Written by: Alexander Campbell
The Italian soprano Maria Luigia Borsi has been making something of a splash in the last few years with high-profile operatic and concert engagements in her native Italy and at festivals such as Salzburg with some high-profile conductors. She made her UK debut with a concert tour in Scotland in the spring of 2009 with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Maurizio Benini, and in January 2010 she makes her London debut, at Wigmore Hall. We discussed her art and inspiration, and she offered candid comments on her career to date and her hopes for the future.
First we settled how she likes to be addressed. She is most definitely “Maria Luigia”; as she points out, this is the same name as Napoleon Bonaparte’s second wife who later became the Duchess of Parma, thereby stressing the Italian connection. Quick as a flash she added another connection with the stage by mentioning the colour violet (as in Parma violets) and pointing out that in Italian theatres this colour is considered unlucky. Hence the significance of the colour of the poisoned flowers sent by the jealous Princess de Bouillon to Adriana Lecouvreur in Cilea’s opera – a subtlety of that opera plot probably missed by most non-Italians. Is Adriana a role she might sing in the future? A smile accompanies a brief “we’ll see.”
This attention to background minutiae of the narratives of the music and operas that Maria Luigia sings or is learning informs much of our conversation. She says it really helps her to carefully study the correspondence of composers and librettists of the pieces she performs as well critical commentary of the times. In this way she feels she can learn what the intentions of the composers were in terms of dramatics, but also vocal types and colours. To her, this is as important as learning about the history of the periods in which their works are set.
Certainly, given the prominence of Puccini roles in her current repertoire she has made much study of the composer’s life and letters, which has certainly helped inform her vocal attitude to the parts, deepen her understanding of the complexities of his myriad dynamic and tempo indications and ultimately therefore of the characters themselves. She particularly cites the roles of Mimi in La bohème and Magda in La Rondine in this regard. Both these roles, she says, still have an amazing modernity about them, and to bring them completely to life one must be scrupulously observant of the writing. “Puccini may sound easy to sing”, Maria Luigia says, but then adds that it is “very hard to sing well”, exhibiting an evidently strong critical eye, that one senses is frequently directed at herself as well as others.
We discuss how her singing voice was discovered. According to her family lore she was born singing, and she says she still lives with music in her head throughout the day and that she hums constantly when at rest! Her grandfather encouraged her, and she knew the ‘Grand March’ from Aida very early in life. Even as a girl singing in local choirs her voice was noticeably stronger than her fellow students, and she was aware from her youth that music and vocalising was a natural way, for her at least, to express mood and emotion. She started receiving vocal coaching in her teenage years, joining a musical academy at age 15, some years earlier than is customary in Italy. She had few singing teachers, although the Romanian Lucia Stanescu was an important early coach and musical influence. She recalls also performing in masterclass sessions with renowned singers such as Renata Scotto and Claudio Desderi. These sessions can be helpful sometimes in giving interpretative insights, but, as she says, a voice is such an individual thing both physiologically and psychologically that it is often hard for singers, even highly experienced and successful ones, to really EXPLAIN their own vocal methods and techniques. Maria Luigia believes strongly that what may work for one singer may be damaging for another and that “one can really only learn from one’s own mistakes”. She also knows from the experiences of professional colleagues that student-teacher relationships can sometimes be difficult. She knows of instances where a student’s career has looked to eclipse that of a teacher, resulting in destructive jealousies surfacing, or also where singers, even celebrated ones, develop what might be considered stifling artistic dependencies on teachers or mentors.
Maria Luigia has decided to follow her own path. Like other singers before her she has taken to recording her performances to listen critically to them and learn from her own experiences and experiments, but also from observation of her professional colleagues. As she says, the rehearsal periods and her performances are really her best coach now, although she also admits to learning a great deal from the many great and experienced conductors she has sung under, such as Muti, Mehta and Maazel.
How did Maria Luigia climb the international-singer’s ladder so quickly? “It’s not because I have any mafia connections”, she laughs, and then earnestly describes the dreadful circus and routine of auditions that every aspiring young artist must inevitably undergo. She finds it interesting that she has generally been selected for roles and engagements when there have been conductors on the adjudicating panels; in instances where the artistic directors have held sway she has generally been less successful. She pointedly leaves one to draw one’s own conclusions about this!
Her most important champion was the conductor Marcello Viotti (1954-2005) under whom she sang Violetta in La traviata early in 2005. Maria Luigia relates how he was extremely enthusiastic and supportive about her vocal and dramatic interpretation, and how he told her she reminded him of the great singers of the past in the part. He promised to work with her in the future – ‘This won’t be the last time we meet’ – and to do all he could to help her career. Maria Luigia found that he was true to his word. In the ensuing weeks she received many telephone calls, at home, from opera houses and festivals throughout Europe (Salzburg, Zurich and Munich among them), solely on the basis of the personal recommendations that Viotti had made.
Viotti’s tragically untimely death, at the age of 50, some weeks later was a great blow to her, and to this day before she goes out to perform she offers a small prayer to remember both him and her mother. In Salzburg she was engaged to cover Netrebko in La traviata and to give one performance in her own right although this did not happen. She met Muti in 2002, and she was booked to perform the same opera on a tour to China the following year. This too did not happen given the SARS outbreak in that country led the tour to be cancelled. They have though since collaborated on several occasions and she has sung Desdemona (Verdi’s Otello) under him in Rome and Salzburg.
