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Seen and Heard Interview



The Flight of Jackie O. Creativity in Baroque Roles and Ornamentation : An interview with Vivica Genaux by Michael Ellison.





Picture © Harry Heliotis 2006


Vivica Genaux, renowned for her interpretations of the Baroque and Rossini
bel canto repertoire, appears regularly at major opera houses throughout the world.  The mezzo-soprano will sing five new roles this season, including four in Handel productions. This fall a new CD of arias of Handel and Hasse marks the most recent major release for the mezzo on Virgin Classics.  We caught up with her in New York before the premiere of Handel’s Semele at the New York City Opera in September.


Michael Ellison: Can you tell me about the process of intense rehearsals you are going through right now here in New York?


Vivica Genaux: I’m making my debut with the City Opera in a new production of Handel’s Semele.  It’s with Elizabeth Futral, who I had never worked with before, and she is really sweet.  Everybody had already told me that she was a really wonderful person and a great performer, and both of those are really true. It’s nice to meet people who are both great performers and also great people to work with.


It’s a real fun concept.  It starts out as an oratorio, so the audience walk in, and will probably think ‘Oh, no! Are we going to see an oratorio?’ The chorus comes in as in an oratorio and the soloists come in as in an oratorio.  Then it begins to fragment out into an opera from this oratorio beginning.  Since it’s a story about a couple, Juno and Jove, the god and goddess couple, with Jove having an affair with Semele, it has been paralleled with the JFK era, with John F. Kennedy and his multiple affairs--particularly the relationship with Marilyn Monroe, and then the position of Jackie in all of this.  It’s fun, and really a hoot to see the audience’s response when they start seeing these kinds of things.  It’s like the moment in The Wizard of Oz where the door opens and everything just goes into technicolor…like, whoa! What just happened?! Semele does this transformation from a brunette into a blonde, like Marilyn Monroe, and I do a transformation from Ino, who is Semele’s younger sister, into Juno, who is basically Jackie O., a Jackie Kennedy character.  Jove is a JFK-type figure, with some parallels also with Hillary and Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal thing.  I think it’s very cleverly done. We had a piano tech the other day, where some people came to see it, who had never seen this production, and they got it—it was really cool that they got it.  Because when you’re working on the inside of one of these things you’re never really sure how it’s going to be perceived for the first time for someone from outside.  It’s also my first time playing two roles in one opera.


ME: That must be challenging.


VG: It is, especially having never done the opera before.  Now we’re starting to do the run-throughs so you get more of (a sense of) the timeline of the opera.  Before, everything was just done disjunctively, so you were used to doing this scene and then that scene--which were not necessarily joined or coming one after the other in the timeline of the opera.  So we were doing costumes the other day, and I was saying to my costume person, ‘Who am I next? Who am I next? What am I doing?’ But it worked very well, and it’s been fun.  It’s been very different for me; I’ve never really done something like this before.  I’m usually the pants-role in Baroque opera—the young guy who is just coming into his adulthood or adult life—and he’s defending his honor or his lady’s honor or something like that.  I’m used to those, and I’m used to playing the mezzo heroines in Rossini opera also, who are usually quite sly and quite manipulative, wily and clever.  But this is a whole different genre for me.  I ordered a couple of DVDs which were biographies of Jackie Kennedy, just to see--since the costuming is done very much 1950’s—to see how she moved, what she did, how she treated people around her.  It was really interesting to see.  Then, of course, you’re not playing Jackie Kennedy.  But there’s a little bit of her in this character, I think, in terms of the movements.  Possibly also some of the emotions (in the piece) are more extreme than she ever showed publicly. But, you’re also looking at this character in non-public situations.  So it is possible that she had that kind of reaction to what she was going through with her husband, knowing that her husband had these relationships. Or reactions she might have wished to be able to show.  It’s interesting to have the color of the Jackie-O/Jackie Kennedy type of figure and the color of the Marilyn Monroe type of figure and then put them together in these type of situations—which are situations similar to those they actually lived through—but then reacting as the characters doing it in the opera.




