Carmen Giannattasio

Carmen Giannattasio in Conversation with Rivka Jacobson

She is a beautiful and intelligent woman, elegant even when dressed in jeans, full of enthusiasm and passion for life, literature and music, Carmen Giannattasio’s success is meteoric. At the age of two she demanded a piano, at 18 started singing lessons and at 24 she had her debut at La Scala, Milano.

Her stage presence has been compared to that of the great Italian film heroine Anna Magnani.

Carmen Giannattasio performance, as Violetta in 2007 in Verdi’s La Traviata at Scottish Opera, was described by Rupert Christiansen in the Daily Telegraph as “…a deeply intelligent and profoundly affecting interpretation in the Cotrubas and Scotto mould.”

Carmen Giannattasio’s comes from Solofra in South Italy, from a non-musical family, who appreciated her passion and encouraged her calling.

We met at the Corinthia Hotel, London, after her morning rehearsal with Sir Antonio Pappano for the new production of Pagliacci at the Royal Opera House, which opens on 3rd December 2015.

RJ: Did Bizet’s opera Carmen inspire your parents’ choice of name?

CG: No, they were not inspired by the opera at all. My mother loves very much Latin poetry, and she speaks very good Latin, and that’s why she wanted to call me Carmen, because “carmen” in Latin means poetry or song, so I got something related to music in my name according to Latin language.

RJ: Your name is associated with opera; did it inspire you as a young girl?

CG: No, because I hated opera (she says with laughter)

RJ: You actually hated opera?

CG: Yeah, I hated opera; I’m a pianist, a trained pianist. I love classical music, especially symphonies, but I always thought that opera was boring and was not really tasteful music. Of course, this is not the case, but I had to discover this for myself.  If anyone had said to me that I would be an opera singer, I would have replied ‘you’re joking, I will never be an opera singer’

Auditioning for the world opera competition, Domingo’s Operalia paved the way to international stardom.

RJ: Do you remember what you sang for him?

CG: It was Imogene’s role from Bellini’s Il Pirata (The Pirate). Domingo said “Oh, you’re really good I want to invite you to my annual competition, which is in Paris, in 2002”, and then I won it, I won the first prize, and the audience prize, which made me really proud because the first prize is from a technical jury, a professional jury. The audience prize is just from people attending the concert that night, and they were voting, and I was in the final with two French guys, one from Paris, No one was there supporting me from my family and friends.

RJ: You sang many arias that have challenged many great sopranos in the past. Is it daunting for a young soprano to step into parts that have been sung already by countless great divas?

CG: When I was very young I was inspired by these great names, and I was listening to them as did Callas when Callas was a young girl looking for herself. So we have to maintain our own ideas, our own style, and our own way to sing. Otherwise, I don’t imitate, maybe you don’t like it but it’s my personal interpretation, so if you come to the theatre you know you are going to listen to Carmen – and not Joan Sutherland or Callas. So if you like it, you’re welcome, if you don’t, stay at home and listen to your favourite recordings.

RJ: The Daily Telegraph compared your approach to music to two operatic giants – Cotrubas and Scotto. Which of the two inspired you most?

CG: Well, they are two really, really great artists, and I really love both of them. Maybe, for temperament, and also because she’s Italian, I feel closer to Scotto.

RJ: Cotrubas, reportedly, clashed with directors. Do you find some directors really annoying and that they don’t really understand the characters?

CG: Well, usually I have a very good relationship with directors. I never had troubles during my career. OF course, there are people, like in real life, there are people you just love at first sight, and people that you love but not so deeply, and people that you just hate. So it’s the same thing at the top.

RJ: But can you work with a conductor you don’t like?

CG: No, honestly, I have to say that I’ve never disliked a conductor; I always try to make music together. This is my final goal and should be the final goal for every musician. I don’t feel so egotistic. I want to share my art with everybody involved in the show. In the past, divas were happy to have partners who were not really as good as them so they could shine more, and for me it’s completely different because I want everything around me to be perfect. Not only my co-leads and the orchestra and the conductor and the director, but also the costumes, the lighting, the sets, the furniture, everything must be perfect because I feel inspired to make it ever better.

RJ: What advice would you give young women aspiring to be opera singers?

CG: Well first of all, I think you must be humble, very humble. Study a lot and don’t give up. Also when people tell you you’re not so good, – you have to listen to yourself first. You know if you have the abilities and skills to go on. And then you must be humble and take good advice. And of course it happened to me as well. My father is a businessman, who loved music of course, but he didn’t trust music as a job, so that’s why he was pushing me and saying no you must take a degree at a university for a real job, so you will be a professor, you will teach at a university, and music is just to be an accomplishment. And of course, I did it, because he was right. At the same time there is an artistic side inside me, which was telling me you can do it. You can try. So, nothing is impossible, and let’s dream over the horizon, then when you don’t get there you can’t say I didn’t try.

RJ: Any director you would like to single out as your favourite?

