Soprano  Mariella  Devia

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Mariella Devia (12 April 1948) is an Italian operatic soprano. After beginning her career as a lyric coloratura soprano, in recent years she has also enjoyed much success with some of the most dramatic roles in the bel canto repertoire.

Born in Chiusavecchia, Devia trained at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome with Iolanda Magnoni. She made her stage debut in Treviso in the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor in 1973, and quickly sang throughout Italy, making her debut at La Scala in Milan in 1987, as Giulietta in I Capuleti e i Montecchi.

On the international scene, she appeared at the Metropolitan Opera from 1979 to 1994 as Lucia, Gilda, Nannetta, Despina and Konstanze, and at Carnegie Hall as Lakmé, in 1979, and later as Teresa in Benvenuto Cellini, Giulietta in I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Elvira in I puritani and Adelia. She made her debut at the Paris Opera in I puritani, and the Aix-en-Provence Festival as Konstanze in 1987, and at the Royal Opera House in London in 1988 again as Konstanze.

She was a regular at the Pesaro Festival and at the Festival della Valle d'Itria in Martina Franca, where she collaborated in the resurrection of long neglected operas by Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and other bel canto composers. She is also admired for her Mozart performances in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, The Magic Flute, Così fan tutte, Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Idomeneo.

In 2013, the day after her 65th birthday, she sang for the first time the role of Norma at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna with great success. She has since included the role of Norma in her usual repertoire along with the "Three Donizetti Queens", Maria Stuarda, Anna Bolena and Elisabetta from Roberto Devereux.

Mariella Devia made her only appearance in Chicago at Lyric Opera in October and November of 1997, as Ilia in Idomeneo with an impressive cast which included Vinson Cole and Plácido Domingo in the title role, Vesselina Kasarova making her American debut as Idamante, Carol Vaness and Cynthia Lawrence as Elettra, Richard Drews as Arbace, and Raymond Aceto as the Voice of Neptune.  The production was conducted by John Nelson, directed by John Copley, with sets by John Conklin, and lighting by Duane Schuler.  [Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.]

devia We met just after the opening night, and had a lovely and laugh-filled conversation.  Her answers to my questions got directly the heart of the idea, and she was careful to make everything clear.

My thanks to Marina Vecci of Lyric Opera for providing the translation for us during our encounter.

Bruce Duffie:   You are here in Chicago singing Mozart, and you’ve sung a number of Mozart roles.  Is there a secret to singing Mozart?

Mariella Devia:   It’s probably the same secret that applies to the whole repertoire I do, which is bel canto.  A very good technique is required, and a legato, and one needs taste.  There are, of course, the different styles to which all this technique applies.

BD:   Is there a special Mozart style?

MD:   There is a Mozart style, probably because Mozart is a different time than Puccini or Verdi.  But one enters into the style without having to think too much, without thinking,
Oh, my goodness, I have to sing Mozart! as opposed to something else.  It becomes second nature at some point.

BD:   Can you rely on the technique, and just project the character?

MD:   Yes, I would say so. That’s right.

BD:   Are these characters that you sing, sympathetic to you as a woman?

MD:   It’s very hard to tell, because one always sings about characters who lived in time which was so different from ours.   For instance, the roles that I’ll sing most
Lucia and Gilda in Rigolettoare women who were much more subject and submissive to the dictates of the family, or of the men, and also of society.  Today, a woman’s character and position has changed a lot.  That does not change women’s feelings.  Love, joy, grief, remain the same.

BD:   Then how do you relate these characters from the older styles and the older needs and realities, to women who are sitting here at the turn of a new century?

MD:   It is not too difficult if you listen, and if you use the music to get to the feeling, which was the same then and is the same now, and transmit those feelings to women of today.

BD:   So these women speak directly to you, and through you to the public?

MD:   I do hope so!  [Laughter all around]  I hope I can do this!  My role would be to do this, exactly, to be this.

BD:   Your voice imposes certain roles.  Do you like these characters that you have to sing?

MD:   Very much.

BD:   You wouldn’t rather play a stronger character, or an evil character?

MD:   No, because I really like the genre that I sing.  The vocal line is so very important in the repertoire that I do.  It would be very interesting to sing somebody like Lady Macbeth, but I know it’s not in my voice to do that role.

devia BD:   You’re presented with a lot of offers.  How do you decide yes or no?

MD:   People offer me roles, and I know very well my repertoire, so I know what to say yes or no to in the general repertoire.  The problem is when I’m presented with choices of operas that are less well-known.  I look at the score, and I try to see if I can do it or not.

