Music Preview: When it comes to singers, PSO artistic adviser needn't look far for artistic advice

Lady Gianna

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Gianna Rolandi Davis


Pittsburgh Symphony

Conductor: Andrew Davis, with Jane Irwin, soprano, and Clifton Forbis, tenor.
Program: Higdon, Concerto for Orchestra; Mahler, "Das Lied von der Erde."
Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Tickets: $19-$72; 412-392-4900.


Sir Andrew Davis' coming-out party as Pittsburgh Symphony artistic adviser, the Knight to Remember ball in September, featured a lady to remember as well: Lady Gianna Davis, a celebrity in her own right.

As Gianna Rolandi, she was a popular coloratura soprano at New York City's Metropolitan Opera and most major opera houses of the world. Having retired from singing after marrying the maestro, she is now director of vocal studies at the Lyric Opera Center, the young artists program of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where Sir Andrew is music director and principal conductor.

"I've always been interested in helping young singers," Rolandi says. "It's not the same as performing yourself, of course, but I get a lot of satisfaction from the kids. It's wonderful to see them make careers of their own."

She singles out one of the current crop, Stacy Tappin, a coloratura in the Rolandi mold who will make her debut at the renowned Glyndebourne Festival this summer.

"What I teach them most," Rolandi says, "is how to become independent, how to keep their voices in shape, to make choices on their own, to mature from a student mentality into one's own person. I don't want them calling their voice teachers at 1 in the morning if they have a problem.

"Good singing," she adds, "starts with a solid technique. Excuse the double negative, but a singer can't not have a good technique. As a listener, I find it hard to get past a bad technique."

For her own excellent technique, the soprano gives credit to her New York voice teacher, now-retired Ellen Faull. And she says the high point of her career came for three or four years during the '80s, when she was singing all her favorite roles at the two major opera houses of New York. She also points out the influence of Beverly Sills, her role model, who frequently attended her rehearsals and offered generous advice.

Another essential of good singing, she says, is "having a message, being unique in your message. You have to have something to say, to move your audience." A beautiful voice is also important, but some singers have been successful without conventionally beautiful voices because they had something unique to say -- Maria Callas, for example.

Rolandi, a South Carolina native who will be 54 in August, seems always to have been independent and confident. So much so, that she claims her career had no low points.

"My mother was a coloratura soprano who sang in Italy and New York. When my father died quite young, she had to support her family and went home to teach. She and the father of [countertenor] David Daniels taught in the same college voice department. I grew up listening to her voice lessons through the door.

"I was so strong technically that I went right from Curtis Institute to the New York City Opera [in 1975]. They desperately needed a Zerbinetta [in Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos"]. Ruth Welting had left, and I was hired to take her place. Part of it was fortunate timing, too. I was fortunate."

Rolandi first met her future husband in 1984, while she was performing Zerbinetta at the Met, with Davis conducting.

"We didn't hit it off particularly well then," she admits. They met again later at Glyndebourne, when he was conducting Janacek's "Katya Kabanova," and she was singing Constanze in Mozart's "Abduction."

"That time it was different, and the fireworks happened between us."

The Glyndebourne Festival holds a special place in Rolandi's career. Not only were her performances invariably well-received, but an excellent 1988 video of Strauss' "Arabella" with Rolandi is still in the catalog, while a discontinued "Marriage of Figaro" with Rolandi as Susanna has become something of a collector's item.

Rolandi and Davis were married in 1989. Their son, Edward, is now a junior in high school who wants to be an architect at the moment. They lived in England until 2000, when Davis took his position in Chicago. Their former house in East Surrey is now occupied by another famous diva, Kiri Te Kanawa.

Rolandi never sang in Pittsburgh, although she soloed with the PSO under Lorin Maazel on tour in Mahler's Second Symphony. She was also offered the title role in Massenet's "Manon" with Pittsburgh Opera, but had a conflict with her Paris Opera debut.

Asked what she would like to do that she has not yet done, the singer offers a delightfully nonmusical answer: "I want to see New Zealand."


Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.


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