Q & A: Soprano Roberta Mameli on Her Career and Role as Poppea

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Laurent Guizard)

Soprano Roberta Mameli has a voice that immediately makes an audience sit up and take notice. The fact that she is not even more well-known than she is currently, is no doubt down to the fact that she tends to specialize in baroque and, to a lesser extent, Mozart, with only occasional forays into other repertoire. Hers is a voice that exudes elegance, purity and beauty. Her technique ensures that her singing is precise, clear and articulate, which enables her to develop nuanced interpretations of the characters she plays. When watching her on stage, it is nigh impossible not to be swept away by her performance.

Mameli is currently in the middle of a short tour of Monteverdi’s masterpiece “L’Incoronazione di Poppea,” which will finish this month in Ravenna. OperaWire, which will be reviewing the performance, thought it would be a perfect opportunity to catch up with the singer and talk to her about her career and her views on Monteverdi and his final opera.

OperaWire: Describe your pathway into opera.

Roberta Mameli: I started singing when I was three-years-old. I used to sing songs I heard on television, like Heidi. It drove my mother crazy. My mother had a wonderful voice, but she was not a professional singer. However, many of my relatives were musicians: my uncle played the horn, my grandfather was an oboist and one of my cousins was a cellist and another was a violinist. In fact, I started playing the violin.

However, when I was still young, I used to listen to records of marvelous voices, like Maria Callas. I saw my first opera when I was seven; it was “La Boheme” and I loved it. I knew then that I wanted to be a singer and so I started at the conservatory in Piacenza and then continued my studies in Milan.

OW: How difficult was it for you to become established as a professional opera singer?

RM: It was not easy. It is difficult to find the right pathway. I didn’t finish my studies until I was 30, so I was no longer very young. I had the chance to meet Claudia Carina and I started to sing madrigals and other works by Monteverdi.

Sometimes it is not enough just to have a good voice; you also need to be lucky, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time: I sang Nerone in “L’Incoronazione di Poppea” at the Cite de la Musique, and this was the beginning for me. I had the opportunity to make my first solo CD, “Monteverdi meets Jazz” and I started to be known. I then followed this with a successful performance of Graun’s “L’Ofeo” conducted by Savall.

OW: What attracted you to the baroque? 

RM: For me, baroque music is closest to my feelings and to the way I see things. It fits me like a tailor-made suit.

However, there is another composer that is very close to me, and that is Mozart! I love his music so much and it is perfect for my voice. I don’t want to sing the composers that come after him. I have done, but I don’t feel the same empathy as I do with earlier music. I like the music to fit me like a dress and Mozart’s music does this. Even though I love Verdi and Puccini, it’s just not for me. I don’t get the same feeling when singing their music.

OW: However, you sang the role of Teodora in Montalbetti’s opera in Ravenna in 2019, which is a contemporary opera. Why?

RM: Actually, I sing quite a lot of contemporary music. I know some of it can be very extreme, but I choose to sing works in which I can find connections with the music of the 17th century. In the case of “Teodora,” it had a quality that was quite close to Monteverdi. When I first received the work to look at, I immediately thought that this could be a really interesting opera. It proved to be a very comfortable role to sing, and it felt very natural for my voice, which did not mean the part was always particularly easy. At the beginning, there were a couple of difficulties; it was not easy for me to match my voice with the instruments, which is not abnormal when a piece is unknown. Also, when I was singing alone, without any instruments, I felt exposed and completely naked, but it was a very a beautiful moment. The libretto is absolutely magic. It is very beautiful and closely tied to the music. I think it is one of the best operas that I have sung in the past few years.

OW: How would you describe your voice? 

RM: My voice has a wide range. Sometimes I sing mezzo-soprano roles as well as my normal soprano roles.

I feel better when I am singing in the middle range. It has a pure sound. It can be rounded, it can be sweet, it can be fragile, it has many textures. Over recent years, my voice has darkened slightly. In fact, as it has developed, I have come to appreciate my voice more. I like the sound, and it does what I want in a way that pleases me.

OW: How do you prepare for a role?

RM: When I sing a role, I have to put myself into it. I need a connection between the role and myself. So, when I sing Vitellia, for example, it is also me. I share my feelings and my vocal colors and dynamics with my character. I am very attached to whatever I am doing. I can’t be distant from myself when I am playing a character. I merge with my character so that I am in there with the character.

