BWW Interview: Mezzo-Soprano Marianne Cornetti Swings for the Fences
Award winning mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti hails from the USA, but as an artist she is thoroughly international. Having appeared in major opera houses from the Met to Vienna to Rome to Brussels and more, she is one of the busiest mezzos in the world and has even sung the National Anthem at a Pirates-Braves game at PNC Park in her native Pittsburgh.
Last seen in San Diego performing at the Opera's April, 2015 50th Anniversary Celebration Concert. (/bwwopera/article/BWW-Review-San-Diego-Opera-Again-Proves-Itself-Worthy-of-Must-See-Status-20150421), Cornetti will appear as Mistress Quickly in SDO's Verdian swan song, Falstaff, starting on Feb. 18, 2017. A great storyteller, Cornetti weighs in on her operatic journey.
EM: Welcome to San Diego Opera, Marianne! We're so thrilled to have you back.
MC: I can't tell you how thrilled I am to be back. It's one of my most favorite theatres in the entire world.
EM: That's so good to hear. You've sung in an immense number of major opera houses throughout the world. What was your journey to the opera stage?
MC: I grew up in Cabot, a little town north of Pittsburgh, in an Irish-Italian family. My mother had the musical end of things. My great-grandmother was a singer, my great-great-grandmother also sang. My grandmother played piano - she rocked at it. Nobody was ever trained, they all played by ear. My mother played piano, organ in churches. She wanted to share her love of music with my brothers and I. She said when I was 4 she was so happy because I could sing all the words to "Supercalifragilistic." Little did we think I'd become an opera singer. It was just the love of music. When I was 12 the chorus teacher asked if I would like to sing a solo. I sang, "I'd like to teach the world to sing." My family all said, "Oh my gosh, Marianne has such a loud voice." That same teacher told the 7th grade teacher, "You've got to watch out for this one, there's something there." I auditioned for the chorus, got into it and started singing solos and started with private voice lessons when I was 14. Throughout high school and those years of being in chorus, I sang with the State and regionals and high school musicals. I had a lot of experience leading up to my first year of college at Manhattan School of Music but lasted just 6 months.
EM: What happened?
MC: It wasn't the right fit for me, going from a teeny town in Pennsylvania to 125th Street and Broadway. So I transferred to Cincinnati Conservatory and loved it. It was the perfect atmosphere, wonderful classes, teachers. But I developed a terrible thyroid problem and had to go home for a year for treatment. My voice broke and I lost a lot of my confidence. A year later I almost returned but at the last moment decided it wasn't what I wanted to do. My mother said, "It's all right if you don't want to get into music, but your education is absolutely vital. You have to figure out what you want to do." I had no idea. All I knew was music.
EM: What got you through that crisis?
MC: Later I took an aptitude test to show my strengths and weaknesses. The first thing on the list was music, then Human Services. I put those together and thought of speech pathology. I transferred to Penn State and was miserable. Algebra and such was torture for me. I was singing but not studying. Duquesne University in Pittsburgh was closer to home and had a fine reputation for speech pathology. I transferred there. I had to make a choice, music or speech. Here, I truly believe that God's hand was my guide. I had a wonderful singing teacher whose entire life was being a singer. I told her I was confused. Now that I was singing again the bug had bit me bit I didn't think I could eat, sleep and drink music, like Maria Callas with an entourage and furs dragging. I loved sports and other things. I didn't have the right personality to commit to an opera career. My teacher grabbed me by the shoulders - it was an absolute "Y" of my life, a moment of going this way or the other - and said, "Marianne Cornetti, if you don't sing it will haunt you the rest of your life. This is what you were born to do." From that moment I never looked back. I finished my music degree and off I went. I never doubted it. I just kept working on. And everything just started opening up.
EM: It's amazing what a difference one person can make in your life. When you're doing what you're meant to do, everything falls into place.
MC: Oh my gosh, it's been a phenomenal ride. You look at the difficulties and wonder. But when you love to do something it's part of you and you just continue doing it. I feel very fortunate and privileged to have found my life's work. So many people don't.
