Soprano  Eva  Mei

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie





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Eva Mei (born March 3, 1967) is the daughter of an Italian family of musicians.  She studied at conservatory “Luigi Cherubini” in Florence. For her interpretation of Konstanze in Mozart’s DIE ENTFÜHRUNG AUS DEM SERAIL, she received in 1990 the Caterina-Cavalieri-Price at the international Mozart Competition in Vienna. Shortly after, she debuted with the same role at Vienna State Opera, which marked the beginning of her international career. In the last 2 decades, she appeared in the most important opera houses all over the world.

As a refined interpreter of the Italian Bel Canto works of Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, and Verdi, she never left Mozart and she sang almost all of his interesting soprano leading parts. Amongst others she sang Norina/DON PASQUALE at La Scala Milan, Amenide/TANCREDI at La Scala Milan, the Queen of the Night/THE MAGIC FLUTE at Royal Opera House Covent Garden London, as well as Violetta/LA TRAVIATA at German State Opera Berlin. Eva Mei keeps a strong relationship with the Opera House Zurich, where she was seen as Händel‘s Alcina, as Mozart‘s Donna Anna and as Contessa in LE NOZZE DI FIGARO, as Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, as Micaëla in Bizet’s CARMEN and as Mathilde in Rossini’s GUILLAUME TELL. In 2012 Eva Mei appeared as Elisa in an performance of Mozart‘s IL RE PASTORE at Salzburg Festival. Two years later, she returned to Salzburg with Rossini’s PETITE MESSE SOLENNELLE conducted by Antonio Pappano.

Eva Mei worked with many prestigious conductors including Nicolas Harnoncourt, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Claudio Abbado, Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Muti, Colin Davis, Daniel Barenboim, Lorin Maazel, Nello Santi, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Franz Welser-Möst, William Christie, Daniele Gatti, Fabio Luisi, Myung-whun Chung, Antonio Pappano and Peter Maag.

Besides her operatic career she always was very active in the chamber and symphonic repertoire, and appeared in concerts and recitals at major concert stages, such as Vienna Concert Hall, Salle Pleyel Paris and Suntory Hall Tokyo. She also gives masterclasses in Italy and Japan.

--  Mostly from the Opera Musica Website  
--  Names which are links on this webpage refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  





In January of 2000, the world had successfully (and uneventfully) moved past all the hoopla of Y2K, and all its portents of doom, despair, and destruction.  So, we settled back into our lives and continued to enjoy some great performances.  The example at hand was the pairing of two setting of the Mass
one by Mozart, the other by Bruckner — performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a distinguished vocal quartet led by soprano Eva Mei.  With her shining, focused and fearless soprano, Mei sang with spirit and point, ... and was particularly radiant in the Agnus dei, which foreshadows the Countess Dove sono in Mozarts Nozze di Figaroaccording to John von Rhein in the Tribune.  

One the day we met, it was typical Chicago weather for that time of year
— cold and blowy — so, we chatted about that as we were settling down for the interview.  My thanks to our translator, Elena Phillip, for rendering our thoughts back and forth.


mei Bruce Duffie:   We’re talking about the weather being so very cold.  Do you have to take special precautions to make sure that the voice is always kept warm and moist no matter what the conditions?

Eva Mei:   Not really.  I’m really a tomboy.  I just go all day long to the lake without any precautions, and I do nothing.  I like it when it’s cold, and it’s a healthy kind of cold.  It’s good weather, but cold, and I like it.  The air is good.

BD:   As a singer do you have to be an athlete?

EM:   Yes, absolutely.  One of the most important things is your physical condition.

BD:   Also your mental condition?

EM:   This goes very well together with the idea of a healthy physical body, and a healthy mind.  

BD:   Do you the make sure that all of the music you sing is healthy for the voice?

EM:   I think so, and I hope so.  I would like to think that I always choose the repertory that is enhanced by my ability to sing it.

BD:   Then from the large repertoire, how do you decide yes or no for each role?

EM:   For the operas, it depends very much on the character.  If I feel very close to the character, and if I feel I can relate to the character, I would choose that role, even if it stretches my ability a bit more.

BD:   [Surprised]  Really???  So, it’s character first, and then how it fits the voice?

EM:   You can’t exactly say that because there are always two sides to the Italian operas.  Rossini, Bellini etc., always go fairly well with my voice, but I always try to combine the character and the voice.

