Soprano Cecilia Gasdìa is the director of Verona's Arena Opera Festival, its season now in full swing. The 62-year-old was born in Verona, so it has been a coming home for her since she took over as head of the 22,000-seater amphitheatre in 2018. Oddly, Gasdìa didn't set out to be an opera singer – harp and piano were her main instruments at Verona's conservatoire.
I had been studying singing for a very short time and I didn't want to be a singer, but my teacher enrolled me in a Rai [state television] competition named after Maria Callas. Out of the 380 competitors I won, and I was 20 years old – the youngest. I found myself catapulted into a beautiful world that I never expected to be part of. I had a wonderful relationship with Renata Tebaldi who was on the jury that selected me for the Rai competition.
At the beginning of my career, I made my debut at La Scala to replace Montserrat Caballé [in Anna Bolena]. Nobody else wanted to do it. I was 21 so I must have been crazy. Renata came to the dressing room to wish me good luck – I was wearing a costume that had been Maria Callas's, the original from 1957. Renata gave me a gold chain with the effigy of Saint Cecilia from whom she was never separated, as a good omen for my career.
I was an easy target because I was so young, and I wasn't forgiven easily for mistakes. Ours is a fierce world: opera fans have their heroes, and you can't please everyone, so it's part of the game to accept boos, and we must always bow our heads and say ‘thank you'. Sometimes you deserve them as well.
Has she ever been booed?
Twice, though the second time I deserved it – I had not sung well, so they were right.
I would never be able to boo someone. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I know how much effort a singer makes to get where they are, so I tend to forgive them. As the director of a theatre, on the other hand, I ask for the utmost seriousness and professionalism.
The most famous singers, though, are usually the most professional and humble. There are those who have good luck charms and rituals: one had an altar full of crucifixes, another had to enter the stage always with the same foot, another drained a bottle of wine before going on stage. I'm not superstitious, but you have to understand singers. They are tied to their voice – every morning you make the first sounds and hope that everything will be working.
I never sought fame, and I suffered a little in the first decade of my career with this curiosity, as though all guns were pointed at me. Life led me to slow down, I had children, and I did something else. My farewell to the stage took place quietly – I just said it to myself, without any big announcement.
[The world of opera] is like that of sportsmen and the opera singer is like an Olympic athlete – continuous training is needed. It's a very selective environment, so I'd say that the first requirement for an opera singer is health. You know, we don't sing in playback and every night we start all over again.
Pavarotti told me, “I will not end my career because my voice has gone but because of the stress that accumulates waiting to go on stage.” The hours leading up to performances are terrible, and every time you start from scratch – it is a job that is always done live.
Franco Zeffirelli's production of La Traviata in 1984 at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino with Carlos Kleiber conducting was the performance that agitated me the most – I felt such tension that after 11 days my first white hairs appeared, and I was only 24 years old.
She now has very chic, all-white hair.
Everyone was waiting to attack me. I was so livid. Kleiber took my hands and said, “Don't worry about anything, for tonight I'm your father.” Every night you live this trauma, then you go on stage and it's like you've been given a general anaesthetic.
Gasdìa is the first woman to direct Verona's giant-scale opera festival.
I am [also] the first singer to [direct an Italian theatre]. But women are slowly assuming these jobs, and there are many women working in the Arena. Four are called Cecilia, so we call each other by our surnames so as not to create confusion. The management team is all female, but only because women who applied for these positions seemed more suitable than their male colleagues. And in fact, they are very good.
For years there has been talk of rivalry between Gasdìa and Katia Ricciarelli, another singer from the Veneto region.
We're actually very good friends. When I started, she already had a 15-year-career behind her and was very successful. So no, we've never been rivals, and also, we had different repertoire. Sopranos tend not to love each other, but there is room for everyone.
Would she ever consider participating in a television programme like Celebrity Big Brother as Ricciarelli did?
Colleagues who have been important through her career?
I have learnt from everyone, but I must mention Domingo who I met when I was 17, when I was an extra. There I saw how he behaved in the theatre. He was kind to everyone, and not just to the singers.
I'm grateful to Maestro Muti, the first one who asked to see me, a month after winning the competition, and soon after I had a contract. In 2021, we invited him back to the Arena and he wrote a beautiful message: “To Cecilia, with ancient friendship”. I was lucky to sing for many great conductors: Abbado, Carlos Kleiber, Prêtre, Karajan.
I still study, but I would never sing again in public. I'd like to leave behind fond memories. I sing in the bathroom… just for me.
Cecilia Gasdìa was talking to Chiara Maffioletti for the Corriere della Sera
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.