Exclusive Interview with legendary Verdian Soprano, Aprile Millo on the 200th Anniversary of Giuseppe Verdi

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Verdian Soprano, Aprile Millo

Part I

The Last Verista:

Aprile, it is truly an honour and a thrill to talk to you about Giuseppe Verdi on this the 200th Anniversary of Giuseppe Verdi’s birth. You have been an inspiration and role model to young singers since your debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1984.  It must have been a thrill for you to sing Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra as your debut, but even earlier when you were 20, you won the prestigious premio of the Voce Verdiana in Busseto, Italy, Verdi’s home town.  It seems that from the first, your affinity has been with Maestro Verdi.  There are so many things I’d like to ask and so many things our readers, your fans, and young singers want to know.  The first thing I’d like to ask you is for your thoughts on the 200th anniversary of Verdi’s birth.  How do you feel about this composer and what does this 200th anniversary mean to you?

Aprile Millo:

If you were to crack open my soul his music would come pouring out. He has been a constant steady obbligato playing in the soundtrack of my life. I adore and revere him.

The Last Verista:

There have been some pretty dire situations occurring, as of late, like the closing of New York City Opera and rumours about closing Il Teatro alla Scala, which seems impossible to me.  What are you thoughts on the current period and how is this 200th Anniversary relevant to the present time?

It is especially poignant that this celebration of his birth occurs during a period of music history that is likely one of the most dire and unexpectedly nonchalant about the loss of many great institutions of music and impending threats of closure to many opera theaters, even the great temple of music that is La Scala. How amazing it is to have this opportunity, this invitation to recall excellence, to remember greatness; to embrace again a genius who I consider a man formed by his times but triumphant as he was not held hostage by them. His music does the same for us in our own times.  He had for me a very modern soul, which at times placed him at odds with the rigid cages society imposed upon themselves. The freedom of his flight in such a caught time amazes me. That we would be afforded this luxury to reacquaint and explore once more all that is this genius- Verdi,  gives us hope perhaps that his music itself will lead Italy and the musical world out of its trouble once again as he had all those years ago; I am hopeful that perhaps with this exposure to him the situation for classical music, especially opera music would improve.  The courage of this man, I adore.  He was such and is such a modern voice for his times and his message continues to resonate even now because of how he wrote in what I call a “Veristic Bel Canto Style,”  dealing with many grand subject matters, exploring the very intimate personal stories that sometimes play out against huge events in ways we would feel it…this occurs even today! Because of who he was as a man, a very rare combination of realist and idealist, it allowed him to act like a looking glass into the time he lived and carry that time into the future. I think this recognition of 200th anniversary of his birth comes just in the nick of time. We need his message always, but especially now. Our fight for the Arts in a way has to be reborn.

The Last Verista:

How do you feel about current artistic climate that we live in?

Aprile Millo:

There are many apps today for the I-Phone that if you don’t keep steady vigilance, they die.  In Japan I first saw them, and now everywhere, the app create virtual dogs or cats and other little creatures that you have to feed or talk to or play with or update, and I’m beginning to believe that music and various things that round out a soul follow the same premise as those apps.  If we don’t constantly keep some kind of vigil on ourselves and creatively add to ourselves, add to the experience of ourselves, we too will die in a spiritual sense but also sometimes in a physical sense. We calcify, we freeze in motion.

What’s going on today is simply that music has been neglected in a steady technological race for everything that’s unimportant but quick  dopamine highs that are a quick drug.  They peak high, and then leave you with nothing, whereas music is a rush that keeps on going…a gift that will make you happy in all the times of your life. Music is known to stamp a period of your life, it can release massive, massive, massive feelings of well-being or as the Italian’s call it, “ben essere,” which means “well being,” it allows one to feel fully realized as if you experienced more fully an event if music is joined to it, in your mind.  Our journey on earth is not just supposed to be a straight path.  It never is; we try in vain to make it that way, but it’s not.  Music shows us that along that path there can be so many lights that go off like shooting stars on a dark night, or a full moon.  Various pieces of music can be like light on that path.  Sadly today Classical music really does not  have enough chance to expose the richness of its variety to the younger minds which, it is scientifically proven, are more open to anything.  When they are most open they are not being exposed to or privy to any of the masterpieces so how do we expect them to understand it later that the “B” we’re talking about is not Justin Bieber. We’re talking about Bach, we’re talking about Beethoven and that won’t be part of their relative experience, so yes, this is a very critical time to be vigilant about promoting music, insisting that some of our power houses whom we elect, who we elect and then they promptly forget about us, that the “us” we talk about is a full rounded soul, at least given the opportunity to use the devastatingly beautiful colors that music can paint on a mind leaving a lasting imprint on the soul. They deserve that option.

Millo PAvarotti

As Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera with Luciano Pavarotti

The Last Verista:

In my own thinking about you and where you stand historically in the scheme of opera and music, I would say that you are a child of the past born on the cusp of the present. How does that make you feel?  You were part of a group of singers and sang with and knew some of the greatest voices that have ever existed. How does that make you feel as a singer in our present day’s climate? How do you merge these two worlds?

