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Bartoli's new Whit

By Anne Midgette

What do singers do when they can't sing any more? Plácido Domingo sought an answer by starting new careers as a conductor and administrator, leading two of America's major opera companies (it was announced yesterday that he has extended his contract with the Los Angeles Opera through the 2012-13 season). The fly in the ointment proved to be that, unlike most singers, he has been able to keep right on singing through his 60s, which is nice for his fans but hasn't helped his second and third careers.


Cecilia Bartoli appears at a news conference in Vienna. (Lisi Niesner / Reuters)

The mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli is a different story. At 44, she should be in her vocal prime, yet she's one of the rare singers not to succumb to the jet-set grind of constant international performance (in part because she doesn't like jets; she avoids flying whenever possible). Instead, she carefully marshals her energies, appearing rarely on this side of the Atlantic, and usually in operas of her own choosing or recital tours constructed around whatever her latest album project happens to be (music composed for the great diva Maria Malibran; arias written for castrati).

Last week, Bartoli revealed her own foray into a second career: a press conference yesterday confirmed that as of 2012, she will replace Riccardo Muti as the artistic director of the Salzburg Pfingstfestspiele, an event most frequently, if archaically, translated as the "Whitsun Festival."

Salzburg's biggest festival is, of course, the traditional summer festival in July and August. The town also hosts the Easter Festival, a springtime pendant created in part so that the Berlin Philharmonic would have a showcase equivalent to that the summer festival provides for the Vienna Philharmonic. The Whitsun Festival is not as large as either of these; a three-day event in late spring that falls administratively under the summer festival umbrella, it focuses on earlier music -- right up the alley of Bartoli, whose vocal size and technique mean she concentrates on a very specific repertory.

As a wildly popular and somewhat reclusive singer, Bartoli brings a star quality to the festival that even Muti (who this weekend launched his new tenure at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with a free outdoor concert) can't quite match. The man who secured her is Salzburg's new Intendant, Alexander Pereira, who comes to the festival from the Zurich opera house, where Bartoli appeared perhaps more regularly than she has anywhere else. (The singer is currently starring as Handel's "Semele," with conductor William Christie, at Vienna's Theater an der Wien, in a Robert Carsen production originally seen in Zurich.)

Handel will also start off Bartoli's new administration: her first opera at the Pfingstfestspiele will be "Giulio Cesare," starring -- of course -- Bartoli herself. One innovation that's already been announced: rather than being a one-off, special presentation, the Whitsuntide opera will return for performances during the regular summer festival season.

This isn't altogether a departure for Bartoli, who has already exercised artistic control over a lot of her projects, including some of the things she's done in Zurich. And whether an administrative career represents an eventual future, or merely an interesting sideline, it's not going to be separate from her performing career for some time -- any more than Domingo's is.

It's a canny move on Pereira's part: not only does he get a star, but he's got everyone talking about a festival that people often tend to overlook.

By Anne Midgette  | September 21, 2010; 10:55 AM ET
Categories:  Anne Midgette  
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