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Interviews with Teresa Berganza

The opera world has lately been mourning two great sopranos, Victoria de Los Angeles (see post on January 29, 2005) and Renata Tebaldi (see post on December 20, 2004). On the former, I quoted some comments made by a great mezzo soprano of a previous era, Teresa Berganza. As it turns out, Berganza gave a recital on February 1 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. For the occasion, she gave some interviews, which I point out belatedly, but you might still find them interesting. The first interview (Teresa Berganza : «Je suis une extrémiste», February 1) was with Christian Merlin for Le Figaro (my translation):

The hearts of bel canto lovers everywhere will beat faster Tuesday night at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Jean-Pierre Le Pavec's "The Great Voices" series welcomes one of the great leading ladies in operatic history from the last half-century. One month away from her 71st birthday, Teresa Berganza specifies that we cannot hope to hear her sing the same Cherubino or Rosino as in the 1950s: with her voice as it is today, she now devotes herself to the recital, especially the beautiful parts of the Hispanic repertoire, whether it be Spanish (de Falla) or Argentine (Piazzola).

With a career like yours, is there a risk of living in the past?

I hope not. If people let me sleep until noon, I have inexhaustible energy. But although I always have hope for the future, it is clear that I carry in my heart all those I knew back then. How lucky I was! Callas, Schwarzkopf, Fischer-Dieskau, I was in the best company. I do not have the impression that there is today a comparable generation. When I think, for example, about the Barber of Seville in which I was partnered with Tito Gobbi as Figaro and Boris Christoff as Basilio: I had only to open my eyes and ears to learn something. Not even mentioning the conductors, who taught us everything from A to Z: that does not exist anymore today. You can't even read my scores anymore because there are so many marks on the pages: I copied there the directions of Karajan, Giulini, Solti, Abbado, indicating each time from whom they came.

Were things easy for you?

They were not, because the time itself was not easy. I was a child of the Spanish war, but I do not speak of it sadly, unlike many of my contemporaries. My parents gave me so much love! Everything was an excuse for daydreaming, even when we had nothing: when we had nothing but an orange, how to share it was a game. I worked from a young age to pay for my studies, by giving recitals in the universities: that was enriching because it was a place of culture. But the Franco regime did not care for me: I was helped very little, perhaps because they knew that my father was a free thinker, involved with the left. I felt that I had to leave the country, which is what happened in 1957, when Gabriel Dussurget hired me for Così Fan Tutte at the Aix Festival.

Does a top-level career come with sacrifices?

Many. The first time that I sang, I went to see an ear-nose-throat specialist, a wonderful man. He told me, "If you want to become a professional singer, you should learn how to live in silence and solitude." He spoke the truth. Before a recital, I do not speak, I do not go in restaurants for fear they will be smoky. When my children were little, they were used to seeing me with a scarf over my mouth, which meant that I was not supposed to speak. So I wrote them notes with my instructions. But these sacrifices are not without their benefits: in the solitude of a hotel room, you have the time to study, to look, to think, and that enriches performance. I begin each day singing warmups in my bathroom: if the notes are not there, I am in agony the whole day.

You speak about rigor and yet you seem so full of joie de vivre...

You have to have your feet on the ground but your head full of dreams. I am like that. We are caught in contradictions, and since I am an extremist, I always take things as far as I can, always prepared to take some hits. My father was an atheist, and my mother was very religious. I had my mystical period, and I would have ended up in a convent if my father had not forced me leave! During my first recital, my mother forced me put on a shawl because she found my gown too revealing. In Spain, the Church is everywhere, while I wanted to go out dancing and date boys. But I always found husbands with whom I could not make love on Friday or Sunday because the Church forbids it! I was married once for twenty years and another time for ten years: I always put off to the next day the decision to divorce because I didn't have the time. I ended up knowing real love at the age of 60: it lasted only two and a half years, but with what fullness! That can sustain you for the rest of your days. Now, what is important for me is music, my children, and my grandchildren.

Your roles seem to reflect your nature.

What motivates me is freedom. It's why I have no difficulty with Carmen: even if I was not free, I understood her because I have a gypsy, nomadic side. Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, Dorabella in Così, Rosine in The Barber of Seville: what they have in common is their thirst for freedom. I had so much fun portraying them! With Charlotte in Werther, it's different: she is sensuous, but her religious education (there it is again!) prevents her from opening up. I identified so much with her that I ended up giving up that role: it was too much emotionally. Alfredo Kraus, who was my favorite Werther, although I also adored Shicoff, Carreras, and Dvorsky (the most passionate), told me that I was wrong to invest so much of myself that way because my voice could suffer from it, and he was right. In one sense, it was fortunate that I did not know passion with my husbands: I was able as a result to put all my passion into singing!
The other review, with Paola Genone (Teresa Berganza: «La voix est un oiseau rebelle», January 31) for L'Express Magazine, is much longer and still available online. February was a month for a lot of singer interviews, since this was followed by Bertrand Dermoncourt's interview with Natalie Dessay (Natalie Dessay: «L'opéra nous fait tomber de bonheur», February 14) for L'Express. More about that another time.

It turns out that Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, French Minister of Culture, named Teresa Berganza a Chevalier de l'ordre national de la légion d’honneur immediately following her recital.

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