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.
EM: In what ways?
MC: I'm very tactile. I want to hug kids when they come up and when they leave, because I believe when you stand in front of an audience of people and are asked to go out of your realm of comfort, you're very vulnerable. A lot of people get nervous and can't do it. This happened to me as a young artist. I was in a master class given by a former colleague considered one of the great singers, who told one young girl with a lovely voice that she should do something else. I thought, there's no way I would ever do anything like that. I'm not God. I'm not going to say who's going to make it or not. I'm just supposed to give information. But in order to do it you have to make people feel comfortable. It's in my nature to nurture, but in a professional manner. I love to see young singers get the opportunity and just go. When I was in China those kids were "white on rice."
EM: "White on rice?" I've never heard that expression.
MC: [Laughs] Yes, because they could not get enough information and wouldn't leave me alone. When we took a pause they would be, "Can you show me, can you tell me, how would you do this." It's all relatively new to them. Talk about working hard, they're unbelievable. It's wonderful to see that.
EM: It must have felt amazing when The Opera Theatre of Pittsburgh created the Marianne Cornetti Young Artist Scholarship in your name.
MC: Believe it or not I have several scholarships out there. It's a humongous honor. In my name, someone is awarded monetarily and I work with them throughout the SummerFest. It's wonderful. I have another scholarship at Slippery Rock University north of Pittsburgh, through their music program. They have endowed nearly $35,000 towards it. It's been going on almost 20 years now.
EM: Continuing that legacy is a way of showing your gratitude for the people who changed and made all the difference in your life.
MC: It's in the last 4 or 5 years that I've stopped to think, "My gosh, I've just done so much in the last 25 years. How did I get here?" I started to realize it's my teachers, the ones who were influential from first grade, that were such a huge influence in my life. I needed and wanted to do something, to go back to find each teacher I had, all the way through high school, and thank them. At a concert I gave the year before last here in Pittsburgh, I found out six of my teachers were in the audience, the teachers who had been so amazingly important in my life. I stopped near the end and told them all to stand up. I thanked each one of them for what they had given me in nurturing and teaching, that a teacher affects us for eternity - what you taught me, I'm going to teach somebody else. It just keeps going on.
EM: It's unique that someone gives a teacher that recognition, which they so need, for making that difference.
MC: Absolutely. You cannot believe their reaction. There weren't many dry eyes in that concert. The teachers afterward were [Gasps] without words.
EM: And then there's - football.
EM: Football and opera have become quite the thing. I've been reading some of your Facebook posts about your appearances with the Pittsburgh Steelers. You've become a "local hero" for them, most recently performing for the New Year's Day game.
MC: I know, it's so funny. It's a big deal here in Pittsburgh. With the Pirates - it's a wonderful, heartwarming story. A couple of years I was on Facebook, rooting for one of the Pittsburgh teams, and a guy who friended me, Michael Duffy, said, "Have you ever sung at the Pirates, Penguins or Steelers games?" I said, "No, they want an audition and at this stage I shouldn't have to." He agreed. Later he wrote, "Do you mind if I call the Pirates, maybe they're just not aware of you. I'm a big fan of yours and they should recognize who you are." I thought it couldn't hurt. He called me back and said they were so excited to talk to me. I thought he was kidding. But I called the Pirates and the girl in charge of bringing in the Anthem singers, a former pianist at Northwestern, apologized for being unaware of me and said, "We would love to have you sing the Anthem." So I sang and they went crazy. Now I sing one of the Anthems every year.
EM: And the Steelers?
MC: Michael, glad it all worked out, asked if I wanted him to call the Steelers. I asked him why he wanted to do it, since he didn't really know me. We grew up in the same area, he said. As it happened, my dad ran a big mushroom farm where everybody in our little community worked, including my brothers and I outside of school. Michael said, "Long ago I worked at your dad's farm. He was my boss. The kindest man. He always shook my hand, always said hello, always had a smile. I always wanted to do something for Mr. Cornetti. Now I had my opportunity." Can you imagine? He called the Steelers and told me they were on board. I went down and sang the Anthem for the game, no audition. They loved it. Everybody went crazy - they all thought the way I sang was so personal, and so devoted the way I looked at the flag.
I do truly believe in what I'm singing about. They wanted me to sing Auld Lang Syne for the New Years' Day game during a video of the Steelers during the past year. I thought that was awesome, but I didn't want to do it a capella for 72,000 people. They arranged for me to work with two instrumentalists, an acoustic guitarist and one on keyboard, in a recording studio - in Ohio. That was a new experience. I suggested an intro on electric guitar, just rip it, to grab the audience, and he did. We put the whole thing together in 4 hours. On the day of the game I had the track in my ears and sang live. It was SO AWESOME. So cool to stand up there and do something with such an important organization. The Steelers, the Rooney family, treated me as though I was a queen, honestly. Plus they gave me a jersey with my name and let me wear the 43rd Super Bowl ring [Gasps].
EM: You seem almost as fascinated with sports as with opera.
MC: Growing up with just brothers, there weren't many girls in the neighborhood so I had to play with boys. Of course they think you don't know how to do anything. Our yard had the baseball diamond. All the kids came to our house. I cried to my mom that they wouldn't let me play. She said, "Marianne, you have to make them let you play. Figure it out." I thought it was unfair. Then I got up and walked between the catcher and pitcher and lay down. They knew if they hit me with that ball they'd be dead meat. So they gave me a glove and put me in the outfield. Balls were going over my head. But they had to teach me how to play. I became a great second baseman. Then I learned to play football and they came knocking at my door asking me to be their quarterback. So I grew up a real tomboy and still have a passion for all those sports. My mother had the wherewithal to put into my mind that it had to be me to get them to allow me to play. That tenacity, I've carried all my life. In this career you have to keep going, striving, not give up. You're going to get there eventually.
EM: Clearly sports and opera go very well together. Just ask Jake Heggie.
MC: They've both been a big deal with me. In 2013 when I was in Japan and the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team were in the playoffs, in spite of 13 hours' time difference I would get up early in the morning and listen over the Internet at the local Starbucks. When I became hysterical those quiet Japanese would watch me stand up and cheer. I'm sure they wondered what was wrong with me. [Laughs]. But it's my passion.
EM: Marianne, this has been extraordinary. You have so much to say. I can imagine it coming through as you sing Mistress Quickly in SDO's Falstaff.
MC: And there it is again. Without Quickly, it doesn't happen, you know?
EM: Along with Sir John she is the most fun character of all. I can't wait.
MC: It should be a lot of fun.
EM: Thank you so much for spending time with me.
MC: Erica, it's been a real pleasure.
SDO's Falstaff runs from Feb. 18-26 at the San Diego Civic Theatre (http://www.sdopera.org/season/2016-17-season/falstaff)
Photo credits: National Center for the Performing Arts Beijing, Bill Cooper, courtesy of the artist