Aprile Millo:

I loved getting to know some of the truly legendary singers. They are very different and special beings, each one. Zinka Milanov was unique and feisty and full of great charm, in a completely different way then Renata Tebaldi…. who enveloped my heart very early on, and who influenced me greatly with Ponselle and Muzio rounding out the quad for me and later Albanese, and Olivero… Hearing Licia Albanese sing the Boheme duet with Ferrucio Tagliavini was a revelation.  The words meant everything, the atmosphere was drenched in total beauty and concentrated personality. EVERYTHING worked together to help each other paint a vivid picture of who and what they were singing.  They listened to each other in a way that spoke volumes.  There was a dignity, people arrived in full suit and tie and dressed impeccably even for early rehearsals. People lined the walls and snuck outside to hear the  Sitz Probes of the greats. The orchestra was even excited and played like Gods. Nilsson, Rysanek, Vickers, Price, Pavarotti, Domingo, Bergonzi, Sutherland, Cossotto, Milnes, MacNeil. You trusted the maestri to know your voice capabilities and to be able to teach you the styles, and according to your voice, WITH your own voice, you did the right way, the right styles, and you knew they would protect you. I would work my first Wagner, with a Walter Taussig who had worked with Rethberg and Flagstad. I am an Italian color voice yet they got something wonderful from me.  Merging today with then? I do so very difficultly because the opera world has been passed  to a new generation of people with very different criteria, that like every young group think they know it all and they have more to deal with now then we ever did before. It is a show now in the worst sense of the word. It always was, but it was a masterpiece, a piece of MUSIC that had to be presented. But nothing was more important than the sacredness of the music. Great theatrical minds spent years becoming familiar with the text and the drama and the very different demands that opera places on its actors.Nothing was done to deflate the singer, they were divine and doing an almost sacred work. No distractions. They spoke in hushed tones about the text and it’s beauty and the message. It wasn’t a profession it was a vocation. I identified with those who felt that way, still do.  It’s undergoing a transition of a sort and you have to hope that by the end of it, like in a sieve, that the important golden nuggets will stay at the bottom of the bowl and that your day of excavating will remain authentic to go forward in time intact and authentic. 

 Aprile deconstructed

There is an ancient study that Da Vinci, Shakespeare, Gallieo all of these marvelous minds–not only Madonna considers, called the Kabbalah, in which one of the thoughts is that you chose to come into the world at a certain time, and I think I came into this time period to help retain something of the old-school in the new.  When I came in the 80’s, we were going through much the same  thing we are going through now, where there were many incorrect voices singing the repertoire, a woeful disobedience to the composers wishes but mind you, I strode in where on one side  Leonie Rysanek, Leontyne Price, Sills, MacNeil, they were still singing, Joan Sutherland was singing, Marilyn Horne–all of these fabulous examples of how music should be sung, so it had a gravitas, a weight on the side of doing it correctly. And now we have very few exponents because tradition is often considered a “bad word.”  Fame is more important…. it matters not how you sing, just if you can be seen singing it. You’re not supposed to do anything that’s traditional because tradition has been reassigned to the word  “routine.”  “Tradition” is basically a word for accepted history of a performance carried forward by people who had been alive at the time of the first performance, the very first performances.  Say, Cilea or Mascagni or Verdi or Puccini, or Stravinsky, these men were all alive during the lives of the singers that helped form the traditions of a piece.  Those that worked with the composer sang on the stage presenting, what they believed, what they were told by the composer was the closest thing to the composer’s wishes, otherwise they would heard about it later. More or less from those early performances came, what they call, the “tradition”, what was accepted by the composer and in following what was accepted by the composer, a way of singing was passed on.  Further and most exciting was if you could add your own imagination, and that be accepted by the composer, then it was basically a chance to create with them there, you were given permission, a certain room to invent or be imaginative, and you would say to yourself “this is what the composer approved of.”  As in any document, those scribbled notes on a piece of paper can be manipulated and used to form another person’s idea of what they want to do, so the “tradition” was a “checks and balances” and not a dirty word at that time. Now, they use it as a word to suggest monotony, it takes a lot of humility to do someone else’s work and not impose your own desires on it. Why is this?  Perhaps because it seems no one seems to want to take the time: we have maestri coming out of school and thinking they know everything about Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini with just conservatory training. They end up sounding the same. There are exceptions but for the most part a maestro is like a fine wine, he gets better and more fully flavored with time. LOTS of working with different voices and finding ways to keep it authentic for each person. It seems like today they don’t.  It’s a lifetime study and I think that’s why we are in a lot of the trouble. It’s words and music and a particular desire to communicate that Verdi exemplified so completely.  He LOVED his singers and understood their fragile existence, so much so he established a retirement home for all those that would serve music. Yet another reason I love him.

 The Last Verista:

You mentioned that certain music gives you a sense of “ben essere.” What is it specifically about Verdi’s music that give you this feeling of “ben essere?” You’ve always had an affinity with his music.  You’ve sung the music of many different composers but Verdi has been your number one, yes?

