Written by: Mansel Stimpson
Mansel Stimpson talks to the Italian soprano who is making her Covent Garden debut playing Puccini’s Tosca…
While still a child Micaela Carosi recognised how lucky she was to have a firm idea of what it was that she wanted to do. There may be a touch of laughter when she tells me that she was born singing, but for her there was never a moment when she had to decide whether or not she should attempt to make a career as a singer. “It was clearly my vocation from the start and growing up with the certainty that that was my field gave me a focus. But it was also helpful that I found myself in an artistic environment having been born the daughter of two painters in Rome. When travelling with them and visiting other cities, I would always go to museums, so it was natural for me to look at life from an aesthetic viewpoint. That’s also helpful in approaching opera, and I have grandparents who were singers and an uncle who is a bass.”
As a youngster in Rome Micaela joined a children’s chorus and well before it was possible for her to attend at the Conservatoire (for which you had to be at least eighteen) she had started to take private lessons. This was, however, just part of a wider interest in the Arts which would see her graduate from the University of Rome in such subjects as Modern Literature and the History of Music in addition to obtaining a singing degree with distinction. The early start to her singing career did, however, lead to one unexpected snag. “I began too early for my teacher to recognise what my voice really was with the consequence that I graduated in 1993 as a mezzo-soprano. Within a year I was singing a lot of contemporary music and discovered that the higher notes suited my voice: they felt comfortable. However it took a year or two for me to make the decision to take on the soprano repertoire. Then from 2000 onwards my success in competitions and on the stage confirmed that I had found what was right for me.”
It was in 2000 that Micaela made her debut – in Spoleto as Leonora in Verdi’s Oberto. Her time there was invaluable on two counts. Winning a competition in Spoleto carried the reward of having some months of study and the services of a distinguished coach for free while her performance in Oberto led to her being cast as Desdemona in Otello in 2001. Success breeds success and no less important was her triumph in winning another competition, one in Busseto. It brought her to the attention of Franco Zeffirelli for whom she gave her first Aïda in 2001. That took her from Busseto to Milan’s Teatro Piccolo and Rome’s Teatro Argentina. Similarly it was being heard in competition that got her to La Scala. “All my life I had thought about La Scala, about how I would dress and what I would prepare if I got an audition there. But it wasn’t like that. I just ran from Busseto to Milan and did it. There was no time for any mental preparation but it was my big break because they decided to let me study there for Maestro [Riccardo] Muti as a member of the second cast of I due Foscari.”
The pattern of these early stage appearances has persisted with Italian opera the basis of her repertoire. She has done recitals around the world, but, since they were organised by the Arena di Verona Foundation, here too the stress has been on Italian music but she has also performed in Dvořák’s Stabat Mater. Asked if she would like to extend her repertoire, Micaela views her situation in practical terms and with awareness of how busy her schedule is currently. “It depends on the opportunities that theatres give you, but there’s also the question of how much time would be required for preparing and rehearsing. If I were to decide to take on Onegin, for example, I would have to study Russian and it would be essential for me to be at rehearsals from the beginning. For any big new departure I would probably need to stop everything else for three or four months just to study and today in this business a singer never seems to have enough time.”
It is in any case clear that the roles suited to Micaela within Italian opera are vast, a fact brought home by the fact that in 2006 she won the F. Abbiata Award as the Best Soprano in two title roles, Aïda and Madama Butterfly. However, she won’t be drawn as to her preferences. “My favourite role is the one that I am doing – so at this moment it’s Tosca. It’s a role I performed in 2006 in Seoul and Monte Carlo, but this is my first appearance in it this year and it comes up again in Berlin in October and then next year in Parma with Álvarez.” In London her colleagues are Jonas Kaufmann as Cavaradossi and Paolo Gavanelli as Scarpia (Lucio Gallo on 27 May). This is the first time that she has worked with either of them but before raising with her questions of collaboration with other artists I ask her to talk about her approach to a role and in particular to that of Floria Tosca.
“The first thing I do with any role is to study the score and one is lucky with Puccini because he writes in everything. All the tensions are there, all the movements and all the details. You even know in Act Two on which note Tosca needs to look at the knife with which she will kill Scarpia. So that’s paramount: to be faithful to the score and what it tells you. You can’t look at it with too much concentration. But then once you really have it and know it you can turn to what the character and the details mean to you and out of that solid background a personal interpretation of the role will emerge.”