Handel's Semele, New York City Opera, September/Oct. 2006 Juno/Ino

Picture © Carol Rosegg 2006


ME: Can you describe a bit more the process you go through when you’re putting a production like this together?


VG: You mean a new role, for example?


ME: Sure.


VG: Well, first I read the opera—or the oratorio as it is in this case—cover to cover, to know the whole story of that, and then start reading some historical background—why this was written at this time, what was it seeking to prove.  In this context, it was an oratorio because it was given in a season where you weren’t allowed to show opera, and so you had concerts of oratorio.  But it’s quite a stretch for an oratorio, because the subject- material is pretty wild, for what one is used to seeing in an oratorio.  In fact, it caused a big scandal also at the time it was first produced—-you can understand why.  After that, if it’s a new production, hopefully you have time to put together and discover it. It’s always exciting to be a performer in a new production because it means that you get to create the things that, when a production is remounted, somebody else is going to have to follow in your footsteps with, basically, and recreate this character you’ve created.  So then you listen to the stage director’s ideas and the conductor’s ideas also—hopefully they are in cahoots with each other, they kind of jive with one another.  And you start putting your own spin on it, seeing what you have in your own personality and your own character, and your own vocality also, that can more or less emulate what they are talking about--but as yourself, in your way, not being completely fake about it—trying to find something within yourself that you can identify with this character—and work from there as a seed.  I find I always change a little bit myself in my character, and every character I add, because I find that one, seminal piece of myself that I can identify with the character.  But then I myself have to change a little bit, or I learn a little bit more about how that character reacts and interacts with people.  I add that to my toolbox, then, as a private person myself.  So it’s great. I find that when I was growing up, in Alaska, I was fairly socially inept, because I never had to go to parties, and I never had to dress up—it was me and the malamutes, basically!  So when I began singing opera I not only had to learn the pants roles, I also had to learn to sing Rosina, because I wasn’t very feminine.  I didn’t know how to walk in heels, and I didn’t know how to be pretty in a dress, and I didn’t know how to be all flouncy and cute, and everything like that.  And I had to really learn that.  I had to watch people doing that. 


It was helpful to me when I studied in Italy, because I could really do a lot of people watching. I did a pants role, and that was in Seville, in Spain, and it couldn’t have been planned better. I was out in the Plaza d’Espana every day, with my mom, just watching how men walked, how they treated the various women in their lives—their daughters, their mistresses, their girlfriends, their wives…their mothers, grandmothers, their aunts. And that physical language…you didn’t have to know anything about these people yet you could tell exactly what kind of context they were working within.  And the same with the women:  see how the women react, and how they can be fierce, but not masculine.  Fierce in a womanly sort of way, and very feminine way.  The woman has a lot of strength.  At least when I was growing up, through the 80’s, there was the idea of the corporate woman having to be more masculine than the man to make it in the working world.  And I think a lot of women suffered by that, because they were trying to be strong, using tools that weren’t necessarily their tools; they were trying to use men’s attributes men’s strengths, and men’s characteristics, rather than being proud women, and using womanly, female strengths.  So I think I’ve been able to find those through opera, and it’s really fun, to be on stage and have this whole palette of emotions and reactions to pull on, and to make that palette bigger and bigger and bigger.  And sometimes it’s also fun, in a real life situation, to find yourself in a position where—o my gosh—I would be really, really uncomfortable dealing with this as myself.  What would…Jackie do? (laughs) What would Cenerentola do? What would Arsace in Semiramide do? One of those colors that you’ve used onstage, but which are valid personality colors, and character colors.  Use it in a party and see what happens!


ME: You’ve already had to find something in yourself to…


VG: Right.  It’s part of you already and is just one of the tools that has been added to your collection that you may have to think still about using in real life situations, but it gets to the point where you don’t have to think about it that much.  It happens pretty naturally, you may have to just say, ‘hey, I can do that,’ and it opens up this whole other energy plane for you, which is really, really neat.


ME: You must find yourself with more empathy for people, having gone through this again and again, watching people and then trying to connect with something in yourself.


VG: It gets easier as it goes on, yes, because having added already all of those people to your own personality, you have this gamut of people within you. So you have a lot more to choose from, in terms of characteristics that you can identify with different characters.


