Interview with Sicilian Soprano Nuccia Focile
(Photo courtesy of Seattle Opera as posted in photo album on FB page)
I had the privilege of interviewing the impeccable Sicilian soprano Nuccia Focile on April 25th. In the interview she was articulate, charming, passionate, and completely open in sharing some of the amazing highlights of her long and illustrious career. I hope you enjoy this interview!
I asked her for a favorite quote in Sicilian, which is a beautiful language, and this is what she gave me: It is a phrase which comes from an anonymous Sicilian folk song. “Sicilia mia, ti amu e tu si duci e amara.” (Meaning: Siciliy: I love you in the good times and the bad)
Q: I understand that you sang this same opera in London previously and on that occasion you sang in English based on a translation. This time you are singing in French with English subtitles.
A: I much prefer singing in French. The flavor of the work is so French. Poulenc, the composer, had the libretto in mind when he composed it and it goes perfectly together, so that is why I much prefer it in French.
Q: Besides this obvious difference, can you comment on any other aspects of this particular performance for the Seattle Opera?
A: The preparation during rehearsals with the conductor is a very important aspect. It involves a lot of attention to detail, of course as was also the case in London. This is the only way to approach this opera. You have to go through the text, looking at every detail. Within the work, there are moments of complete silence. Those moments, empty bars, are when whoever is at the other end of the phone (not seen onstage) is speaking. Bernard Uzan, the director, has been feeding me the lines from the other end of the line, so that I have connection to the other voice in that moment of silence, so that I have that available to me as I perform. That is extremely helpful. That is part of the process of approaching this score; it is like a play. You have to read between the lines what the story is about.
Q: I understand you are Sicilian. That region has so many diverse cultural influences from the Mediterranean region. How do you think this upbringing has influenced your career? Was your training influenced by this perspective?
A: Being Sicilian I believe it is just my way of approaching life; I feel so passionate about music. It may not be purely because I am Sicilian. Perhaps it is just the way I am. I like romantic music, and I feel this score is romantic. Also, I was brought up in Turin where I did my studies. But, I think I carried with me always this Sicilian passion somehow, which I have maintained until now. It is in my blood. I have traveled so much and have been in contact with so many different cultures. That also influences how I see music. Everything adds to the color, emotions and feelings. If I look at my life, I feel like it is like a palette with so many different shades because of the way I was brought up and the opportunities I have had.
Q: I understand that you knew Luciano Pavarotti and that he had an influence on your career. Can you tell us more about that?
A: I was very lucky and honored to meet Luciano Pavarotti. I did his competition in Philadelphia. I won the competition. It was in 1986.
It was right at the beginning of my career, so I was doing a lot of competitions at that time. I did the selections in Modena, which was Luciano’s hometown. I was one of the finalists from Modena, so I went to Philadelphia. There were more selections in Philadelphia and then I finally won the competition.
The prize was that I would sing with Luciano Pavarotti. In fact, I was extremely lucky. I sang with him in two operas. I sang the role of Oscar the page (he is a young man, and this is a soprano role) in Un ballo in maschera by Verdi and Mimi in “La Bohème” by Puccini (see articles on blog about La bohème) .
It was such an honor, really a dream to sing with Luciano. All the way through the rehearsals he was so supportive and encouraging, always giving me suggestions and tips. I learned so much from him. After that, I did the same roles with Luciano in other locations, including in Paris and Hamburg, and at La Scala. I also sang with Luciano in the production of L’elisir d’amore by Donizetti in Barcelona where I sang the role of Adina. We also did lots of concerts with the orchestra and recitals, including some at La Scala.
Singing with him onstage was wonderful. It was like I was surrounded by the harmonics and resonance of his voice. I felt a fantastic positive energy. Of course, I always felt like I wanted to give my best, to be perfect, to strive to be at the same level as him, even though he is so incomparable. I never wanted to disappoint him, so I always gave my best.
Q: What motivates you most in your career?
A: It has become the air that I breathe. It is part of me. It has been part of who I am for so long. It is the passion of music, towards opera especially, that keeps me so attached to what I do.
Q: What is your favorite memory from your childhood in Sicily?
A: The way I was brought up was in a very Sicilian atmosphere. There is one particular memory that is connected to music, in fact to the piano.
