Q & A: Soprano Carmen Giannattasio on Taking Care of Her Physical & Vocal Health, How COVID Changed Everything for Opera Singers

By Mike Hardy
(Photo: Jean Philippe Raibaud)

Italian Soprano Carmen Giannattasio has been in huge demand by all the major opera houses and companies around Europe and the USA after taking First Prize and the Audience Award at Placido Domingo’s Operalia, Paris in 2002.

Her potential was first acknowledged when her piano teacher advised that she had an operatic voice and persuaded her to study at the Conservatoire Domenico Cimarosa of Avellino, the Town of her birth.

She landed her first major engagement at the age of 24 at the famed La Scala and has since gone on to work with the world’s leading conductors and directors, appearing at the  Royal Opera House, the Metropolitan Opera, the Bavarian State Opera, the Bolshoi Theatre, the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées and in San Francisco, Vienna, Madrid, Berlin, Brussels, Turin, Venice, Naples, Amsterdam, Hamburg among others.

She has just completed a successful run of Tosca at the Macerata Opera Festival, after having had to withdraw earlier in the year from a production of Don Giovanni at San Francisco opera, due to recuperating from surgery.

OperaWire caught up with Carmen as she relaxed at her holiday retreat on the Italian coast.

OperaWire: Hello Carmen, I hope you’re well. I know you’ve had a few health issues over the years and you had to withdraw recently from a Don Giovanni production because of you recovering from a surgery.

Carmen Giannattasio: I am 23 years singing and I am a normal human being, and it happens that you have some issues with your body. Yes i suffer with my joints, but I am always trying to take care and have physical therapy around the world during my travels. Having this special job, we have to preserve our bodies from injuries. For example, I very much like skiing but, since you know, I am singing professionally I don’t ski. I will go up into the mountains with my friends and my family and they will ski but I will just take some sun on a chair. It’s not that I’m fragile, but it’s just to be wise because you know you have an important job and you have to assure both yourself and the people that give you that job that you are in perfect form. Of course, concerning the illnesses that may come during your life, you cannot do anything like that if you have a back problem or knee problems; or abdominal problems as I had, which caused me to withdraw from San Francisco opera.

OW: Tell me about having to withdraw from that Don Giovani.

CG: I had an operation, just after “La Wally,” because they, (medical team), called me and it was a surprise for me because the operation had been procrastinated for one year because of COVID and the hospital was only accepting serious case like transplants or cancer, and thank God, that wasn’t my case. I literally flew by plane from finishing “La Wally,” to the hospital, and then I had three weeks for recovery but that wasn’t enough for my body. I had hoped to completely recover for the rehearsals and shows in San Francisco but my body needed some more weeks to get back in shape. I realized that, in rehearsing, I was lacking my usual energy and I needed some extra weeks. So I took a little extra time and now I’m fully recovered in mind, spirit and body.

OW: How did your recent run of “Tosca” at the Macerata Opera Festival go?

CG: I just had my last performance nine days ago. It was quite a strong run of performances, and singing Tosca OUTSIDE is like you are doing three times the effort than singing normally in a closed theatre! But it was a great success by public, audience, and the Press so I am very, very happy to be back, I should say 200 per cent.

OW: You once wrote: “Being an opera singer can be dangerous,” were you referring to your ailments?

CG: No, I was probably joking but luckily, nothing really bad happened to me, but sometimes you know you can have little accidents, especially when you are an energetic actor on stage. The very first time many years ago I did my jump for Tosca from Castel San’Angelo, I had a stuntman from Hollywood who taught me how to jump properly, and I have to tell you that the technique for the jump is still in use and is pretty good. But every time it can be pretty scary because it can be high, and it can be dark. But, that is why I say, sometimes opera singers can have little, and not so little accidents.

OW: Indeed, I remember watching Joyce DiDonato perform at the Royal Opera House in plaster and a wheelchair after fracturing her ankle on stage. That must be an unusual accident?

CG: That’s why I say there are little or bigger accidents that may occur during a performance or a rehearsal. I know stories, I can’t remember exactly when it happened, more than twenty years ago I think, Fabio Armiliato as Cavaradossi was actually SHOT; he got this ballast from the blank bullet in his knee. So yes, although I cannot remember exactly why I wrote “being an opera singer can be dangerous”, but I guess it can.