BD:   Is there any character that is perhaps too close to the real Eva?

EM:   [She thinks] It’s difficult to say.  La Traviata is one that is obvious.  Besides the vocal side, it is for the enormous intelligence of Verdi which he shows in the development of these characters.  
[Photo at the top of this page shows Mei in that role at the Florence May Festival.]  

BD:   How far away from your real character though will you allow the person to be before you say, ‘No! I don’t want any part of her?’

EM:   It depends.  For example, many times I did Sonnambula, and I always knew it was a character very, very far away from what I am.  Perhaps the character is very interesting for me because I don’t know it’s world.  But it was interesting for me to do it because it’s a character that is very romantic, very much Amina.  You’re always associating the writing of Bellini.  The line that he writes for her voice and her character is entirely different than what he writes for the other characters in the opera.  She is somebody that lives in another world.  She does not really communicate with the outside world, but she communicates in a special way by singing in this special way.  This is what I liked about it, and this is what makes the character so wonderful and so sympathetic.

BD:   Is she a real person?

EM:   I believe she is.  Many people in this world just live in their own world.  For example, children have their own world, and truly, Bellini wanted to underline this by writing it so differently.  I am just as sure that she was very different and she was on her own.

BD:   Then, is it you that are inviting us into that world, or is it Bellini who is inviting us into that world?

EM:   Bellini is through the singer, if the singer is good.   

BD:   [With a wink]  Are you a good singer?

mei EM:   [Much laughter]  I should not answer that!  I hope that I am.

BD:   This is your first time in America? 

EM:   Yes.

BD:   Do you like traveling from place to place?

EM:   No.  [More laughter]  The traveling is the most difficult for us as singers.

BD:   So, we should all come to where you are to hear you sing?

EM:   It would be the best, yes!  [Again, more laughter]

BD:   Do you feel we have a bit of that with the recordings?

EM:   Yes.

BD:   Do you sing any differently for the microphone than you do in the live concert?

EM:   No.  My voice is this one, and the technicians are the ones who have to change the microphone if something is not quite right.  I can’t change my way of singing.

BD:   Are you pleased with your records so far?

EM:   It’s a deeply complicated question.   I never really listen to my recordings because when I do I can hear things that I feel we’ve done better in the studio.  But then when the final cut or edition comes out, it would be a cut perhaps that is chosen that is not as good some of the others that I would have chosen.  Maybe in those particular takes the orchestra is all together, and they preferred to use a take with an orchestra that is clean sound and all together, and to use a take where a voice maybe is not entirely clean.  This is the problem with recording in a studio.   The live recording is so much better.   Live recording is generally recorded at the rehearsal as well as the concert, and then certain sections are put together.  The feel of it is so much better, not only for the singer and the orchestra, but also for the people who hear it.

BD:   You can’t recreate that in a studio?

EM:   It’s very difficult because the way they cut it and restart in the studio, it could be very short with very few notes, and it’s almost impossible to recreate the same concentration.  This is contrary to a live recording where I go with the whole aria.  Then the feeling is constant.  It is not so important for me about the technical quality of the sound of the record.  It’s much more important to me to have the emotional quality of the recording be of a certain standard.  We try to do it the same in the recording as you would have in a concert hall.  People go to a concert to have certain music, but to also have feelings, and in a recording studio it’s almost impossible to have that.

BD:   Is there ever a night, either in the studio or in a concert, where you get it perfect?

EM:   Oh, that would be wonderful!  [Laughs]  It would be beautiful if it would be possible, but it never happens.  I try very hard to do it, but after all we’re all human beings.

BD:   With the cutting and pasting of the record is it possible to get it perfect?

EM:   Surely, that is true, but this is not what interests me.  I like to make music, and with a cut you do not make music.  

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’re talking about making music, and I assume that you mean making an artistic statement?

EM:   Yes.

BD:   Is there a balance between art and entertainment?

EM:   Certainly, but it must be that I really enjoy myself when I’m working.  The voice is really a great gift for someone else, but I have to enjoy myself.  I have to have feeling if I am to give it somebody else.  This requires great concentration.  I am much more introverted, and I have to enjoy myself to let it all hang out!  Using all my concentration is quite different, but I have to enjoy myself.

BD:   Do you want the audience to enjoy themselves, also?

mei EM:   I hope so, or that they feel some sensations, some feelings.  For example, but in the Bruckner it is impossible to enjoy oneself, but one can experience great depths of feeling, the way Bruckner is meant to be.

