After trying the Arena, you cannot say you don’t want to come back…After his debut in the Arena as Cavaradossi in Tosca, the italo-uruguayan tenor plays Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera at the Teatro Filarmonico.
You were born in Uruguay, but you have Italian origins. Was the love for opera music the reason why you decided to come to Italy?
It is. I attended the Escuela Nacional de Arte Lirico in Uruguay. I started when I was very young because my voice broke when I was 12 or 13, and at the age of 14 I was singing in a church, where my talent was discovered. There everything began, I knew nothing about opera, I did not know it deeply. When I entered the Escuela Nacional, after the audition, my passion for opera was born, becoming a sort of disease: you cannot talk about passion for opera, it is a disease instead! That passion took me to Italy, not without many sacrifices. At first I joined the singing competition Franceso Viñas, where I won the Gino Bechi prize and a scolarship, thanks to which I could study in Florence with Maestro Bechi himself.
So how do you feel about this comeback to the origins?
For me, it is a great thing, because it is like coming back home. I have been living in Italy for twelve years, I am 33 years old and I should say I have been spendind one third of my life in the land of my ancestors: after all, I feel Italian.
Your first years in Italy were really adventurous and unpredictable…
When I came from Uruguay, I did not have much money because Uruguay, as you can imagine, was in a difficult economic situation, as it is nowadays. My trip to Italy was an adventure: for example, the plane I took from Montevideo landed in Spain only, in Madrid, because it was a flight which had no landing in Italy. In order to go to Florence, I took several trains from Madrid, travelling through France up to Ventimiglia; when I went through customs, I showed my passport to a huge policeman, who couldn’t believe that I was an opera singer, because I was twenty years old at the time and my physical aspect was the same as it is now, so he asked me to sing, to show him “my identity”. Then I was forced to sing “Che gelida manina…” at the customs and, once I finished, the policeman hugged me and let me go. So I went on with my trip to Florence, but I was really nervous because it was the first time that I had left Uruguay, and I was so tired and hungry that I fell asleep and found myself in Rome. There I had to buy another ticket to go back to Florence, where I had to sleep for a month and a half in a youth hostel in order to save money. I had very little money, a bit more than 500 dollars, and they were running out: I ate nothing, an apple, some mortadella, a sandwich, no more than that. Maestro Bechi knew a man who played in a restaurant, and needed an opera singer to play napolitan and Spanish songs, so he suggested me to have an audition. I went there, but they didn’t hire me. The following day I had an audition at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino to join the choir, and they accepted me immediately. The contract, though, started in September, and I had arrived in July. Luckily the restaurant managers called me again for another audition, because they had heard about my admission to the choir of Florence. That time they suggested me not to stay next to the piano, as in a concert, but to go singing through the tables, mostly next to the ladies, because the restaurant was very big and there were tourists from all over the world. I did it, and I had the job: so I solved my problems, at least I could earn something. Then there is my entire life: I joined the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Choir, I was scouted by the great soprano Magda Olivero and I went to Milan to study with her. Then I entered the Specialist Course at the Teatro della Scala in Milan, which had to close down due to a lack of funds. Then I listened to Maestro Tangucci’s suggestion, who was a member of the board of directors of the Teatro della Scala at the time, and had an audition to enter the choir of that theatre. I was admitted and, after a few months, Mrs Cristina Muti, after listening to my audition at the centre of the Amici del Loggione di Milano, offered me the cover part of Pollione in the Norma at the Ravenna Festival for the summer of 1994; in the meantime she wanted me to be listened to by her husband Maestro Riccardo Muti, so she arranged another audition for that purpose. After listening, the Maestro gave me the cover part of the Duke of Mantua in the Rigoletto for June 1994. There were two tenors for that opera, Roberto Alagna and Marcello Giordani, and… Alagna made his performances, but Giordani got ill, and so I made my debut as the Duke of Mantua, under the guidance of Maestro Riccardo Muti at the Teatro La Scala even though I had never performed an opera before. There started my career.
It is like a fairytale!
We could say that the level increased, this surely was an unexpected event that led to another contacts…
Definitely, it helped me very much. If you think that the month before I was part of the choir of the Teatro La Scala, and the following month I was the Duke of Mantua, surrounded by the people who were my colleagues, singing “Zitti, zitti…”…It was unbelievable!
So has your career bloomed abruptly?
Abruptly and I did not look for it. I have never looked for anything in my life. Everything I had was gifted. This is why it is even more beautiful.
Something similar happened this year also in the Arena di Verona, because suddenly you had to sing in Tosca. What do you feel when you are put on stage, without previous rehearsal, without knowing the cast, without any instructions from the director or the conductor?
