Vivica Genaux, who is about to tour the U.S. with Europa Galante and Fabio Biondi, talks to Michael Miller, Part 1 of 3

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Vivica Genaux. Photo Christian Steiner.

Vivica Genaux. Photo Christian Steiner.

[Read Part II]

[Read Part III]

Vivica Genaux will tour the U. S. with Fabio Biondi and Europe Galante in February with a spectacular program based on their best-selling recording Vivaldi Pyrotechnics. I was fortunate to catch her in New York last month while she was on her way to Pittsburgh for her annual sessions with her teacher, the renowned Claudia Pinza. Our conversation was a long one, and we touched on many fascinating points in Ms. Genaux’s professional life. We are presenting it here in transcription in four parts.

(Transcribed by Lucas Miller.)

Vivica Genaux with Claudia Pinza

Vivica Genaux with Claudia Pinza

Vivaldi Pyrotechnics
Carnegie Hall: Zankel Hall
Thursday, Feb 2, 2012, 7.30 pm

Europa Galante
Fabio Biondi, Violin and Director
Vivica Genaux, Mezzo-Soprano
Vivaldi – Sinfonia in C Major, RV 116
Vivaldi – “Quell’usignolo” from Farnace, RV 711
Vivaldi – “Vorrei dirti il mio dolore” from Rosmira, RV 731
Nardini – Concerto for Violin in A Major, Op. 1, No. 1
Vivaldi – “Splender fra’l cieco orror” from Tito Manlio, RV 738
Vivaldi – “Alma oppressa” from La fida ninfa, RV 714
Vivaldi – Concerto in A Minor for Two Violins, Strings, and Continuo from L’estro armonico, Op. 3, No. 8
Vivaldi – “E prigioniero e re” from Semiramide, RV 733
Vivaldi – “Come in vano il mare irato” from Catone in Utica, RV 705
P. A. Locatelli – Concerto grosso in E-flat Major, Op. 7, No. 6, “Il pianto d’Arianna”
Vivaldi – “Agitata da due venti” from Adelaide, RV 718


M: So you’re going to spend a couple of weeks in Pittsburgh?

V: Yes.

M: And you’ll be working with…

V: Claudia Pinza.

M: Ah, yes. Ezio Pinza’s (1892-1957) daughter.

V: Yes. We went last night to the Met and did a little tribute at the water fountain.


M: But he never saw the new Met, did he?

V: I don’t believe so, no. He died quite young.

M: I was writing an update for Grove’s, American Grove’s, on American opera houses and so over the summer I got into the history of the Met quite a lot…it’s fascinating just how dicey the whole thing was. I mean they were really businesses just trying to survive up until the ‘50s [even after they became a non-profit in the early 1930’s]. The late ‘40s was rather a dark time for the Met and it was Bing that really brought them back to life.

V: Yes, I remember reading a story, I guess it was his autobiography, or a biography that had been done of him anyway—One Thousand and One Nights at the Opera (1), or something like that—that was a long time ago so I don’t remember too much about the history and the goings on, but…

M: I haven’t been to the Met yet this season. I saw one of their projections, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one of those?

V: No, no I haven’t.

M: It was Donizetti’s Anna Bolena.

V: Oh, Yes, with Anya [Netrebko].

M: She’s a great singer but, you know, they just performed it as if it were Verdi and it just seemed totally wrong to me.

V: That’s the tendency, I think. Everything gets treated as verismo now. But Yes, well, it was a big success. She did it in the Staatsoper in Vienna, where it was a huge success. They had millions of viewers because they have also the screen outside and they have a broadcast, I think. And that was with Elina Garanča. So that was a big, big, big hit there.

M: It’s an interesting opera.

V: Oh, it’s a beautiful opera.

M: Oh yes, but at the Met I just think they could have gotten into the style a bit more and, well, there was a lot not coming through in the projection. I should have really gotten down for it.

V: It’s always hard. I walked in last night. We went to see the Faust and it’s just so big, that place, it’s so huge, and so the automatic instinct is just to holler and make a big sound so you can be heard, I guess. But it’s just too big, so far as I’m concerned. It’s too big and it’s too big and it’s too big.