BD:   It’s not enough just to enjoy the sound of Bruckner, and the sound of the orchestra and the soloists? 

EM:   Yes, definitely, but Bruckner is music that is very difficult to
enjoy for oneself.  It is music that is very private, very personal, and I feel that the public does feel that.

BD:   How do you divide your career between opera and concert?

EM:   A little bit of this one, a little bit of the other!  [Laughter all around]

BD:   Is it mostly opera?  Mostly concert?

EM:   This year there are more concerts.  It depends on what is offered to me, and if these are new characters.  I am careful when I do new roles.

BD:   Do you prepare mentally differently for a concert as for opera?

EM:   This is interesting and I’ve never thought about it.  Probably yes.  It’s a different kind of concentration that you have.   For example, for a concert you need a concentration that is very intense in a very short time, because in the opera it’s a very long time.  Also, in opera you have a greater possibility to develop yourself, both as the character and also with your voice.  In a concert, you are sometimes sitting for twenty minutes, then you get up for four notes, and you’re sitting down again for ten more minutes.  So, the concentration has to be very quick and very intense for those soloists.  

BD:   Are you conscious of the audience perhaps more in the concert than in the opera?

EM:   Yes, definitely.

BD:   Is it more difficult to sit and look at the audience, rather than to sit as a character and look at another character and react?

EM:   It’s definitely much more difficult when you’re sitting in front of the public because are alone.  There is nothing, and you’re just there, but in an opera you have a character.  You can play with a character.  Also, when you’re sitting you really see whether the public is following you or not
whether it’s yawning or concentrating.  The moment I walk out in the theater, I feel it right away the electricity in the airwhether the public has come to enjoy and follow the music, or just suffer through the evening.  It’s something that you feel immediately right there, and it depends on the evening.  Some evenings you feel that the public is there to enjoy to follow the music.  It depends also from us.

BD:   What can you do to help us enjoy it more?

EM:   To sing the best as possible, and to concentrate as best we can.  Sometimes you find a public that is a little bit all over the place, and the challenge is to gather it together, and then to bring it with you in the music.  That is the most beautiful thing for me.

BD:   Is the public different from city to city, and country to country?

EM:   Yes.  For example, in Italy the public is primarily for opera because in Italy everybody knows opera.  There is this great lyrical tradition, and everybody knows the opera.  Only the true fans are going to a concert, while in Northern Europe
Germany and England, for examplethere is a public that is much more open to all sorts of other classical music, such as Lieder, symphony, etc.

BD:   Are they more well-rounded then?

EM:   It’s a different type of culture.  They are accustomed to sing and play and hear this kind of music, while in Italy, even the soloists are accustomed to sing more operas rather than concert works.  Opera was born in Italy, of course.

BD:   Are you pleased that opera has traveled the world?

EM:   Yes, very much so.  It’s the most beautiful thing we have... apart from spaghetti!  [Laughter all around]  After the kitchen or the good food, it’s always opera!

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  After the kitchen is the opera???  I thought it would be opera first and then the kitchen!

EM:   On the contrary, I’m a great cook, and when I want something, I make the meal.

BD:   [Patting his ample stomach]  Ah, delizioso!  [delicious]  [Much laughter]  

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   In the operas that you sing, many of the characters are victims.   Do you enjoy playing a victim?

mei EM:   No, I don’t like very much to play the victim, although in Italian opera there is this way of portraying a woman who is a victim as a heroine.  Generally in our opera we do see a woman, but there are really two ways of ending for the woman.  One is to be really sanctified
to be on a cloud, on a pedestalor the other way, which is to be damned.  Depending on which way she would be played, either she would cause every other character of the opera to be subliminal, or everybody would be damned.  But anyway, women are like that, no?  [Much laughter]  In Italy we say ‘donna’ to mean woman, and ‘danno’, which means damaged!

BD:   [With mock trepidation]  Well, if the woman can be all of this, does that mean that the men are all victims of the women?

EM:   In opera, yes. 

BD:   In life?  [Huge laughter all around]

EM:   No, I don’t believe that, but it’s very much an Italian way of seeing the situation of women... at least it was.  It was kind of the feeling about the Knight elevating the Ladies in his heart, and, of course, right now it’s not exactly as recreated in the operas.

