I was in a cynical and grumpy mood. It was a wet and windy Wednesday evening, I had spent my day at work and then become lost and stuck in Sydney’s endless roadworks and lack of parking. I had blisters on my feet and I was running late. I had taken a free ticket to see the powerhouse Spanish soprano Ainhoa Arteta in a public interview with Victor Ugarte at the Institutio Cervantes, Sydney’s main Spanish language learning centre.
While I was curious to see and hear Arteta up close, I felt so much more mundane than I had the previous Friday, when I had zipped my Golf into SOH’s ample underground parking space and strutted up the stairs in my heels to see Arteta star in John Bell and Christian Badea’s wonderfully dark production of Tosca for Opera Australia. That evening, what is probably my favourite opera had swept me away on a tide of emotional intensity, and the glittering lights on the harbour and the fancy champagne had seemed almost magical.
This famously ‘Nazi-fied’ production premiered in 2013 and has returned to the Joan Sutherland theatre stage from February 17 to the end of March this year. The production is set in World War Two-era Rome, during the Nazi occupation. It has been widely reviewed, for example here , here and here, and I saw it slightly too late in the run (March 3) to give it a proper review. I will say that it is very powerful and highly recommended, even for its sets and direction alone. I am in no way wanting to denigrate the talented local singers who are taking the stage for the second half of the run; I have heard most of them in other roles and they are extremely fine singers. But in this revival, the biggest drawcard—for the first half of the run, anyway—has been the famous main cast: Italian baritone Lucio Gallo as a fantastically sinister, mustachioed SS-commandant Scarpia, Romanian spinto tenor Teodor Ilincǎi as a brave, vulnerable, romantic Cavaradossi, and Arteta as a whirlwind of emotion in the title role.
Arteta seems almost uncannily well-suited to the role of the opera singer Floria Tosca. Her on-stage characterisation is remarkably similar to her own celebrity-interview persona: beautiful, emotional, sexy, driven to sing, and loving (she cuddled a fan’s toddler happily after the interview). In interview, she speaks perpetually in invisible quotation marks: little pearls of charmingly Spanish-accented wisdom fall from her lips, learned from a life lived large in the company of musical giants. For example, regarding her similarity with Tosca and her ability to dramatise the role with great emotional truth: “Whatever emotion comes from the deepest of my soul, I keep singing it…. Music is the way I have to explain everything that goes through my emotions.” Later, talking about that glorious, heartfelt “Vissi d’arte”: “For me, standing there and just singing is not enough, I need to feel the role I am playing… In that moment, I am Floria Tosca.”
Perched on a chair, looking glamorous in a suitably Spanish red and black ensemble, Arteta spoke first about her early life in a musical family, saying that where she was born in Basque country, music was a very big part of the local culture, especially singing. “We are not very much talking people, but we always sing,” she explained. How different, I thought, from my own upbringing in regional, coastal Australia. The only time we Aussies tend to sing in public as a rule (apart from the odd forced bleating of the National Anthem at school assemblies) is at the footy, with our tone-deaf but enthusiastic chanting. I wondered how many of the mostly Spanish-speaking audience identified with Arteta’s culturally ingrained need for expression through song, in a way that those born in Australia will perhaps never understand.
Arteta described how her earliest attraction to opera came from listening to a recording of Maria Callas singing Carmen, a mezzo role that is rarely sung by sopranos (but then Callas was renowned for bending rules). Callas’s remarkable emotionality and vocal expressiveness, along with the Spanish setting and Carmen’s gypsy allure, combined to captivate the six-year old Ainhoa. She recalled how her father, a conductor, spied her dancing and singing in her room to Carmen – singing in self-taught French, no less. He created a children’s choir in the local town to give her an opportunity to learn and mix with other little singers.
With a family that was cash-strapped but very supportive of her aspirations, Ainhoa moved to Italy at 18 with no Italian and almost no money, in order to learn from Ettore Campogalliani, renowned as the teacher of Freni, Pavarotti, Tebaldi and other great singers. She later moved to New York, where she refined her excellent verismo acting skills at the Actors’ Studio. She remained based in New York for the next 17 years, gradually establishing her career during the early 1990s as a rising star soprano, and debuting at the Met in 1994 as Mimì in La Bohème. Later she built a reputation as a specialist in the role of Musetta in Bohème. While she was initially affronted by Management’s suggestion that she sing this smaller role, she came to embrace it, using her natural flamboyance to great effect for this much more outgoing character (Ugarte showed us all a Blu-Ray clip of her fabulous performance).
Sadly, though, vocal problems caused by ‘over-singing’ and perhaps personal pressures surrounding her divorce in the early 2000s forced her to take time away from the stage. She rebuilt her technique with the well-known teacher Ruth Falcon, who when Arteta called her, stated that she (Falcon) had been following her career and expecting her call for help for a decade. Today, Arteta tells people that she makes sure she always “has one extra gear”, or in other words, has more to give vocally than a role really needs, so that she never over-strains herself again.
In speaking about singers she has admired and worked with, Arteta reserved her greatest praise for her friend and close colleague Plácido Domingo’s artistry, kind personality and unflappable professionalism (“He’s not human… It’s gonna be a before and an after Plácido Domingo”) and for Pavarotti’s incredible technique: “Most singers, when they sing it’s like it’s in stereo. But when Luciano was singing, it was like Dolby Surround! … I don’t know if you ever heard Luciano sing live…” (some of the audience proudly murmured their assent)… “The first time I heard him, I had to walk away from the theatre. I didn’t know if it was a microphone or if there was something wrong with me.”
I had a similar experience in the Joan Sutherland theatre; Ainhoa Arteta’s powerful sound and sensitive interpretation, and that of her co-star Teodor Ilincǎi with his robust, soaring high notes never failed to satisfy, even though Ilincǎi is not quite a Pavarotti (at least, not yet). This was the first time I had heard Ilincǎi sing live, and his recent elevation to the Romanian knighthood seems well-deserved, despite his youth – he is still only in his early thirties but has a fine voice and a very well-established international career. When I mentioned him to her, Arteta revealed that this was his first Tosca with her, and she seemed very pleased with her young co-star. While we did not speak about Lucio Gallo, I don’t think she could possibly have found fault with his dark, confident, rich-voiced and expressive interpretation of Scarpia: he was positively terrifying.
At the end of Arteta’s interview with Ugarte, there was a Q & A session with the audience. I asked the star soprano if she had any advice for the young Australian singers I work with. After a moment’s reflection, she answered me:
“This career is made up of more no’s than yes’s. Remember that there are many stages in the world, but you only have one voice.”
As my feet were still hurting from the blisters I was still somewhat in a cynical mood. At first, it struck me that her answer may reveal something about the differences between the opportunities available to aspiring opera singers growing up in Europe as she did, and those living in Sydney. As she admitted, Sydney is “wonderful, but it’s so damn far, you guys,” and while it is abounding with excellent young singers, undoubtedly it has fewer professional stages where they can get their voices heard. There is also less of an option for them to be picky about the roles they accept, when taking an exciting opportunity can sometimes mean risking a young singer’s voice.
But then it occurred to me as I walked back to my car (and brightened when I found that I had not received a parking ticket) that if the young Ainhoa Arteta could move halfway around the world to New York with no money to speak of and without knowing English, and work her way up through waiting tables and training as an actor, to singing Mimì and Violetta at the Met and Tosca at the Sydney Opera House… then perhaps some of my friends and colleagues could do something like that too. And if they follow her advice to say “more no’s than yes’s”, perhaps they can reap the benefits not only of career establishment, but also career longevity. Perhaps they too, can “live for art”.