Tag: tenor

Saimir Pirgu: “Don’t Forget That You’re A Human Being”

Photo: Paul Scala

If there’s one quality that can be applied to Saimir Pirgu, it’s bravery, though perhaps “ballsy” is a better word.

Having left his native Albania as an ambitious teenager intent on a singing career, he graduated in singing at the Conservatory Claudio Monteverdi in Bolzano, and was singled out by conductor Claudio Abbado at the tender age of 22 to perform the role of Ferrando in Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Three years earlier, however, he sang for another famous opera figure: Luciano Pavarotti. And what an introduction it was. In the midst of his studies at the conservatory, the great Italian tenor, who was visiting the area in the early 2000s, had requested to hear a few of the school’s students. Pirgu launched into “Uno furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, a well-known work arguably made even more famous by Pavarotti’s famed performances of it. (What’s more, Pavarotti had named Nemorino (Donizetti’s famous dolt of the opera) as his favorite opera role of all time.) In a 2017 interview, Pirgu recalls Pavarotti aking with wonder at the end of his performance, “Who taught you to sing like that? Do you know that you sing very well?” It would mark the beginning of what has become a very busy career.

The tale underlines Pirgu’s no-nonsense personality and ambitious approach. With a full calendar and appearances at such renowned houses as the Wiener Staatsoper, Bayerische Staatsoper, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, Opernhaus Zürich, and Teatro Regio di Parma, Pirgu has also performed in some unique locales, including, this past summer, with the Greek National Opera at the ancient site of Odeon of Herodes Atticus at the Acropolis. Listen to Pirgu singing and you may be forgiven for thinking you’ve turned on something from another era; his flexible, mellifluous sound conjures up ghosts of opera yesteryear, and is beautifully suited to the lyrical Italian and French repertoire he focuses on. That doesn’t mean he’s a fossil, embraces intransigent historicism, or only appears in old-style productions; quite the opposite. Pirgu has appeared in some very modern productions (as you will see) and has some strong thoughts about the role of the director and singer relationship. There’s no denying his 2015 album, Il Mio Canto (Opus Arte), recorded with powerhouse conductor Speranza Scappucci and the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, is a wonderfully vivid display of the sort of old-school vocal fireworks and deep lyricism at which he excels; comparisons have, therefore, predictably been made between he and historic tenors like Giuseppe Di Stefano, but, as you’ll read, he takes it all in stride, preferring to focus on the task at hand.

Saimir Pirgu opera tenor performance stage music Naples Puccini

As Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Teatro di San Carlo (Naples), 2019. Photo: Luciano Romano

Earlier this year he appeared at Royal Opera House Covent Garden as Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, a role he previously performed at Teatro di San Carlo (Naples) and Staatsoper Hamburg. Over the years, he’s tackled a number of chewy Verdi tenor roles as well, including Macduff in Macbeth (at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona in 2016), Gabriel Adorno in Simon Boccanegra (Naples, 2017), and Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera (Parma, 2019). This is particularly intriguing, since Pirgu’s career has been so firmly centered around what might be considered the “grounding” roles for tenor repertoire: Puccini’s Pinkerton (from Madame Butterfly), The Duke of Mantua (Rigoletto), Verdi’s Alfredo Germont (from La traviata) and Donizetti’s Nemorino (from L’elisir d’amore). I’m keen to see (and hear) him tackle meatier sonic things; I want to hear his Riccardo, Macduff, Adorno live, as well as his Don Alvaro in La forza del destino, because I think Pirgu’s vocally come to a place where he not only can do it, but he should. With a dashing, old-school stage presence and remarkable vocal heft and flexibility, Pirgu is a tenor to watch, follow, carefully listen to. 

Despite his bold, ballsy approach, Pirgu has been careful in choosing his roles. His move into French opera has been watchful, with past appearances in Cyrano de Bergerac, Roméo et Juliette and Werther; he closes out 2019 with a role debut as Gounod’s Faust with Opera Australia, a role he’ll be performing again in Zürich in May. His next performance is in La bohème at L.A. Opera on Saturday (September 14th) – he sings the main role of Rodolfo in the Komische Oper Berlin production – before singing Don José in Carmen at Deutsche Oper Berlin. Next year he’ll be tackling his very first Lensky in Teatro dell’Opera di Roma production of Eugene Onegin under the baton of James Conlon, with whom he has worked many times, and with whom he is currently working in Los Angeles. All of this bodes well for a tenor whose voice is exploring intriguing and beautiful possibilities.

We recently spoke about the challenges and joys of new and old productions, his thoughts on the pressures singers face within the digital realm, and why having the right conductor makes all the difference.

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In Idomeneo (Styriarte Festival Graz 2008)

You’ve worked with a variety of directors, some of whom take modern approaches, others the so-called “traditional” approach. Does either approach affect you creatively? I saw the Damiano Michieletto production of Rigoletto in Amsterdam and thought it really captured what that opera is all about.

It was very intelligent, that production. I agree that people say, “Oh but it’s not the real story!” or “It’s not the way it usually is!” but… a new director who wants to say something, what he can do? He just has to experiment like this in an intelligent way, to suggest that the opera is not just one thing – it can be another idea, it can be another thought of what the story can be. I don’t like to say that I like old-fashioned or Regie or whatever, for me it’s just a case of asking, is it intelligent or not? Is it beautiful or not? And the answers depend on if the director is prepared to show something to the public. I’ve worked with both styles. When I did Don Giovanni with Zeffirelli in Verona it was this massive wonderful production with original costumes it was amazing; the colors of that production and the costumes, it put you in this old-world epoque.

But this Rigoletto from Michieletto… and the one I did in Zurich with Tatjana Gürbaca: she just had a table and we went up and down and around it. There was just one big table in the middle. It was difficult to do. It showed me the directors have ideas. You can transmit it to the singer and we can do our best to give the best to the public, but if the idea doesn’t come through, then it doesn’t matter if it’s old-fashioned or if it’s a new production – it’s always the same: it doesn’t have success. People today are not stupid; they see television, musicals, online. And in the opera world, if the production involves everybody in the overall idea, of course they have a wonderful experience. And that’s the case with Barrie Kosky’s production of La bohème – it’s between people, it’s not just showing costumes or stage design. 

