One of the world’s finest Lucias talks Donizetti’s mad masterpiece and why Melbourne needs a new venue.

It’s not easy being one of the world’s most in-demand bel canto singers, as Australian soprano Jessica Pratt tells me. “I went to a chiropractor and he was looking at my x-rays and he said to me, “So, I’m guessing you were in a car accident when you were younger?” But I hadn’t,” Pratt says. “And then he said, “Oh, so you were in an abusive relationship, then?” Which I definitely hadn’t been. I was totally confused about what was going on and so was he, because he said he could see this damage that looked like I’d been really thrown around. That’s when I said, “Oh, I’m an opera singer – I get thrown on the floor all the time!””

This professional hazard is, for the most part, courtesy of a role that Pratt has earned an international reputation for: the tragically crazed heroine of Donizetti’s masterwork, Lucia di Lammermoor. Pratt has portrayed this character in 20 different productions on some of the world’s most hallowed stages, including the epicentre of the bel canto tradition, Teatro alla Scala in Milan. “The first time I went to La Scala to sing Lucia, I was told I was only the third Australian to sing the role there – the other two being Nellie Melba and Joan Sutherland. That was a real ‘Oh My God’ moment for me,” Pratt shares as we sit together at a grand banqueting table (separated by a papier-mâché suckling pig), on the set of Victorian Opera’s traditional staging directed by Cameron Menzies.

Pratt in rehearsal for Lucia di Lammermoor, at Victorian Opera’s Horti Hall rehearsal space. (Photo: Charlie Kinross)

As the opera that launched her career, Lucia di Lammermoor has been an ever-present part of Pratt’s professional life, but in that respect, she’s in fine company. In addition to Melba and Sutherland, Maria Callas, Montserrat Caballé, and more recently, Diana Damrau and Natalie Dessay have all been idolised for their accounts of this character. Pratt can now be counted among them as one of the most accomplished and insightful performers of the role, anywhere in the world today. 

But it’s not just the prestige of this opera’s most revered bastions that has kept Lucia di Lammermoor on the billing of opera companies around the globe. Since its 1835 premiere in Naples, it has enjoyed relatively consistent popularity, and this is in no small part due to one pivotal moment in the opera: the infamous third-act mad scene. It’s a wild display of visual and sonic spectacle that is both unforgivingly demanding for the performer and utterly thrilling for the audience.

Coerced into marrying a man she doesn’t love, Lucia brutally stabs her new spouse in their wedding bed before staggering back into the nuptial celebrations, drenched in blood. Through the musically refined lens of bel canto, Lucia’s ravings are transformed into a manic yet beautiful succession of musical fragments and spooling melismas, capturing with a perverse immediacy the pain of her madness while simultaneously remaining pristine.

Pratt rehearsing the mad scene, for Victorian Opera’s upcoming production.

For the past 180 years, this remarkable moment of intense dramatic volatility has been a magnetic force for directors, drawn to the myriad possibilities of subtext and interpretation this scene offers. Some amplify the misogyny of 19th-century attitudes toward mental health, while others position Lucia’s vocal abandon as a bold declaration of victorious feminism, triumphing over a patriarchal authority.

Pratt may have sung this role many times, but the generous versatility of this opera keeps the experience of portraying Lucia fresh, she explains. “I really do love it. I sing this role two or three times a year and if I have a big gap – six months or so – I find I really miss it,” she says. “Depending on what kind of production it is, the musical nuances can be pretty different from one show to the next. In Italy for example, you’re expected to keep the reading very traditional, with the original cadenzas, but elsewhere you have a bit more freedom. So for example, I can write my own cadenzas or variations, or make changes depending on what the staging dictates, because the way this music communicates should reflect what we’re doing on stage. So there’s never just one way to perform this role – it would be pretty boring for me if it were otherwise.”

With such a wealth of knowledge and first-hand experience, not only with this opera but with a number of key works, Pratt’s insight and understanding of this music is impressively in-depth. “This is my entire life,” she tells me proudly. “It’s so important to understand, for example, how vocal traits have changed over the years – voices in general have dropped their position in the past century to accommodate Wagner or Puccini. So knowing that a very different technique is needed for the trills or staccati you find in bel canto repertoire is so important and something you need to work on every day.”

The glass harmonica that gives Lucia’s haunting aria, Il dolce suono, its distinctive colour.

Pratt is a singer at the height of her powers, but in spite of her solid gold C.V., glittering with principal roles at Covent Garden, The Met, Deutsche Oper Berlin and Vienna State Opera (to name just a few), she has been a relatively rare presence on home turf. As news of the successes of Australian singing talent overseas has become increasingly common, Pratt believes that more should be done to ensure Aussie opera stars are as in demand at home as they are abroad. “Australians love opera for sure, but when you try to explain to a European that we only have one  full-time national company, and that some of the major companies here only do three or four productions a year, they’re genuinely shocked. And it’s a problem, because we have so many incredible singers, but they are largely based overseas because there aren’t enough opportunities to work here, or the diversity of roles you need to properly build a career.”

Particularly concerning for Pratt is the lack of a dedicated opera house in Melbourne, which is something she hopes may be remedied in the future as an homage to the city’s most famed musical icon. “This is the home of Nellie Melba,” she exclaims “This is a city that is famous for its music and theatre and culture. We have an incredible state opera company here and they don’t have a proper venue – it’s insane! Melbourne has an unbelievable cultural history and yet we have no opera house. Well I say, we should build one, a traditional horse-shoe Italian theatre for the repertoire that Melba was famed for. That’s what she would have wanted.”

Victorian Opera presents Lucia di Lammermoor, at the Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, April 12 – 21.