BD:   All your decisions are right?

MD:   Until today, yes.  So far I’ve been very attentive to make a right decision, and I think I’ve made it.

BD:   Besides Lady Macbeth, are there some roles or characters which intrigue you, but you know you can’t sing them?

MD:   I like Norma very much, but it would be too early for me to do it.  I would like to do Anna Bolena, and probably will do that one of these days.

BD:   So, you’re looking ahead in your career?

MD:   Yes.  I have commitments now into 2001 that are signed.  However, I always try also to build up, or to expand my repertoire, and do something new in the long-term.  So, I work towards this.

BD:   Does it give you a good feeling that on a certain Tuesday in 2000 you will be singing a certain role in a certain house?

MD:   It makes me feel good, but also gives me a sense of anguish because I do hope that on that Tuesday I’ll be in good shape to sing in that house.  [Laughs]

BD:   Do you have to be an athlete, and stay in training?

MD:   In a sense, I would say that to be a singer is very similar to being an athlete
other than the fact that being a singer is an art rather than a profession.  It’s very important to be in good shape because when you’re on the stage, if your physical condition is good, that you feel good.

BD:   Do you make sure you take enough time to learn roles, and for personal life?

MD:   No!  [Laughs]  There’s never enough time to do all the things that one wants to do.

BD:   [Half joking]  Would you want to split yourself to have a double-career?

MD:   I’d like to have another life for my family, and for all the other things that are not related to singing.

BD:   Are we, the public, too demanding of you, the artist?

MD:   It’s very demanding, yes.

BD:   I assume, though, you wouldn’t trade it for anything.

MD:   No, it’s the only thing I can do, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you walk out on the stage, are you portraying a character, or do you become that character?

MD:   It is very difficult because if you become the character, there is always a part of you which has to remain vigilant.  But for the most part, you become the character that you are singing.  However, there’s always one part of you who stands and watches what’s happening.

BD:   That part pays attention to the music, and to the conductor?

MD:   Yes, which indeed pays attention to the whole rest of it.

BD:   Let me ask the balance question, then.  In opera, how much is the music, how much is the drama?

MD:   No note has been written by the composer without thinking what this has to do with the character and the rest of the drama.

devia BD:   So it’s all wrapped up together?

MD:   Yes, all together.

BD:   Without mentioning any specific names, do you like the ideas you’ve been getting from stage directors?

MD:   More or less.  [Laughs]  With some I have more of an agreement, and with others a bit less.

BD:   Do you find that some of them inspire you to really delve into the character?

MD:   Yes, naturally.

BD:   Do you come to the first rehearsal with an idea of the character?

MD:   I do get there with one idea, and of course the stage director gets there with another idea, and the conductor gets there with yet another idea.  It’s very important, in the course things, that all these ideas get together and become one.

BD:   Has your decision to accept or turn down roles ever been influenced because of who the conductor is, or who the stage director would be?

MD:   Sometimes we don’t know exactly who the director or the conductor is going to be when a role is offered.  When we start working together, there is a big influence on the way we work, and the way a performance is ultimately done.

BD:   Do you change your vocal technique at all for the size of the house?

MD:   No.

BD:   Not a bit?

MD:   No, I don’t think so.  Usually big theaters
like this one, or the Metropolitanhave a very good acoustics, and you can feel that the moment you walk in.

BD:   You feel your voice coming back to you?

MD:   Yes.

BD:   Do you ever have to work behind a scrim?

MD:   Yes, many, many times, and there’s not a really good feeling.  You really feel this object between you and the audience, and sometimes you don’t realize it because of the lighting.  But still, there is something there between you and the audience, and that’s not the most pleasant thing.

BD:   You want to feel the audience every night?

MD:   Yes, that would be the ideal thing.

BD:   Do you feed off their energy?

MD:   Yes, and sometimes it’s very exciting to feel that the audience is together with you in what you’re doing.

BD:   Is there anything you can do if they fall asleep?

MD:   No, then I feel it’s my fault.

BD:   [Surprised]  You take that on yourself???

MD:   Yes.

BD:   You don’t blame that on the composer or the conductor?

MD:   It could be that it is somebody else’s fault
somebody who is on the stage, or in the pitbut it is certainly not the audience’s fault.  The audience is not to blame.

devia BD:   Is the performance on a Tuesday night, when audiences come from a day of business, different from a Saturday night, when they’ve come from a day of relaxation or other activities?