It underlines the human drama.

Yes. 

You mentioned the competition with other media, and I wonder about digital influence. Some singers have told me the livestreams and HD broadcasts add another layer of pressure; one singer said he felt he was competing with Hollywood.

Today it’s important to look good. It’s our society. It’s not anymore about us, it’s about looking good, dressing well, so people … it’s a bit superficial – may I say that it is, yes. Sometimes a cover of a magazine is more important than a live performance, so you’re spending hours and hours and months in rehearsal, but with the cover on a magazine it doesn’t matter, it’s more important to have that image, than the real world. In the opera world, that doesn’t always work because we have direct feedback from the public; if you sing well, they applaud and if not, they don’t. So we have to be careful. The image has become very important and it’s why a lot of opera stars publishing pictures of what they drink and eat and how they dress, because they know the public now has changed, and is more like, “Okay, let’s see what the soprano is wearing at the party.” I’m sorry, for me it’s a bit superficial, but I know it is also the reality today. 

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In Werther, New National Theatre, Tokyo, 2019.

You mentioned audiences applauding or not, but they vary greatly, being wildly different between North America, Germany, Australia and Greece, for instance. Every audience you perform for will be different based on cultural awareness, exposure, expectations. What’s that like to deal with as an artist?

It’s not easy. In Italy and Spain they want to hear the voice first. If you’re a good actor, okay, it’s a plus, if you have stage presence, that’s okay too, but they want to hear voices, they want to hear: can you sing or not? And other parts of the world they’re more focused on acting and performance – it isn’t solely about singing. So it’s difficult to know what the public wants. I’m more concerned to sing in Italy, for example, because I know they will judge how I sing. Of course if you act very well it’s a plus in your interpretation but for them it’s important how you sing, the sound of your legato. I’m not saying for London or Amsterdam it’s not important, but they want to see a show; they see the whole performance differently. They go to the theatre to see the opera; they don’t go to see Pavarotti or Callas only. Whereas Italians will go for a specific singer. They want to enjoy that. So it’s different. The culture in Japan and other countries in Asia, they’re very nice and very silent, and really listening. You don’t understand if they like it at all until the very end when they do huge applause; they don’t want to disturb your performance.

Musician friends of mine who’s toured there have noted that the quality of listening from audiences in Japan and Korea is incredibly high; that can be both great and nerve-racking.

Yes, it is. And the lines after the concerts are huge! You may have sung a three-hour opera but people are willing to wait an hour or two for an autograph or at a CD signing. It’s a different culture. You have to be prepared. 

That preparedness has shown itself in your careful choice of repertoire over the past while. What has it been like to explore, and where do you want to go with French and Italian work?

I’m enjoying my lyric repertoire right now, i have the feeling the voice is stable in that repertoire and every time I do it I’m getting better and better. It gets good feedback too. I’d like to do both French and Italian repertoire for as long as possible – first, because i like it, and second, because it’s the healthy thing to do. You keep going when you have wonderful results. So why not? I will not move to other big repertoire – I’ve always been careful about moving around with rep – but I’ll keep doing it too. It’s the only way I know, and it’s what gives me success, so why change?

Within that repertoire, your version of “È la solita storia del pastore” at Wigmore Hall was really special. Would you do more? 

I think I will be doing more this year. It depends how you book yourself and if you have a new program and … it depends. It’s time now to do a series of concerts, I am thinking that, it’s just a question of timing. It takes all of time and it’s a lot of stress for a singer to do a recital series around the world. You sing a lot of arias and you get tired very easily.

But I would imagine there’s something satisfying about it artistically that is different than being in an opera.

Yes, it’s a different mentality of singing. You need to have stamina to last through all these arias! You sing more than ten or twelve of them, not including encores. You have to be prepared, and you need a lot of stamina. It depends on the repertoire of course – between lieder and arias, it’s a different scale entirely.

And sometimes that scale involves comparisons. There have been comparisons between your voice and Di Stefano, for instance.

It’s very human – when (Tito) Schipa was singing people would say, “Oh, Del Monaco is better, or Corelli.” It’s human to compare. But the thing is, if you are god in our business, there’s a reason you’re working. Nobody gives you anything for nothing in this business, especially the public.

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With conductor James Conlon.

Chemistry powers so much in the industry too. What kind of a difference does it make to have that quality with a conductor? 

I’ve worked a Abbado, Muti, Harnoncourt, all of whom are completely different, but because I was a violinist before, it made it much easier to understand what they wanted. The conductors can treat the singers sometimes like an orchestra, not all the way, and not all of them have the knowledge of the singing, they read the score and say, “Okay, you have to sing what’s in the score,” and then you have some conductors who aren’t listening to the singers, and a lot of conductors who do listen to the singers, down to the last second. So it depends who you have in front of you, and it depends of course on how good those conductors are, but all the legendary conductors have to spend a lot of time studying singing, piano, violin, orchestration — they’re full with knowledge, so it’s odd if they come to singers unprepared. I’ve been blessed to work with so many great ones, and I’ve learned a lot about music. The most important thing is to be patient, and to listen, not to say something, because always you will learn something with them. Being an artist means there’s a lot of energy inside us, and you have to deal with that, it’s part of your business, but don’t forget that you’re a human being; that helps a lot in terms of other relationships in the theatre.

Drama In Dresden With Verdi’s “La forza del destino”

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Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Dresden, with its fascinating history and ornate Old Town, has always been a city I’ve long wanted to visit. Two recent events, scheduled within a mere sixteen hours of one another, gave me the opportunity for a brief if fruitful and very music-filled visit. The first, of course, was opera.