M: That’s a problem. It really forces them to stick with singers who have big voices…

V: And it forces people with big voices to sing always at maximum capacity. No matter how big your voice is, the orchestra can always play more and the bigger your voice is the more tendency there is to amp up everything to fit your voice. I just did a concert in Prague in November in the theatre where Mozart premiered Don Giovanni. Eight hundred seats. Beautiful, fantastic! So I don’t think those things were ever conceived—even Wagner operas—weren’t conceived for a four thousand seat house.

M: No, certainly, not. I’ve always thought New York needs a smaller house.

V: They do. They only have BAM, where you have the Metro going by, the subways going by all the time. I saw, when René Jacobs was here with the Monteverdi Orfeo, which Trisha Braun had put up, and she had done the choreography for—I thought it was beautifully done and it was a great theatre for it, it was a beautiful theatre for it. But the other thing is, there was so much ambient noise around that comes in but that’s the way it was. But I’d much rather see a piece like that in a theatre that size.

M: Yes, absolutely. And the acoustics are really pretty nice there in the opera house. I saw Atys back in September when they revived that, and it really sounded good.

V: I really thought it was a good place, a good venue. It’s just the pain of gettin’ out there. It’s not as convenient as going to Lincoln Center, but that’s all.

M: So what have you got on your plate the next six months or so?

V: Coming up in January I have two projects with Europa Galante. I’m doing L’Oracolo in Messenia, a Vivaldi piece, which we’re doing in Caen and we’re also doing at the Konzerthaus in Vienna. And doing live performance recording of that at the Konzerthaus, there, in January. And then… that’s the first half of January. In the second half, I’ll being going back to Parma to rehearse with them. We’re doing a tour here in the States of the Pyrotechnics album, the Vivaldi—Grammy nominated, not winning, but Grammy nominated! That was last year. This year we’re nominated for Ercole sul Termodonte instead. It’s my fourth nomination for a Grammy, so that’s nice, and my third I think with Fabio, in co-project with him. So anyway…we’re coming to the  States and we’re doing concerts in L.A. and Tucson, Denver, Las Vegas, Zankel Hall [at Carnegie] here, and Kansas City is the last one. It’s quite packed, I mean it’s a concert two days in a row and then a travel day two days in a row, a travel day. But I’m looking forward to it. I don’t have the opportunity of singing baroque music with a baroque band very often. My first chance was to do it with Nick McGegan in October—end of October I did four concerts in San Francisco with him and the Philharmonia Baroque—and that was great, that was really neat to be able to do baroque music with a baroque band in the States. It’s always been kind of a dream, so having two of those projects  in one season is amazing. So I’m really looking forward because the Pyrotechnics album has been a big success and it’s great music, it’s so energetic and then there’s some really beautiful softer, slower music as well, more lyric, and to do the Vivaldi with Fabio, who’s the violinist, and he’s such a virtuoso and has such energy, and the group also, Europa Galante, on stage is so vibrant. I mean they’re so much fun to perform with. So…really, really looking forward to that tour.

M: Yes, they’re amazing. I only know them from recordings.

V: Oh, I hope you get to come and see them because they’re just so much fun to watch on stage. Really, really, really super.

M: And the group you sang with before, the Venice Baroque Orchestra, is very good.

V: Yes, they’re also very good. And for that, of course, I came with just a small contingent of them. They were on tour already in the States, and so [it was just] a small group of them, it was only seven musicians that I worked with. Here, it’s, I think, about twenty musicians we’ll have this time, so it’s a larger-sized group, more standard anyway for the baroque.

M: I was in Venice quite a lot this past year, and both you and they were always somewhere else, whenever I was in town…

V: Yes, I’m almost always somewhere else… on the road. And I guess they are too, they keep pretty busy as well.

M: Your husband travels a bit with you when you go on tour?

V: No, he has a very important job that keeps him in one place, but that’s going to change I guess at the end of the month—he’s going to retire and so maybe he will be able to travel with me a little bit more than he’s been able to. So I’m looking forward to that, that’ll be nice, because I’ve had a couple of jobs this spring, no, this past fall… I was in Oviedo in Spain, where I was doing L’Italiana in Algeri, which we really weren’t rehearsing that much. We had two casts and so the second cast was taking part of the rehearsal…we were working with people…basically the Spanish don’t like to rehearse that much. They start at about five o’clock and wrap it up at about seven, so it would have been a really nice place to have had my husband with me, we could have gone travelling around a little bit and seen a little bit of the Asturias. But, anyway, so—I’m sure there’ll be more of those jobs ahead,  and that he’ll be able to accompany me a little bit more. I am looking forward to that.

