Note: The September 5 weekly enewsletter story on the IUCN World Conservation Congress erroneously leads here. For details on the Congress click here.

Fresh off a critically acclaimed performance at London’s Wigmore Hall, star Italian contralto Sonia Prina alights at the museum Aug. 10 to sing aria from Handel and Vivaldi in the intimate setting of the Doris Duke Theatre.

Prina’s fast coloratura and dark timbre have won her praise at the world’s top opera houses. Her accolades include the prestigious Premio Franco Abbiati della critica musicale (2006) and the Tiberini d’oro prize (2014) with which she was honored as best singer of the year.

As Prina prepares for her trip to Honolulu, she answered questions via email about the role of contraltos in today’s opera scene, what audiences can expect from her performance, and coming to Hawai‘i.

In the opera world the contralto is often seen as a dying breed. Why is this so? Why should audiences value the contralto today?
The contralto is a very, very rare type of voice. It is not easy to find a true contralto because statistically and genetically they are much less common than other voice types.

There is a huge repertoire written for alto, especially works from the 18th century, but at that time it was much more vogue to use male voices like castratos who could embody the big heroes in the opera scene [Editors note: A castrato is a type of classical male singing voice equivalent to a soprano, mezzo-soprano, or contralto, that is produced by castrating the singer before puberty]. Nowadays there are no longer any castratos (hopefully), so this is the golden age for contraltos, and, lately, countertenors. There are very few scores later in the centuries written for real contraltos, especially in the romantic repertoire, so the contralto voice can really show off in the baroque repertoire, mostly.

Audiences should go and listen to a contralto to understand and appreciate the beauty of a different voice. Traditionally in the opera scene, those who could hit the highest note were considered the “best.” For a contralto there is no such competition, so it has to be played on a different level made of cleverness, interpretations and colors, and the discovery of a lower register.

How did you get started in opera?
I started as a trumpet player in the Milan Conservatory. I was young and loved music so much! In addition to playing the trumpet I also sang in the choir. One day suddenly I was asked to warm up and my voice started to become bigger and bigger, and develop a natural nice vibrato. That was it!

I was shocked and pleased at the same time; I would never have suspected such a thing would happen to me, never. That was the beginning: A sudden, strong, amazing surprise

You recently performed in a bold, boundary-pushing program at London’s Wigmore Hall that infused punk-rock into traditional opera. How do you challenge stereotypes and breathe fresh air into the art of opera today?
I challenge stereotypes cause I like modernity, I do not like this ancient idea of the soprano-diva entourage. While studying teaching singing I discovered and felt strongly that this music is much more modern than the romantic repertoire, so full of what we can find in jazz and rock. So, yes, if I sing a recital I want to put all of myself into the music—with my strength, my being “different,” my tattoos, and my punky piercings.

You have performed all over the world at the most renowned venues for opera. What makes coming to Hawai‘i special for you?
Hawai‘i is such a remote, beautiful place, like a dream for all of us. It’s a place where music and nature belong together. I want to come to Hawai‘i and tell my story made of love for my work, that is my life together with my family. I am also coming to Hawai‘i as thanks to my friend Sadako, who shared with me the passion and love for this music. I will be forever grateful to her and [museum theater director] Taylour Chang for making this event possible.

What can audiences anticipate in your upcoming performance at the Honolulu Museum of Art?
They can expect joy, energy, daring and passion. Sometimes I will sing about sorrow, I will sing bout a painful love, about revenge and about death. Sometimes I will be a hero showing off his power and fearlessness. That is it.

I will try to explain through music opposing feelings, sometimes daring, sometimes leaving the audience to forget about me and feel together with the character of the opera. They have to expect modernity.


Get tickets to Sonia Prina’s August 10 performance here.

Doris Duke Theatre director Taylour Chang contributed to this article.