Interview with Fiorenza Cossotto
When I heard from Salvatore Iacono, the General Manager of New Opera Ischia, who is among the teachers of the fine educational formation of the 2009 edition and where there would have been also Fiorenza Cossotto, I asked him if it was possible for an interview. The next day I was on the phone with Madam Cossotto for a “chat.” Along with a great enthusiasm and having the privilege to ask questions to such an important exponent of the Opera, I immediately felt a certain "responsibility" towards those who would then read the interview. It is this responsibility that forced me to think long and hard about how to conduct this interview.
Everything is known of her art: numerous witnesses speak, starting from records and from live recordings, where one can best appreciate beyond the wonderful voice not only a vocal style, an artistic temperament, gestural art, and theatricality, but also all qualities that gave Fiorenza Cossotto the exclusive right to enter into the most exclusive group of the greatest mezzo-sopranos of all time. Not to mention, even as of today Madam Cossotto continues to perform with an inexhaustible enthusiasm.
Therefore, I will not ask if she has loved more the roles of Amneris or Azucena, Adalgisa or Leonora from Donizetti, or if she was found to be more at ease under the direction of Gavazzeni, rather than Serafin or Von Karajan. I also believe to be in tune with the spirit and “the line” which in time has drawn up the profile of www.cantarelopera.com, (born in 2003 and has grown with the outlook towards the formation of quality), asking Fiorenza Cossotto to trace, from the beginning, the milestones that have marked the path of Fiorenza as a girl, a student at the Conservatory of Turin, and later on to the Graduate School of La Scala in Milan - becoming the greatest singer that everyone knows.
When did you discover you wanted to sing? Who directed you towards music? How much time did you devote to your study? How did you study? What vocal exercises did you practice? Did you have particular notes in your range that you had to treat with special care?
These are questions that certainly will thrill the goers and readers of www.cantarelopera.com and all those who spend or have spent most of their time singing.
Let us begin.
Madam Cossotto, in 2007 you celebrated 50 years of your career: your debut onto the scenes is in 1957 at La Scala in Milan in the premiere: "The Dialogues of the Carmelites" by Poulenc.
Do you remember that day?
I remember it very well because it was a first opening night worldwide. There was an opera company of great singers (Scipio Colombo - The Marquis de la Force, Nicola Filacuridi - the Knight de la Force, Virginia Zeani - Blanche de la Force, Armando Manelli - Thierry, Gianna Pederzini - Madame de Croissy, Eugenia Ratti - Constance, Gigliola Frazzoni - Mother Mary, Carlo Gasperini - M. Javelinot, Leyla Gencer - Madame Lidoine, Victoria Palombini - Mother Jeanne, Fiorenza Cossotto - Sister Mathilde, Alvino Manelli - Father confessor of the convent, Director Nino Sanzogno, and artistic director Margaret Wellmann). I was just starting out: I came from the Conservatory of Turin and I had graduated a little less than a year before. Finding myself next to names such as: Gigliola Frazzoni, Virginia Zeani, and especially Gianna Pederzini; and being that I only had just started...I looked at them with big eyes trying to learn, to understand, to "steal" something from their art ... (and yes, in this case and in our art the act of "stealing" from the great singers is almost as saying ‘how to study’…this also was school). At the first rehearsal I was extremely attentive and everything went fine.
Later on, the rehearsal with Maestro Sanzogno, who directed the Opera, went very well.
I was a small part. My role consisted of one phrase saying: (playing the part of a nun, Sister Mathilde) "THEY RANG AT THE DOORBELL OF THE LAUNDRY ROOM." I remember the artistic director Margherita Wallmann who had placed me a little everywhere because I was young, whippy, and full of life - even though I had a small part. I thought I had sung so much...
There was also Poulenc at the opening! To us it seemed normal, but looking back now...!
He called me "my little Sister Matilda."
Did you think about it on the twenty- sixth of January, fifty years later?
