Exclusive Interview with Aprile Millo on the 200th Anniversary of Verdi’s Birth: Part II

Aprile as Aida large

Aprile Millo, one of the greatest Aida’s in history

Part II

The Last Verista:

The way that you are most connected to Verdi is via his heroines, so I’d like to delve into these amazing characters with you.  First, Luisa Miller and Amelia in Simon Boccanegra. How did these characters influence what was to come for you, vocally, and what was your journey toward singing them?

Aprile Millo: 

First, let me address how they came to me. The first was Simon Boccanegra. Because of the maturity of my instrument and because I was advanced at a young age, it was very hard to hold me back. For the early part, my mom (Margherita Girosi) believed that I should stay in Bel Canto, and I remained in the Bel Canto repertoire and I loved it. She  had felt that putting a large voice in something like Mozart would have crippled it and I’m pretty sure it would have crippled me. She said, “Always put the bigger voices in Bel Canto;  it teaches them to make the voice steady supported by the air in perfect smooth vowels and grow naturally over a longer period.” It also keeps you healthy and buoyant.  So when we came to Verdi, and when I came to the Met, it was difficult. My great friend Larry Stayer and Charlie Riecker did what they could for me and were my lights in a dark time.  I was refusing small roles and developing a chip on my shoulder.  Until Jimmy (Levine) got involved I didn’t feel safe, and they had great people, but no one I felt, got who and what I was.  

Jimmy graciously saw my growing agitation and he said come sing for us,  his participation hands on came extensively after they caught my message in a Young Artists follow up “Audition”.  He knew I was arguing with everyone and not very happy and frankly after I had sung for Von Karajan who had covered his face when I told him I was in an apprentice program at the Met.  He belabored, “You are not for that.  You have imagination and are an artist.  They will not know what to do with you and will stifle you!” I was even more unhappy.  I explained that James Levine would be in control of me and only him. My Mother stepped in again, and said “See what James Levine says. He isn’t going to make a mistake. Trust him.”  That said, when I returned I was asked to do a follow up audition and I did.  It was only after I sang the “Tu Che Invoco” and the “”O nume tutelar” from La Vestale that they realized what I really was.  In the audience was a famous coach and maestro from the olden days at La Scala, a great gentleman who Jimmy had asked to coach young voices at the Met named Dick Marzollo, and with whom I had prepared my Ernani for La Scala.. Levine had the right idea always, he was just terribly busy. Well after this audition, Marzollo stood up for me and waxed lyrical about my talent saying the right things to suggest they had a  rare voice and that it was a very old-fashioned, well-produced instrument and “she’s only 22-23 years old,” not to let me get away.  When Jimmy (Levine) became involved in working with me, he was like a young Serafin.  His knowledge of the psychology of what it took to sing rivaled anyone I had ever known….HE KNEW opera, LOVED opera, He finally said “If you will stay calm and work with David Stivender, who was not only the Choral Director of the massively talented chorus of the Met, but a Mascagni scholar and a really fine conductor who Jimmy knew would know what to do to get my best work and prep me well…Jimmy would make me the leading Verdi voice at the Metropolitan.

A complete version of Luisa Miller, starring Aprile Millo (Roma, 1990)

What clinched it, especially knowing the historic nature of that house, was when he finished saying….”You will be able to put your own stamp on the history of this house!” I was no fool, I listened and thrived with the combination of Stivender and the fabulous Rita Patané who herself had been a fabulous soprano and student of Maria Carbone. I finally relaxed. Jimmy rightly asked me to prepare Simon Boccanegra because for a young Verdi Voice she has to have it all, and yet it is a great mix of lyric and spinto.  She is the perfect preparation for young Verdi voices. She deals with the elements that you’ll later deal with in the larger repertoire and the step after that is either a Luisa Miller or a Trovatore.  Trovatore is usually better before a Luisa Miller.  Luisa Miller is a much larger role than they give her credit for and she’s now being sung by a lot of lyric sopranos, which is not really correct.  It has to have a real bite. 

So for me, Aida, was the combination of the two that I really felt the most comfortable with because I felt it was a dark lyric, with a nice penetrating sound that enjoyed flight, enjoyed being high and floating, enjoyed all of the things that I had learned from the Bel Canto. In the Trovatore I felt absolutely at home.  If you were to ask what were the linchpins in my career in Verdi’s provisioned fly and his magnificent sense of voice and understanding the voice, they would be Simon Boccanegra, Il Trovatore, Otello, Luisa Miller, and Don Carlo. These were all magnificent growth spurts.  What I really would love to have done and what I may do just in disc is Traviata or little extracts of it.  I’m looking at her with different eyes than I did then. I do wish I had sung her earlier. I also wish I had sung a Vespri Sicliani,they had offered to me twice at the Met because there is some gorgeous gorgeous music to be sung.  Again, it would be a pleasure to leave that in a time capsule, and I might still do that.

