Nelly Miricioiu: Empress of the Saturday Matinee

Nelly Miricioiu in Baia Mare (Roemenië) in 2015

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:


Nelly Miricioiu en Jihae Shin © Jeanne Doomen

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.

Nelly Miricioiu en Jihae Shin © Jeanne Doomen

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?

Nelly Miricioiu en Jihae Shin © Jeanne Doome

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. “

Nelly Miricioiu with Magda Olivero after the performance of ‘Iris’ by
Mascagni. Concertgebouw Amsterdam 2003 ©FB

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.”

with Patric Schmid © Opera Lounge

Below Miricioiu in one of her very many bel canto roles: Antonina from Belisario by Donizetti. She sings ‘Egli è spento, e del perdono’:

Fascinated by the unknown: a visit to Opera Rara

Opera Rara

Times have changed. Not that long ago anything in the recording industry seemed possible.  The major record companies released one opera after the next. Money was not an issue. Great new stars were introduced, and just as easily dropped. Yet another Aida and Traviata, the hundredth Rigoletto, the two hundredth Tosca or Don Giovanni…..

Smaller labels targeted the niche market of classical music enthusiasts. These collectors were interested in lesser-known works by Donizetti or Bellini, in long forgotten scores and in composers like Meyerbeer, Pacini and Mayr, who enjoyed considerable renown in the past.

One of those labels – fortunately still active today – was Opera Rara. It started out as a small business run by just two men. In their pioneering years their records were issued directly to subscribers. When Opera Rara planned to record an opera, those subscribers had to pay first. After a wait that could take as long as a year, the records were distributed. Highly exclusive! Over the years, Opera Rara became what is probably the largest (and certainly the most important) opera label.

opera rara poster

Twenty years ago I visited Opera Rara in London, where I met Patric Schmid* and conductor David Parry. Schmid was one of the founders of Opera Rara and its recording executive. Since the death of his partner Don White he also was the label’s artistic director.

It is raining quite heavily as I step out of Liverpool Street station. I have a few hours to spend and intend to visit a few bookstores. Because I get lost everywhere, it seemed a safer idea to first carefully map out my route. It turns out I am much closer by than I had thought.

Still, when I make my way there fifteen minutes before my appointment I get lost once again. The weather has turned completely, the sun shines and it is hot. Covered in sweat I enter the building on Curtain Road where Opera Rara resides.

I am received by Stephen Revell, the very friendly assistant of Patrick Schmid, who leads me into an enormous room. In the middle a grand piano, covered under a yellow sheet. On the shelves, thousands of scores, books and records.

We sit at a large wooden table. Patric Schmid enters: a handsome man in his fifties, with grey hair. He apologises David Parry has been delayed and will join us later. Coffee and tea are served, and the story behind the most adventurous opera label begins.

Opera Rara Nelly en Patrick

Patric Schmid with Nelly Miricioiu  © Voix des Arts

The love for belcanto started with Chopin. Schmid, as a young pianist, came under the spell of his enthralling  music and went on a search for more. A search that eventually led to belcanto. His fascination with belcanto became so big that he wanted to change the fact that this music was hardly ever performed. To achieve this, he founded an opera company in 1970 with his friend, the musicologist Don White, called Opera Rara.


The search for unknown opera’s was not easy. Schmid himself uses the expression “to dig up.” And since there were no photocopiers at the time, everything had to be produced by hand.

opera rara crociato

Pirate edition of Il Crociato in Egitto © Hans van Verseveld

In 1972 their first opera was performed: Myerbeer’s Il Crociato in Egitto. Several problems occurred. Shortly before opening night the tenor cancelled. Where on earth do you find a replacement for a highly obscure work on such short notice? Fortunately William McKinney saved the production by taking over the role two days before the premiere.

opera rara hugo

All the operas performed by Opera Rara were broadcast by the BBC. Afterwards, these performances were issued by various pirate labels.  In 1977 Schmid and White decided to record the operas themselves and founded the record label Opera Rara. The money to make the recordings was collected directly from their supporters on a subscription basis. The first recording was Donizetti’s Ugo Conte di Parigi, made in July 1977.  The conductor was Allun Francis, who has been one of their two regular conductors since.

Janet Price sings Bianca’s aria “No, che infelice appieno….” from the Donizetti rarity Ugo Conte di Parigi:


The other host, conductor David Parry, meanwhile has arrived and joins our conversation with much animation. This former pupil of, amongst others, Celibidache, started his career as a rehearsal pianist, something he believes to be absolutely indispensable for a conductor. His conducting career began in 1973 in Wexford. In 1975 he worked as a conductor’s assistant there in the first performance in 93 years of Orazi e Curiazi by Mercadente, an opera he would record twenty years later for Opera Rara.

