In a world where the title diva is scattered around like confetti, it's a pleasure to meet the real thing. Cecilia Bartoli is to classical opera what Madonna is to popular music. The mere mention that she is to perform at La Scala, Milan, or the Barbican, London, is enough to start an orderly stampede for tickets. She has already sold more than six million CDs.
On stage, everything about Bartoli spells diva - the magnificent mezzo-soprano voice, the elaborate cascading hair, the gorgeous costumes and jewellery, the expressive gestures. She's very much the grand dame, the prima donna, a singer at the height of her powers who still has much to give. Her growing army of fans is devoted to her and love her for her passion. Offstage, a warm, friendly and completely unaffected woman leaps to her feet to greet me. Dressed entirely in black with her hair scraped back in a simple ponytail and face bare of make-up, she looks more girlish than her 42 years.
Her speaking voice is soft and velvety with a heavy Italian intonation, and she has a laugh like a ripple on a Steinway. Laughter is never far away as she muses on the meaning of diva, a word that has become something of a pejorative description. "I have no time to be a diva, or at least that kind of a diva. It sometimes means a person who always tries to make difficulties. There are divas that are more interested in buying shoes, there are others that are more interested in researching old music that has been neglected. I do buy shoes but I don't have 200 pairs," she says.
We met at her manager's offices in Zurich, Switzerland, a few days before she was due to fly to Abu Dhabi for her first concert in the UAE. As part of the Abu Dhabi Classics series, she will perform on Saturday at the Emirates Palace. The programme includes music from the pre-Romantic period and songs written by her musical heroine Maria Malibran, whom she considers to be the epitome of a diva.
Malibran, the Spanish mezzo-soprano who died at 28 after a riding accident in 1836, has become an obsession for Bartoli, who released a tribute CD, Maria, last year.
"I am a diva in the sense that I pay tribute to the biggest diva ever and that is Maria Malibran," Bartoli says. "She was a pop star of the 19th century. She was the Madonna or the Michael Jackson of her time, an amazing character, personality and talent and a true free spirit.
"She was a mezzo like me. She performed the music of Rossini and her repertoire was very similar to my repertoire, so there's a kind of synergy. By studying Malibran I realise what diva really means. She was an amazing singer, a superb composer. She played three instruments, she was multi-talented, she was a goddess."
Bartoli spends hours in libraries, museums and auction houses hunting down Malibran memorabilia that she turned into an exhibition that travels with her on tour. "It's a passion and it is my big extravagance. I am a collector of her music, jewellery, her letters from composers like Rossini and Mendelssohn."
Bartoli has been concentrating on reviving neglected music from the pre-Romantic period and is enthusiastic about singing to an audience who might not be as familiar with it as the opera buffs of La Scala or Covent Garden.
"I am so looking forward to bringing this great pre-Romantic music to Abu Dhabi," Bartoli says. "I'm looking forward to sharing it with a new audience. I love a new reaction. I love to see how this music will speak to them. Actually, it's very, very exciting."
She intends to ask the organisers to leave enough light on in the auditorium so that the audience can follow a translation of the songs she will be singing.
"Since this music is in Italian, I'm going to be singing in Italian and I want to make sure that they understand what I am singing about. A singer is supposed to be somebody who is using the voice and the music in order to tell a story. I like to see the reaction but what is important is to feel the audience. I like to know that it wants to participate. You can feel it immediately if the audience is coming to listen and to share and to fly together. This is what I'm looking for, and when this happens it's very good."
Clearly anxious not to sound too demanding, she also mentions the air conditioning, which could affect her voice. "I may ask them to turn it down a little and perhaps turn the fans off. I have to be careful. If it is too strong, it makes the nasal passages and the eyes dry up and you have to drink much more water. The danger is to breathe in cold air when you warm up the voice. Cold air makes your vocal chords cooler and if you are not careful you can damage them. You mustn't breathe too deeply."
Bartoli often talks about her voice in the third person and is conscious of the responsibility it carries. "Honestly, I don't worry too much. The only thing to avoid is places where people are smoking. I never smoked myself and grew up in a family where nobody smokes. If I have to sing, I prefer to avoid smokey places because this can irritate the vocal chords. In order to protect your instrument, you must get eight hours of sleep. The voice is a very fragile instrument. After a long flight, sometimes if I don't sleep enough the first symptom is always my voice. It's important to rest and the quality of the sleep is very important. You need discipline in your life in general, like in sport."
Apart from that, she has a healthy appetite, especially for Italian food, and, living as she does in Switzerland, a weakness for Swiss chocolate, which she buys from Sprungli's, a famous chocolate shop in Zurich. "But only after a concert. Chocolate also affects the voice," she laughs.
"I eat properly as a real Italian lady. I love food. I eat pasta and when I am at home I love to cook. I'm not as good as my mother or my grandmother but I try to improve myself. Most of the time I am travelling."
