Month: April 2019

Thomas Hampson: “We Make The Human Experience Audible”

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Photo: Jimmy Donelan

Midway through our recent conversation, Thomas Hampson paused, trying to find the right word relating to a musical concept.

“You speak German, don’t you?”

He couldn’t see me, but I wanted to crawl under my desk with shame. Here I was speaking to one of the most celebrated living opera singers in history and my wall of Anglo-Canadian linguistic ignorance was as glaringly solid as ever. Hampson, ever the gentleman, patiently (dare I say enthusiastically) explained, expanded, and engaged, as is his custom in both life and in art.

The American-born, Austria-living baritone is currently in Houston, having just opened The Phoenix by composer Tarik O’Regan and librettist John Caird, playing the role of the elder Lorenzo Da Ponte to bass baritone (and real-life son-in-law) Luca Pisaroni’s junior. The project marks the second world premiere Hampson has been part of this season alone, having performed as Hadrian in the Canadian Opera Company’s new work of the same name (by Rufus Wainwright) in October. With four decades of singing under his belt and engagements with every major house (Bayerische Staatsoper, Teatro Alla Scala, the Met, Wiener Staatsoper, Lyric Opera Chicago, Opéra National de Paris, Royal Opera Covent Garden, Salzburg), you’d think he’d be content to rest on his laurels — but as you’ll read, that isn’t who Thomas Hampson is. His voracious artistic curiosity often makes itself known, through keenly dramatic approach to his various roles (and they’ve included all the goodies: Don Giovanni, Scarpia, Eugene Onegin, Werther, Amfortas, Macbeth, Boccanegra, Figaro) as well as through his extensive recital work, albums dedicated to song, and intense teaching time. Dame Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, whom he met during his student days at Merola, once called him “the best singer in Europe.”

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Thomas Hampson and director Peter Hinton in rehearsal for the Canadian Opera Company’s Hadrian, 2018. Photo: Gaetz Photography

It was at a performance at the Metropolitan Opera in 2017 when I fully understood and appreciated the true depth of Hampson’s artistry. Verdi being an absolute mainstay composer in my childhood household, I knew is works inside and out musically, and had heard many different version of many different roles, among them Giorgio Germont in La traviata. Despite the vocal grandeur of many performances, the reading of the role always, without fail, left me cold, whether on vinyl, compact disc, or live; the character seemed little more than a stiff cliche, barking on about honor and family. Hampson’s interpretation of the role in Willy Decker’s production, however, changed all that. Similar to my experience of Pisaroni’s Leporello in Salzburg in 2016, it was a  bold, beautiful opening that made me rethink not only the opera and the composer, but my relationship with each, as with music and art. Hampson’s Germont was, by turns, angry, exhausted, overwhelmed, a deeply moving portrayal of a man in full awareness of his obsessive, possibly ill son, trying to balance his own sense of guilt with a seething fury echoing that of Alfredo (apple, meet tree). Hampson’s portrayal was just as much vocal as it was physical; his watchful, smart modulation and timbre were not meant to be pretty, graceful, smooth — all the things I’d grown up hearing. His Germont was, put simply, beautifully human, and it remains one of my all-time favorite performances on the stage to this day.

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As Germont in La traviata, Metropolitan Opera, 2017. Photo: Marty Sohl

There’s a true and highly committed work ethic behind such performances, and it’s one Hampson has been recognized for often throughout his career. He has a load of honors to his credit: they include a Grammy for his role as Wolfram in a 2003 recording of Wagner’s Tannhäuser (done with Daniel Barenboim); six Grammy nominations; Male Singer of the Year at the 1994 International Classical Music Awards; five Dutch Edison Awards (including one for Lifetime Achievement); four Echo prizes; a Grand Prix du Disque, and many, many more. He has worked with so many great conductors (Leonard Bernstein, Antonio Pappano, Maris Jansons, Andris Nelsons, Christoph Eschenbach, Fabio Luisi, Kurt Masur, Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Franz Welser-Möst) and always has kept firm commitments to both to the art of song as well as to contemporary works; next season he performs the role of Jan Vermeer in Girl With The Pearl Earring (Stefan Wirth, 1975) at Opernhaus Zürich but before that, next month, he sings with the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin and Vladimir Jurowski, in Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, a work Hampson is known (and rightly celebrated) for.

Another famous thing Hampson does is concert tours with Pisaroni, playfully called No Tenors Allowed, which makes a stop at Toronto’s Koerner Hall this Tuesday (30 April). A mix of opera, operetta, and showtunes, the evening is a showcase of the baritone’s flexible vocality, theatrical vividness, and serious approach to his work. Even if he’s singing a Broadway number, it’s easily discernible just how much Hampson means every single word — and that applies just as much in conversation, in teaching, in rehearsal, in life, as it does in voice. Art and life fuse in a beautiful, passionate co-mingling with an artist such as he, and it’s that integration which, for me, powers his charisma, his artistic commitment, and that insatiable curiosity, which, as you will see, is such a palpable cornerstone to who he is, as artist and man.

