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When Cecilia Bartoli Sings, the World Stops and Listens

The Italian mezzo-soprano's prodigious gifts extend to her offstage life, embracing family, friends, and fans

ONCE in a rare while, an artist comes along with a talent to which the public responds in an unprecedented manner - Maria Callas, Van Cliburn, and Luciano Pavarotti come immediately to mind. Cecilia Bartoli is the newest of these rarities.

In fact, Miss Bartoli has had to weather an unprecedented onslaught of promotion and acclaim at a time when her career is, in truth, only in its first stages of international prominence. And yet the name of Bartoli is on every opera lover's lips. Articles about her seem to be omnipresent. Her consistently exemplary recordings seem to spill out of London Records with surprising steadiness. As they rise to bestseller status, they are reviewed with almost profligate appreciation. She has already made her operatic debuts with La Scala, Munich, Bologna, Houston, Dallas, Salzburg, Zurich, and Paris, and is the toast of most of the major music centers.

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The pressures of fame are always challenging: the exposure; the need to live up to your reputation; the feeling that every time you are on stage, you are competing with the public's expectations, and even its memories of the latest successful recording. When it happens to one so young, there is always the question of whether it will change the artist in some way. The recent firing of Kathleen Battle by the Metropolitan Opera, and the subsequent tidal wave of stories about her bouts of misbehavior, reveal just how public fame is, and just how closely careers are being watched. There is an implicit awareness that even the slightest misstep will echo instantly throughout the music world and beyond.

To meet with Bartoli, talk with her, watch her deal with her adoring public - as I did in Dallas earlier this season, and more recently in New York and Princeton, N.J. - is to observe a young woman who shows no sign of becoming the sort of termagant that too often has become synonymous with the term opera diva these days.

When I taped this interview, she was presenting one of her calling-card roles, Rosina, in a run of Rossini's ``Il Barbiere di Siviglia,'' for her debut with the Dallas Opera. Onstage, Bartoli was a breath of fresh air. Everything seemed to be happening for the first time. There was never a sense of calculation and the music seemed to pour out of her with spontaneity and imagination. She was surrounded by a remarkable cast - Gino Quilico in the title role, Raul Jimenez as Almaviva, Alfonso Antoniozzi (a promising young bass who wants a career as a true buffo) as Bartolo, Dean Peterson as Basilio, and Melanie Helton as Berta, with bel canto specialist Richard Bonynge in the pit. It was Rossini at its finest - a perfect cast becoming a perfect ensemble.

We spoke officially the morning after her debut, a scant hour squeezed into a day devoted to publicity matters - a nearly four-hour in-store appearance at a Sound Warehouse, and a dinner in her honor hosted by London Records. The next day there would be the second ``Barbiere'' - a matinee performance, and so it would go for the rest of the week.

Though her English is excellent, we spoke in French as she felt better able to express herself in her second language, learned in school ahead of English. Curiously, though she is an active recitalist, German is not yet one of her languages. ``A far-distant day, yes!'' she explains. ``To me, it's really important to speak a language. It's not possible to sing a language in which you can only manage 20 percent fluency. In German, the color of the music comes above all from the text, from the way of pronouncing the word, so you must have a quite-perfect pronunciation.''

What is most refreshing about spending time with Bartoli is her utter lack of pretension. She radiates a wonderful mix of humility and self-awareness. She is gentleness personified with all those she meets, yet her appealingly vixenish stage temperament makes her performances sparkle and glitter. Even sitting in a Princeton restaurant, picking at a soggy plate of pasta, chatting with a young waitress who had studied in Italy, there was no sense of the need to be recognized, to be noticed. She was happy sitting quietly among friends, saving her energies for the upcoming recital, and the long line of fans and admirers who would greet her after the program.Those who know her best say this sanity is due to her closeness to her family. Being with them is vital to her well being, they say. She limits her performing schedule to approximately 40 opera and concert dates a year. ``You know, particularly when I come to the US, with jet lag, I need a few days of rest before rehearsing. For example, if it's a tour, each recital has two days of rest between, minimum.''

BARTOLI also insists that she have time off - as much as a month at a time - throughout the year. ``I really need this. It's indispensable. Because I have the feeling that if I am always on tour, I lose my life as Cecilia, my life with my family, of their affection.... I came to this career by accident, so sometimes it amazes me that people ask, `What do you do for you, for your own life?' It amazes me to think of eliminating the private life for a career, yet I know that there are many examples like that, but I cannot identify myself with such a sad life - the life of a woman who only has a big career and that's all. It's not good.''

