Girl meets boy: Marianne Crebassa2:42, 2nd February 2017
After her initial reservations about opera, Marianne Crebassa has taken up singing with an extraordinary sense of confidence and gusto. Her engaging stage presence has paved the way to her increasing prominence in many of the world’s leading opera houses, specialising in opera’s great ‘trouser roles’, which suit her strong, rich-hued mezzo to its core. Francis Carlin finds himself enchanted by Crebassa’s boyish charms
I first heard Marianne Crebassa in 2010 at the Montpellier Festival where she sang the role of Isabella Linton in a concert performance of Bernard Herrmann’s rarely heard opera Wuthering Heights. The bait to attract the audience to a work by a composer best known for his Hitchcock film scores was the soprano Laura Aikin as Catherine Earnshaw. Aikin was in sumptuous voice; but the talk of the town after the performance was the local girl who calmly walked onto the stage, sat down at the piano and accompanied herself in Isabella’s ‘Love is like the wild-rose briar’, pouring out rich mezzo tone and effortlessly filling the Opéra Berlioz.
Crebassa was 23 at the time. Now 29, her career has seen a meteoric rise. Not for her the usual traipsing around the provincial circuit hoping to get noticed by a talent scout; she has practically only sung in major houses and festivals – La Scala, Salzburg, Vienna and the Lyric Opera in Chicago to name a few. Only the Met in New York and the Royal Opera House in London still have to be conquered and that will surely only be a question of time.
I met her during rehearsals for a concert featuring items from her first solo album, Oh, Boy! and asked her whether it all felt like plain sailing. Hadn’t she been just a little spoilt? ‘Yes you could say that, but I’ve had offers I couldn’t refuse. It’s true that at one point I had to tell my agent that perhaps, just from time to time, I could try out a new role somewhere else than in a major house! I think what I was doing began to sink in properly when I made my debut in Vienna and I thought, “Right, now you’re really a member of the opera family”. I took the plunge, literally: you get four days of rehearsal and then you’re on. That’s the repertory system for you. I was Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro and I had to jump into the orchestra pit. The first time, I landed and slid a little and found myself bang up against a violinist who looked at me as if to say, “What on earth are you doing there?’”
Crebassa gives the impression of loving every minute on stage: ‘It’s my playground, my space and I’m there to have fun’. There’s no question of stage-fright, ‘At least, not if I’m well prepared. It’s already a hard job, so being terrified precisely when you need to be completely at ease just isn’t helpful. And I take the view that everything that’s happened to me is a surprise. I knew I would be a singer, but I didn’t know what sort. The first time I found myself on a stage, I thought, “This is great. I feel wonderful”. I love working in a team and I have people behind me, I’m not on my own. I was unhappy being a pianist because it is essentially a solitary activity.’
Rolando Villazón, who sang with Crebassa at the Mozart Festwochen in Salzburg in a new production of Lucio Silla last year, gave her some advice about her confidence on stage: ‘He told me to enjoy it while I can. Stage-fright will come with your career, he said. But the only pressure I currently face is my own insistence at being at a certain level. Sometimes I ask too much of myself, but it helps me keep making progress. I never dreamt of singing in La Scala so there was no pressure to get there but when I sing there I think, “Wow!’”
France is generally a more difficult environment for singers than other countries where so many careers are hatched in school or church choirs. The organ takes pride of place in French churches, not the choir. So how did Crebassa’s interest in singing begin? ‘My family were music lovers but didn’t play any instruments. Singing was in the family history at an amateur level. My maternal grandfather, a Spanish immigrant, was a tenor. He was a winegrower by profession but he entered competitions and had “Nessun dorma” in his repertoire. We listened to a lot of classical music at home and then a singing class started in the little music school where I was learning piano. I was 14 and the teacher had me singing things like Siebel’s aria from Faust. But my mother noticed that I was always singing even when very small – vocalising on the themes from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for example.’
In her early encounters with opera, she wasn’t all that keen: ‘It appeared artificial to me at first. My mother adores opera and when she was watching it on Arte (the Franco-German TV channel), I used to ask her how she could possibly like all that vibrato, especially in Wagner. In fact, I came to appreciate opera through actually singing the arias – Mozart in particular.’
