carlo” in New York, I met Barbara Frittoli, one of the most brilliant and admired sopranos in the world. I love her timbre, her innate musicality, her careful preparation and relevance of interpretation, all summed up—a divine singing actress. A soprano of international fame, she has sung with leading conductors in major opera houses the world over. Besides her world-class credits, Barbara is a lovable woman, human, beautiful and down to earth, far from the stereotypical diva. She uses her voice to best serve her singing career, rather than her public image or private life.  These qualities, in my eyes, make her very special.

Lorenzo Lars Vallot: Thanks, Barbara, for this first performance of “Don Carlo.” I rarely see a singer move on stage with such grace and awareness of interpretation, not to mention your marvelous voice. Here, at the Metropolitan Opera, you’ve performed every season since your debut in 1995 as Micaela in Carmen, and today you’re interpreting the beloved but unhappy, Elisabetta de Valois in “Don Carlo” by Giuseppe Verdi. If you had to sum up your career since 1995, how would you begin?

Barbara Frittoli:  The real problem is that it’s hard to believe so many years have passed by. I have nearly thirty years of career behind me. To think that I have performed for twenty years at the Met Opera is scary. How can you sum up a career? I’m still studying. That never stops. You can never say, I’ve arrived somewhere. Yes, I arrived at the Met Opera twenty years ago, and I am happy to be here again.

LLV:  Your first intention was not to become a singer, and you had started studying the piano at the Conservatory. What prompted you to choose another route?

BF: I wasn’t really cut out to be a pianist, but I was cut out for music. The piano served as a means to understand that, but to express myself musically, it wasn’t the right instrument for me.  Everyone realized that I had musical possibilities, but I didn’t have what it takes as a pianist, although one of my recurring dreams was to be accepted for my piano playing. I really wanted to get into the conservatory to study harp. Only two positions were open with many applicants, very difficult. Moreover, when my mother found out how much a harp costs, she said, “Forget about it!” After that, I thought of the guitar.  I had already strummed a little, I listened to Segovia and liked him so much (my distant relative also gave classical guitar concerts), but since only one place was open with two hundred applicants, I didn’t try. At home, I had a small two-octave Bontempi piano. When I started playing some Mozart, my mother said, “But why not the piano?” And I said,  “But certainly, let’s do piano!” I neither read music, nor knew how to play.  At age nine, I arrived at the conservatory for the aptitude test, accompanied by my mother. When she realized that all examinees must be ready to play a piece to be evaluated, she said, “Let’s go home, you have no chance to pass.” But I wanted to stay. I wanted to see what the entrance exam to play an instrument consisted of. I got curious. In that exam, Maestro Eugenio Mozzati, a great, but blind pianist, evaluated me.  I was barraged with musical questions I couldn’t answer. Two other maestri squeezed my hands to determine their flexibility. That, with the length of my fingers and the size of my hands, they said, “Yes!” And I was admitted. Although mine is not an artistic family, they were able to observe that I had a chance— I felt the music. At some point, however, I wanted to stop, feeling terrible, I fell asleep on the keyboard while practicing Bach, only now do I understand him.

LLV: So then, when did you start to sing?

BF: Singing came easy. I had so much fun when beginning to sing. My voice found its placement by itself, naturally, effortlessly. I created some vocal colors, which wasn’t easy to do on the keyboard. At twelve, I was already singing in the Conservatory choir on tour. It’s something innate, you have to have something inside, then you can develop it, study, but either you have it, or you don’t.

LLV:  You started very young. What do you think of all these kids who sing solo on big stages when they’re so young?

BF:  At thirteen, I was singing in the conservatory choir. The teachers monitored our voices. These talented kids are already soloists and often sing, imitating adults but without the technical control. In the long run, this may prove detrimental to the health of their vocal cords. The famous child prodigy at some point grows to be like other singers. It’s just that he/she was quick to figure out what they were doing. It took others longer, and they needed more time and experience to learn.

LLV. As a young woman, were you a fan of any opera singer?

BF: I didn’t know any opera singers.  At home, we listened only to orchestral music: Mahler and Wagner. I went to punk-rock concerts with my shaved head, and dressed in studded collars—my rebellion to the stay-at-home female paradigm. I didn’t want to fit the mould of the well-behaved daughter in a little skirt. Sid Vicious, the Sex Pistols, Kiss, ACDC, Motörhead, I was their big fan.

LLV:  Your Verdi repertory is extensive: Leonora, Elisabetta, Desdemona, Luisa Miller, Amelia Grimaldi, Alice Ford. I can imagine how much time you devoted to study these great roles. From your experience, when interpreting a role, must you fall in love with the character?