MD:   I couldn’t speak for here very much, but in Europe you can really distinguish the Sunday audience, because they really come for the opera.  They’re coming, sometimes, from far away, and they’re really into it.

BD:   Is it almost like a festival situation?

MD:   Yes, like a festival.

BD:   Is it better to perform for that kind of audience?

MD:   Yes, but it’s dangerous, as it’s an audience that is very attentive and very demanding, and they expect a lot.  But it’s a very generous and warm audience.

BD:   Is it right for us to expect that every time you will perform very well?

MD:   The audience is different every night, and so every night they expect the best performance.  But, of course we singers are not machines, so we can’t always give it to them the same way every night.  [Laughs]  We try!

BD:   That’s all we can expect, that you try.  Is the public different from city to city, and country to country?

MD:   There are differences.  There is a snobbish audience, and there’s the one that is more cold, and there’s a warmer public.  There are those who only come to criticize, and there are those who come and have no prejudices.  They’re just open-minded to whatever happens out there.

BD:   That sounds like the best.

MD:   Yes!  [Laughs]

BD:   Let me ask a very easy question.  What is the purpose of music?

MD:   That is an easy question???  [Laughter all around]  What is the purpose of paining, and sculpture, and art?  There is one, and one can find it.  If one doesn’t like music, it’s useless.  Then there are those who use it to become rich.  There are different uses of music.

BD:   What is the special use for you?

MD:   It was something that I had to do.  I had the voice, and I had to use it.  I had no choice.

BD:   Are you a slave to the voice?

MD:   Not in this sense, because I love to sing and I love the joy.  I had to study a lot so it would be easy for me sing, so I’m not a slave of the voice.  If I can say that, I prefer that my voice is my slave.

BD:   Has it become easier or more difficult as the career progresses?

MD:   It is always difficult, because if you get to a certain level you know that the audience is always going to expect something more.  It’s not easy to be there all the time.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You sing quite a wide range, such as bel canto and also romantic roles.  Do you change your technique at all for the earlier music and the romantic music?

devia MD:   The technique, no.  The technique never changes, but I change the phrasing.  Konstanze (Mozart) and Violetta (Verdi) are written in different ways, but I don’t change the basic technique.

BD:   So your voice is your voice?

MD:   Yes.

BD:   Did the great composers understand the voice, and how to write for it?

MD:   For me, yes.  Mozart is stupendous writing for the voice; also Bellini and Donizetti.  Verdi may be a little more difficult for the voice, but in my opinion, they were geniuses in the sense of writing for the voice.

BD:   Is it special to resurrect an opera that has not been heard in a hundred, or a hundred and fifty, or two hundred years?

MD:   Yes.  I’m just now studying an opera that has never been sung in the century, Adelia by Donizetti.  It’s very difficult because I have to do a lot of research and study on it.   It’s coming along...

BD:   ...but ultimately, is it just another Donizetti opera?

MD:   The character of Adelia is a role that is sort of in between Linda of Chamonix and Lucia, and it is a happy ending.  Until the end, it is a very dramatic opera, but it’s got a happy ending.

BD:   Do you like surviving the opera?

MD:   Yes!  [Laughs]  I don’t mind for a change.

BD:   It really is a change.  In most operas you wind up dead.

MD:   Yes.  I always end up with a natural death or being murdered or killed off.

BD:   Do you like always being morta, dead?

MD:   When it is a beautiful death, yes.  When the death scene is well written, then yes, of course I like that.

BD:   So, the composer has to understand how to make you die in a pretty way?

MD:   They did understand in most of the ones I sing.  They understood that very well.

BD:   Is there an opera you’ve sung more than all the others?

MD:   The ones I’ve sung most are Rigoletto, Lucia, and Entführung.

BD:   Do you like coming back to those roles again and again?

MD:   I like to do them, but not as frequently as I’ve done.

BD:   Does this influence what contracts you’ll accept?

MD:   Yes, it does influence the choices that I’m going to make, or that I’ve made.

devia BD:   Do you sing any new music at all?

MD:   No, the only thing I’ve sung is Stravinsky, Le Rossignol.  [She would late sing roles by Goffredo Petrassi (1904-2003) and Nino Rota (1911-1979).]

BD:   If someone came to you and wanted to write something for your voice, what advice would you have for that composer?

MD:   I don’t know what advice I could give the composer because I feel that contemporary music is not suitable for the way my voice works... at least from what I’ve heard.  I like to sing on a full line, and this is not what happens in modern music, necessarily.

BD:   Is music then going to die?