Aprile Millo: 

Yes.  There is just something about the way he….he’s one of the first composers to address the familial situation in so deep and so incredibly enlightened way. A very, very revealing, almost nude, so exposed and real in the feelings that a father would feel for a daughter, that the son would feel for the father, and in the time that he did this, people didn’t speak so openly about these things.  It was against the constraints of the period.  That he then allowed, without needing even the words, he expressed in the very harmonies the feelings exact that go with these incredibly close, profound relationships that you have in life- that he could so so effortlessly is superb.  The way in which he wrote, the line…I call it “exulted bel canto,” or “verismatic bel canto” because in bel canto you would have, for example, 16 pages on the text “I love you,” and it would be in variations with all sorts of technical prowess, mainly for show.  It was much more a period of bel canto that showed the technical abilities of a singer and things you could do with the music/ For me Bellini, was of course, successful in making it something different. Bellini fashioned his music to mirror a time in poetry for me, a melancholy.  

Verdi took Bellini’s truth and honesty and took it a step further and made it more a real story telling; when each word is used it brings forward the concept, it brings forward the story so that when you get to the verismo school you are exactly as people spoke naturally, word for word moving the plot forward.  There isn’t so much repetition.  For me Verdi has one foot in another world and one foot here and I think it’s because at an early age he lost his family, and I think he never forgot that.  They were always at his side so he always wrote in a very spiritual way as if he had a contact with another world.

 Aprile Millo:

 

The Last Verista:

You mentioned the passing on of tradition and educating our youth on different composers and the arts in general and I think we live in a very politically charged climate and one that is centered on technology more than artistic freedoms, but the period in which Verdi lived was also politically charged.  Do you think that it was difficult for him to express these familial situations and turn the focus from politics to “la famiglia” after a period as tumultuous as the Risorgimento? This type of switch was pretty monumental.  What do you think about this?

Aprile Millo:

One of the great things he did living in a time….you know we’re living in a time where we are facing the same from less rounded people. His problem, as he writes, was the provincial mind.  He could not stand provincial minds.  He hated minds that were closed and rigid. He would really not be happy nowadays! What he dealt with then was ignorance.  What we’re dealing with now is ignorance as well,  so we’re bonded in many many different ways by the fact that music can only go so far if there are ignorant people.  So, in his time, he got passed them, got passed the censors, got passed all of the restrictions of his age by writing music that was so overwhelming that the crowds would literally be singing it in the street the next day. There is little way you can restrict a mob. Once you catch the public mind or the public heart, you’re in, and he found a way to do that very beautifully.  For me he became a living prism of his time and it showed it to be a refracted, edgy, often claustrophobic time.  He was nationalistic without being ridiculous.  He loved his country.  He took his country through the early operas on a journey back to themselves, and once they were there, he reminded them through his music and his stories about family, and family was everything to him. We did get in the “galleria years” where he used in his music what demeaningly they liked to call an “oom-paa-paa.” I didn’t miss the military feel of it.  I thought it was a son of Italy bringing his nation back to its feet. Once it was on its feet, he focused on the important things to keep it and its sons and daughters on their feet and the way to keep it a nation of dignified, gracious, evolved human beings was to remember the center of the universe, which was for him,  family.  So, everything that he wrote was about the intricate, inter-workings and complex tapestries of “family” relations and until the day he died he wrote about nothing but that. With Otello being one of the greatest operas I’ve ever heard in my life, and Falstaff–absolute genius work, a combination in his eighties, of everything that was so modern and beautiful and advanced, that he was able to absorb all that.  Aida, Forza del Destino–all of the operas that have this marvelous sense of the events happening outside…yes, important (dignity, respect, patria), but the family became the center of the real core that was the opera. It’s quite beautiful, and really quite amazing what he could do. 

  

The Last Verista:

Can you discuss with us your thoughts on the differences between “bel canto” idioms, say between Rossini, Bellini, and Verdi, where “recitativo” or “parlato” is concerned and how this impacts the way a singer might present it?

Click on the player to hear Aprile’s response.

The Last Verista:

Can you explain your feelings about how Verdi presents his “cantilena” as opposed to Puccini’s, for example.  What is it about Verdi’s melodies for you, and what are the difficulties of singing Verdian cantilena as opposed to any other composer? How are his  melodies born for you? How does it begin as a small germ and then become Aprile Millo’s Leonora? If you had to  give advice to a young singer who is approaching Verdi’s music, what are the things that are difficult or require the most attention?

Click on the player to hear Aprile’s response.

Aprile and audience

Check in tomorrow for Part II of this fascinating interview when Aprile Millo talks about Verdi’s heroines and gives some very personal reactions to her beloved Verdi.

A portrait of Aprile Millo as Leonora in Il Trovatore in Carl Plansky’s series, “Sacred Monsters”

Millo Sacred Monsters

Purchase Aprile Millo’s Verdi Arias Album by clicking below.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Congratulations.Wonderful nterview….

  2. I am reminded of what Goethe said, “A man should hear a little music…every day of his life…in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul”


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