It was something of a treat to be present for the official start of the Semperoper Dresden season, which kicked off with a revival production of Verdi’s La forza del destino (The Power Of Fate). Conductor Mark Wigglesworth led a bold, cinematic reading of the score, underlining its epic nature with bold brass sounds and exuberantly lush strings. Suitably subtitled “A Melodrama In Four Acts,” I half-expected Errol Flynn to pop out of designer Julia Müer’s angular scenery — not entirely an exaggeration, considering the episodic and highly sentimental nature of the work.

semperoper interior

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Verdi’s librettist Francesco Maria Piave used two sources as basis for the opera: an 1835 Spanish drama, Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino (Don Alvaro, or The Force of Fate) by Spanish dramatist and politician Ángel de Saavedra; and a scene from Schiller’s Wallensteins Lager (Wallenstein’s Camp), the first part of the German poet/philosopher’s famous literary trilogy. Forza premiered at the Bolshoi in Saint Petersburg in 1862 before undergoing extensive revisions (including additions to the libretto by Italian writer Antonio Ghislanzoni) and being presented in 1869 at Teatro Alla Scala Milan. Its overture is one of the most performed and popular of orchestral works, and with good reason; it accurately reflects the unfolding drama with memorable melodic lines and some very grand orchestration. 

The story, with its themes of vengeance and redemption, seem made for a 1930s Hollywood caper, one of its two central male roles, Don Alvaro, a swashbuckling bad boy who murders the father of his beloved before going on the run for decades, and winding up in a monastery, where he later kills the brother (Don Carlo) of his beloved. So much for penance! But as director Keith Warner rightly notes in the program, the narrative also very much is a study in contrasts, chiefly that between haves and have-nots; this divide underlines a broader social “kaleidoscope,” as he terms it, that went on to be explored and examined in all forms of art, including the literary works of Dickens and Balzac. Warner made his debut at the Glyndebourne Festival this past summer, with the equally intense Vanessa by Samuel Barber. “We are spectators in a big arena of life, in which all events influence each other,” Warner says in the notes for Forza. Such connectivity that drives so much great art, and I think, sustains it over decades, even centuries.

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The curtain call for “La forza del destino” at Semperoper Dresden August 31, 2018. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Certainly a well-known facet of Forza for some time now has been its superstitious connections; it could well be considered the Macbeth of the opera world. Baritone Leonard Warren famously, tragically collapsed and died during a 1960 performance, having just sung an aria which begins, “Morir, tremenda cosa (“to die, a momentous thing”) no less; tenor Franco Corelli, well aware of the work’s unlucky reputation, was meticulous in exercising various rituals during performances; superstar tenor Pavarotti never performed it at all. Despite its spooky history, the opera was one of my mother’s favorites, with a 1969 recording (featuring Leontyne Price, Richard Tucker, and Robert Merrill, conducted by Thomas Schippers) being given regular plays on her grand old cabinet-style stereo system.

I kept thinking of what she might’ve thought at Friday evening’s performance in Dresden. I am confident in stating she would have been absolutely delighted that the first full opera I happened to experience here, in my period of temporary relocation in Europe, is one by her very favorite composer. Considering Verdi’s work was the first opera I heard and knew as a child, it felt like the force of fate indeed. I’m also confident that, like me, she would have been thrilled by the singing, which was, in a word, stellar, and were amply aided by the wonderful acoustics of the gorgeous Semperoper Dresden house. As the vengeful Don Carlo, Russian baritone Alexey Markov was a sparky, dynamic presence, his vocal flexibility and great stage presence expanding the character’s range beyond one-dimensional-angry cliches; I would love to hear his (oft-performed) Eugene Onegin at some point. Russian soprano Elena Stikhina presented her Leonora as so much more than a simpering victim, but a multi-faceted, deeply feeling woman whose hungry search for her own unique identity leads to leads to some dark, desolate (literally) places. Stikhina’s vocal richness was balanced by a resplendent tone; she channelled steely, soft, sensuous, and strong with ease, confidence, and charm, and deserved every “bravo!” directed at her at the curtain call.

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Tenor Marcelo Puente at the curtain call for “La forza del destino” in Dresden on August 31, 2018. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Tenor Marcelo Puente, who I interviewed when he appeared in Toronto last spring as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca, has the right mix of macho physicality and leading-man-charm for Alvaro — and that voice! With a thickly virile sound, Puente’s bright top notes are nicely balanced by a very impressive oaken bottom. Many of Alvaro’s musical lines require thrilling flexibility and smart modulation, and Puente was more than up to the task in each. Since hearing him in Toronto, his voice has taken on a greater variety of tonal color; it’s become broader, more sensuous, lush. The Argentinian demonstrated ample drama in both runs as well as sustained tones. It was a performance that made me hungry to hear more of his Verdi repertoire. Fingers crossed.

So La forza del destino was the perfect start to my opera season; it was also an ideal introduction to the Semperoper Dresden, though it was not the only time I experienced the gorgeous house during my whirlwind visit — Shostakovich, Gautier Capuçon, and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra awaited the very next morning.

Christoph Pregardien: “You have to be authentic”

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Photo: Hans Morren

Lieder, or art song, is one of those cultural things that took me a while to appreciate.

Only fleetingly exposed to the art form as a child by my opera-loving mother (whose tastes leaned very heavily Italian), I felt, for a long time, that lieder was simply too dense, too serious, and frankly, too… smart for me. I may have made it something of a mission the last few years to fight against long-held (and frequently incorrect) perceptions around the approachability of classical music, but I freely admit to having held some of them myself. For me, lieder was daunting. Then I went to Berlin (a lot), and heard it live (a lot, and very beautifully), and my love affair with lieder began in earnest: not dense but rich, not serious but thoughtful, and yes, unrelentingly brainy and intellectual, but equally soulful and very romantic. Lieder is, like many of the things I’ve come to cherish, a beautiful marriage of head and heart, intelligence and intuition, the divine and the earthy. Much as humans love to place things in tidy mental boxes, there are some things — sometimes the most meaningful things — which, by their nature, live in and between and around several boxes at any given moment; I’m beginning to think this is the way life, love, and culture (and some odd combination of them) should, in fact, be most of the time. The trick is making peace with it all.

