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The day after the night before - a conversation with the young Spanish soprano

On a sunny Monday afternoon, soprano Maria Bayo interrupted her day off to talk to Operanet in her dressing room in an otherwise deserted Théâtre de la Monnaie/Muntschouwburg. The previous evening she had sung the premiere of Herbert Wernicke's new production of Pelléas et Mélisande, giving an unusual interpretation.

Operanet: Is this the first time you have sung Mélisande?

Maria Bayo: Yes, it was my debut.

Operanet: How do you go about preparing a role like Mélisande?

Bayo: Normally I work in the same way to memorize a role. I study the score myself, then with a specialist and then again by myself; this time I thought it would be too dangerous because there are a lot of difficult intervals which must be correctly sung, and also for the French language. I worked on the role some more with a pianist because I thought I could never memorize this opera all by myself. You must take the time to learn it all correctly.

Operanet: Do you sing much 20th century music?

Bayo: Not a lot, De Falla, Granados, other Spanish composers, but it's not quite the same thing.

Operanet: We never saw a Mélisande like the one you presented. Was that Wernicke's idea? She starts out in a more or less traditional manner, a woman who allows herself to be manipulated by everyone, and then she's crazy. She's usually a passive figure and remains so.

Bayo: If you look at the score and the text, I don't think she's passive. She makes strong statements and she has a strong character. And Wernicke has done a very theatrical version. Yes she is withdrawn in the first scene, but then she comes into her own. If you look at how the character develops, Wernicke's concept is very well thought out. Otherwise I couldn't have done it.

Operanet: How would you compare Mélisande with Calisto which you just sang in Brussels and Berlin?

Bayo: They're very different, but not that different from a musical point of view, because both have very strong links to the spoken theater. Calisto is much freer, however, musically speaking, with respect to the rhythms, whereas in Debussy you can't insert the least semi-colon without disturbing the entirety.

Operanet: And do you see a parallel between the two characters?

Bayo: Perhaps at the beginning. Calisto is a sensual creature, chased by the men, but not later on in the opera. Mélisande is a victim who loses her mind, but they make an interesting combination of figures.

Operanet: Is there any one opera house which you can call home?

Bayo: No, I've been here for two and a half months because of the two operas, and after the last performance I go to Vienna to rehearse with my pianist to prepare a recital for Paris in June - Brahms, Schubert, Spanish songs.

Operanet: You have a repertoire which stretches from Cavalli and Handel up to Debussy. Do you have any further projects in the early music domain?

Bayo: No, I'm now preparing Elisir d'Amore for St. Sebastian, and then Mimi for Montpellier in January 1997.

Operanet: How would you describe your voice?

Bayo: I would say I'm a lyric soprano with coloratura facility.

Operanet: But when you sing Rosina in Il Barbiere you sing in the original keys with the low notes as written.

Bayo: Yes, the low notes in the score, but I sing the high soprano variants where there is a choice. I discussed it with Teresa when I was starting out and I sang in both keys. I had no problem in any case because there's only a half-tone difference. Teresa said that because the original key was so comfortable, there was no reason not to sing it as I had the power and capacity, and since then I've done it in the orignal keys. The tessitura is ambiguous, n'est-ce pas?

Operanet: And you sing other coloratura roles, Amena´de in Tancredi...

Bayo: I've stopped singing it for the time being because it's too high, and I've got to sing it with a tiny voice, because you can't sing all that high coloratura with full voice, and I like to sing with my real voice. Juliette is a good role for me because I have the flexibility which is important for the role. When I started to sing, I began as a light soprano, and some of that has remained so that I can still sing coloratura. I even sang Sonnambula. This way I can keep my voice light and flexible and see how it develops.

Operanet: How do you see it developing over the next five or ten years? Butterfly or Tosca, perhaps?

Bayo: It's hard to say. I look at a lot of scores to see if they're really for me, if I can sing a particular role. One shouldn't rush into things. For the time being I'll stay with my repertoire, Mozart - Susanna, Zerlina...

Operanet: Despina, we imagine would suit you...

Bayo: No, I've never sung Despina, but I would like to do Fiordiligi again. I did it five years ago. Teresa told me I should sing it, and I must say it suits me. When Teresa was singing Dorabella, most of the Fiordiligis had lighter voices than today. And if you look at the score, most of the time - except for the arias - her voice is floating on top of everyone else's, in the trio, the ensembles. That's why I think it suits a lyric soprano and I'd like to do it again. My voice has grown since then, but if you stay in the lighter repertoire so that you don't have to force your voice, it will last much longer.

Operanet: Have you ever sung Verdi onstage?

Bayo: No, but I just recorded Oscar in Ballo in Maschera. I've been asked to sing Gilda on more than one occasion, but I always turn it down. I'm not sure if it's really a role for me. I sang the aria when I began to study and I like it, and perhaps one day I will sing the role. But life is complicated. Even if you have some time to relax, you're busy learning new roles, you're constantly working. This year I don't even have time for a vacation. Last year I went to Mexico for three weeks with my husband who works at the Conservatory in Pamplona. He was just here with me for the dress rehearsal and the premiere. We try to spend as much time as possible together, and with weekends and the usual school holidays and vacations we manage. He's very understanding.

Operanet: You're going to make your Met debut next season.

Bayo: Zerlina. But perhaps earlier than planned but I don't want to talk about it at the moment so that I don't jinx it, but maybe this summer.

Operanet: Do you sing any German operas?

Bayo: Very few. I sing lieder, and also Zauberflöte, First Lady. I learned Pamina's aria when I was a student, but not the whole opera. I was asked to sing Sophie, but that was for the new Opera in Madrid, which still isn't finished. I sang the Vier Letzte Lieder last year in San Sebastian for the first time. I love that music. You have to give yourself the time to digest what you learn, which is why I start to study a score long in advance, so that I can put it aside and come back.

Operanet: Do you also listen to recordings when you learn a new work?

Bayo: Yes, usually three, of singers I like, from whom I think I can learn something, and it works. They are always different - the voice, what they do with the music - and that makes me think about what I want to do with the music.

Operanet: Did you study only in Spain?

Bayo: No. After six years at the Conservatory in Pamplona, I went to a Hochschule in Germany for five years, but the basis I had from my teacher in Spain.

Operanet: But what is the secret that so many Spanish singers have such solid techniques.

Bayo: I don't know. In my case, six or seven years of studying with the same teacher gave me the foundation. Singing is also a question of the development of the voice, and it involves a set of muscles which must constantly be exercised. It's like an instrument. You have to practice everyday. The voice is more fragile and must be treated gently. I worked every day with my teacher, and always exercises, and who does that today? That's how you acquire a solid technique. You can't become a singer in the space of one year. It takes a long time, you must develop slowly.

Operanet: We know that you are attached to the zarzuela as you are one of the prominent artists in the series which is being released by Auvidis. Are you pleased to be able to share this music with a non-Spanish audience?

Bayo: It's part of me. When I was a student at the Conservatory, we had to learn this music. It's a great pleasure for me, but don't think that it's easy. The fact that it's my native language is very important, and makes it easy in a certain sense. It's the same with the songs of De Falla, Granados, Rodrigo - it is music which I love, but it is very special. I've just recorded another zarzuela with Domingo, and this year it will be Goyescas by Granados, as well as a disc of Mozart arias.

Click here to read Joel Kasow's review of Pelléas et Mélisande

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