Q & A: Mezzo-Soprano Fiorenza Badila Costantini on Creating a New Type of Masterclass Featuring Frederica von Stade

By Chris Ruel

OperUS, a young artist community created by and for young artists, will hold its first Growth Environment for Singers, or GEFS for short, beginning Sept. 6, 2021, in Montepulciano, Italy. The organization, founded by mezzo-soprano Fiorenza Badila Costantini and soprano Alessandra Torrani establishes a space for young singers to connect and promote and celebrate their work, regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation.

The group sponsors concerts and training courses on its website. Still, its September GEFS will be the organization’s first hybrid event, bringing singers and coaches from all over the world, both in-person or virtually, to Teatrino di San Biagio, in the Tuscan countryside. Participants will learn from the legendary Frederica von Stade and other guest stars as they deep dive into the repertoire of Handel and Mozart.

OperUS’ GEFS is not a typical masterclass. The Environment blends high-level training with a unique experience in one of Italy’s most stunning regions. Not only will participants hone their technique but also gain advice on how to write and design their resumes, have questions answered by industry insiders, and foster a sense of community, not competition. As Costantini Badila told me in our interview, opera is a team sport in which artists need to support one another. She also believes that networking is the key to success in a highly competitive field, a lesson she herself has learned. Von Stade and Badila Costantini met through networking, grew to become friends, before being brought on board the project.

At the GEFS, all attendees will receive daily coachings and personal mentorships, Italian, German & English language classes held by mother-tongue professionals, career strategy workshops, role preparation class, streamed recitals, personal audition package preparation, anatomy and physiology of the singing voice, and fitness & breathing for singers.

In an exciting announcement sent to me a few days after my conversation with Badila Costantini, La Fondazione Cantiere Internazionale d’Arte and L’Istituto di Musica “Hans Werner Henze” of Montepulciano confirmed they will let OperUS record the HD videos in Teatro Poliziano Montepulciano and will select several of the participants from our Growth Environment to offer actual career opportunities for next season. Things are definitely moving along as Badila Costantini and her team work towards their early September session.

For this OperaWire interview, I spoke with Badila Costantini about the program which has gained support from major artists.

OperaWire: As a young artist, you saw a need for a different type of masterclass. Why is that?

Fiorenza Badila Costantini: Now that the business is opening again, young people see little opportunity, at least here in Europe and especially in Italy, because the theaters are going through a very difficult time. That’s not blaming anyone. There’s a need for hope and positivity, and all of us have worried about there not being a future. But opera survives and has survived for hundreds of years.

Because opera is an extremely competitive profession, OperUS aims to create a supportive and relaxed environment. We don’t want any competition or tension, and that’s why we call what we’ll be doing in September a Growth Environment for Singers (GEFS) and not just a masterclass. We want to provide young artists with the experience of growing together with the highest-level training possible.

OW: What is the Connection between OperUS and the International Mozart Academy?

FBC: My mother, Antonella Badila Costantini, is a pianist and expert in Mozartean repertoire. She and Dr. Silvia Dragoni, a medical doctor and a mezzo-soprano, founded the Academy during the pandemic to study and explain the Mozartean style and repertoire.

In Italy, there is such a focus on Bel Canto that we wanted to bring the Mozartean style and vibe into Italy, and that’s why we created the association between the IMA and OperUS.

OW: OperUS has several guest stars taking part in the Growth Environment as coaches. Who will the young artists be working with?

FBC: We have the great Frederica von Stade; Sonia Prina, an alto, who, in terms of baroque, is one of the best; and Vesselina Kasarova, a mezzo-soprano who has sung Sesto in Salzburg and many other mezzo roles by Mozart all over the world. And though Vesselina can’t be with us in person, she’ll coach online and spend as much time as she can with the young artists.

OW: How did you capture Frederica von Stade’s interest in OperUS and the Growth Environment?

I spoke with Frederica in Barcelona before COVID, and I worked with her for a bit in person as we prepared my Cherubino. We had such fun working together that we stayed in contact—I kept her updated about my auditions and different things, and then I shared with her the idea about the project.

She was very happy to hear about what we wanted to do. Frederica is a great artist, a great human being, and a very positive person who puts her heart into everything—even when just writing you an email. She wants to help young people and is generous with her advice, so it was a great honor when she decided to be with us.

We hope Frederica will join us in person, but she will probably coach virtually since she lives in the United States.

OW: Tell me about the other coaches the GEFS will have on hand.

We’ll have Sarah Poole, a British soprano, and Herbert Meider, a German baritone. We chose these two coaches because we wanted a German expert for the Mozart repertoire, and for Handel, we wanted a British singer.

