Cecilia Bartoli

Italy at its very finest. Emiligia Romagna, Tuscany and Umbria in June. I have been lucky enough to be taken along as a pal and support vehicle driver by Greg Hart who is competing in the Modena Centro Ore Classic, Edizione 5a. Greg is racing a 1964 Lotus Elan and winning nearly every event until the diff is killed by an over-zealous marshall at a hill start. The particular moment I want to take you to is a break in a road race stage at an unfeasibly beautiful restaurant in the Umbrian countryside. There is languid heat and hurried linguini for lunch (the race cars tend to arrive at food stops earlier than a Mercedes Van full of equipment and tools! Outside are parked the highly-strung petrol-fed stallions. I am beside a Ferrari 275 GTB. A mechanic listens closely, like a surgeon to the tick-over of its V12 engine. That engine has 300 Horse Power before it ever sees a spanner. A low brooding rumble. Hold that thought . . .

 
London a few years earlier, working at Decca as Creative Director. Shaking up classical music packaging a bit. The Partners had laid great ground-work on the design front. In-house art director, Ann Bradbeer, in particular, is embracing our drive for more adventurous commissioning of photography and illustration. I am enjoying bringing in good creatives like David Smart who went on to spend so many successful years there. But I am having to spend much too time throwing open the windows on working practice, scaring the natives and re-organizing my departments; Art, Editorial & Production. Missing more hands-on creative work.

A challenge presents itself and I need to get away from dull desk work. Rossini Arias. I confess I am not big on Opera. Mostly too overblown for my puritan tastes. But one Opera singer moves me. A lot. She is a mezzo-soprano called Cecilia Bartoli.

You need to work around some pretty major egos in book publishing. But you gingerly hotfoot in a whole new field of coals and eggshells with the maestros in Classical Music. Prima donnas and prima uomos get their tags from that world after all. Vladimir Ashkenazy was an exception, as was Cecilia Bartoli. It frustrated me to see such characters under a blanket of convention. Subsumed beneath stiff DJs for the men and the woman decorated like some upholstered baroque confection. But, as with many conventions, stepping into new territory can be a risky business. 

We set up a morning photo-session in the Blackfriars studio of ace photographer Tony McGeeTV-AM turned up as the Press Office had tipped them off about us using a high-flyer fashion photographer. But a quick interview and I shooed them away before the session. That dealt with Tony and I talk. On the wall behind us is a print by Robert Freeman, the shot for the With The Beatles album. I still covert it. We chatted about keeping the session relaxed and seeing if we could ease away from some of the formality of an opera CD. What we didn’t want was to impose any false trendy veneer but extract something from the artist’s look when we met her. 

And our artist arrived. Wow. Having worked with a lot of models and being married to my lovely wife, Sandy Nightingale, it takes quite a bit for a woman’s looks to take breath away. Picture Cecilia in her leather jacket and a white T-Shirt. That’ll do it.

Two minutes discussion and we agreed we must shoot her in her own clothes. Thankfully she agreed. Just a beautiful young singer. Perfect serendipity. More traditional shots as insurance which were used on the CD. Marketing took fright. Maybe, at that time, it would have looked too much of a stunt to use the leather-jacket shot on Arias, but we got the leather shot and it made to the poster. And it got talked about. She was getting all the attention she deserved. 

 So what about the Ferrari? Did she arrive in one? No, a black cab. But I need to describe something very special to you. 

 As we took the costume shots I wanted to ease more vitality into the images and I asked her if you would possibly sing. Just a little for animation. And she did. So softly but the latent power was beyond words. Well beyond my words. The hairs are going up on the back of my neck as I recall it. Such a sense of limitless power, life, passion – everything. So close, just the other side of Tony’s lens. All at such low volume.

 

And the nearest I can get to describing it is my memory of standing next to that Ferrari in Umbria. Purring. Stationary. With the potent certainty that a mere breath on the throttle would unleash unlimited, almost frightening power.