For a tragic heroine, Floria Tosca is a complex figure. She’s somebody who is described as meek and gentle but who is nevertheless driven to kill the sadistic Chief of Police Scarpia who has worked on her jealousy to entrap her lover Cavaradossi after the latter has aided an escaped political prisoner. I ask Micaela about how she brings together these disparate elements in Tosca’s character which extend also to religious faith playing an important part in her life. “She is obviously an intelligent woman. As a singer she has attained a successful career, thereby setting herself apart from most women of her day, this being 1800. When you perform you have to be alert to the conductor and to all that is happening on the stage. It’s that same sense of perception that makes her aware in Act One of somebody having been present with her lover Mario even though he denies it. It’s out of that situation that her jealousy grows, but it’s also a reflection of her position as an artist.
“Being a singer she is very sensitive and constantly needs reassurance regarding her capabilities. It’s her inability to feel secure inside that causes her to feel jealousy, and the reason why she is so religious is that she is looking for some kind of peace outside herself. Consequently, the aria ‘Vissi d’arte’ in Act Two becomes the moment when she feels completely destroyed. It’s a prayer on her part, but nobody hears it. She can’t understand why that should be because she has persuaded herself that God is there. But now God doesn’t seem to be listening, and she has no point of reference left. That leads to her decision to kill Scarpia. Earlier this powerful man is somebody she has played along with, because, although dubious about him from the beginning, she doesn’t understand this seemingly two-sided man. In church he gives her the holy water but also seems to send out a sexual signal by touching her – and nobody can touch Floria Tosca, nobody but Mario. By the Second Act when Scarpia’s passion comes out she recognises in him a man intent on using his power, abusing it on every level and always driven by a sadistic will. When she agrees to his demands, she hasn’t yet decided to kill him – that comes later when she sees the knife – but all her actions are centred on saving Mario.”
Two of the opera’s immortal arias – ‘Recondita armonia’ and ‘E lucevan le stelle’ – belong to Cavaradossi but, for the artist appearing as Tosca, I wonder if it is ‘Vissi d’arte’ that is the big challenge. After all it is equally famous and the also moment when the audience may have interpretations by other singers in mind. “It may depend on your point of view, but I think that when you are on stage you have to forget the public. I am singing for them, yes, and the three great arias in Tosca were written to touch their hearts, but they also express the innermost feelings of the characters. In ‘Vissi d’arte’ Tosca is talking to herself and at that instant I have to feel what she is feeling. I have to be Tosca and not be present as Micaela Carosi – not in the slightest. So on stage I don’t feel fear, but just before I go on it’s another story. Actually I don’t think that ‘Vissi d’arte’ is the most difficult thing for me in the opera. The real problem is to bring Floria Tosca to the stage with all of Puccini’s colours.”
A subject we have not touched on is Micaela’s work with the other artists involved – Tosca is a role that involves close liaison not only with the tenor singing Cavaradossi but also with the bass appearing as Baron Scarpia, while the end of Act Two is unusual in reaching its climax without words as a silent Tosca responds to Scarpia’s dead body by placing candles and a crucifix. It’s a moment when the other key figure involved is the conductor and for the six performances in May it is Antonio Pappano. “Preparing a role is initially like sewing your own dress, but what you do on stage is influenced by what you feel with your colleagues. From them you pick up vibrations and we’ve been talking a lot during rehearsals: what we each think and feel, and that’s good. The revival director, Stephen Barlow, will make suggestions but ultimately we have to find each other to create the right inter-relationships. It’s the same with Pappano. When we did the first rehearsal with the orchestra and not least in that conclusion to Act Two I felt his emotion. It came across through the way in which he made the orchestra express the colours of the character, and where in this role you need more energy he gives you that too.”
Finally, we return to the need to be faithful. Just as Micaela stresses fidelity to the composer, she underlines too the need for a singer to be unswerving to his or her particular talent. “Everybody has their own voice and you must be true to it and not let yourself be led into doing anything inappropriate. I need to respect my voice and to reject any suggestions that could lead me into a crisis, When Daniel Oren asked me to do Butterfly with him, I could not see myself in the role, but I did it. That was fine because if somebody like Daniel Oren or Muti makes the suggestion then you know that it is because they understand what is possible for me. So I do want to find the courage to open up in the life ahead of me because that’s how you grow – but you must never lose an awareness of what you are and of what your voice can do. And, what’s more, colleagues are always important: in the work that I do collaboration is crucial.”
- The opening night of Tosca is 12 May 2008 at 7.30 and runs until 5 June
- Box office: 020 7304 4000
- Royal Opera