ME: Is it hard for you when you have someone like Airdate or a more mythological subject to find something to connect with?  In this case you have Jackie O., much more of our time, to relate to.


VG: Not in Baroque opera, because the Baroque opera is so much about humanity, rather than male/female, even.  It’s easier for me to play a pants-role in the Baroque than it is in Rossini, for example, because I don’t feel like I have to be ‘butch’ all the time—if you’re playing it within that period, as an eighteenth century piece.  Because if you look at the painting in that time, there was this androgynous characteristic that they liked in the faces. It was very common in those days not only for women to sing pants roles but for castrati to sing women’s parts.  The division between male and female in the arts was much more fuzzy.  I like that, because it gives you a chance to just explore the human emotion, rather than ‘this is me as a man’ experiencing this situation. It is, first, a human being experiencing it, and then you have to understand that as a man my reaction would include different options than a female experiencing the same thing.  But the emotion, the expression that a man was allowed to give was much wider than we’re looking at in this day and age, for sure.  My favorite example is always in Italy, when my husband sees a guy friend of his that looks good, he’ll say ‘you look beautiful today.’  You don’t see that in the United States; we’re all homophobe, and all this business.  Poor guys! Men are in such a closet here, whether you’re straight, gay, both, whatever.  Men have basically no dressing options—they all have to look basically the same.  God forbid you wear color, because it means you might be gay.  If you are gay, then you have to wear color because you have to assert yourself!  In Italy, you can wear a pink shirt, and people say ‘you look great today.’  You’re a man.  Just because you’re a man, why shouldn’t you have compliments from other men, from anyone?  And why shouldn’t you be able to express yourself and look good, and care about your appearance?  That’s also the case in the Baroque times.  Men definitely had a lot more dressing options back in the Baroque—they had as much jewels and frills as the women did, if not more. That was part of the aesthetic and the sense of self.  So it’s all more freeing, I find, than the society we live in right now.


ME: It’s interesting to find Handel more freeing.  Because, musically, a majority of musicologists might say that there are more difficulties staging this because of the more block-like musical form.


VG: And, you see, I disagree with that. The da capo form is much more freeing than just a straight durchkomponiert something. My argument is, if something means a lot to you, if something happens to you, like your girlfriend breaks up with you, or your dog dies, or something that really makes an impact on you--the only time you sing an aria in an opera is when something has happened that made a huge impact on you.  In life, if you think about all the things that have happened in my life and have had impact, do you think about it once, and tell one person about it, and that’s it—case closed? No. You go back and you tell multiple people about it—you tell them the same story, but you tell it differently if you’re telling it to your best friend or to your mother, or if you’re talking to yourself about what just happened. You tell it differently if you’re just telling someone sitting next to you waiting in an airport.  And it’s the same thing with the da capo. Watch a soap opera today.  Do they just do one scene of ‘oh, he broke up with me’ or ‘I’m carrying his baby?’  No. They have flashbacks and they go over it again eighteen times in the next ten days, probably.  And they always go back to it.  That’s a da capo.  For me, the first time that you’re singing the A section, you’re getting the information out there.  Then you have the section, which is a contrast: ‘It happened this way because … because he was so cruel, because I couldn’t say what I really felt.  And then you go back to your da capo A section, and you think, ‘My God, I’m really in this situation—this really happened.’  And what do you really think about the impact of this on your life?  It’s the more personal side, or the more euphoric side. ‘I’m really married,’ or ‘He really loves me!’ or whatever it is.  So for me the da capo is much more freeing, because you can really put yourself into that situation.  And you can look at the situation once, have the contrasting B, where you’re having the real emotion about it, and then you come back, in a cathartic way, to the A section again, and just look at it in a different way—with the true feeling behind what that character is feeling in that situation.  So I love it.  And it’s like jazz, because you can ornament as to what your voice does best.  Nobody else can sing that aria like you can sing it.  Somebody else is going to do a lot of triplets because they’re good at triplets, or somebody else trills because they love trills; somebody else is going to take it way up high because they’ve got high notes.  And somebody else might say ‘the first time I sing I want to sing it like I think it was incredibly horrible, but then the second time after the B section I have a look at it and come back to the da capo afterwards and say ‘well maybe it’s not that bad.’  Whereas your interpretation might be the opposite.  When you come back to the da capo again and you say ‘this was just horrible.’  So there’s so much left to individual interpretation and also to working with the stage director in terms of what the concept of the piece is.


