The Determined Diva: An Interview with Nelly Miricioiu

The Romanian-born soprano chats about a rare London recital, her vocal crisis and her varied career

14 May 2009

Nelly Miricioiu

From Lady Macbeth to Tosca, from Handel to Respighi, from the Met to La Scala, Nelly Miricioiu has been conquering the operatic world for several decades.

For twenty years she was a regular face on the Covent Garden stage, and her high-voltage performances, coupled with numerous titles in Opera Rara's bel canto catalogue, have made her into something of a cult diva.

But a challenge which has long eluded the Romanian-born British soprano is a presence on the recital stage. At last, that's going to be corrected next week on Wednesday 20 May, when she sings her first solo concert at St John's, Smith Square. As is typical of this artist, the repertoire on offer is wide, combining Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi with the music of Romania, plus Ravel, Rodrigo, Lennox Berkeley and Meyerbeer.

It's only the second time in her long career that Miricioiu has given a recital in London, despite it having been her hometown for more than two decades. 'I'm quite emotional about it,' she admits with a rare hush in her voice. 'It was never an easy path for me in England. My performances at Covent Garden were always very sporadic. It's true I sang there a lot, but the shows that were given to me were never very high-profile in terms of their importance in the overall season, and they didn't make a huge impact because of that.'

The first person who really helped her to gain status in this country was the much-missed visionary impresario Patric Schmid, who encouraged Miricioiu by featuring her in recordings and performances on his specialist Opera Rara label. She appeared in numerous complete recordings for Opera Rara, including Donizetti's Maria de Rudenz, Roberto Devereux and Rosmonda d'Inghilterra (the latter with Renée Fleming), Rossini's Ricciardo e Zoraide, Mercadante's Orazi e Curiazi and Pacini's Maria, regina d'Inghilterra, as well as several solo recital discs for them.

'It was the continuity that made a difference,' she explains. 'I think an artist like me needs a continuity to have the right kind of platform, because I'm somewhere in the middle: through my singing, my way of looking at my music and my career, I belong to a very old school of singers, and I follow the tradition of those people; but on the other hand, partly because of my age and partly because of my mentality, I'm very modern.

'I like to combine the two, but somehow I got trapped in the middle,' she continues, with obvious dissatisfaction. 'I think it was more obvious in England than any other country. Of course, my frustration is that at Covent Garden, I wasn't quite received in the way I feel as an artist. I was never able to choose the projects, for instance. Even Norma, which I did at the Royal Opera House, happened only because Maestro Edward Downes loves Norma and they had a space which they didn't know how to fill.'

The solution came from an unexpected quarter. For the last nine years, Miricioiu has joined the Chelsea Opera Group for an annual series of acclaimed concert performances of unusual operas. 'I found my home,' she says contentedly. 'I found a tremendous love and passion, not only for what I was doing, but in themselves. They were taking pride in their work, and I was amazed. We have a long-standing relationship now.

Nelly Miricioiu as Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux, ROH 2003'It's not that I command what I want to do,' she assures me. 'I think I'm extremely fortunate to have Duncan Orr, who actually understands my voice. He was a fan of mine a long time ago – he saw my first performance in Edinburgh – so he said that when he first came to me, he couldn't believe his luck!

'But I needed a platform to be known in London. I'm British, for goodness' sake: do you know how few people realise that I'm British, that I'm married to an Englishman, that I live in England, that my son is English? It's crazy. I remember that Rodney Milnes happened to be in Paris reviewing I vespri when I took over at short notice, and in his review he wrote something like, "What is wrong with us British that we can't recognise that she is British? What's wrong with being proud that she's one of us?" I feel very sad about it,' she adds with obvious emotion.

'Yet with Duncan, we started to build up a beautiful public who knew that whatever came next was going to be exciting. We were more daring with titles that the British public doesn't know and which are not often done in London, like Semiramide or Il pirata. It became very popular, and now it's always sold out; I'm quite proud about that. So that's the platform I've managed to build in London around my opera career.'

