SOME PEOPLE HAVE voices that stop you in your tracks. Soprano Carmen Giannattasio is one of those people. As Violetta Valéry in Verdi’s masterpiece La Traviata, she was simply breathtaking, her faultless performance holding the audience spellbound for three hours. Talking to her in person is no less entrancing. What is perhaps most remarkable about Giannattasio, now 38, is that her debut performance was at La Scala, no less, at the age of 23, a harbinger of her ascent onto the world stage to become one of the biggest names in opera. Prestige Hong Kong caught up with the singer between performances on her brief visit to the city before she headed to Japan to appear at two concerts.
How do you like performing at the Cultural Centre?
The acoustics are very good. I felt comfortable on stage and it’s quite functional. People who live here told me they don’t like the architecture, but I don’t mind it, I think it’s well integrated with the skyline.
Given that La Traviata is such a wellloved opera, is there anything particularly challenging about the role of Violetta?
Of course. It’s in many ways demanding. It’s very long – three hours on stage singing all the time and the challenge is really to have three different sopranos. In the first aria your voice is stretched; it’s a very high tessitura, you have to reach very, very high notes, which for a voice like mine – I’m a lirico-spinto soprano – is not really easy, but it’s good for the second and third acts. Violetta is the most difficult role ever. When I sing in La Bohème it’s like going on holiday. When you do Mimi, it’s like, “You’re joking.”
In what ways can you bring new interpretations to the role?
When I was young I listened to many recordings of La Traviata – more than any other opera. I was listening to Maria Callas, Renata Scotto, Renata Tebaldi, Mirella Freni, all the best singers for this role. You go to your memories and take bits from everyone and then you create your own Violetta; I think that’s true in the third act especially, when I read the letter. As an Italian I have a deep understanding of the text and I try to do something different because I empathise with it so much. Callas, well she was Callas and she had that particular voice [sings], but it becomes ridiculous for other people, so I focus more on fragility. I imagine it happening to me, how my mood would be. I think I would be crying, so when I say, “È tardi” [too late], Violetta’s voice is broken: it’s the end of everything.
Is it difficult to sing from the bed in the third act?
Yes, but I don’t care. You have three hours to show your voice – the power – so in the third act I prefer to sacrifice it for a less beautiful sound but a deeper meaning that can touch people, including myself. I try to relax and breathe in the correct way and if the acoustics of the theatre are good, that helps. And for the orchestra, it’s not written fortissimo, they just need to accompany you.
What’s it like working with the San Carlo theatre company – how long have you been with them?
Even though I come from that area – I was born not far from Naples – I made my official debut with them in December 2012. I can tell you that I feel like a daughter to all the people working there, they are so special to me, so I have the responsibility to give them my best. I have a very good feeling with them. They love me, I love them.
How has it been to work with Ferzan Özpetek, the director of this new production?
This is a new production, made for opening season at San Carlo three months ago. It is special because this is the 200th anniversary year of the birth of Verdi and we were fighting against La Scala, the most important opera theatre in the world. They opened with a Wagner opera – everyone was expecting that they would choose a Verdi title, and when they didn’t we were very pleased. Ferzan Özpetek is a famous Turkish-Italian movie director and this was his second experience in the operatic field. He was also taking lots of advice from us – he’s very talented and at the same time very humble. He’s proposing to shoot a movie with me.
What kind of movie?
I have no idea, but usually the movies he does are really dramatic. I have this dramatic mood; I don’t think I’m good for funny things. Before coming here I was performing at La Scala in Robert Carsen’s new production of Falstaff. It’s a funny piece so I had to work so much to get into this comic mood, but it’s difficult for me to play a comic role.
Who in your profession do you most admire?
From the past, my teacher, Leyla Gencer, such a famous diva through the ’50s to the ’70s. Then there’s Shirley Verrett, Pavarotti, Carreras, Domingo. He was one of my mentors because I won the Domingo competition [Giannattasio won both First Prize and the Audience Award at Plácido Domingo’s Operalia in 2002].
What is your favourite operatic role?
I think at the moment, because I’m in love with Verdi, it’s Leonora in Il Trovatore. Last time I sang it was last September for my Metropolitan debut, and I’m singing it again in Japan next week.
At what age did you first realise you wanted to be an opera singer?
I started when I was about 22 when I realised it wasn’t a bad idea. I took a degree in Russian and English literature and I thought I’d be a professor or maybe a journalist, but then I met Leyla Gencer and had a master class with her. She said, “You’re a talent, I have to bring you to La Scala and bring you to Maestro [Riccardo] Muti.” I made my debut at 23 at La Scala – my first performance ever while I was still a student. It was destiny choosing for me. I was starting at the top.
Very few people can captivate an audience. Can you describe that feeling?
It’s very demanding because it’s very long. Sometimes you think, “Oh my God, maybe they’re bored.” The secret is to find new things, gestures, new colours. First of all we are actors who sing, because the opera was born with Monteverdi, who said of it, “Acting while singing.” We are singers of course, but first of all we are actors. And we have our own private lives, like problems with families. We’re not superheroes, but people pay for a ticket and want a dream for three hours. That’s what we try to give them.