Ask a famous operatic mezzo to name her favorite city, and you might expect her to cite Paris, Salzburg or some other glamorous musical center. But the place cited by Vivica Genaux could hardly be more different: Fairbanks, Alaska. The city, 120 miles or so south of the Arctic Circle, happens to be where she grew up, so it offers the two ingredients that make any hometown special — family and friends.
But for Genaux, who tries to return home twice a year and was back for the holidays in December, that specialness starts with the light. “What little sunlight we have,” she said from Fairbanks, “we have 3½ hours around this time of year, so about 11 o’clock to 2:30, and the sun just barely skims the horizon, so you don’t really see the sun, but you get beautiful colors in the horizon. And the snow is always pretty fresh. So it’s beautiful, beautiful white, brilliant snow. And the air is just amazing. It’s pretty warm right now. It’s around zero. It was minus 4 degrees yesterday.”
But that’s practically a heat spell. “It’s really warm for the season,” she said. “It’s usually minus 25 or 30. It’s perfect for walking around, and we’re going to go out skiing today.”
Unless Chicago suffers a severe polar blast, Genaux should be in decidedly warmer environs Feb. 9-11 when she returns to Chicago for an all-Baroque program with one of her longtime collaborators, Fabio Biondi. The conductor and violinist, who founded and leads the respected Italian period-instrument ensemble Europa Galante, is making his debut as a guest conductor and soloist with the CSO. In addition to operatic arias, the program will include two works by Arcangelo Corelli and three violin concertos by Antonio Vivaldi.
With the CSO, Genaux will be featured in four arias by Vivaldi and three of his lesser-known contemporaries. She made the selections with Biondi. “There is so much beautiful music to work with,” she said. “We’ve done so many operas together, so we have a great deal of choice.”
Two of the best known of the arias are “Agitata da due venti” from Vivaldi’s Griselda, which the singer laughingly called one of her “party hits,” and “Sposa son disprezzata” from Geminiano Giacomelli’s La Merope, an aria that famed soprano Montserrat Caballé used to include on some of her recitals. The other two are more obscure opera excerpts by composers who are nonetheless “definitely worth hearing and being aware of”: the romantic aria “Questi ceppi” from Attilio Ariosti’s La fede ne’ tradimenti and “Già presso al termine” from Francesco Maria Veracini’s Adriano in Siria. Genaux calls the latter is a “fun, gymnastic aria,” sung by the famed 18th-century castrato Farinelli when he made one of his final public appearances.
Biondi and Genaux first worked together on a critically acclaimed 2004 recording of Alessandro Scarlatti’s all-but-unknown Oratorio per la Santissima Trinità (1715). “Vivica Genaux proves once again,” wrote allmusic.com critic Allen Schrott, “that she can sing this style of music as fast, as gracefully and as expressively as anyone ever has or will, sounding great in the process.” The two have collaborated regularly since, including European concert performances in August of Vincenzo Bellini’s opera I Capuleti e i Montecchi, which she recorded with Europa Galante in 2014. She appears as Romeo in the opera, one of more than 25 “trouser” roles that are part of her repertory.
“I love working with Fabio,” Genaux said. “There’s something about working with [Belgian conductor] René Jacobs, because he was a singer. And there is something about working with Fabio Biondi, because he’s a violinist. There’s a real kinship between violinists and singers, I find, because there are a lot of similarities between the two instruments.” She notes that both singers and violinists work with what she called “free-form intonation” (there are no frets on a violin to locate pitches); the push and pull of the bow can be seen as analogous to the in-and-out breaths of a singer.
Genaux got her start in the bel canto world of Gioachino Rossini, performing in three of his most famous operas during her first season in 1994, The Barber of Seville, The Italian Girl in Algiers and Cinderella. She has gone on to appear in numerous Rossini productions at the Metropolitan Opera and other top international houses. “I try to do as much as possible, because I love singing Rossini,” she said. “It lets the voice open up in a different way than the Baroque does. In Baroque music, you’re always concerned about making colors with the voice and in bel canto, you have a chance to just sing [the vocal] line, basically, and so it’s probably a little bit healthier singing.”
After her early success in Rossini, people started asking her, “Well, what else do you do?” She didn’t have an immediate answer. For help, she turned to Matthew Epstein, a legendary figure in the opera world, who has served in many roles, including artistic director of Lyric Opera of Chicago and executive with Columbia Artists Management. He recommended that she take a look at the operas of Johann Adolph Hasse (1699-1783), a German composer unfamiliar to her at the time. “It ended up that Hasse was one of the most important composers of the 1700s,” she said. “We’re working very hard, a lot us, to get him back on the mainstage again.”
Shortly thereafter, she was invited by Jacobs, a famed period-instrument conductor, to audition at the Berlin Staatsoper for a role in Hasse’s 1753 opera Solimano, and she was signed on the spot. The production, which marked the 300th anniversary of the composer’s birth, featured the period-instrument ensemble Concerto Koeln in the pit. “Reviving an opera like Solimano is a futile exercise without stellar singers,” wrote critic George Loomis in the International Herald Tribune. “Those at the Staatsoper pretty much fit the bill. The mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux was spectacular in the castrato role of Selimo, poised and alluring in her tender arias, yet capable of delivering roulades with the precision and luster of a Marilyn Horne.”
For Genaux, the experience was a revelation, one that launched her into the world of Baroque music, which now dominates her career. “I fell in love with the sound of the orchestra,” she said. She also was taken with the degree of involvement that she had with the musicians, which was different from what she had experienced with typical modern orchestras.
She uses Victor Borge’s famous punctuation sketch to explain the experience of singing with Baroque ensembles. In the comic bit, Borge assigns the period, question mark and other basic forms of punctuation each a different vocalization, and then proceeds to read a text, inserting the vocalizations each time he comes to one of the punctuation marks. So when she sings a passage, a Baroque ensemble might respond with its equivalent of Borge’s vocalized question mark: What? “You say something else,” she said. “And they say, ‘I can’t believe it.’ It’s a call-and-response way of singing, so there is a lot of interaction between the musicians and the singer.”
The singer has another big year, starting Jan. 12 with a four-concert tour of “Rival Queens,” a program with soprano Simone Kermes and the Cappella Gabetta. They have already presented some 25 previous performances in support of a 2014 album on the Sony Classical label with the same title. The lineup contains famous arias performed by two revival Italian singers from the 18th-century, Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni.
Genaux typically takes part in a few staged operas a year, and that will be the case in April and May when she makes her debut in Pier Francesco Cavalli’s 17th-century opera La Calisto, with the Opéra national du Rhin in Strasbourg, France. She will be joined by conductor Christophe Rousset and the French musical ensemble Les Talens Lyriques.
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.