Another of her passions is choosing the beautiful costumes she wears on stage. For the past year, the London designer Vivienne Westwood has been making clothes for Bartoli. In a chance meeting through mutual friends, Bartoli happened to mention the difficulty singers had with finding bodices and corsets that didn't restrict their rib cages.
"I was talking to Vivienne about this problem and said it was so hard to find the right corset, which gives a beautiful shape but, at the same time, I have to work in it. She offered to make some for me. She is a big opera fan. She created these corsets that are magnificent. I went to London and they took all my measurements and it was very professional. I have them in different colours, some with laces, and the corset is part of the dress."
Bartoli made Zurich her home when she fell in love with a fellow opera singer, Oliver Widmer, a baritone with whom she has performed at the Zurich Opera House.
"I think love is about so many ingredients. The fact that he loves music is one ingredient, but I think you will find even a doctor loves music. The fact that he is a singer probably helps but you need a lot of ingredients in love."
She says she would love to have children and accepts that it would affect her career, certainly where touring was concerned. "I received a gift from God with my voice but I would love to have a real Italian family. It would slow my career down but it's another phase in life."
Bartoli was born in Rome on June 4 1966. Her parents, Silvana Bazzoni and Pietro Angelo Bartoli, were both professional singers and gave her her first music lessons.
"I grew up in opera houses, behind the stage and sometimes even on stage. We didn't have a babysitter so I would do my homework at the opera house after school and play with the other children of singers. We would be listening to music all the time.
"I must have been about five when I heard Aida at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. That's where the Three Tenors performed for the first time. I remember this Aida so well. It was a huge production with animals. They had elephants, horses and dancers and it was all in the open air in this huge space.
"I always used to sing as a child but it was what is called a white voice - an untrained childish voice, voce bianca."
Her first public performance was as a shepherd boy in Tosca when she was nine. When she was 14, she went to study at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome, but admits she didn't take singing very seriously then, as her heart was elsewhere.
"My big passion was to become a flamenco dancer and I joined a group and did some shows with them but eventually I realised that I had more talent in the voice. So I decided to follow the genetic thing."
She was still studying when an Italian television company came to the conservatory to ask students if they were interested in auditioning for a new reality show. Bartoli remembers the sense of excitement vividly. "It was a Saturday show that went on for three months. It was a very funny show with so many different artists - singers, acrobats, jugglers, very Fellini. I was in the competition but I didn't win. I lost the competition but I won a career. Many people saw me on television and it all started from there."
One of the first callers was the celebrated conductor Herbert Von Karajan. Daniel Barenboim and Nikolas Harnoncourt were not far behind. The conductors all recognised her talent at an early age and asked her to work with them.
"My big moment came when I had a call from Von Karajan's office to invite me to an audition in Salzburg. I thought, 'Wow, this is the beginning of something so I had better start taking it seriously'. He took me for the Bach C Minor Mass. I went to Salzburg to rehearse with him and this was definitely when I became really interested. Before that, my brain was still in the flamenco. Then Daniel Barenboim took me on and I studied a lot with him. I began to study all the Mozart repertoire with him. My parents supported me until I began to earn fees and I was able to support myself, not very big ones at first."
Today, Bartoli is best known for her interpretation of the music of Mozart and Rossini, as well as for her performances of lesser-known baroque and classical music.
Considered to be a coloratura mezzo-soprano, she is popular for her lively and passionate performances. Her professional debut was in 1987 at the Arena di Verona. The following year, she sang the role of Rosina in Rossini's The Barber of Seville at the Oper der Stadt Köln, the Schwetzingen Festival and the Zürich Opera to great acclaim. In 1990, she debuted at the Opéra Bastille as Cherubino in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro and at the Hamburg State Opera as Idamantes in Mozart's Idomeneo. The following year saw her debut at La Scala as Isolier in Le Comte Ory.
By the mid 1990s, she was an internationally acclaimed star, having filled the Metropolitan Opera in New York to capacity two years running. In 2000, she performed at the Deutsche Oper Berlin as Donna Elvira in Mozart's Don Giovanni. She appeared for the first time at Covent Garden in London in 2001.
She tries to maintain a balance in her life, taking time off to spend at home between singing engagements and recording. "I think I am at a very high peak now with my voice. Now I have the experience of 20 years of the career," she says. Her aim now is to discover new shades of colour and emotion to enrich her singing.
"When I am singing I try to be the character, but of course the experiences of life - the bad and the good - will help when I am playing a role. More than that, it depends on your sensibility. As a singer I feel it is important to paint with your voice. There are so many colours in music. I paint with colours and shadows. In order to be a good singer you need to research colours.
"Now I can paint with my voice better than I could 10 years ago. To be able to find new colours is always very exciting. I hope I will have a long life in order to make it more dimensional."