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Thomas Hampson as Hadrian in the Canadian Opera Company’s world premiere production of Hadrian, 2018. Photo: Michael Cooper

You have an immense artistic curiosity — what fuels that?

I’m just like that! How can I say this? In what I do, I’m a musician; my life and my mind as a musician is, every day, every hour, I’m exploring ways we express ourselves in a language we call music, and when that is coupled, especially in the song world, with the metaphor of our imagination through words, I find that it’s an incredible adventure into why we do what we do, who we are, how different people think of different things. That’s a grandiose answer to your question!

Something was written two years ago, or two hundred years ago, or twenty minutes ago, can, in some ways, not be the determining factor — it simply has been attempted. Of course, we to try and capture how people do what they do in a musical language. The story of Hadrian is fascinating, the story of Da Ponte is fascinating, the story of Scarpia is fascinating, the story of Boccanegra is fascinating, just to name some big characters; why do they do what they do and who are they? Some have a bit more to do with the value of humanity and the value of life, but to know a Scarpia is to understand how desperate and tyrannical humans can be to one another — and how dangerous humans can be. Tosca is just as contemporary today as the day it was written. These are things that fascinate me.

In terms of specifically new music, I feel very strongly that new opera must be supported — that sounds like more of a drudge that I mean it, but we have to give our composers the chance to become great. Verdi’s first three or four operas were not exactly amazing but they showed an amazing potential, and they’re probably all worth some kind of performance. There’s an awful lot of pressure on new opera productions today because people come, sit there and fold their arms and say, “Okay, am I going to experience greatness?” But I think that’s missing the point completely. Are we engaged in human beings? That’s my question and certainly, we were with Hadrian and certainly we are here with The Phoenix.

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Thomas Hampson as Lorenzo Da Ponte in The Phoenix, Houston Grand Opera, 2019. Photo: Lynn Lane

What does that give you then, as an artist?

Everything.

A lot of people in your position would be content to rest on their considerable laurels.

That’s not who I am or who we are as musicians. Bernard Haitink doesn’t keep conducting at 90 because he is trying to stay employed and wants to remember who he is. This what we do in the morning, this is what we live for, it’s our lifeblood, whether we play for three or 3000 is not the point — it’s what gets us motivated, what motivates us in terms of being musicians. It’s not about a gold watch and 30 years service.

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Teaching at the Manhattan School of Music. Photo: Brian Hatton

Does that feed into your teaching work? Chen Reiss said in a recent conversation that teaching gives her a lot as an artist.

Yes, and It gives me a great deal too. I’ve taught a lot in the last 25 years — I’ve learned a lot about it over the years and I’m thankful. When I teach for a couple days, or walk into a masterclass, just having to articulate the fundamentals or rearticulate the whys and wherefores to young colleagues, somehow reinforces your own; it’s like giving yourself a voice lesson. I thank my colleagues for letting me take the time to give myself a voice lesson! Now that I’m more extensively involved in pedagogical activities, and planning them, I see it as a wonderfully healthy way to pass it on. I’ve had some wonderful instruction since the heydey of my career — I was very fortunate; they gave me inroads into how to study and how to prepare that have stood me well.  I’m confident that, at the very least, I can be a help to my younger colleagues in an experiential way, so I can say, for instance, “That’s not a path you want to go down.” In the last five or seven years, in my more concentrated studies, I’m very active in keeping abreast to pedagogical thought and to keeping it simple, and helping young colleagues truly mature into young professionals. It’s a passing-it-on situation, and it gives me a great deal of energy. To be part of someone else’s “a-ha!” moment is very intoxicating.

Keeping that “a-ha!” moment in mind, you’ve worked with some great conductors, and continue to. How much do you still find yourself surprised at learning from them? Everybody has a different style, different personality, different ways of adjusting.

That’s a good question. When I was singing a great deal of Mozart, bouncing between Harnoncourt, Muti and Levine, that was, talk about different styles and personalities! Everyone is on the same mountain, the mountain is the clarity of human emotion in musical language, and the different glaciers you might be on have different challenges. Yes, you do not sing, in a phraseology sense, the same with a Muti as with a Harnoncourt, but those are not absolutes. Both of those men are deeply dedicated, experienced musicians, and great conductors don’t happen by accident — they’re some of the greatest musicians musical minds. The best conductors have a direct and kind of uncanny ability to initiate other peoples’ making of music in a collective way, and that’s an extremely important talent. To learn from these really wonderful musicians is a privilege; having someone like Jansons feel you are the one he needs to make that musical decision or choice of repertoire viable at that particular concert, it’s a great validation. For him to want to do that with you is great — I don’t feel so engaged by him as invited to participate because we can go to this or that level with this or that piece, and that’s very important. Michael Tilson Thomas — I’ve learned so much from him, he’s so damn smart. I don’t have the musical training these people do, or the musical talent; I have a musicality and an instinct that can keep up! Bruno Walter said that about Lotte Lehmann; she was an amazing singer, she moved people enormously and was a great pedagogue, but he wrote the forward to her book, “Lotte’s curiosity has always informed her instinctual knowledge.” I think that’s a wonderful thing.

