Last week, American soprano Sydney Mancasola impressed in her UK debut, singing the role of Gilda in Jonathan Miller’s iconic production of Rigoletto, dragged out of retirement by English National Opera. It was also her role debut, yet she’s had a long association with Gilda’s fiendishly difficult aria, “Caro nome” which was her calling card in auditions and competitions, singing it in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2013. Last year, Europe beckoned, with several appearance at Berlin’s Komische Oper, including Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare and the four heroines in The Tales of Hoffmann. This season she is a company member at Oper Frankfurt. I caught up with her during rehearsals and began by asking her about her studies at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia.

Sydney Mancasola © Kristin Hoebermann
Sydney Mancasola
© Kristin Hoebermann

SM: I don’t think there’s anywhere else quite like AVA. It’s a strange cross-section between a training school and a full-blown opera company in that you work rigorously on music for eight hours a day. You don’t get that kind of intensive one-on-one training anywhere else. There were positives and negatives. In a way it was too intense for a 24-year-old to be thrown into this world, but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. In rehearsals, if we weren’t fully acting ‘in the moment’ our conductor would just send us out of the room.

MP: How do you respond to such intense pressure like that?

I am an intense person so I responded well to it, but there’s a side of that particular training institution that is a bit ruthless.

Deliberately so?

I feel like they weed out the weak. But what you learn is that nothing is ever going to be harder than this. Functioning at that sort of level of scrutiny for that length of time can be a bit shell-shocking.

It must have been a good preparation for the Met Council Auditions. 

It came at the perfect time for me. I was already in a pressure cooker at AVA so it felt much like any other day there though it was obviously on a bigger scope. You’re standing on stage of The Metropolitan Opera all of a sudden – it's sink or swim! I desperately needed a platform in that moment to prove I was ready. There were a lot of people pouring cold water on what I was doing as a student, so I needed that platform to tell me, “Yes, I can do this!” I remember just before the Finals, I was fairly aware of the exposure I was about to have but I told myself “Just go out there and be authentically you. Don’t hold back." I think that’s what carried me through it – and allowed me to get rid of “Caro nome” for a while!

Sydney Mancasola © Kristin Hoebermann
Sydney Mancasola
© Kristin Hoebermann

Rigoletto has always been my favourite opera. It’s always touched me. The aria was something I picked up really early on and it helped me find my voice. I used it in all my auditions and concerts and then – fortunately – I put it away for a couple of years. I knew I would sing the role of Gilda eventually so decided to give the aria a rest and come back to it once I’d matured a little.

How do you see the role of Gilda?

One of the big challenges is in how much I love the score, so in my head there’s an ideal way I want to hear it. I’m so attached to the music and I feel it so much. I have to balance that with what my voice wants to do, and to find something that’s authentic in the character – I find her extremely difficult, partially because I’m naturally drawn to strong characters, vivacious and complex women. I loved Cleopatra, I loved the Hoffmann heroines, you can make them your own. I’ve been trying hard to think about Gilda in the same way, to make her a real person, fully fleshed out. At some level she’s young, innocent, vulnerable and – to be totally honest – that’s not something that I like to be.

Sydney Mancasola (Gilda) and Joshua Guerrero (The Duke) © Alastair Muir | ENO
Sydney Mancasola (Gilda) and Joshua Guerrero (The Duke)
© Alastair Muir | ENO

I think Jonathan Miller’s production is really true to the opera and I connect with this culture, because I am half-Italian, so I have a strong sense of what my grandparents were like at this time and what an Italian family feels like; my great-grandparents were the ones who came over to the States from Italy. With Italians there’s this dedication and loyalty to family which runs really strong. Jonathan Miller and I talked about how much Gilda and Rigoletto really knew about each other. We wondered if she’d been away somewhere, perhaps in a convent.

He hasn’t been directing, but he showed up at a few rehearsals – such an intense person, you can feel the energy coming from him. He was just there to observe, but he couldn’t help himself and started telling me what to do with my hands in a particular moment! I asked him, because I was curious, about the Coliseum and whether the ‘small lens’ would carry to the back of the theatre. He explained that when those moments happen, when they’re real, it actually draws the audience in and makes the space feel smaller and it suddenly feels more intimate. Fortunately, because I’m from the US, I’m not a stranger to big spaces!

Technically, which bits of the score need the most work?

Sydney Mancasola (Gilda) and Nicholas Pallesen (Rigoletto) © Alastair Muir | ENO
Sydney Mancasola (Gilda) and Nicholas Pallesen (Rigoletto)
© Alastair Muir | ENO
I’m always amazed when I watch Gildas because every singer has to approach it in a different way. It’s a true Verdi role so I don’t think it should be sung by a super-light soprano because so much of it requires meaty singing and there’s some emotionally heavy stuff. "Caro nome" is effervescent – so there’s that challenge – and there are some effervescent moments in the duets too, where she kind of pops out these high notes. Verdi does that a lot to his sopranos! Gilda is challenging because Verdi will stick her in the passaggio and just leave her there for four pages! There can be no tightness, it has to be totally free. I use lots of imagery – like jellyfish – to try and allow your body to just spin the sound.