ME: In general, is the da capo section the most free? 


VG: For me, definitely. If the aria hangs low for me I can take the da capo up. You can ornament and take it up, although you generally try to keep it within a third of the range; that’s what I’ve heard is the standard rule.  If the role is written between middle C to C above, you’re not going to go interpolating, for instance, high b naturals, because it’s completely out of the tessitura the piece was written to.  That said, people do that, too, so you can’t make an absolute rule. My understanding is that you try to keep within the general tessitura the piece was written into. But then, yes, you add.  I love syncopations, so I always try to work in syncopations.  I love trills; I love held notes also with the messa di voce.


ME: This leads to another question. You’ve worked with a number of great early music practitioners…


VG: Not that many. I’ve worked multiple times with some. But there are a lot out there I haven’t worked with.  I’m working with Christophe Rousset for the first time this year, with Les Talens Lyrique. That will be nice—I’ve never worked with him before. And I’m working with Antony Walker here in Semele; I’ve never worked with him before and it’s fun.  But I worked a lot with René Jacobs, I did work with Alan Curtis, and worked with Michael Hofstetter just recently in Barcelona for a couple of concerts, and he was really fun to work with.  But there are a lot I haven’t yet worked with.  But there are just a lot out there.


ME: It’s amazing how it’s exploded.


VG: It’s huge.


ME: As a side note, it’s interesting, too, that even back when you sang my piece one could tell how naturally suited your voice, with its brightness and clarity seemed for this music.


VG: It depends on who you’re working with, though.  Because if you’re working with someone from the more English school of Baroque music, they like a different style in the vocality.  What I was lucky with, is that—I didn’t know anything about Baroque music when I started.  The first Baroque piece I did was in Dallas.  I did Ariodante with Graeme Jenkins, and I don’t think he had ever conducted a Baroque opera before. That was with a modern orchestra. Right after that I went to the Staatsoper in Berlin, and did Hasse’s Solimano with René Jacobs, and the Koncerto Köln.  And the juxtaposition of those two… The Ariodante in Dallas was great.  But hearing a Baroque orchestra—and an orchestra of the level of Koncerto Köln, for the first time, with the colors that they did.  They worked so well together as unit, and yet when the time came for them to be expressive individually—if there was an oboe solo, or the continuo (was featured)—was incredible.  And the trills and the (makes crescendo) and the bowings—I used to play violin, too, so I really tune in to what the strings do, and try to emulate that.  It was incredible.  But I was lucky because René Jacobs has always been a proponent of using the bel canto technique in singing this music.  Because, yes the theatres weren’t as big in the 1700’s as they are now.  You certainly wouldn’t have a performance in a place like the City Opera or the Met, where you’re working with, what—3000 seats or something.   But they weren’t tiny, either, most of these places.  These people had to have voices and some kind of a technique.  They couldn’t just be crooning and making little ‘eenk’ noises, you know?  So, as far as he was concerned the bel canto technique was very appropriate for this music.  And so that’s what I started out doing and that’s what I do to this day: I sing it with a bel canto technique, adding, then, the messa di voce, the real trill, which I was fortunate enough to figure out, and more colors.  I find, then, when you go into the bel canto repertoire, there’s room for all of that, too.  Maybe not as much exaggerated in the messa di voce type things—that stands out—but the colors and the emotion.  And you can find da Capo characteristics in Rossini arias.  They’re not true da capo arias, but there’s a lot of repetitive ABA or ‘ABA1’ form or something similar.


ME: Is René Jacobs, then, the person you would say you learned the most from?


VG: Definitely.


ME: Did he work with you personally—take you aside and teach you about things like ornamentation?  You just said you figured out the trills.


