Q & A: Soprano Martina Licari on Her Forthcoming Role Debut as Ismene at Vicenza In Lirica & How COVID Disrupted her Early SuccessBy Alan Neilson
(Photo: Antonio Curti)
The winner of the 2021 Tulio Serafin Opera Singing Competition, Martina Licari, is due to make her role debut as Ismene in two performances of Mozart’s “Mitridate, re di Ponto” at this season’s Vicenza in Lirica, starting 28th August, running until 12th September. Having graduated from the conservatory in Palermo in 2018, the young soprano appeared to be on a fast track to a successful singing career: she had picked up prizes at competitions, and was offered a number of roles, including that of The Second Woman in Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” at Venice’s La Fenice, which turned out to be her professional singing debut. OperaWire was present for the performance and described her voice as “elegant,” displaying a “pleasing timbre” and “ability to decorate the vocal line.” Unfortunately everything came to an abrupt halt with the closing of the theaters owing to the COVID pandemic.
The role of Ismene, a result of her winning the Tulio Serafin Opera Singing Competition, now offers Licari the possibility of putting her career back on track. OperaWire caught up with Licari in Palermo as she was preparing for the role, for what turned out to be an interesting and insightful interview which illustrated in a very real way how the measures employed to fight the coronavirus severely disrupted the livelihoods of young singers at the beginnings of their careers.
OperaWire: What is your background, and when did you start to become interested in music?
Martina Licari: My parents are not musicians at all, but I have always sung, even from the time I was little child. My mother is always telling me a story about the time I managed to get lost in a play area for children. I was only three years old and obviously she was panicking, but then she heard me singing. I had found a microphone on a stage on which people were performing a small show, and I had picked it up and started to sing. My mother recognized my voice and retrieved me. I liked to play with microphones and to record my voice, it was something I loved doing. It was much better than playing with Barbie dolls or other toys.
It was my teachers at elementary school who first understood that I had potential as a singer and they encouraged me to take part in the Children’s Choir at the Teatro Biondo in Palermo. Following on from this, I joined the Alessandro Scarlatti Conservatory, like some of the other children who sung in the choir. I was ten at the time, although I didn’t start to study music properly until I was 13, when I began to learn the flute. Then I began singing lessons, which took over completely, and I stopped learning the flute.
OW: So, did you want to become an opera singer from an early age?
ML: When I was young I didn’t like classical music, like most children. But singing with the Children’s Choir put me onto what now feels like a predetermined path: it was almost expected that I would continue to sing and study singing, and it was something I was happy to do. In fact, other children from the choir have also started careers as opera singers, so it all seemed very natural. Also the fact that I started at the Alessandro Scarlatti Conservatory at such a young age affected me. I grew up there, surrounded by music—by classical music. The teachers were very good and helped me develop enormously. Although I had very good teachers at the Conservatory I also had, and continue to have, a private teacher, Provvidenza Torterella, who is excellent.
OW: What were your first experiences of opera?
ML: The first opera I saw was “Madama Butterfly” at Palermo’s Teatro Massimo, which I went to with my elementary school, although I must admit that I don’t remember too much about it. We were doing a project at the school about Japanese culture so we went to see “Madama Butterfly.”
The first music I remember singing from an opera were parts from the role of Susanna from “Le Nozze di Figaro,” but this was only for a bit of fun.
OW: In what role and where did you make your professional operatic debut?
ML: I only graduated in 2018, so I am only just starting my professional career. My debut was last year at Venice’s La Fenice in “Dido and Aeneas” as The Second Woman.
It was all very new to me and I didn’t know what to expect, and although I was confident I was also very nervous about it. It was a big thing for me! Luckily, the directors and the other singers were very helpful and supportive. It was during the Covid pandemic so the performance was a little weird because some of the audience was sitting on the stage, and so we had to turn to face them occasionally. But I did my best, and was very pleased with my performance.
OW: So how did you come to make your professional debut at Venice’s La Fenice?
ML: The superintendent of La Fenice Fortuanato Ortombina was on the jury of Voci Olimpiche, a singing competition which I won in Vicenza at the Teatro Olimpico in 2019. The prize was the role of Morgana in Handel’s “Alcina” which was to be performed in the city’s Teatro Olimpico. He then texted me, suggesting that I try for the role of Fanny in Rossini’s “La Cambiale di Matrimonio,” which I did and was offered the part. But then, because of Covid, everything was cancelled.