The first six years that I was working my mom traveled with me all the time, and I got kind of a bum rap for that. People were saying [in a carping voice] “Why does she bring her mother with her?” But it was because my mom was born and raised in Mexico City, and she loved opera—she would go to see the opera I think fairly often in Mexico—and she loved classical music in general and then when they moved up to Alaska, when she got married and moved to Alaska with my father, there was no opera there and so, I remember that being something when I was growing up, she always loved listening to the opera, and so for me to be able to bring her with me when I was singing, and that she got to come to all of the rehearsals and meet everyone and she became kind of the adopted mother of every cast, it was nice to have a mom. And so, looking back now, it was something I was really, really happy I was able to do for and with her. I don’t think a lot of people get to have that with their parents, at that time of their life. Generally, in your twenties you’re off working working working and don’t get to spend that much time [with them]. So, it’s something I can look back at and be very happy that I was able to do.

M: And she doesn’t do that anymore?

V: No, she’s not… she’s not mobile anymore.

M: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.

V: Yes.

M: Yes, it’s great. My kids are scattered all around the world. I have two in Sydney and one in Rome right now, and we all work together on the Berkshire Review, and so we’re in constant contact every day.

V: That’s nice. You just hear stories about, I guess it’s kind of like… What was that movie…? Cinema Paradiso, with the movie director who then goes back home because his father has died or something like that and he hasn’t seen his family in how many years… thirty years or something like that. I mean there are a lot of… nowadays, that people move so much, move around in the States, that most of the time you settle somewhere completely different from where you grew up and far away from your parents and maybe you get back for Thanksgiving, but that’s always such a stressful occasion anyway, and it’s kind of an artificial ambience… atmosphere… So, Yes, I think…my parents were always very supportive of me, and it was really nice to be able to give something back to them. And it was great for me having her with me also. She spoke every language existent basically! So if I went to Germany she spoke German and, you know, I did too but she was very independent: if I needed her to go out and get something or if she needed to do the grocery shopping and I didn’t feel like going out ‘cause it was too cold or whatever like that, you know, it was a big help and it was nice, it was really…and she enjoyed…I remember the first rehearsal that we went to together, I was terrified—well, it wasn’t the first rehearsal… it was the first rehearsal in a major company, in a big company. We were at the Dallas Opera, and Richard Bonynge was conducting Cenerentola, and I was singing Tisbe, and Mom and I were talking, “What do you think, can she come?”—“Well, come with us and we’ll see what happens,” and I walked into the rehearsal all terrified meeting Richard Bonynge—my goodness!—you know, my first big job. And so, I introduced myself and said, “Do you mind if my mom sat in rehearsal?” And he said, “Of course not! We’d love to have her!” That was so great, that was so neat. It was a lot of fun.

M: …she wasn’t there to boss him around or anything…

V: No, she was not a backstage mom in any way. Not at all. She was just a big universal fan club for everybody. She loved…loved the music, she loved watching the rehearsals, she loved watching how you put together a production. I must have done about a hundred-fifty productions of Barber of Seville and she sat in every single rehearsal and people were saying, “Aren’t you bored sitting here in rehearsal all the time?” and she’d say, “No, I love it.” But people kept asking her that, and so she finally started bringing needle work or knitting or something like that with her, so that she looked like she was doing something, so people thought…“Oh, okay, she’s occupied,” but it was just a façade so that people weren’t uncomfortable on her behalf that she might be suffering boredom or something. But she was happy as a clam to be sitting there and listening to people and watching the interactions and workings…and she loved it.

M: And of course it’s always different.

V: Yes, and everybody reacts differently to that. Because later on my dad travelled with me a little bit when I was touring here in the States and sometimes, but very rarely, he came to a rehearsal. I mean, he was always welcome but he just didn’t… And I remember we were rehearsing Capuleti e Montecchi in Pittsburgh and he came and we were rehearsing the fight scene between myself and the tenor. And, you know, I mean, I’ve done a little bit of fight work on stage. Not too much, but there are always things that you want to make sure that you get down because people can get hurt. You want it to be kind of as realistic as possible, but you want it to be as safe as possible also, co  mpletely safe. So we were rehearsing it over and over and over again with the fight coordinator and then afterwards I went back to my apartment with Dad and he said, “I just don’t understand why you have to do the same thing over and over and over and over and over….” Whereas Mom saw the details as to how things changed, and how a little movement could alter, you know, the whole visual of it basically, and she was fascinated by that.