Good lieder performances make that job easy.  For those new to the art form and curious, I’d recommend listening to recordings by the late, great lyric baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, as well as by another German singer, one very much alive and busy, tenor Christoph Pregardien. He’ll be performing a concert of Mahler and Schubert works in Toronto tonight, with renowned pianist Julius Drake, as part of the annual Toronto Summer Music Festival. With a career spanning over four decades and several hundred recordings and live performances, Pregardien is one of those rare artists who brings a very innate yet approachable creativity to whatever medium he’s a part of. His performance as the title character in a 2005 production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito at Opéra National de Paris had an immediacy which brought the rich inner life of the beset Emperor to life, imbuing Mozart’s rich score with both gravitas and grace. Likewise, Pregardien’s  recording of Schubert’s famous “Erlkönig” ferociously captures the total terror so inherent to the piece, as well as an enticing, manic lyricism within (and between) each note and breath. Pregardien understands drama in both broad and personal senses, and he is singularly gripping in his combination of the two.

We recently shared a wide-ranging conversation exploring the whys and wherefores of recital as art form, the challenges (or not) of bringing it to younger audiences, and why performing “naked” is so important for singers.

You’re doing an interesting recital with works by Mahler and Schubert. Do you see connections between the two?

Both of them are, for me, the most important lieder composers, and they have similarities — that’s why I put this program together If I listen to Mahler’s songs, and to Schubert’s songs, I have the immediate feeling that they grab the text and transform it into music which, for me, has a very intense and direct emotional height. And while with other music I’m using my brain to understand it, it’s not necessary for me to understand Mahler and Schubert songs the same way.

It’s an understanding of the heart…

I think, yes.

Recitals are such a big part of your career, and I’m curious what contrasts you note between European and North American audiences in doing them.

Many people who left Germany in 1930s and 1940s supported a lot of the German repertoire, especially lieder, and now of course because it’s been a long time since the Second World War was over, they’re dying. We have a great tradition of art song in Europe, especially the German-speaking part, and the same exists in England and in France and the Netherlands, so I have a good feeling about the future of recitals. I think that the reason why the English-speaking part of North America has difficulty with recitals… yes, in our time people are not used to concentrating for long periods of time, but on the other hand, I see many younger people attending recitals, and they are normally very enthusiastic about it afterwards. The problem is giving them the possibilities for the first step. There is also a huge number of young singers coming up who present song in a different context.

How so?

For example, by talking to the audience, by discussing themes with them, by preparing them for the music. Also, I think many people fear the atmosphere of the recital hall, with two men or a woman and a man in tails. Also I think programming has changed. And, so as far as I can see since I am onstage — which is now about 40 years! — everybody has complained about “white heads” in the audience, but it has been like this all the time. It’s  question of generations, because younger people, when they are between the ages of 20 and 40, they are living their lives, bringing up families. Later, when they are a little bit older and with grey hair, they get more time to walk to concerts and to visit recitals. I can see that myself; I have three adult children, one of my sons (Julian) is a singer too. My elder son is now 36 and he was not very interested in classical music, but during the last five or six years he started to go more into classical concerts — not only recitals, but also opera and orchestral concerts. I think of course you have to teach young people that next to pop music and rock music there is classical music, and you need more attention and more wisdom to receive classical music, because it’s more complex.

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Photo: Jean-Baptiste Millot

But the attainment of that wisdom need not be intimidating.

Why should wisdom be intimidating? Young people are learning so much at school, many things which, from my point of view, are not that important — they’re not taught enough about how to handle money for example, or taught how to cook, and they’re not taught about music and cultural life.

Artist Olafur Eliasson said in a recent interview that culture was just being used for promotion now, which I found interesting to consider within context of recital work, because it’s not an art form you can necessarily reduce that way — it turns against such reduction by its very nature. Recitals are a form you have to spend time with, and which force you to spend time with yourself.

Yes, it involves everything which goes deeper into the real things of life, which are not always nice; life is not only joy, life is also struggle, and death. I think what draws people is that they can experience all these normal, natural emotions — longing, desire, love, hate, all these very important emotions — in a recital. In our time it’s so difficult to experience that in normal life.

Is that why recitals matter?

It’s one of the reasons, yes. We have a cultural heritage we have to give to our children as well, and I think as we have museums for paintings and for sculptures and architecture, we have, as human beings, a longing for tradition and for giving good things to their children, and I think classical music, which started in medieval times and goes to the 21st century, it’s a huge and important heritage. What is also important is that it is a social event to make music yourself, not only listening to music but making music yourself; the voice is the most natural and first instrument of all.

I noted that in attending an interactive performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion live in Berlin this past winter. It was extremely moving, this act of singing communally, yet it was totally normal, not an Instagram moment at all, but simply something people were doing together as part of everyday life.

It’s dying out in Germany too, the choral tradition, because young people don’t have time anymore, they have many hobby horses, a big schedule. I have two smaller children, 8 and 10, and they started to play an instrument, and of course as parents you have to be behind them and say, “You have to take your twenty minutes or half-an-hour to practise your instrument” and they do it — but you have to convince and remind them.

Sometimes there are singers who need to be convinced to do recitals as well. Why do you think that is?

You don’t have a costume or theatre or an orchestra, you’re nearly naked onstage! For me it was a very natural thing to do, and I have a huge experience with it now, but I can understand singers who are used to having an orchestra in their back or in their front. If you’re doing an opera, from time to time you can go offstage, eat something, drink something, rest a little bit; during a recital you are onstage for one hour or hour and a half and you have to show everything you are able to do. You are exposed. But I love the feeling to be very close to my audience. I love the feeling that I can draw them into certain moods, that there’s a certain sensitivity to the personality on stage.

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Photo: Marco Borggreve

A singer has to be real for that moment.

Yes. That’s the most important thing for a singer, be it an opera or oratorio or concert singer: you have to be authentic. The moment when you deliver your voice to an audience, it must make sense, and it must have meaning. We are the only musicians with text, and you have to communicate and give your soul, or parts of your soul, to your audience, in order to grab them. We have the ability, with this beautiful instrument, to draw their attention in a unique way.

Joseph Calleja On Verdi, Cilea, And How Voices Are Like Wine

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Mariengela Sicilia and Joseph Calleja in “L’Arlesiana” at Deutsche Oper Berlin, February 2018. (Photo: Bettina Stöß.)

The first time I heard the voice of Joseph Calleja isn’t, alas, entirely clear; my mother, being a great lover of fast-vibrato tenor voices, had any number of beautiful sounds playing throughout the house at any given moment. However, I remember seeing a stunning production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the Metropolitan Opera in 2011, and both of us being bowled over. Surely we’ve heard this man’s voice before? Surely we need to hear more of it. Surely.