But in recital, it's been a more difficult journey. 'I've tried a few times with the Wigmore Hall, where I did a very successful recital in my very early days,' she explains, 'and they said they weren't interested, when my agent approached them. I want to do it because I want people to see other parts of me – other things I can do. It's my way of having a very direct, intimate contact with the public. I don't sing Lieder – I'm not a singer for that, because my temperament doesn't allow! So I choose very operatic things, and St John's, Smith Square was the only venue that would accept it – they want to be operatic. That's great for me!'

When I ask how she chose the programme, Miricioiu says that 'Most of it is simply because I love it. I also want to have a diversity. I am starting with Joaquin Rodrigo because it's stylistically very interesting: it's similar to a cappella singing, and I love that kind of thing. I do Donizetti songs, which are very operatic and belong to my bel canto. I try to mix things for the public's taste: I'm very melancholic as a personality, and I have a mad sense of drama. Most of the time, I love the death scenes – that's my excitement!' she jokes.

'I think it's something to do with being Romanian. We're very tragic, in a funny way. You can see it in our eyes: it's a kind of sadness. As a child, I was worked very hard, and my mother was very aware that life was not going to be easy for us, so she installed focus and discipline in us. It helped that I was a prodigy, so she knew what path to take, and asked round for help. I was charged with imagination: I used to sing to the trees, and even now I stand in my room and sing out into the garden. One of the songs in my recital is about a forest, and another is about birds. It's an affinity that I take into my music.'

Nelly Miricioiu as Lucrezia Borgia at Opera Australia, 1996The soprano explains that her childhood continues to cast a shadow over her personality and that by extension, this has influenced the shape of her recital. 'One time, as a child, I sang a song that my mum taught me in a concert at my school. I sang the song to my doll, and the words went: "I have one mum and one God". Of course, with the Communist system, the next day my father was put in prison. We were moved away from the city.

'It's funny though: certain things in my life have been very negative, yet if I hadn't gone through them, I wouldn't have been here. So yes, my father was moved to another city, but it was Iaşi, the capital of Moldova, and it was the greatest city in which my artistry could take shape. I was nine years old when we moved, which was very late compared to other people; they were at music school from being six years old. I had no instrument; all I had was musicality and an unusual voice. They accepted me at the music school, but I had to do two years in the space of one because I had to catch up. It was hard work, because they were very tough.

'When you're young,' she adds with knowing humour, 'you don't see the just things; you see the unfairness, and you live through life with that kind of unfairness. It's only later that you realise, yes, things are sent into your life for a purpose. It's not all gloomy!'

So Miricioiu's programme for the recital at St John's combines both the optimistic and the sad aspects of her personality. 'An example of this is in the Donizetti song 'E morta', which is about losing your child,' she says. 'To me, it's more to do with a general sadness: it's about anything sad that happens to you.

'Another one is 'La Zingara' [The Gypsy], which has a connection with the sense of freedom that I always wanted. It's something I totally identify with – it's like I always wanted to do Carmen, I just didn't have the voice for it!' she laughs. 'I understand Carmen, because it's exactly what I feel. And it's a dilemma, because I was brought up very rigidly, with rules, yet I want freedom. I still feel a kind of imbalance, because I realise now that the sense of freedom is my spirit, but I've been too regimented to really allow my spirit to have that kind of freedom. It's something in the genes, I think. If you ask my son what he wants, he doesn't really know: he just wants freedom. My mother is eighty years old and still wants some freedom. And we still don't know what the hell that freedom is! It makes no sense to us, in a way.

'Yet from time to time, I achieve a kind of freedom. There is something self-destructive in my personality. I feel free, then I feel guilty for it. Because feeling free means you have to break your own rules, and I hate that. I still want the rules, because I still want to be in the driving seat. It's very confusing, but I'm a very confusing artist – that's why I interpret so many roles! I understand all these different women very well.'

