Italian mezzo soprano Cecilia Bartoli has conquered the world’s great opera houses, turned Salieri into a bestseller and become a saviour of the classical recording industry… But she has never, until now, performed in Australia. Francis Merson spoke to Cecilia on the eve of her maiden tour.

You have forged an unusual path for a singer, focusing on recordings and recitals rather than opera performances. How did this happen?

I started like all singers – on the opera stage, performing Rossini then moving to Mozart. I was very lucky to find so much work at the beginning and to work with great conductors like Daniel Barenboim and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who really guided me at the beginning.

How did they discover you?

Well, when I was 19 I entered a TV competition, and Barenboim happened to see it. He arranged a private audition and was so enthusiastic. He decided to work with me for a few years, and we did the Mozart operas. And then with Harnoncourt I moved from Mozart to Haydn. So I really started with the standard operatic roles, performing in Europe and at the Met.
But I also wanted to discover more repertoire outside of opera. So I discovered some beautiful jewels that I wanted to perform with piano, or a small ensemble on period instruments. I wanted to find more colours my voice could paint with.

I suppose the recital experience is more quintessentially musical: in opera you have the drama of the plot, the staging, the costumes…

Yes, and also in recitals you have more focus on the beauty of the poetry – a mélange between poetry and music. An opera, on the other hand, may have great music, but the libretto might not match the quality. That is why I decided to combine these things – to do concert performances of opera and recitals. I started with albums of Rossini and Mozart but then more and more I was keen to record music with interesting ideas. So I found music that had been neglected and tried to bring it back into the spotlight.

Such as the music of Salieri…

Yes, the music of Salieri and also Gluck’s Italian operas, and Vivaldi. I think I was the first one to make a recording of opera arias just by Vivaldi, and it was such a huge success – huge! I realised there is an audience that is interested in such things, so I did more research, moving from Baroque to Classical and pre-Classical repertoire. Then my last album Sacrificium took a look at the Neapolitan school. In Naples there was a great, if horrifying, vocal tradition. More than 3,000 boys in the Naples area were castrated every year in the 18th-century. Every year for 100 years – can you believe that?

I had no idea it happened on such a vast scale!

Yes, it’s horrible! People were so poor. In a family of, say, 10-12 children, one boy was sacrificed in the name of art and music. Of course, the real reason was to save the family from poverty, because if the child was able to make a career as a great castrato, it was like having Michael Jackson as a son. Farinelli, one of the greatest castrati, earnt so much money – but only a few reached those heights.

Is it difficult for a woman to perform this repertoire?

Absolutely! Especially music from Sacrificium, which was sung by the greatest castrati. It’s very demanding for a woman to perform, because the castrato had a female voice in a man’s body, with a man’s power. You really have to train your breath to sustain the beautiful, long phrases and you need strong technique. But my voice is technically better now than it was 20 years ago: I am more in control of my instrument.

You seem to defy categories, picking anything you like from the mezzo and soprano repertoire. Do you think these categories are becoming less important?

This is a very interesting point. In the 18th-century, Mozart’s time, singers were either soprano or alto; the mezzo-soprano category is a modern way of categorising the voice. I think what is more important than categories is personality: whether you have the drama and the personality needed to express yourself. But you also have to respect the music. If you are a mezzo and you want to sing soprano, you need an elastic voice. To sing, I don’t know, Fiorilla and Cenerentola, in Rossini’s repertoire, I would say you need a light mezzo or a soprano secondo – it all depends on the vocality of the singer. Later on, in the Puccini repertoire, these distinctions are more clear: Aida needs to have a rich soprano voice and Amneris a rich mezzo.

Are there things you won’t sing on principle?

I think the secret is to not to put your voice in danger. I have to protect this gift I’ve been given, to preserve my voice, my instrument. I know I will never sing the music of Wagner, for instance. I don’t have that instrument. It’s very important to follow your instrument – it’s your guide.

So what repertoire are you bringing on your Australian tour?

I am going to have two different programs. The first will be romantic songs by Bellini, Donizetti, works of Garcia and some sung by Maria Malibran. And then I’ll perform a program dedicated to the greatest castrati of the 18th century. I am very excited about coming to this magical country at last. I am really looking forward to it. 


Cecilia Bartoli tours Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane from March 2-18. See here for details.