It was while she was studying for a music degree in Montpellier that Crebassa first got noticed by René Koering, the Montpellier Festival’s director, who loved unearthing forgotten or rarely-performed works such as Wuthering Heights and had a keen ear for promising voices. Another big event was meeting her singing teacher, Nicolas Domingues, a countertenor – rather an unusual choice for a mezzo, surely? ‘Yes,’ admits Crebassa, ‘but he has a bel canto technique, and this has been his big gift to me. He’s good because he himself didn’t always have inspiring teachers and had to search around for something better. We tried yoga and he immediately got me to contact an osteopath for a monthly session. And while most singing teachers use images to get a message across, he’s very Cartesian and explains everything about how muscles and breathing work.’
How does she describe her voice? ‘Lyrical mezzo or coloratura mezzo and with an extended range – Sesto for example. I have no problems going for high notes, so at the beginning we wondered if I wasn’t a soprano. So we tried out various things, but I knew deep down that I was a mezzo.’
I point out her resemblance to French film actress Audrey Tautou (‘Depends on my hair style but I can’t pretend looking like a film star isn’t an advantage!’) and that her voice has been compared to Frederica von Stade: ‘Actually I’m not keen on people always comparing new singers to established names. When Sabine Devieilhe first appeared, everybody said, “She’s the new Natalie Dessay”, but no, she’s different. I want to sound like Marianna Crebassa but if I make some people think of von Stade than I’m more than happy!’
Crebassa’s debut solo CD, Oh, Boy!, recently released by Erato, is dedicated to trouser roles, which have so far formed the bulk of her career. She makes an extraordinarily convincing boy, full of gawky, vulnerable angst when she sings Figaro’s love-struck teenager Cherubino; her Handel heroes, on the other hand, are full of humanity and gravitas, as is her touching, resolute Sesto in Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito (it’s worth pointing out here that she has sung Dorabella in Così fan tutte a few times with plenty of feminine charm). Is she worried about being pigeonholed?
‘No. I don’t feel a prisoner of the trouser roles, but if I can keep them as long as possible I’d be delighted. They’re amusing and interesting dramatically as well as musically. Their tessitura suits me and helps me keep my flexibility in the top notes. In any case, I have other projects with opera houses – people do want to cast me in girl roles!’
One highpoint in a female guise came in 2014, when Crebassa sang the title role in the world premiere of Marc-André Dalbavie’s Charlotte Salomon, a commission from the Salzburg Festival. Surely premiering a contemporary music role must have been daunting? ‘More exhausting than terrifying. Obviously it’s more difficult to memorise a contemporary score than, say, Handel although Dalbavie’s music never moves that far away from tonality. But the libretto was completely rewritten by the director, Luc Bondy, so that the music for the last 30 minutes, the most difficult part, only arrived during the rehearsals. We pulled it off in the end though even now I wonder how we managed it!’
Although Crebassa has done other modern music, taking a small part in Lulu at the Paris Opera (‘great fun!’) and has another opera project with Dalbavie for 2020, she wants to focus on Handel and Rossini in the future: ‘Handel suits my voice,’ she says. ‘There’s a Baroque element but also dramatic strength, and his music allows voices to shine.’
In the meantime, she will be doing another trouser role, Offenbach’s Fantasio, when the Opéra Comique, which has not yet completed renovation work, opens it new season at the Châtelet this month. Offenbach’s original orchestral score disappeared in a fire and the music has been reconstituted by a specialist, Jean-Christophe Keck. ‘He even unearthed bits of scores in rubbish bins. The title role is focused on the medium – frankly I wouldn’t have minded Offenbach putting in more of the vocalising he gives to another role, princess Elsbeth. But it’s more deeply involved with the drama and the text’
The future for Crebassa looks just as bright and you can’t help wondering when she will graduate to obviously tempting roles such as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. Sensibly, she is aware of the pitfalls of unbridled ambition, and it seems that not every offer that comes her way is too good to refuse: ‘I don’t want to take on dramatic roles too early’ she says. ‘I don’t want to force things. I often say no!’
Oh, Boy! Marianne Crebassa’s debut album with Marc Minkowski and the Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, is released on Warner Classic’s Erato label and includes music by Mozart, Gounod and Offenbach.