 The Last Verista:

Can you talk to us a bit more about Leonora and her music?  Which part of that role for you was the most satisfying as an artist, as a singer?

Aprile Millo: 

I would have to say the entirety of the last act or at least the music beginning in the middle of the third act, from the “L’onda dei suoni istici.” The duet shortly before “Di Quella Pira.” There’s something about the way that music fit. When the tenor is trying to coo with her and she’s coo-ing back and they’re going to be married or they have been married (that’s up in the air), she’s thinking about her wedding day, and he is too but is called away to take care of his mother.  There again is another force of destiny that we don’t even see, that the mother would kill.  They say the story is ludicrous and it’s not. So, you have the “Di Quella Pira” which then sets up with all this incredible blaze, you have her more or less trying to soothe things underneath his cell, which in those days was not in some precinct somewhere but usually under a tower. They would keep the enemy of the state very high up so no one could  be stolen back  or taken and set free. You would have to climb an embankment, you would have to climb up into the heavens, so to speak, so of course it wasn’t so easy. Monty Python not withstanding….like catapulting yourself over a bridge!   

 

millo-trovatore

For her, my favourite in the Leonora are, her arrival in the convent, “Perche Piangete.” There is something about her flight there that in that melody is the child she would never have, is the marriage she will never have, is the love that she will never experience.  All in that seven or eight bars, leading to the entrance to the convent upon which they are stopped by the armies of both men who are trying to stop her from getting in there. So the “Degg’io volgermi,” all of that magnificent writing that I used to love to spin that out so it was absolutely a lament, but a resigned lament. The words needed to take on the sense of being next to God but not totally there. If she were totally there, she would be happy so they always had to have this sense of melancholy borrowing from the Bel Canto, which to me sounds very similar to a Lucia type of vein. 

Leading into the “D’Amor Sull’Ali Rosee,” for me revolves around the middle voice.  My middle voice is always where I knew whether I was healthy or I’m not. If I have the middle voice, then I have the bottom and the top. The middle voice for “D’Amor” is so important because you’re really staying there the majority of the time, except for the beautiful flights where she’s trying to get up to him and Verdi writes this message as if it’s on these tiny wings of song that are placed musically on the staff.  You might interpret her, like a bird, not necessarily the dying swan, but in that same way trying to get out of her own body to get to him.  When she hears his voice and all of this music stops dead and and you feel again that sense of the “L’onda dei suoni mistici” that he’s singing somewhere about how he wants her and he misses her.  He’s lamenting the fact that they’re not together, catapults her toward her inevitable destiny because she arrives  on that scene with poison in her ring.  She knows she’s going to have to do something quite formidable in order to get him out. This is pretty much her swan-song and where Verdi uses some pretty gossamer moments. 

The way he wrote it, it is not written pianissimissimo, but it depends on if the singer is able to effect that then it lends a truly gorgeous aspect, but mustn’t be a trick.  You can do so much with this music that’s already doing everything for you without your having to do much.  You go today and hear people say this music is so fabulous but they’ve done nothing with it. They’re right, it is fabulous, it will be considered great whether you’ve got a great artist singing it or not, but when you have a great artist singing it, then “oh my.”  It takes on that other dimension where you can truly drive your audience to distraction. You can take them close to the sun… close to their truest emotions and bring them back safely.  He gives you the possibility to truly drive them out of their minds with the beauty of it. and their recognition of themselves in it.

The Last Verista:

Can we talk about us about Aida, a role that landed you a major place historically as one of the greatest Aida’s of all time? What about this particular character and her music, with which you are so closely linked.

To hear Aprile Millo’s commentary on Aida, click on the player below. 

 

Millo Aida

With Dolora Zajick

The Last Verista:

I’d like to show you this picture of Verdi, taken of Verdi at Sant’Agata.  What does this photograph make you feel? What is your inner most feeling about this man?