VG: Yes—figured out the trills, because when we were working together in Solimano, I learned from doing, basically. I don’t learn from class; I learn from apprenticeship, basically. Apprenticeship in the sense of working with someone long enough to understand the dialect that they use.  I know Rossini because I did three years of only singing Rossini. So I know Rossini’s dialect.  By the time I had rehearsed the Hasse for a month with René he wrote the reornaments for all of the singers.  Since he’s a singer himself, it was a really unique opportunity, because he was coming at it not only as a musician but as a singer, with the ornaments and everything. It was really phenomenal.  And the fact that he reornamented meant that you were in a kind of cirque du soleil situation, where you’re together in this big tent, and everyone is in the same world.  And you don’t have one person coming in with this kind of ornamenting and this kind of ornamentation style with that other kind of ornamentation style.  It was unified. You really were immersed in this interpretation of Hasse.  The piece itself was four and a half hours long, and we would start at six o’clock.  I remember getting to the theatre by four o’clock; the orchestra was always there by five.  They worked for a half hour before every performance just with the concertmaster.  And I would listen to them on the loudspeaker while I was getting made up and dressed, listening to what the concertmaster was saying to the orchestra.  He would read the lyrics of the aria they were working on, and saying ‘This is what she’s saying; now we need to punctuate this. She’s saying, 'He’s so terrible.’ Now we have to say, ‘Yes, he’s so terrible!’  A conversation between the singer and the singer and the orchestra.  Much more than what you get in classical or bel canto genres.


La Cenerentola (Angelina)Teatro Municipal de Santiago (Chile)
July 2004
Photo: courtesy Teatro Municipa



ME: Do you remember whether their parts were just as extensively written out, or were they doing more improvisation?


VG: They had the original manuscript, which the parts had been written out from.   René always does hugely extensive work on preparing the orchestra and preparing the parts.  In terms of ornamenting that we had, there was one aria I had with strings and oboe solo, and he did joint ornaments for the da capo for us.


ME: Have you since been in other situations where it’s not written out, but you can use the knowledge you gained by having done that?


VG: I have somebody else now who does a lot of my ornamenting for me, because I find that I can do some of it, but it’s not as creative what René, or this other fellow, does for me.  I did really well in theory, but when it comes to me figuring out what kind of improv I can do over a five-seven chord and fit it, it’s just…I do it by ear.  Actually, I have Sibelius on the computer now and so I put everything into the computer.  I take away the voice line and then work along with the orchestra part.  I can do my own cadenzas and stuff to that.  But I still prefer if one of those two people do my cadenzas for me, just because they have more fantasy.  That doesn’t mean I do them exactly as written, but it gives me a jumping off point and I can change some things, and I can mix and match and do things like that.  That I enjoy doing. 


ME: What about when you’re bringing the role to life and have ideas about the da capo?


VG: In a lot of cases you have to defer to what the conductor thinks. More than defer, you have to find a reason inside yourself as that character for doing it in the way the conductor has suggested. Most often the conductor and the stage director have a vision.  So you have to not just do it because that is their vision, but you have to find the incentive inside your character to make that your vision. What is it that you feel in your character that makes you sing it like they hear it. You have to reconstruct it, instead of coming at from the direction of simply how you need to sing it.  No. What do I need to find in myself that will make me sing it that way?  Generally if I’m doing duets I’m reticent about writing any kind of joint duet ornamentation for myself and the soprano or whoever I’m working with, because I don’t know what they’re best at.  So I do try to ask for suggestions from the conductor. If the conductor doesn’t have much to offer, I will go home and write something out, print it out, and bring it in.  And then, again, use that as a jumping off point—maybe using a suspension or something like that at a certain point.  You can do a little something where I could do a liitle something myself and then end up on the next note of the suspension, and if the soprano wants to do a little improvisatory diddle I know to wait for her until she gets to the next note. If it is somebody who is not comfortable making it up as you go along, then you can write out a suggestion for them to use, and then they can either elaborate or simplify.


ME: I wanted to ask you about diction. At one point I hadn’t seen or heard you in quite awhile, so I went out and found your Rinaldo on Harmonia Mundi.  What really amazed me—I knew you were a great singer already—was to hear everything so clearly.  I see in many of your reviews the reviewers feel the same way, not surprisingly.  If you could imagine I were a singer, asking what the keys to this subject are, what might you say?