OW: Talking about dangers and going back to your recent stage performance in “La Wally,” this is a very rarely performed opera. I understand because of the difficulty of staging it?

CG: Yes, but I don’t understand why because with the technology we have nowadays it’s so easy to make an avalanche, so where is the problem? I just don’t understand because the music is fabulous and I feel so lucky to have been chosen for this opera, which didn’t happen in the theatre but with a symphonic orchestra, the Symphonic Orchestra of Bavaria. This was a special occasion, to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the Bayerische Radio Orchestra and they decided to put on this opera. I have to say after singing it and analysing the music, it’s very symphonic. And it’s a pity that Catalani was born in Italy in a period where a composer had to compose operas. Because if he was born in, say Germany, he could have been like Mahler.

OW: Indeed, because like Ponchielli with “La Gioconda,” it’s a shame, isn’t it, that Catalini is really only known for one opera?

CG: Yes, and “La Wally” is known for “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” but that aria has nothing to do with the rest of the opera which is heavier than “Tosca,” first of all. And then, because you don’t know the story, you don’t know WHY she sings “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana;” because she’s such a strong character, I fell in love with her. And she’s wild. She’s really wild because her father wants her to oblige and marry the bad guy but of course she doesn’t want to because she’s in love with the tenor. And the Father says
“if you don’t marry him then get out from this house.” And she says,
“Ok. I go. Bye!” So she goes up the mountain and stays there until her Father dies. So she’s really strong. She’s one of the strongest characters I have ever played. When I was telling my 13-year-old niece about the plot of this opera, she was like,
“Oh wow, Auntie, finally, something interesting in the opera!” I really loved it, very much, and I just don’t understand why they don’t bring the opera back more often. This was also Toscanini’s favorite opera, which is why he called his daughter, Wally.

OW: Can you tell us what projects you are currently working on, or have planned?

CG: I have several and very important projects planned, “Onegin,” “Tabarro,” “Gioconda,” “Aida,” “Forza del Destino,” “Butterfly,” “Fedora…” I also have to wait for the reschedule of contracts cancelled because of COVID. Plus, I also changed management, and this sometimes effects your schedule. But I’m very happy and very relaxed because I have worked like a donkey for years and I have to take some time for my body, for my mind and for my private life because you know, sometimes this is a very strange job.

OW: In what way is it strange?

CG: It’s like the movie “Red Shoes.” The life of an artist in general, not just an opera singer but, say, a dancer, an actor a performer; and you see this in Hollywood where these things are much more amplified but it’s the same thing in the opera world.It seems like if you take a pause or a break, even for Motherhood, or just because you want to enjoy a period off which in the past, singers did…….because one of my teachers was Shirley Verrett and she was working only six months per year. She made a deal with her husband and children and so she was working just six months per year.

So now, COVID has killed our souls, I would say, our job EVERYTHING has changed after the COVID. But also, it has taught me so many things. I have received so much this past 23 years, during my career, but I have lost a lot, too. As a normal human being, as a WOMAN. I’ve lost a lot because there was a big sacrifice. I sacrificed, all my life, in order for the stage but we are also normal human beings with, you know, feelings, with private lives and sometimes……career just takes everything.

OW: In what way does it take everything?

CG: You know, like I was telling you, I don’t ski. If I have an important project I don’t go to parties. You see only the glamour part, from the social, from the internet, only the very superficial I would say, of our lives. But you don’t know exactly, what’s behind it. How many hours in studying, in memorizing what we have to do; in our public relations; in thinking what is best or what is not the optimum to do. All our connections. The days. This morning, and I am on holiday, I was telling my Mother: “My God, I think I need days that last 30 hours, 35 hours and not 24.” Because, a full day, it’s not just when you see us on a stage, it’s how much time we have to prepare yourself. And of course, when you have had, like physical problems it becomes all like, my colleagues, Anita Rachvelishvili or Rosa Feola….the people obsess: “What is happening? Can you sing? Are you in a good shape? How is the voice?” But we are normal human beings, with a body like everyone else. We are not aliens.

OW: I read somewhere that you have a recollection of singing opera in your garden when you were four-years-old?

