The radiant face of Twenty-First-Century bel canto: Soprano Jessica Pratt [Photo © 2015 by Benjamin Ealovega]
There are voices that are wholly forgettable and voices that one actively endeavors to forget. There are voices that, try as one might, can never be purged from the memory. Very rarely, though, there are voices that one hears and, for all the right reasons, never forgets, voices that etch into the memory the circumstances of the first hearing with the vivid significance of a life event. There was the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Wagner’s Die Walküre on 6 December 1941, for instance, when, with the world on the brink of cataclysmic war, an untested soprano named Astrid Varnay introduced herself to the airwaves as Sieglinde. There were MET performances when Plácido Domingo and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa unexpectedly made company débuts as substitutes for ailing colleagues. There was that 1959 Covent Garden Lucia di Lammermoor when an Australian soprano who had been on the Royal Opera’s roster for nearly a decade, Dame Joan Sutherland, became a sensation. Much as the perceived paucity of important voices among today’s singers is lamented, the truth is that Melbas and Nordicas, Flagstads and Callases, Slezaks and Pertiles have ever been rare: even in the Eighteenth Century, when singers first gained celebrity-status notoriety in the modern sense, it was reportedly said that there were one God and one Farinelli, deities of equal scarcity. In this remarkable Twenty-First Century, when young singers face pressures for which conservatories can only partially prepare them, the future of opera depends more than ever before upon unforgettable voices—voices, that is, like that of soprano Jessica Pratt. Though hardly a novice, she remains a fresh-voiced young lady on the cusp of stardom, but her dedication to continually honing her craft reveals that she is anything but blinded by her success. A lovely lady of integrity both on and off the stage, she embodies bel canto in art and in life.
Born in England, Pratt relocated to Australia in her teens but now makes her home in Italy. It seems only natural that an artist with an insatiable thirst for knowledge of her chosen profession should reside upon the land from which the first founts of operatic creativity sprung, but Pratt is delightfully clear-sighted about the benefits of her intercontinental upbringing. ‘As a singer growing up in Australia, Joan Sutherland and Nellie Melba were and are great examples whom I find extremely inspiring,’ she says with obvious affection and respect for her forebears. In opera, there’s nothing like a Dame from Down Under, but this sophisticated soprano’s musical perspective is unusually global. ‘I also adore listening to recordings of Sills, Cuberli, Studer, Devia, Scotto, Olivero, Anderson, Moffo, Caballé, and Callas, among others,’ she confides. ‘I also find Fritz Wunderlich to be a very healthy singer to listen to. I think [that], as time goes on, I have started to realize that the wonderful sounds these singers produce are done with their minds and without forcing.’ An equilibrium of mental acuity and physical exertion is critical to vocal well-being, especially among singers at the starts of their careers, Pratt advocates. ‘As young singers, we always try to make something happen physically: however, the more that you step out of the way and just let your body do what is essentially a natural thing, the better the quality of sound. Less is more.’ This is wisdom with which one of her Australian idols concurred. ‘Nellie Melba writes at the beginning of her treatise on singing, The Melba Method, [that] “it is easy to sing well, and very difficult to sing badly! How many students are really prepared to accept that statement? Few, if any. They smile, and say: ‘It may be easy for you, but not for me.’ And they seem to think that there the matter ends. But if they only knew it, on their understanding and acceptance of that axiom depends half their success. Let me say the same in other words: In order to sing well, it is necessary to sing easily.” That phrase struck me as a young singer, and only after years of study and performance experience am I actually, really understanding it.’ Has this understanding changed her reactions to the work of the predecessors she so admires? ‘Yes, now, with experience, I admire the ease and freedom in Sutherland’s recordings more than anything else,’ she muses.