Verdi Seated at Sant'Agata

To hear Aprile Millo’s response to the photograph, click on the player below:

The Last Verista:

I’d like to read you one of Verdi’s only surviving references to the issue of “modernizing” his style.  Younger generations of composers were urging him to modernize and so Verdi was in a difficult position, but his comments here mention that he realizes what the situation is.  The letter was to Count Opprandino Arrivabene, in March 1868.  He wrote:

“I know, too, that there is a music of the future, but I think at present and will continue to think next year that to make a shoe you need some leather and some skins!…What do you think of this stupid comparison, which means that to make an opera you musc first have music in your body?!…I declare that I am and will be an enthusiastic admirer of the  avveniristi provided they make some music for me…in whatever form, with whatever system, etc., but it must be music!…Rest assured. I may very well lack the strength to arrive where I want to go, but I know what I want. (Marcello Conati and Mario Medici, eds, CarteggioVerdi-Boito (Parma: Istituto di Studi Verdiani, 1978), xxxiii). 

Aprile Millo:

Well, let me ask you. “What do you think he wanted?”  He said, I know what I want.  What do you think Verdi wanted out of music?

The Last Verista:

I’m humbled that you would ask me my thoughts.  I think Verdi was well aware of imposing factions, so to speak, and by that I mean the “German threat” that was discussed in many of the historical documents.  Wagner’s innovation was a serious issue in Italy in Verdi’s time and Wagner had completely wiped out the Italian conventions that composers had held so beloved as part of their tradition.  No more cavatina/cabalettas, no more number arias, no more solita forma, no more orchestra being subservient to the voice.  Of course, these innovations urged the younger generation to do something and to do it quick before operatic supremacy was completely taken from Italy and so of course they were going to harass, if you will, their leader, Verdi.  I think Verdi was caught between a rock and a hard place.  Essentially, he was powerful enough to do whatever he wanted and his operas were never going to go out of fashion–that is a given, but I also believe that Verdi wanted something new, as well.  I believe that he maintained middle period style as long as he could but something shifted in him later around the period before Aida in the mid 1860s and from then on, beginning with Aida and Ghislanzoni, and especially in the collaborations with Boito–the revision of Simon Boccanegra, the libretti for Otello and Falstaff, we see perhaps what Verdi was hinting at.  What might have come had he lived longer is a truly fascinating thought.

 What do you think he wanted?

Aprile Millo:

If you realize that this man in his 80s was going to mirror much of the fire of the nineteen year old composer, the twenty year old composer, the thirty-something year old composer, the fifty year old man who had to deal with censors every five minutes, he felt that he was just dealing with another type of censorship and so he was going to fight modernity.  Mind you, he did absorb it and he did find those skins and he put them on shoes that satisfied HIM. Now if someone had known how to present this to him, I would have asked, “What are the components that you feel must be present in order for it to be music?” If it’s what we see that he left printed on the page, then it’s pretty specific.  I don’t think he would have been a very big fan of Stravinsky, let’s say, but I think he would have appreciated it after he listened to it for months at at time.  He might have embraced the dissonance or the ambiguity. For him, music was very solid, straight forward, which was how it was built…from him playing the organ in the church as a young man.  He saw it in chords that were harmonic or dissonant that required resolution.  He didn’t see it as what evolved and what would go forward in the palate of Mascagni and Puccini…but I don’t see them as that different. I just think this idea of modernity was presented to a stubborn 80 year old guy and it recalled for him what these censors were trying to do to him as a younger man. 

The Last Verista:

The fact that he left Falstaff as his final statement is very telling because this is an opera  that went against a major censorial issue of the past, the separation of genres–that is, the separation of comedy and tragedy.  He had issues with this censorial faction when he was attempting to compose King Lear and also with Rigoletto and Macbeth (where the entire Porter’s scene had to be ommitted). Even if Verdi loved Shakespeare and wanted to model his operas after the plays, King Lear has a major character that is a Fool, and it would have been inordinately difficult for Verdi to skirt around that issue. Leaving a buffo character, leaving a comedic opera like Falstaff as a final statement after a deluge of serious subjects is, I think, directly related to his written comment.

Aprile Millo:

He left a thank you to Boito, I think by inserting a fugue in Falstaff when he had initially fought against those types of forms.  It’s almost as though he’s saying, “I get what you’re saying, but do you get that I could have done that, and I did do it and I’m 80 something, so now it’s your game.” It’s very interesting. And so wonderful for Boito who loved him so, and pushed him to greater heights. 

The Last Verista:

I’d like to read you the following text, which are the final lines of Falstaff, the final operatic text that Verdi left.