Maria Luigia believes that working with conductors such as Viotti, Muti, Maazel and Mehta has taught her to listen carefully to what is going on in the orchestra to further develop her “musical ear” and to inform and improve vocally and artistically. Listening to instruments such as the flute can help one realise vocal colours. Why then, I ask her, does her performance-history not include more of the bel canto roles of Bellini and Donizetti, where vocal interactions with woodwind in particular are often so prominent? “This is true, but it is really only because of circumstances and lack of opportunity. My solo operatic debut role was in L’elisir d’amore, but since then I’ve not been asked”.
We then move onto a discussion about opera versus recital performance. Maria Luigia loves the stage and the collegiate aspects of opera, but finds singing with piano in a recital has its own rewards. She explains that in opera there are so many components and distractions and the scale is very large. Things can and do sometimes go wrong. Recital is different. “Then one is usually closer to the audience, and you can really see and sense their reactions to the music and to your performance. Also singing without the orchestra is liberating; you can be more daring, experimental and really challenge yourself”. It’s clear she would not want to confine herself. I ask gently about instances of things going wrong. Maria Luigia recounts a story of a performance at a major Italian opera house (La Scala no less) where she was singing Liù in Puccini’s Turandot. She was just about to launch into ‘Signor, ascolta!’, her big moment in Act One, when the tenor singing Calaf did anything but! Just as she sang her first line he suddenly turned, walked off to the side of the stage and then into the wings, leaving her singing at no-one. She had to continue of course whilst the tenor was taking a break, perhaps talking to his agent or to his mentor to get some reassurance, before he returned to his position to continue the performance … Non, piangere Liù! Laughter ensues – Maria Luigia has got the humour needed to see her through most crises.
Who, in terms of past singers, were and are her operatic heroes or heroines? “Well, of course one has to say Maria Callas above all. She lived the theatre and the music in a unique way and I’m fascinated by her way of inhabiting and living her roles in every sense – one cannot copy it of course, as you have to do what works for you”. This latter comment becomes a clear characteristic trait in Maria Luigia as we move on to discuss preparatory work for her next big operatic role, Madama Butterfly. “It is quite a strong role, and some people may think perhaps too much so for me. I want to be a lyric soprano Butterfly, and to use all the colours and markings that Puccini intended. You need a lighter touch and more elegance in the voice for the first act, and there is scope for real use of pianissimi. Dramatically, I do not think Cio-Cio-San is so naïve. She’s caught in a difficult situation but she knows what she does not want”. Then she laughs. “That’s quite like me! I may not always know what I want or what to do – but I certainly know what I don’t want!”.
Noticing that much of her current performance repertoire, with the exception of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and a few other choral works, is in her native Italian I ask about her roles in other languages. She tells me that she has sung in English, although this was early in her career, in Purcell’s King Arthur, and she has also performed roles in translation. She made her debut in Romania as Siebel in Gounod’s Faust and learnt the part in Romanian especially for that occasion. The tenor singing Faust became ill and was replaced at the last minute by a French tenor singing in the original language! Naturally, she’s happiest communicating in her own tongue, but, as she says, it’s the music that’s the most important.
We also touch briefly on the opera scene in Italy and the vox-pop opera there that has been / is in decline, and that the country now generates fewer international stars. Maria Luigi’s views are forthright and not defensive. “It is not our fault, but it is true that in Italy there is poor investment in art and in young talent. Opera was born in Italy of course, and there are wonderful singers still enjoying great careers – look at Frittoli, Dessi and Devia – all great and individual artists. Many other fine singers stay in Italy of course.” She goes on to touch the issue of how singers are marketed these days. “Sometimes it seems that looking right and simply being famous is more important. It is all about image. The importance of detailed preparation and discipline cannot be stressed, and it is important for young talents to realise this. I choose to sing because I love music and feel passionate about communicating with my audiences. I also choose to sing outside Italy as I need to share the gift of my voice and my music.”
As the conversation draws to a close I ask her about her experiences of singing in the UK so far, especially on her Scottish tour. She loved Scotland and her reception there. “The audiences were quite Italian and very expressive. Best of all was a performance in Glasgow where I sang Respighi’s Il Tramonto (The Sunset). Maestro Benini’s conducting and the orchestra created such a beautiful atmosphere and the audience was so quiet and attentive and then so enthusiastic at the end. I could see some people near the front who were visibly moved – it was one of my most special personal performance experiences.”
Maria Luigia is now eagerly looking forward to her London debut, at Wigmore Hall – on 17 January 2010. What can we expect? “Well, I’m singing a programme of songs by some well-known Tuscan composers – Puccini, Mascagni and Catalani. Some of these songs are not that well known, even in Italy, but you will see that many of them contain material that was later developed into some very well-known excerpts of their operas. Puccini’s song ‘Sole e amore’ contains the seeds of the quartet in La bohème and ‘Sogno d’Or’ was later used in La Rondine. Mascagni’s ‘Ave Maria’ also is an ancestor of a rather famous Intermezzo from his most famous opera, and those who know their Catalani will also recognise a showpiece aria.”
What about future roles? As at the start of our conversation the response is “Well, we’ll have to see”. As well as keeping cards close to her chest, it’s clear that this lovely lady is enjoying exploring the possibilities of her voice and her career.