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She explains that term, ``by accident.'' ``At age 9, I was a Roman girl. I always studied music - piano, etc. I tried with my mother to do some vocalizing at home, but it was only randomly done, not planned. My mother and father are both opera singers, so maybe that's why I didn't really want to become an opera singer. At 16, I joined a Flamenco dance troupe.... My father was happy to have a daughter who was a dancer, but my mother felt it was a bit too risky for a future, so that's why I began taking voice lessons with her, and it grew rapidly - much more rapidly than I could have imagined. But it was not really my dream to become an opera singer.

``As concerns protecting the stage work, I am not one of those who sings every night. First, because it's not good for the voice, second, because I am not attached to money in a crazy, obsessed way. And in the area of publicity this has happened. I can't change this. So it's necessary instead to say, `Okay, I can do this, but I need rest afterwards.' So it's a question of balancing, of not being like a hurricane.''

One of Bartoli's greatest assets is her ability to ``move'' the voice, singing runs up and down scales with what sounds like supersonic velocity, yet with each note articulated clearly and accurately. It creates an audible frisson in the audience the first time she launches into such passage work. When tossing off a virtuoso moment like the finale from Rossini's ``La Cenerentola,'' as she did in Carnegie Hall two weeks ago, the frisson turns into a barely contained excitement, and at aria's end, even before James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra had finished, the audience exploded into cheers and applause.

The singer attributes this facility to the right training in her vocally formative years. Her mother, her sole voice teacher, taught her that the proper use of the diaphragm was the base for all good technique. As for the agility, she thinks it came naturally, ``But all the work I studied with my mother was really the way of making the voice go out on a solid base, and it's the base that allows one to sing a long time, to have a long vocal life.''

Bartoli is quite firm in her insistence that she is what she is - a coloratura mezzo - with no illusions of one day switching up to soprano, as so many mezzos in the past have tried (mostly unsuccessfully). As for roles outside her current repertoire, she knows the big mezzo roles like Delilah, Carmen, and Charlotte (in Massenet's ``Werther'') - which she refers to as the dream roles for all mezzos - are probably not going to be in her future plans. ``You know, it depends on the voice. I have to see how the voice develops. If it stays as it is, then I will stay in this repertoire and expand into the Baroque. But if it becomes more dramatic, I could try some of the more dramatic roles. But the head must always be close to the throat.''

That said, she is partial to the soprano role of Susanna in Mozart's ``Le nozze di Figaro,'' and planning to perform it on stage sooner rather than later (no specifics as yet). ``I don't think of my career as a Susanna, but in the way of trying to sing Susanna my way, well that's something else. To do something like that, that doesn't mean destroying the voice or the career, or the repertoire.''

HER own acute vocal self-awareness also made her choose the role of Despina for her Metropolitan Opera debut in a new production of Mozart's ``Cosi fan tutte'' in the 1995-96 season.

``I have sung in New York in all the major halls," Bartoli says. ``Everyone awaits me in a staged role, so it's important to do a role I know well, to do a role that I sing and above all, that I feel. It's clear that the Metropolitan is a big theater and that I can't sing Carmen for the first time at the Metropolitan. So it was important for me to choose a role with a strong acting side, and at the same time, with a great conductor like Levine who has the possibility of making the orchestra play like a butterfly.''

This leads into the issue of conductors who have influenced her. She studied Bach's B-minor Mass with the late Herbert von Karajan at his request, and though she states that the music is far better suited to a contralto, she learned something vital: ``He taught me to think of the continuity of a phrase. It was really learning the line of a phrase, and to take the time to breathe and arrive with sufficient breath to continue on to the second phrase. For all my life that will stay with me. It's too important for a singer.''

She loves Riccardo Muti's Italian way with Mozart. ``It's not the Mozart of Vienna, it's Mozart with a heart and a spirit, finally,'' Bartoli says. She recorded Rossini's ``La Cenerentola'' with Riccardo Chailly in his operatic home, the Teatro Communale in Bologna, Italy - 10 staged performances preceded the recording. ``It was almost as if we were doing a live recording, because we knew precisely what was going on onstage, but with a studio sound. Chailly really did a great work for that - a great Rossini lightness and vitality.''

This summer, she is Zerlina for Daniel Barenboim in Salzburg, in a new production of Mozart's ``Don Giovanni,'' staged by the now-legendary Patrice Chereau.

Barenboim was the first important conductor she met, and she has worked with him many times: ``Barenboim, for me, is a sort of genius. With an incredible instinct from God himself, and obviously with a technique - it's clear that you have to always mix the two. But he has a little of the child in him. I remember when we recorded [Massenet's] `Cherubin' [for Erato Records], he was the conductor, yet at the same time he was also Cherubin. How he enjoyed himself doing this. It was really, for me, like a magnetism. It was enough to look at Daniel's face to understand the role. That is special.''

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