No, because I have not stopped singing. It is not yet the time of the commemoration for me. Although in Japan, they celebrated me in an incredibly warm fashion. Until the Eternal Father gives me a voice and the strength to sing I am going to go forward for those who still believe in me and want to listen to me. Therefore, I do not think of the past.
At what age did you begin your vocal studies? Was it always your wish or were you guided?
I was guided. Due to the fact that I excelled in painting and drawing, my parents wanted me to go to an art school. However, my teacher in choral singing (which at the time was among my school subjects) always made me sing the solo parts. One day he sent for my father, and he advised me to continue with my vocal studies because he said that I had a voice that absolutely had to be taken care of ... therefore I started at fifteen years of age.
When did you start understanding that you possessed an ‘important’ voice? Who discovered your talent?
I went step by step. I did not think if I had more or less talent. I went to school for voice because I liked singing. I was then fascinated from the first lesson and gradually I got more and more passionate – to all kinds of music - not just singing.
Who was your voice teacher in Turin?
I took the entrance exam at the Conservatory, which was only open to a set number of people – there were very few openings. In the ranking I was found to be one of the first. I was then entrusted to Paola della Torre, who was my very first teacher. I studied with her for five years.
How were studies completed at the Conservatory?
We had lessons two hours a week between vocal exercises and arias.
I studied many Lieders and especially many antique arias: for five years I sang only antique arias.
For five years the Conservatory you never approached Opera repertoire?
No! I approached the Opera only later, after I completed a vocal competition at La Scala and in those circumstances I was invited to study a part.
Do you remember what you sang at your final exam at the Conservatory?
No, but I remember the aria I sang at the admission exam: it was the "Holy Book" (Romanzas for voice and piano by Cyrus Pinsuti based on the poetry Carmelo Errico) which the composers once wrote for the noblewomen as a dedication. I had already sung these pieces at the festivities of my hometown. It was the only piece I knew...
From Turin you went to study in Milan: how did this happen, that is, who guided you to go to the school of Vocal Performance at La Scala?
Before going to Milan, I was in Vercelli for a few months studying "Viotti."
In Vercelli the Maestro Campogalliani heard me sing. He was also a teacher at La Scala. He was the one who advised me to audition for the School of Vocal Performance at La Scala because he thought that I was already musically prepared as well. It was the Maestro himself who signed me up for the audition. I was taken in right away.
A recollection of Maestro Campogalliani: What was it, beyond the preparation and competence, which made him such a special teacher?
He taught the interpretation of the Operas in the fullest sense of the term - what I do now in the courses that I teach. It made one "enter" in the character. He worked patiently and meticulously. For an audition he taught me the aria of Azucena from Il Trovatore "Condotta all’ara in Ceppi" and the aria from "Samson and Delilah.” As a result, I won the competition to enter the School.
The first vocalization when your lesson began.
He did not let me do my vocalizations. I did them alone.
And what vocalizations did you do?
It was either the seventh or ninth scale, but there was no vocalization in particular. Among other things, I am of the opinion that each student should create an exercise of vocalization for himself/herself. It doesn’t matter what vocalization you do, but how you do it. All vocalizations can be valid, useless, or even harmful.
Give us an example.
If a singer tightens a sound too much he/ she has to make an open vowel and vice versa...therefore one has to take care of his/her own issues.
Do think it was of extreme importance to have been guided well or do you think that a ‘difficult’ voice like yours could have been trained?
I do not know... I can tell you that my first teacher was very cautious. She would never let me go beyond a certain note because I was young and she wanted to preserve my voice. And I must say that it was of good doing.
Perhaps because of this it is easy today to come across promising singers who burn out in a few years because they are called to do important roles too soon…you followed a certain path despite being ready.
Four to five years of ‘Piccola Scala,’ Baroque works...little things. I studied and I was happy. I did not pretend too much: it was enough for me to be around music.