A perhaps surprising element of Miricioiu's programme is the inclusion of four of Lennox Berkeley's French songs. But the soprano's association with the Berkeley family goes back quite a way. 'I'm friends with Julian, Lennox Berkeley's son, and Tony, who is Julian's partner,' she explains. 'When I first came to the UK, I did Traviata in Scotland, and the costume designer was Michael Annals. When I finished the production, I came to London, and I was looking for a flat. I didn't have very much money and spoke very little English. I got myself some accommodation, but it was horrible and I called Michael the next day in tears and said "I can't stay here!" So Michael picked me up, and I stayed at his house. He helped me to find an apartment, which happened to be Tony and Julian's, because they were staying at Lennox's house. They charged me very little, and we became really close friends.

Nelly Miricioiu as Marie Victoire, Rome 2004'Lennox was the first person to organise a concert – at his house – to introduce me to the English society. One day, I asked Tony if I could see some of Lennox's music, and I absolutely loved it,' she adds with emphasis. 'So I sang some of it in a concert in Holland, and I thought it would be an honour for me to sing it in Britain, too. Lennox was fluent in French, and since I don't want to sing in English with an accent, I'll be singing some of his French music. They are very beautiful songs – they're almost like little tableaux. They're romantic, and there's a Spanish-style song too, so again I'll be showing different sides of my personality.'

The recital is completed by more familiar Miricioiu repertoire. 'I'll be singing 'Tu che la vanità' from Don Carlo, which is my favourite aria of all time,' the soprano says with enthusiasm. 'I always insist that the pianist plays the whole introduction, because for me it's the essence of the music. I can't tell you how deeply I feel about this piece. It's heaven! I'm also doing 'Grace, grace pour toi meme' from Robert le Diable because it's my husband's favourite – he adores it! It's funny, because I didn't expect it to be so successful. Every time I chose it, I did so because of him, but everyone seems to love it.

'I also have an aria from Macbeth, which is the latest development of my voice. Why do I connect with this opera? When I was growing up in Romania, I had to fight hard to survive: the government didn't allow you to have an individual personality. They kept telling me I was rubbish. I had to work hard to keep on believing: it really was my mother and my God that made me carry on. That's when I became very tough. My innocence and naivety permanently turned into hurt. I have something in my personality that makes me turn tough when I'm continually hurt. I'm like a blade at that point. That is Macbeth for me: it's like, "You bastards! You won't get me!"

'But then I feel guilty for it, so I need to redeem myself with Don Carlo!' she jests.

The soprano describes how she chooses the operas that she performs. 'With all my roles, I have to be able to identify with the characters. I can't be a false performer. The two roles that were hardest for me were Respighi's La fiamma and Poulenc's La voix humaine. I was crying every day with La voix humaine: I could not understand that woman, and for me to sing artificially is a killer. I can't do it. I need to know that some part of me will connect. So although La voix humaine was hard musically, the fact that the character was too defeatist was much harder to deal with. I'm not that type of person: however low I go, I'll always survive. I also can't accept the fact that she's always saying, "Oh yes my darling, you're so right". She's so apologetic all the time. I did manage to find my way, though!' she adds with a smile of satisfaction.

I ask whether there are any roles she's not done because she couldn't connect with the woman, and she says 'No. But I can tell you that I'm not greatly in love with Tosca, for example. What's interesting is that in the new score I've got of Tosca, it says that Puccini himself was not convinced by it. I know why I don't like it: musically and vocally, it belongs to a very mature woman, but the character belongs to a young girl. I find it very hard to put it together. Only when Tosca is a young woman does it make sense that she falls for Cavaradossi rather than Scarpia. Being young, of course you go for the idealist. But if it were me, I'd fall in love with Scarpia every time!' she giggles. 'I'd think, wow, this is the real man! So I have a problem there. Cavaradossi is just too weak.

Nelly Miricioiu with Magda Olivero after Francesca da Rimini in 2000'It's like in Norma, the relationship between Norma and Adalgisa is much more interesting than the one between Norma and Pollione. Pollione is only sacrificed somewhere in the middle of these two. By and large, the roles that I really loved are the strong ones. But it also has to have a very interesting text, and I couldn't relate to the text of Tosca. Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda have more intelligent texts; they have an affinity with me, with my way of doing things. I love the second act of Tosca, and I've done the role many times, but I have a problem with the first and third acts. I'm not convinced by Lucrezia Borgia either. I'm not phoney when I go onstage and sing these roles, but I prefer other characters.'