BF: It’s hard to fall in love with roles at first, and usually I approach them gingerly. I read the libretto, not caring who sang the role before or how because everyone has to measure the role in terms of her individual vocal means. For example, you read Shakespeare’s Othello then go to Verdi, libretto by Arrigo Boito, and the character is another person. The rawness of Shakespeare’s Desdemona, dictated by the period, is milder in Verdi, where she’s an angel.  Shakespeare’s Desdemona is real, strong, her feet on the ground. I like Shakespeare’s Desdemona.  One can like the opera character, but I found it easier to fall in love with the literary original. This did not happen with Luisa Miller because this drama’s nature is political.

When preparing a role, I read and study the literary work, which gives me ideas for its onstage interpretation. The composer, thanks to his musical sensibility, creates a bridge between words and music. He’s the true director of the opera, giving us its tone and theatrical timing. Verdi docet.

LLV:  How do you relate to the conductor?

BF: The composer is in charge of direction, but the conductor determines interpretation. It’s not always easy to put together orchestra and singers: we all have different personalities and must somehow “agree”: we talk, discuss and sometimes negotiate, all toward the success of the opera.

LLV: With so many singers today, is there competition? There are various types of contracts for singers. We are professional freelancers represented by agents. We’re not part of theater companies, but there are also “house singers,” contracted with salaries and assigned secondary roles, or to cover leading roles normally sung by us freelancers. Competition is intense among house singers, as a matter of survival, but among us freelancers, it depends on reputation. I don’t lose sleep looking for it, but I’ve always given priority to the artistic side, formed by the uniqueness of the individual. The same role sung by another soprano can be so different as to be almost unrecognizable, and this is due to the sensitivity and adaptability of the singer herself and “negotiations” with the conductor.

LLV: Education and study with conductors play a very important role. Have you had the opportunity to study with great musicians, teachers, and conductors?

BF: Among many, I can cite Giulio Bertola, Bruno Casoni, Giovanna Canetti, Riccardo Muti, Claudio Abbado, James Levine, Sir Charles Mackerras and Gianandrea Noseda. Today, conductors are increasingly neglected, as is studying.

LLV: How important was your maestro and studying for you?

BF: It was fundamental. I was very lucky always to find interesting and intelligent mentors who have helped me, even to get more involved. In elementary school, I had Maestro Giuseppe Spagnolo, who helped me develop artistic skills, singing, acting, etc. He spoke Italian, Chinese, French and German; he would say a few words in a foreign language, and we learned them. Later in my studies, I encountered very helpful teachers, sincerely interested in their students. Surely, if you happen to get a teacher who doesn’t care about teaching, you can have big problemsIn Japan, the only ones who need not bow before the Emperor are teachers because they can still teach him something. This shows respect for knowledge. Finally, if you think about who creates the figure of the teacher, who is the first teacher of a people? The State. The cultural level In Italy continues to decline, thanks to the outrageously poor cultural standards of television, even on State run TV. Television junk, except for a few rare pearls, helps to enforce the low cultural level of the masses; for example, our “great” actors, recently in the spotlight “a box office smash” with their singular talent for crippling the Italian language, immediately imitated by most teens, who then all seem brain-damaged. A clear desire to maintain a low cultural level is evident.

LLV:  One of the key themes of “Don Carlo” is the father-son conflict, which is revealed through the harsh clash between Philip II of Spain, and his son, Don Carlo, on an intimate as well as on a political plane. In a modern society like ours, where a terrorist act at the headquarters of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, is rightly viewed by nearly everyone as an attack on the right to freedom of expression, as a parent, how do you think it’s possible that even today, parents can’t accept the decisions and choices made by their children? Or even that  children sometimes refuse to accept their parents’ decisions?

BF: The real problem that arises between parents and children is due to the passage of time. We were brought up in a certain way, and when you raise your children and do it in the same way, except for clear and unchanging common sense, times change. With me, my daughter found the doors wide open since I’m an artist, roaming the world, relating to everything and everyone. I’ve never had any problems with her. I have always tried to understand her. But I can understand how it was difficult for my parents with me. When I started working in opera houses back in the 80s, rehearsing until midnight, and one a.m., my mom couldn’t reach me from home (no cell phones then). She used to scream all her frustration on the phone for at least an hour every single night. It’s a matter of time that passes. It will always get better, I think and hope, thanks to greater mental openness, with this knowledge and the intermeshing of peoples, foods, cultures and religions. My father advised me, “Barbara when you have to make a decision for your daughter, do it after weighing all aspects carefully, but know that much can go wrong. All the same, stay calm.” Every decision has flaws that come to light over time, so you have to put in your heart and common sense, so when your decision proves to be wrong, you can at least claim to have made it in good faith. Today, society’s real problem is a lack of taboos and weakening of rules that could lead, as in the case of the great Roman Empire, to its gradual crumbling. We’re now living in this weakening period. Teaching children what’s right and wrong is sacred. If not, everyone would do whatever he wants. This generates dissent, chaos and violence in the end. We have rules and laws that must be in place and respected by everyone.