In the house where I was living with my parents, the neighbor used to play the piano. I would hear her playing the piano every day. As a child, I would stop playing with my toys, throw them down on the floor and just stop, sit and listen to her play the piano. I was about 4 or 5 years old. I was completely captivated by the sound of the piano. My mom would take me around to see the neighbor and she would play for me. She could have played for days and I would have just sat and listened.
I don’t know what it was that I had within me to start with, but this was the trigger. My grandfather was an opera-lover as well as my dad. When my father was a student, he would go to the Teatro Bellini in Catania. He could only afford the cheapest tickets, those where you could barely see the singers and orchestra, but not the full stage. He would save up to buy a ticket, and as long as he could hear the orchestra he was happy. The passion he had for opera influenced me. He didn’t sing, but he loved opera. When I first mentioned that I was interested in a career in music, of course he was very happy.
I started piano lessons when I was 11 years old. I took an exam to enter the conservatorio in Torino. My dad was always so supportive; actually both of my parents were always extremely supportive. No one in my family had experience studying music, but they always did what they could to make it possible for me.
Q: When did you discover that you wanted to sing opera?
A: I discovered that I wanted to be an opera singer at the conservatorio. I was taking chorus lessons every Thursday in the afternoon. There was one day in particular that I remember. I was in the Soprano section, of course. The teacher asked the Sopranos to sing “without Focile”. Naturally, I was concerned about why he didn’t he want me to sing. After choir rehearsal, he asked me sing some scales. I was a little nervous. Then when I finished, he said, “Yes, that is what I thought. You should sing as a solo. Your voice stands out.” Then, of course, I understand why he had excluded me earlier. His name was Maestro Angius and he really encouraged me. After that, I prepared for the exam to enter the training to becom an opera singer, and I passed the exam . I worked with Maestro Battaglia in that training program. I was 15 1/2 years old when I trained for the opera.
Q: When you are traveling, what do you miss the most about home?
A: I miss the comfort of being at home, the feeling of home, the flavors. I miss my family. I hate having to leave them behind. Sometimes my daughter comes with me. She has come to Seattle in the past, but this time she couldn’t come, unfortunately. Having to pack a suitcase is not easy. But, then you meet your colleagues and sometimes new people, and that is always lovely. It is like making a new home every time wherever you go, like a new family. Sometimes you may work with colleagues you know well and other times you may not see some of them ever again. It is quite an emotional journey. There is the production, and then all of a sudden it is finished. It is like a little part of your life has gone. It is weird. Even when you are performing on stage when the curtain goes down, all of that work, it has completely vanished. It is not like a book, cd, picture, or painting where you can continue to see it. With a live performance, there is a magic moment and then it is gone. It is a little bit of your life that has gone and won’t come back.
Q: Besides opera, what else are you passionate about?
A: I have a wonderful daughter, Antonia. She is 14. I love Antonia so much. She is my priority. She keeps me interested in other things in life. Having a daughter keeps you focused on reality, on what is real in life. When I am in the theatre rehearsing, I am in my safe little world. On stage I need to become the role that I am playing, which I am not in real life. So, it is very important to have a connection with real life.
Q: What do you consider you biggest achievement in your life?
A: Obviously my biggest achievement is my daughter. I became a mom after some difficulty. She is my whole world, my sunshine. She makes me feel like I am the best mom in the world. As an artist, I believe my biggest achievement is the fact that I have been in this career for over thirty years. I consider myself so lucky. I keep feeling exactly the same enthusiasm, passion and love of music and I have never gotten bored.
I made my debut in 1982 in Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona . I played the role of Serpina (there are only two roles in the opera). It is a funny, bubbly work, a little gem.
Q: What do you like most about America?
A: Seattle has a very special place in my heart. From the very first time I came to Seattle, I felt welcome and I felt loved. I love the audience; they really respond. It is so honest and real. I love working with all of the people of the opera company. Speight is like a mentor to me. He has been so encouraging during every performance. Also, I am sentimentally attached to Seattle. It was in Seattle that I first discovered I was pregnant during the production of La bohème.
Q: Is there one particular moment that stands out for you in Seattle?
A: Iphigénie en Tauride, which was (like La Voix Humaine) also conducted by Gary Thor Wedow – when we did that production, I remember that the audience loved it so much that every night for the curtain calls the reaction was like we were at rock concert. They were screaming and shouting, stamping their feet, just like it was a big arena. We felt so appreciated, like all of the hard work and preparation had paid off. It was the most beautiful gift; the enthusiastic reaction which showed us that they understood everything. I got goose-bumps every night.
Ci vediamo all’opera, Lina