It’s interesting to go back to the score and look at the way Verdi wrote these passages because a lot of the stuff that tends to get sung detached is actually written legato. The maestro here is absolutely con scritto – no high notes interpolated... so that was a surprise on the first day of rehearsal! To sing the role without the high notes changes it massively, it makes it feel like a different role so it’s interesting to look at it from this perspective and to wonder what Verdi would have thought about those extra high notes. They can intensify the moment and add great excitement and so I’ll be interested to see how people respond to this approach. But it keeps you honest – it’s a kind of ‘anti-ego’ thing.

I can’t imagine anyone telling Leo Nucci he can’t take the high A at the end of the Vendetta duet!

That’s the one we miss the most! I don’t mind about the others, but can I just sing the E flat at the end of Vendetta?!

Sydney Mancasola (Gilda) and Nicholas Pallesen (Rigoletto) © Alastair Muir | ENO
Sydney Mancasola (Gilda) and Nicholas Pallesen (Rigoletto)
© Alastair Muir | ENO

Does it lie well for you singing it in English?

I don’t think singing it in English is easy. It creates extra challenges. Italian into English is tough, especially in something which has so much passaggio singing that requires such clarity. What’s been nice has been that when you have a translation you can tailor it a little for yourself, so that’s the upside. If you’re singing the Italian and you don’t like the vowel, you’re stuck with it! I do think there’s something to be said for singing in the language of the audience so I hope that immediacy comes across and that makes an impact.

That works if the words actually come across.

And that’s difficult with this style. At a certain level, as a soprano there’s not a lot you can do. One of the best examples was Joan Sutherland. The way she sang, you cannot understand many of the words…

Especially early in her career. There’s weren’t many consonants, but it was a glorious sound.

Glorious! She was massively successful for a reason and the demands of what we do are really high and you can’t fight your own instrument. If that was the way her voice worked and that was the way she could make the most of it, then that’s what she had to do. In a perfect world, the diction is perfectly clear but also it is music and there has to be a trade-off, a compromise, right?

You’ve sung a season with Komische Oper and are now at Oper Frankfurt. What’s it like being part of a company? 

Komische Oper was just guest contracts but they happened to have lots of stuff for me all of a sudden so we found a way to fit it in the schedule and and it prepared me well for the current season in Frankfurt. Komische and Frankfurt are very different houses in a way – Komische is so committed to the dramatic side of things because of Barrie Kosky. Working with him, watching him rehearse, was amazing. I went to the theatre a lot to see his different productions there. It brought me so much joy.

Sydney Mancasola © Kristin Hoebermann
Sydney Mancasola
© Kristin Hoebermann
The whole year was really challenging for me because I started there with Cleopatra and I’d never done any Handel before! Baptism by fire! Then I jumped into Hoffmann which couldn’t be more different. So it was a year of extremes.

The demands of Hoffmann are so great. There are some roles, like Violetta, where they say, you need different voices for each act. In Hoffmann, every single character feels like a different voice. I really enjoyed doing it, but I had a sense that the more I sing, the easier it will become to do all these characters in time. You have to know yourself so well because you’re like a chameleon. But Barrie’s style is so theatre-driven, so if you really commit to that, then the vocalism becomes so much easier. Watching Nicole Chevalier was good because she was so uninhibited. I love sharing roles for that reason – you learn a lot from watching your colleagues.

Any other new roles on the horizon or that you’d like to appear on the horizon?

Violetta is next season! I’m dying to do Lucia. A few opportunities have come up but haven’t fitted into the schedule yet. Ideally I wanted to do Gilda, Lucia, Violetta in that order but I’m looking forward to Violetta. I want to spend a lot of time with the score and personally I’m more like Violetta so it’ll be a better fit dramatically – a little bit more self-expressive, self-aware. Violetta excites me because I can take a journey with her over the next ten years and I want to dip my toes into it now and see how it grows.

Who do you take guidance from on roles?

Mum’s very protective. She’s a big fan of Renata Tebaldi and remembered an interview where she’d said she wouldn’t let anyone push her into roles she wasn’t ready for yet. So every time I get a role, my mum asks “Is it too soon?” I have a lot of people who are very protective of me and I feel really lucky in that sense. If anything comes along – like Fiordiligi which was suggested next season at Frankfurt, for example – the people who know my voice and see the long term are saying “You don’t need to be singing Fiordiligi yet. It doesn’t make any sense for you right now.” Even if you get up there and sing all the notes, what’s the long term effect of that? I think I have my own barometer of what’s right for my voice.