Nelly Miricioiu sings ‘Di quai soavi palpiti’ from Orazi e Curiazi:

Not only conductors remain faithful to Opera Rara, singers as well. No wonder: they get the opportunity to make recordings, learn new repertory and work in a relaxed atmosphere. The greatest and most famous stars have worked (and still work) on their projects: Nelly Miriciou, Annick Massis, Jennifer Larmore, Joyce El-Khoury, Bruce Ford, Alaister Miles, Michael Spyres, Carmen Giannattassio  – just to name a few.

Opera Rara David Parry Courtain Road 98

Patric Schmid & David Parry © Basia Jaworski for Basia con fuoco

As a farewell I receive a special gift: the yellow sheet is removed from the grand piano, David Parry picks out a score and plays (and sings, helped by Patric Schmid) an aria from Margherita d’Anjou by Meyerbeer** for me.

*Patric Schmid died suddenly on November 6th, 2005. He was only 61 years old

**Margherita d’Anjou was issued in October 2003. It was one of Meyerbeer’s first operas, still from his Italian period. No complete score of the opera was preserved, so a lot was reconstructed, or “dug up” in the words of Patric Schmid. The excellent cast is headed by Annick Massis, Bruce Ford, Daniela Barcellona and Alastair Miles, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the inspired direction of David Parry (ORC25).

English traslation: Remko Jas

See also interviews (in English):

JENNIFER LARMORE interview (English translation)

Interview with JOYCE EL-KHOURY (English translation)

CARMEN GIANNATTASSIO interview in English

and in German:

Nelly Miricioiu – Keizerin van de ZaterdagMatinee

Gefascineerd door onbekende opera’s: op bezoek bij OPERA RARA.

 Opera Rara

Tijden veranderen. Nog niet zo vreselijk lang geleden kon de koek niet op. Grote platenmaatschappijen namen de ene na de andere opera op, op kosten werd niet gekibbeld, nieuwe grote sterren werden gelanceerd en met net zo veel gemak gedropt. Nog één Aida en La Traviata, de honderdste Rigoletto, de tweehonderdste Tosca of Don Giovanni

In de marge opereerden de kleinere, minder bekende firma’s, terend op een handjevol echte liefhebbers en verzamelaars die op zoek waren naar minder bekende titels van Donizetti of Bellini, naar verloren gewaande partituren en naar de ooit zo succesvolle en inmiddels vergeten componisten: Meyerbeer, Paccini, Mayr …

Eén van zulke firma’s was en nog steeds (!) is Opera Rara, ooit begonnen als een tweemansbedrijfje. In de pioniersjaren kon je je melden als een abonnee. Je kreeg dan een bericht over een op te nemen opera, je stortte het geld en het duurde soms meer dan een jaar eer je de platen thuis toegestuurd kreeg. Het was iets zeer exclusiefs. Inmiddels is Opera Rara uitgegroeid tot wellicht het grootste (en zeker het belangrijkste) opera label.


Opera Rara logo


Twintig jaar geleden bracht ik een bezoek aan  Opera Rara in Londen, waar ik een ontmoeting had met Patric Schmid* en dirigent David Parry. Schmid was één van de oprichters, de opnameleider en sinds het overlijden van zijn partner Don White tevens de artistiek manager van het label.

Als ik het metrostation Liverpool Street uitstap, regent het pijpenstelen. Ik heb nog een paar uur de tijd en ben vast van plan een paar boekwinkels op te zoeken, maar het lijkt mij een veilig idee om alvast de weg te verkennen, zeker omdat ik altijd en overal weet te verdwalen. Het is veel dichterbij dan ik dacht.

Niettemin, als ik er een kwartier voor de afgesproken tijd weer naartoe loop, verdwaal ik. Het weer is inmiddels omgeslagen; de zon schijnt en het is heet. Helemaal bezweet betreed ik het pand op Curtain Road, een vestiging van Opera Rara.

Ik word verwelkomd door Stephen Revell, de uiterst vriendelijke assistent van Patric Schmid die mij een enorme kamer binnenleidt. In het midden staat een vleugel, veilig geborgen onder een lap gele stof. Op de planken duizenden partituren, boeken en platen.