Scientific studies have been conducted, in particular over the last two decades, on vocal mechanisms and the respiratory system. They have demonstrated that many teachers express themselves differently today with respect to the past. Yet when I read for the first time, a few years ago, the Treaty of Antonio Garcia it seemed surprisingly current to me and it is still today. Can we give a few brief examples of how to explain the fundamental aspects of singing? For example: breathing and the diaphragm.
I am a person of instinct and I am simple in my thoughts. For me, from when singing existed, there was only one way to sing and only one way to correct the voice.
I do not know if those who sing have to think of the larynx, the resonators, etc...I think we need to think less and be as natural as possible - therefore one must simplify.
My teacher did not even give me instructions on how to breathe, she only said ‘just breathe naturally and everything will be fine!’ You can also have a lot of scientific knowledge, but if you start to tighten, the breath does not come out. There is also the large component of tranquility and naturalness that gives you security in the performance.
So it was all based on the discovery of the natural voice: the so dreaded "passaggio" was not studied?
I have some ‘passagios’ I still think of even after 50 years...because the ‘passaggio’ is the absolute difficulty of the voice...one must continue to always take care of it as long as one sings.
And the high notes?
I never made much effort. I had them by nature! In fact I could sing as a soprano, which I have also done. However, having started as a mezzo soprano, I became fond of my roles and therefore I had no ambition to sing as a soprano.
We receive many letters from young people who cannot find guides whom they can rely on. They are often disoriented and often discouraged. In your opinion, how important is to have a good teacher?
The teacher must be like a doctor: every singer has his/her wrongs…the teacher must be intuitive and understand the student: therefore intuition is the most important quality in a teacher.
Another question that I get asked often: is it possible to study "alone"?
No, because when alone one cannot understand the defects of his/her own emission...one then continues to sing according to his/her own intuition. The teacher is the MIRROR of the defects (and also the assets) of the student! It is a tool that allows one to listen to oneself with the ears of an expert…something a student cannot yet have!
Let's go back to Fiorenza as a pupil. Giacomo Lauri Volpi in his writings* claimed that all voices have ONE particular note - tricky and different from the others: Do you agree?
In the range of your voice, being very large and extended, what was the area in which you had to work the hardest?
That exact note, being the note of ‘passaggio’ in my vocal range, of course.
In the range of my voice I had to work from the middle zone to the high zone - which for us mezzo- sopranos is the most difficult to take care of and study.
Let's go back to Fiorenza, a pupil of the School of La Scala. What happened when you finished?
As soon as I finished the school they needed a double for the part of Fidalma in "Il Matrimonio Segreto " by Cimarosa. I studied the part with a maestro of the school and I left immediately (only 15 days had passed since the audition to enter the school) for South Africa. I had not even turned twenty years of age. When we returned to the school of La Scala was closed for lack of subsidies, therefore the top three students (including me) we were taken to the theater for small parts, doubling others...
When and how did you understand to have complete control over your own voice - to be able to begin facing the important roles?
Honestly - never!
For me, the voice was a natural thing. As a result, I sang with simplicity and for the joy of singing. I've never taken anything else into consideration. Maybe it was fate, maybe I deserved it…
I thank God for the gift of my voice of which I knew how to ‘make do’ thanks to my studies.
I studied a lot...
What memory do you have of that time period - when you sang as a secondary role? How did you feel: eager, faithful…did you feel that sooner or later the “Big Day” would come?
I was not thinking. I was so happy.
When did you realize that you would have undertaken an important career?
When they took me immediately to the ‘Grande Scala’ entrusting me with Manon Lescaut - the director was Gavazzeni and in the cast were: Clara Petrella and Giuseppe Di Stefano, one can imagine I was a little....
I felt like a fish out water, however, I was happy to sing that little part which to me seemed like a great thing: I loved the music matter what I did.
That career that would have taken you from there to inaugurate the season at La Scala in Milan in the role of Azucena in "Il Trovatore" next to Franco Corelli, Ettore Bastianini, and Antonietta Stella: and was that you’re most important moment, true?
