Feature Article

Interview:  A Conversation with Cecilia Bartoli in Salzburg

June, 2004

Jason Victor Serinus

If there is any artist I have longed to interview, it is Cecilia Bartoli. I still have the program from her first Berkeley recital, sung when she was either 23 or 24. I will never forget the impact she made on those of us in her intimate audience. We were astounded. The vocalism was extraordinary, marked by a technical ease, beauty, and vivacity of sound unparalleled in my experience. Not since Joan Sutherland's Met debut in Lucia or hearing Beverly Sills in NYCO's Roberto Devereaux have I been so blown away.

Discovering the young Bartoli live was like seeing a newly restored print of Busby Berkeley's classic three-strip Technicolor masterpiece, The Gang's All Here for the first time. When Carmen Miranda walks onscreen wearing those 12” platform heels and impossible fruit headdress, you can't believe it. When she begins to sing, you're even more flabbergasted. And when all those maidens start waving those bananas, you're transported to another world entirely.

Bartoli does the same thing for me, but on a far more artistically refined albeit no less accessible plane. The emotion is so real, the passion and range so extensive, that her main technical shortcoming -- a lack of sheer volume -- means little. If Callas is the only soprano of the last 100 years who dared to emit tones of pure hatred onstage, Bartoli is the only one who seems absolutely unfettered when moving between absolute joy and heart-rending pain.

It was a delight to interview Bartoli by phone this past January. The soprano was in Salzburg, taking a pre-dinner break between performances of Mozart. The interview was timed to precede her February U.S. recital tour during which she variously performed a mixed recital program with piano and an all-Salieri program with orchestra.

Jason Victor Serinus: Hi.

Cecilia Bartoli: Hi [laughing].

JVS: I first heard you 13 years ago…

CB: Oh my God, 13 years ago [laughing.

JVS: In Berkeley when you were 23 or 24.

CB: That's a long time ago [whispering]…

JVS: And I've heard every one of your recitals here since.

CB: Oh [speaking bashfully].

JVS: When did you first have a sense that you possessed all of the vocal and interpretive gifts that we're hearing from you these days? How old were you?

CB: When I had my first voice lesson I was 15 years old. And I had a really good teacher. This is what made all the difference. A good teacher will teach you the technique, but also how to listen to your voice, because the voice is also the guide.

The voice will guide you -- will tell you what to do. In order to do that, you must be quite sensitive with the instrument and accept this daily conversation with your voice.

JVS: That first teacher was your mother?

CB: Ya.

JVS: I saw a snippet of you on Italian television performing an aria from Carmen in your first competition. How many years later was that?

CB: I was 19 years old. It was a competition I didn't really take seriously. I was still studying at the Conservatory, and they were looking for people younger than 20 years old. Since I was 19, I said ‘Well, I will go' [spoken with nonchalance].

It was an interesting experience. I was seen on TV, and the reaction after the show was quite extraordinary. People called me for concerts, and agents… this was something I didn't really expect. The media can be a really strong vehicle.

JVS: I remember the difference between hearing you the first time and a year later. The top of your voice opened up and bloomed in a relatively short period of time. Did you have any sense early on that you would be singing up high in the soprano range?

CB: No, no. This is something I developed. Due to studying and also to experience, the range was becoming bigger and bigger. This is something that must take time. The voice is an instrument that you really must take time to develop. It's like a good red wine [laughing]. Give it time. Yes.

JVS: The other thing that has really blossomed is the way you interpret music. Without naming names, I recently attended a performance of a very famous German Early Music Ensemble. They had two soloists singing Vivaldi. During intermission, all I could say to the fellow critic sitting behind me and my partner next to me was, “Considering the meaning of the text, think of how much more Cecilia could have done with this same music.”

I think some people didn't know what to make of you early on because you were so bold and open in expressing joy. My own feeling is that some people couldn't handle all the joy your expressed.