Shortly thereafter we got hold of The Maltese Tenor (Decca), a stellar album showcasing Calleja’s powerfully gorgeous, silvery-hued voice, and suddenly, my mother had a living tenor to swoon over. Calleja, who was inspired to start singing after watching The Great Caruso (with Mario Lanza) as a kid, has what one might called a “throwback” voice, as NPR’s Tom Huizenga has observed.

The ability to control dynamic levels and expressively shade notes and phrases were once techniques in nearly every singer’s toolbox. But we don’t hear as much subtlety these days, and that makes Calleja an especially refreshing throwback to pre-World War II singers such as the suave Tito Schipa and the magical Alessandro Bonci. It’s a reason Calleja is in such demand from all of the world’s top opera houses.

 

As befits those experiences, Calleja has sung a number of famous opera roles in works by Donizetti, Gounod, Offenbach, and many from Puccini (including Madama Butterfly‘s Pinkerton, La bohème‘s Rodolfo, and Tosca‘s Mario Cavardossi). He’s also sung his fair share of Verdi works (including the famous Duke of Mantua from Rigoletto), but he gets more into the meaty side of Verdi repertoire on his latest album, simply titled Verdi (Decca), released earlier this year. As well as recordings, he keeps a hectic live schedule. After leapfrogging across the Atlantic late last year for performances at the Met in New York (in Bellini’s Norma) and Bayerische Staatsoper Munich (in Puccini’s Tosca), he opened 2018 at the Royal Opera Covent Garden London (again in Tosca) and has gigs coming up in both Monte Carlo and Munich, as well as numerous concert and recital appearances, as well as performances at the Met for their 2018-2019 season.

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“L’Arlesiana” at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, February 2018. (Photo: Bettina Stöß)

We recently spoke in Berlin, between a pair of concert performances of the rarely-performed opera L’Arlesiana, an 1897 opera by Francesco Cilea, in which he sang the role of the lovelorn Federico. As well as being a debut for the presenting Deutche Oper Berlin, it was also a role debut for Calleja, who soared in his robust approach to the fiendishly challenging score, his reading of the famed ariaÈ la solita storia del pastore” (also known as “Lamento di Federico”) a mix of disgust, sadness, and deeply felt passion; the unique sweet qualities of Calleja’s voice were used to marvellously dramatic effect, and he demonstrated the utmost control through the soaring vocal passages, pushing, pulling back, coloring and intuitively shading every note with deeply felt emotion. This was singing of the very highest order. In this, Calleja was joined by a truly stellar cast which included famed mezzo Dolora Zajick, soprano Mariengela Sicilia, bass baritones Seth Carico and Byung Gil Kim, and baritone Markus Brück (look for an interview with the German singer here soon!). Maestro Paolo Arrivabeni confidently led the Deutsche Oper Orchestra through a thrilling reading of the musically dense, dramatically intense score.

As you’ll read, Calleja is a man with opinions, on music, comparisons to other singers, and the cost of success. He knows his talent, he knows his voice — and he knows his wine. A throwback to another time, or maybe a singer for the 21st century, Calleja is a special figure who lives firmly within the world of culture.

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Joseph Calleja’s latest album. (Decca)

Why do a Verdi album?

There was a discussion between myself, my label and my manager. I signed and recorded when I was like 21 years old, and did a lot of repertoire with all the consequences of that; on The Maltese Tenor album, I did roles from Ballo (Un ballo in maschera / The Masked Ball) and Foscari (I due FoscariThe Two Foscari), so then we looked at the repertoire, and the question of Otello came, and “shall we do it?” They weren’t worried, I was worried! Like, “will the public think I have delusions of grandeur?!” It’s a nice calling card, to see where the voice is today and to revisit this repertoire when I sing it onstage, the Otello especially – that’s in a decade or so. It is a very long-term project.

Yes, a lot of singers will say, “I want to sing this or that, but not right now, I’m not ready, vocally or otherwise.”

Only because with the voice, you have one, and once you have vocal damage, you can’t come back — if you’re lucky and have proper medical care, okay, but I never have, touch wood, In twenty years of singing — I started when I was 19 years old — I never had any serious vocal trauma or operations. I want to keep it that way. I have avoided it by not singing too much, not singing when sick and by not pushing the voice into the wrong repertoire. So I try as much as possible to keep my instrument intact. Of course I have ups and downs, some performances are better or worse than others. The Chinese vase can get a bit dirty but if it’s cracked, it’s a problem!

How did you choose the selections on the album?

We went to pieces I’d never done before and ones I’ll be doing in ten years. I will do Trovatore (Il TrovatoreThe Troubador) in five or six years and then move on to Otello, in my early 50s, if the voice does the evolution, and all pointers are that it will. It’s like a great French wine, a St. Emilion for example; certain vintages have the potential to age for twenty-five, thirty-five, even forty-five years, which is exactly similar to the lifespan of a human voice, a classical voice. You can tell with accuracy how the wine will evolve, and how it will end up tasting eventually — it is not 100% but you can do a forecast, and with voice it’s the same. So my forecast is it will make that evolution, but I’ll be singing that repertoire only if the evolution happens and I’m lucky with health and all life throws at you.

So the album is a sort of preview?

Exactly, yes. Some roles I will sing for sure — Verdi said in letters the tenor for Trovatore, Rigoletto, and traviata (La traviata) are the same one, the same type of voice, that’s Verdi himself saying it, so that’s for sure. Aida I think as well.

My mother and I saw you in Lucia di Lammermoor at the Met years ago, and she kept saying, “I want to see Joseph in Aida.” She was no great intellectual musically, and people say that about me also, but…

You don’t have to be. Not at all.

… I know what I like, and some of that is French repertoire for sure. Is that something you’ll move more into? You’ve done some French opera already.

I speak French, quite fluently, and I love the repertoire, and yes, I have things like Faust coming up, Manon coming up, Werther in the future… in the long-term future, there are roles I’d love to sing, the voice is nicely in the French repertoire as well. Sometimes I pronounce vowels in Italian, I don’t know why, it’s the vocal placement — I do them perfectly when I speak, but when I sing, sometimes I open certain vowels that should be closed.