LLV: From your debut in a starring role 25 year ago at San Carlo in Naples, you’ve been center stage and delighted audiences of the world’s most important opera houses: La Scala, Milan, The Metropolitan Opera, New York, The Opéra National de Paris, the Royal Opera House, London, Washington National Opera, San Francisco Opera, Opera Houses in Vienna, Frankfurt, Salzburg, and Tokyo. What was your worst onstage experience?

BF: It was my debut at La Scala, Milan. The then artistic director of La Scala, Gianni Tangucci, called saying, “Why not have a go at La Scala at the final dress rehearsal of Beatrice di Tenda? Do you know it? “Donizetti?” I asked. “Bellini,” he answered dryly, and I had already made a terrible faux pas. “Do you have a tape recorder? Take it with you,” and he hung up. When I arrived at the theater, they gave me the score, “Pay particular attention to the role of Agnese, the second woman and record it.” I perched myself in a box and began my work. At the end of the rehearsal, Tangucci in a slightly anxious tone, asked: “How is this role? Do you like it? Could you do it? Say in four days from now because we’ve lost the artist in the second cast?”  My perky reply, “Sure!”  “Well, keep the score, record your part, go home and come back tomorrow to rehearse the scene onstage!”  I left La Scala feeling trapped. “How can I learn a role like this in four days?” On the following day, I already knew it. I was young, lightning fast. I met the conductor, told him I knew the role and asked if we could rehearse. He said, “If you know it well, I’ll see you on stage, ciao!”  My jaw dropped.  Evidently the cast change was not in his plans. I rehearsed alone with the recorder in a room with boxes substituting for stage furniture. On the evening of my debut, I remember my aunt Giulia (always my most dedicated fan) who couldn’t get a seat in the sold-out house, sitting on the floor in the wings, waiting for my opening offstage aria. Then, I positioned myself in the middle of the stage, lute in hand, and she patted me on the back sweetly. A few moments later the curtain rose.

LLV:  Do you still feel that first-time excitement when you get on stage?

BF: I always do the moment before. Once it starts, you’re inside it; you’re already in the current, no turning back. You get used to it—the rhythm, the music, you are in the story. Small roles are the worst thing is to do because if you mess something up, you have no way of recovering; once you’re wrong, there’s no chance to redeem yourself.

LLV: At this time, what is your greatest happiness?

BF: Not to mention my parents, my brother Alessandro and music, my daughter makes me proud and happy. The other night I was thinking of her and began to cry. I miss her, even if she is grown now at age 18. Now, she is making her life, and her works are special.  I love Arianna. I love her for how she has developed. I respect the decisions she has made and what she has chosen to do. She is strong, and I strive to give her even more strength. Getting along with me as an artist, always at the center of attention, is not so easy, although I never placed burdens on anybody, especially not on her. My other great happiness is the man with whom I’m now living. He rescued me from my terrible marriage and gave me the gift of a life as a woman: Woman with a capital W. A happy and loving family situation helps you to become and remain the beautiful person you are. The rest is just peripheral. Working to eat is important, even fundamental, but still takes second place in my view.

LLV: We have arrived at the end of our conversation; is there anything you’d like to add?

BF: Not everyone admits it, but the opera world in some ways is in decline. Except in certain places where respect still rules, our materialistic and anti-cultural society is leading to the degeneration of taste in opera. Sixty percent of productions are entrusted to the latest hot directors, who barely know the text of the opera. They throw themselves into rehearsals with abandon, asking singers to act outrageously and in bad taste. And here we return to the point about the absence of rules and taboos. Today’s opera audiences want to hear everything loud; noise pollution has ruined their ears. Spoiled by speakers, audiences no longer accept a more natural sound. This is why with time the pitch always gets higher to make a brighter sound. I don’t even turn on the TV. Speakers and headphones bother me. For me, sound must be natural.

LLV: Thank you, Barbara Frittoli, for this friendly, intelligent and instructive conversation.

INTERVIEW with Lorenzo Lars Vallot