Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Who is the soprano behind John Malkovich in Apple's iPhone Siri ad?

Yesterday, Apple released it's latest iPhone 4S TV ad featuring director Martin Scorsese. Mr. Scorsese’s ad is the fourth in a series of shorts which feature Siri being used by the celebrities in ways that match the celebrities public personas. The previous ads feature Zooey Deschanel, Samuel L. Jackson and John Malkovich.

You've have seen the iPhone ad with John Malkovich chatting-it-up with Siri, right?

Released in May, the ads, titled "Life" and "Joke", begin with Malkovich sitting in his comfy chair and listening to Puccini's Madama Butterfly. He begins challenging Siri with a variety of tasks, such as checking the weather and his calendar. Malkovich also asks his iPhone for a joke - at which point Siri replies: "Two iPhones walk into a bar ... I forget the rest."

[Inserting pause for laughter here]

But, who is the soprano singing Butterfly's aria "Un bel di" for these John Malkovich iPhone ads? In all of the press coverage I've seen surrounding the ads - and there was plenty - no one asked the question.

So, here I am ... asking the question. Who is that soprano? Any guesses?

Yours Truly has the scoop. But first, watch the ads...

I only had to get through the opening "Un bel di vedremo..." to tell you that it's a soprano voice which I am very accustomed to hearing. The recording from which it comes is actually a unique recording that exists in a world all on it's own.

As many of us opera-geeks know, Puccini's Madama Butterfly is not an opera that was shaped into a perfect final revision. Instead, it's one that exists in several versions, none of which are definitive.

After its disastrous 1904 premiere in Milan, Puccini hastily revised the Madama Butterfly score, heavily cutting Act 1, dividing Act 2 into two parts and providing the tenor with a brief aria in the final scene. The result, in Brescia less than four months later, was triumphant to say the least, but the process of revision was not over.

For the first Paris production, in 1906, many more edits were made. In fact, it is this 1906 version of the score that is normally performed nowadays. BUT Chiclets, there is evidence that even as late as 1920, Puccini was making yet further adjustments, including the restoration of some of the previous cuts.

In the early and mid 1990s, there were several revivals of Puccini's original version. But alas, controversy still erupted due to a climate of political correctness. You see, in the original 1904 version, Pinkerton is pretty disrespectful of the Japanese — though less so than in the first draft of the libretto. And additionally, Cio-Cio San (Butterfly) was a more developed and three-dimensional character ... much less of a victim than we see in the later versions.

There is but one single recording of Madama Butterfly - ONLY ONE - that includes every version of Puccini's masterpiece. And it is from that one-recording that Apple chose to pull it's "Un bel di". The soprano singing Cio-Cio San on that recording - and on Apple's iPhone TV ad featuring John Malkovich - is ... Maria Spacagna.

Full disclosure: Maria Spacagna has been my voice teacher and mentor for many years ... no wonder I am accustomed to that voice, right?

Maria Spacagna truly forged her career singing the role of Cio-Cio San ... even becoming the first American-born singer to perform the role at La Scala, Milan ... thanks to a certain Maestro Lorin Maazel. This trailblazing moment was so monumental that it garnered Ms. Spacagna a place in La Scala's Encyclopedia of the Opera.

Under the baton of conductors such as Julius Rudel, James Levine, Edoardo Müller, Riccardo Chailly, Nello Santi, Placido Domingo and Marco Armiliato, Maria Spacagna has sung in nearly every major opera house in the world ... La Fenice in Venice, Arena di Verona, Festival Pucciniana in Torre del Lago, Deutsche Oper Berlin, New York City Opera, Dallas Opera, San Francisco Opera, Opera Theater of Montreal, and Canadian Opera in Toronto - just to name a few.

After establishing a reputation as a remarkably skilled soprano and consummate actress, it was time for Maria Spacagna to make her debut at the Metropolitan Opera. That debut came in the title role in Verdi’s Luisa Miller. Her tenor that night was some guy named Luciano Pavarotti [wink wink].

Soon thereafter, Ms. Spacagna was tapped by another tenor. This time, at Placido Domingo's request, Ms. Spacagna was invited to sing at a White House State Dinner at which President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton honored the Prime Minister of Italy.

A native of Rhode Island, Ms. Spacagna has been honored with the Rhode Island Pell Award for Excellence in the Arts, was the first recipient of the Distinguished Artist Award presented by the Rhode Island Civic Chorale and Orchestra and is a member of the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame. She also recently received an award from the Italian Consulate General in Boston for Outstanding Achievement in Art, Culture and Entertainment.

Before her stellar operatic career, Maria Spacagna did what many singers don't these days ... she cultivated her voice and educated herself. After receiving Bachelor of Music and Master of Music in Voice degrees from the New England Conservatory of Music - where she was a student of Gladys Childs Miller - Ms. Spacagna furthered her studies as a member of the Juilliard Opera program in New York.

Inevitably, the combination of her education and her experience as an accomplished performer would make Ms. Spacagna an often-sought-after voice teacher. Ms. Spacagna maintains private voice studios in New York City, Boston and Providence, RI. She was also a member of the Boston University voice faculty, recently vacating her post to begin a new chapter this fall as Associate Professor of Voice at Carnegie Mellon's School of Music.

Above and beyond all of that, Maria Spacagna's voice is now the stunning soprano which sets the scene for John Malkovich and Siri - being forever woven into the fabric of our popular culture. And, she's in great company as she joins Maria Callas ... another soprano who lent herself to an Apple ad campaign.

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