How wonderful, reassuring, and hope-instilling it is to see that live, non-virtual performances are beginning to delight in-person audiences again! Before the pandemic, the vibrant Italian-American soprano, Joanna Parisi, was, for many years, enchanting an international public with her powerful, expressive voice and mesmerizing stage presence. After all of these months of silent operatic stages and uncertainty of travel between her Italy and New York homes, Joanna will at last step onstage in front of an audience again at the magnificent outdoors ancient theatre in Taormina, Sicily, on August 31st. I am elated that she shared with us her thoughts and experiences as an active opera singer and dual citizen of the United States and Italy, who is navigating the challenges of this time with thoughtfulness, optimism, and determination.
You are American-born and you reside mainly in Italy with your husband, Carlo Colombara, who is also an opera singer. During these past months you were able to travel to the U.S., but have you been able to return to your home in Italy at all? Tell us about how you coped with the situation when restrictions became enforced first in Italy and then in the U.S. and all performances were cancelled.
I share my time between Bologna and New York. I have just arrived in Italy in preparation for Aida. The situation was surreal when we realized its gravity in March when all Carlo’s performances in Dresden and Salzburg were suddenly cancelled, as well as the performances of virtually all of our colleagues. I came to New York with the intention of staying for a few weeks which turned into several months. I normally have flexibility with travel and work, having dual citizenship from my Italian heritage and from the United States where I was born. Traveling continues to be unpredictable for all. I have personally had my flights cancelled by the airlines four times before finally being able to travel to Italy.
How have you been keeping in vocal shape during this period?
The time to reflect has helped me to progress, actually. It has inspired ideas and improvements in my vocal technique. A clear mind inspires bursts of creativity and elusive answers that you can’t always access in times of pressure. The vocal rest certainly helps the voice stay healthy as well. I have exercises specifically for keeping the vocal cords healthy that I learned in Munich. This time has also helped me progress in other ways to achieve my parallel goals. This August, I just completed my studies at New York University in Events and Convention Management. Currently, I am studying algorithms, data structures and various computer languages in preparation for a master’s degree in computer science/ technology.
On August 31, you will be performing live for an audience outdoors at the ancient theatre in Taormina, Sicily, as the title role of Verdi’s “Aida,” and three days later you will also sing Verdi’s Requiem there. How amazing is that, to actually be able, during such times, to sing for the public without the help of technology? How did these opportunities come about, and how do you feel at the thought of finally singing in front of an in-person audience again?
I have a history of singing in Taormina since 2015. It has become a favorite theater and place of mine. I sing very frequently in the outdoor theaters of the world – in fact, my opera debut was as Tosca and then Aida in Central Park. Returning to Taormina this year feels both normal and surreal. Performing becomes a greater honor during this time. It takes great dedication to safely plan an all-encompassing live event such as an opera performance, so I feel the art and interpretation itself takes on a deeper meaning now. The performance of the Verdi Requiem will be in support of the victims of the coronavirus and for medical research in Italy. The performances will be shown on RAI Italian television in order to reach a greater audience, which is important so that people who cannot travel safely can still enjoy some aspects of a live opera. I sympathize greatly with my colleagues who also deserve to be heard at this time and don’t have that opportunity.
You are not only an active opera singer, but you also have creative ideas about programming and educating the public about opera. Can you share with us some of your future initiatives?
As an art form we must find a way to be authentic and find novel ways of expanding. The opera audiences are shrinking. The industry has reacted by trying to modernize the operas themselves or copy other industries like Hollywood films with mixed results, often neglecting the quality and traditions of opera that it is so beloved for. I believe the solution is the opposite. We don’t need to reinvent the art form, but critically we need tailor-made solutions to make it more accessible and enriching for both audiences and the performing artists, since fair opportunities are shrinking for them too. I see a lot of room for innovation here through technology, and this is the reason I am now preparing to pursue a master’s degree in computer science.
Technology applied deliberately will benefit opera to expand audiences, create opportunity for artists and share knowledge cross culturally. As an industry we should resolve critical issues that are holding us back, and then innovate. Right now, we urgently need software to be developed to properly synchronize orchestra, conductor and voices for events that are virtual. We need flexible technological tools that can help seamlessly create hybrid events in order to have more fluidity in planning. The use of Natural Language Processing can create much greater accessibility for our audiences, including developing live translation methods for deeper comprehension for international audiences. There are also great advances in VR being developed that can be applied to events that will make them much more enriching, interactive and intimate, not just passive videos filmed either too far away or too close up that do not necessarily capture the emotion and grandeur of what opera is. These tools are not meant to replace the essential live performance aspect but to enrich it and give it a parallel strength. Finding innovations for better transmitting the immediacy of the performance is important when it is deemed necessary to produce virtual events in times of crisis, as we are now learning. My specific initiatives are actively in planning and I am very excited to share them with you in the near future, one being in the form of a Verdi opera festival. We are in need of a platform to get new and deserving artists and neglected but valuable works into the public consciousness.
From your perspective as having experienced both worlds: how do you find that the U.S. has been handling the pandemic crisis as opposed to Italy? Do you notice any differences and/or similarities in how your colleagues and friends are coping in either country, and what might we learn from each other?
It’s clear to me that the places that act according to science are having the best outcomes. Both Italy and the state of New York have proven exemplary in their impressive responses to the pandemic after being tragically struck with a high number of cases. The sooner scientifically-based, tangible action is taken, positive results can be achieved all over the world. This helps the arts too, so we can make safe, proactive decisions for planning artistic events. Out of necessity, as opera singers we are uniquely in tune with our health as staying well is paramount in order to sing. We can adapt quickly to inform and help others and try to be examples to those around us to take the proper precautions.
What has New York City meant for you professionally and personally?
I was born, raised and educated in New York. I learned how to sing by attending countless performances at the Metropolitan Opera, meeting and working with the artists and asking them questions. Studying at Juilliard and SUNY Purchase Conservatory and singing my professional debut as the title role in Tosca and Aida at Central Park, then singing Andrea Chenier and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall were truly formative experiences. For these reasons and more, New York is everything, and it is the home of the international.
What do you envision for yourself and for your career in the next ten years?
My visions remain clear but flexible. As an artist I wish to continue singing inspired by the traditions of Rosa Ponselle, Anita Cerquetti, Renata Tebaldi, and Aprile Millo. Some of this style of singing is being lost now. I have started recording various operatic works in Milano, such as the rare verismo opera, Maremma by Pasquale di Cagno and my debut CD of spinto/dramatic soprano arias to be released next year. I hope to continue singing as much Verdi as possible, and adding more Wagnerian roles to my repertoire. I hope to make an important return to New York. Equally, I hope to be an innovative voice for the arts creating performance solutions and opportunities for others, making use of developing technologies in coordination with my experience and understanding of classical music and world cultures.
~ Learn more about Joanna at www.joannaparisi.com.
Top photo: Joanna Parisi portrait – Taormina, Sicilia – August 2018. Photo: Maximilian Costa