M: I was thinking of something like that when I saw this projection of Anna Bolena. They had a little preview for Don Giovanni, and of course it was a bit from the opening scene, and there he is, you know, attacking Don Anna and it always looks like the same. And when you’re seeing it close up, on video like that, it’s just fooling around. I don’t see how anyone ever can make that realistic or really compelling except at…

V: a distance. Right, that is an interesting quandary about them bringing in TV cameras and getting the close-up on everything. It’s true, yes, you lose some of that… I mean, where it’s true that with a large, large house you lose some of that because of the extreme distance, then, on the contrary, you lose it when you get the extreme proximity also.

M: The Met is getting a lot of criticism for that. People are noticing that a lot of decisions are being made for the cameras and people feel, well, what was it…? It was a review, I guess, of the Faust, and the person felt that the sets were designed to look good for the cameras, but he didn’t like the way they looked on stage.

V: Interesting.

M: I’ve got to see that.

V: I didn’t feel that way. I don’t get the chance to go to the Met very often, but maybe the audience—I don’t know, it’s a complete conjecture on my part—but, maybe they’re used to a more classically set production and aren’t used to seeing…. Generally, in Europe, there’s a fine line of course between modern and what they call “Eurotrash” or whatever. I’m, I guess, more accustomed to seeing sets like that at the Deutsche Oper and all of them… The Vienna Staatsoper also does some contemporary work as well. And, I mean, a lot of the productions that I’ve been in… Rossini Tancredi also was a very modernly set piece. But here in the States, as well, I mean the Semiramide I did in the Minnesota Opera was very modern and used video projections as they did last night at the Met’s Faust, which I thought was a great idea. The opera I think… I don’t know the last Ring Cycle I guess was a real challenge technically because of all of the new things that they wanted to do and the weight of the stage and everything like that. But, I mean, beginning with… Any kind of stage work has always involved using the newest kind of technology and wowing people with magic and with the special effects and everything, and that’s what we love about movies now too. I mean, it’s always, “How far can you push the special effects?” And now that we have 3D and everything like that… And I think that’s something we had lost for a long time on stage in opera, is that use of special effects, the technology, that we have available. And I think video projection is something that’s phenomenal. I mean you can get a lot for your money with it, I think.

M: Mm. When it’s done well it’s fantastic.

V: Yes, when it’s done well. But I mean, we have all the possibility of having it done well. There are a lot of people who know how to design that, and it’s a matter of having the courage to use it and to figure out how to use it. I mean, obviously, any technique you have to learn how to use. You can’t just plop it up on stages and say, “Here it is! It’s new, new and improved!” You have to know what you’re doing with it. But I really thought it was interesting…some of the things they used with the video projections and the lasers last night. That was really interesting, had some interesting shapes and forms and movements that you don’t usually see, that I don’t usually expect to see when I go to see an opera…

M: I’m really curious to see that.

V: I thought it was neat. I mean, in terms of the choreography it was really neat to see dancers used on stage also. I mean, when you’re dealing with a company like the Met or Vienna or Paris, where they have dance companies associated with the house as well, I think it’s phenomenal when you get to see the dance associated with the rest of the piece. So often it’s just chorus doing the little sidesteps or whatever that they’re allowed to do on their contracts, without being paid extra for doing unusual choreography. So I enjoyed that part of it as well. I mean, a couple of the little choreography movements maybe were designed, like you were saying, for the camera kind of aspect. I found they kind of imitated a couple moments of Les Miz which I thought was a little dated. I mean, if you’re looking for a modern kind of approach, then you’re advised not to do Les Miz march and that kind of thing [laughter]. But anyway, apart from those couple of moments, I thought there were some really, really good ideas and the performances were magnificent. Jonas Kaufmann—it was the first time I’d heard him live, and it was really wonderful.

M: Yes, he’s amazing.

