Currently based in Australia, Italian-Australian soprano Cristina Russo has established an international career spanning opera, theatre, concert and film. She is also an emerging composer.
After graduating from the University of Melbourne with a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Music, Cristina won the Acclaim Italian Opera Fellowship Study Award, which allowed her the opportunity to live in Italy and work with some of the finest opera singers in the world, including Luciana Serra and Mirella Freni.
We caught up with Cristina before our performance of Messiah to find out about her experiences performing it and what she thinks is the hardest bit about being a Messiah soloist.
Tell us about your experience singing Handel’s Messiah
The soprano solos in Handel's Messiah were actually my first paid classical gig about ten years ago! I did a country tour with the Heidelberg Chorale and performed about ten Messiahs across country Victoria and South Australia. I really should keep a running tally of how many Messiahs I've performed, but I'd say it's getting close to thirty now!
What are some of the challenges in the arias that you sing?
The differing tessituras! The soprano solo is a little like Violetta in La Traviata. You need great agility to tackle the fiendish runs in 'Rejoice Greatly', then a passionate lyric soprano legato for 'I Know My Redeemer Liveth', which sits quite low, especially when performed at baroque pitch. So essentially you need to be some sort of coloratura and lyric super soprano to really do both arias justice.
Fun fact: I just discovered that the soprano who sang at the London and Dublin premieres of the Messiah in 1741 and 1743 was called none other than: Cristina Maria Avoglio. My full name is Cristina Maria Russo. It was meant to be.
Do you have a favourite moment in the work?
I've performed this piece so many times that my favourite moments change with each performance. Although I've always loved singing the 'He Shall Feed His Flock/Come Unto Him' duet which is stunning in its simplicity.
I'm always really jealous of the bass solos. I love 'For Behold, Darkness' and 'The People that Walked in Darkness'. I secretly want to sing it, but something tells me it would sound horribly wrong. I also love the tenor recit 'For Behold and See'. It makes me weep like a baby every time.
What’s your approach to ornamentation - prepare or improvise?
Ever since a disastrous improvised ornamentation moment during I Know That My Redeemer Liveth about ten years ago, I've since learnt to prepare my ornamentation. Improvisation is not my strong point. I feel like half of the skill in selecting ornamentation is knowing what to leave out- when not to mess with the amazing music that Handel wrote. To do that properly usually requires planning on my part.
Although I've now performed it so much I seem to have assembled a tool kit of 'go to ornaments' that I pick and choose as I go. So in a way it does seem improvised, but a lot of preparation and thought has gone into it.
Actually Jacob Lawrence sat with me in a cafe in Brunswick one day and helped me craft some killer ornamentation that I still use now!
Does singing this music in a church feel different to singing it in a concert hall?
Yes it does. I prefer singing this work in a church, to me it adds great pathos to the music.
Briefly tell us about your plans for 2018.
A move to Berlin is in the works. Time to brush up on my German!