It is important for me to understand the psychological make-up of the character before I start on the vocal side. When I prepare for a performance, I first study the psychology of my character as well as the psychology of the other roles. It is important for me to understand who I am with respect to the other roles.

OW: Does your approach ever lead to problems with the director?

RM: It has only happened once. Normally, my interpretation is quite close to the director’s, but on the occasions when it was very different, I have been able to find a way of incorporating their views. I think this is fairly normal. People have different ideas, but normally there are points of convergence. Also, sometimes, directors can offer insights that make me re-think my interpretation, and this can be very fulfilling. I know that I have a curious and flexible mind, and I think this helps in forming an interpretation. 

OW: You will be singing Monteverdi’s “L’Incoronazione di Poppea” at Ravenna later this month. How do you visualize the role? 

RM: I have sung the role many times, but this is the first time that I have been able to sing Poppea in the way that I want.

In this production, Poppea is, as usual, a manipulator, but who isn’t? Everyone is trying to manipulate other people, even if only in small ways. It is often a normal way of behaving. People are always trying to change what other people do or think. This is a form of manipulation. For sure, Poppea wants power and she wants Nerone, but these desires are also normal in the 21st century.

However, if we look at Ottavia, she knows that Nerone loves Poppea, and she does everything that is possible to manipulate Ottone to kill Poppea. Yet, Poppea never tries to have Nerone kill Ottavia. She uses the word “ripudio,” repudiation and never “uccidere,” to kill, whereas Ottavia does! The only person she is against in this opera is Seneca because he has inserted himself into her relationship with Nerone, but she never says to Nerone that he should distance himself or kill Seneca. So yes, she is a manipulator. She is trying to hold onto her relationship with Nerone, but it is nothing that goes beyond what happens in the normal life of a couple and people in general.

Poppea really loves Nerone deeply. I don’t think it is all about power; the music tells us this. Monteverdi has written such sweet lines for Poppea, so it cannot be just manipulation. She is honest about her feelings for Nerone. In the case of Ottone, she has left him, but he wants her back. Unfortunately, she has decided that he is no longer for her. In this respect, she is no different from any other woman or man. Of course, there are darker elements in her character but I do not see Poppea as anything different from a normal person with light and dark sides. It is just part of being a human being.

OW: What are the challenges of singing Monteverdi’s music? 

RM: When I first started to sing Monteverdi, it was really difficult because it was a completely different type of singing, “Recitar Cantando.” The vocal line usually lies, more or less, within a single octave, and this is a difficult constraint to master. Also, the relationship between the text and the music is very important; you must find the right articulation. To sing Monteverdi, you need to study his style, which is completely different from Vivaldi or Handel. It is really special.

For sure, Monteverdi has had more influence on my singing than any other composer. I know his work so well. I can now say that it is easy to sing his music, and this is very different from when I first started to sing his music. What pleases me the most is when people ask me why it is so easy to understand the text. This makes me so happy! I would really like to thank Monteverdi and the many conductors that I have worked with over the years, as they have taught me so much. I now use what I have learned to sing other composers’ music, such as Mozart or even on the occasions I sang Puccini.

Monteverdi is very important to me. His music resonates today as it did in the 17th century. It is really unbelievable; it can connect to any period. I think, even to the future. Monteverdi marks a point of division; there is music before Monteverdi and music after Monteverdi. There is also so much depth to his music. By researching the details, you can always find something new.

OW: What can the audience expect from this production of “Poppea?”

RM: It is an elegant and deep production, and the audience will feel the power of love in both its good and bad forms. It is a tableau of strong and deep feelings.

The scenery and the costumes are simple. There is nothing special, but they are beautiful and powerful. It allows the audience to focus on the characters and the drama.

OW: In many ways, you have a settled career. You are firmly established in performing roles in the baroque repertoire; you sing across the world, are able to choose the roles you want to perform, and you always have work, so are there any ambitions you still want to fulfill?

RM: I have done what I have set out to achieve, although I want to continue to develop. If I move forward, then this is good enough for me. It is also very important that I continue to do my job well.


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