The streaming film, written and filmed in Italy by Hershey Feldermars 29, 2022
Interview: Behind the Scenes with Gianna Corbisiero, Montreal’s Soprano Extraordinaire
Antoinette Giacobbe, InnerView
Considered “luminous” by Opera News magazine, Gianna Corbisiero is also recognized for her warm timbre of voice and exceptional stage presence. Gianna was educated at McGill University, the Atelier Lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal and the Juilliard School in New York. She performed several concerts for the Jacqueline Desmarais Foundation, The Richard Tucker Foundation and made her film debut as the Diva in Charles Binamé’s film Éléphant Song
She has interpreted 28 opera roles, 9 oratorios, 3 films, 5 television episodes and several concerts of musicals, jazz, cabaret, tango and Neapolitan songs in 12 countries around the world.
She performed the title roles of operas such as Tosca, La Bohème, La Traviata, Carmen, Barber of Seville, I Pagliacci, Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, both in Europe and in Asia and in North America. She has also had the privilege of being invited to sing under the direction of conductors such as Zubin Mehta, Kent Nagano, Yannick Nezet-Seguin and Charles Dutoit.
Opera is a very powerful art form that combines song, music, drama, and dance to convey stories that deal with major human themes like love, life, loss, passion, joy, anger, and tragedy.
Gianna speaks English, Italian, French, and Opera, the language of emotions. She tells the story through song and music with its dramatic plots and by communicating people’s strong reactions and feelings. Now, that’s quite a feat, a work of art! Actually, “opera” is an Italian word derived from the Latin word “opus” meaning work.
When did you know you wanted to be an opera singer and who inspired who?
My mother had always wanted me to be a nun and I was enrolled at a private girls’ school, Institute Reine Marie, at 15-17 years old. There was a nun at the school who inspired me to sing. She told my mother that I had talent and that I needed to get out of there to follow my true calling. She secretly enrolled me in the music program at Vanier College.
My first professional job happened when I was singing at the church. The choir director, who was also directing the travelling show Aida, (International Opera Festival), gave me the role of High Priestess at the last minute, and I ended up singing in Japan with Grace Bumbry for 50,000 people at the Tokyo Dome.
After Cegep/College, at the age of 18, I went to the Banff School of Fine Arts in Alberta. This is where I trained to be a good actor, recited poetry, learned to stand on stage and say my lines, a study of the character. It was one of my greatest life experiences.
I spent two summers there, encountered a lot of directors and then, in October, I met Luciano Pavarotti. I sang for him in his international competition that took 2 years to complete with 1200 participants. It took us from Montreal to New York and Philadelphia, where I was the youngest finalist and winner with entry into two prestigious opera schools: Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia and the Julliard School of Fine Arts in New York City.
I ended up winning two competitions and, two years later, was enrolled at McGill University with Signora de la Pergola, a retired opera singer who helped me grow for years. I kept in close contact with her until she passed at the age of 94. I felt she always had my back.
I was then invited to go to L’Atelier de l’Opera de Montreal as an apprentice with Antonio Tonini, from La Scala, who was Pavarotti’s approved choice for me and who later became my coach during the competition.
My mother didn’t want me to sing, but Pavarotti called my mother and insisted that she had to send me to the Julliards School of New York, and that’s how I ended up going; otherwise, I would have been a nun. My mother still asks me to keep the nun outfit whenever I play the role of a nun.
At 23, I got into the Julliard School, a world-renowned school of the performing arts in New York City, where I got a wide variety of training.
I learned classical songs, opera, oratorio, (where you sing in a church with a big choir and a big orchestra), sacred music, and musicals ( Phantom of the Opera, West Side Story).
I eventually went back to McGill to finish my Master’s degree.
What is the hardest part of singing opera?
Stamina is the hardest part.
You can lose up to 5 pounds when singing opera. You need to practice every day.
Pavarotti taught me that if you don’t workout for one day, you will notice. By the second day, your colleagues will notice. And by the third day, your audience will notice. If don’t train your vocals, you can hear the discomfort when you sing.
Music is physical activity; you need to warmup. If not, you can harm yourself.
One needs to practice regularly in order to maintain stamina. Practice, Practice, Practice.
You have to be able to survive the 3 1/2 weeks of rehearsals before the show, which is not an easy task. Training for opera is like running a marathon and without warming out, you can not only sprain a muscle, but you can also end up undoing everything you’ve worked to accomplish.
So it starts with a warm up vocalizing for 1/2 hour, usually in the morning around 10-11am. I sing opera, tango, jazz, or depending on my mood and what I may be singing. If I have a gig, then I’ll practice 2 more times; after my morning workout, I’ll practice in the afternoon around 4 pm and then before the show.
They say, “You can sing in the shows, but you have to survive the rehearsals.” That would entail working up for a good 3 1/2 weeks, without tiring your voice. Without training your vocals, your body will reject it, and you won’t be able to do a good job. One cannot just jump in and sing at the last minute.