CG: I only have a memory of me singing something in a kind of operatic style in the garden among the roses. This is the only memory I have concerning opera from childhood. I come from a non-operatic family, nothing to do with music so I only have this memory of me playing in the garden and singing in an operatic style.

OW: So when did your true operatic journey begin?

CG: I was playing piano as a young girl, and it was my teacher, my piano teacher who said I had an aptitude for singing, I was probably, like, singing while playing; and she said, “You have an operatic voice, you should go to the Conservatoire and be trained.” And so I just took her advice and I went there, I was like, 18-and-a-half I think but I was 24 when I had my debut at La Scala, my very first engagement.

OW: So who influenced you in those early years? Who did you listen to?

CG: During my years at the conservatoire, I was listening to the impossible, I would say. Not just the most famous and influential sopranos from the past, but also baritones, basses, tenors. Every kind of voice. Operas from the very early recordings, including Caruso, Gigli, Maria Canelia and I think every one of those gave me something, say, in my personal history as a singer.

And of course, who doesn’t love Maria Callas? I think Maria Callas is an inspiration; a pure spirit of music for everyone. And then there are people who are in love with Renata Tebaldi whom I deeply love too. There are so many: Shirley Verrett, Leyla Gencer who was my mentor and teacher.

Giovanna Casolla who is now my actual teacher was one of the greatest Turandot’s ever. And I’m so happy that she gave me, as a gift, her Tosca necklace last year for Christmas, with a dedication on the back. She said, “You are my heart, and so you have to continue what I have done. With a promise that in the future you will give this necklace to someone that you think is special, like you are to me”.

OW: Is it fair then to say that you consider yourself to be forever learning forever training, ever improving?

CG: Mike, let me tell you, in these days I see so many, what I call, the circus. Opera nowadays is a big circus. In a good and in a bad way. I am, it’s me, you know the years since starting at the conservatoire it’s almost 24 years I’m in the market. I’m still here, singing. So that’s what, you know, I do. I do my things, I have my routine. I have a fantastic elliptical by “Technogym” which I deeply love and every day I do different programs and I love it, especially as I have this joint problem. This helps me a lot because I can do my training without putting so much weight on the knees. But I’m not the type that has to show something continuously, and sometimes I’m arguing with my PR team because they want to engage too much the audience, and I prefer to keep things, you know, especially my private life, very secret. Yeah, sometimes I like to show maybe that I’m cooking something because I also love to cook for friends. I LIKE to entertain my audience, but I think nowadays we are exaggerating, in a way, I’d say.

And in another way, it’s a good way, because you are closer to them, which I like because you can have an interaction with your public. You can show what you are doing on your holidays or if you are cooking something special. I like these interactions but in a certain point we should put up a kind of wall otherwise it’s kind of being in the house of the “Big Brother.”

OW: Tell me about your upcoming concerts.

CG: One of my upcoming engagements is a concert recital with Ponchielli music in the Ponchielli theatre in Cremona. So it will be a night of his music, chamber music, and also some of Ponchielli’s  unknown operas like “I promessi sposi,” like “I Mori di Valenza,” and I’m adding also some composers of the same era, like Leoncavallo and Puccini also, but very unknown pieces. I’m hoping that they record it. Probably there will be a platform for streaming it, because really, it’s a gem.

Then I have mostly a lot of recitals during the upcoming months so I desperately need to study as to memorize all this music is insane, because chamber music can be very challenging. Especially for the memory. I’m starting to age! So my memory is not as good as it was. When you are young you can do things, like, my God, I remember I was learning “Otello” in five days, “Norma” in one week. I did “Mefistofele” with Joseph Calleja in three days! I learned the whole opera in three days! Don’t ask me how I did it, because I don’t know. Probably, today I am not able to do it.

OW: You are considered to be a noted exponent of bel canto repertory. Is this your favorite type of opera, and what is you personal favorite role?

CG: I have sung a lot of bel canto in the first part of my career: Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini, but also Mozart, Monteverdi, Gluck, Cimarosa. Going then to Verdi. I’ve explored a lot in 23 years now, I am more into the Verismo which I deeply love. It certainly is my favorite repertoire where I can express my maturity as an artist.


InterviewsStage Spotlight