CB: Yes, the joy is actually in the music. It's the music that supports you and tells you what to do. It tells you how to fill the music. You don't have to be shy about feeling the music when you're singing. If you believe in music -- the power of music -- the music will support you and take you to another dimension. But you must believe it. Otherwise it will never work.

JVS: Do we have any sense that early singers sang with so much feeling?

CB: I think a singer like Conchita Supervia.

JVS: Oh yes.

CB: You've heard recordings of Conchita Supervia. They're not good quality recordings of course because it was at the beginning of the century, but you can hear her personality, the way she was using the words, the expression and the nuance. I think she was a fantastic singer. You can like or dislike her timbre or quality of the voice, which is difficult to say because at that time they didn't really have digital recording [laughing]. But the expression! For me she was one of the best singers.

JVS: Have you seen the one movie that contains a brief scene with her?

CB: Yes, yes. There may be other documents of Supervia. With her personality and her voice she was able to sing almost everything. This is something that's unbelievable to even consider in our time.

JVS: Because our phone time is limited, let's talk about your repertoire. In some cities you'll be performing with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and in other cities performing just with piano. What will your piano recital repertoire consist of?

CB: It's definitely a great program, because I'm singing the real bel canto Italian songs of Rossini and Bellini and Donizetti, but with some little surprises. For example, I'll include some songs of Pauline Viardot and Bizet.

Viardot was a great female composer as well as singer. She was the sister of Maria Malibran for whom Rossini composed a lot. He and Bellini were big admirers of Malibran and all the family. Their father Manuel Garcia was the first tenor who sang the Barber in Rossini's The Barber of Seville.

It's nice to have a great female composer in the program and add her color.

Of course the songs of Bizet are by a French peer of Rossini. When Rossini stopped composing, he was living in Paris. He also wrote some beautiful songs in French.

With the Orchestra I'm doing Salieri. The success of The Salieri Album is very surprising, not only in Europe but also the United States. He's definitely a new composer for the United States. But the sales are incredible. I'm so looking forward to performing Salieri's music in the United States.

I believe in the power of Salieri's music. He was not only a great composer; he was also a fantastic teacher. He taught Beethoven and Schubert!

JVS: You didn't expect the sales figures you've received from the album?

CB: No, no. We're close to 300,000 in three months. This is definitely unbelievable [laughing]. I really believe that people can hear the quality in the music.

People realize that Salieri is not the man we saw in the Amadeus movie. That man had no talent. It was a great movie, but the Salieri character was a big fiction [cracking up].

JVS: Yes, I saw the movie, and I've hated the man ever since.

CB: It's true. All of us hated the man. What's strange is that after 20 years, people still believe that this was the real character of Salieri, which is not true.

JVS: Certainly in America, where we believe movies are reality. The political structure simply mirrors the movies, and everyone believes what they're saying.

CB: What surprised me recently was an October article in the English Guardian newspaper that discussed Salieri and Amadeus. I didn't know that for the movie they had to change the music of Salieri to make it sound more banal. The composer who manipulated the music wasn't happy with the result, and thought no one would believe it was really the music of Salieri.

When I read that, I thought it was unbelievable. It couldn't be possible [giggling]. So you see movies are really another dimension.

JVS: Now that you've done the Salieri recording, what is your next project?

CB: I still the love classic period, but also the baroque period, and even 17th century music such as the music of Monteverdi. He's one of the greatest opera composers. He was the one who really started the opera.

JVS: Do you have specific recording plans?

CB: I would still love to do more Handel. I think Handel was a fantastic composer. I did lots of Vivaldi, but it's also important to do the music of Handel, one of the greatest composers of the 18th century.

Music is a way to dream together and go to another dimension.

There's a letter of Salieri saying ‘Music is a divine imitation of nature.'

Now let me ask you [laughing], how is the weather over there? Because here it snowing and cold [laughing].