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Photo: Mark McDonald

That relates to your dedication to lieder and the art of song — it seems like another symbol for your artistic curiosity. Why song, why now?

That’s a wonderful question. I’m not into a particular fach, or niche repertoire. I’m not trying to help keep the song alive because I think it’s a “cool” thing. As humans with have two options to express ourselves: we can either verbally articulate it, or we can write it. Whether that’s in a hieroglyphic or a scratch on a cave wall, or a fine use of the language any one person would call their own language, it doesn’t matter — the point is to get the experience, the emotional and intellectual experience out of your head and leave it like a footprint in the sand, and say, “Okay, this is what I thought.” Poetry has a little bit more focus to that in that someone is deciding in a particular linguistic structure to express thought and emotion at the same time. This is a wonderful source of inspiration for people whose antenna is essentially musical; these two antennae are somehow trying to figure out a way to articulate what Copland said, the moment of being alive now. And the composer fleshes out, in a musical language, more the emotional context of what that poem is about as well as participating in the intellectual side of the narrative, and that’s to think about what this or that chord represents, this or that harmonic structure or harmonic rhythm, whatever the tools of that musical composer are which indicate they’re fleshing out what they perceive that poem was about.

That’s what I feel is the alpha-omega of singing. This is what we do: we make the human experience audible, in a language called music, inspired by words, which is for the purpose of us as a community experiencing that particular moment of humanness, if you will. And I don’t think that’s a hobby, I don’t think that’s a fach, I don’t think that’s genre; I think that’s the beginning and the end of everything we do as singers, period. The idea there’s a concert fach and a lieder fach and an oper fach, “he’s this or that type of baritone” — I just think that’s a very dangerous and un-useful thing to think for singers within their own particular development.

Also, it’s not an idea to give our audiences, that we are jobbing. I think the arts and humanities is far more important than the idea that “Oh, it’s a job.” It is more than that. What we provide in the evening, what a classical concert is about, if you will, is the privilege and pleasure of any human to stop the clock just for a second. It might be three minutes or a forty-minute movement; we stop the clock for the privilege of going inside and asking ourselves, as listeners and performers, who are we? Why are we here? What does this all mean? How can we make a way forwards from this experience ? If that’s not the thrust of the classical music industry, the privilege and pleasure and the inroads of audiences we provide for their own human living development and experience, we’re in a lot of trouble. You can’t market or brand that. It has to be understood as part of the process of us asking, how can we be better human beings?

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Operetta gala in Baden-Baden with Annette Dasch, Piotr Beczala, and Pavel Baleff conducting the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Michael Bode

Stopping the clock doesn’t have to be limited to serious music, either. As Barrie Kosky and I discussed last year, it can happen in operettas, a genre you perform in and make part of your concerts.

It’s like making fun of opera plots — talk about low-hanging fruit! But I don’t think opera is about plot; I think opera is about dilemma. Whether the door was opened or the sun went up or five years passed or whatever, it all gets condensed —the point is that a trio of people might come together to explore who they are. When the composers are gifted and the language of character is so apparent in their music — i.e. Verdi, i.e. Mozart – then I think we all go home happy. If you take that in another way, to the operetta world, yes they’re simpler but why not? The thing about operetta that fascinates me, as well as musical theatre, is that the distance between emotional language and the language of the music so much closer. And the believability factor is instantaneous with an operetta; If they don’t believe every word, you’re dead, forget about it. If you feel for a minute it’s about you and your voice, they’ll walk away. That’s not quite true in opera. It’s an experiential dimension, a wonder of what’s happening as much as why. It’s all healthy, and part of the enriching human experience of the theatre and the power of the musical language.

But we have a completely different sensibility to the language of music than the era from which a lot of these pieces were written; Bellini is not Mozart, Verdi is not Mozart, Puccini is not Verdi. I think these questions are important. As an example, Verdi, as great as he was, was vociferously criticized for the vulgarity of the beginning of Otello when he wrote it. I don’t know any conductor, esp Italian, who don’t feel the mantle of Verdi’s spirit on their shoulders. Yet all of the instruments are different — the strings are steel, the clarinets are plastic — the decibel possible out of an orchestra pit in a house now is something people in Verdi’s time would have never experienced, let alone the sheer size of the houses now. What am I trying to say? I’m saying when we do these performances, we need to be sensitive to the context in which they were performed; a forte piano in Schubert is different than a forte piano in Stravinsky  I don’t care who wants to disagree with me — it’s just different. As musicians. it’s our job to flesh out the reality, to make it audible, so that the experience is contemporary, regardless of when the piece was written.

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As Scarpia in Tosca at Bayerische Staatsoper. Photo: Bayerische Staatsoper / Wilfried Hösl

Part of what makes your performances so visceral is that you are such a believable stage presence. Luca and I spoke about how he prefers being known as a singing actor over being known for just his voice alone.