Method of her madness: Soprano Jessica Pratt in the title rôle of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at Teatro di San Carlo, Napoli [Photo by Luciano Romani, © by Teatro di San Carlo]
Though still well shy of forty, Pratt has already sung many of the most challenging rôles in the bel canto repertory, garnering critical acclaim and the appreciation of audiences throughout the world. Whether breathing new life into well-traveled characters like Elvira and Amina in Bellini’s I puritani and La sonnambula, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata or resurrecting long-forgotten or under-served heroines like Donna Isabella in Nicola Vaccaj’s La sposa di Messina [recorded in performance at the XXI ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival by NAXOS] and Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco [recorded in performance at the 2013 Festival della Valle d’Itria and recently released on CD and DVD by Dynamic], her performances are noteworthy for the intelligence in planning her career that her singing divulges. Especially in the first few seasons of a singer’s career, staying on the path that is healthiest for the voice can be nearly as daunting an effort as discerning that path in the first place. ‘In the beginning,’ Pratt recalls of the foremost hurdles of the earliest days of her international career, ‘it was the constant pressure to accept more lyric rôles which would have been entirely inappropriate as I did not yet have the discipline to measure out the voice over the entire performance of an opera and to resist the urge to push when things get dramatic.’ Nonetheless, there are forces at work that are not wholly within even an exceptionally wise singer’s control. ‘Of course, the temptation is strong because it is more common for a theatre to put on La traviata, for example, so there are more offers with a higher cachet, but I prefer to keep to the repertoire I love singing and that I believe is right for my voice for as long as possible.’ She quickly adds, ‘That is not to say I don’t enjoy singing Violetta. [She] is a part of my repertoire, too, but must remain a minor part like the Queen of the Night’—the rôle in which she will make her début at the Metropolitan Opera in the 2016 – 2017 Season—‘and eventually the more lyric Donizetti and Bellini rôles. I think that keeping eighty percent of my engagements in a year to lighter bel canto rôles and then adding the occasional rôle which is slightly more lyric gives me the basis to keep things healthy.’
Even so, there is nothing formulaic about Pratt’s artistry. ‘Purity, vulnerability, honesty, and intimacy come to mind,’ she responds when asked how she might describe her artistry, and her interpretation of the eponymous Babylonian queen in Rossini’s Semiramide—a rôle added to her repertory in 2015 with performances for Opéra Municipal de Marseille and Washington Concert Opera [reviewed here]—is an ideal manifestation of those qualities and the care that she exercises in discerning among the notes of a composer’s music not just a character but also indications of how to portray her. Significantly, Pratt’s performances epitomize the delicate balance between score and self. Her characterizations are redolent not of the ostentatious concept of being a woman like Semiramide in a Stanislavskian sense but of in-depth connections with composers’, audiences’, and her own perspectives. ‘I think it is natural for us to portray parts of ourselves or to see ourselves reflected in the characters we play,’ she suggests. ‘For singers, it is also a type of catharsis: we can work on exploring more vulnerable or more powerful parts of ourselves which might help those parts to grow in real life, too. I certainly feel like I have lived many lives through the characters I have played on stage.’ She sees finding the points at which composers’ and singers’ creative capacities intersect as the key to providing audiences with engaging portrayals. ‘Obviously, we often have to use our imaginations and exaggerate smaller feelings or observe others in similar states to the characters we play as we cannot live all the experiences we portray—I would be locked up in an asylum by now!’ she explains. ‘I enjoy playing Lucia di Lammermoor very much as it is a chance to put absolutely everything out before an audience. It is a portrayal of madness, a depression that fascinates me.’ Viewed through various lenses, this fascination is at the heart of Pratt’s artistic philosophy. She goes on to say, ‘I also felt a strong connection with Violetta in La traviata because the society who judged her for her lifestyle reminded me of being judged badly in the past as a possible partner because I am an opera singer, traveling the world alone [and] thus not marriageable because of my independence and not being able to be physically present all the time.’