VG: Well, I study with Claudia Pinza, who is the daughter of Ezio Pinza.  She said that was one of the biggest things she learned from her father--that you needed to be able to understand every word. So that was always and still is a huge thing for her in terms of her teaching—diction.  The Italian diction, for one, is so helpful to the singing. There are just some things that you can’t sing if the vowel is not right.  If the vowel is not right, there is no way that you are going to find the right breath placement, and the right spin on the vowel--if the vowel is the wrong color, it’s just not going to happen.  So for me the most priceless thing was learning Italian and really focusing on Italian repertoire, because my repertoire is mostly Italian. Having the time, just in Italian, when so many singers have to go these days from French, to German, to Spanish, to English to Italian, to Chinese…you have to sing everything nowadays.  It was a luxury for me to have at that time the chance to sing only in Italian and speak in Italian, and really getting the technique built around the Italian language.  And now, for Semele, it was funny, because I realized I haven’t sung in English probably since I sang your piece! (laughs) It’s true; it really was around that time. In Semele I have this one recitative that was just a nightmare, talking about ‘or dreadful wars and o’er unwholesome fens and woods.’  Try to sing ‘and woods!’ ‘And woods!’(laughs) So that was challenging.  And we’ve had a really nice gal, who’s been at all the rehearsals giving diction advice.  If you’re doing ‘and hear a maid bemoan’ (‘maiD BemoaN’) So you have to think about it a little bit differently, without losing the placement, though, that you know is right for the singing.  German is the same way—it has a different feel to it.  My thing is that I never think about how it’s done.  It’s a different world, so you step into another room.  This is ‘German room’, and this is ‘Italian room’, and this is ‘English room’.  When you’re in Paris, you act a little bit differently and you speak French; when you’re in Italy you act a bit differently and speak Italian, when you’re in New York you speak English.  So it’s the same with the singing: you act a little bit differently and you speak German.  I love singing in German.  Because the vowel is there and then these rich consonants are in the middle of the vowel, somehow.  It’s so nice and long at the end; you can (demonstrates‘cccht’)


ME: Kind of singing through the vowel.


VG: Yes, and you actually need time within a phrase, even if you’re singing the word ‘Ausgezeichnet’ or something. So the piano, with its accompanying, needs to give you the time to have ‘ge-zeich…net’ (emphasizes double consonants. It has to give you almost a dotted rhythm, there.  There has to be a little bit of give.  So that’s all neat. It’s all stuff you don’t have to really do with Italian, because you have the double consonants, but usually for the Italian that’s written into the music already.  They’ve done that kind of dotted rhythm already with the double consonants.  And in English, it’s tough.  And we’re doing an American accent; we’re not doing a fake Brit accent, so you have dipthongs and stuff to deal with that you don’t have in the Italian.  And different kinds of problems than you would if you were doing a Brit kind of accent.  Definitely, I believe that the diction is integral to singing.  It’s not secondary at all.  It’s completely, compactly involved with the singing technique and with the character—how can you create a character if you don’t have words? If you have a character who is just googoolating, what does that mean?  So use consonants and use the vowels, and if there’s onomatopoeia with the consonants involved with the consonants or something like that take advantage of it.  Let it build color for you, as a character.  It does half the job for you.


ME: I’m no expert on this, obviously, but it must be difficult when sung English is a little bit different from spoken English--is that also true in Italian?


