Michael Neill
October 18, 1993 12:00 PM

For Signorina Bartoli, it’s a brava new world

WHEN YOU ARE 14 YEARS OLD AND have been surrounded by opera all your life, as Cecilia Bartoli was, there is only one thing to do—become a dancer. Bartoli’s parents, Silvana and Angelo, were members of the Rome Opera’s chorus, and, she says, she felt “a little constricted” by all that singing. So she decided to focus her energies on flamenco. Silvana indulged Cecilia by paying for dance lessons for two years but then laid down the law. Flamenco was all very well in Spain, she told her daughter, but Italy’s passion was opera. Hearing the rich promise in her own teenage voice, Cecilia acquiesced and began taking lessons from her mother.

Now 27, Cecilia is on track to being opera’s newest superstar. If You Love Me, her collection of 18th-century Italian love songs, has been No. 1 or No. 2 on the Billboard classical charts all year, and three of her five albums are still in the Top 20. Her American stage debut, as Rosina in the Houston Grand Opera’s production of The Barber of Seville in April, drew raves, and critics are beginning to compare her with some of opera’s greatest voices. “She’s the most important coloratura mezzo-soprano in more than 30 years,” wrote Vogue, “which is to say since Marilyn Home.” Mamma Bartoli’s instincts were right.

As were Mamma’s methods. Even after Cecilia enrolled, at age 16, in Rome’s Conservatorio de Santa Cecilia—named, as is Cecilia, for the patron saint of music—Silvana continued to coach her at home. “I started with my mother maybe two hours a day,” says Cecilia. “First she would have me sing the same note for many days. The first lessons were really boring. But when I started to feel my voice begin to develop, it was very exciting.”

By 1985, Silvana decided it was time for Cecilia to make her debut. An appearance on an Italian TV show led to an invitation to sing at a televised Paris concert honoring the late Maria Callas—and a budding star was born. Daniel Barenboim, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, called her the day after the concert and offered her a recital in the United States. The concert also led to a recording contract from London/Decca—and her first album, a collection of Rossini arias. By 1991, she had appeared as a soloist at New York’s Lincoln Center, and the next year she took Carnegie Hall by storm, then sang to superlative reviews in Rome, Milan and Paris.

With all the touring—she is on the road two-thirds of the year—Bartoli’s love life has been mezzo mezzo at best. “I have many amores,” she says wistfully, “but it is not yet possible to have a serious love. Someday I would like to get married because I would like children.”

Meanwhile Rome remains her home. She shares what she calls a modest apartment with her mother—her parents separated in 1989—and her younger sister, Federica, 25. (Brother Gabriele, 31, a pop musician, is living on his own.) “The money has not arrived yet,” says Cecilia. “With opera, I’m not sure the royalties will be so high. If I were the Beatles, maybe yes, but opera, I don’t think so.” Still, her success has brought her some of life’s finer things, such as an Alfa-Romeo and, as she says, “shoes, lots of shoes.”

MICHAEL NEILL

ANNE MAIER in Houston

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