I know he’s said that before, and he’s right. What I would like is to be remembered as somebody you believed when you saw or heard him in the theatre. “Whether a Winterreise or in an opera or in recital, Hampson always made audible that which he was singing.” Luca’s right — in the theatre context, in an opera context, I certainly want to be thought of as a thoroughly professional singer; I don’t think that’s different than being believable in an acting sense. I think what makes Luca special is that his believability factor is so high. He searches for that dimension of understanding of why the music is saying that, and incorporates making it physical as well as audible.

A lot of my colleagues are extremely preoccupied with being remembered as a special or unique or great voice. I mean, Callas was unique in her generation, unique in several generations, with records that are still selling — people want to listen. Why? It’s not just the amazing agility and color and timbre. It’s the believability factor, giving it up to music — I believe what I do on stage has, this is going to sound incongruous, but it ain’t about Tom Hampson, it’s about what Tom Hampson can do to make that which he’s singing audible, believable, inhabitable, for the people who are experiencing that performance. Now, does that mean it’s not about me? Of course not. It’s my abilities to do that, but my whole effort is about the Schubert moment ,the Mahler moment, the Verdi moment, the Wainwright moment, the O’Regan moment.

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In concert at Ingram Hall at the Blair School of Music. Photo: Vanderbilt University/Steve Green)

Those moments have to be infused with authenticity.

Yes, you have to do your homework. You have to work to do that. it’s a tremendous amount of study and detailed sensitivity. People who talk about the spontaneousness of this or that performer onstage simply don’t understand the dimensions of performing. Of course we want to be thought of as spontaneous, there’s nothing more miraculous than someone saying, “It sounded as if he was composing it as he sang it!” That’s one of the greatest compliments, but that is only possible with the minutest, most detailed sensitivity and homework.

And sometimes it’s nice to experience artists where you can see the gears turning, you can feel them, you can smell them. I love that.

Yes! I must say, I am not preoccupied with what people think about me. I’m preoccupied what what I think about me. It’s one of the things I talk about with my young colleagues: if you go onstage like a golden retriever, wanting people to like you and think you’re the cutest dog ever, you’re going to be a nervous wreck. I am not concerned with what people think about the Winterreise when I sing it; I am concerned that I achieve what I believe Schubert was trying to achieve in that cycle. I cannot convince anybody of anything from the stage. The energy in a concert hall or opera house is not from the stage to the audience, it is from the audience to the stage. And if you embrace that, and you know your technique and you know why you’re standing there and go into your zone as quickly as you can in that public context, as a performer your nerves will be more controllable. If you go out thinking the applause-o-meter is important, or “Oh God, there’s blank faces in the first few rows” … I mean, I don’t know who’s in front of me; I don’t want to know. That’s not why I’m there.

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Photo: Catherine Pisaroni

There’s a real intimacy with singing — you don’t have an instrument; it’s just you, your body, the space, and sometimes conductor or accompanists, and the music. There’s something vulnerable about that.

Yes, for sure.

It’s a real pity when you see singers who’ve lost that vulnerability.

Yes, that’s so true — and their sense of wonder. I do this piece called Letters from Lincoln by Michael Daugherty, and it ends with him signing a letter,”Yours very sincerely, Abraham Lincoln.” I mean… wow. You have to sing it a few times not to get emotional.

The German phrase “stehen für” means “represent” but it doesn’t quite grasp things— it means someone who stands in place of someone else. That’s what I feel like when I sing the great music I’m allowed to sing; I am there at their service. The only megastars are the composers and poets, in my opinion. I know Pavarotti felt the same way. We all come and go. You do the best you can. My responsibility is a final link to the greatness of thought and captured in a language called music.

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Photo: Jiyang Chen

And that includes fun music.

Yes, there’s different constellations. With the concert performances, yes it’s clever, we’re family, “no tenors allowed” — that’s a total tongue-in-cheek joke, it has no validity to our tenor colleagues or anybody else, it’s just a smirk and a hahaha. What is in these programs is Mozart. Bellini, Verdi, Massenet, then we get into Lehar, Kalman, Cole Porter, Gershwin, and our last encore is Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, which is the precursor to Verdi. This is great music, these are great moments — admittedly some are lighter, but audiences will take this roller coaster ride, from a Don Giovanni duet, which is brief but white-heat kind of stuff, to this enormous contemplation of freedom and self-determination with that Don Carlo duet, to ending with “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better”. I defy you to put a brand on that evening. It is interesting, some of the reactions we get, but audiences get it completely, they go with us. Most people respect who we are but some have had to chew on this: what is it? A vanity evening?

“That isn’t real opera!”

Yes, and I think that’s missing the point of a duet evening, this bouquet of great musical moments of human experience. Is it the Winterreise? No. Is it Don Carlo? No.

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Wolfsburg concert. Photo: Andreas Greiner-Nap / Soli Deo Gloria

But it doesn’t have to be.

