The coloratura, who has become an Italian-based European star, talks about life, Italy, opera and her dog.
This month sees Australian-born coloratura soprano Jessica Pratt returning to sing Violetta in La Traviata with Victorian Opera. Whilst making quite a name for herself abroad, it’s been a fair while since the home crowd have had a chance to see and hear her. We caught up with her to find out what she’s been up to and how she feels about coming home for her latest venture. “I can’t wait to get back to Australia,” she says immediately. “It’s six years since I performed here. This is a double debut for me – it will be my first professional operatic role in Australia and also my first La Traviata.”
Pratt began her musical studies with her father before taking lessons with Maggie Findlay and John Matheson and studying for a year at the Sydney Conservatorium. She’s pretty evangelical about the training available here: “I still go on and on about the way in which Australian singers prepare themselves and the high quality of the courses available to opera singers in Australia,” she says. “In Italy it is difficult to find a serious environment in which to study opera, core subjects are missing like language study and movement study. I think everyone in Italy is tired of hearing me going on about my golden years of study in Australia!”
Those years away have seen her career skyrocket, especially in Italy, which the soprano now calls home. An Opera Foundation competition win lead to her being invited by Italian Maestro Gianluigi Gelmetti to study with him at the Rome Opera for six months, after which she remained in Italy studying for a few years at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia taking masterclasses with Renata Scotto. “This, in my opinion, is the best place to study opera in Italy,” she says. “I will be forever grateful for everything they taught me and the opportunities they gave me. After I finished studying there I moved to Milan and commenced my studies with the coloratura soprano Lella Cuberli in 2008 and with whom I still prepare all my roles.”
She’s now been based in Italy for the majority of her professional working life, but how difficult was it for a young singer abroad to make her name in the ‘cradle of opera’? “I think with any place it takes a long time,” she admits. “I lived and studied here for about three years before making my debut. I feel at home in Italy and in fact it has been my home for nearly 10 years now. In Italian articles they have taken to referring to me as ‘British born, Australian raised but Italian by adoption’ and in the local paper from Lake Como where I live I’m referred to as ‘La Comasca’. The only place I was ever actually nervous about singing in Italy was when I sang Lucia in Napoli. Donizetti wrote the opera for Teatro San Carlo and there is still his private box and that of Rossini where they used to watch their operas.”
Success in Italy is quite a feather in any singer’s cap, but given what we hear about financial difficulties in Italy’s opera houses it can’t have been easy and it sounds like it’s getting trickier by the day. Is this making it hard for young singers right now? “I think it is safe to say that opera houses in Italy have always been somewhat volatile on the financial side of things,” she admits, candidly, “but this is not only a recent situation. Not so long ago the singers in Italy wouldn’t continue to sing if they didn’t get paid in cash at the interval.”
Pratt considers herself fortunate in the sense that she has had most of her contracts to date with the more stable houses, but even so she has to be careful. “If I choose to sing something with a house I know is in difficulty I take that into account, knowing in some cases that I won’t get paid,” she says. “My policy is that I don’t go back to a theatre until I get paid for the past season. I have the luxury of choice in Italy and good relationships with stable companies but unfortunately many young singers don’t and they keep going back even after three productions in which they haven’t been paid, and so those theatres keep taking advantage.”
Whatever the vicissitudes, she must be doing a great deal that’s right. Last year she was awarded the prestigious La Siola d’Oro, becoming only the second Australian (after Dame Joan Sutherland) to receive the accolade. What did the win mean to her? “It’s a great honor,” she says. “Nearly all my favorite coloratura sopranos are on that list! Not only do they award the diamond broach, they also presented me with the medal of the Republic of Italy…I have to say I cannot but love a country that gives a Presidential medal for singing coloratura!”
Pressed on her other achievements, Pratt is characteristically modest. In fact, when asked her proudest achievement to date she comes back with a rather surprising answer: “Seeing my rescue dog Fede come back to life and learn to trust people after being abused for so many years,” she says.
Fede is clearly an important part of her life. There has even been a children’s book released about his life backstage in Italy’s top opera houses, written by Mauro Neri. So how did she get involved with rescue animals? “I sponsor a group called Progetto Quasi and they basically save old and disabled animals from abusive dog kennels here in Italy,” she tells me. “I try to help them find homes and Fede was one of these. He was a little black dog practically bald from stress and crippled from a severe beating, his back leg just hangs and is not attached at the bone, his face is smashed in on one side and he is missing an eye. Given he was so small I decided to adopt him myself.”
“When he arrived he generally just hid in the cupboard or under the bed for a while, then gradually he started to trust me, in his own time he learnt to be affectionate and trust other people too. He had a lot of separation anxiety in the beginning so he came everywhere with me. The only time I could leave him alone was if he was in the dressing room with the speaker on. If he heard me singing and rehearsing he was OK. Thankfully in Italy the only place you can’t take a dog is the supermarket so I would tire him out on a walk and then sneak out while he slept to do the shopping!”
And the book – how did that come about? “Fede became very well known in the Italian theaters and the opera fans always want to take photos of him and say hello after the shows,” she says. “One evening Federica Fanizza asked me if I would speak to the author Mauro Neri about writing a book about Fede and his life from the dog pounds to the opera theaters of Italy as a way to educate young children about opera and at the same time to educate them about animals and not abandoning pets.”
So how has Fede coped with the life on tour? “Strangely enough after at least ten years living in a cage he adapted straight away to my strange life, changing houses every month taking the train and all this strange singing.” And, one has to ask, does he actually like opera? “He has a clear preference for Bellini and Rossini but is not terribly fond of Verdi,” she admits. “He tends to leave the room when I sing Rigoletto but if I sing I Puritani he comes back in and goes to sleep – I think it has to do with the smoother vocal line!”
Jessica Pratt sings in Victorian Opera’s Lucia di Lammermoor, April 12-21.