Q & A: Aprile Millo on Puccini, Birgit Nilsson, and the Carnegie Hall Recital That Wasn't

Classic Arts Features   Q & A: Aprile Millo on Puccini, Birgit Nilsson, and the Carnegie Hall Recital That Wasn't
In the first installment of PlaybillArts' new interview series, soprano Aprile Millo talks about her upcoming concert with the Collegiate Chorale; the late soprano Birgit Nilsson; and the controversy surrounding her Carnegie concert last fall, which was canceled after she clashed with promoter Ron Delsener over repertoire.

Soprano Aprile Millo will join the Collegiate Chorale and music director Robert Bass for "Puccini: A Composer's Journey" on January 30 at Carnegie Hall. She will sing Anna in the seldom performed Le Villi and the title role in Act III of Turandot, a performance that marks the New York premiere of Luciano Berio's ending for the opera. She recently talked with Vivien Schweitzer, PlaybillArts' associate editor.

How did Birgit Nilsson, who died last month, influence you?

Nilsson was one of the great Turandots. For many years she very kindly told me I should sing the role, so I will dedicate this concert to her. She gave me a beautiful little heart box from Tiffany, which I will keep with me that night. Nilsson was a splendid example of an artist; very down to earth and fun, but she realized how special she was. There's a phrase in Turandot that says, "Cosa umana non sono" ["I am no mortal being"], and as human and beautiful as her humor was, the voice was another world.

What about Renata Tebaldi, who died in 2004?

Tebaldi was another superhuman; at a time where opera wasn't a profession, it was a vocation. I had the pleasure of working with Tebaldi. No one will ever be as great as her in terms of individual expression; the great voices like Tebaldi stood out because of their soul. I was thrilled to emulate Tebaldi. It's a style of singing that had been let go of.

Do you feel more of a link with singers of the past than present?

People now think opera should be amplified, and the smaller voices are singing the wrong repertoire. It's a very strange time. So to keep it true I go back to the source, which is the older singers. Opera without voice is not opera, it's symphony. Anyone who thinks differently is making a big mistake, which might account for the mass exodus away from opera. I don't understand why people don't search out the early ancestors of their particular type of singing and work with them, as they are closer to the era the composer lived. There is a certain humility in doing that. But you are never copying, or at least I hope not.

Then you don't care for microphones?

The chord that strikes in both opera and concert performances is that you stay true to the work, but it's how it translates through your soul and how you bring it to life. The voice is beautiful and out of this world, and shouldn't be miked. It should be a direct wonderful visceral thing that hits you without any assistance. But it depends how small the voices get in opera. If you are going to ask a person to look like a Broadway singer (although I prefer the Broadway of Mary Martin and Ethel Merman, who needed no amplification) you may have no other choice. They amplify because they're asking you to look like a movie star. But if that continues then opera will be officially dead.

You were scheduled to make your solo recital debut at Carnegie Hall last October, but the concert was canceled because Ron Delsener, the promoter, wanted you to sing a crossover program. What happened?

That was unpleasant and unnecessary, but opera is an entity that needs champions to protect it. Many people are selling out for a quick buck, or being forced to because recording companies are looking for something to compete with modern market. I don't think anyone in the opera world actually wants it to compete. I was happy to stand up for a little moment. You'd be surprised what a chord it struck; I've never been approached so much on the street with people thanking me. It started a trend, because then even Anna Netrebko cancelled. People are speaking about what they give to the public as something really important; you start a ball rolling and others will jump in behind you.

How is it different preparing for a recital as opposed to an opera?

It's an evening where you have many different characters. I'm the captain of the ship; we're on a voyage going to many different ports, but all through it we'll have humor and fun and opera will be accessible. I've never liked the fourth wall that exists in total quiet and majesty. I want you to feel something. Most of the recitals I've ever done end up with people racing to the stage because they want to thank me. That sounds terribly self-serving, but it's a type of recital that no longer exists.

How will you approach the role of Anna in Le Villi?

This is one of Puccini's earliest works, so you hear his genius in its adolescent phase. The score is very beautiful because the opera patterns itself after the ballet Gisele. It's very melodic and certainly a precursor of many of his later operas. I'm studying the ballet. The opera deals with a woman falling in love with handsome guy who says "I'll be back," but he's not. She dies of a broken heart. When she comes back in the second act you don't know whether it's as a spirit—as his guilt with a voice. So I've had to decide whether the person that I am in the second half is real or just his guilt singing. I think every woman in the world has dealt with a man who has disappointed, so it's a nice musical revenge!

What do you think of Berio's new ending for Turandot?

The new Berio ending is a real stretch for those who like the traditional Alfano ending. The Berio sounds as if you've walked into an old ancient Buddhist temple, with a gong reverberating. It makes it a higher spiritual plane. Berio was nicely advanced in his music; this ending is strangely hypnotic.

What CDs are you working on?

The Handel [a series of rare arias for bass, Baroque tenor, and soprano to be recorded in South Africa in late August, and released in 2007] is really exciting. Randolph Mickelson is recording these arias exactly the way Handel originally wanted, with bigger orchestras and bigger voices. It calls for a lot of coloratura and virtuosi, and won't sound like any Handel you've heard. Everyone will want these records, because the music hasn't been done to Handel's specifications before. I don't usually sing a lot of Handel, but he's fitting like a glove. There is such a sense of triumph about this music, which I didn't anticipate. I was quite snobby coming from the more romantic Italian literature.

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