Then in August La Fenice contacted me and asked if I was interested in the role of The Second Woman, which I obviously was, and I accepted the part.
OW: So COVID has had a very disruptive effect on your career?
ML: Yes, it was very annoying! I had reached the point when things were starting to happen, my career appeared to be taking off. Then COVID arrived and “La Cambiale di Matrimonio” was cancelled and “Alcina” was postponed. Everything came to a halt. It was not good. So at this point my only professional live performance in an opera was as The Second Woman at La Fenice. “Alcina” was rescheduled for televised performance, but without an audience.
I have sung some concert performances and I joined the chorus of Teatro Massimo here in Palermo for a couple of months, in which I sung in “Parsifal,” but a scheduled performance of “Nabucco” was cancelled.
Now, it is as if I have to start again from the beginning. So, I am happy that I won the Tulio Serafin Opera Singing Competition in Vicenza, as this means I shall be performing Ismene in Mozart’s “Mitridate, re di Ponto” in September. Hopefully this will open up further opportunities.
OW: You have been very successful in competitions, especially in Vicenza! Do you enjoy them, and what benefits do they bring?
ML: I must admit that I never think I am going to win, but they are something I always enjoy, and believe to be very important.
First of all, they enable me to understand what other singers are doing from other parts of Italy and Europe. I think this is very important. It also allows me to test myself in front of judges and an audience. It is enjoyable to sing in a class with your teacher and fellow students, but in a competition there is more pressure to focus, you need to push yourself to do your best.
Competitions also allow you to get to know what the committee is looking for, which is something I need to know. After all, these are the people who may be in a position to give you a job in the future, and who maybe important in your career, too. They also help you in accepting setbacks: you are not going to win all the competitions you enter, and you realise that this does not mean you fail in any way, only that the judges are probably looking for something different.
Although, when you do win it is a great feeling: for me, it always confirms my belief that I am doing the right thing and doing it well.
This summer I was going to going to go the Cesti Competition in Innsbruck. I had qualified, and was looking really forward to it, but then because I was awarded the role of Ismene in “Mitridate, re di Ponto,” so I had to decline. Maybe next year I will try again.
OW: What are your impressions of the role of Ismene?
ML: It is a very difficult role. In fact, when I was preparing for the Tulio Serafin Opera Singing Competition I honestly did not think I had a chance of winning, as I had never sung such a complex role before. The technical aspects, such as the coloraturas, are very difficult: they are very long and elaborate. I am learning the role at the moment, and it is a like vocal gym. I practice everyday for at least three hours, but I enjoy every minute and it is very good for me.
I really like the role of Ismene, she connects with me, I can feel the character. It is a role in which I think I can achieve a very special performance. However, I am really nothing like her at all. She is betrayed by her fiancée but she forgives him. Something I would never do!
The rehearsal start in Vicenza on 22nd August, and the first performance is on 9th September. I have a lot of preparation to do, but it is an excellent opportunity for me.
OW: How would you describe your voice?
ML: It is difficult to describe, as at the moment my voice is continually changing. Last year I would have described it as a light voice with a wide range, but it is now becoming deeper. I am also studying technical aspects which are also affecting my voice.
OW: How do you see your future developing?
ML: I am now 27 years old, and at the stage in my career where I need to perform roles. It is very important that I gain this type of experience, as I will learn through this more than any other way. However, the situation is still very uncertain thanks to Covid, but within the next few weeks and months I hope to be auditioning with some agencies and theaters.
I don’t have a manager yet, so this is something I need to change. Hopefully, this production in Vicenza will unlock some doors.
In two years time, I hope to have become more established, to have grown professionally and to be performing regularly.
Then after that, who knows. Hopefully I will be in a situation one day in which I can work across the world. That would be great!
As for which roles I would like to sing, this is difficult to say. At the moment I find myself in the baroque repertoire, but I would also love to do some bel canto. But my objective has always been to sing, I love singing, but I want to sing well, in whatever roles I can.