Marko Mimica

In Bellini’s opera Norma, the “padre” role of Oroveso, it may be safely said, is “undistinguished”—dull and conventional. The bass entrusted with the role usually will engender two reactions: more frequently than not, “Cut this boring music,” and rather more rarely: “What a pity Oroveso doesn’t have more music.”   

The latter sentiment was most definitely the case in a live performance of the opera, in concert form, in May 2016, hailing from Berlin, featuring Edita Gruberova in the title role.  As the intro to “Ite sul colle” commenced, a rich, tonally-ringing, sappy-voiced bass-baritone took up the melody with startling alertness and incisive authority.

Later on in the evening, “Ah! del Tebro” was sung with uncommon finesse and a sense of unusual importance: it was anything but routine—it had energy, shape, and relevance. In the opera’s closing pages, Oroveso’s responses to Norma boomed out with power, vigor, and majestic command.  This is the kind of voice and singing that was a throwback to another era—distinctive, resonant, and imbued with an unmistakable stamp of “star” upon it.

Since when did any bass essaying the role of Oroveso cause such a buzz of excitement in discussions among opera fans, and cause critics to crucially note the impact of the excellence of the singing and musicianship? Indeed, he received the best notices of the evening.

A glance at the cast list: Marko Mimica (pronounced Mim-mit-tsah) as Oroveso.  Never heard of him. A Google search turned up his website, a Facebook page and biographical and career information. A native of  Croatia, graduate of the Academy of Zagreb, and as a finalist in the Cardiff Singer of the World in 2013.

The kicker: he was then only 29 years old. A twenty-something who already had a world-class voice.  From the audio I initially heard, I expected a virtual veteran of long-standing.

As is usual when I want to learn more, I hastened upon YouTube to see if anything could be found on Mimica. The Cardiff competition, which could be considered Mimica’s first exposure to the world at large, showed up first.

Here is an impressive, side-by-side demonstration of mastering two contrasting styles: the Mozart Figaro’s “Aprite un’po quegli occhi,” with the Verdi Attila’s “Mentre gonfiarsi l’anima.”

At just 25, Mimica displays an amazingly finished, and mature grasp of how the music and characterization should go for both of these pieces; properly conveying and acting out Figaro’s darkly pensive and outraged proclamations, and imparting the classic Verdian phrasing, and style for Attila’s grim, foreboding tale. The cabaletta rings out with with exciting dash and panache:

The critical responses from this showing was overwhelmingly positive.

The Daily Telegraph: “I would have given the palm to the ruggedly handsome Croatian bass-baritone Marko Mimica. He is only 25 and still has a way to go – but what promise, and what keen musical intelligence. Nerves got the better of him as Mozart’s Figaro, but he brought magnificent swagger to Verdi’s Attila and irresistible wit to Rossini’s Basilio. I prophesy a great career.”

The Guardian: “The main prize could with equal validity have been awarded to Marko Mimica, a striking Croatian bass baritone with an ability to inhabit fully the character…”

ArtsDesk reported of a judge’s response: “She went wild, though, for the only male finalist, Croatian bass-baritone Marko Mimica as Verdi’s Attila, all man and, agreed, quite a sound.”

OperaClick wrote of Mimica’s Banco in January of 2017, from Palermo: “The proof offered by the young Croatian Marko Mimica in the role of Banco is particularly positive. The authentic, low-cantabile voice is a beautiful timbre, voluminous and emitted with great ease. Really well done was the difficult air “Come dal ciel precipita”. We are convinced that this artist will hear a lot of talk in the years to come. ” (review translated by Google Translate)

Here is a clip bearing these judgments  out:

In April of 2017, Mimica played Don Alfonso in Lucrezia Borgia in Valencia; here with Mariella Devia (at her very best) and William Davenport, the bass-baritone shows fine authority and presence as the wily, crafty character:

The last time I heard a bass create this much of an affirmative reaction was when I heard Samuel Rameyin Rinaldo back in 1984.