According to you, what depended on such a high concentration of beautiful voices and great singers in those years: a golden age that has never come back, and perhaps unrepeatable?
And then, they were almost all Italian voices!
I think that the way one studies and by the fact that in Italy beautiful and natural voices are so privileged, perhaps they need to be educated as well. Today there is no longer a real culture of opera in Italy - they prefer voices of less importance but who are more prepared, maybe due to the rush mentioned above...
How would you describe your voice?
I do not know. I love my voice because it gave me a lot of satisfaction...if I were to use an adjective, I would describe it as "FLEXIBLE AND DUCTILE." I go to the high notes as I would go to the low notes. I sang my roles as sweet as Adalgisa in “Norma” and then I could also dabble in roles of Verdi's great dramatic works. I was able to achieve all the colors of the voice, thanks also to my studies - as my way to respect and to thank God for the gift of nature that I had received.
What are the main characteristics of the interpreter?
It's something that you feel in you intuitively…I had to be convinced of the role to be able to interpret it, otherwise I would become rigid and I could not sing...I had to be in harmony with my roles.
With which author did you feel more "in tune" with your musical temperament and your vocal style?
There are so many - I sang with success with many authors…Surely Verdi among all: Amneris (character in Aida) and Azucena (from "Il Trovatore") gave me a lot of satisfaction.
And what is the role that made your voice most "happy" - in other words, the role where you express yourself the best vocally?
Besides mentioning above Amneris and Azucena, also Leonora in La Favorita - there my voice was, as you said, happy.
We know a little of ‘the woman' Fiorenza Cossotto.
You have shared for many years a life and a profession with Bass Ivo Vinco: what does it mean for a singer to be with a person both in private and on the scene?
It's not so easy because the problems of one become that of the other: there is suffering and rejoicing twice. It is not easy, but it is also beautiful because being close to a person who understands you artistically is already a big thing.
Was there ever "competition" between you?
No, because obviously we sang different roles.
However, not being in his heart, I cannot know for sure...as far as I'm concerned: no.
You are also a mother. You had a son. Did you chose the moment to have a child or did you leave it entirely up to fate?
I absolutely let fate decide.
According to you, having a child can enrich a woman, but can it also interfere with her career?
It certainly enriches a great deal - not only the woman, but also the artist!
Let us close this long conversation talking about Fiorenza Cossotto - the teacher.
You are one of the leading names who will take part in the New Opera Ischia 2009.
Do you like to teach?
Yes, very much: it fascinates me.
How do you find student singers of today - Do you often hear that they are not willing to sacrifice and study meticulously for a long time as they did once? What is your experience in this case?
Those who do not make sacrifices are those who will not have a long career...
How do you rate the project of New Opera Ischia - a real and true "faculty" of Opera which gives the opportunity to come into contact with large scale personas of Opera on the international level?
I find it beautiful and exciting initiative - there should be so many like this! Many people study only the Conservatories (where we all know that not much is learned). The Conservatory is only a starting point. And then - what happens? Where does one specialize or master his/her vocal studies with singers who know the true reality of the theater? At New Opera Ischia this is possible - therefore a wonderful initiative that I think is extremely valuable for anyone who wants to be an opera singer.
Thanks to Fiorenza Cossotto are not only part of procedure, but are also deeply felt.
She agreed to answer so many questions - her availability, her courtesy, and her honesty with which she responded made this interview so unique and precious. Not only because of the prestige she gives www.cantarelopera.com, but for the emotions which she will surely raise when people read her words - as has happened to me. Thanks to her I dreamed of living ( she, instead, really lived it) in the atmosphere of being next to Corelli, Di Stefano, Leyla Gencer, Clara Petrella, and to be directed by Gavazzeni - to see Poulenc attend a premiere and to have had lesson with Maestro Campogalliani...
Personally, to have gotten to know her is a great honor, as well as a joyful experience.
I want to thank from the bottom of my heart - Salvatore Iacono - who put me in touch with Madam Cossotto.
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