The Conversation: Mirella Freni

Classic Arts Features   The Conversation: Mirella Freni
The legendary has become a prominent vocal teacher, with her own school in Italy. She tells the Metropolitan Opera's Matt Dobkin about the importance of proper technique and how being a diva is all about respect.

You've had a long career, thanks in part to great vocal technique. How did you learn to sing?

For me, it was something natural. I was born like this. But I always wanted to understand my facility, so I started studying technique by myself. I wanted to know my instrument. I tried myself to find the best way. Because if you don't know what to do with your body, it will be very difficult to sing later, with age.

What is the most important thing for young singers to keep in mind when they're still developing?

That it's very difficult to sing well. It will get easier when you know what to do. You need time to learn the coordination of the breath to your body, to the muscles. You are like an athlete, and you really need to control everything. But at the same time, you must not be too stiff or have too much tension. It's not easy. Everything starts from the brain. And you need time to have a nice, easy coordination to make a nice sound. To have control of the breath.

What do you mean by coordination?

It's difficult to explain! There must be a coordination of the muscles, the diaphragm, the breath, the production of the sound — without pushing. With young singers, I try to give them the right technique, and when they are mature, we work on expression. Because if you are not sure technically, you can lose the way.

How would you characterize your own technique? I've heard that you breathe very, very deeply.

From the diaphragm. Especially women — me too, perhaps, when I was young — we breathe in the chest, high up. This is not possible. Because immediately you do not have support, and immediately, the throat is in tension. It is a very, very, very hard job.

We've been talking about singing, but tell me, more generally, what does it mean to be a diva?

For me, to be diva is to have an evening when you are on stage and you are in good form. To have respect for everybody — for colleagues, for the maestro, for the audience. And to give emotion while you sing. If you're talented, you try to do the best you can. But you don't make problems. I respect everybody. For me this is a diva.

When did you start teaching?

When I was in my career, I did a few master classes. But I was very busy. But now, seven or eight years I've been teaching very, very, very hard. I enjoy it. At the end of the day, I'm more tired than when I was singing!

What is your approach when you work with a student?

We start with vocalizing. But I don't want them to sing an entire aria. I stop them immediately. They cannot sing perfectly right away. So I say, "Please, try to do this in this way." And I sing for them.

It must be exciting for your students to hear you sing.

[Laughing] They say, "Ms. Freni, you are better than I am!" I say, "Try to do it in the same way. Forget I am Ms. Freni, please!"

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