After giving it some thought, I reached out to Mimica via Facebook, and asked him if he’d consent to an interview, to which he agreed. I was very curious to know more about his background and career trajectory.

In our e-mail exchanges that commenced over the next several months, Mimica positively astonished me on several levels: the excellence of his English (which he told me he learned not just in school, but from American movies and TV shows), and his ability to express himself thusly; of his worldly erudition; and most importantly, his vast knowledge of not just the bulk of the important bass roles, but of the operatic repertoire; and most crucially, the awareness of his historical predecessors, the scholarly study and observance of traditions, vocal technique, and what it means to be an artist of a venerated art form.

My role as an interviewer was made manifestly easy: Mimica gave more of himself than I dared hope to imagine. In some ways this interview was a revelation. We’ve become so accustomed as of late in opera publications featuring superficial, People-magazine type of interviews and like articles that don’t probe the depths of their subjects. They’re forgettable, banal, and formulaic.

Mimica revealed himself to be a true thinking-man’s artist. Smart and savvy, his dedication to his craft is, as one might expect, far-reaching, wide-ranging, and complex; an asker of questions and seeker of answers and truths, his painstaking goals in attaining the ultimate quest of being the best he can be is not without its doubts or frustrations.

It is usual in articles to incorporate the subject’s responses in the body of an article; ultimately, I decided to let Mimica speak wholly for himself in the interview portion.

I began, naturally, by asking him about his background, and how he got started in music.

MM: My hometown is Omis, my family and friends from earliest days still live there (I go back every summer for vacation) and in Omis I received my first musical education at Music Elementary School “Lovro pl. Matacic.” I was playing the trumpet and it was my trumpet teacher who took me to the Croatian National Theater Split where I went later to continue my studies in Music High School “Josip Hatze.”

Omis is a very small town close to Split, where one can go only to an elementary music school, therefore those who wish to continue studying music in high school have to go to Split. In Croatia music schools are totally separated from the “normal” schools, so for example in the morning I’d go to my normal school, and in the afternoon to the music school. Elementary music school lasts six years, then there’s high school lasting four years, and finally Academy five years.

NR: Do you remember your first experience seeing an opera?

My first opera was Rigoletto and I absolutely loved it. Having noticed my newly awakened passion for opera, my trumpet teacher said: “You’re gonna be an opera singer! They earn much more money then trumpet players anyway!” It was he who got me my first voice teacher and thanks to him it all started.

I played the trumpet throughout the high school parallel with taking the singing lessons. When I was 18 I went finally to the Music Academy to Zagreb to get my diploma in singing (no more trumpet! thank God) which took me five years. At the first I was singing in the Opera Chorus in Croatian National Theater in Zagreb, and while in my third year I started to sing solo roles, Mozart’s Papageno being my very first.

Interestingly enough, as I said before, the first opera I ever saw was Rigoletto in Split, and what I remembered the most about it (God knows why?!) was how much the soprano—Gilda—used to open her mouth. And it was the same soprano 8 years later who would be Pamina in my debut performance as Papageno. So the first soprano I’ve ever seen on stage and my first soprano I ever got to sing with was the same woman. Later we became great friends. (Croatia is quite small, and there aren’t that many singers, but still this was quite a coincidence.)

Also while in my third year I started to take voice lessons privately with a great Croatian baritone, soloist at the Croatian National Theater in Zagreb, Vitomir Marof, which got my teachers at the Academy really upset. Nevertheless I continued to work with Vitomir for third years, having lessons with him every day (in summer we’d work less). I used to play the piano for his lessons with other students, and when he would be done with all of them, he’d spend a few hours working with me.

We had a deal: I play for his lessons and in exchange I didn’t have to pay for my lessons, which, not being the son of Rockefeller, was the only way I could have had lessons with him everyday. Even now, every time I go back to Zagreb I’ll have a couple of lessons with him and although I’ve learned many a thing since then from other people I’ve met in Germany and Italy, I still use and constantly develop the technique of singing he taught me.