VG: No. Italian is much more direct, and that’s why they have a leg up on us most of the time, because they grow up speaking.  Of course they’ve got dialects and such.  That said, however, I’ve heard a lot of Italian singers who I can’t understand, and my husband has said several times when I’ve performed and he’s been there in the audience ‘you were the only one I could understand what they were saying.’  So, I think it is definitely part of the technique that I’ve learned, and I’m really happy about that, because it carries over into any language.  I did a recital in Malaga, in Spain, and I did some Zarzuela there for them. It was so neat, because they not only could understand what I was saying, but I had the dialects right and everything, I had Madrid dialect, and an Andalusia and so on. I had worked with a pianist who was from Seville and so it was awesome. We had such a good time. So I loved it. I’m lucky that I have an ear, also, that I can pick up on those things.  But also I understand how important it is. You know, when we hear, for example, Pavarotti singing in English, you hear that there’s something weird about it, that there’s an accent in everything. There’s that famous video when Bernstein was doing West Side Story with Carreras, and he was giving Carreras a horrible time about his accent when he sang in English. Well, ok. And we’re expecting that we’re going to go to Germany and sing in German for the Germans and not have any problems, and we’re going to go to Italy and sing in front of the Italians without any problem?  Or we’re going to sing Italian in this country, and not have any problems?  If one could afford it, I would have diction coaches at every single rehearsal.  And artists should be ready to accept advice, help, whatever on diction issues.  Even if you’re a native speaker. Because, we were doing the Solimano at the Staatsoper in Berlin, and we had a native Italian speaker who was giving advice to me, and to the other foreign singers, but also the Italian singers. ‘I don’t understand it when you say, ‘Corretto.’ You need to make more of a ‘t,’ give more time on it. Because, yes, it’s not always the way you would say it.  Also because of dramatic circumstances; it’s very different from what you are faced with in real life. You don’t just have this long expose on… It’s usually much shorter in real life, so you have to use your words differently. It is one of my pet peeves, when I hear singers who just kind of sluff off on pronunciation.  I really don’t like it, and I have put myself on short chain to not say anything about it, or not give corrections.  There are some times when singers don’t mind; if they are young singers they’ll come to you and say ‘I’m new to Italian, would you just keep an ear out? If there’s anything that’s blatantly wrong, would you let me know?’  And that’s great; I love to do that. But you also have to respect people’s space and their professionalism—you don’t just go to someone as a singer and say, ‘you know, your pronunciation is just totally wrong.’  You just have to kind of swallow it and wish that, with their talent, they would invest a bit more effort and time on development, and reaching their potential.  Because so many people don’t do that.  They get to a certain level and they think, ‘Ok, I’m perfect now, I’ve gotten where I need to be; I’m singing at the Met--that’s it, I don’t have to work anymore.’  I think that’s so irresponsible.  I admire people like Itzhak Perlman, like Yo Yo Ma, or Alfredo Kraus, who was very meticulous about what roles he took. Placido Domingo, who never stops.  He keeps learning and is very humble artist who accepts suggestions and corrections. People like Frank Oz, who are so constructive and so creative, and who have such a respect for technique.  I think that is kind of what’s missing today—a respect for technique.  I don’t know why that should be. In ballet, in any kind of dance, you always have to go through traditional technique, to then extrapolate and then go into different styles. But you always have to have a solid classical ballet technique to build on.  I read interviews and I read autobiographies of all kinds of artistic people, and how they think about what they do.  Frank Oz was talking about how technique is the armchair, or the rocking chair you sat in while you were making art.  It was flexible, and you were always free to move, but you weren’t thinking about it; it was supporting you.  That’s what it needs to be. The idea of being in this for the joy of finding out how much you can do, how good can you get?  So every time I’ve done Barber of Seville: how can I make it a little better this time?  What is there that I can do, which didn’t work as well last time, that I want to change, tweak a little bit, pull it a little bit up?  Don’t let yourself sit down too much. 


ME: I get the sense that you’re someone who works on every aspect of technique that supports you. An observer might ask, what kind of work does it take to—not keep up to certain level, but, as you just said make something even better or as exceptional as it can be?  Are there certain areas you categorize in your mind, like diction, to work on?