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Joseph Calleja in “L’Arlesiana” at Deutsche Oper Berlin, February 2018. (Photo: Bettina Stöß)

And now you’re doing Cilea as well. What was attraction to L’Arlesiana?

I like sometimes obscure repertoire, I like discovering these gems. I’m not sure how many in the audience here in Berlin knew it save for the recordings, and there aren’t many of those either; on iTunes can only find one, so it’s a nice opportunity to discover it. It’s very fiendishly difficult music! Heavy on the voice, but it’s nice, it’s a gem. Everyone knows the aria of the tenor, but it’s also my 38th role onstage — I’m missing two, one for each year of my life!

You’re young, though. And still there have been many comparisons between you and Pavarotti; how do you feel about those?

They’re flattering for like, three seconds, but I don’t pay heed anymore, because every new singer is “the new Pavarotti” or the new whatever. I take it with a pinch of salt. I would be a liar if I didn’t say it isn’t flattering, it is, of course it is, it’s like telling a young male actor, “You’re like Brad Pitt” — it’s always nice to have comparisons, but it’s taken with a big pinch of salt, and knowing that the more you rise, the more your reputation is held in high regard, the more you have to work to live up to it every single performance, and sometimes you can’t in full because we’re only human, and you can’t be top-quality all the time. In the past it was easier, (singers) didn’t have to deal with Youtube, phones, recorders… 

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Markus Bruck, Seth Carico, Joseph Calleja, and Dolora Zajick in “L’Arlesiana” at Deutsche Oper Berlin, February 2018. (Photo: Bettina Stöß)

Other singers have brought up that there’s a new level of scrutiny now.

Everybody can record a performance now. I made it a point with my manager not to accept too much work so we do our best to honor every single contract. It is a gift. Some of my colleagues are negative — “oh so many months away from family, all alone!” — yes, but this is what we work for. It’s like an actor, or anyone at a high level: it comes with a lot of privileges but you have to take the bad baggage with the good.

But being a traveling singer with a family has to be a lot easier than it used to be, what with Facetime, Facebook, G-chat, texting…

Exactly my point. It makes it so much easier. This is a privilege, to be able to do this job-slash-vocation, but it is not for everyone. Some people do find… I have to admit, maybe I’m spoiled, the one thing I miss is not going home kiss my kids goodnight, to see their homework, to sleep in my bed and cuddle my dogs. But then again, the diplomat abroad misses that, the soldier misses that — the journalist, the agent, the manager, financial people… success, and the good life, there is always a price to pay.

Frédéric Antoun: From Verdi To Adès, And Beyond

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A scene from Act III of Adès’ “The Exterminating Angel.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

(A quick note: I posted my thoughts about the Met Opera in a separate post.)

Composers like Philip Glass, John Adams, Nico Muhly, Brett Dean, and Thomas Adès, to name a few, have been instrumental in blowing the doors open on preconceived notions of opera.

The work of British composer Adès has been particularly in the news the last little while, what with his opera adaptation of Luis Buñuel’s surreal 1962 film The Exterminating Angel recently making waves at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The film, which revolves around a post-opera dinner party during which guests find themselves unable to leave, has accurately been described as a “a surreal, black comedic-horror film.” Film critic Roger Ebert called it a “macabre comedy.” The heavily symbolic work notable for several reasons, among them, as Vulture’s Justin Davidson writes, it “resurrected the surrealism of the 1920s and anticipated the psychedelia of the ’60s.” Having seen it in film school years ago, I remember it being, by turns, hilarious, bizarre, and very unsettling.

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A scene from the 1962 film “The Exterminating Angel” by Luis Buñuel. (Photo via)

The opera translation is no less effective. Having premiered at the Salzburg Festival last year, the opera (with a libretto in English) went on to be staged at the Royal Opera in London this past spring and, when presented in New York last month, inspired waves of strong reactions, from high praise to brutal dismissal. As classical writer Joseph So rightly noted, “(a)udiences do appreciate contemporary operas when given fine singing and thoughtful staging.” Love it or hate it, The Exterminating Angel is a work that can’t be ignored. A work based on a movie that goes back to being filmed is interesting in and of itself; what would Buñuel make of it? I wondered this at news of the Live In HD Broadcast of The Exterminating Angel. The Spanish director might, I suspect, have been very amused to have noted his film had been translated to the stage, only to be translated back to film again. The meta nature of it all is enough to make one run to the work of French theorist Roland Barthes (almost).

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Frédéric Antoun as Raúl Yebenes in Adès’ “The Exterminating Angel.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The Exterminating Angel (the opera) repeats in cinemas throughout December and January (and in Canada too) in case your saccharine silly season needs spicing up. The broadcast is not the first time Frédéric Antoun has been on the screen this year. The Quebec-born tenor appeared earlier this summer as Cassio in the Royal Opera House production of Othello, which was broadcast live (and in various repeats) internationally from Covent Garden in London.

A graduate of the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia, Frédéric has an impressive resume that includes performances at Opéra de Paris, Theater an der Wien (Vienna), La Monnaie Brussels, the aforementioned Royal Opera House Covent Garden, a number of regional French houses, as well as Opernhaus Zurich, where he’ll be returning to perform early next year in Ravel’s lovely work L’Heure espagnole. Before that, he’ll be in Toronto, performing as part of the Toronto Symphony’s annual presentation of Handel’s Messiah. He has performed in works by Massenet, Mozart, Donizetti, Bizet, Verdi, and Handel; I particularly love this clip of him from a modern production of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide, directed by Pierre Audi from 2011. Concert repertoire includes work by Berlioz, Handel, Schumann, and Bach, to name a few.

As you’ll hear, Frédéric is extremely familiar with the work of Thomas Adès, having already been in his operatic adaptation of The Tempest. With movie-star looks, rich-hued tenor, crisp diction, and a complete magnetism in both modern and not-so-modern productions, Frédéric is a singer to watch, both live and on the screen — either way, it’s a memorable experience.

