Jessica: Lucia, Violetta

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Published: 5th May, 2014

Victorian Opera must be congratulating itself on signing up Jessica Pratt to play the lead role of Violetta in La Traviata especially considering her recent triumphant debut as Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor at La Scala, Milan. Friend and fellow-diva Deborah Humble, a regular writer for our site, was there.

“She did it! Wow  … so many bravas!” Deborah reported from Milan’s La Scala after fellow-Australian Jessica Pratt’s debut in the role of Lucia inLucia di Lammermoor, fifty years after Joan Sutherland made a sensational debut in this Donizetti opera. Deborah tells more …

The production is directed by Mary Zimmerman and conducted by Pier Giorgio Morandi. The role of Edgardo is sung by tenor Piero Pretti, his first appearance in Lucia with Pratt. They appeared together in performances of Rigoletto at the Verdi Festival in Parma last year and are known as a duo by the tongue twister of an Italian nickname ‘PrettiPratt.’

Lucia is one of Jessica’s favourite roles. “It’s very liberating,” she says, “acting a like a madwoman in front of a few thousand people.”

She has sung the challenging role many times including performances in Berlin, Zurich, Tel Aviv, Ravenna, Como and at Teatro San Carlo in Napoli under the baton of Nello Santi. “Singing the role in the theatre which the opera was written for, where Rossini and Donizetti still have their assigned boxes from which they watched the operas was a great honour.”

Jessica explains why singing Lucia is so gratifying. “I like her because she because she doesn’t cave in to the whims of society and become an obedient wife. She is strong willed: going out alone, meeting with a lover in secret and fighting with her brother. She can’t bend to her family’s will and rather than accept the rule of men she goes mad. It is her strong will that destroys her.”

With regard to the technical aspects of the role she says that her fundamental aim in bel canto repertoire is to produce the drama and emotions required without disturbing the beauty of the vocal line.

“One of the most difficult things in the mad scene is to not let the emotions influence the sound. The line must always remain beautiful even while you are stabbing someone and screaming blue murder.” Jessica explains how “the cadenzas and the coloratura always have to have a dramatic intention behind them; they should never be sung as a technical exercise or just for singing’s sake.”

Opera was a part of the soprano’s life from very early on. Her father was a tenor and as a young girl she thought being an opera singer would be “the best job in the world.” She believed that becoming a professional opera singer would mean playing dress-ups, wearing big gowns and going home with a bunch of flowers.

“As an adult I realize that these dresses are heavy and uncomfortable and I usually give the flowers to my dresser or make-up artist because I am flying out the next day. Now I am more attracted to the characters and exploring various emotions through music, language and the physicality of movement. It’s a complex and rewarding art form.”

She describes as one of her career highlights singing in the New Year’s Day concert at La Fenice in Venice.  “It was televised worldwide after the Pope’s speech and there were 4.7 million viewers in Italy alone.”

She is clearly very fond of Venice and its opera house and says that working there is always a very exciting experience.

“They do lovely productions in Venice and the costume department is very close to my heart. I love all aspects of the theatre but especially the art of costume making. They put up with me hanging around and teach me little tricks and new skills.

“During the 2013/14 season opening of Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine  in which I sang the role of Ines, I embroidered the front panel of one of my costumes with beads which ended up being more than 30 hours of work. It is now going with the rest of the costumes to a museum in Madrid. I think I am more proud of that than of the DVD and the television broadcast of the production!”

Living and working in Italy, as in any foreign country, presents its own set of challenges and rewards. Jessica misses her family, “the fresh air, the nature and especially the open, easygoing friendliness of the Australians.”

With some humour she talks about the particular challenge of going to an Italian post office. “ One day I would like to come out and not be in a blind rage. I don’t know if it will ever happen!”

Nonetheless she admits she loves a country that awards a Presidential medal for coloratura singing, another accolade bestowed upon Jessica at the same time she was awarded the prestigious La Siola d’Oro prize last year.

The valuable diamond brooch in the form of a swallow is presented every two years to the soprano voted by Italian music critics to be the best interpreter of famous soprano Lina Pagliughi’s repertoire.

Jessica joins illustrious artists such as June Anderson, Mariella Devia and Joan Sutherland, the only other Australian to win the award, and says with obvious pride, “It’s quite incredible to be included in such an historic list of singers, nearly all of whom are my coloratura heroes!”

“These were my very first diamonds. I had to get a safe at the bank to put the brooch into and I am trying not to act like Golum. I am resisting going to the bank just to look at my ‘precious.’”

Jessica’s other big treasure is her dog and constant companion Fede whom she adopted two and a half years ago, essentially rescuing him from a life of abuse.  He had a smashed leg and only one eye and had lived most of his life in a kennel. Fede is now well known in Italian opera circles and enjoys life at Lake Como when he is not backstage and in his owner’s dressing rooms.

So famous have the pair become that a children’s book entitled Un paloscenico per due or “A stage for two” has just been released by publishing company Squilibri. The book is designed to give children an understanding of classical music, and particularly opera, by telling the story of life in Italy’s most glamorous opera houses through Fede’s eyes.

Australian audiences do not have long to wait to see Jessica on stage. This month she returns to Melbourne to make her Australian operatic and role debut as Violetta in La Traviata with Victorian Opera under the direction of Richard Mills. She describes the role as “extremely complicated” for the soprano, “requiring three different voices. It must be studied and balanced from the beginning to end.”

First of all however she has ‘Lucia’ to get through. She is clearly excited. “A great friend of mine presented me with the original poster of Joan Sutherland’s Lucia from 1964.”

“It’s for good luck,” she adds with a smile.

Jessica Pratt sang Lucia at La Scala 11, 16, 21 February

and stars as Violetta in La Traviata in Melbourne 17-29 May