From 21 to 27 August of this year, Miricioiu will give a week of masterclasses at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, preceded by a concert on 20 August. The soprano explains her approach: 'When I started to do masterclasses, I looked around at my colleagues and I could see that you just can't learn everything in a week.

'I'm not the type of person who wants to do masterclasses to make myself look clever or to show off: I really love my kids and I really want them to get something out of it. What I'm doing more and more – because I'm learning as I go – is to try and connect with everyone's personality, to inspire them to have confidence in their talent, to inspire them to search, and not to be stuck with just one teacher's knowledge. Every teacher has limitations, and as a student your duty is to find your way through. Yes, you have to know about technique, but you also have to promote your instincts. I don't just want to be like a textbook: the life element has to be there. Unfortunately, I've seen a lot of kids nowadays who are so obsessed with technical issues that they do it at the expense of art. I want something that has an energy, that doesn't stop. For me, technique on its own means that the energy has stopped. I want my kids to start looking at the words, and to understand why the music is there, why the pauses are there. So if I can trigger something that opens a door for them in that week, I'll be perfectly happy.

'Up to now, they seem to have responded beautifully to that, because I appeal to their natural gifts - their basic instincts - rather than to the voice. Of course, I give them knowledge too, and I base myself on the three golden rules: breathing, pronunciation and flexibility. You don't touch them. But I see so many children who have been taught with amazingly fixed ideas. My belief is that when they come to the class, the talent is there: I'm not going to make their talent. What I do is to see what their talent wants. I change things from one pupil to another, because certain things are not applicable to everybody. And in order to uproot something, I tend to exaggerate, to wake up the awareness. That's a lot more important than having fixed rules.

Nelly Miricioiu as Adriana Lecouvreur in Rome'I want them to lose their inhibitions. And I don't want them just to sing well for me and then not know what to do when they go home: I want them to be able to find their own way.'

Miricioiu admits that her own training is an ongoing process, and says that she feels very blessed. 'I had some things naturally that other people work years to get,' she declares with total sincerity. 'I had three octaves in my voice, so I had access to lots of things. I was lucky that the music school I attended in Iaşi offered an education of tremendously high quality. They had fabulous teachers: they were either composers, conductors or philosophy teachers. We had a very broad education, and I really benefited from that because it gave me an understanding of such a wide variety of subjects. We were trained so that we could go into a conventional career, if there wasn't a placement for us in music. That helped me, later on, to have an intellectual approach to my roles. I also had a rich background in terms of the variety of styles and periods of music they introduced us to: it meant I could do lots of different kinds of roles in my operatic career.

'The passion of our teachers in Iaşi produced excellent results. My coach in Romania said, "I'm not going to teach you, I'm just going to make you aware of your voice".

'When I came to the West, I never believed in singing teachers. It's not that I'm against teachers – I think everyone needs a teacher – but we all have different ways of doing things. So when I came here, I asked my agent for somebody who teaches – but not a teacher!'

The solution was David Harper, who is also Miricioiu's accompanist for the recital at St John's. 'He's a coach, he has knowledge of repertoire, and he has a fabulous ear,' the soprano says with admiration. 'Through my entire career, he's been my very best. His understanding and taste are impeccable, and he remains my collaborator to this day. I never get on with any other pianist quite as well as I do with David; it's unique. We don't speak: we just start singing, and we're at one.'

I ask about how Miricioiu established her operatic career, and she answers candidly: 'It wasn't too difficult, to be honest. I was a prodigy at five; I was on television at fourteen. I had my first competition at 22, then I won ten competitions and my career just built up very quickly.

'One of the competitions was in Ostend, and the winner – me! – got to perform in a television programme. Somebody in Amsterdam, Andrew Sharp, was watching television, and was amazed by my programme. He sent a tape of it to his friend Jenny Lee in London. She was the secretary of the agent Lies Askonas, and she really liked me.