The other man who influenced and helped me greatly was Ernesto Palacio. Initially he was my manager and much more: a coach and a friend. I learned so many things about interpretation (especially when it comes to Rossini), the business itself and life. He works no longer as a manager, but we’ve stayed in a very friendly relationship and he’s still my mentor.

After six years spent in Zagreb (five studying and one working as a freelance singer), I left: first to Salzburg—Young Singers Project, summer 2011, and then to Deutsche Oper Berlin where I’ve been working for the past seven seasons. From the next season I’ll no longer be a member of the ensemble of the DOB, but a freelance singer again. I will be coming back to DOB as a guest with great joy. Berlin remains my base. (Time goes by so fast, it’s shocking…)

NR: Very interesting that you started out on the trumpet. Many singers started out playing an instrument, and they all say it provided the right kind of musical training in being a singer. Did you find that to be the case?

MM: I’m sure playing the trumpet helped a lot and speeded things up. Of course, I was learning solfeggio and the piano too since I was 6, so once I started to sing everything was much easier. However, with years I realized that the breathing and supporting (at least in my case) was very much different and it took me some time to adjust. I suppose it was because both of my trumpet teachers played in orchestras—sitting not standing and therefore had to work more with stomach muscles, would you say “plexus?”

I found that for the good singing the whole zone of the stomach should be as flexible as possible so that the ribs can open freely and naturally as for example in lying position and that the muscle “holding” everything is the pubic one, does that make sense? And also there’s the term “singing on the breath” and not “with the breath” which playing the trumpet I never managed to apply.

I asked Mimica for his feedback on one of his recent YouTube recordings:

MM: Listening to bits of it I get really depressed because all I can hear right now are the flaws. You know, I spent many years listening to old recordings, comparing them, learning from them and now I dare to say that I have a pretty good idea of what singing and technique are.

Of course, I understand that singers in previous generations had different (better?) conditions to study singing (starting at the age of 13-14, if not earlier, immediately with a good teacher having lessons every day for years, making debuts in smaller theaters but with good conductors and orchestras, rehearsing their music for weeks with Maestros…), and we today mostly spend first four to six years learning wrongly, then another 4-6 years trying to undo all the damage, making our debuts under suspicious conditions, singing wrong repertoire.. I’m no exception unfortunately.

Although I do think I’m in a good place letting myself to develop gradually doingit on stage (I will always wonder if it would be better to first develop a great technique and then start doing it), I am aware I’m still not fully in shape for what I’m doing. Of course, I can’t ask for the forgiveness from the audience every time when I didn’t sleep well, or when we didn’t rehearse it enough, or I had an allergic attack or whatever stands in our way of performing really well. I made my peace with the sad fact that I’ll probably have only three or four performances in the whole season when I’ll be pleased with what I’ve done.

Why am I saying all this? I do believe that my time will come, when things will come to its place and all the aspects will come together for me to, with hard work, become truly a great singer, of course constantly growing and searching for even better sound, deeper connection with the words, acting… and I’ve seen on examples of many colleagues who stopped “fighting” themselves at some point that (unfortunately) things never stay on the same level but step by step start to go down unless one keeps working and working!

I do believe in myself, but am not sure that the time is right for me to put my recordings on YouTube for everyone to hear. At the time I feel my voice is still not settled and I keep struggling with my upper middle range trying to find the right balance between covered and open sounds (which I know is the most difficult thing for basses and baritones to accomplish, even tenors).

Now almost every sound there is or too covered or too open—sigh. I am fully aware that the “final solution” is in the middle between the two and I’m positive I’ll overcome it (“one fine day”, as Cio-Cio San would say). Much more “legato” singing is needed and more shapes and interpretation…

Marko Mimica considers the historical past and his own future in the second part of this interview tomorrow.