From the archives: Cecilia Bartoli

01 February 2003

Superstar opera singer Cecilia Bartoli keeps tight control of a career she never expected or planned for. She tells Sue Fox about facing up to success, tragedy and media pressure.

In the unlikely event that Cecilia Bartoli were to give up singing, she says she would most like to be remembered as “a singer with the possibility to fly, not only with my voice but also with emotion”. The world’s most famous mezzo-soprano is a passionate, evangelistic performer who believes in introducing and enticing audiences to the music that speaks to her, rather than fulfilling expectations or pandering to taste. Mention the word “crossover” in her company and those dark eyes really start flashing.

Even without make-up and dressed in a simple black trouser suit, the 37-year-old Italian lights up a room with her warm smile and shining eyes. On a grey day in London, she walks in and suddenly an empty lounge in the Savoy hotel comes alive. Her great friend, the internationally acclaimed pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, says of her: “Whenever you’re with Cecilia, she makes you feel you’re the most important person in the world. It’s impossible not to feel comfortable in her company.”

Thibaudet and Bartoli now share the work of designer Vivienne Westwood, who recently started making much-talked-about stage clothes for both of them. “Jean-Yves loves clothes,” says Bartoli with a laugh. “Even in rehearsal he looks as if he’s stepped out of a magazine, so I was happy to introduce him to Vivienne.”

Westwood, Bartoli discovered, enjoys the music of Handel and Vivaldi – core repertoire for a mezzo with a flair for florid singing. “In recital, singers tend to wear fantastic dresses but, often, they don’t have anything to do with the repertoire they’re performing. Vivienne feels it’s important that everything is in harmony. She wanted to design a dress that said something about the music I was singing. For my Carnegie Hall concert I was thrilled to discover an exquisite silk dress which has an l8th-century influence but is also very modern. It’s stunning.”

Bartoli grew up surrounded by music and by people who dressed up for a living. Theatre and singing is as natural to her as breathing. Both parents (now divorced) were opera singers who, by the time their three children were born, had given up solo careers for the more secure world of the chorus of the opera house in Rome.

Cecilia’s mother, Silvana, is her singing teacher. “She’s always there to give me a technical point of view. Even though I’m so experienced, it’s still nice to have someone else to listen to you. Somebody who knows the frustrations every artist suffers because, of course, we don’t hear what we sing in the same way as other people. We’re not always sure of what we project. To have somebody out there in the hall with whom you feel comfortable and confident is very important.”

In the not-always-friendly world of classical music, Bartoli has had the safety net of a loving and close family – her mother, grandmother and her sister. Tragically, Gabriele, her beloved older brother, also a musician, died from cancer five years ago. Bartoli’s 1999 Vivaldi Album was dedicated to Gabriele, a classical viola player in a string quartet that often backed his sister in concert.

Three months before his death, they performed at Carnegie Hall together. By then, Gabriele was in a wheelchair. “When you have tragedy in your life you change. Everything is important and then, in the end, you learn that nothing is really important. You have to find a balance.

“Do what makes you happy and allows your soul to grow. I’m a very positive person, but I know all too well that life is not only roses. Somehow, you have to go through the bad times. You don’t ever get over them, but you learn how to carry on. I’m lucky that music brings me so much joy.”

Bartoli is constantly challenging herself with new projects. In the late 1980s, when she first captivated European opera audiences with her breathtaking technique and talent, she seemed destined for all the great mezzo-soprano heroines of Mozart and Rossini. In 1994, she was a show-stopping Angelina in Rossini’s La Cenerentola for Zurich Opera, a role that she has recently reprised for the same company. Her Mozart portfolio includes Cherubino, Zerlina, Dorabella and Susanna, Donna Elvira and Fiordiligi.

With her dazzling Latin looks, she was considered perfect casting for Bizet’s Carmen – in every musical mind but her own. Instead, she recorded a collection of rare Vivaldi arias from almost-forgotten operas. A Grammy-winner, it was a phenomenal commercial success for a classical album.

This year she plans to take a five-month break from professional singing. “A working sabbatical to study the music of the great 18th-century composer, Salieri,” she says. “Although he was composing for the Imperial Court in Vienna for 30 years, all most of us know about him is his relationship with Mozart from the film Amadeus. That’s just a Hollywood story. It’s nothing to do with reality.

So many of the great composers, such as Schubert, Liszt and Beethoven, were influenced by Salieri. I will immerse myself in his life and his music – a wonderful period of resting and studying in preparation for September, when I start singing in public again.”

From what she has already researched, she says that Salieri was “a fantastic teacher, working with the greatest singers of the day. I envy those singers. Just imagine – no pressures from recording companies. No television or radio!” Bartoli shakes her long dark ringlets and laughs at the almost unimaginable delight of just being able to sing, without all the media hype that goes with each new CD and with every performance.

The stops-out promotion has not always done her unqualified favours. In 1992 she was announced to the British public through an edition of The South Bank Show substantially financed by her record company, Decca. This fact, combined with its coffee-table/lifestyle content, created inevitable suspicion among the serious music press.