MD:   No, because contemporary music must reflect the times in which we live, and the taste of today.  However, there are singers who are more suited to sing this repertoire than I would be.

BD:   So, it’s not for you to perform but it is for you to enjoy?

MD:   Yes.  [Laughs]

BD:   Do you have any advice for the next generation of singers coming along?

MD:   I’m constantly asked this question, and one has to say that the best advice is to study a lot, and to pay attention to what kind of repertoire one is choosing for oneself.

BD:   How does one know that the repertoire he or she has chosen is correct?

MD:   When one starts studying, one needs the advice of a good teacher.  Then by studying, one should realize one’s limitations and one’s capabilities.

BD:   Do you like the sound coming out of the throats of the young singers?

MD:   There are always some good ones, and some who are not so good.

BD:   Do you always like the sound that comes out of your throat?

MD:   No, not always!  One is always criticizing oneself, and always one thinks that some things are good and some things could have been done better.

BD:   Are you too self-critical?

MD:   Perhaps I’ve been a bit too hard on myself, but if I hadn’t been that way, I wouldn’t have become better or improved.

BD:   So you’re always striving to become better?

MD:   I always try to do better.

BD:   Is there such a thing as a perfect performance?

MD:   No!  [Laughter all around]  The operas I sing are too long to be perfect.

BD:   So if we get a fifteen-minute opera, perhaps you could get it perfect?

MD:   I don’t know, but perfection does not exist in my opinion.  This is, of course, the beauty of live performance, that you can’t get perfect, necessarily.

BD:   Is the music that you sing for everyone?

MD:   This I don’t know.  It’s hard to say.  There are some people they only like Puccini and don’t like Mozart, and the contrary to that, others only like Mozart and not Puccini.   It’s hard to please everybody, but I’m happy with the part of the audience that likes the music I sing.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve made some recordings.  Do you sing the same for the microphone as you do for a live audience?

MD:   Almost all of my recordings have been recorded live.  I did L’Elisir D’Amore for Erato in the recording studio.  I have a very hard time thinking of singing into a microphone.

BD:   Why?

MD:   I feel much better if I have an audience in front of me, and not a microphone.  I hate the thought of this instrument that is in front of me that might change things or distort things.  I want the technician to think about those things without me being involved with it, without me having to sing into the microphone.

devia BD:   Are you pleased with the live recordings that are out?

MD:   There are things that are not perfect, of course, as always happens in live recordings.   But that’s the truth.  It’s not possible to make repeats.  This is the way it went, so that is how it was.

BD:   So what we have is a document?

MD:   Yes.  A few months ago I recorded a Rossini cantata in honor of Pio Nono, Pius IX [shown at right].  It was under the direction of Riccardo Chailly, and we did it in the studio.  It’s good to record things in the studio because you can go after perfection.  You can repeat something ten times until you get it right, but it’s not the same thing as a live recording.

BD:   If you do it ten times and you finally get it right, does that become a fraud?

MD:   It’s not a fraud, but it’s not as spontaneous and real as when you start from the beginning of a piece, and go to the end.  Anything can happen.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Does
anything ever happen?

MD:   [Laughs]  No, fortunately not.  Usually everything goes well, but there are some things that have been slightly imperfect.  The rhythm might be a bit off, or something else happened.  There are always tiny little things that happen in live performances.

BD:   You’re being too self-critical again!

MD:   Yes!  [Much laughter]

BD:   When you’re preparing for a role, do you get into character when you’re getting into make-up, or are you into the character a couple of days ahead?  Also, at the end, how long does it take you to throw off the character after the performance has finished?

MD:   For me it is not so complicated.  In my opinion, the character is formed when you study the score, and when you talk with the director and the conductor.  At the moment when you get ready to go on the stage, you know already what you need to do, and you don’t have to put it on while you’re in the dressing room.

BD:   Then how long after the performance does it remain with you?

MD:   The moment the music has ended, then there’s a breathing moment and I get rid of the character.

BD:   I’m sure your husband is glad that you don’t bring Lucia home!

MD:   Yes!  [Much laughter all around]

BD:   One last question.  Is singing fun?

MD:   Sometimes, yes.  When I’m at ease with, or when I feel good with the conductor, the stage director, and my colleagues
which is very importantthen it’s fun.  There are moments in which one really has a very good time on the stage.

BD:   Thank you for coming to Chicago, and thank you the conversation.

MD:   Thank you.

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© 1997 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on October 20, 1997.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB about three weeks later, and again 1998.  This transcription was made in 2018, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to Marina Vecci of Lyric Opera for translating for us, and to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.