JVS: Here it's raining a little and grey and it has been cold. You're coming in the rainy season, so it's totally unpredictable. It could be 62 degrees Fahrenheit or it could be in the low 50s and pouring rain.

CB: Oh, so February is not really an ideal month.

JVS: No. We never know. Of course, the climate is changing all over the planet. The usual patterns are shifting so rapidly. In California, the fear is that as the climate continues to warm, the snow level will rise and we won't have enough water.

This does raise a big global question. Here we are talking about being one with the music in joy and union and the human spirit while all these fundamental changes are happening in the world. How do you bring your artistry together with that in some kind of meaningful way?

CB: Hmm. Actually, I feel music becoming more and more important. It's a big source of inspiration. With what's going on in the world, we feel almost desperate. Music also brings you peace.

JVS: You record with different accompanists and orchestras all the time. Is part of your exploration to work with new ensembles and find new tone color?

CB: It's such a joy to work with different ensembles and create a collaboration. Rehearsing and building a performance is very interesting for me. Age of Enlightenment is a fantastic orchestra, of course, but also Freiburg Baroque Orchestra with whom I just did a tour in Europe. It was a big success. It's very exciting, because they have a different character, a different reaction to the music.

It's a big opportunity to work with great musicians who are able to open the door and help me listen to music in a different way. This is so important.

JVS: Are there things you would like to do with your voice that you haven't been able to? Are there goals you hold out for yourself?

CB: The goal is always to make a nice tableau painting with the voice. The more color I can find, the more shadow I can find -- the goal is always to make more nuance and colors.

JVS: And are you still discovering things in your voice?

CB: Oh yes, oh yes.

JVS: Is your mother still your teacher?

CB: Yes.

JVS: Could you talk about specific musicians who have inspired you?

CB: Oh yes. A conductor/pianist like Daniel Barenboim for instance, or Andras Schiff, or a great conductor like Rattle. I did a concert with him in September with the Berlin Philharmonic, and we're going to do Mozart's Cosi fan tutte together in Berlin. They're great musicians, and there's always something to learn from them.

JVS: I remember reading early on that you were shying away from the German language. People were asking about you singing Schubert and Schumann and Wolf, but you were uncomfortable speaking the language. Have you moved in that direction at all?

CB: German is more familiar now since I live part of the year in Rome and part in the German part of Switzerland. But it's not difficult to sing in German; it's difficult to feel in German. This takes time. It's a culture. Not just the body but also your thinking -- everything -- it's complex. You must feel what you're singing, not just have a good presentation of the language. And in order to feel German, you must go into the culture.

JVS: How much has that worked for you in English? Do you ever singing things in English?

CB: No, not really. I'm sorry. Actually, I would love to do some Handel operas. The oratorios are also beautiful. I would love to do it. It's also a priority to sing it in German.

JVS: So many people these days aren't raised on classical music and don't grow up with a piano in the home. I'm not that familiar with what's happening in Europe, but in the United States classical music radio stations are decreasing. You will never be heard on the one Bay Area classical radio station unless you sing with the San Francisco Symphony (whose concerts are broadcast) because they only play a narrow period of music they consider ‘pleasant and relaxing.' There's no vocal music: no opera, no lieder, nothing.

CB: Oh.

JVS: This is all over the United States. So we have a whole younger generation…

CB: They're not listening.

JVS: There's no exposure. They think classical music is part of another world. When you ask people if they play classical music, they frequently say ‘I like it but I don't know much about it.' What would you say to someone like that?

CB: It's sad because we don't give them a chance. They deserve it.

JVS: I'm curious as to what music you listen to and enjoy. Do you listen to much pop music?

CB: I like jazz of course, but jazz is almost classic. I like some Italian pop music. When I was a teenager I was a big fan of Flamenco music since I was studying Flamenco. But I was also listening to Madonna and Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson was my idol. I still believe he was one of the greatest pop stars.

