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Jessica Pratt as Lucia di Lamermoor [Photo by Marcello Orselli]
03 Mar 2013

Bel Canto Queen Jessica Pratt

When the soprano Jessica Pratt first arrived in Italy, she had yet to learn the language or sing in a staged opera.

Bel Canto Queen Jessica Pratt

An interview by Rebecca Schmid

Above: Jessica Pratt as Lucia di Lamermoor [Photo by Marcello Orselli]


The Australian native, whisked away from a competition in Sydney by the conductor Gianluigi Gelmetti, found herself spending entire days as an observer of activities at Rome Opera. “His Young Artists’ Program consisted of watching every rehearsal, every day for six months,” she jokes from her house in Como. “One day I asked if I could take Italian lessons, and he said ‘absolutely not. You’ll learn Italian in the theater.’ And that’s what I did, just listening to everyone.” Seven years later, native fans file onto busses and travel across the country to see Pratt perform. She has sung in rare Rossini operas such as Adelaide di Borgonga in Pesaro and Ciro in Babilonia in Pesaro—the second of which she also sang at the Caramoor Festival last year—as well as in major houses such as Covent Garden and the Vienna State Opera. The current season includes performances opposite Leo Nucci and Juan Diego Florez. This May, her status as a leading diva will be officially bestowed with the Siola D’Oro, an award held by legendary sopranos such as Luciana Serra, June Anderson, Joan Sutherland, Mariella Devia, and Patrizia Ciofi.

Pratt, 33, says she was shocked by the announcement. “I’ll have to find a bank to put it in,” she says with a modest laugh of the diamond-studded brooch. “It’s a big honor because all the singers who have received it in past are all the singers I like.” She credits Gelmetti and Renata Scotto, with whom she took masterclasses at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory in Rome, for steeping her in bel canto and allowing her to focus on this repertoire.“The first thing I saw here was Tancredi with Devia. I was so impressed by her that I decided wanted to sing just that.” While Pratt had sung everything from Strauss to Puccini in Australia, Scotto gave her detailed training in the leading roles in Lucia di Lamermoor and I Puritani and arranged for her first staged experience in student productions of Mozart’s Il Re Pastore and Rossini’s Il Signor Bruschino. In 2007, she made her European debut at the Teatro Sociale di Como as Lucia, which remains part of her staple repertoire.“I get very attached and protective of my characters,” she says. “I need to sing her at least once a year.” She has repeatedly turned down heavier roles such as Norma. “She’s a woman who’s lived, who has two children and is thinking about killing them. I don’t have that experience to give to anyone onstage. And once you move into this repertoire you can’t go back. I would prefer to sing ‘Lucia’ and ‘Puritani’ for as long as I can. There is no rush.”

Sound decision-making in musical matters comes naturally to the soprano. She received her early education from her father, Phillip Pratt, a former tenor with Welsh National Opera and music school director in Sydney whom she still consults on Skype. Although the soprano wanted to study voice already as a young girl, she was required to play trumpet until she was 18. She nevertheless had the advantage of sitting in on her father’s private lessons, and childhood games developed skills that most people acquire in music theory courses. “Dad would play something on piano, and my brother and I would have competitions to see who could remember longest tune or pick out the notes in a chord,” she recalls. “It was our life.” Pratt attended conservatory for a single year in Sydney before deciding it wasn’t for her, instead working as a secretary to fund private lessons. She currently studies with Lella Cuberli, an American soprano based in Italy who specializes in bel canto. Cuberli has coached her in roles such as Mathilde in Guillaume Tell, which Pratt sings alongside Florez in Lima this month.

Although Pratt’s career is spreading internationally, with a recent German debut as Lucia at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin and an upcoming concert in Washington, she remains faithful to the country in which she found herself artistically. “I remember watching these operas in Australia and thinking ‘this is ridiculous.’ Then I came here and saw that people that actually react to each other this way!And then I started doing it myself.” She recounts losing her temper—in Italian—during a rehearsal in Germany when two technical assistants starting laughing at her low-cut dress. “In certain situations it is easier to express myself in Italian. It just makes more sense. I hardly ever lose my temper in English!” she says. She also cites the sensitive acoustics of Italy’s old theaters and the orchestras’ ability to accompany bel canto opera with legato and buoyancy, as well as regular performances of the repertoire in which she now specializes. “Singing in Italy is a challenge every time,” she says. “Sometimes you don’t know if you’ll get paid. But it’s not a reason to abandon the country. It wouldn’t be fair. The people here have given me so much.”

Rebecca Schmid

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