'By coincidence, at around the same time, Scottish Opera was looking for a Violetta, so they paid for me to come and audition, and decided that if I got the part, they would take me on at the agency. So I was called to Glasgow, and I sang the entire Traviata in Romanian!' she laughs. 'I got the contract, and they took me on board.'

Having fled Communism, Miricioiu applied for political asylum in the UK. 'I was not allowed to leave England for a year and a half, so Lies managed to get all the conductors to come and audition me here in London, and I got all the contracts.

'I believe in the power of the stars, and I believe that things are designed in a particular way. Even the bad things. It's part of our inheritance, and I wouldn't be the person I am if I hadn't had all the experiences, bad and good.'

When I ask what elements of her career she has been most proud of, Miricioiu's reply is perhaps surprising. 'It's not so much about the career,' she says, struggling with the question's premise. 'I take pride on how I behave as a human being. I take pride in not letting myself down. I never looked at my "highlights" in that sense. I admit that I was proud of La voix humaine, because I thought that if I could do it at 57 years old and not forget one word, it would be a true achievement! But everything else I have done out of passion. Pride has nothing to do with it – I don't even think about it. I work so passionately on my roles, and I work so hard, that all I want is to become one with the music.

Nelly Miricioiu as Tosca at the ROH in 1996'When you're brought up in the Communist system, the word "pride" does not exist. We're brought up with submissiveness. Deep down, I have lots of inhibitions and a sense of inferiority: it's too deep-rooted. It's only my desperation of fulfilling a dream that has kept me going. I look at my best friend, [mezzo-soprano] Marianne Cornetti, and she has a sense of pride. I envy that, and I'd love to have it. But we don't have that: we have to submit. It's very hard to explain what that system can do to people.'

This has left Miricioiu with a sense of not belonging. 'I've just been to Romania to do a concert, a masterclass and Norma. You have no idea how depressed I was after the Norma. This was the first time I had a trip back to Romania where I re-established myself as a Romanian. I thought that would bring me a reunion in my own soul of belonging to where I came from.

'But it didn't. I love them deeply, but this is where I am, this is where my life is, this is where I'm comfortable. It's where I'm home. I have a problem with belonging: I belong to my husband and son, I feel at home with them. I belong in music, and I belong when I feel I'm doing well. I'm not always happy with what I do: most of the time I destroy myself in the process. I'm very difficult to please. But when I get it right, like when I was in Adriana Lecouvreur, it feels right, and I belong to it.'

London audiences' next opportunity to witness Miricioiu in an operatic role is in her forthcoming appearance with the Chelsea Opera Group, on 21 February 2010. But after years of exploring rarities, the soprano is going to sing one of the most popular roles in the repertoire: Violetta in Verdi's La traviata. 'It wasn't my choice!' she says. 'I didn't know what to come up with. When the idea came up, I just thought, no, I'm too old.

'But Duncan and I were having a coffee together, and he asked me if I could do it. The moment someone says "Can you?" to me, I'm in trouble, because that's when I become competitive. So I thought, yes I can! And it does fit, vocally, with other things I'm doing, like Norma. It will be an interesting challenge. I love Violetta; I love the woman. When she goes into 'Amami, Alfredo!', I am the first to die! There are certain things in that opera which are absolutely exquisite. I don't want it just to be a singing exercise: I want it to be deeply-felt. And I have the luxury of time to work it out.'

Miricioiu is also enthusiastic about the most recent addition to her Verdi repertoire, Lady Macbeth, which she sang with the COG in 2008. 'I loved that role!' she declares. 'Doing the first version for me was ideal, because I'm not so keen on 'La luce langue' [Lady Macbeth's aria in the 1865 revision of the opera]. It goes nowhere, to me. The earlier version is lovely though: it's so much like Ernani, so triumphant. It's very weird how it's a dramatic coloratura role, yet 'La luce langue' is written for a mezzo-soprano – a very strange tessitura. I made the choice, when I did it, of not doing it in a shouty, macabre way: I didn't want to jeopardise it. Luckily, everybody loved it, but I was tormented about it for a while!'

