What follows is an account of her talk the next day at the NCPA Mumbai.
Nelly Miricioiu presented us with a fascinating glimpse of life behind the curtains of the opera stage. Is it all smoke and mirrors? You be the judge.
She told us how privileged she felt to have sung with the proponents of the great Bel Canto tradition, the divas and divos of the past generation.
I was jotting down furiously as she spoke, so I couldn’t catch all the names she mentioned.
She did say that while she learnt a lot from her co-divas, she learnt more from the tenors.
Miricioiu told us how she learnt to trust her voice, to ‘listen’ to her vocal cords and their state of well-being. In this connection, she touched upon Manuel Patricio Rodriguez Garcia (1980- 1906), Spanish singer and vocal pedagogue who invented the laryngoscope and was probably the first (hope I got that right) to elaborate a technique of singing (the Garcia technique).
He wrote a tome A Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing (1847). He had the humility to admit there were some inaccuracies in it, and write a second book.
Miricioiu mentioned how everyone had a ‘natural voice’, and you have to guide it correctly, and this is a huge responsibility.
“If you get into the part, the voice comes from within”, she said. She spoke in terms of an ‘organic’, or ‘normal’ voice for a role.
She shared with us how she was declared a child prodigy,; how her mother had a vision while pregnant with her, that she would have a girl, and that she would be a singer! She was named ‘Nelly’ after Dame Nellie Melba!
Apparently her mum still has visions, but “I don’t listen to her”, said Miricioiu.
As a child, she didn’t know what an opera singer was, but she had a desperate need to talk, to communicate. She was a lonely girl as a child.
Life was tough growing up in a communist regime, which was the worst environment for artistic pursuit, where everything was dictated, controlled.
Music helped her to ‘escape’ metaphorically into freedom.
Little Nelly was a shy child. Her parents were, as she describes it, in a ‘misalliance’: her mother came from a noble family, while her father was of poor peasant stock. He was in the military.
Her roots ensured that she was not a typical diva, and never would be one.
It was while she was still young that she learnt about Indian culture.
Miricioiu sought very much to be one with the Universe, the pursuit of ‘nobility’ of spirit, as she puts it.
She grew up confused about God, about Communism.
When she was five, she inadvertently sang a song in public, that mentioned God. It led to her father being imprisoned.
And it didn’t end there. After her father was released from prison, the family had to move to another city. “But everything happens for a purpose”, says Miricioiu. The city they moved to had a music school!
Miricioiu described her life as “eventful and rich”. She has been exposed to different systems in her life, ‘politically, temperamentally, historically’.
“If you help God to open a door, He will make it happen for you”.
She didn’t have it easy in Communist Romania. She was approached by the authorities to be an espionage agent, as she travelled on tour. She politely refused, (“I could never be a Mata Hari”, she told us), and was imprisoned for a while for daring to refuse.
While on tour in Manila, Miricioiu wrote to her mother “Mum, everybody SMILES here!” It was so rare back home.
She decided not to return to Romania. It was tough, as she lost contact with all her family and friends and was not able to return to her native country for 17 years.
She had no papers, she was stateless, an emigrant.
Sir Thomas Allen
It was Miricioiu’s first experience with the top greats of the world of opera. She remembers being petrified, particularly of Cappucilli (“He had the voice of a giant”).
These demi-gods of that era believed in music, in commitment. Nothing else on the planet mattered once the music started.
Miricioiu candidly revealed how she found her husband Barry through a matrimonial agency, and how blessed she was to have someone as good as him.
Miricioiu reminisced at some length about her homecoming concert in Romania, after 17 years.
She wished to sing, to let her old tormentors know “I succeeded. You didn’t manage to kill me.” She had her revenge by singing.
She was able to take her then 7-year old son with her, and let him know “Romania is a country, not a culinary dish”.
She spent the night in one of the stately houses that previously only the communist bureaucrats could live in. She had vivid nightmares of the terror of the past; it felt very real.
Miricioiu played us a clip from her return concert, where she sang Vissi d’Arte from Tosca. I could not find the same clip, but here is a later account of her singing the same aria:
She also played us a video clip of herself with a very young José Carreras (“the nicest of the Three Tenors. Not that the others weren’t/aren’t nice. But he’s the nicest”).
She waxed philosophical quite often as the evening wore on: “The greater you are, the more humble you should be”.
“I hope you will love music more by listening to my story”.
Once when discussing music with her son, and he asked her why she had to leave for work she told him: “If over time I love music even 1% less,… I’ll give it up.”
“Unless you feel you’ll die without music, don’t do it”.
Piero Cappuccilli once said to her: “If we were not mad, we’d never do this!”
Cappuccilli was honest to a fault when it came to self-criticism. Once he stopped a performance midway when he felt he wasn’t singing his best. “Maestro, da capo!” and he delivered a spectacular top note!
Miricioiu related a humorous anecdote in her career: During a performance of Ernani, a bass had to stand in at the last minute as the scheduled singer was indisposed. Trouble was, the stand-in didn’t know the part very well. So the opera crew had to move all over the stage, behind scenery, and in the pit, turning the pages of the music as the bass went along, so he could read off them and deliver his lines!
But that’s the thrill of live performance! “Will she make it? Won’t she?” gives the whole enterprise a wonderful nervous energy.
“The ‘now’ is all that matters.”
“You’d be afraid too!” she told us. “Danger is always at your doorstep.”
She particularly remembers an Edward Downes performance of Norma at Covent Garden: “Not one word out of place!”
I’ll leave you with a tribute video Nelly Miricioiu: A Life in Art.
Part 3 of the post will follow.