Exactly! Something in the back of ours minds is, maybe it’s the first time some of our public is introduced to some of this great work. We could’ve programmed nothing but duets — I did a record with Sam, I love duet evenings, I’ll do one with Opolais and another Gheorghiu this year. I think it’s a big evening, it demands everything from Luca and I — it is not a walk in the park. We are out there on the line, but we believe the program is very user-friendly and has a lot of value as well a big enjoyment factor for all of us. I want to believe some of that snobbery is because I’ve not had a chance to talk to the naysayers and offer a different perspective.

Maybe No Tenors Allowed in itself already offers that perspective?

That’s what our hope is!

Luca Pisaroni: “The More You Are Exposed To New Things, The Better It Is.”

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Photo: Catherine Pisaroni

The last time I spoke with Luca Pisaroni, he was in Toronto with his beloved Lenny and Tristan, preparing to sing title role in Maometto II. The 1820 Rossini opera is a musically extravagant showcase of high-wire vocalism, demands which Pisaroni met with both cool panache and white-hot intensity. The Italian bass baritone has a knack for combining the hot and the cool; artistic passion is combined with technical meticulousness provide a genuinely authentic and very visceral live performance experience. What could be merely a cliched “Latin heat” is, with this artist, a genuine intensity of purpose, infused with palpable intelligence and grace. It’s one of the many reasons Pisaroni is so busy, and why he was recipient of a 2019 Opera News Award earlier this year.

Known for his stellar Mozart interpretations, Pisaroni is also ace with German and Italian repertoire, and has embraced the work of French composers in recent years.  The Venezuela-born, Italy-raised bass baritone trained in Milan, Buenos Aires, and New York, and has worked with some of the world’s most celebrated companies, including Teatro Alla Scala, Opéra National de Paris, Bayerische Staatsoper, Wiener Staatsoper, the Salzburg Festival, the Rossini Festival, The Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, and the Sante Fe Opera. He is especially known (and rightly celebrated) for singing the work of Mozart, having appeared in La clemenza di Tito, Die Zauberflöte, Cosi fan tutte, and Don Giovanni. His Leporello in a 2016 Salzburg revival of the latter (directed by Sven-Eric Bechtolf) remains not only my favorite performance of that role, but one of my all-time favorite opera performances all around, authentically human and very theatrically satisfying. I’m not alone in this sentiment. In 2015, Opera News writer Fred Cohn wrote of Pisaroni’s  Glyndebourne Festival performance as Leporello (in 2010) that it was one which “demands that you focus on the character, not the voice. This Leporello is both thoroughly likable — sometimes goofily funny — and morally ambiguous, a willing conspirator in his master’s cruel schemes. He is bound to Gerald Finley’s Don in a relationship that’s almost startlingly intimate but still immutably governed by the power inequity between master and servant. Pisaroni achieves this characterization with an integration of music and movement so complete that you’re hardly aware that he is singing — or acting, for that matter. You’re aware only of the dramatic moment.”

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As Don Pizarro in Fidelio in Milan, 2018. Photo: Teatro Alla Scala/Brescia-Amisano

Pisaroni got the chance to be the Don himself earlier this year, in a Met opera revival. He’s also added roles to his regular repertoire, not Mozart works, but French ones (and one German) — both Berlioz’s and Gounod’s Mephistopheles, the villains of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman, Golaud in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Don Pizarro in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Tonight (26 April) Pisaroni adds a brand-new, never-before-seen role to the list, that of Lorenzo Da Ponte (librettist to Mozart, among other things) in The Phoenix, by composer Tarik O’Regan and librettist John Caird, at Houston Grand Opera. Pisaroni plays the younger version of the Italian-American writer/impresario/scholar, with baritone Thomas Hampson (Pisaroni’s real-life father-in-law) playing the elder Da Ponte. In addition to being partners in the new production, the pair are presenting No Tenors Allowed at Koerner Hall in Toronto on Tuesday (30 April), a program they’ve toured to great success, featuring a mix of classical works and show tunes. Later this year he’ll be touring as part of an in-concert version of Handel’s Agrippina in Luxembourg, Spain, and the UK, returning to Golaud at the Staatsoper Berlin and the villains of Hoffman at Wiener Staatsoper, doing an in-concert version of Don Pizarro in Fidelio (Montréal), and performing lots (lots) more Mozart (Figaro, Guglielmo, Leporello as well as his boss the Don) — in New York, Paris, Munich, and Zürich.

I spoke with both Pisaroni and Hampson separately; my interview with the baritone is here. What was so rewarding, coming away from each recent conversation, was the thoughtful nature of the respondents. Neither Hampson nor Pisaroni are interested in giving pat, tidy, soundbite-sized answers; they’re keen to explore various aspects of an ever-changing art form, the cultural/social/historical ideas that mingle with and transform old and new concepts of voice and theatre, and where, how, and why they fit into it all. It’s true, they are both low-voiced singers, they are family, they work together, their approaches are equally meticulous — but they’re rooted in entirely individual identities. Such uniqueness is what largely powers their real and ever-unfolding onstage chemistry. Each artist is so smart, so passionate, and very much an ambassador for their art form. Here Pisaroni muses on being an Italian singer doing a new work, vocal demands, his next (rather famous) role debut, why No Tenors Allowed is so special, and why it’s important to be more than a pretty voice.

