Soprano Carmen Giannattasio has been in demand since she was thrust before the public eye when she won both the First Prize and the Audience Award at Placido Domingo's Operalia in Paris in 2002.
She took on one of the most challenging soprano roles soon after, singing Violetta La Traviata. Reviewing a 2007 performance at Scottish Opera, Rupert Christiansen wrote in the Daily Telegraph, “…a deeply intelligent and profoundly affecting interpretation in the Cotrubas and Scotto mould.”
Giannattasio has sung Normas, Amelias, Leonoras and Mimìs, but until October 2018 she had not sung Tosca.
Well I think this is just the perfect time for a role like Tosca — while you are in your prime!
She was making her house debut as well as role debut at San Francisco Opera in their new production of Puccini's masterpiece.
I had one of the greatest times ever in my career and life as well. I could not have had a better place for my very first Tosca! San Francisco Opera has turned out to be one of my most beloved theatres in the world.
So the next question has to be, how did it go?
According to the audience and press very well!
She says it smiling. An attractive smile from an attractive woman. Does beauty help when playing a prima donna like Tosca?
I think it's a role where you have to be extremely feminine and charming, so it's not about beauty per se.
Domingo called Giannattasio the ‘Lady Gaga of Opera', a singer who loves to put on a visual as well as vocal show for her audience.
Stefania Germanotta — I like to call her by her real name — and I have something in common. Both are Italians, both singers, both have platinum hair, both have a concern for style and lots of muscles and bone pain! I like her.
Though you don't wear meat dresses…
She is a self-made artist with lots of skills, more than many others, and the choice of the meat dress was clearly a way to attract attention on her at the very beginning of her career. Now the whole world knows how good she is, she can simply wear jeans and a t-shirt alternated with an amazing Valentino pink feathers gown.
An artist I think has the due to make people, especially women, dream. And an amazing gown is also part of delivering dreams, even if only for a few seconds, during a break at the office desk looking at pics…
Tosca certainly knows how to put on a show.
She is a prima donna, a very famous one who also has a normal life and a boyfriend. She starts her day going to the church to meet Mario and bring flowers to the Virgin Mary.
This is so typical in southern Italy. My mother too, she does this. Sometimes I also do. It's not a real prayer with pity and concentration, but more a hello, a way to show love and devotion to God. So, at the beginning, Tosca is doing her normal daily things, including making plans with her boyfriend for the evening after show. When she looks at the Magdalene painting she starts with her jealousy, which I think is quite normal. He is a young, handsome man and women also go to the church to flirt with him … she knows this, but it's also a joke between them, a scene that probably has occurred many times. Tosca is insecure, and she just loves every time to be reassured by Mario. She loves to hear him telling her she is the most beautiful, smart and good and that he loves only her.
She moves from being that insecure woman to being exceptionally strong to defend Cavaradossi, and herself.
She does not change, but it's the plot, the drama, the situation that cause her to transform into a killer. In fact, in Vissi d'arte she says: I never hurt a living soul. And only five minutes later she's committing a homicide! It's like a raptus. The fear to be physically assaulted and not be able to save her lover. Her love is so big she'd sacrifice also herself in order to save Mario. Do not forget that, being so catholic, she knows she has damned her soul for eternity… but what you are capable to do in the name of love!
The final scene is one of the most tragic in all opera – how much do you get caught up in the drama emotionally?
Yes, it's very tragic indeed because after all that has just passed, the final hope to escape and forget and start a new life with her love is completely gone. She will never see Mario again! I scream and talk rather than proper singing… it's verismo. It's like what we had just a few years later in Italian Neorealism cinema. It becomes very, very true, the emotion you have inside you!
Not only emotionally, but physically the role can be demanding. How is it in the San Francisco production of Tosca?
Yes, it is demanding. You struggle with Scarpia, with Sciarrone, and I have to climb the stairs to reach the Angel Michael on the top of the set and jump from there. Twelve feet! My first attempt gave me a swollen ankle for a week. Lots of ice…
How do you prepare a new role… how did you prepare for this one?
I think every character has varied aspects. Some less complex, some more. Every time you have to commit and find your interpretation, which for me always starts with the literary or historical source, rather than the libretto and score. I try to get as much information as I can about the character and start the process of creation.
Can you keep those famous ghosts who have sung the role before you out of your head as you study? With Tosca it is impossible to not have heard many famous recordings. Or is it useful to know these interpretations?
Every era has its own ghosts. Callas had to rival with the shadow of Rosa Ponselle.
I do not want to sound presumptuous, but if you think about ghosts, or people who have done the job before, it will never get you anywhere!
Being a singer, I have total respect for my predecessors, but I also have to be focused on myself, on my skills and on what I can bring through my interpretation, which is completely new and personal. It should be like this for every artist, otherwise there is no meaning to being, or doing what we do!
When I take a new score, it is always a joy. It's like giving birth… you give birth to your new creature!
When I was a student I was listening to many recordings, and it's part of studying. You improve your style, ideas, interpretation! I still enjoy listening to many recordings from the past and the present, but always having clear in my mind what I want and who I am. I do not want to be better than anyone, I only try to sing better than myself the previous time.
Giannattasio grew up in Solofra, east of Naples in the south of Italy, and after studying at the Conservatoire Domenico Cimarosa in nearby Avellino, in 1999 she travelled the 750km to Milan in the north to attend the two-year course at La Scala's Academy of Lyric Opera.
I didn't notice any difference in my daily life — except the lack of nice weather!
The Academy had been founded just two years previously by Riccardo Muti, and Leyla Gencer was its first director, and she became Giannattasio's teacher. When she was 25 she left the Academy and a year later won the Operalia competition.
You can start very young as I did, but you must choose the right things for your age, your voice, your body and your actual possibilities. When you are young you feel bold and unstoppable and this can make you take wrong decisions. It also depends how long you want to last in the business.
So you deliberately waited to play Floria Tosca?
For a role like Tosca you have to become a prima donna, and becoming a prima donna requires some years — it took 20 years for me!
She has more demanding debuts coming up — in Don Carlo, Ballo in Maschera and Giovanna d'Arco —as well as more Normas and Toscas. Is there any role that she is wary of vocally?
I do not plan, I do not put limits. I'll see what the future has to offer to me.
San Francisco, then Paris, then Munich… where's home?
Home has turned out to be everywhere, because I travel all the time, but the two places I consider home are Solofra where I grew up and London which adopted me later on.
I prefer to take apartments rather than staying in hotel rooms — you build the illusion that is your home for a while.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.