EM: The opera world is fortunate to have you.
MC: Thank you.
EM: When it comes to roles, you've sung composers from Verdi to Puccini to Cilea. What are some of your most favorites roles and composers?
MC: It's whatever I'm doing at the time. I've been able to sing the greatest roles for not only the mezzo-soprano but some of the dramatic soprano roles. Azucena and Eboli, Amneris, Ulrica, Tigrana in Edgar, Abigaille in Nabucco, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth. I'm doing Le Prophète in Essen - this protagonist is the person who guides all the drama. I get to do these kinds of roles that without this particular character - all of them drive the drama. They're truly the most interesting characters. It's not being egotistical. Take Azucena out of Trovatore - what do you have?
EM: True. Verdi originally wanted to name the opera after her. She really is the pivotal character. Some of those roles are the meat of the opera. Watching from the Met pit, I often wondered what it must be like to sing them. You're confirming for me how awesome it must be.
MC: It is. Ulrica Un Ballo in Maschera - without her the story stops. It's so interesting. These roles are not just driven by the drama, it's also their complexity. They're not one-layer kinds of roles. Look at Azucena, Amneris, Eboli - all those roles require a lot of thinking and building. From a vocal standpoint - wow. They're really tough. Verdi pushes every role he writes to the absolute limit, bottom and top. In all of them there are great, constant challenges. I love that. I haven't counted how many - Amneris, over 300, Azucena over 200. People ask me, "Don't you get bored?" I say, "Oh, no. You have a new cast, new conductor, new director, new orchestra. I learn something every time - from a conductor or director - that I can put into the next show. When you go about it like that it becomes so challenging, so interesting.
EM: Given your overall emphasis on Italian repertoire thus far, how do you feel about singing Wagner?
MC: I adore Wagner. In a lot of ways, Wagner writes for my voice almost with perfection - dramatically, also in range. It sits just a tad lower than a dramatic soprano but a tad higher than a regular mezzo. I have that extension at the top of my voice. So Wagner stays in the range of a real mezzo but with the tops he needs for Ortrud, and it's worked for me. Brangäne from Tristan and Isolde - she's a bit too namby-pamby for me, but what I would love to do before I end my career is Isolde. Also a Fricka, a Kundry, these kinds of roles. Many people ask me, "Have you touched on all the roles?" I say, "Oh my God, no."
EM: Your concert and recital repertoire is also quite extensive. Do you have a preference for singing opera, performing in concert, or both?
MC: In a nutshell, when I'm singing I'm the happiest. Whether it's in concert or a staged performance I'm doing what I love to do. But if I had to say, I enjoy opera more, being on stage in costume and production. Although I'm really looking forward to doing Beethoven's 9th with the Akron Symphony, even though it's a total of about 3 minutes of me singing. To get to do such a magnificent piece - it's just not always about what I'm doing on stage, it's also about what other people are doing. I do love solo recitals, but they're few and far between anymore, though the Marilyn Horne Foundation has been beating the bushes trying to keep the song recital going. But it's hard, it's a dying art. Opera is bigger than life - the production, the singing, chorus, action. It's a phenomenon, magnificent.
EM: Your passion for and commitment to fostering young and upcoming opera singers is inspiring. You've hosted a Master Class at the 2015 iSING! Suzhou International Young Artists Festival in China. Is that passion because of your own background?
MC: It's a lot of things. I love young singers. I've been given a gift and an opportunity, from someone who left, to get on the stage. To keep all of that nearly 30-year career just to myself means absolutely nothing. But if I take a young singer - so many of them are so hungry, wanting to find new information outside of themselves - I'm so happy to give of myself. In master classes I always start out by saying, "Please open your minds for these two or three hours, and allow the information to come in, allow me to try things with you. I would never do something that isn't going to be right for you, but it's my experience over the years that I'm trying to pass on to you. At the end of the class you are free to take it or leave what you don't want. " Kids respond. A lot.