Orfeo ed Euridice (Orfeo) Los Angeles Opera November 2003
Photo: © Robert Millard


VG: The neat thing is that there are so many areas, that if you get burned out on one you just start in on another one, and that turns you on again. For example, I had a couple of years where I had a real hard time studying.  I just couldn’t learn new music, I was just so over—so burnt out.  So I ended up watching a lot of TV.  But I realized I was watching a lot of I Love Lucy and Dick van Dyke and things that were taped live in front of an audience.  And those people who were really from the vaudeville era, and had real showmanship.  And comedic timing.  I like watching comics because I’m not a born comic at all, and I have a hard time with comic timing, and I’m trying to learn a little bit better.   It’s not anything that you can really learn, but you can get better, I think, from what your natural disabilities are (laughs). So in watching them I was learning a lot.  There’s just so much that I don’t know, so basically if I get burned out on one aspect, like the memorization and the learning of the music, ok.  Put it away until I get turned onto that again.  Now I’m in a phase where I am, so I’m not watching as much TV, and I’m not doing as much of the other stuff.  But figure out what it is that you would like to do, and learn something from it. There’s very little you can do in this life, I think, that you can’t learn something from.


ME: You will be coming to Istanbul this season, and it will be your first time there, and you’ll be singing a program of Handel and Hasse…


VG: I think we’re actually just going to do Hasse this time.  Because the Handel and the Hasse that I did with the Les Violons du Roy I think we’re doing on tour in Germany, and in Holland. But the group I’m coming to Istanbul with is La Cetra, and we’re doing a concert in Paris at the Champs-Elysees on the 18th of December of Hasse and Handel. And then we’re doing a concert in Dresden on the second of June, which is what we will do in Istanbul.  It’s all music written for the Dresden court in the 1700’s, some of which was written for his wife and some of which was written for a castrato named (Angelo Maria) Monticelli who I really identify with a lot, just because of the vocality and the range. He also did a lot of leaps and similar things, which I really get into.  Especially now, I’ll be interested to see the impact of the Handel-Hasse CD.  I’m glad we did this CD, because so many people don’t know who Hasse was, yet he was one of the three most important international composers of the time, with Haydn and Handel.  So I think the juxtaposition of the two is very interesting.  However, I think a program of Hasse is so beautiful, and so much fun to sing, also, because it’s like going to a local spa.  It’s so good for you, so lyric, and—it’s just beautiful. There are a lot of different colors.  In the program we’re doing there are a couple of pieces with just the ‘full band,’ with horns and bassoons and oboes and flutes.  We have a couple of recitatives—recitatives he did so well.  That’s the one big difference for me, between Hasse and Handel. There are stories of Farinelli. He would be doing another composer’s opera that maybe Hasse had also composed, and he would say, ‘ok, but I want to do Hasse’s recits for this moment and this moment.’  Because Hasse has some amazing recits; either recitativo secco or recitativo accompagnato are just beautiful.  So I’ve got a couple of those that are introduced by accompagnato recitative, again it shows the interplay between the voice and the punctuation of the orchestra, and it really sets up the arias.  We’ve got a couple of arias that are just with strings, one with a beautiful oboe solo; he has some gorgeous oboe duets with voice.  And there’s a style called the ombra aria, the shadow aria, which talks about a character after death who will still be with you, who will follow you, who will protect you, who will stay with you, who will still love you. And this one ombra aria from Solimano is probably one of the most beautiful pieces of music that I’ve ever heard. And there’s a very valiant piece also from Solimano, that was the end of Act One, which was really super—virtuosic, and fun with the whole band. It’s a nice mix.  And we’ll add perhaps an overture from one of the operas that we’re dealing with, and then there will be a small orchestral interlude, just for me to get a bit of a breath, because most of the arias you’re dealing with are about eight to fifteen minutes each. Beautiful, beautiful program—so I’m hoping that will work out to take to Istanbul.


ME: Are some of those pieces on the CD?


VG: No, the program we’re doing in December is all brand new.  I did a whole new research thing in Dresden at the conservatory.  I was so fortunate and privileged to be able to touch these manuscripts.  We looked through about forty or fifty operas of Hasse, and were able to choose arias that I thought would be interesting. On CD-ROM, they even gave them to me, so I have them all on computer and was able to study them throughout the year, and then choose the ones I wanted to go in depth with.  It should be great. Never before heard!




©2006 Michael Ellison



This interview first appeared in The Opera Critic website.

Michael Ellison teaches composition at MIAM Center for Advanced Studies in Music, Istanbul which is part of Istanbul Technical University. (Ed)

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