         Tutto nel mondo é burla.
          L’uom é nato burlone,
          La fede in cor gli ciurla,
          Gli ciurla la ragione.
          Tutti gabbati! Irride
          L’un l’altro ogni mortal.
          Ma ride ben chi ride
          La risata final. 

Aprile Millo: 

Basically this is his “risata finale.” He’s having the last laugh. Plain and simple, the very last words are “La Commedia è finita,” but it’s his comedy, it’s his finish and he gets, more or less, to have the last laugh. It shows him in such an advanced state using so many palates that he had used before, using all these idioms that had been supposedly investigated by other composers.  There he is. He’s able to do it with his own Italian imprint.  This is a victory and yet another reason why they should just put his face on the flag of Italy and be done with it because he’s just so much of what Italy represents in its best form and what should represent Italy.

The Last Verista:

I’d like to read you a statement of Giuseppe Giacosa, the librettist, who was at Verdi’s bedside when he died.  I’d like your reaction on this:

“The maestro is dead. He carried away with him a great quantity of light and vital warmth.  We had all based in the sun of his Olympian old age.  He died magnificently like a fighter redoubtable and mute.  The silence of death fell on him a week before he died.  With his head bent, his eyebrows set, he seemed to measure with half shut eyes an unknown and formidable adversary, calculating in his mind the force that he could summon up in opposition.  Thus he put up an heroic resistance.  The breathing of his great chest sustained him for four days and three nights; on the fourth night the sound of his breathing still filled the room; but what a struggle, poor maestro!  How magnificently he fought up to the last moment!  In the course of my life, I have lost persons whom I idolized, when grief was stronger than resignation.  But I have never experienced such a feeling of hate against death, such loathing for its mysterious, blind, stupid, triumphant, infamous power.  For such a feeling to be aroused in me I had to await the end of this old man of ninety.”  

Verdi died on the 27th of January at ten minutes to three in the morning, 1901.

Aprile Millo:

It’s important I guess to see how a person is in death because he so transfigured life. What I love is that Mr. Giacosa was able to detail an event in such a way that you feel like you’re there. And, if I were there I’d probably be ears ringing and hating death just as much as I do now and he did then.. He touches me greatly and I would have felt a darkness descend and then a sense of radiant peace as I am sure he arrived in Paradise. For all the beauty he gave the world…I do not care if he believed or not,  he wrote like a man with a message from God.  The interesting thing is that Verdi may have furrowed his brow and and dug his heels in but he went to the “paradise” he glimpsed and helped us see always in his music….. It must have felt like home. He said Good Bye; “o terra addio.” Finally met Manzoni, saw his first wife and his beloved children, embraced his loved ones there and his little puppy Lou-Lou of whom he wrote on his tombstone, was his very best friend.  He went from this earth to the one he painted for us. What you see in the image of the death mask is a vision of someone’s face saying, “It is exactly what I thought it was.” There is a quiet resignation and when life ceases and we realize that we’ve actually had a glimpse of paradise through Verdi’s music we’re going to be a lot more thankful to him than we were in life, and we’re going to say–for all those who miss the chance to hear him–sigh…what a loss for you, and what an awesome gift it was for me to know this genius.

The Last Verista:

Click on the player below to hear the remainder of the interview:

The Last Verista:

On behalf of singers the world over, and young singers who are looking to study Verdi, thank you for bringing such an honest, real, full of passion, and incredibly knowledgable perspective to us, but moreover, for your presentation of Verdi’s heroines.  You have a way of delivering him to us so that we feel a little bit closer to him every time we hear you sing his music, and so thank you for your incredible interpretations of his women and for your immense talent.  I’m sure if Maestro Verdi were able he’d thank you, as well.  Grazie mille, Aprile.  Sei grande.

Aprile Millo:

Thank you so much, Mary. You are so filled with music, with love for it, and at so young an age you have given so much of your life to the study of music.  Cannot wait to see you enjoy it now, as you begin to sing, and share your many gifts with the world. It has been my honor and privilege to witness your journey and your faith and love in music. God bless you with all you desire, and know that this colleague prays for your success and happiness as I pray for my own.  Brava.  Viva Verdi!!!!!

 

With Placido Domingo

To purchase any of Aprile Millo’s recordings, click on the links below.

    

    

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. LOVE THE INTERVIEW .CONGRATULATIONS TO “THE LAST VERISTA” AND TO THE GREAT DIVA APRILE MILLO….


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