Lady with a mission: Soprano Jessica Pratt, star of Festivale della Valle d’Itria’s 2013 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco, released on CD and DVD by Dynamic [Cover art © by Dynamic]
Pratt’s candid observation illuminates an aspect of a singer’s career that proves a challenge too insurmountable for some artists. Further outlining her approach to Violetta, she says. ‘I had also experienced in my life some very difficult health situations, and when Verdi portrays the moment that Violetta realizes she has been betrayed by her own body, which will no longer do what she wants, which is simply to get dressed and leave the house, I saw myself in hospital many years ago, when all I wanted in the world was to just stand up. I think that certain situations come with extremely strong emotions, and they can remain blocked inside us. Music is an important part of our social fabric because it helps us to explore these emotions and to unblock them.’ Contemplating the hardships that she has overcome gives Pratt pause to think of the toll that the realities of a singer’s life take on the individual. ‘Harder sacrifices are missing weddings and family milestones and not being present in the day-to-day lives of my nieces and my family in Australia and England,’ she reflects. ‘The worst [sacrifice] is being far away in a time of crisis. A recent example of this is having to go on stage and perform a comedy, Barbiere di Siviglia, in front of 14,000 people at Arena di Verona when I’d just found out [that] my father was diagnosed with lung cancer. I went on stage, played the part, and cried in my dressing room during the breaks. The lady who was doing my makeup very kindly kept fixing my face all evening without saying a word about it. Thankfully, a few days later, I had six days off and could fly to Australia to be with my father during his operation to remove the lung. He is now on the road to recovery. We have a strange kind of pressure on us in the theatre: “the show must go on” is really ingrained in our character, a sense of responsibly towards all the people who have bought tickets and traveled to see a performance.’
What makes such deprivation and isolation worthwhile? How can the pain and guilt of absence be justified? Every singer must answer these questions from her or his own unique point of view, and Pratt’s thoughts again stem from her undeviating attention to the quality of the product that she is ‘selling’ to audiences. ‘The most fulfilling [aspect of an artist’s career] is when someone tells you that watching the opera helped them in some way to overcome or to explore emotions,’ the soprano opines. She endeavors to dispel one of the hoary myths of opera, sharing that ‘the difficulties are of course many. It is not glamorous living out of a suitcase for eleven months of the year.’ Far from being glamorous, the life of a conscientious singer—a singer, that is, with as much concern for her health and happiness off the stage as for her success on the stage—is a continual process of self-evaluation. ‘We have to stay constantly healthy and well-rested, especially in my repertoire, as the vocal line is so exposed that any glitch in the legato or sounding tired is immediately noticeable,’ she imparts. ‘This means, at least in my case, hardly ever going out in the evening, not drinking alcohol or being in noisy places, a whole series of foods to avoid to reduce the possibility of reflux and so on and so forth. These lifestyle changes in all honesty are not so difficult to do and not much of a sacrifice for the moment in the theatre when a cadenza or a phrase [comes] off just right and [everyone in] the whole theatre holds their breath together.’
Sempre libera: Soprano Jessica Pratt as Violetta in Victorian Opera’s 2014 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata in Melbourne, Australia [Photo by Jeff Busby, © by Victorian Opera]
With the demands that today’s singers face focusing her thoughts on the progress of her career, Pratt ponders the choices that she has made and, could she begin anew, how she would advise her younger self with the benefit of her experience. ‘I could say take an easier life path, but I would never have listened!’ she laughs. ‘I would advise her to learn as many languages as possible as they are absolutely necessary: it is much easier to cover a memory lapse when you speak the language you are singing in!’ A vital lesson seldom relayed to young singers in lecture halls, Pratt affirms, is that the greatest obstacle to a singer’s success—and, perhaps more momentously, to a singer’s enjoyment of that success—is the singer’s own drive. ‘Don’t let perfectionism get in your way,’ she remarks with special concentration. ‘If you get eighty percent of the things you wanted to do right in a performance, that is good. The next time will be better. It is not a perfect reading of the score that the audience needs. We have to move the audience with our performance. Let go of perfectionism and interpret.’ In the midst of such introspection, the serious young lady’s innate good humor gushes to the surface with a flourish of the practical applications of her sixth sense. ‘Oh, and by the way,’ she jokingly whispers to the Jessica Pratt of years past, ‘the last five Super Bowls were won by...’
