Cecilia Bartoli explains why she’s singing West Side Story

Cecilia Bartoli explains why she’s singing West Side Story


norman lebrecht

December 20, 2015

From an interview with the brochure of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival (which she directs):


  1. What unites Cleopatra, Norma, Cenerentola, Iphigénie and Maria?

First of all, quite simply: they are women – just like the artistic director of the Whitsun Festival! As the first woman in this position, of course I am interested in highlighting certain aspects from that perspective. More specifically, each of these figures stands for certain facets of womanhood, and how these have been viewed and illuminated in different ways in the arts throughout the centuries. Since the artists were and are most often men, we find highly telling reflections and refractions – it often seems to me that we learn more about the male and his perspective than about the female model… For five years now, exploring these female figures and their surroundings within a few days and throughout very different artistic genres has been the programme of my Whitsun Festival.

  1. Ms. Bartoli, the programme book of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival quotes you as saying that you are looking forward with almost child-like glee to the role of Maria?

I find the piece and the music fantastic – to me, it is among the very greatest stage works of the 20th century! I love its energy, the rhythms, the infectious swing of it, the Latin temperament, the witty dialogue, the honest, moving grief… Perhaps it is my flamenco past coming through, even if we are moving into another style here… Since I have known the songs from West Side Story all my life, they are closer to me than a lot of other music. After all those queens, goddesses, heroines of antiquity and fairy-tale princesses, I am especially happy to be portraying a girl like you and me. The figure of Maria, the simple, warm-hearted, serious, dreamy and honest neighbourhood girl, is very close to me personally. I was like her once! And at the bottom of my heart, I am still like her…




  • Milka says:

    One thinks “oh dear another air head singer ” don’t they have advisers to let
    them know when they approach the famous Anna Russell observation on
    “having resonance where the brains ought to be “………
    Leave it at making a buck ,no harm in that ..

  • Tom Graham says:

    With respect, Bartoli is one of the most astute and interesting artists of the last 15 years. One of the very few, without a press agent, who’s every project, opera or recording, is successful captures the imagination of the public.

    • Stephen says:

      I agree – “without respect”. Bartoli is highly intelligent and has shown great imagination and flair from her earliest recordings and appearances.

      • Milka says:

        “among the greatest stage works of the 20th, C”” a girl like you and me ”
        ” I was like her once …” flamenco past …. neighborhood girl spare us the baloney.
        Guess Bartoli never heard of a certain Romeo and Juliet.This is not Bartoli bashing
        but an observation on the stupid comments coming from her which just might reflect
        her as a thinking person .

        • Stephen says:

          You make pure suppositions based on very little about Cecilia’s intelligence but you have in various posts left plenty of proof about yours.

  • pietro99 says:

    Unlike the horrible Kiri/Carreras coupling, she will at least sound Latin. Whether she will be able to do the “American Musical” sound is another matter. I wonder who will sing Tony?

  • Lore lixenberg says:

    It might be amazing!

  • Nick says:

    I have no doubt Tom Graham is totally accurate in his assessment of Ms Bartoli. And our generation is blessed to have such an artist on our stages and concert platforms.

    Yet singing in West Side Story is a massive leap from Rossini and Salieri. Many major artists have attempted singing the classic popular songs of the 30s, 40s and 50s. Most have failed only because they do not know how to adapt their voices and personalities to that style of singing. They just sound like opera singers in the wrong repertoire. When Te Kanawa and Carreras attempted the studio recording of West Side Story with Bernstein conducting, a number of reviewers came out with the same comment: “wrong singers in the wrong roles”. It takes a very special singer who can adapt from the requirements of the operatic stage to the Broadway stage and both sound and look like it is a natural fit.

  • Albert Combrink says:

    Best not pre-judge it. She is a fine artist with a lot of imagination who won’t be pigeon-holed. I look forward to this!

    • Willem Kraan says:

      Hear, hear!