They’ll work with the students on the sounds and phonetics of the rep, which is really important. As an Italian, when I have to sing in German or English, I want to find the right sound, and when you sing as a professional, you have to be as close to the original sound as possible.

OW: Will all the participants work with the guest stars one-on-one? Who decides who works with whom?

Our coaches will choose who works with which star, and we want everyone to work with at least one. We would love to have participants work with two guest stars. That’s something we’re going to schedule once we have all the applications.

The coaches will hear the singers and think about repertoire. Someone may sound like a good Handelian or baroque singer, and perhaps that’s where they sound their best. So, for that person, working with Sonia Prina could be the right fit. If you’re a pure Mozartean, maybe you should work with Frederica. They will also consider the personality of the young artist. They will observe the singer, their temperament, their vocal features and decide based on those things.

OW: What about those who want to attend but can’t be there in person?

The GEFS will be both live and virtual. Nowadays, you have to think about the online experience. Some can’t travel, and it’s important that they have this opportunity, as well. A young singer can’t afford to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days before a masterclass.

To help with affordability, we’re offering scholarships. We have really talented people applying, and not everyone can afford to study opera; I know this myself.

OW: Who will review the applications, and what qualities are the selection committee most interested in seeing in a candidate?

The application comes to us, and we send it to the coaches, Sarah Poole, Herbert Meider, and my mother since IMA is handling the applications. They created the coaching system, and we invited the guests.

From what I noticed so far is that the coaches look for the joy of singing. When I saw them select a few people already, the applicants were not thinking about singing; they were just enjoying what they were doing. This really impressed the committee because a singer can work on technique and improve the sound; that’s why the coaches are there. So, to apply, a good level of technique isn’t required. If you’re 18, and you just started, and you have enthusiasm and love what you’re doing and want to say something, apply.

OW: Tell me a bit about the repertoire.

The application has a repertoire list, and applicants have to choose five arias from that list, which we built together with the coaches.

We did something with the rep, which is really weird; we put soprano and sopranista together, and then we put mezzo-soprano and contraltista together because this way, it’s genderless. It’s about the music and the voice and the sound.

This follows our philosophy of being welcoming. You can identify yourself however you want, but we’re only considering the sound of the voice during the masterclass.

If you sing Dorabella, maybe it’s better if you’re a mezzo, but this is up to the person; we want to keep it very flexible as it was in the time of Mozart. The first Cherubino was the first Despina, but today you need two completely different voices, but that’s how Mozart did it.

Ultimately, we want people to sing the right rep for their sound. Labels are important for understand each other, but in the end, everyone is a unique artist—I’m a mezzo, but I’m me, Fiorenza, and it’s me singing.

The same goes for age. While the age limit is 35, we don’t want that to stop someone from applying. It can be so frustrating; you can’t apply for this competition because you’re 31 and the age limit is 30. If you’re too young, they tell you, you’re too young. If you’re too old, they tell you you’re too old.

Maybe someone just needs more time. Maybe some voices will develop at 40, maybe at 50—it’s about the person. I know a singer who is 34, and their voice just opened and is fully developed, but they can’t apply for a competition, which is so pointless. Again, we want it to be open—genderless and not concerned about age if a more mature singer can provide, in a written letter, an explanation for wanting to attend.

OW: This GEFS focuses on Mozart and Händel. What other composers would OperUS like to explore?

FBC: We believe Mozart and Händel are the foundations of vocal training. If you can sing Mozart and Händel, you can sing anything. Add Rossini, and then you really can sing anything! So, we think we may do a Mozart and Rossini masterclass, but Mozart will always be part of the program. That’s the purpose of having the International Mozart Academy as a partner.

OW: What are some of the career-building activities you have planned?

FBC: Dr. Dragoni will provide scientific information about the voice, how it all works, and keep it healthy. It’s like opening a piano and seeing what happens when you play it.

Adam Cavagnaro, President & Founder of Promethean Artists Management, will be in Montepulciano to answer questions participants may about securing an agent. There are so many things we aren’t told. Should I send a high-quality video to an agent or audition, or can I use one from my phone? Resumes are another thing.

We’ll help build resumes for those who don’t have one, and there’ll be a designer with us because, with the CV, you want to present your personality, which is important when applying for an audition or an agency. We’re going to show them how to put together the resume, not just explain what they need to write.

In the end, we will produce HD recordings for people to use for applications, which, as a singer, I can say is super helpful. There’ll also be a photoshoot for everyone so that participants will get new pictures. These are useful, concrete things that every singer needs and can begin using immediately.


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