Though it's not been widely discussed publically, Miricioiu encountered vocal problems a few years ago when she was performing in Norma in Amsterdam. Her vocal crisis was a major setback for the artist. 'It was quite traumatic, because I'd had huge success for twenty years in Holland, and for the first time I cracked.

'It had a lot to do with my age and the problems it brings. But psychologically it had more implications. The one person that I know of who writes about vocal crises is Christa Ludwig, but otherwise singers don't talk about it; it's almost like a taboo. Maybe they don't discuss it because people don't quite understand. All I can say is that I started all over again from scratch, because unless you do that, whatever vocal crisis comes in – be it because of surgery, menopause, or whatever you went through – unless you drop everything and retrain the mind and the muscles, you can never find your way.

Nelly Miricioiu as Tosca at the ROH in 1996'It's like having an old dress: if you put a patch here and a patch there, it will always look patched. And the crisis will come back, because if you got to the point of crisis, it means that you've not identified the symptoms for some time and compensated by covering up all the time. Then you have a crisis, and your vocality has been spoilt. I was very aware of that, and I stopped, and began again on my own. It was not easy, and to rebuild mentally was more difficult than rebuilding physically.

'Psychologically, I was not used to having such an experience. So I rebuilt very slowly: I would just vocalise for a few minutes, and then stop. That's the level of discipline it needed: one note at a time. Going back on stage for the first time, again in Holland, a year later, required an enormous amount of concentration. It was Adriana at the Concertgebouw, and everyone was asking, "Will she be alright?" But I made myself not think about it too much, and it was only at the end that I realised what I'd gone through. It's one of the greatest successes that I've had, being able to get through that. And I will never stop working at it.'

But what motivated her not to give up? 'It's the passion: I can't live without music. If I don't sing for two weeks, I'm badly depressed. If I feel that my voice is not at the level I want, I will definitely stop and I will have to deal with it. But if I still have in me what it takes to be at the standard I want to be, I will always continue.'

What else is coming up, apart from the recital next week? 'I have my twenty-fifth anniversary at the Concertgebouw next year, and I'm doing Caterina Cornaro, which should be interesting. I'm going back to Romania with Adriana Lecouvreur, and then we'll see what else comes along. It's very true that certain doors, once they've closed, remain closed. Young people and new names are constantly taking over. It looks like we're in a generation where it's assumed that what's new is good, and what's old is rubbish. I'm afraid I can't vouch for that, and I never did, even as a youngster. When I came into the market, all my colleagues were in their late forties or fifties: Ruggero Raimondi, Piero Cappuccilli, Placido Domingo, Pavarotti, Alfredo Kraus. We don't have people like that any more. I think it's sad, in a way, because we get lots of hype and no continuity.'

As our conversation comes to a close, Miricioiu says that her ambition is 'Just to please people – that's always been my ambition. And I'd love to go back to Covent Garden. If that door would reopen for something like Adriana Lecouvreur, it would be fantastic.'

By Dominic McHugh

Nelly Miricioiu appears in recital with David Harper at St John's, Smith Square, London, on 20 May 2009, performing Rodrigo's Cuatro Madrigales Amatorios, Bellini's Mad Scene from Il Pirata and Bretan's Three Romanian Songs, plus works by Enescu, Ravel, Berkeley, Meyerbeer, Verdi and Donizetti. Telephone: 020 7222 1061. Pricing: £10- £25, concs available. Tickets can be booked at https://secure.sjss.org.uk.

More information on Nelly Miricioiu, including a complete discography and details on forthcoming performances, can be found at her website: http://www.nellymiricioiu.com.

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Nelly MiricioiuRelated articles:

Review: Nelly Miricioiu as Lady Macbeth in 2008
Review: Nelly Miricioiu as Adriana Lecouvreur in 2009
Review: Nelly Miricioiu as Beatrice di Tenda in 2007
Interview: An interview with Janet Price, 'Opera Rara's first diva'

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