Pratt’s début solo recital disc, Serenade, a programme of songs by the defining geniuses of Italian bel canto Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini, the French masters Gounod, Delibes, Massenet, and Bachelet, and the unjustly-neglected Belgian composer Eva Dell’Acqua, now remembered almost solely for her 1893 song for coloratura soprano ‘Villanelle,’ splendidly sung on the disc by Pratt, was recently released in the Opus Arte label’s Rosenblatt Recitals series. The combination of French and Italian music on Serenade, delivered with musical and linguistic naturalness exemplified by her unaffectedly charming performance of Rossini’s 1822 ‘Addio ai viennesi,’ highlights an invaluable facet of Pratt’s artistry. Unlike many singers of any age, she is sensitive to the extent to which the expressive power of music is markedly undermined by indifferent use of text. ‘Young singers should learn as many languages as they can,’ she explains. ‘They will need them and will have no time to learn them later.’ This, she contends, should be supplemented by literary awareness. ‘As to approaching rôles, read books, as they will develop your imagination, especially with similar characters and in time periods similar to [those] in which operas [are] staged so that you can immerse yourself in that world,’ she advises. Pratt is adamant that textual acuity must be paralleled by vigilant, unending refinement of the technique. ‘Do your technical training and study so that the mechanical part of singing is in your muscle memory when you go on stage,’ she counsels. ‘You cannot express an emotion properly if you are thinking about how to make a sound. Do your technique at home, and then you mentally put it in a box and close it with the key so it will be there when you come back, but you must go on stage and express emotions and trust that your muscle memory and technique will take care of the vocal production. You will have to sing in every position imaginable, and many are not conducive to good singing. Very few stage directors care about this: you will be wasting your breath asking them for pity, so you might as well start practicing singing lying upside down on the couch now.’
Bella figlia: Soprano Jessica Pratt as Gilda in Teatro de la Maestranza’s 2013 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto in Sevilla, Spain [Photo by Jesús Morón, © by Teatro de la Maestranza]
Advice is easily given but far less easily followed. How does this uncommonly shrewd singer apply her insights about the methodology of singing to her own career? Not surprisingly, she starts at the beginning—as Julie Andrews and Maria von Trapp might agree, a very fine place to start. ‘I never listen to the operas until I know them well myself, have written my variations, and [have] decided what I want to do with the phrasing as I am afraid I will be subconsciously influenced by another artist’s performance,’ she discloses. ‘I imagine that when these rôles were written they were all learned without the chance to ever hear them sung by other performers as there were obviously no recordings. Now we have this wonderful wealth of knowledge and ideas at our fingertips, but we also are in danger of losing our individuality. Not only the singers but also the audience perhaps run the risk of getting stuck into stereotyping rôles, expecting to hear the same type of voice and the same variations in a role that originally was varied by each individual performer to suit their particular vocal gifts. Lucia di Lammermoor is a perfect example of this. The audience waits all night to hear the traditional flute cadenza written by Tetrazzini (most call it the Callas cadenza as our recording memory only goes so far), resulting in a situation in which one of the most famous parts of the opera was not written by Donizetti!’ Losing her individuality hardly seems a reason for anxiety for an artist of Pratt’s discernment. Understandably, though, she would cherish the occasion to create a rôle written for her by one of her operatic idols. ‘I would love [for] Donizetti to come back and write an opera on the novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. [Hardy’s] description of Tess’s descent into madness due to a string of terrible life circumstances and societal pressure is haunting.’
In many ways, hearing Jessica Pratt sing—or hearing her talk about singing, for that matter—offers the Twenty-First-Century listener extraordinary opportunities to relive the Golden Age of bel canto, a time when Giuditta Pasta, Giulia Grisi, and Maria Malibran graced the stages of Europe. From these legendary ladies of the distant past to more recent luminaries, Pratt is commendably reverential of the now-endangered legacy of true bel canto and her place in it. ‘Bel canto is just that: beautiful singing,’ she says. ‘It has very little to do with how high you can sing but of how purely you can sing. Bel canto is about ease and beauty of sound. One has to spin an uninterrupted web of sound the whole evening, expressing emotions through beauty like a painter might paint a terrible scene but with beauty and elegance that take your breath away.’ This analogy is wonderfully appropriate for an artist who summarizes the focus of her creative energy with three compelling words: ‘observe, experience, and portray.’ Words are cheap, but voices like Jessica Pratt’s are priceless.
First lady of song: Soprano Jessica Pratt’s début recital disc, Serenade, on the Opus Arte label [Cover art © by Opus Arte]
To learn more about Jessica Pratt, please visit her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter. The author’s sincerest thanks are extended to Ms. Pratt for her time and openness and to Tim Weiler at O-PR Communications for his assistance and patience.