I was quite calm, because this was not the first time that I had to debut in such a condition, without rehearsing, in an opera that I had already played anyway, in this case Tosca. I just got a little frightened when I arrived, nearly at 6.30 pm, and I got on the stage, because I asked myself: “Will I make it in this huge theatre without rehearsing at all?” I must say that I felt very good in the Arena instead. It is a theatre in which you feel comfortable to sing, with fantastic acoustics, and found myself comfortable, like in no other theatres. For example, the Teatro Filarmonico have more complex acoustics respect to the Arena. And this is incredible because, after all, it is a small one, but when I opened my mouth in the Arena I had a wonderful feeling and I was really relaxed. To tell the truth, I was neither anxious nor nervous, I was quite calm, then when I started singing I thought: “It is all right, let’s go on!”
Usually people think that such a stage could make you feel uneasy…
This is maybe because the Arena requires an appropriate voice for the stage dimensions. In my case, I felt comfortable and I sang very easily.
Do you consider your debut in the Arena with Tosca to be an important achievement? Was singing in the Arena di Verona one of your goals?
For me, singing in the Arena di Verona was a dream I have always had, but I never thought I could sing in this way, because of a last minute substitution, with no rehearsal, on such a stage. But it has been a good starting point, and I hope I will come back to sing another operas. Because singing in the Arena is a dream come true for many of us. After trying the Arena, you cannot say you don’t want to come back, because there you sing so quietly…
Is there a difference between the audience in the Arena and the one in the Teatro Filarmonico, from the point of view of the welcoming and warmth?
I think the involvement is different, the approach the audience has to those who sing in the Arena and those who sing in a theatre. Maybe that is because usually in the Arena you sing in July or in August, so people are on holiday, they are more relaxed. Now that we are in winter, it is always raining, it is cold, it is a little more difficult, but I still think it is the same audience, in fact, at the première of Un Ballo in Maschera people welcomed us very heartily.
This is the year of your double debut in Verona: last summer in the Arena, and now in the Teatro Filarmonico. Renato definitely is a moody character, while Riccardo seems to have a simpler personality…
It seems, but he has some conflicting thoughts too, moving from his friendship with Renato and his strong love for Amelia. There is a struggle in him, a perpetual change in instincts, but at a certain point, in the love duet, Riccardo says it is over, that there was nothing in his heart but his love for Amelia, because, in my opinion, he is a very passionate man, and his passion is visible in everything he does, even a simple invitation to a party.
It is a role that suits you well…
Indeed. This is one of the parts which had suited me perfectly since the first moment, like a made-to-measure suit.
Is it not difficult to interpret all these struggling feelings, the friendship with Renato and the forbidden love for Amelia? In the end, Riccardo is loyal to his friend and nothing happens with Amelia…
Exactly, nothing happens at all. In fact, in this production, during the duet with Amelia, when he tries to kiss her, she puts her hand between their lips. There was not even a kiss. There is just passion, gazes and smiles but that is all, it is like a dream, but it never gets real! Anyway, at the end it is Riccardo himself who renounces to love in the name of friendship.
Do you think that the direction is fundamental in an opera? Or are great singers and a great conductor enough for a great show?
I think this is a very good question. I think that the times have changed, you cannot expect to arrive and to sing, as in a simple concert: this is not impossible, but it cannot surely be proposed, because starting from the second performance the audience will not be satisfied at all.
Why is it?
Because other things are missing.
Now people is accustomed to appreciate even the visual aspect of an opera…
Many things have changed since the time in which the singers used to go there and play their concert, which can still happen in the Arena. The Arena is totally different, movements are more sweeping because of the wide space, but at the same time gestures are lacking of nuances, because in such a stage they would get lost anyway. A theatre, as the Teatro Filarmonico one, is different, because it is smaller and movements, expressions, touch, caresses, everything can be perceived by the audience: here the movements on the scene have to be studied and prepared carefully, because they are part of the character. To set an example, the moment when Riccardo goes to Ulrica the gypsy dressed as a fisherman, and then it turns out to be the governor: this must be understood by the audience not only for the different costume, but most of all for the different way in which the character moves, acts and sings. The audience has paid even for this things, not just for the singing, that remains a crucial aspect anyway, because if you don’t have an appropriate voice you will be hissed.
And so, how much coordination must there be between all the languages that create a show?
I think the director, the singer and the conductor share the same contribution. If anyone of these is missing, the performance will lose its quality.
Is there a director you loved the most?
I have always had very good directors. Recently I played Tosca in Moscow with the opera of Rome, a huge success, and the director was Marco Gandini, I found myself comfortable with him. Marco has an extraordinary sensibility, as well as De Tomasi, another director who knows, who teaches to you and makes you feel calm. I learned a lot with Marco Gandini, and I am doing the same with De Tomasi. They are people who understand the artist, who understand the singer. If we have to sing a verse in a particular way, they sing it to you in the manner they want.
Your passion for singing and opera was born very early. You started studying music at a very young age. How important are the first Maestros you meet, speaking about music background?
