Diva Cecilia Bartoli

November 9, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: At age 32, Cecilia Bartoli is the most celebrated mezzo-soprano in the opera world. She has said that music is in her blood. Born in Rome, she’s the daughter of two singers, a tenor and soprano.

Her mother, Silvana, who was in the Rome opera chorus, has served as voice coach since her daughter first gave up a childhood desire to be a flamenco dancer and started singing. Her voice is famously expressively, as are her eyes and face. As a performer, Bartoli is one of the biggest draws in the opera world, and she’s second only to Luciano Pavarotti in classical CD sales.

She favors concert songs from the 18th century or earlier, such as this one by Antonio Vivaldi, performed last June at the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, Italy. The full performance will air on PBS next month. To date, Bartoli’s opera repertoire has been fairly limited. She has sung mostly Rossini, Mozart, and Haydn, but no Verdi, Wagner, or Bizet yet. Here she is in 1996 at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” – “Cinderella.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I spoke with Cecilia Bartoli when she was in Washington last week.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you very much for being with us.

CECILIA BARTOLI, opera singer: Thank you.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What was the biggest challenge for you in that aria?

CECILIA BARTOLI: This is a very – it’s a very incredible moment. It’s the moment when I realize I will become a princess so it’s – and it’s amazing for me. From my situation as a servant to become a princess, it’s a dream; it’s a dream come true, and with this music, with this Rossini, it’s unbelievable how to express the joy and express the joy of the situation and the joy to play this music, to sing this music, it’s really fantastic.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Was it terribly difficult? It looks and sounds – although you do it so beautifully and with such humor and good spirit – it must be very difficult.

CECILIA BARTOLI: Oh, yes. It’s very difficult, because also at the end of the opera, so I have to try to keep energy, the energy and the freshness of the voice until the end, so – it’s really a big lesson that Rossini wanted to give to every singer, to every mezzo, yes.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Many reviewers commented on how much of a comedienne you were in this performance, how funny you were. One reviewer even compared you to the famous American comedienne, Lucille Ball. Is this something you were just born with, or have you tried to develop the comedic aspects of your performance?

CECILIA BARTOLI: Well, I think, first of all, you need to love what you’re doing, and then this helps in the comedian for its part in everything – but the moment you enjoy what you’re doing, you try to express yourself, to find your way, and every time is different, of course, and the – you have different directors and as a singer you have to be an actress too. It’s a fusion – make singers interesting, or this makes an artist actually, the fusion between music and comedienne is together.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Take this aria, for example. Who helps you prepare it? Is this something, for example, that you would work at home with your mother on?

CECILIA BARTOLI: Oh, yes, oh, yes. This takes you a lot of time to learn – I mean, to learn the entire role, and, of course, this aria, this particular rondo of Rossini – I mean, it’s – and you have to practice to make this a – not just perfect as a musical point of view but just technical, I mean, but you have to express what you feel, and these are some of the difficulties, to free – to be free to singing and to express – this is hard.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And would your mother help you? Do you still work closely when you have a piece like this with your mother? I know she –


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: — spent a lot of time over the years.

CECILIA BARTOLI: A lot of time, absolutely. And I was – started to work with her, I was 16 years old. I was asked to take my first lesson with her, and I went to the Conservatory of Music in school in Rome, and of course to work with her was working every day, was a very solid work. It’s like when you want to make a house, and you have to put every stone so it really – the technique is very important. That’s why I think I was working with her every day to try to make as much solid possible, and then – because the moment you know how to walk — let’s see because this is like walking – then you can do whatever you want with your voice.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I heard that you would spend weeks on one note.


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us what you were looking for, what you were trying for.

CECILIA BARTOLI: Weeks on one note just to try to find the sound, the support with the diaphragm and a sound like – let’s see – it’s a very simple note like – (singing note) – just to have the impression that this comes naturally is just one way from the diaphragm I mean, until up to the throat and then outside. So it’s just – and then you have to do this with every note, and then you – of course, the moment you start with every note being built – this famous house – and then you can play – you can put every furniture you want in the house. And this is a little bit like with the voice. And then you can play. You can play anything.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Where do you think your voice comes from? Pavarotti once said that his vocal chords were kissed by God. Is that the way you feel about yours?

