New Old Music. Brazilian Coloratura Soprano Gabriela Di Laccio talks to Julian Maynard-Smith

New Old Music. Brazilian Coloratura Soprano Gabriela Di Laccio talks to Julian Maynard-Smith


Gabriela Di Laccio is a Brazilian coloratura soprano with a vast repertoire of opera, oratorio and chamber music, ranging from J.S. Bach and Johann Strauss to twentieth-century European and Brazilian composers. In March she was doubly recognised by Air Europa LUKAS Awards, picking up gold in the Classical Act of the Year category and being shortlisted for her work with the early music ensemble Il Festino. In addition, she was Handel House’s Musician of the Month in honour of her sell-out ‘Handel’s Divas’ concert at the Handel House Museum, a concert she also performed at the Crown Court Church of Scotland in Covent Garden.

The LUKAS Awards celebrate the cultural contribution (across the arts, sports, human rights, and more) of Britain’s one million Latin American, Spanish and Portuguese residents. I ask Gabriela what it means to her to have won gold as Classical Act of the Year.

‘It is always a wonderful feeling to receive recognition for our work as artists. It gives us a sense of achievement and undoubtedly inspires us to continue to work with dedication. But this feeling can also happen when we receive a warm reception from an audience after a concert, for example. Knowing that we managed to touch people with our work is the greatest reward one can possibly expect as an artist and I’m very happy if I can I feel that I’m succeeding in doing that.’

Gabriela’s Brazilian roots and European musical heritage are dramatically reflected in her choice of composers, who include notable Brazilian composers such as Verdi’s and Puccini’s contemporary Antônio Carlos Gomes, and the twentieth-century master Heitor Villa-Lobos. So what are the vocal and interpretive challenges of singing, say, Villa-Lobos as opposed to Handel? And does the Latin classical repertoire have a different emotional resonance for Gabriela? For audiences?

‘Handel’s arias were generally written to show off his singers, to present the audience with a spectacle of virtuosi variations,’ says Gabriela, explaining that his arias were da capo, ie following an ABA structure with the singer free to improvise over the repeated A section, where the harmonic structure is generally fairly static. ‘It is wonderful to sing Handel, as he clearly understood the voice very well. Everything he writes feels comfortable on the voice and although he challenges the instrument technically speaking, it is always done in a way that complements the melody and the singer’s tessitura.

‘Singing Villa-Lobos is very different as the musical language changed a lot over the two hundred years that separate the two composers. On top of that we also have a few thousand miles and huge cultural differences, which add more colours and texture to this repertoire. When singing Villa-Lobos it’s clear the voice line is an important part but not the only part of the piece. There’s clearly a wish to explore the harmonies and rhythms in a different way and the singer should be aware of what is the priority in each part of the piece. I certainly have a natural connection with the Latin American repertoire and I enjoy it immensely, which I believe will always affect the audience in a positive way.

‘But I have a very great and strong connection with the European repertoire as well, especially Italian and Spanish composers. It must be the drama queen inside me, as I love the way the feelings are expressed through the compositions in the baroque period, and I really enjoy the combination of singing and acting that the opera repertoire offers for the performer.’

Gabriela’s multicultural background has found a perfect marriage with the early music ensemble Il Festino, whose ‘new old music’ comprises imaginative performances, on period instruments, of everything from baroque music to bossa nova. I ask her how the ensemble came about.

‘The ensemble started when I was studying at the Royal College of Music. One of the wonderful things about living in London is enjoying its cosmopolitan character, where each cultural background brings something different to a performance.

‘I love the fact that we can research the early music scores and try to get as close as possible to how we think that piece would sound when it was first written. But equally I believe that, as interpreters, we should always try to put a great part of ourselves into everything we do. There must be a connection, and the music you play needs to touch you first before it can move an audience. We thought it would be really enjoyable to research and perform some interesting repertoire that has a connection with our own different cultures, including Latin American, Jewish, African, etc.’

I tell Gabriela that what struck me on my first listening of the ensemble’s album Encounter was just how seamless and natural they manage to make the leap between centuries and continents.

‘The idea was exactly that, to make a bridge between styles. Sometimes the idea of listening to baroque or classical music can sound very square and old fashioned to some people. But the basis of baroque is very similar to jazz, for example. There’s lots of room for improvisation so we thought we would concentrate on the similarities of the genres, and not on the differences.’

Il Festino’s new programme is called ‘Modinhas and Lundus’, comprising a series of love songs and dances from 18th-century Brazil and Portugal.’ Gabriela explains that modinha is a type of love song resembling the Italian ariettas from the 17th and 18th century that witnessed the complex exchange of cultures between Brazil and Portugal since the 17th century – and lundu is a style of Afro-Brazilian music and dance with its origins in the African Bantu and Portuguese people. Records from the inquisition of the 18th century reveal that the Europeans initially considered lundus to be witchcraft, and many slave-owning Europeans in Brazil tolerated the dance in an attempt to avoid slave rebellion.

‘It was a wonderful experience to research this repertoire and the rich historical background that is part of it. This is a very happy repertoire full of sensuality and rhythm. It is a very interesting part of the musical heritage of both countries and not very well known by the public, so we thought it would be very worthwhile to explore. It’s very interesting to see the strong influence of European music mixed with a totally different reality, which was probably what happened when the Jesuits arrived in Brazil and started to teach religious music to the indigenous people.’

Another of Gabriela’s significant contributions to her native country is Bravo Brazil, the charity she set up to help deprived children.

‘Brazil is a very beautiful country but I think that its best asset is the Brazilian people. The more simple and modest can be the most generous people you ever meet. It is very sad that there are so many social problems in Brazil, especially with children and young adults.’ Gabriela mentions shocking statistics from Brazil’s 2010 census: close to 1 million children between the ages of seven and 14 not attending school, and 50.2% of the population not completing primary education. ‘Sadly, many children in Brazil can still end up in getting lost through a path of delinquency, drug addiction and crime. Although I was never part of this reality I grew up very close to it and I always wanted to be able to do something to help. Some years ago I saw a documentary about the Simón Bolívar Orchestra in Venezuela, which has Gustavo Dudamel as musical director, and I was extremely moved and inspired by the idea. I thought it would be wonderful to be able to do something similar in Brazil.

‘We are still a very small charity but it is wonderful to be able to make a small difference. At one concert in January we raised £1000 and bought instruments for the Villa-Lobos Orchestra in Porto Alegre. Eighty percent of the children came back to play for us. There was a sense of family and it was really beautiful and moving to see.’

Julian Maynard-Smith