Jessica Pratt: La Sonnambula and beyond

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Published: 2nd May, 2017

In this very special interview for Classic Melbourne, and ahead of her performance with Victorian Opera Jessica Pratt talks about the company as well as her career internationally, her home in Italy and much more. Asking the questions was long-time colleague and friend, fellow diva Deborah Humble.

DH You have enjoyed a very close association with Victorian Opera in recent years. Why is a company like this one so important in the Australian cultural landscape/ what does it mean to have their support/ for you to return home and sing for this company?

JP Victorian Opera is a wonderfully creative opera company giving performing opportunities to a wide range of Artists at all levels of their career, this promotes growth in the industry and also opportunities for the public to discover new singers and works as they are free to offer a wide and interesting repertoire which encompasses works from contemporary composers to some of the most beautiful bel canto operas.  Victorian Opera has given me the possibility to present some of my most treasured roles to the Australian public as well as being the opera company with which I made my Australian debut in 2014. I love coming back to perform with VO and every year I look forward to seeing everyone again.  I like to have a few fixed companies around the world where I return often as it gives me a sense of familiarity and continuity that are hard things to attain while constantly travelling. So for me one of the most important things in a company with which I work so often is the wonderful atmosphere, which VO has in abundance.

DH These days in Australia we don’t have the chance to hear the bel canto repertoire performed very often. How does it feel to offer these important operas to the public? 

JP The greatest difficulty with bel canto operas is that you need specifically trained singers that have a knowledge of the bel canto style and a mastery of the technical requirements of the score.  In bel canto operas the vocal line is very exposed and the coloratura is arduous, it pushes the human voice to its extremes and is the vocal equivalent of gymnasts in sport.  Each opera requires at least four of these performers if not more, so it can be difficult to put a cast together like Richard Mills has been able to do here in Melbourne these past years.  Often we have decided to make them concerts as it makes it easier to align peoples’ schedules for the shorter time period required for a concert.

When we first discussed the possibility of offering I Puritani to the Victorian public in 2015 we were a bit worried it might not be received well or perhaps wouldn’t sell, but VO took the chance and went ahead with a concert version of the opera and I have to say that seeing a full house and having such an enthusiastic reception for this beautiful opera in my home country was one of the highlights of my career.  We are returning to Bellini this year with La Sonnambula and will continue in the future with concerts of other rare operas.

DH Why is this repertoire appealing to you vocally and dramatically? In particular, what is the role like vocally in La Sonnambula?

JP I love the challenge of the bel canto repertoire, pushing my skills to the limits and constantly trying to improve my technique to overcome new challenges the score provides and to add new tricks to my bag.  I think that the emotions in bel canto operas develop at a slower pace than in later operas, one emotion is woven through a scene of twenty minutes, so it really gives you the chance to delve deep into the emotional core of the character, to explore and develop these feelings over the arc of a performance.  Amina in La Sonnambula is an arduous role, very tricky high coloratura and exposed vocal lines in the beginning, then things develop and the drama of the opera requires an almost lyric sound, only to shoot back up to the high coloratura in the last showpiece aria…good fun!

 DH Can you tell us a little about your character Amina in La Sonnambula?

 JP Amina is a happy young girl who was found abandoned and was subsequently adopted.  For that time a girl like her with a dubious family line had little or no chance to marry and thus secure her future.  So the fact that she is to marry Elvino, the most eligible bachelor in the village, makes for an extreme emotional high from which she abruptly falls when she is publicly repudiated by Elvino.

DH Staged productions versus concert performances. Can you discuss a few of the pros and cons from your perspective as a singer?

 JP Obviously having a stage, costumes and lighting helps to create an atmosphere and tell the story.  However when an opera is staged it requires careful balancing between the staging and the music and often the vocal line can be compromised due to certain movements onstage.  I enjoy performing operas in concert as it gives me complete control over my interpretation and also the freedom to concentrate on the vocal production and the musical aspect of the opera, so that I can get the absolute best from my instrument and am able to physically put myself in a position to give more in my vocal interpretation.

Sometimes with a staged production I have to change variations to accommodate a very physical staging that doesn’t allow me to produce clean staccati for example or a pianissimo trill in the upper range because I’m running across the stage at the time.  In a concert version of an opera this is not an issue, I can go all out on my variations and I have a lot of fun with them. Without the staging to distract them, audience members often notice more details about the music and I have been told they enjoy being able to concentrate fully on the musical aspect of the opera in a concert version.

 DH Where can your fans see you for the rest of the year? Projects? Roles? 

JP This month I will be performing three operas in concert form, starting with La Sonnambula here in Melbourne followed by two semi-staged performances of I Puritani in Budapest and my debut of La Contessa Adele in Rossini’s Le Comte d’Ory for WDR Funkhausorchester Köln in Dortmund.  I will then be off to Valencia for a production of Rossini’s Tancredi in June.  In the European summer I will perform Gilda in Rigoletto at the Arena di Verona and then Elvira in I Puritani at the Savolinna Festival in Finland. In September I will open the season at Théâtre des Champs Élysées with a concert performance of Lucia di Lammermoor in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the death of Maria Callas. Following this I have two Donizetti debuts as Norina in Don Pasquale for ABAO in Bilbao and Adina in l’Elisir d’amore with the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona.  In the US this season I will perform concerts of the Queen of the Night arias from Mozart’s Magic Flute with Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic and I will return to the Metropolitan Opera in the title role of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.

DVDs coming out this year include two Donizetti operas: Lucia di Lammermoor from the Rome Opera with the staging of Ronconi and with Riccardo Abbado conducting, and Rosmonda d’Inghilterra which we recorded in December at the Donizetti Festival in Bergamo.

DH Home is in the hills above Florence. What is it like living there? How do you cope with all the travel your commitments require?

JP It is an incredibly beautiful place to be, I fell in love with the view from the garden over the Tuscan Hills when I first came to the house and every day I am there I love it even more, the colours and the scenery are spectacular.  It feels like we are in the middle of the countryside but actually we are a 15 minute drive to the centre of Florence.  We live on a protected breeding reserve so the property is full of small deer, wild boars, hares and pheasants.  It is very difficult to leave and go to work, especially at the moment as I have to be away from home for four months in a row.  In the span of a year I probably get cumulatively no more than two months at home.  We have four cats and two dogs, the dogs often travel with me if I’m working in Europe.

I am lucky to have a partner who owns an IT business and is a good traveller, he tends to travel even more than me as he divides his time between our home, his clients around the world and wherever I might be in any given week.  We also have a full-time housekeeper who lives in the house in Florence so that the animals have some semblance of continuity in their lives and for now things seem to be flowing along nicely. In the beginning the animals ignored me when I came home but now they all know it might only be a day, so they all follow me around and the minute I sit down I have all six of them trying to sit on my lap at the same time!  Luckily in Florence there is a good opera house so I schedule a production a year there and that gives me a good six-week block of time at home each year.   We have around 700 olive trees and have plans to start cultivating olive oil next year and perhaps plant a vineyard…since we haven’t got enough things to do at the moment!!

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Jessica Pratt continues her close association with Victorian Opera in a concert staging of Bellini’s beloved bel canto opera, La Sonnambula. Hamer Hall, Friday May 5, at 7.30pm.