      • V.Lind says:

        I sometimes wonder at the antipathy to “crossover” by classical musicians who can make the transition successfully (I agree with the salient point offered about the Te Kanawa-Carreras version, and some others — Placido Domingo singing “Annie’s Song” by, and possibly with, John Denver also was very misguided).

        Ballet dancers used to defect from Russia and the Eastern Bloc in particular in order to be able to widen their repertoire and experience of their art forms — think of Baryshnikov and Twyla Tharp, and lots of classical dancers have worked with contemporary choreographers. Why should singers not try to work with other genres of vocal music if it appeals to them? I am not a great fan of Renee Fleming’s jazz work, but others are. Pavarotti got, and gave, a great deal of pleasure with some of his “And Friends” efforts, notably with Elton John on “Live Like Horses” and Luciana Ligabue on “Certi Notte”.

        It seems to me healthy to try to widen the horizons. Not sure if Pav and friends brought a lot of new people to opera (except, famously, not to say infamously, Michael Bolton). It was essentially my introduction to popular music, and I came to like quite a bit of it.

        • V.Lind says:

          Sorry — Luciano Ligabue.

        • Nick says:

          I agree that singers should indeed widen their horizons if they the desire to do so. The point I was trying to make is that the style of singing in a Broadway musical is very different to most opera. On the opera stage singers have to sing many more mezzo forte to fortissimo passages since they must project over an orchestra in considerably larger houses than a more intimate Broadway theatre. In the latter voices are also amplified so the singers only rarely have to sing full volume. Most of the time they are singing directly to other cast members on stage in a much more intimate and less declamatory manner that opera singers simply seem to find difficult to master. True, there are some quasi-operatic type vocal roles in musicals – the Mother Superior in Sound of Music or Nettie Fowler in Carousel – but Maria is not one.

          • V.Lind says:

            I don’t disagree with you. I agree that there are many singers who cannot overcome their training to adapt to the demands of the other discipline. For Ms. Bartoli, it obviously remains to be seen. She seems to have made a habit in recent years of trying to widen her world. And it is not you objecting to that, but contempt for those who do is a frequent theme on Slipped Disc, both from the moderator and from quite a lot of the regular contributors. I just do not like it being dismissed out of hand. Artists are not necessarily demeaning either themselves or their art when they tackle another form.

            I hope it goes well for her, and that she is getting the coaching required to make the transition.

  • Dominic Stafford Uglow says:

    My late mother’s first husband was the Technical Director on the first West End production of West Side Story. I grew up with props from the show in the house. Several of the original cast were my mother’s friends, including Bernstein.

    If you listen to the original intention of Berstein, it’s much closer to operetta than a musical. In fact, there’s a very strong case to be argued for West Side Story to be presented in opera houses, especially houses that have their own ballet company.

    What Bartoli will make of it, I don’t know; but presenting it at the Whitsun Festival is a step in the right direction.

    It would be wonderful to see English National Opera and English National Ballet do a co-production that could run over three months at the Coli and then go on tour.

  • Rosina2 says:

    @ Nick A “singer who can adapt from the requirements of the operatic stage to the Broadway stage” is Simon Keenlyside. His latest recording “Something’s is Gotta Give” has it all. A critic – forgotten who – said “such is his style as if he has never sung anything else”. I hope to hear these songs sung by him on stage – as soon as he is well again.

    Apart from that I am very much looking forward to hearing Cecilia as Maria in Salzburg.

  • David Boxwell says:

    Maria is supposed to be about 20 years old. Suspension of disbelief will be necessary.

    • Emil Archambault says:

      Whereas Cio-Cio San is supposed to be 15.

    • Bruce says:

      Salome is supposed to be 16, Countess Almaviva is 19, etc. etc.

      Not to mention all the wonderful Mimis & Violettas over the years who, even if they were age-appropriate, have been able to sing beautifully for the last half hour of their lives before dying of tuberculosis. (Also not to mention their ardent Rodolfos, Alfredos, etc. who are supposed to be similarly young and handsome…)

  • Milka says:

    Eggerth and Kiepura did fit the bill to a T.