Italian mezzo-soprano and MO Fan Cecilia Bartoli is an operatic sensation on a global scale. Here, she tells our correspondent about pre-performance rituals, caring for her voice and where to find great cappuccinos
One of the greatest opera singers in the world, Cecilia Bartoli has sold more than 10 million albums, won a series of major awards, including five Grammys and two Classical Brits, and performed on some of the world’s most important stages, including the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Royal Opera House in London and La Scala in Milan. Born in Rome, the daughter of singers, Bartoli was surrounded by music as a child and made her stage debut at only eight years old. She is based primarily in Switzerland and, in 2012, was appointed artistic director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival, combining her commitments to the role with touring and recording works such as Bellini’s opera, Norma.
Your parents were professional singers. Was it inevitable that you would also sing, or did you have any other ambitions as a child?
I grew up with music, as my parents sang with the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. The first opera I ever saw was Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida and I was four years old: there was a summer festival in Rome, held in the Caracalla, the old thermal baths, and it was the first time that The Three Tenors [Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras] had ever sung all together, and with the setting, the beautiful scenery, the singing and the dancing, it was incredible. However, when I was around 13 or 14 years old, I developed a passion for flamenco dancing. So I went to study classical music at the Santa Cecilia conservatory of music in Rome and at the same time I was in a semi-professional flamenco group, but I soon realised that I was much more talented at singing than dancing. For me, music is in my genes. It was inevitable that I would sing.
Can you remember your first performance as an eight year old?
Of course! I sung the part of the shepherd in Puccini’s Tosca. It’s a beautiful role for a young boy or girl and I remember it so well. I didn’t feel nervous like I do now before a performance, as I didn’t realise the responsibility of the role. It was just something fun, like playing.
Cecilia Bartoli performing in Bellini’s Norma at the Salzburg Whitsun Festival
Do you have a favourite opera?
I have sung music from most centuries and in every century you have a genius. There’s Monteverdi, Bach, Handel, Mozart, Bellini – it’s difficult to choose just one composer or opera. However, lately, I have been immersed in Bellini’s Norma. It’s the first time I have played the role [Bartoli performed Norma at the 2013 Salzburg Whitsun Festival] and I would love to sing it again. Bellini was born in 1801, and in recent years his music has been performed using modern instruments, which makes a piece sound quite different to what it did at the time. What we have done in Salzburg, and with the recording, is to use period instruments. It’s like discovering his music again: you can play so many nuances with them that we are not used to. It’s a new vision of the role. So, today, Norma is one of my favourite operas – but ask me in a week and it might change!
What are you working on now?
I’m planning for the next Salzburg Whitsun Festival, to be held in June 2014. The theme is Rossini, including tragic operas such as Otello and La Cenerentola [Cinderella]. Otello has never been performed in Salzburg and La Cenerentola was performed maybe 15 or 20 years ago. We will also feature the lesser-known music of Rossini and give the audience a real voyage into his works. There will be a gala featuring the greatest singers of both today and the past – José Carreras, Montserrat Caballé, Agnes Baltsa, Teresa Berganza. It will be wonderful. And at the end, we will throw a dinner with a fantastic chef. Rossini loved to compose music, but he also loved food.
If someone is new to opera, what would you say to encourage them to go?
People need to dream in life, and music is about feeling emotion. At the theatre and the opera, you go to listen to the music, and if you see a good performer you can understand the story without understanding the words. With that fusion between music and story, you can dream and lose yourself, even in a space filled with a thousand people. And even with an opera like La Traviata, where you know what is going on, the power of the music makes you cry every time – it’s extraordinary. You share the experience with other people, and there’s a kind of equality about it. It’s incredibly moving.
With that fusion between music and story, you can dream and lose yourself
You have sung all over the world. Is there one particular city or country in which you like to perform the most?
In general, I love to perform in front of an audience that loves to listen. It doesn’t matter where. Saying that, some concert halls are truly beautiful. Lucerne, in Switzerland, has a stunning concert hall with magnificent acoustics. Then there’s Vienna, where the Musikverein is one of the greatest halls in the world – it’s a magical place.
How do you look after your voice?
The most dangerous enemy for the voice is air conditioning. It’s awful for the throat. When I’m on a plane for eight or nine hours, I have to be careful. Usually, I protect my throat with a scarf and try to avoid air conditioning.
Do you do anything in particular to prepare for a big performance?
For my voice to sound beautiful and rested, I have a day of silence before a big performance. Before that, I train like an athlete. For a stage production, we have a month of rehearsals, practising, practising, practising. Then it’s good to have a day or two of rest before the premiere. As an Italian, it’s almost impossible, but I will try to speak as little as possible!
You have performed worldwide, won countless awards and been honoured with an Italian knighthood. What else would you like to achieve?
My goal is always to work with musicians who can open my mind and teach me. I am still learning and enjoy working with talented people. I recently did a concert with Daniel Barenboim, a fantastic pianist and conductor. I first worked with him when I was very young. My dream is to collaborate with people who can give me a chance to listen to and interpret the music of a composer differently.
How do you like to relax?
I have to be outside in nature. As a musician I am always inside, rehearsing, singing, performing. To be outside by the sea or in the mountains, to walk in the fresh air, is wonderful. I love to have my holidays by the sea.
You grew up in Rome, but now live mainly in Switzerland. What do you like best about living there?
Switzerland is where my love, my husband, is. It’s where we met. And, of course, there are mountains. Rome, where I grew up, is the most wonderful city, but it doesn’t have mountains, snow or the greenery of the country. Switzerland really is beautiful and peaceful.
What do you pack when you travel?
I always take books about musicians or composers. I also carry blackcurrant bonbons with me. They are important to have before singing, or when I feel something in my throat. If I have them with me I feel protected.
What is your favourite holiday memory?
My favourite memories involve my family. My parents came from the north of Italy and my grandmother lived in a beautiful house near Parma, where she grew all sorts of vegetables. She made the most delicious minestrone with great big beans and I would watch as she cooked it and told me stories. When I began my career, at around 19 years old, I started travelling a lot. Once, I took my grandmother to America – it was the only time she had ever been on an aeroplane. It was amazing for her to see me sing, and she was so happy and proud.
Cecilia Bartoli performing Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia at the Royal Opera House, London
If you had a day off and could do anything, where would you go?
I would start in Rome as I am a Roman and there are definitely good cappuccinos there. I would sit near Piazza Navona or Piazza del Popolo and watch the world go by. Then I would have lunch in Paris before going to Corsica for a swim, ending my day in New York, where I would see a show on Broadway or an opera at the Metropolitan.
Where do you choose to go on holiday?
I love to go to Sardinia, it’s one of my favourite islands, Corsica also. The Mediterranean Sea is magical.
Do you have a favourite Mandarin Oriental hotel?
I have just been to Barcelona, a city I love very much, where I stayed at Mandarin Oriental. It’s a fantastic hotel, so beautiful. I like the design, its position on the Passeig de Gràcia, and I love all the food.
Are there any Mandarin Oriental hotels on your must-visit list?
I have heard that there will be a Mandarin Oriental in Marrakech. I have never been to Marrakech and would love to go.
What do you like most about Mandarin Oriental hotels?
As a musician, when I’m travelling I need to stay in a peaceful place where I can rest before a performance. Of course, the luxury of Mandarin Oriental is fabulous, but for me the atmosphere is most important. To feel at home when you are not at home is a wonderful thing.