Carla Caramujo is one of the most highly respected Portuguese sopranos. She believes opera is a complete art form, and those who sing it are catalysts for great energy and creativity.
An hour and a half into our conversation, the colourful Portuguese soprano Carla Caramujo yields to temptation: she picks up the sweet that came with her green tea and proclaims: “I’m eating it, I don’t care!” This is an unthinkable act of rebellion on concert days, as chocolate is bad for with the vocal cords. It’s the only time she mentions taking any special care with her voice. A few weeks ago she was enjoying the warmth of Rio. A few hours ago, it was the cold of Porto. Now, under cloudy Lisbon skies, she suggests sitting outdoors on Hotel do Chiado’s terrace, where we can appreciate great rooftop vistas of the old city. Wrapped up in a scarf, she loses herself recalling the “transformative” and “disturbing” experience of performing Philip Glass’s Orphée at Rio de Janeiro’s Theatro Municipal, in front of over 2,000 people. “When the opera was over, there was an incredible silence and then a huge ovation.”
How did you start singing?
It was by chance. My father loved music and made his daughters go to the conservatory. I started playing the violin when I was eight. At 15, I realised I didn’t have the discipline to be a violinist. Nor the passion. I’ve always been a perfectionist, to the point of obsession. It’s something I have to work on, so I don’t go mad. I wanted to give up and my teacher suggested combining violin with singing lessons: “No other student here is doing what you’re doing”. I sang the changes by instinct. Very high notes.
Did you have any idea about your voice?
No, no [laughs]. I did the singing audition, completely unprepared. I was really surprised when the violin teacher said, “All the singing teachers want you.” That’s when my teacher gave me a video to watch at home. It was Gruberova doing Rigoletto with Pavarotti. I’d never been to the opera. I was fascinated. I was glued to the screen, “What on earth is this? It’s not human!” I thought it was supernatural. And I started to experiment. Gruberova is still a benchmark today, I’ve travelled specially to see her in various European capitals, I’ve studied with her teacher…
Could a voice be hidden? Does it have to be trained?
It’s a top-level sport. We work with octaves that have nothing to do with those of speech or pop singers. There’s an elasticity of the voice and muscle that comes with this vocal work. In the first few years, we’re aware that we’re not the masters of our own voice. Once we have absolute control, we spend years making that control sound natural. It’s the moment we become artists.
And what’s the objective when you get on stage?
To reach people. To transform them. And when we feel touched by something we’re doing on stage; it reaches the audience. Greek catharsis. It’s a combination of things. That expression we use a lot now, “empowerment”: Having 2,000 people looking at me is terrifying, to say the least, but when that feeling evaporates, it’s “wow”! Opera is a complete art form: singing, music, theatre, visual arts, literature. The singer becomes the catalyst and messenger for all that. We have to be absolutely in control – if not, it’s a mess – but beyond that there’s the beauty of being able to create something. It’s not human. I think we unearth the sublime, whatever that is.
How do you combine a career with motherwood?
[Sighing] It’s tough. Actually, it’s a paradox because women’s emancipation has become a dead end: there are lots of women who are choosing either their career or motherhood because it has become a huge challenge. I decided to be a mother because I have a husband who is up to it. My son’s birthday is in October and I spent the whole month away from home. It’s hard to manage. But they get used to it, and so do we. It gave me something fantastic: I stopped being obsessed with my career, became more human and down to earth, able to put things into perspective. These past eight y ears have been the best of my life.
What would be your dream role?
At the moment, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, which I study every week, and Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but written by Ambroise Thomas. They’re two mad heroines, very challenging roles, both musically and dramatically.
What would you recommend to people who know nothing about opera but want to start?
Allow yourself to be consumed by the spirit of the opera house. Don’t watch videos, don’t listen to records – simply go. And start with a good Puccini, a good Mozart, and then take it from there. For children, there’s a whole other world. Benjamin Britten’s The Little Sweep, which has lots of children singing, and Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel.
Does your son listen to opera?
He listens to his mother. He often tells me, “I wouldn’t mind being a singer, mum, but not an opera singer!” [laughs].
by Joana Stichini Vilela /// photo Ana Clara Miranda
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