From Libretto #4 (2023/24)
Federica Lombardi – My seat of contentment: the opera houses of the world
She gave her debut as Anna Bolena at La Scala, Milan, aged 26. Here Federica Lombardi describes the process of finding her voice
The opera houses of the world are where I feel most contented. The Teatro Regio di Parma, for instance, where I recently did my first turn in Verdi’s »Messa da Requiem«. Those venues are where I feel at home, even when I’m miles away from my home town of Forlì in the Emilia-Romagna. I see it as a blessing, having a job that takes me to a different location every two months.
The at-home feeling I get from opera houses comes from my having basically grown up in them as an artist. They’re a reminder of how I came to be the soprano I am today. You’ve got the Teatro Sociale di Como, which was where I got my first gig as a 23 year old after my first audition, as Donna Elvira in Mozart’s DON GIOVANNI. I knew then that I’d opted for the right career. That debut was key to my ongoing journey; I was working with the director Graham Vick there. He taught me the importance of studying the lyrics of a Mozart opera, and he helped me to structure my Mozart repertoire. It was a big step forward, career-wise.
Another reason the houses have a big significance for me is that a little family kind of materialises around each production. Obviously they’re not standing in for my own family, but while I’m away from my nearest and dearest my opera family makes sure that I get a feeling of belonging. People like Gerlinde Pelkowski: she was stage director at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in 2015 when I was working on my Countess Almaviva for LE NOZZE DI FIGARO. It was so sweet the way she took me under her wing and showed me how things worked in such a big production – my first major one. Starting with getting my bearings on stage – when to get in position, where to stand – right down to how rehearsals were structured and even tips on how to cope with stage fright. Being friends with your colleagues and having the same routines helps to stoke that sense of family, too. When I’m at the Metropolitan Opera in New York we go across the road to »Fiorello« in between rehearsals, sometimes after performances also. We get hellos from the waiters. It’s a nice feeling.
The opera houses also show me how I’m progressing. I have a very clear memory of standing on the stage of La Scala and the curtain going up. It was an incredible sensation singing Donizetti’s Anna Bolena for the very first time with all that responsibility, not wanting to let that great composer down or be found wanting over the next three hours. I was only three years on from my debut in Como and 26 was too young to be doing such a major and complex role – voice-wise, too. I know that in hindsight, of course, but what I didn’t know then couldn’t scare me. That’s why I can’t wait to be singing Anna Bolena again in Berlin and having my progress as a singer feed into my performance.
The great opera houses have a tradition of sewing the name of each singer into the costume. That meant that in Milan my name was stitched into a list that included Maria Callas’s. And I’ve worn the same dress for Mimì in LA BOHÈME at the Metropolitan Opera that Mirella Freni and Anna Netrebko have worn. It’s quite an honour and also an extra incentive to always give my all.
Then there’s all that singer-audience energy in the room, which I love. It grows in the course of the performance when I sense that the audience have grasped what I’m trying to convey. And it all culminates in the applause at the end. It’s an amazing feeling; there’s nothing like it in the world. That’s why I miss opera so much when I’m off for a few weeks, which hardly ever happens. I had a six-week break this summer and travelled to Rome, Paris and Buenos Aires. And to stop me getting homesick I dropped in on all the opera houses.