NEW YORK - Cecilia Bartoli, the mezzo who put the color back into coloratura, spends most of her musical life in the past. Lately, she's been spending her present there, too. And loving it.
The Italian singer just arrived back in the States the old-fashioned way - by boat - to prepare for an East Coast tour with a stop at the Kennedy Center for the Washington Performing Arts Society tomorrow night.
"It was a fantastic experience," Bartoli, 36, says, exuding a quiet glamour in a posh hotel steps from Lincoln Center. "It was my first cruise. What an incredible way to travel.
"I used to have terrible jet lag when I came over, but, for the first time, I am here in New York feeling very full of energy. This is the way to travel as a singer. Flying is always so risky, dangerous. And it's boring."
Time was when opera stars had no choice but to sail between the continents. And, once ensconced, they tended to stay for long periods. Not coincidentally, those days of Caruso and Tetrazzini are thought of as the "golden age of singing."
"Traveling by ship is one reason why the great singers had such long careers," Bartoli says. "They took time to rest, to travel, to study."
They also could avoid a problem every bit as trying for today's vocalists as airplanes - air conditioning. That was the culprit, Bartoili says, behind the last-minute cancellation of her Washington Performing Arts Society two years ago.
"I had just been in Boston," Bartoli says, "where someone turned on the air conditioning during the concert. I started getting sick right after that; so did some of the musicians."
On the day of the D.C. event, the mezzo kept hoping she would be in shape but, just before concert time, decided the voice just wasn't up to it.
In a brave gesture, she walked onstage at Constitution Hall to tell the capacity crowd that she couldn't sing and asked for understanding (the very gesture many people thought Luciano Pavarotti should have attempted when he canceled his Metropolitan Opera gala last season). The response was a warm ovation.
"I'm going back to Boston on this tour," Bartoli says, "but after Washington."
Every sensible singer focuses on taking care of the voice. For Bartoli, it's a sacred mission.
"This is such a delicate instrument," she says, pointing to her throat and then casting a wary eye on the hotel ceiling, where cold air is pouring out. "I never put my instrument in danger."
The singer isn't just worried about atmospheric conditions. She pays very close attention to what she sings.
"I am open to the operas of Vivaldi, Gluck, Handel, Monteverdi," Bartoli says. "I say no to the operas of Verdi, Puccini, Mascagni. I try to avoid open-air performances. No stadiums. No pop or jazz, which is simply not part of my field.
"I try to do projects I have a good reason to do, not because a recording company says I should do them or because it is the fashion."
The music world has thrilled to the results of Bartoli's ventures into early operas. Their florid vocal lines are ideally suited to her exceptionally secure technique; their expressive qualities inspire from her an often astonishing depth of communication, breadth of personality and variety of tone.
"Music before Mozart and Verdi is not as easy to sell," Bartoli says. "But it is so important to make the trip back in time, to fly with an audience into another dimension."
The mezzo will offer a sampling of that dimension tomorrow, singing works by Monteverdi, Caccini, Broschi, Handel and Gluck. She will be backed by an original instrument ensemble called Le Musiche Nove.
A wider taste of her craft will be contained on her next recording, a compilation called The Art of Cecilia Bartoli. Due out soon from Decca, the disc offers excerpts from her acclaimed recordings of Handel, Vivaldi, Gluck, Mozart and Rossini operas. Bonus tracks include a couple of previously unreleased Donizetti and Verdi duets with Luciano Pavarotti.
"It is always difficult to do a compilation that has a nice flavor," Bartoli says. "I think of this one as a voyage between the 18th and 19th centuries."
In whatever voyages Bartoli takes - figurative or literal - her attitude remains the same.
"Just believe in the music you perform and in the composers," she says. "That's what is important."
What: Cecilia Bartoli
Where: Kennedy Center Concert Hall, F St. N.W., Washington
When: 8:30 p.m. tomorrow
Tickets: Remaining seats $95 and $105
Call: 202-467-4600, 202-833-9800