We nemen plaats aan een grote houten tafel. Patric Schmid komt binnen: een knappe vijftiger met grijze haren. David Parry wordt geëxcuseerd, hij is wat verlaat. Wij krijgen koffie en thee en het verhaal achter het meest avontuurlijke operalabel begint.

Opera Rara Nelly en Patrick

Patric Schmid met Nelly Miricioiu  © Voix des Arts

De liefde voor het belcanto begon met Chopin. Schmid raakte als jonge pianist zo in de ban van de betoverende klanken van deze componist dat hij op zoek ging naar meer. Een zoektocht die bij belcanto uitkwam. Daar raakte hij zo gefascineerd door dat hij besloot er wat aan te doen dat de muziek – toen –  vrijwel nooit werd uitgevoerd. Samen met zijn vriend, de musicoloog Don White, richtte hij in 1970 een operagezelschap op. Opera Rara.


Het zoeken naar de onbekende opera’s was niet makkelijk, Schmid  zelf heeft het over ‘uitgraven’. En aangezien het kopieerapparaat  nog uitgevonden moest worden, werd alles met de hand gedaan.

opera rara crociato

Piratenuitgave van Il Crociato in Egitto © Hans van Verseveld

In 1972 werd de eerste opera uitgevoerd: Il Crociato in Egitto van Meyerbeer. Zonder problemen ging het niet: een paar dagen voor de première zei de tenor af, en waar vind je een vervanger voor zo’n onbekend stuk? Gelukkig, William McKinney redde de productie door twee dagen van tevoren de rol over te nemen.

 opera rara hugo

Alle door de Opera Rara uitgevoerde opera’s werden uitgezonden door de BBC en door de ‘piraten’ op de plaat gezet. In 1977 besloten Schmid en White de opera’s zelf te gaan opnemen en richtten het platenlabel Opera Rara op. Het geld voor de opnamen werd direct ingezameld bij liefhebbera door middel van abonnementen. Als eerste werd Donizetti’s Ugo Conte di Parigi opgenomen, in juli 1977. De opera stond onder leiding van Alun Francis, sindsdien één van twee vaste dirigenten.

Janet Price sings Bianca’s aria “No, che infelice appieno….” from the Donizetti rarity “Ugo Conte di Parigi”:

De andere gastheer, de dirigent David Parry is inmiddels gearriveerd en neemt geanimeerd deel aan ons gesprek. De voormalige leerling van onder andere Celibidache begon zijn carrière als pianist en repetitor van zangers, wat volgens hem absoluut onmisbaar is voor een dirigent. Zijn loopbaan begon in 1973 in Wexford, waar hij in 1975 als assistent van de dirigent betrokken was bij de opvoering (voor het eerst na 93 jaar!) van de opera Orazi e Curiazi van Mercadante, een opera die hij 20 jaar later voor Opera Rara zou opnemen.

Nelly Miricioiu zingt ‘Di quai soavi palpiti’ uit Orazi e Curiazi:

Niet alleen de dirigenten, ook de zangers zijn de Opera Rara trouw. Geen wonder: zij worden in gelegenheid gesteld om opnames te maken, nieuw repertoire te leren en te werken in een ontspannen sfeer. De grootste en beroemdste sterren deden (en doen nog steeds) er aan mee: Nelly Miriciou, Annick Massis, Jennifer Larmore, Joyce El-Khoury, Bruce Ford, Alaister Miles, Michael Spyres, Carmen Giannattassio  – om een paar te noemen.

Opera Rara David Parry Courtain Road 98

Patric Schmid & David Parry © Basia Jaworski for Basia con fuoco

Als afscheid krijg ik een bijzonder cadeau: de gele lap gaat van de vleugel af, David Parry pakt een partituur en speelt (en zingt – geholpen door Patric Schmid) voor mij een aria uit Margherita d’Anjou  van Meyerbeer **

*Patric Schmid overleed plotseling op 6 november 2005. Hij was toen maar 61 jaar oud.

** Margherita d’Anjou werd in oktober 2003 uitgebracht. Het was één van Meyerbeers eerste opera’s, nog uit zijn Italiaanse tijd. Van die opera was geen complete partituur bewaard, heel veel was dus gereconstrueerd – “uitgegraven”, volgens de woorden van Patric Schmid. De voortreffelijke cast wordt aangevoerd door Annick Massis, Bruce Ford, Daniela Barcelona en Alastair Miles, en het London Philharmonic Orchestra staat onder de bezielde leiding van David Parry (ORC25).

Zie ook interviews met
Nelly Miricioiu – Keizerin van de ZaterdagMatinee