Paul Appleby, Music Fan

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Tenor Paul Appleby (Photo: Jonathan Tichler)

What do you think of when you read the words “new opera” ?

Some may think it’s a contradiction in terms, that opera is and must be, by definition, something old, irrelevant, and fusty, full of big wigs, big dresses, buckle shoes, and powdered faces. There’s a feeling by that opera cannot possibly, with its array of seemingly outré storylines, deal with anything approaching a timely reality.

Yet new opera has taken its seat at the opera table in many different ways. A slew of companies devoted to new works, to say nothing of the many established companies and festivals presenting modern compositions, proves there is not only an interest in such work, but a deep passion that is re-shaping the ways in which audiences are experiencing the art form. Composers have long worked to create work that is not only a reflection of the times but a commentary on them, with productions that are aimed as much to provoke as to entertain. A number of organizations have regularly featured such works, including (but hardly limited to) Santa Fe Opera, Opera Philadelphia, the Canadian Opera Company, the Royal Opera Covent Garden, the Salzburg Festival, Glyndebourne, and yes, the Metropolitan Opera.

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Paul Appleby in Two Boys (Photo: Ken Howard)

Contemporary composer Nico Muhly, whose latest work (an opera adaptation of Marnie) recently opened at English National Opera, had his Two Boys produced at the Metropolitan Opera (who commissioned it) in 2013; the work was far from the company’s first new work, of course, but it created a buzz that made me very curious to attend.

(Another buzzy new work is on this season at the Met; The Exterminating Angel, by Thomas Adès, is based on the surrealist Buñuel film of the same name, and will be covered in a future feature at this website. Stay tuned.)

Based on a true story that unfolds in the early days of the internet, Two Boys revolves around a teenager becoming entangled in a web of obsession and murder; the work was especially notable for its integration of music and technology both within the score as well as in a carefully controlled production by director Bartlett Sher. The work offered a dramatic exploration of modern life, sexuality, and the entangled relationship between each. I came away from it bowled over by the lead performance of tenor Paul Appleby, who played Brian, a lonely figure who gets sucked into a nasty catfishing scheme with a very surprising source. Vulture’s Justin Davidson described him here as “a marvel: an intelligent young singer equipped with the elegance and expressivity of an old pro, impersonating a lost soul of a kid.”

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Paul Appleby in Die Meistersinger. (Photo: Ken Howard)

For contrast, I recently turned on a 2014 Met remount of Otto Schenk’s traditional production of  Wagner’s epic 1868 work Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, in which Paul performs the role of David, apprentice to Hans Sachs, one of the titular Master Singers. Re-watching the lengthy work (which is more timely than one might initially think) reminded me, hoary as it may sound, of the extreme versatility demanded of singers in this day and age; nothing could be further from Two Boys in content or in staging or style, but Paul’s ease with the score, his loving embrace of the diction, the sparkle in his eyes singing — it was all magic, and reignited my excitement for the possibilities of the art form.

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Girls of the Golden West music rehearsal with (L-R) Davóne Tines, Paul Appleby, and Hye Jung Lee. (Photo: Cory Weaver)

It’s inspiring to think of Paul’s latest role, in another new work, this one by American composer John Adams, with a decidedly female-forward viewpoint. Called Girls Of The Golden West, it has its world premiere this coming Tuesday (21 November) at San Francisco Opera. As New York Times classical writer Michael Cooper rightly notes of Adams, “(t)his onetime enfant terrible has grown into an elder statesman.” An Adams premiere is an event, not just for opera, but for culture as a whole. Does opera have anything to say? Should it? Can it? These questions are, perhaps, most clearly confronted at premieres like the one happening in San Francisco this coming week.

They’re also questions singers contemplate, even as they dissect scores, learn marks, and explore characters. A graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, Paul made his Met Opera debut in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos and his San Francisco Opera debut in 2016 in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute); he’s acclaimed for his Tamino in that opera, as well as other Mozart works (including Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte), as well as those by Berlioz, Handel, Britten, and Stravinsky. Paul recently took time out of his busy rehearsal schedule to chat; along with being a classical lover, he’s also a keen Bob Dylan fan, a dedicated recitalist, and, as you’ll hear, a performer with strong opinions on why new opera matters.

(Sidenote: Paul is known — and rightly celebrated — for his Tamino, not his Papageno (both characters in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte) as I say here. Please pardon the silly / mortifying mix-up.)

“The True Sound Of The Human Voice”

Photo via Opera Royal de Wallonie

Being in Europe again is a special sort of a treat; there’s an overwhelming number of cultural options at any given moment, and it can be easy to choose one thing, only to find out later there’s something else at the exact same moment that you just can’t miss.

One place I’d really love to be right now is San Francisco, specifically because of Berlioz, and more specifically, because of who is singing it. Thursday (that’s tonight), Friday, and Saturday (May 4, 5, 6), Maestro extraordinaire Charles Dutoit leads the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus in performances of Berlioz’s magnificent Requiem, which features none other than American tenor Paul Groves, whose work I so thoroughly enjoyed on my last opera trip to Europe in February, when I heard him sing another work by the great French composer, his immense La damnation de Faust at Opera Royal de Wallonie.

I’ve always loved French opera, but Groves’ performance as Faust (which he stepped into at the eleventh hour, after the scheduled lead was ill) brought a whole new level to my appreciation, with his incisive phrasing, beautiful diction, and warm tone not only complementing the intricacies of Berlioz’s challenging score, but highlighting its power and poetry. It was exquisite, divine.

A proud New Orleans native, Paul was a winner of the Metropolitan Opera’s prestigious National Council Auditions in 1991, and is a graduate of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artists Development Program. He has an impressive roster of performances to his credit, and has appeared at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Los Angeles Opera, Madrid’s Teatro Real, Theater an der Wien (Vienna), Opéra National de Paris, and the San Francisco Opera, among many others. He returns to the Metropolitan Opera in NYC this December, as Danilo in the very fun, apologetically frothy The Merry Widow.

I had the chance to catch up with Paul as he prepared for his next Berlioz in San Francisco. Just like the man in person, Paul is forthcoming in his opinions, unpretentious, funny, generous, and warm, and like I said, he has a knock-your-socks-off voice, too. Bien sur!

