Bel Canto Queen Jessica Pratt

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

image_description=Jessica Pratt as Lucia di Lamermoor [Photo by Marcello Orselli]
product_title=Bel Canto Queen Jessica Pratt
product_by=An interview by Rebecca Schmid
product_id=Above: Jessica Pratt as Lucia di Lamermoor [Photo by Marcello Orselli]