Yet the quality of her singing proved impossible to dismiss. Critical carping has mostly been confined to doubts about the size of her voice – it is by no means the most expansive on the operatic stage – and debate over her choice of repertoire.

Such is her status in the classical music firmament that virtually every time Bartoli opens her mouth to sing, journalists, photographers, TV directors and radio producers all want their exclusive interviews. “Unfortunately that’s the way it is. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to sing for composers like Salieri, who wrote for the singers of the day and always had a specific voice in mind. It was like having your clothes made to measure – a perfect couturier composer who takes into consideration the best possibilities of an individual voice.”

Who would be today’s modern couturier for Bartoli’s voice? “I love the music of Pierre Boulez. He’s an incredible musician and such a charismatic human being,” she says of the French champion of the avant-garde, both as composer and conductor.

“About a year and a half ago I had the opportunity to work with him in London, on the Berlioz Nuits d’été. I was nervous before the first rehearsal – I had never met him and somehow I imagined that he would be very severe. But he was smiling and so sweet. In Italian we have a word, ‘contagosa’, which describes him perfectly. Maybe one day he will write something for me.” The idea of two such uncompromising figures as Boulez and Bartoli collaborating further is fascinating.

Meanwhile, towards the end of this year Bartoli will bring her off-the-peg Salieri discoveries to the Barbican in London and several other European halls, working with the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Before then, she has agreed to sing in a fund-raising gala for Covent Garden, and will perform in Berlin with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. One of the hottest and, inevitably, scarcest opera tickets in 2004 will be Rattle conducting Bartoli in Così fan tutte at the Salzburg Festival.

For Bartoli, who has always had the courage of her own musical convictions, the exploration of new repertoire, has been, she says, like finding her voice. After the Vivaldi CD she challenged herself with another intense period of study and research which resulted in an enthralling album of Italian arias by Gluck. Her companion on these journeys into neglected music is Claudio Osele, a baroque scholar and wine grower. They have been together, professionally and personally, for many years. He runs his family vineyard in Italy and is also involved in academic music research. If Decca decides to record a Salieri CD with Bartoli, Osele will as always write the scholarly notes.

Off-stage at least, Bartoli is the most un-diva like of divas. Based in Rome, she has been singing professionally for 18 years. “I never really planned to become a singer and have a career like this,” she says, smiling. “Life is really a mystery and totally unpredictable. I just started having lessons with my mother in a naive way, and then together we discovered this instrument.”

Although she doesn’t give master classes, Bartoli is absolutely certain of the advice she would give to any 20-year-old singer today. “More than anything, you must have musical curiosity. One of the things which I believe makes my mother a brilliant teacher is that she never pushed me, but all of the time she kept me curious. I have always listened to different kinds of music. For a long time I was passionate about flamenco. [In recital she has performed Berlioz’s Zaide while clicking castanets and stamping her feet.

“I learn a great deal from being on the other side of the curtain. I go to concerts whenever I have free time. But not necessarily to hear singers. Sometimes, listening to a violinist or pianist can be the greatest inspiration. Rudolf Serkin, for example. When I hear him play a piano concerto, it feels as if I’m listening to one of the greatest singers.”

Calling her own tune in all matters, Bartoli is strict about pacing herself. “I need time to rest, to study and to live.” The life of an international musician can take its toll. Five-star hotels soon begin to lose their appeal. Travelling – even first class – isn’t much fun. Bartoli recently did an East Coast tour of America, arriving in New York on a cruise ship for the first time. “It was wonderful to get there feeling absolutely fresh instead of landing at JFK with the usual jet lag.”

Her health regime (vital to singers, whose voice is their instrument) includes eating plenty of kiwi fruit for vitamins, travelling on trains across Europe instead of flying, never going on the Underground and taking regular holidays. “Sometimes I need silence. It’s the best medicine for the voice. But I rarely go for more than a couple of weeks without practising because if I do that, it’s not only my vocal cords which suffer, the muscles in my diaphragm will also start complaining.”

Inevitably, everyone wants to know when Bartoli and her handsome partner, Claudio, will marry and start a family. It is nobody’s business but theirs. She is intensely private; you sense that the dilemma of the biological clock and the phenomenal career is something with which Bartoli is still coming to terms.

“I don’t think I have the perfect balance in my life. I’m still learning – maybe in 50 years’ time I’ll get it right.”

She talks about the enigmatic pianist, Maria João Pires, who lives on a secluded farm in Portugal. “I’m an incredibly big fan of hers. She plays like an angel.

I went to hear her at a concert in London the other day. She seems to have found a way to combine it all – having children and a career. Maybe my instrument is more delicate than Maria’s piano, but the structure of our lives, the pressures of studying, performing and the constant travelling, are similar.”

Bartoli’s 10-year plan – were she to have such a thing – would be to continue her music research and go on performing in opera and concert around the world. But always at her own pace. “I would love to find a beautiful house – probably l8th-century – with a great salon where I invite artists to come and perform.” Will she also sing for her supper? “Maybe. But I could never sing the same thing night after night. For me that would be impossible, mentally and physically. Even the birds don’t sing every day.”

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