CG: No, no, and there are so many good directors I’ve worked with, really special, and every one is special for a single or many reasons, or because they asked me to sing a special opera which means a lot to me, but I have to say, because he’s one of my best friends and I deeply love him, and I’ve learned so much from him, the posture, how to be onstage, I’ve really learned a lot – Sir David McVicar. I’ve done many things with him, his first Traviata, I’ve done La Clemenza di Tito in Provence, I’ve done Il Trovatore at the Metropolitan, and I will sing in his first Falstaff, a new production of that opera in Vienna. I’m very much looking forward to it.

RJ: Would you say there is chemistry between you?

CG: Yes!

RJ: Is he a father figure?

CG: No! He is the man of my life, I always tell him, oh you are the man of my life, I really love him, and it’s love for both of us. He always says, oh for you it was love at first sight, and it’s true. We are so good friends. Apart from music and theatre, we have so many things in common, and we both adore cooking, so I remember I was spending the weekend with him in Lewes, where he has a cottage, and an entire weekend cooking, and teaching each other our recipes, and saying how do you do this in this Italian recipe, and I was bringing all this stuff from Italy, real Italian food, and he was cooking French stuff.

RJ: As a woman, do you find a certain degree of imbalance between the libretto where the heroine is murdered, dies of illness or commits suicide and the powerful music piece created by the composer to give her a voice.

CG: Sometimes yes, and sometimes not. Sometimes the libretto is not as good as the music, so you focus more on the music, and you try to phrase – and being Italian, as most operas are in Italian, so it’s my mother tongue, and I deeply understand what I’m saying, so I try to colour the words. And sometimes the libretto, the poetry, is better than the music, so you have to always find that compromise, and get inspired and try to give that inspiration to the audience.

RJ: Can you give me an example?

CG: For instance, a very good one for me is La Traviata; I’m just thinking about the final part just the end of the opera, and there is the tenor as well, and it’s so modern, even if it was written in the 19th Century. It’s so beautiful, that is, the words, and she’s mostly saying ‘I’m a whore, and I’m dying, and I cannot do anything, but I know you love me, and I love you, but look, because I’m dying and I’m wishing that you find a pure woman, a young girl, giving to you her purity which I was not able to give you. Don’t think about me, don’t be sad for me, just take her. Isn’t this so moving?

RJ: It always makes me cry!

CG: Yeah, and the music is so soft, and it’s giving you the same balance, it’s the same balance of words and music to put the emotions across. Verdi and Puccini are the heart-killers. I can’t imagine how moving it is for the audience when it is moving for you as well. Because there are parts of operas which are such, that I can hardly sing because I’m so moved I’m in tears and my voice is just broken.

RJ: So you really get into your character?

CG: Yes. I feel that I am an actress first of all, one who sings. Opera is acting while singing. So first of all I’m an actress, then a musician who sings. If I don’t give the right gesture or posture to the words, you can have the most beautiful astonishing voice, the most perfect technique, but it becomes like a statue by Canova. You look at it, the perfection, the lines, the forms, but it’s cold. It’s marble. And I want something alive, to be moved.

RJ: And that’s why the audience award in 2002 was so important to you.

CG: Yes, because it means that a part of how you sound, what you’re giving, moves the audience. That is the most important thing to me, my label, my trademark.

RJ: Pavarotti could sing but not act.

CJ: [laughs]No, the acting wasn’t so great. He’s such a case because he has the most beautiful tenor voice ever, probably, and it’s so beautiful to listen to him, but now everything has changed. We are too much in the age of 007, all this movie stuff, that we want something really spicy on stage as well, with salt and pepper. We want the whole package, with beautiful music, with acting, with action, with passion.

RJ: Can you tell us something about your role in Pagliacci, which you’re currently rehearsing for at the royal Opera House?

CG: I play Nedda and Colombina, which are the same person. It’s theatre within theatre. I’m an actress who arrives in this small village, making publicity saying come to see the show, and then in the second act I become Colombina, and so I’m playing the actress.

RJ: It is again a woman who is betraying a husband to go with a lover, and is eventually murdered. How do you compare that character with, for instance, Violetta? I appreciate these are very different operas

CG: They are very different operas, concerning the music. Verdi is still in the classical period, whereas Pagliacci is very modern – not only in the spoken language, which is very close to our actual Italian, but also the music is very modern, very close to our age, so I cannot compare them at all in these terms, and also as a character. Violetta is placed in the 19th century as a whore, and that made a scandal when Verdi staged it for the first time in Venice. It caused a big scandal. People were laughing and remarking, oh he’s telling us a story of a whore in love, it can’t be – now there’s no scandal if a prostitute loves someone and gets married, no scandal at all. Nedda, is not a victim, I cannot say she’s a negative character, she’s an unfaithful woman, she has her own reasons, she falls in love with another man. She’s no longer happy with her husband, she wants to escape and get a new life, because she’s tired of her existing life. Probably she was a soubrette trying to achieve success with someone she trusted as an important actor who could help her to make a career, and this didn’t happen. And now she feels frustrated, because she doesn’t love him anymore. She wants a calm life and finds this guy, with whom she falls in love.

