Conversation with a Soprano


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Soprano Francesca Mondanaro: "It's about connecting with your audience and always staying humble because the work is never done."

Trees that Are Slow to Grow Bear the Best Fruit: A Conversation with Francesca Mondanaro By Michael Raver

A SPECIALIST IN Verdi and bel canto repertoire, soprano Francesca Mondanaro knows that patience is much more than a virtue. It’s a survival method. A necessity. Onstage, her raven mane is perfectly coiffed; her skin is like a seashell and her voice, armed with a killer aria, overflows with emotive electricity. There is finesse. But sitting over cappuccino and a warm apple tart on a sunny Saturday morning, you can’t help but wonder if brunching with Maria Callas would be nearly this much fun. She gets out the sharp knives when speaking about what is necessary for a young artist to endure during the lean times when disappointment is quick to surface and rejection happens more frequently than success. The stakes are high and dreams are on the line.   

She exemplifies the belief that “trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit.”  And while it is easy, when looking at her, to summon an image of a glamorous diva treading the wide-open expanse of a faraway opera house, Francesca Mondanaro has the utmost respect for what happens behind all of that. She recognizes that the magic that happens when the tickets are sold and the lights come on is reliant on long hours of hard work. All of it is business as usual. Yet for Mondanaro, who is on the cusp of an explosive 2013-14 season, including a Lyric Opera of Baltimore debut as Abigaille in Nabucco, there is nary a sign of rose-colored glasses, especially when recalling where she came from, let alone where she’s going.

MICHAEL RAVER:   When you think about where you’ve come from, a graduate of The Curtis Institute of Music, going through performances at a myriad of venues, as well as having some lengths of time where things have been quiet, how do you view your career now that you’re busy?

FRANCESCA MONDANARO:  We’re not in the age where you sing four performances over two weeks and then get on a boat for six months to go back to the States sing something else.  When you’re doing well, you’re basically on call all the time.  You are flying in and out of airports, you’re picking up your baggage, getting in a cab and showing up for a first piano dress, even if you were just on a red eye the night before.   And if you’re singing what’s considered heavy literature, have to be able to sing without hurting yourself.  You only have one set of vocal chords and that’s it.  It’s your instrument.  One thing that’s not discussed in the world of opera, for singers whose instrument singing heavy bel canto, Verdi, especially Wagnerian literature, that’s a voice that does not physically age into being ready until at least the early to mid thirties.  

MR: When you say ready...

FM:  Meaning that your body as instrument can handle the demands of the full role that you’re singing.  I wish somebody had told me the realities of what happens in between.  There were people who I went to school with who immediately went into young artist programs with prestigious opera companies, who immediately got picked up by management right after graduating.  But those people had voices that were ready.  So then the question becomes what does one do when one has an instrument and something to say but that they’re not ready technically speaking or even emotionally speaking the year that they graduate?

MR:  And that was you?

FM: That was definitely me.  In fact, I went through five voice teachers when I was in conservatory and the person I met that really knew what to do with my instrument…I didn’t find her until the year that I graduated.  It forces you to recommit yourself.  You learn that you’re an artist no matter where you are.  Regardless of the venue, regardless of the outcome.  I’ve watched colleagues respond to the pressure to make things happen with their career, pushing their voices into singing literature that’s maybe a little too heavy for them or that they’re not ready to sing.

MR:  Do you think that happens because those singers don’t care what it does to their voice or is it that they just want to work and will take whatever they’re given?

FM:  I think it’s a little bit of both.  We live in a society that’s about moving really quickly and instantaneous results.  If your attention isn’t grabbed immediately, people move on.  That isn’t the way the craft works.  It’s about patience and perseverance.  It takes a lot of time.  Mastery of the voice, being a singing actor, there is the feeding and caring for the instrument which is through your coaching and lessons.  There is character study.   There is understanding of life in general so you have something to say when you’re actually on stage.  And I don’t think that’s always something you learn in a classroom.

MR:  How did you manage to stay with Opera during the times when there weren’t offers coming in?