BD:   This ties in with what I wanted ask.  Many of these victim-characters were drawn a hundred to a hundred and fifty years ago, but now you’re dealing with audiences who have come through wars and depressions, etc.  Can today
’s womenand menidentify with them?

EM:   I present a character who feels to me how she is now.  Certainly, I cannot represent a character of a hundred and fifty years ago because I never lived then.  I don’t know how they lived, and I am living right now.  But to come closer to how they felt or what they thought at that time, we only need the music.  After all the music is ninety per cent of the work.  As long as we follow the music, we will communicate and understand.

BD:   So, everything you need to know about the character is in the music?

EM:   If it is written by a great maestro, yes.

BD:   Is that what differentiates the great operas from the lesser operas
how much of the character is in the music?

EM:   Yes.

BD:   Is the music that you sing for everyone?

EM:   Those are very difficult questions!  I sing a lot of Rossini, and I believe that Rossini is for everybody.  Besides, it is also one of my favorites.  I believe that in Rossini, as well as Mozart, there is really no great difficulty in understanding and following the music.  Therefore, even if it was music that had been written a hundred and fifty years ago, it has been written by a genius.  Geniuses are not only Rossini and Mozart, but also Bellini and Verdi.  They were understood then and are understood now, and probably would be understood if we are still thinking two thousand years from now.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

EM:   [Sighs]  Not much, and unfortunately I’m only talking about my country.  Right now, it’s a very difficult moment because many theaters in Italy are closing and have difficulties with finance.  I really have a great deal of faith and hope in the younger generation
not only the younger singers, but the younger publicthat they will be so good in keeping the theaters open.  I believe there will be a passion for opera.  It’s a way of seeing life with different eyes.

BD:   Different eyes and different ears?

EM:   Certainly.  

BD:   Do you sing any modern music?

EM:   No, because for me it’s difficult to understand it, and therefore, as I said before, if I can’t understand it, I cannot make others understand it either.  I would love to sing jazz, but nobody calls me to sing jazz.

BD:   You have to start your own club!

EM:   I should learn English first!  [Laughter all around]

BD:   What advice do you have for younger singers coming along?

EM:   Mamma Mia!  A lot of patience.  You need a lot of patience because the instrument doesn’t always work exactly the same way every day.  So, the patience comes in when a day is not quite a good day.  You have to have patience enough to wait for the next one.  It is especially necessary to be very patient with yourself, because learning to sing and learning singing is very much about learning about yourself, and how you are made and how you perform.

BD:   So, you are telling everyone about you every time you sing?

EM:   Yes, I try my best to do that.  

BD:   What advice do you have for conductors who work with singers?

EM:   [With a big smile]  Oh, you have to ask the conductors who work with the singers.  I am not a conductor.  I would love to conduct but...

BD:   Do most of the conductors that you work with understand the human voice?

mei EM:   Certainly, yes.  

BD:   You are lucky!  

EM:   No, actually I do not sing twice with a conductor that I do not feel comfortable with.  Then I do not feel lucky.

BD:   It’s nice that you can make those selections.

EM:   I must.  My voice is only one, and I only have one instrument.

BD:   Are you pleased with where you are at this point in your career?

EM:   Yes, very much so.

BD:   Good.   Are there more recordings coming out?

EM:   Right after I finish here in Chicago, I’m going back home where I have to study because I have a recording for BMG / RCA of arias from opera buffa of Rossini, and two duets of Rossini with a darling colleague of mine, Bruno Praticò.  He’s an Italian ‘buffo’ baritone.

BD:   I hope we can persuade you to come back to Chicago.

EM:   It was a lovely experience to work with the orchestra, and especially with the chorus.  The chorus is fabulous.  I used to sing in a polyphonic chorus, and therefore I asked the maestro of the chorus here if I could sing with his chorus, and he said,
Oh, yes.  I can take you without any audition!  [Laughs]  It’s really wonderful to work with such a wonderful chorus because for me, the music, especially only for four voices singing a capella, without any instrumentation, is really the most beautiful way of making music.

BD:   One last question: is singing fun?

EM:   Yes, for sure.  Certainly.  Otherwise it would not be possible to do this kind of work.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  I hope it is not
work...

EM:   [With a big smile]  Not really
work, you’re right!  

BD:   Good.  Thank you for coming, and thank you for the interview.  Mille Grazie.  [A thousand thanks]

EM:   Piacere.  [Pleasure]



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© 2000 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on January 24, 2000.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year.  This transcription was made in 2017, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks 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.

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.