RJ: Musically, it is a challenging part?

CG: Every role has its own difficulties. There is not an easy opera.

RJ: But it’s a short opera.

CG: At least, yes, it’s short, it’s not Traviata in terms of length. But I don’t classify roles as difficult or easy. Every one has its own difficulties, and in every one you can find its own details in terms of rhythm or acting.

RJ: Can you tell us something about your interpretation of Nedda?

CG: Well we just started yesterday so it’s a work in progress, it’s developing, and of course I have my idea, and of course I have learned it musically, but every day we are finding so many different things. Yesterday we were finding things on stage as a character, today we were finding many little things musically, so I think every day until the premiere there will be a percentage growth in the character.

RJ: You, the conductors Pappano, and the composer, Leoncavallo, are from South Italy. Is there a temptation to pronounce the libretto in southern dialect?

CG: [laughter] No, of course we speak ‘proper’ Italian, but of course sometimes we have fun – this morning we were having fun because there was a word you say in Italian with the sound ‘sc’ and in Neapolitan you would say ‘sch’ but of course we sing in proper Italian.

RJ: No southern acting at all?

CG: No, no, it would be like if I sang Benjamin Britten, for instance, in a Scottish accent rather than an English one, and that would be really funny!

RJ: Is there a part in the operatic repertoire that you would love to sing that you haven’t yet?

CG: Well there are a couple of titles which are all planned in future, and there are titles like Lady Macbeth which are planned for the future but I’m still enjoying what I’m doing – they will come in the future. I’m very interested to see how I can do Lady Macbeth or Tosca, and I also have special friend who wants to teach me Lady Macbeth as an actress – Judi Dench! So I’m so much looking forward to that.

RJ: So you first of all explore the character?

CG: Yes, of course, but I have to read first of all where it comes from. So Tosca for instance, it comes a play by Sardou, so when I will sing Tosca for me it’s first of all Sardou. There it will be the libretto first, then music. You must be complete, you cannot sing operas without the foundations of the literature, so that it becomes more complete and you know everything around it.

RJ: Lady Macbeth is a challenging character.

CG: It is, very difficult, musically and vocally, and of course as an actress. Judi Dench is really an inspiration for me, as an actress, which is why she said she wanted to help me. Her sleeping scene, for me, is among the most terrific, the strongest part ever, in the theatre. Her suffocated scream, oh my God, you can’t get it out of your mind.

RJ: Do you have a favourite opera house?

CG: Of course there are so many theatres I really like, and I have to tell you Covent Garden is one of my favourites. It is a real, special theatre to me. Special stage, special people working there – from the stage door man to the office upstairs, really it’s a big family that I feel part of. Also La Scala is like my second home because I was a student there, and then a professional singer – I know every single corner of that theatre! Every theatre has a special memory but those or the Metropolitan or the Buenos Aries theatre, I really adore. It’s always a joy to come to London, and people really love me, like a family – hello Carmen, you’re back here, it’s so nice to have you here!

RJ: Is there an opera house you would like to appear at?

CG: I’ve almost done all the most important theatres. I’m looking forward to the Bastille in Paris? The rest I’ve done!

RJ: You are known for you elegance – who is your favourite designer?

CG: Antonio Riva, I’m his muse! I’m leaving shortly to go to Berlin for the Ace gala, which I will perform tomorrow, and I have a new gown by Antonio Riva, and he’s taking care of my concerts and my premieres, designing especially for me. Usually we do it together, he advises me what is best or tells me “Oh, I have this idea. What do you think?”, and we make experiments together. He loves opera – he comes very often to London to see me. He gets inspired by the arias I’m singing, or by the characters I’m performing, I have a tour with La Scala and he’s already creating costumes for me for that. He has so many ideas, I love it.

RJ: Is there a memorable novel or writer that inspires you?

CG: My favourite writers are probably English and Russian. There are so many novels I’ve read that I really like. In terms of poetry I love Pushkin, who is also related to the opera, and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, that is one of my favourites. I also like Le Petit Prince, it’s a kind of fairy-tale but it’s not, there’s the meaning of life. I am in love with Dante. When I started at university on The Divine Comedy, and we come out of hell and see the stars, I couldn’t stop crying. I love very much Byron.

RJ: A wide range!

CG: I’m reading a lot of modern Japanese stuff at the moment, I’m interested in Japanese literature. I like Amélie Nothomb, a Belgian writer who claims to have been born in Japan – it’s so interesting to read her point of view on life. I adore her.

RJ: What’s your favourite food?

CG: I can kill for pizza.

R: For a pizza?

CG: For a Neapolitan pizza, because for me pizza is only in Naples; you can get good pizza in the North of course, but for me pizza is just in Naples. The first thing after a long period away, the first thing I want to eat on the way to go home is pizza, it doesn’t matter what time it is, I need pizza.

RJ: But can you make one?

CG: I can make it, but it’s not so good as one you buy.

RJ: Thank you so much!