“Being on stage and singing is about opening up to whoever is listening”

©Márcia Lessa

The “singing bug” bit her as a child when she listened to her parents at Gulbenkian Choir rehearsals, sitting on the steps of the rehearsal room, with her eyes shining. Even so, Camila studied guitar for 15 years at the Lisbon National Conservatory – where she acquired the “discipline of an instrumentalist” – before deciding to completely dedicate herself to singing and opera.

She was a founding member, soloist and assistant artistic director of the Children’s Choir of the University of Lisbon. She has been living in Berlin for six years now, and in addition to her master’s degree at the Hoschule für musik Hanns Eisler, she has participated in recitals and contemporary music projects in Portugal and abroad. For this grantee, music is an “unofficial language”, which words can’t possibly describe.

 

Tell us about your career in music. Did you start early?

My parents always sang, especially in the Gulbenkian Choir, so I always had a very important musical background in the family. I often attended the Gulbenkian Choir rehearsals, I stayed in a small corner and I couldn’t speak, but I loved it! (laughs)

My participation in the Children’s Choir of the University of Lisbon was, basically, the pursuit of this dream. I used to attend choir rehearsals and, suddenly, I was part of one.

When I finished my guitar studies, many people expected me to follow that path… But I realised that I was missing something. I think singing is very personal, it’s like having an instrument inside you that is only yours. Deep down, I’ve always sung with the guitar.

I decided to apply to a singing university and started having private lessons with the teacher Joana Nascimento, who also sings here in the Gulbenkian Choir. Then I applied for university in Berlin and that was the beginning of my more “serious” career as a singer.

©Márcia Lessa
©Márcia Lessa

In addition to guitar and singing you also studied dance and theatre. Why did you do this?

Yes, I did two years of Ballet at the Conservatory Dance School and took some acting classes. The Children’s Choir also has a very physical component to it. I believe it makes no sense not to incorporate physicality into singing; dance and theatre are essential.

 

Was your experience with the guitar useful for the work you’re doing now?

The guitar was very useful because it gave me the discipline of being an instrumentalist, of going at it until it’s right. Singers can’t sing for the same number of hours that a musician can play an instrument for, so people tend to think that there is less work to be done, but that’s a misconception. We have more theory, we have to understand what we are saying, memorise the text, work on our diction.

When it comes to the guitar you have the problem of tendinitis; when it comes to singing, we do not suffer from tendinitis, but there are many other things that can affect the voice, be it a cold, flying in a plane, drinking two cups of coffee a day… The idea that singers are divas is a joke, but the truth is that we have to take good care of our instrument.

 

When it comes to opera, you’re not just performing a song, there’s a very dramatic aspect to it.

Absolutely, and the character will touch someone who identifies with the figure, or with the story, or maybe just with the music. Somehow opera touches us deep down. It’s much more than playing a role; it’s about bringing myself to play the role and also letting that role get to me.

I often say I’m terrified of auditions, because I lack the whole before and after story, I lack context. Without it it’s hard to go on stage and suddenly sing an aria. That’s why I like opera so much: during a performance we grow as people, we live it.

 

How about language, is it a barrier?

I’m Italian on my mother’s side, so that’s a winner (laughs). After six years in Berlin, it would be bad if I didn’t speak German. Apart from that, the technical job of a singer is to work on perfect diction. For me it’s essential to understand exactly what they’re saying. I’m a bit obsessive, to the point of taking commas and full stops very seriously. 

 

Listen to Camila singing “The Turtle Dove”, by Ralph Vaughan Williams

 

What would you say is the biggest obstacle to pursuing a career like yours?

The biggest obstacle is ourselves. I think this applies to every performer: dancer, instrumentalist, singer, actor, you name it. When it comes to singing, and since it is so personal, we have to be very comfortable with ourselves to be able to interpret the music and touch people in the way that a singer is determined to do.

For me being on stage and singing is about opening up to whoever is listening. For that to happen you have to be completely willing to do it; otherwise, nothing happens, no one is touched. It’s a constant challenge.

 

How is the experience in Berlin going?

It’s going very well. I really like my teacher, and I think that’s the main thing – working with someone you like and feeling you have a lot to learn from them.

What appealed to me about Hanns Eisler was that it’s a very practical course, with a focus on physicality. It’s a bit of a German thing, very physical. We have all sorts of classes: swordplay, dance, movement, spatialisation, stage drama. It caught my attention because it was in line with what I believed in and with what I’ve been doing.

 

Do you see yourself living in Berlin? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Honestly, I don’t know. I’ll be where I can be most active. I’d like to stay in the centre of Europe, but I don’t want to be stay in the same place. My dream is to work a bit everywhere, including in Portugal. In ten years’ time, I’d like to live in Zurich, for example, and have an international career, working in opera productions in every part of the world.

 

©Márcia Lessa

How important is the Gulbenkian Grant for your life?

It is very important. This Master’s, after a four-year degree, has been a very intense period, with a lot of work and intensification in the aspects that I needed to improve; finding my vocation within singing, the identity of my voice as well as my own. The Gulbenkian grant allowed me to focus completely on that, without having to worry about the other factors.

 

How does it feel to be part of the network of Gulbenkian grantees?

Last year I had a meeting with other art grantees and it was really interesting to hear about their experiences. It made me realise that we are a very active group of people, motivated to do different things and that we want to transform the national art scene.

I feel very honoured to be part of this group and I hope to make contributions as great as theirs. In the future, I hope to cross paths with people, not only from the music scene, but also from dance and film, to create things together, to exchange ideas. I’m sure that will happen as soon as the pandemic is over.