What do you think about all these very young opera singers we see popping up on shows like America’s Got Talent?
A 9-year-old singing opera is usually forcing it. On the other hand, Julie Andrews, who was trained as a singer, sang with her own sound as a 12 year old. She was not emulating. You can fake an operatic voice. As a young child who is not fully developed yet, they can do a good imitation.
True opera singers start at 15-16, or 17 years old, if fully developed, especially in the case of men, who have to wait for their voice to change and their body to develop.
Who are some of your favourite opera singers?
I like to listen to Maria Callas. She influenced me the most, as well as Monserrat Caballé and Enrico Caruso. His sound just envelops you.
When I was younger, I liked Rosa Ponselle. She was of Neapolitan descent, and it was Enrico Caruso who discovered her when she was 20.
To emulate, it depends on what I am singing about. People say I sound like Mirella Freni, who I ended up doing training for three operas with in Modena, Italy.
I would love to sing again with Bryn Terfel, a Welsh bass-baritone opera singer.
What were some of your favourite roles?
Floria Tosca in Tosca
Violetta in Traviata
Carmen, both Carmen roles
What is the most memorable opera you performed in?
The most memorable for me was Aida with elephants, tigers, horses, snakes, camels, 400 extras and a 300 member choir. What kept me going was that every time I sang, the camels would pee; it was our running gag.
Where’s your favourite venue to perform in?
I liked singing at Lincoln Center at Alice Tully Hall and Town Hall in New York City, but
my favourite place to sing would be The Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, with its beautiful 12th century architecture in the old monastery. There is something magical about that place.
Here in Canada, my favourite is Le Grand Theatre de Quebec in Quebec City with 2000 seats which is perfect for my voice.
In Paris, it was the George V Hotel, and in Philadelphia, the Academy of Arts, where I sang with Pavarotti, which had the best acoustics.
Opera tells a story through music and emotions, so what would the story of your life be called?
The Fleeing Nun, instead of the Flying Nun or the Fugitive Nun, The Great Escape! HaHaHa!
Which pop singer do you think would have made a good opera singer?
Lady Gaga, a real musician and a great voice
Aretha Franklin and Sara Vaughn
My Favorite African-American sopranos which I was too young to hear live were
Leontyne Price, soprano and Marian Anderson, contralto.
Jessye Norman, a famous African American soprano, wrote an article called ‘Grace under Fire’ (which I have kept) in 1996 in The New York Times Magazine about Marian Anderson, who sang an open air concert in front of 75,000 people outside The Lincoln Memorial (thanks to Eleanor Roosevelt), because the Daughters of the Revolution refused, on racial grounds, to let her sing in Constitution Hall in Washington; that resonates with me a lot, the courage to get your “voice” heard; This was in 1939, and it was considered America’s first civil rights rally.
If you could sing an opera with three of your favourite singers, present or past, who would they be?
Tosca with Bryn Terfel, a duet with Enrico Caruso, and Franco Corelli, an Italian tenor. He was gorgeous!
We’re all excited to see you perform again. Tell us about your latest projects.
This year, I was involved with two movies. The first one was filmed here in Quebec, it’s a movie called “Drag” by Sophie Dupuis, featuring Theodore Pellerin and Anne Marie Cadieux. They used my voice and I also played a director. I was Anne Marie’s coach, who lip synced my voice.
In the other movie, I got to play the role of Verdi’s wife, Guiseppina Strepponi, in “The Verdi Traviata,” Hersey Felder’s latest musical film, filmed in Venice, Milan, Florence, and in Villa Verdi, where Verdi’s family still lives.
The movie can be seen at hersheyfelderpresents.com
I was fortunate to have a great film crew and an awesome entourage. I met so many people all from Florence that I now call them my musical/artist family.
It was one of my favourite experiences ever! I had so much fun compared to last year when we filmed Puccini during the Pandemic, which was a stressful year.
What makes the universal language of music so therapeutic?
It’s the non-spoken language. When words fail, art does what words can’t do.
It’s the personalization of sounds and emotions
Music is great for teaching children to hear the sounds and nature with instruments.
Without a word, music can emulate nature, drama, emotions. When you hear the film’s music, you can feel like you are walking in a field of poppies. It can deliver such intense feelings.
Music is storytelling with words, songs, and instruments.
We learned our history through songs.
Music gives you that body, mind, and soul connection.
Music lights up your whole body and helps develop your brain. It should be taught very early on to children.
What other things would you like to do now?
I would love to work with Hellen Mirren, whom I’ve met numerous times. She’s 75, and what a force she is. I’d love to learn more about the acting craft at this point in my career. I would also like to do musicals.
Who would you love to have a dinner party with (either from the present or past)?
My late father and two uncles, Maria Callas, my paternal grandmother, and Joseph Campbell; we’re all a bunch of storytellers. and would have a great time.
If you were a superhero, what would your superpower be?
Like the alchemist, being able to turn obstacles into golden opportunities for positive growth.
Thank you, Gianna, for your time, your powerful, radiant voice and captivating personality.