FM:  It wasn’t easy.  But there have been a string of mentors that really took an interest in me, invested their time, their money and their expertise in me so I was always working extremely hard.  Focusing on my vocal technique, my artistry and the style of the composers I was singing.  You’re an artist no matter where you are.  Even when the going has gotten tough, I still believe that opera is one of the most cathartic experiences you can give an audience.  

MR:  The run of an operatic production isn’t a Broadway show with three-months or more of performances.  How do you reconcile putting all of that work into a role that may only be performed only once?

FM:  That’s what it takes.  That’s what that one performance is worth.   It doesn’t matter if it’s at a University or at La Scala.  It’s your responsibility to give two hundred and fifty percent regardless of the environment.  I covered Norma for The Lyric Opera of Baltimore a few years ago and it was a really special contract because Hasmik Papian who sang the performances was not available to show up until a few days before opening.  So I was basically the rehearsal Norma.  It was three and a half weeks of six hours of staging a day all the way up until the first orchestra run though.  I got to live it out even if I didn’t get to go on.  The rest of the cast were seasoned, A-house performers.  What I learned living and breathing and being responsible for that role is more than I would have learned sitting in any classroom.  And you keep that for the next time you rehearse something.

MR:  What have you got on the horizon?

FM:  I’m singing some concerts for Opera Delaware (www.operade.org <http://www.operade.org> ), juggling a lot of literature.   Continue working on my Italian.  And a side project about Giuseppina Strepponi, the wife of Verdi, who was a superstar in her own right and whose career was already on the way out by the time she met him.  She was responsible for creating the role of Abigaille.  The project, ideally would be an orchestrated concert of roles she’s famous for singing.

In the spring, my first lead role with Lyric Opera of Baltimore, as Abigaille in Nabucco.  There are two performances of it.  I’ve already performed the role before under extremely trying yet entertaining circumstances, yet I will have spent the whole year preparing that.  There’s a lot to this young lady.  There’s a lot to it vocally, more than any other Verdi role I can think of.  I find her fascinating.  There’s a stereotype of her being…

MR:  A bitch?

FM:   [Laughs] Yes!  Angry and impetuous.  But she’s much more complicated than that.  So in order to do my job, the way the audience deserves to experience it…they deserve to have somebody put in twelve to fourteen months of work into what they do.  It’s so vocally taxing that it takes time to work up the resilience and breath-control.  The role has a reputation of being a voice wrecker.  You’re basically asking a dramatic soprano to sing under emotional duress in music that’s extremely expansive.  This is Verdi with a full horn section.   A lot of the music is very declamatory.  You have to have a secure chest voice.  You have to have a secure top.  You have to be able to get through a coloratura with your full voice over a full orchestra.

MR:  Do you feel confident doing that?

FM:  I strangely enough feel very confident.  Being patient is important.  When I was at Curtis, I had a voice that confused a lot of people.  It could do a lot of different things but those things didn’t fit.  I started out having a big, dark, husky voice with no high notes at all and then it started changing.  Some people tried stripping the color out of my voice in an effort to try to even it out.   

MR:  And that was happening to streamline what you had?

FM:  Yes, to fit a square peg in a round hole.  On the inside, I feel like I’ve been at this forever.  And I’m entering into auditions now where people are saying “you’re just old enough now to start singing these roles.”  It’s all in accordance to where my instrument is and that’s what it takes.  I had a voice teacher in school and she knew what was coming.  She said that it was going to take a little more time for me.  She said, “I really feel for you.  There are some people who like to sing.  People who love to sing.  And people who have to sing.  And you’re one that has to sing.  It’s going to take some time and you’re not going to be able to get out there right away.  Just hold on.”  In the end it’s about connecting with your audience and always staying humble because the work is never done.

For more information about Francesca Mondanaro, and to hear samples of her work, visit www.francescamondanaro.com.

Michael Raver is an actor and playwright.  He’s performed classical theatrical roles at Lincoln Center, The Pearl Theatre Company and Tony Randall’s National Actor’s Theatre, as well as regional theaters across the country.  His adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was produced by Sonnet Repertory Theatre last year and his new play, Fire on Babylon will receive a public reading in New York on September 25th.  He currently lives in New York City.  (www.michaelraver.blogspot.com)