V: He is really amazing. And it’s such a wonderful technique that he has and wonderful delivery and it was great to see Russell Braun. I did my first Barber of Seville with him years and years ago. It’s always good to see people holding up and performing so well now. I mean, you see a lot of people drop off on the wayside and it’s always great to see familiar faces up on stage doing so well. And then René Pape also. I know he’s been around for a long time, and he’s such a great performer. Also because—it’s great—there are a lot of young people, and I was one of the young people once; now I’m not anymore one of the young people!), but a lot of the young people don’t last very long and there’s a lot that you can see in the interpretation and in the stage presence and in the choices that one chooses to make with the stagecraft and with their technique after one’s had twenty years of experience doing it, that you don’t see with the young people. And I’m enjoying that more and more, finding these people who have a past and have experience and have a good technique, so that the voice is in great shape, and they have so much to offer, it’s really, really wonderful.

M: People work too hard, I imagine.

V: People fly a lot. People do one gig in Vienna one day and then in Rio de Janeiro the next day or in Buenos Aires or wherever it is. It’s a great luxury to be able to do that kind of travel. It looks great on paper, and then when you actually get your body into to the place where you actually have to perform… I mean you can do it, but it does take it’s toll. I mean, my teacher, Claudia Pinza, she would always come across on the boat with her mom and her dad, when her dad came to sing here at the Met, he would have a contract for a year for various roles, both principle and comprimario kind of things, so he was singing a lot, but not every night was aleading … where the whole production was on your shoulders. Some days were fun, just kind of a little bit singing and more acting. And they came over with like seven big steamer trucks, and they had their cook, and they had their servants, and they had everybody, you know; the whole gang came over on the boat and they had rehearsals on the boat and Yes, so, really different now. And with the economy being the way it is, one tends to rehearse less, perform more in order to save money on the rehearsal costs. In terms of when one is doing concerts, most often the orchestra arrives on the day of the concert because they don’t want to have to pay the overnight hotel lodging more than one night for the orchestra. Singers generally are still afforded the arrival the day before. But it used to be that maybe you would arrive two days before, have a rehearsal the day before the concert and then do the concert. But things are getting much tighter and it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge especially for young singers who maybe don’t know how to pace themselves, who maybe don’t have the technique necessary to support that kind of a schedule. And a lot of things you can do when you’re young, but after awhile they start to tell on the system.

M: Yes…did you at some point make a decision to hold back a bit?

V: I did. I’ve also made some concessions to that, because, for example, on this Europa Galante tour, generally I would never travel, I don’t like travelling and singing on the same day. But I really want to do this tour with them, it’s a great opportunity, it’s something that I really wanted to do, so I said, “Okay, I can do two concerts in a row, but then I have to have a day off.” So it’s LA, Vegas, day off, Tucson, Denver, day off, and then actually I have two days off, and then New York, Kansas City and then we’re done. It’s always risky also, that time of year. You don’t know what kind of travel conditions you’re gonna find and, you know, travelling on the day of a performance…I really don’t like doing it. However, if it had to be, it had to be. And also I did something that I usually never do in San Francisco, I did four concerts in four days. That was facilitated by the fact that it was all in the Bay Area, so it was all travel by car to Stanford and to Berkeley. But still, those are tough periods and you really have to be in top form going into it and make sure that you know how to take care of yourself during to get through it that way and to get through it without having any damage. But I’ve been really happy. Like I say, I’ve been in it now for…not going on twenty years, not quite twenty yet, but so I have to say I’m really happy with where I am vocally right now and also the fun that I’m having on stage. The fun that I have performing I never used to have when I was a kid. I mean, I was always terrified, terrified of rehearsals—not of being on stage so much for performances—but I was terrified of rehearsals, those places where people could criticize what you were doing and nudge and poke and I felt like I was always outside of myself looking in, trying to second-guess the stage director or the conductor, and find their criticism before they had a chance to voice it. So I wanted to be the first one to criticize it and that was really difficult because you don’t have freedom to express yourself, you’re always second-guessing yourself the minute that something comes out of your mouth or the minute that your hand moves and you make a movement and so, with time and with experience, you gradually learn what you’re doing and achieve a confidence in what you’re doing and that’s where I feel I am and I’m really enjoying the work I’m doing now. [to be continued: Part 2]

1. Bing, Sir Rudolf, 5000 Nights at the Opera, Garden City, 1972.


About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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