She is a strong woman. Like Leonora in Il trovatore, the role she performed in October 2015 at the National Opera in Amsterdam. A conversation with the Italian soprano Carmen Giannattasio. “I don’t owe anybody anything. I did it all by myself.”
Unter recently Dutch operagoers mainly knew her as the strict museum director in Damiano Michieletto’s production of Il Viaggio a Reims for the National Opera.
Trailer from Michieletto’s production:
But Carmen Giannattasio’s fame extends far beyond that. She is one of the most famous belcanto sopranos emerging over the last few years.
The soprano, born on April 24, 1975, in Avellino, southern Italy, has a repertory consisting of dozens of familiar and less familiar roles, and her discography is much larger than one would expect. In October 2015 Giannattasio returned to Amsterdam for Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore, a role she has sung previously in Zürich, Venice, and New York.
Giannattasio studied the role of Leonora with Leyla Gencer, her teacher and mentor. It was also Gencer who prepared her for her La Scala debut in 2001, while she was still a student at the conservatory.
“Leyla Gencer perhaps was the most important person in my life. She coached and stimulated me. She believed in me unconditionally, and gave me the extra push I needed to go to La Scala. She was present when I made my debut there as Giulietta in Il Giorno di Regno.”
Music in the convent
“I was two years old when I first discovered music. I’ll never forget that day, it will be etched on my memory forever.”
“It happened in a convent. I went to nursery school there, and was bored to death. You have to understand that I was a difficult child at the time, not very social. “Peculiar” would probably describe me best. Our family had just been blessed with a new child, and I was fiercely jealous of my baby brother. I teased him, and nothing could be done with me. My parents wanted me to become more sociable, and learn how to get on with other children, that is why they sent me to nursery school at such an early age. And right there, in that convent nursery school, I heard music for the very first time.”
“It came from behind a closed door. When I opened it, I saw a piano. Sitting at it, was mother superior. It was she who was responsible for those divine sounds. I wanted to be able to do that too: I wanted to be part of the enchantment. So I kept begging for piano lessons at home until my parents gave in.”
“It was my piano teacher who discovered my voice, and who sent me to the conservatory. I was not so certain myself. It did not help I did not care much for opera, which did not really touch me. I greatly preferred the piano! My father agreed with me: as a piano teacher at least I could make a living. It took three years before I suddenly saw the light. From that moment on, I acquired a real taste for singing.”
“Music was never enough for me. I also studied English and Russian literature, and even got my degrees. I speak Russian very well, and would love to sing Russian operas. Unfortunately, I am never asked to do so. Apparently people think those works can only be sung by Russians, and Italians can do no justice to them. A pity!”
Operalia and Opera Rara
At the Operalia-contest in Paris in 2002 Giannattasio won both the first prize, and the audience prize. Did this help her to get on?
“Let me put it this way: everything you achieve, you do by yourself. Plácido Domingo is very kind and supportive, and after I won, he invited me to Los Angeles to participate in a gala, where I sang Desdemona in the fourth act of Otello, with Roberto Alagna. But in fact I don’t owe anybody anything. I did it all on my own, without any help from others.”
Carmen Giannattassio at the Operalia 2002:
The phrase ‘nobody has ever helped me, I did it on my own’ is repeated like a mantra throughout our conservation. Giannattasio repeats it once more when we discuss the unfamiliar Belcanto roles she has recorded for Opera Rara.
“I am really very proud I have done those recordings. Not everyone is willing to, for a good reason. You have to work extremely hard for just one performance, and one recording.”
“It is rather weird to study roles you will never sing a second time. You know it is a one-off, and after that, basta. Well, in most cases, anyhow. But I did it with a lot of pleasure. I was very young then, and more than willing to do it. And I am really proud of that. I did it!”
Carmen Giannattasio discusses her recording of Bellini’s Il pirata for Opera Rara:
Elisabetta and Leonora
One of her most important recent roles is Elisabetta in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. She sang the role in London and Paris, in the same production, but with two different partners: in London, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, and in Paris the (light) soprano Aleksandra Kurzak. Does she sing and colour the role differently with another partner?
“No, of course not. The role remains the same, after all. You sing the notes and the words, and your partner is just your partner. Nothing changes. Well, perhaps a little, but not for me. DiDonato is a mezzo, and they transposed the score down for her. To me, that did not matter at all. Kurzak is a very temperamental woman. She is bursting with energy, and I like that very much, because it is important to have a partner who challenges you.”
Giannattasio and Kurzak in Maria Stuarda:
Giannattasio’s interpretation of Leonora reminds me a lot of Leyla Gencer, and I am not alone in that. On YouTube an admirer wrote under a video from Zürich: “Degna studentessa della Gencer… È stata una Leonora belissima. Finalmente una voce veramente verdiana. Mamma, è divino senza più aggettivi.”
I am particularly struck by the determination in her voice. Is Leonora a strong woman?
“O yes, certainly! But more importantly, she is young, not older than seventeen, eighteen at the most. Leonora is a teenager, and teenagers are the same throughout history. The moment they are in love, they think it is the most important thing in the world. Their love is everything to them! On top of it, they are impulsive, and think the world comes to an end when something stands between them and their love. And of course they all want to die, to die of and for love. Adolescents! Don’t forget Leonora is extraordinarily fascinated by a mysterious man she hardly knows anything about, not even his real name.”
‘The fondest memories I have of Il Trovatore are of a Metropolitan Opera production in 2012. David McVicar is a director I greatly admire. He is not really traditional, quite progressive, actually, but in his case, everything makes sense. I have nothing against updating, by the way! It just as well possible to sing a role in a T-shirt and jeans, that does not affect the character at all.”
“I love to be challenged, otherwise things can get monotonous. You cannot endlessly repeat yourself. There are limits, however. Don’t touch the music or the libretto, those things should never be tampered with. Also, I don’t like extremes. I don’t think I would do anything a director asks of me, but I am willing to go far, yes. Fortunately, I have never been asked to cross my own boundaries yet.”
Trailer from Il Trovatore in Amsterdam:
Fashion and the future
Giannattasio is one of the few opera stars who also works as a model. She is the face of Alberta Ferretti, Antonio Riva en Antonio Grimaldi, amongst others.
“Yes, I guess you could say I am a fashionista. I am fortunate there are people around who want to invest in me, and that certain brands have made me their ambassador. I am not really a model, and do not look like a model. I am a normal woman, like millions of others.”
Future plans? Dreams?
“I speak Russian, English, French, and Spanish. Not German, so no German repertoire for me. I could never sing an opera in a language I do not speak. Doing that, you are nothing more than a parrot, which is not for me. But I am still young, and who knows what will come on my path.”
“Norma always has been my dream role, because you can prove yourself with it not only as a singer, but as an actress as well. Now I have learned Norma, I don’t have any big wishes left anymore. One day I might sing Lady Macbeth, or Tosca, but not for the moment.”
Giannattasio sings ‘Casta Diva’ from Norma:
“I am more than happy with how my life, including my personal life, looks right now. I am also extremely proud of myself, because I did everything myself, no one ever helped me. Life is short, and I don’t want to plan anything. I live by the day, and it feels just great like that.”
English translation: Remko Jas