CECILIA BARTOLI: Well, I think at least God said hello to me. (laughing) I don’t want – to say something like this, but I think yes. I was lucky, lucky to have the voice but also lucky to have this energy to really want – to do this in a very important thing in my life, and so I like to make music, and I like to share music. This is also a gift.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is development and protection of the voice an important part of your – of – in considering what to sing? For example, I’ve read that if a singer – somebody like you – tries to do something too soon, a role can actually destroy the voice. Is that true?

CECILIA BARTOLI: Well, I don’t think a specific role can destroy your voice. What can destroy your voice is when you don’t have a – what to do – because you can make an error. Everybody can make an error. But then you need to realize what is your way and what is your repertoire. And this is the secret – the repertoire. You have to try to consolidate your repertoire. And it’s -you are – it is a big step if you know how to do that, yes.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So how do you choose your repertoire as reviewers sometimes say that it’s rather narrow, that you’ve stayed with a fairly narrow group of mostly 18th century composers.


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why? Tell me what you like about them.

CECILIA BARTOLI: What I like about them – the first thing is that it’s very special historic time, and it – there was a lot of change made in 18th century that also – in an historic point of view, but I think would make it so interesting at that time was this wonderful – you have great composers like Mozart, like Haydn, and then a wonderful text – wonderful librettos by Metastazio, by Petrarcha, by Galdoni, and this fusion between music and voice is – and text – I’m sorry – is unbelievable for a singer to have this incredible musician and poet – I mean, poetry together and sing that – that’s very special for me.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So the consideration is what you love and what you want to sing and not so much protecting your voice. You’re not worried about at this point – about hurting your voice – choosing the wrong pieces or going somewhere that would be harmful to it?

CECILIA BARTOLI: Well, what I tried to do is to just listen to my voice because my voice is my boss. She decides. I mean, sometimes I can have a desire to do this and that, but my voice – it likes to go straight. I can do this. I will do this with you, but I have to listen to the voice. It is a team of —

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And do you think it’ll take you in new places? I mean, do you want to sing Verdi or Wagner or some of the other composers that you haven’t sung yet? Do you think you will in the future?

CECILIA BARTOLI: No. That’s why I think, for instance, Verdi does most of the – verismo – is not for my voice. I realize you cannot do everything. And I realize that this is not for me, but not only for my voice, it’s also for my personality. I feel my soul is more close to 18th century, 17th century music. That doesn’t mean that I don’t like Verdi. I like to go to the opera and listen to the Verdi operas. I think Verdi is one of the great composers of our time, but to listen as part of the audience.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You mentioned your soul. When you perform, what are you trying to do with those songs? What do you want to do? Is it some expression from inside that you’re trying to get out?

CECILIA BARTOLI: Well, for instance, with music like this song by Caccini, then it’s so beautiful – the text is so simple, but this goes straight to your heart. I mean, when you are accompanied by the instrument – on an instrument like the lute – the lute and voice – you have this sound and you feel how the music can be so touching and yet so simple, and this, I think – it’s just to be touching by simple things. I think it’s more touching than anything.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And finally, how hard is it to be a diva? Here you are, you know, one of the most popular musicians in the world right now. And everybody’s watching you. Is it terribly difficult? Many people write about the pressures on somebody like you.

CECILIA BARTOLI: Well, it’s difficult because there is a lot of responsibility, responsibility – first responsibility I have is in terms of a composer – like we were talking Caccini or Mozart or Haydn, and this is the big responsibility – how to try to – how to sing this music and how to not only to sing – to try to sing in your way of course to respect also the music of Mozart but how to do it and in front of an audience, so – and a sort of vehicle, and it’s in-between.


CECILIA BARTOLI: A vehicle. And to do this is a responsibility. And – but I try to, yes, to keep to do it, because this is what I feel I’m born to.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Cecilia Bartoli, thank you very much for being with us.


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: On December 28th, PBS will air the full performance of “Cinderella” at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.