Growing up in Trieste, an Italian city in the northeast of the country, Daniela Barcellona was going to be a concert pianist. Yes, she sang. She sang in church and at school and as she got older, at weddings. But it was precisely because of its ordinary qualities -- "After all, you can sing in the shower" -- that Barcellona never considered it as a career.
But along the way people kept encouraging her to do more with her voice and when she finally did, a mezzo-soprano was born. This week, she makes her Houston Grand Opera debut in Gioachino Rossini's The Italian Girl in Algiers, singing the lead role of Isabella.
"I love all the Rossini roles. All your life experiences are in those roles," she told Art Attack.
The basic premise of this somewhat convoluted opera (strongly reminiscent of a William Shakespeare comedy) is that Isabella has gone in search of her lover Lindoro, who is working as a slave to Mustafa, the Bey, or local ruler. She gets to Algiers by virtue of being shipwrecked and as coincidence would have it, is exactly what Mustafa (played by Patrick Carfizzi -- last seen as Dr. Bartolo in Rossini's The Barber of Seville) ordered.
It turns out the Bey has tired of his wife and the other women in his harem and wants an Italian woman to spice up his love life. To do so, he plans to divorce his wife and marry her to Lindoro and to make Isabella his own.
Barcellona checks in at about 5'10" and she is taller than Lawrence Brownlee, who plays Lindoro. Rather than being a drawback, this plays to her advantage, she said. "She is a commander. She manipulates Mustafa," Barcellona said, laughing.
Rossini wrote this opera buffa a few years before Barber. It was embraced by the Italian public when released in 1813 and then faded somewhat in popularity until right after World War II, when it experienced a revival of interest.
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Speaking to why certain operas are loved and then seem to disappear, Barcellona, known for her bel canto (beautiful singing) roles, said: "Sometimes certain operas didn't find the singers. Sometimes the operas are so difficult. Sometimes for political reasons and sometimes they just forget."
Barcellona has performed mostly in Europe in the early stages of her career, but now has an American agent and says she will be singing more often in the United States. She is fluent in English, German and Spanish besides her native Italian.
She has been careful in choosing her roles, not wanting to press her voice too much, she said. "Every age has its own roles. The technique must be very solid. You don't need to push the voice." She often works with her husband in preparing for her roles. A conductor, he was a former teacher of hers.
Her favorite song she does in this opera? "The last one. Because it's so full of pyrotechnical notes. It's the most frightening aria in the opera for me, but I do love it." Performances of The Italian Girl in Algiers will be at the Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas, at 7:30 p.m. October 26, November 3, 7 and 9 and at 2 p.m. October 28 and November 11. Sung in Italian with English subtitles. For information, go to the Houston Grand Opera Web site or call 713-546-0200. $15-$327.