What do you think the big differences are between French opera and other forms, like Italian, and German opera?

There are a few big differences between French opera and other forms, but the biggest has to be the language itself. French operas are built around the language more than any other forms. This is why it’s is so difficult to translate into other languages; I’ve never heard or sung a convincing translation of a French opera — whereas I have sung many wonderful translations of German, Italian and Russian works.

Therefore, it is particularly important to pay close attention to diction and vocal production when studying, and finally performing, French opera.



What kinds of demands does French opera place on you vocally?

I feel the language is very helpful for vocal technique — the closed vowels tend to keep the voice gathered when pronounced correctly. The demand comes from the extended tenor range of many French operas. A majority tend to be at least a step higher than most Italian or German romantic operas.

One of the reasons for this is the tenor technique was completely different at the time these operas were written. The tenors these roles were written for approached the high notes in a supported head voice, and the modern tenor technique is more of a chesty, manly sound in the high register. Now, this makes singing the role more difficult, but it’s also much more thrilling.

Why is Berlioz so special for you?

Berlioz was many years ahead of his time when you consider what was coming out of France and Italy at the time. His music wasn’t well-accepted until later in his life, and still today, many musicians have their doubts about what he intended with his orchestration. I’m doing one of his pieces at the moment which has a bass trombone-and-flute duet. Strange, but amazing when performed correctly.

In his operas, the drama is written into the orchestration and text is not necessary to feel the full power of the drama. An example is “The Ride to Hell” in the last part of La damnation de Faust.



Describe your first powerful opera memory.

Well, my first powerful opera memory is Pavarotti’s recording of Canio’s aria. My father, who was a conductor, brought home a Pavarotti album and after hearing it a few times, I conveniently added his album to my collection of records, which was mostly a Led Zeppelin and Beatles collection. 

I was completely blown away, but had no idea that all opera singers (tenors) didn’t sound the same. I found this out when a traveling opera company came to my town a year later to perform the complete opera. I was so disappointed in the tenor’s performance. Looking back now, he was probably fine. Who could live up to my expectations at the time? Only one guy!!!!!

Photo: Nicholas Roberts for The New York Times (via)

You’re going to be at the Met next season in The Merry Widow; how do you approach performing comedy versus tragedy? Do you have a preference? 

I don’t have a preference between comedy and tragic opera, but I get to do comic opera so infrequently that I really look forward to the fun and laughs, not only from the audience, but in the fun we’ll have in the rehearsal room. I’m playing opposite one of my best friends and opera soulmates, the lovely Susan Graham.

The challenging part for me and most singers is always the dialogue — how to make it real and heartfelt. We’re so used to relying on the music to help, but when the music is missing, it feels like we’re standing up there with our pants down!!

The one thing all newcomers to opera should know is…

… be prepared for the power of the unamplified human voice! This is the one thing that newcomers are so shocked about.

It is my life and art form, but I still get goose bumps when I hear a powerful, beautiful, natural voice. This is what separates opera and classical singing from all other art forms. Amplified performances can be enhanced, tuned and sometimes lip-synced. That’s not the case in classical singing; what you hear is the true sound of the human voice with all its flaws and gloriousness.

Marcelo Puente: “You Can Feel Every Word”

Tito Gobbi as Scarpia and Maria Callas as Tosca, from a 1965 production of Tosca (via)

In the early days of video recording technology, my mother would tape any and every opera production broadcast on PBS. By the end of the 1980s, we had a huge collection of VHS tapes, all carefully labelled in my mother’s tidy handwriting. Some we’d never watch again; some lived in the VCR. One that I kept going back to, from the time I was a child, was Puccini’s Tosca; I think it was the first opera I watched repeatedly (at least until we got hold of a copy of Francesco Rosi’s raunchy Carmen), and one I never got bored of, either musically or dramatically. Many a rainy summer’s day was spent in front of the TV, my friends and I with our root beer floats in hand, watching Hildegard Behrens, Placido Domingo, and Cornell MacNeil swirl, roar, sweat, and sigh through Franco Zeffirelli’s opulent production. My youthful passion for the production was what inspired my mother to return to the Met after well over a decade of absence; this time she brought an excited little girl who sat pie-eyed throughout the whole thing, wearing shiny shoes, a smart little red jacket, and a giant smile.

We owned a few classic recordings of Puccini’s famous 1899 work, and even now, putting those vinyl recordings on (the Callas/Gobbi version especially), I’m struck by just how dramatically expressive the score is. Tosca a great introduction for young newcomers to the world of opera; the music clearly tells you everything you need to know. A passionate lady lead! A persecuted lover! A rip-roaring bad guy! It’s the stuff of great novels, old Hollywood, dreamy (if doomed) romances. As well as entertainment value, so many personal memories are connected to this work, including the premiere Met visit. I was simultaneously scared of and thrilled by Scarpia, and for years, I couldn’t see (much less hear) MacNeil as anything but the dastardly villain of the piece. Hearing the opening notes of his introduction still sends a shiver down my spine. Years later, my father would play the famous “E lucevan le stelle” (“And the stars were shining”) for me on his violin, unbidden. It was the last thing I heard him play.

It was a thrill to learn Argentinian tenor Marcelo Puente would be performing as Mario Cavaradossi (who sings that famous aria in the opera’s last act) for the Canadian Opera Company’s spring production of Toscaand opposite the great soprano Adrienne Pieczonka, whose work I so enjoyed last month at the Met, in Fidelio. I’ve followed Puente’s work for years, and have admired his passionate, head-first approach to dramatic material, as well as his golden, honey-toned tenor voice. He recently made his Covent Garden debut in another Puccini role, as Pinkerton in the Royal Opera’s Madame Butterfly, to rave reviews. Next season, he’ll be the dramatic role of Don Alvaro in Verdi’s La forza del destino at the Semperoper in Dresden, and will also be making his debut at Opera National du Rhin in Strasbourg, in a new production of Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, as another doomed romantic hero. What’s up with that? I spoke with Marcelo about singing romantic leads, why he dropped out of medical school (true story), and just why audiences should care about a character like Cavaradossi.

(Photo of Marcelo Puente by Helen Bianco)

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