The pandemic may have put a crimp in her plans, but Maria Novella Malfatti is making the most of her chances to learn and grow at the Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center.
The Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center is one of the most prestigious training programs in the world for emerging opera singers, offering world-class opportunities for professional development to its participants and introducing Windy City audiences to tomorrow’s stars. For Italian soprano Maria Novella Malfatti, the Ryan Center is a dream come true in her lifelong love affair with music.
“I always asked my parents, ‘Please, can I watch again?’ Actually, one of my first words that I learned was ‘Papageno.’ I loved that character,” she says of her upbringing in the Tuscan town of Pietrasanta. “I started to imitate classical singers, and my parents heard that I had a natural classical voice. They said,
‘OK, let’s first start with an instrument until your voice is ready and mature enough to sing. Just save now, and learn music well.’ They’re not musicians, but they really understood, so I will be always glad for that.”
Malfatti played the violin in orchestras until she was 22 years old, when she decided she no longer had the time to devote to the instrument due to her blossoming promise as a singer. After studying voice at the Accademia Chigiana of Siena, Malfatti earned a master’s degree from Conservatorium van Amsterdam, graduating cum laude. “Amsterdam gave me a lot of opportunities and opened a lot of doors,” she muses. “I grew up as a person also. It was like my very first step into real life. It’s still in my heart, that city and the people there.”
Malfatti enjoyed a thriving singing career in Europe before her talents earned her a trip to Chicago. During the 2018-19 season, she performed at the Tiroler Festspiele in Erl, Austria, as Musetta in Puccini’s “La bohème” and as the soprano soloist in Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.” In 2018, she was a finalist in the International Vocal Competition in ’s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, and in 2016, she earned third prize at the Ferruccio Tagliavini International Competition for Opera Singers in Deutschlandsberg, Austria. In 2015, she recorded a duet from Verdi’s “La Traviata” with Andrea Bocelli for Michael Radford’s “La Musica del Silenzio,” a biographical film about Bocelli’s life.
Malfatti landed the coveted position at the Ryan Opera Center after winning the Lyric’s Audience Favorite Award at her audition in September 2019. Though Chicago was far from home, it wasn’t a difficult move for the soprano, who had always felt a special connection with Americans. “My first singing teacher is from Minnesota, Janet Perry,” she notes. “It was a dream for me to move here and start a career.”
Malfatti’s transition to Chicago hasn’t been entirely smooth, though, given the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the cancellation of most public performances. “I would like to spend more time exploring the places here — the shops, the restaurants — but I can’t right now. I’m just jogging at the park and enjoying the landscape and the lake view. I found my way to stay healthy and good here.”
Still, she can’t wait for everything to be back to normal. “I think the first thing that I want to do is meet my colleagues at the Ryan Opera Center, maybe make a dinner all together, cooking and laughing and finally knowing each other a bit more. Also, I would love to go to the Art Institute, and I want to go to watch an opera and watch a concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.”
While much of the Lyric season has been cancelled, the Ryan Opera Center has still been working and performing, releasing a series of master classes with Music Director and Principal Conductor Sir Andrew Davis. Malfatti found the experience particularly rewarding. “I think one of the most important things for singers is to learn how to be well connected with the conductor and make music together,” she says. “I don’t know how you say it in English, but we have this saying in Italy that making music together is like respecting each other, like this kind of musical conversation: ‘La mia libertà finisce quando inizia la vostra.’
“I think it’s really, really important when you start to work in the theater to learn how to be malleable,” she continues. “You don’t have to be just the soloist. You have to make music together, and the conductor is there also for that reason. That is, I think, my favorite part of our job.”
Malfatti’s next performance with the Lyric is “Sole e Amore” (Sun and Love), a concert of lesser-known music by Italian opera composers curated and hosted by Music Director Designate Enrique Mazzola. Getting ready for the performance wasn’t all that different from preparing for a full operatic role, according to Malfatti. “Of course, in opera you have a story you have to understand and learn — also the psychology of the character. I think it’s the same with songs. They have a story, and they are poetry.
“I don’t want to limit myself just to the music and the text,” she adds. “I want to know more about the life of the composer, about the story of these pieces. And for me, it’s always the same work to do with opera and with songs.”
Looking to the future and what her dream role might be, Malfatti admitted that any role she’s working on is her favorite. “There are for sure some roles I’m dreaming to do, like Gilda in “Rigoletto.” Donizetti, Bellini, bel canto composers. … Yeah, there are a lot. But for now, I will wait.
“I’m really looking forward to what the next season will bring, and hopefully to be on stage again.”
“Sole e Amore” will premiere at 6 p.m. on Feb. 21 on Lyric’s Facebook and YouTube channels. It will be performed in Italian with English closed captions. The show will then be archived on Lyric’s YouTube channel alongside programs like “Breaking Down the Score: Attila with Maestro Enrique Mazzola.”
For a clip of Malfatti singing “Inno alla luna” from Antonín Dvořák’s “Rusalka,” click here.
For a clip of her singing “Tu scendi dalle stelle,” click here.
The above appears in the March 2021 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.