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With Thomas Hampson in The Phoenix, Houston Grand Opera, 2019. Photo: Lynn Lane

What’s it like to be part of a new project?

I would say it’s unusual for an Italian to do this. There is a tradition of people doing contemporary music but it’s like a niche; they just do that, they normally don’t do anything else. When Patrick (Summers) asked me if I was interested in playing Da Ponte, I said, “Hell yeah!” It’s such an interesting character, and he had such a fascinating life that I thought it would be really fun to play, and so here I am. The big difference is that Thomas has done quite a lot of new work and this is my first one — this is my first contemporary opera. I did a couple of modern pieces, like “Miserere” by Pärt (in 2016). It’s exciting to be able to create something that nobody has done, and have the chance to talk to the composer and be part of the process.

How do the vocal demands differ?

I try to sing it in the most natural way for me — it’s well written for the voice, but it’s definitely a challenge because it’s very rangey; it has a lot of high stuff and low stuff, high and lots of jumps, and so in that sense, yes, it’s a challenge. But I have to say it’s really well-written, and it doesn’t push my tessitura to an extent that it’s uncomfortable, so I just had to get used to it. In the beginning, the main issue was to learn the language of the composer, and that’s what takes a little bit of time — one needs to adjust. Eventually when you know it, you get it, and it’s really nice to be part of. Tarik (O’Regan)’s writing is amazing — there are some really unbelievably nice moments. At the first musical rehearsal, when we heard everybody else, the chorus and everything, we all went “WOW… “

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As Lorenzo Da Ponte in The Phoenix, Houston Grand Opera, 2019. Photo: Lynn Lane

What do you think doing The Phoenix gives you as an artist? Do you come back to your more known repertoire with a different perspective?

That’s a good question. I don’t know! I’m  going to do another world premiere in a couple of years, and I have to say, I actually enjoyed doing this; I’m surprised because I thought initially, “Well, I’ll try it once and see how it goes” — but it’s an interesting process, and it’s nice to be part of a creation. It gives you a good feeling. The most amazing thing is the fact the composer is there. I wish that every time I do something I could have the chance to talk to the composer and say, “What did you have in mind here”? But I think I will keep doing (new works), if they are offered it to me. It’s an exciting process.

Thomas said a project like The Phoenix feeds curiosity, a quality he feels is vital for artists. 

That’s true. I always thought, the more you are exposed to new things, the better it is. For me (curiosity) is natural, though probably for some people, it isn’t. I have always tried varied things — songs, French and German repertoire — because I think it’s part of being a musician, to be curious, to try other things and explore the repertoire, to try as many styles and as many different types of repertoire as I can. I think it’s normal for a singer to try out things — and to remember that not everything you do is going to be successful; that’s absolutely normal, and it’s part of the game. Also, you may not like everything you do, but until you do it, you can’t judge. It’s like watching a bad movie and then saying you will not watch movies anymore; you watch ten, and nine are great but one is terrible. Are you never going to watch movies again?! This happens also with repertoire: until you sing it, you don’t know if it’s good, but you have to try. Only then can you say, “Okay it’s a role I won’t do again” but a priori, at the beginning, to say, “It’s not for me”, it’s not the right attitude for somebody who’s a singer / artist / musician who wants to try and evolve all the time.

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Luca Pisaroni as Mephistopheles in Gounod’s Faust, Vienna, 2017. Photo: Michael Pöhn / Wiener Staatsoper

Part of your own artistic evolution has included French opera.

It’s amazing! This repertoire is just mind-blowing!

It takes a special attention and energy to do French music well; the things it often demands are things other repertoire doesn’t.

I agree. First of all you need to care about the language, and work on it. When it comes to Pelléas, it’s really the climax of French writing — it’s more like a play with notes than an opera. Music and words have absolutely the same importance; the combination is perfect. It does take a lot of work, but it’s a repertoire that I’ve found incredibly fascinating, and it’s written for my kind of voice, because it’s not really for a bass, it’s not really for a baritone, it’s right in-between, and I feel very comfortable with it. The tessitura is not constantly so high like it would be for a baritone. I’m happy I get the chance to do it, and I hope I get to do it all the time because I really really enjoy it.

But you’re also going to be doing your first Escamillo this summer, in Barrie Kosky’s production of Carmen at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. It’s an opera  that tends to come with a lot of baggage, musically, historically, culturally, for a lot of people. What’s it like to step into? Some artists refuse to do it because of that baggage.

That’s why I haven’t done it earlier either — it has a lot of baggage, for sure, and there’s a lot of preconceived notions about the piece. I’m looking forward to seeing what I can do with it. The fact I haven’t done a production before, and I’ve never sung the role, will definitely help.

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Thomas Hampson and Luca Pisaroni. Photo: Jiyang Chen

There may be some people who aren’t familiar with all of the music you and Thomas do in No Tenors Allowed — Mozart, bel canto, Verdi, show tunes. Why this kind of concert, now? 

I remember when I was studying at the Conservatory, I bought the CD Thomas had recorded with Sam Ramey, ”No Tenors Allowed”. I think too often the repertoire between two male voices is kind of neglected, or not known as well as repertoire for soprano and tenor, but it’s so dramatically interesting, and it gives you a different perspective on the duet world in opera. To go from Puritani to Don Carlo and Don Pasquale and then to Broadway, I just think it’s interesting. We’re giving people a broad stroke of repertoire — we have fun doing it, and the audience have fun listening. It’s been a great project. Everywhere we go people say it’s fun to see us onstage, there’s such a connection. I’m  happy to come back to Toronto for this. We’re singing one of my favorite duets, which is the Don Carlo duet — one of the best duets ever written. It’s just so powerful and so Verdi — so well-written and, dramatically, so intense. We try to give a dramatic sense to what we do, and to hear the reaction of an audience… it’s really gratifying. I do an Italian song also — after all, I am Italian! — and we do American stuff; I’m a huge fan of Cole Porter and Gershwin. It’s a really lovely evening and it’s very entertaining. There is such a range of emotion. There’s a little bit for everybody to enjoy.

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As Caliban in The Enchanted Island, NYC, 2012. Photo: Metropolitan Opera / Ken Howard.

The drama within some of those duets reminds me of something you said a while back, that you weren’t interested in being known as a pretty-voice singer, but in being a singing actor.

When people come to an opera, they need to experience something that is not a voice lesson. Don’t get me wrong; the basis of being a great singer is that you should have a good voice and great technique. But our job as interpreters is to give somebody a dramatic experience and to tell stories and to make them go places within the opera they didn’t think they could go — and this is not just about singing pretty. I think a great voice without emotional connection is really…  it works if we’re talking about Pavarotti; that voice was amazing, he didn’t have to act much because of that voice. But it’s one voice that exists in every 100 years. If you are not that kind of a voice, you need to tell a story. Even if I had the voice of Pavarotti, it would be the most important thing for me to tell a story, because without it, it’s not what we as performers are called to do. I just want to go onstage and tell somebody else stories; it’s not about me, it’s about the stories I’m telling. When I did The Enchanted Island at the Met, people didn’t even know it was me — I had to tell them. That was the best compliment I could have received.

There’s authenticity in that approach.

It requires, I don’t want to use the word “courage” because it’s not that, but it requires this desire to try, to risk. Sometimes it doesn’t work, because people might not get it, or your reading is not what people expect, but every time I’m onstage, I want to be somebody else, not me. It’s like when you play Don Giovanni, you don’t have to be a Don Giovanni in real life — but when you’re onstage, you have to think like him, act like him, and ask yourself: what would he do? You have to let yourself go and try to be somebody else. When I did Golaud onstage for the first time, a castmate said later, “My God, you looked really scary in that moment!”  — I’d looked at him with such hatred — but it was the character. You have to push boundaries and try to tell the story. This has always been my target, and my desire. My idea of hell would be to do the same characters, the same roles, in the same way, every time. The great thing about this art form is that every night is different. You can have a fixed idea about the character, but you can also say, “Okay, I want to try something else”— that’s what makes this art form incredibly enjoyable, because every night you don’t quite know what’s going to happen.

Szymanowski At The TSO: Shimmering & Sighing

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Christian Tetzlaff performs with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, April 2019. (Photo: Jag Gundu)

There was an air of impatience in the air at Roy Thomson Hall Friday evening, as if concertgoers couldn’t quite settle in when the lights went down. I was reminded of the people who sit at Stonehenge every summer solstice, vibrating with anxiety at the first hints of yellow-orange beams making a path among the stones. Music is perhaps similar to light in some respects, but its path should perhaps not be so predictable. The impatience was owing largely to one thing: the monolithic presence of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (the so-called “Eroica”) in the program’s second half. The Toronto Symphony were on the second of a three-night series of music from the 19th and 20th centuries. Debussy’s symphony poem Prélude à l’aprèsmidi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) opened the program, and was followed by Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No.1 (Op. 35). Both are in no way unusual repertoire choices — but the disquietude was palpable. People wanted their Ludwig, and they were prepared to fidget, sigh loudly, and shift around frequently until they got it. What hooked them (and this was delightful to note) were the twin forces of soloist Christian Tetzlaff’s sheer passion for the concerto, and conductor Hasan’s finely finessed coloration.

