I cannot imagine opera life without Nelly Miricioiu. With her spicy soprano, her very characteristic timbre and her perfectly controlled vibrato, from the 1980s she belonged to the dying class of real divas, like Callas, Scotto or Olivero.
Nelly Miricioiu and John Bröcheler in the last scene of Thaïs (live recording from The Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, 1985)
My earliest opera memories bring me back to Thais by Massenet. With Nelly Miricioiu. After that, I have admired her for 25 years in the Great Hall of the Concertgebouw, during the unforgettable Saturday Matinees, where she sang 17 different roles. By Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi. But also by Puccini, Zandonai and Mascagni.
I have also admired her on the stage in Brussels as Anna Bolena and in Antwerp as Magda (La Rondine) and Anna (Le Villi).
But between her and the DNO, things did not really work out. Luisa Miller, with Neil Shicoff at her side, succumbed to a stupid direction and with Norma she fell ill and suffered from vocal problems. A great pity, because Miricioiu is not only a very gifted singer, but also a phenomenal actress.
Below: Nelly Miricioiu as Anna Bolena in Amsterdam 1989:
In March 2016, Miricioiu was in Amsterdam for a few days to give masterclasses to young, promising singers. I was allowed to attend one of her lessons and watched breathlessly as she tried to prepare the young South Korean Jihae Shin for the bel canto profession.
Miricioiu is a very physically present teacher. She sings a lot herself and lets her student feel how the muscles react to certain sounds. How to produce those sounds better, make them more impressive or just more true. She puts her hand on Shin’s belly and shakes her head: no, that’s not how it works.
“Just feel,” she says and puts Shin’s hand on her own belly. The whole face is also involved in the lesson: from the temples, eyes and cheekbones to the chin. The lips must be pulled further apart, the mouth must be wider, much wider! Does she hear now what a difference it makes?
Jihae Shin is a good and complient student, she remembers everything well and obediently imitates what she is told.
“Brava”, the teacher cries, “but that coloratura (they are rehearsing ‘Caro nome’ from Rigoletto), it has to be different! You shouldn’t accentuate that “haha haha haha”, that’s what Reinild (the pianist Reinild Mees, who not only accompanies but also physically takes part in all the lessons) is doing. That has to come from the piano, but you have to glide over it smoothly, you have to show off your technique. And don’t forget your smile, your lips, your lips…”.
She demonstrates and everything falls back into place. Just like a little later with ‘Ah! non credea mirarti’ from La Sonnambula. The pupil does a fantastic job, but it is only when the teacher is talking that emotion strikes hard.
How do you find it, teaching? And: isn’t it terribly tiring? “I love it. Not every good singer is a good teacher, but I think I am doing well. It is a fact that many of my pupils go really far and I am proud of that.
“You cannot compare a master class with real teaching, of course, but even then you hope that you can convey something essential. Something that sticks. And, above all, helps. I often attend master classes given by my colleagues, that way I also learn something myself. I am still eager to learn.”
Look: it’s not just about the voice. Or the talent, hard work and/or charisma. It’s about the whole picture. Good looks are a bonus of course, but for me you have to convince me with your voice and not with your looks. On the other hand… Yesterday I saw Il Matrimonio Secreto by Cimarosa, with really fantastic young singers who also looked their roles. An ideal situation.
There are few really good teachers and singers have sadly become disposable. The only thing that matters is the competition, but there is also a lot of fear. Because if you don’t want to do something or don’t do it as expressely wished for, there are dozens if not hundreds of others who are already lining up to take your place. I’ve experienced auditions where the singer was told: you’re really great, but there are many more who are just as great as you are, next!”
How do you feel about the many competitions out there? “I think they are very important. Without a doubt. You really can’t do without them. If you want to profile yourself as a young singer, if you want to show yourself, you have to. And sometimes you hop from one competition to another in the hope of winning and being discovered.
What doesn’t help is that many of the competitions can’t decide who they are actually meant for. Do they want to be a career stepping stone for young and starting singers or do they want to provide the already establishedsingers with a bit more fame and better roles?
This is where the IVC stands out in a very positive sense. You get all the attention you need and it is ensured that you come away ‘richer’, even if you don’t win anything. You get masterclasses and good advice. And the atmosphere is very friendly, convivial.”
What do you think of super-realistic scenes on stage, increasingly common these days? Scenes with violence and explicit sex? “There is nothing against realistic images, but does it have to be there in every detail? Shocking for the sake of shocking, showing everything because it can be seen on TV? I know rape exists, but do I have to see it happen on stage?”
“Vulgarity on the stage, I have never understood it. And there is no need for it. I remember the production of La Fiamma by Respighi with the fantastic Romanian tenor and my very dear colleague Gabriel Sadé. The director wanted to portray the night of love as realistically as possible: naked, in other words. That didn’t feel right; that way I would never be able to concentrate on the role and certainly not on the singing. I didn’t want that. It was then decided to give us a sort of ‘second skin’. It looked very realistic, but for me I had something on, I wasn’t naked.”
Below is the third act from La Fiamma, it begins with the love duet:
Let’s talk about verismo. A movement that is so terribly neglected these days. There are also few singers who can sing in the verismo style. Why would that be? Is it not performed a lot because there are no singers for it? Or are there no verist singers because it is not being performed? “Both, of course. Verismo is considered not ‘intellectual’ enough, it is looked down upon nowadays. We live in a time that is poor in real emotions, real feelings: love, empathy, faith. Showing emotions is considered old-fashioned, you can’t use that when you work conceptually. There are no nuances any more, we have discarded them.
But there are also few singers who can sing it, that is true. During training, too much emphasis is placed on technical perfection and too little on individuality.
Fashion and hype also play a not inconsiderable role. In the past, you couldn’t sing a Rossini opera properly; nowadays, there are plenty of Rossini and bel canto specialists.
Sometimes it seems as if there are only two possibilities: old music and early bel canto and Wagner. Somewhere along the way, we have lost not only verismo but also Verdi. It is easier to sing Tristan than Macbeth. That is food for thought. But – and this should not be underestimated – the choice also lies with conductors and their priorities. The orchestras are large and with a Wagner piece, the conductor can ‘score’ more easily. “
I have a verist nature, it’s in me, my body is screaming for emotions. Of all my roles I love Iris the most, I think. She is, together with Silvana in La Fiamma and Francesca da Rimini, one of my favourite roles”.
Speaking of emotions, below Miricioiu sings ‘Io son l’umile ancella’ from Adriana Lecouvreur by Cilea:
I owe everything I have achieved to Jan Zekveld, Mauricio Fernandez (the former boss and casting director of Zaterdag/Matinee) and Patrick Schmid (co-founder and director of Opera Rara). They understood my character and discovered what I could do, everything that was possible. They both saw my potential and made me the way I am. They were my godfathers.”
Below Miricioiu in one of her very many bel canto roles: Antonina from Belisario by Donizetti. She sings ‘Egli è spento, e del perdono’: