Q & A: Mezzo-Soprano Annalisa Stroppa on ‘Norma’ & Returning to Live Performances at the Teatro RealBy Francisco Salazar
(Credit: Silvia Lelli)
The Teatro Real de Madrid is one of the few theaters in the world that is currently performing for live audiences.
The company has worked with performers and audiences to ensure the safety of everyone and still be able to bring culture in a socially distanced fashion.
Annalisa Stroppa is one of the performers who is currently singing in a production of “Norma” and who praises the Teatro Real for finding a way to continue live music. The mezzo-soprano is currently singing her tenth production of “Norma” and performing for a live audience for the first time in a year.
OperaWire had a chance to speak with Stroppa about quarantine, “Norma,” livestreams, and returning to the stage after a year.
OperaWire: These will be your first performances since singing at the Donizetti Opera Festival. How do you feel returning to the stage?
Annalisa Stroppa: I am very happy! I had hoped this production would not be canceled like the others and after a long wait, here I am. To take the stage and experience live music together with an audience even if it is reduced means a lot to me. I missed this sensation so much throughout the past year and now I see things through a new lens. Certainly what came before, albeit in a special way, was part of what we called normal and routine, today we see it in a very different way. I learned that plans can easily be destroyed from one moment to the next and everything beautiful that arrives in our life is more valuable and appreciated and we should live life to the fullest.
I am profoundly grateful and have admiration for the Teatro Real, who with all the security measures, periodic tests, and health regulations, has decided to allow artists, staff, and audiences the ability to dream through the power of music.
I can’t wait for the situation to get better and that theaters around the world can reopen to the public because music should be shared. We don’t only need physical assistance, but also to take care of our soul and for this, we need each other, we need to get excited and excite others.
OW: At the Donizetti Opera you sang without an audience. How was that experience and what did you learn about yourself doing that performance?
AS: I lived my debut with the Donizetti Opera immersed in a mix of emotions. I was singing “Belisario,” an extraordinary opera by Gaetano Donizetti, in which I was interpreting the gorgeous role of Irene with Maestro Riccardo Frizza conducting.
I was in Bergamo, one of the worst-hit cities of the pandemic, but the theater’s doors were open and music was being played. It was a small miracle and a sign of light. A sign of rebirth through music.
The opera was performed in a concert form with the chorus, orchestra, and soloists socially distanced. Who would have imagined having to experience all this!
Singing for cameras for a streamed performance in an empty theater was strange, alienating, and cold but at the same time intense because we shared it with other colleagues and musicians. I knew that on the other side there was an audience that wanted to be in the theater and I sang for them! I missed their warmth and breathing that atmosphere that is unique, magical, and special every time, typical of a live performance!
Therefore I understood that, in this particular and unusual context, I had to do the best to transmit all that I had inside through an introspective and researched journey, clinging to the emotions and tensions of the other characters and emphasizing them to give life to my Irene.
At the end of the opera, there was silence, no applause, no noise, nothing. We were waiting for something that never arrived. That silence contained a lot. It contained an immense value. It reminded us of the value of sharing.
The theater is an allegory for our society with its complex harmonies and it is more evident now than ever, especially with the uncertain experience of confinement. The theater is a small universe in which everyone is extremely connected and necessary.
Alone we are nothing, we need each other, in the theater and in our general lives. In the midst of adversity, we can reinvent ourselves and go ahead. We need to recover the beauty, the extraordinary normalcy that we never appreciated before and we need to share the beauty that only culture and art can infuse in us, feed us and make us better. Empty theaters should remind you that magic is created when we do things together!
OW: Tell me about the rehearsal process in Madrid. What kind of measures are they using to avoid singers from getting sick? What kinds of things are you doing once you leave the theater?
AS: The theater has implemented strict control measures, starting with the artists’ entrance: we must take temperature checks, use antibacterial, and we must change our masks to certified masks with the correct filtration which the theater is making available.
During rehearsals, all the artists and theater staff must wear a mask. Obviously, it is not easy singing with a mask but as they say, one must make a virtue of necessity.
In addition, periodic molecular control tests are carried out within a few days of each other. Hats off to the Teatro Real for its great attention and for all the care and respect it has had for us. A wonderful message that if there is a will to carry out the season, it can be done safely.
It’s an immense commitment from everyone and also a huge responsibility.
I will let you imagine my life outside the theater after rehearsals. I have no social life! I try to avoid crowded places like stores and restaurants, I even have the groceries delivered to my home. Yes, I will admit that I exaggerate but I have a strong desire to sing this production and I don’t want to run the risk of ruining everything. I try to be alert not only for myself but out of respect for the work and the commitment of others.
In a city like Madrid, which is beautiful and rich with wonders, I also admit that it is really difficult to stay closed off in a residence or go on a solitary walk, without taking advantage of all the attractions that this splendid city offers. I miss sharing time with colleagues and friends, but the joy of making music pays off all these sacrifices.
Let’s hope that better times come so we can enjoy everything else.
OW: Seeing that Madrid has been performing regularly, what do you take away from it and what does it say about the industry as a whole? Do you think other countries can take something away from Spain in order to open theaters as soon as possible?
AS: The message Spain is sending is strong and clear. The theater is a secure place! Culture is fundamental to society and vital and all other countries should look at the work that is being done here.
Other than the artistic aspect and the rich value it brings to humanity, the theater is enlivened by so many families who live and survive off this work. Therefore, there are many reasons why our theaters must open as soon as possible. I can see the smiles inside the masks of the people involved in the production. Their eyes are full of pride, passion, and satisfaction.
What a joy it is to see the theater alive with an orchestra, chorus, actors, extras, technical staff, seamstresses, makeup artists, and conductors on stage! It’s extraordinary!
The theater is a mirror of our lives. It is from Music, from Art to Culture that humanity must restart because “man does not live by bread alone!”
OW: Adalgisa is a character that you have performed multiple times. How has the character grown for you and what have you discovered about her over the years?
AS: My life’s experiences help me to better understand some facets of the characters I interpret. In every character, I always put a part of me, a part of Annalisa. The opposite would be impossible. As a matter of fact, you don’t only sing with your voice but with your heart, your body, and with all the emotions you convey. Every time I go on stage I try to immerse myself fully in the character I play in order to fully share the emotions.
Therefore, I am sure that the role of Adalgisa is part of who I am, in what I have lived personally, in the baggage I bring, my experiences, and the emotions I have lived.
I have interpreted this beautiful role many times and this will be my 10th production. Every time has been different, not only because in every production the conductor changes and the director changes but because I have evolved and my voice has grown with me.
OW: Tell me about this production and what do you think it adds to the character?
AS: My Adalgisa at the Teatro Real is going on stage at a very particular moment as the production takes place at the end of a very sad period, which has deeply affected us, due to the pandemic that no one would ever have imagined living through. Therefore, for me to return to sing in a real production is extremely special.
On stage, I will bring all my positive and negative emotions, all the joy and suffering, all the fragility and pain that we have lived through in this terrible year. All this will probably be part of the emotions and expressions in my character and it will be expressed through my voice. There will also be a desire for rebirth. My Adalgisa will be filled with a palette of numerous colors and shades that will be expressed in every note and every gesture.
In this production, created by Justin Way, the music is married completely to the action on stage. During rehearsals, very careful work was done with both the stage director and conductor Marco Armiliato, based on the importance of the text. The aim was to work on the “Bellini declamation” which in itself is an art.
Bellini is an artist who allows the text to become a pure sound, through phrasing, legato lines, and vocal writing.
OW: Adalgisa is tied to Norma in this work. There are two duets and a trio that you sing with her. Tell me about singing with Hibla Gerzmava and how do you think it is helping you in finding new colors in your Adalgisa? Tell me about singing these duets and how you keep each other’s voices together?
AS: I think the Norma-Adalgisa relationship is important because they mirror each other. A big fragility connects them but also great inner strength and great complicity and this is particularly evident in the cadenzas in which the two voices blend to become one.
Bellini’s extraordinary artistic sensibility, filled with lyricism and great melodic lines, leads the public to a dreamlike world that is dominated by universal emotions.
It’s the first time that I share the stage with Hibla Gerzmava and I must say that we immediately got along. Our voice timbres blend well and we have similar musical sensibilities that you can see in the great cadenzas
It is not only an artistic pleasure but a human one.
OW: Since your first Adalgisa, what do you think are the biggest challenges of the role, and have you found that those challenges have changed as you sing it?
AS: I rediscovered a less fragile Adalgisa and found a woman with more strength and will to react. I have found her more determined and strong in the second act. She finds a way to rise up after the trio with more determination and vigor.
OW: What are your favorite moments in this character’s music?
AS: Without a doubt, the second act when Adalgisa visits Norma and gives her strength convinces her and reassures her through the innocence and purity of her children. The lines “Mira, o Norma, a’ tuoi ginocchi. Questi cari pargoletti! Ah! Pietade di lor ti tocchi, Se non hai di te pietà!” I find it to be a moment of strength but also tenderness and it is a moment of sublime magnificence through Bellini’s beautiful music.
OW: What is one thing you learned from not being in touch with your audience for so many months?
AS: I now have proof of what I have always thought, but that sometimes, within an extremely rapid working schedule, we risk losing sight, namely that music is never a display of oneself or of one’s qualities: When you make music, the word “I” is eliminated and replaced by “We.” Music must be experienced with others, it must be shared.
To know that the audience is in the hall and that they can feel the emotions that I transmit is priceless. I feel I am a humble instrument at the service of something eternal, bigger than me, which was given to us precisely so that it can be lived and handed down in the best possible way, with great respect and humility.
Masks and social distancing will not impede us from feeling embraced by music and from its extraordinary power. It is our refuge, our ideal, and a timeless place in which we meet and at the same time find ourselves. We Singers and musicians are instruments that bestow the beauty and emotions that only music can give us!