Furthermore, what made the evening so interesting on a personal level was that the date of the concert coincided with what would have been my mother’s birthday; I couldn’t help but think, sitting in the hall, that she certainly would have been among the impatient Beethoven majority. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but since deepening both the width and breadth of my own musical scope over the past few years, I find the so-called hits just aren’t enough, and I’m not alone in that sentiment. Recently there was more than a little griping online with the focus of the works of Beethoven in various new season announcements; it feels like not that long ago that I would have been horrified by this reaction, but now, I tend to sit in hearty if hesitant agreement. This isn’t of course to imply Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (or any of his other work) isn’t a great and important piece of art — but when’s the last time you’ve heard Creatures of Prometheus or Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II or King Stephen Overture? (The London Philharmonic is doing the latter two next April and did the first last autumn, natch.) Financial realities largely dictate the programming for orchestras and organizations not involved in a broader, government-connected funding model, and even then, there are numerous stakeholders (investors, CEOs, sponsors) who fully expect to see BIS (Bums In Seats) as part of their ROI. That means programming the hits, with some not-so-knowns at the start for good measure.

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Conductor Kerem Hasan leads the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, April 2019. (Photo: Jag Gundu)

Yet the Debussy piece performed by the TSO last evening (as well as tonight) is not in the slightest bit unknown, though it is firmly modern in content and style. Premiered in 1894 and based on the work of symbolist poet Stephane Mallarmé from 1876, it’s arguably one of the best-known works within French classical music. An evocative musing from a mythical satyr, the work reflects, as noted in the program, “Mallarmé’s hazy, dream-like ideas with effortless tonal magic.” British conductor Kerem Hasan, newly appointed Chief Conductor of the Tiroler Symphonieorchester Innsbruck and a frequent guest of numerous European orchestras (he’s led the Concertgebouw, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, and the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien as part of the Salzburg Festival), makes his Canadian debut with these concerts, filling in for an indisposed Louis Langrée. Hasan underlined the contrasting temperatures and textures within each winding passage: hot-cool; soft-hard; smooth-rough. One could positively see the works of Franz Von Stuck come to life here. Hasan’s opera background (he’s led performances with the Welsh National Opera, the Meininger Staatstheater, and the Tiroler Landestheater) was especially apparent in drawing out sectional relationships, at once lyrical and theatrical. With simple, fluid gestures, the young maestro conjured long, languorous phrases, only to dip, dive, and reshape them anew — round, then triangular; square, then octogonal, then back again, the interplay between strings and woodwinds smiling, serious, sensuous, all at once.

This sensuality transmuted into a considerably more intense and mystical form with Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 1. The piece’s first bars, like fine black eyelashes fluttering to wakefulness, give little indication of the piece’s extraordinary and vigorously passionate progression. Written between 1916 and 1917, the Ukrainian composer once described the work as “a rather lonely song, joyous and free, of a nightingale singing spontaneously in the fragrant Polish May night.”  Written with his friend, the celebrated violinist Pawel Kochanski (also the dedicatee of the piece), Szymanowski sought “a new style, a new mode of expression for the violin, something in this respect completely epoch-making.” Indeed, the work not only heralds a new (and very gripping) sonic experience, even now — it slinks, shimmers, shrieks, and sighs, undulating through its varied five sections (or ‘spans’) innately linked through the violin’s nightingale song.

It would have been easy to sit in astonishment at the virtuosity required of the violinist here — indeed, many patrons around me, previously sighing for Beethoven, were captivated (rightly) by Tetzlaff’s mastery. From my perspective, technique was precisely what led to transcendence; it wasn’t there purely for its own sake. Tetzlaff made this journey clear with a clear economy of elegant expressivity. I’d not seen the violinist since his performance of Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto (Op. 36) with the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin in 2017, and while there are clear lines between the works, Tetzlaff’s attention to granular detail and appreciation of sweeping grandeur allowed for a range of sonorous textures to shine in an ever-changing kaleidoscope of lustrous atmospheres. Von Stuck’s satyrs were now dancing with Klimt’s water nymphs and Redon’s Buddhas in a grand garden of green-blue delight. This was music-making which was, by turns, fluid, jagged, poetic, pointillist, starkly sexy and richly impassioned.

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Franz Von Stucke, “Faun und Nixe” (Satyr and Mermaid), 1918; Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

Tetzlaff’s performance was marked by meticulous attention to detail and a gorgeous variance in colour. Hasan’s quietly authoritative leadership granted the orchestra a responsiveness that opened the door to a seamless sonic partnership which, more than once, conjured the ghosts of Strauss, Schreker, Zemlinsky, Ravel, and indeed, Debussy. The program note also mentions the work of Scriabin in its reference to the “non-Western sounds that colored the impressionistic music” for the latter two composers, naming Scriabin as well, and I couldn’t help but feel by the close that the swirling, sensuous atmosphere of the evening would’ve been better served by featuring one of his works in place of good old Ludwig. I confess I left early, happily swimming in Szymanowski’s electric, glittering lines, not daring to put on any music once in the car and headed home. Sometimes, souls need to swim; Tetzlaff, Hasan, and the TSO offered a good reminder that plunging into the sea by moonlight is a good thing; one need not wait for the sunrise to gain one’s bearings, but to simply trust the currents. One never knows what might one see, let alone who or what might just take us by the hand and lead us into ever-deeper waters.

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