Monday, 16 June 2014

A voice is not enough - a further encounter with Nelly Miricioiu

Nelly Miricioiu
Following on from my first interview with soprano Nelly Miricioiu, to talk about her performance as Lina in Stiffelio (see my interview), I caught up with her again following the performance. Ostensibly I was there to discuss the Divas and Scholars study day on Bellini (on 19 June at Cadogan Hall), when I will be lecturing and she will be performing. But inevitably conversation spread to Nelly's career and her philosophy of performing.

Nelly Miricioiu was born in Romania and trained at the conservatoire in Bucharest in the Communist era. She finally escaped, with just a suitcase, and made a career for herself in the West eventually settling in England (and acquiring an English husband). Renowned for her bel canto performances, she has sung her beloved Donizetti all over the world as well as being a notable Tosca.

On stage she is a highly dramatic and spontaneous performer but says she needs something unorthodox 'to kick her out', talking about her reliance on the reaction of the crowd. A very focused performer, a one point in our conversation she says she certainly could not tell jokes or entertaining stories about her career. She feels that she is a rather controlling performer but admits that her Mama was very controlling. And Nelly hated it, though she also admits that if it wasn't for her Mama's control Nelly would not have made it in the Communist system.


This issue of control versus spontaneity in performing is one to which Nelly returns, feeling that it is important to get rid of narrow concepts and comfortable little routines. As a person she admits to being volcanic, and I imagine that life around her is neither comfortable nor routine. As a performer she relies on an audience, talking about throwing her voice out and seeing what comes back. This includes recording, and she refers with pleasure to her recordings with Opera Rara as Patric Schmid (Opera Rara's charismatic founder) was her audience during the sessions. And that previous attempts at recording had not worked, 'without an audience I do not know who I am'.

Nelly is now in her early 60's and her technique is such that she can encompass new roles (like Lina in Stiffelio) and can still impress an audience with a performance of Casta Diva from Norma. She is also putting this technique at the service of a younger generation, with a teaching practice and working at Covent Garden with the Jette Parker Young Artists.
Nelly Miricioiu in La Traviata at Verona
Nelly Miricioiu in La Traviata at Verona

But her technique did not come as easily as might have been expected. She has had various serious illnesses (including TB as a child) of a type which profoundly impacted breathing and muscle control, not to mention a caesarian; all this means she has had to work to preserve her voice. She talks of 'working with what you have', and learned to find ways round the problems yet still be 'by the book'. She started developing new muscles, and all the work has helped her become knowledgeable about a singers physiognomy. Something which has been a help in her teaching.

She talks of God giving you things for a purpose and finds that she can recognise problems in youngsters and help. But that for her to be able to help, everyone has to be willing to open up. This opening up, pushing beyond your limits is also a subject that Nelly returns to. Her Mama was always pushing her. And Nelly feels that you never really know your limits until you push them. She describes herself as always taking risks on stage, pushing her own limits.

The influence of Nelly's Romanian past is something that she has only gradually come to accept. At first she denied her Romanian roots and, with an English husband, felt very English admiring the culture and the manners. But now, though she cannot forget, she feels she can forgive and has realised the importance of her heritage.

As a young woman she loved movies. For anyone who has seen Nelly on stage it comes as no surprise to find that she derived inspiration from watching actresses like Bette Davis, finding a depth to the acting which made sense. She discovered that Bette Davis had a limp and moved in an expressive way to disguise it. Here Nelly return to the theme of embracing a problem and making it to your benefit.

This sense of a depth to the performance and background to a role is important for Nelly, she doesn't just sing. Before she performed Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor (a role Nelly sang at La Scala), she spent time observing beggars and people a little disturbed. And more recently, learning the role of Lina in Stiffelio, the adulterous wife of a Calvinist preacher, Nelly investigated what it meant to be a preacher's wife.

Much of her work nowadays is trying to inculcate these principles into younger singers. She is keen to persuade them to energise their bodies in performance. Judging from her manner, I suspect that persuade is rather mild a world. At another point in our conversation she talks of informing a singer that 'your calves do not talk to me' or 'your hips are completely dead'. A demanding teacher and master, but clearly a beloved one.

We talk of modern productions and she says that she would love to be able to sit at the back of the rehearsal room and explain to the singers how to incorporate the production into their bodies. For Nelly, a voice is not enough , before you start singing perfectly you want to have a body that is aware.

Here she gives some concrete examples, talking of Mimi's opening phrase Si mi chiamano Mimi in La Boheme, and how young sopranos tend to sing it on a single rising phrase culminating in Mimi. But Nelly takes the phrase apart: Si is a statement, mi is a reinforcing of your identity; chiamano suggests doubt. There is a complexity to the phrase and by the time we reach the word Mimi we should already know who she is.

Nelly admits that though she had much of this instinctively, she had good teachers who developed her imagination (it is clear she feels a lot of contemporary teaching suppresses the singers imagination). The opera director at the conservatoire did not give things to the singers on a place, they had to work hard and he forced them to use their imagination. Musical training was similarly forensic, 'What did you sing that staccato for? Only do it if you really feel it.' Life under the Communist regime was hard, but she feels that perhaps everything was sharper, and she talks of young singers being spoonfed and lacking curiosity.

But it isn't all bad nowadays, Nelly clearly derives great satisfaction from her work at Covent Garden with the Jette Parker Young Artists, finding it exciting and energising to be able to preach and have a positive response.

What a written article cannot do is suggest the immense liveliness and vivacity with which Nelly conducts all her conversations. She talks of performing as being a fusion, of music, singing and focused energy but it is clear that for her this applies to life as much to performance.

Nelly Miricioiu will be giving a lecture recital as part of Divas and Scholars study deay on Bellini at the Cadogan Hall on Thursday 19 June 2014 at Cadogan Hall.

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