JVS: You stopped your flamenco lessons. Do you have time to do much physical activity and to dance, or is your schedule really packed?

CB: I don't do as much as before, I must be honest with you. But I still love to walk in the mountains or be on the sea. I like to be in nature. Sometimes I bicycle. It's important to feel good with your body. The body is extremely important. If you feel good, you have more energy in your singing.

JVS: I'm a whistler. I performed ‘O mio babbino caro' as the voice of Woodstock in a Peanuts cartoon.

CB: Can you whistle ‘O mio babbino caro' in tune?

JVS: Well, I'm not warmed up, and it's so high it might disconnect the phone. [Cecilia laughs]. But when I see you in Berkeley I'll give you a cassette of my whistling.

CB: Oh please, please.

JVS: I was given a time limit for our interview. Do we have more time?

CB: For another one or two questions. Then I have to go unfortunately, because the restaurants close here in Salzburg. They don't really have a nightlife in the winter time.

JVS: You called Monteverdi one of the greatest composers, and spoke of performing more of his music. What are his specific gifts?

CB: We consider Monteverdi the first composer of opera. There was someone before, but everything started with Monteverdi. Operas like L'Incororazione di Poppea or Orfeo are recitar cantando. The beauty of the music and the poetry -- the fusion -- is so deep.

JVS: If you were trying to discuss the difference in Salieri's music from Gluck or Handel's, what would you point to?

CB: Salieri was a pupil of Gluck. He was born in Italy in 1750 and died in Vienna in 1825. He left Italy when he was 16 and spent most of his life in Vienna. He's the key composer between classic music and romantic music. Beethoven was the beginning of romantic music, and he was the teacher of Beethoven and Schubert.

I think Salieri was neglected -- not only Saliero but also Paisiello and Cimarosa -- because Salieri composed Italian opera in the Italian style. The beginning of the 19th century in Germany and Vienna was a new era with German composers writing in the German language. It was a totally new wave which Salieri was no longer a part of.

JVS: What are you performing in Salzburg?

CB: I'm doing Mozart as part of a Mozart week. I'm doing a concert with the Vienna Philharmoniker and Nicholas Harnoncourt.

JVS: Do you have any plans to perform with countertenor David Daniels in the future?

CB: Oh, I would love to. I'll tell you why. I have such a great souvenir of our Rinaldo. The recording was preceded by a tour in which we performed a concert version. The two voices matched so well together I couldn't believe it! It was the first time I sang with David Daniels; I had never performed with a countertenor before. That first time was magic, it was so beautiful. And he's such a great artist.

JVS: This has been wonderful. I really look forward to meeting you in person and giving you a big hug.

The first time I heard you sing, you performed Rossini's “La Regatta Veneziana.” My experience was that you were bigger than the music, that Rossini's music went only so far and your imagination went even farther. It was as though I was looking at a frame, and you were constantly reaching out from the frame and taking us to places that Rossini had hinted at but been unable to fully reach. It was one of those thrilling moments.

CB: Thank you. This is really nice what you're saying. I don't know if I'm going to sing “La Regatta,” but maybe as an encore for you.

JVS: Thank you. I'll try to bring the sun out for you on the 15th.

CB: Thank you. Have a good day. Bye bye.


Needless to say, Bartoli's recital was a triumph. I have never heard her in finer or more commanding voice.

When David and I met Cecilia after the performance, I found her welcoming warmth the same as we feel from her onstage. As she was signing her album “with love,” I commented that her pianist Sergio Ciomei was extraordinary, his range of expression a perfect complement to her own. Yes, she assented. That is the difference between an accompanist and a true artist.

The same could be said of Bartoli herself. Readers who have been put off by the hype surrounding her career are urged to take another listen. On record, only singers like Supervia, Lehmann, Schumann, and Rysanek offer such an astounding combination of vocal intensity, beauty of sound, and emotional truth.

- Jason Victor Serinus -


© Copyright 2004 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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