I think they are fundamental. I had a bad experience at the beginning of my career, because when I started singing my voice was already complete. I started studying, but after some time my voice was halved, I didn’t know how to use it anymore. For this reason, the first Maestro is very important: it is him who has to help the young singer improve. This doesn’t always happen, and then many beautiful voices get lost. And it is very difficult to regain them. I have been very lucky and obstinate, because I insisted, I tried and tried until I regained my voice. But that doesn’t always happen, if you lose your voice at 16, 17, 18 years old how can you regain it?
I think the first Maestro is essential, but unfortunately it is difficult to find a good one. Where are the Maestros now? I think about the time of Corelli, Del Monaco, Di Stefano, there were so many good conductors who used to teach you how to sing, to do certain things, and this was a great asset for young singers like us. Nowadays few people manage to do so and everything is more difficult for us. Sometimes you meet conductors who tell you nothing, they just beat the time and that is all. They want us to do our best, but sometimes we don’t get the same effort from people we collaborate with. Usually we have to do everything on our own, and it gests more and more difficult. I must admit that this time, with De Tomasi, I have been very lucky.
Talking about your ambitions, is there a character in particular that you would like to play?
I would love to play Andrea Chénier – even though I would not do so in the immediate future, because I will have to wait -, an opera, a character, a fabulous music, so romantic, and I fit perfectly in there, even though I have to wait, I have to reach a greater vocal maturity to face this role.
Is there a role you played that you love, but which is not requested anymore?
This is the Duke of Mantua. It is an opera that I performed many times and with the passing of time I decided to stop, because it was not suitable to my voice any longer. I am a tenor with a different voice respect to what the public expects for this role, normally they wait for a lighter one. I do not have that kind of voice, so I have put this role aside for two o three years, even though I am not happy with it. I would like to get back to this character to change it and sing after three years with a different approach, using everything I learned during this period, in which I improved my technical and artistic skills. I made my debut with the Duke of Mantua in the Teatro La Scala and I repeated it many times, but suddenly I realised it was not my role because the public did not perceive this romantic vocality, but the Duke was easier instead.
But isn’t it easy to get bored of a character, when you play it so frequently?
You never lose your emotions and it gets better and better every time. Singing Un Ballo in Maschera every night, even though I have already had my debut, is always a great emotion. It’s a rush of adrenaline. If it were different, if it became something automatic, predictable, you couldn’t pass any feeling. I hope not to get to that point, I had better lose my voice if singing became something automatic: emotion must be always present when you sing, if you turn yourself into a computer, it is better to stay at home and listening to a record, rather than going to the theatre. The good thing about theatre is that you always communicate something, you give something in terms of humanity, love, hope, and these are things that are not so easy to find nowadays.
And is there an opera you love the most from the ones you performed?
There are two, Bohème and Tosca. I am glad to sing Verdi’s operas, but I also like Puccini, and sometimes I feel him more suitable to my temper. In Verdi, you often have to lose your temper to turn to voice technique advantage; with Puccini, instead, maybe you are freer to give free rein to your own personality. When I sing, I need to give everything I have, if I keep something inside it is not fair for me. Maybe I am wrong, but this urge remains, even a single sentence, even if I had to say “the dinner is ready”, I feel I have to say it from the bottom of my soul.
Speaking about roles, do you prefer tragic or comic ones?
I prefer the romantic ones, despite the fact that I would love to play a Nemorino in Elisir d’Amore!
Nobody has offered me that part yet, but I really would like to be funny on stage, to make people laugh and then cry, provoking them conflicting feelings.
Have you ever had second thoughts about your career choice?
Lots of times. But when you go on stage, singing and receiving the applause of the audience, you forget everything and think: “I will go on singing until they will bury me”. We have a very intense job, it can end in a miserable way: you sing for a long time and then at the age of 50 you are too old from the vocal point of view. I hope I will arrive at 50 and then be able to decide if I should go on singing or not. There are many singers, when they are 50, who think that the have done the most of their careers and are afraid they cannot do the same things and, for this reason, they retire.
I think this is a right and honest choice, but it is really difficult to do so, because when you are 50 you have reached an artistic maturity, which lets you sing in a manner that you could not have when you were 30: and so you think that you can go on up to 60, or 70, even 80 years! It is nearly impossible to have such a vocal longevity, and very few people manage to do so: Giacomo Lauri Volpi is an example, or Magda Oliviero, but there are not many more like them!
Isn’t there a way to preserve your voice?
You have to sing well! But now you have to take the plane and go to a theatre, then sing and take the plane again in order to go to another theatre, another plane and another theatre… acting like this allows you to perform in many events, but then your voice will ask you: “Well, how did you behave? How did you treat me, just to sing a lot?” So it is easy to arrive at the age of 50 with a damaged voice, which should lead to retirement.
Speaking about voices, are there any singers in particular from whom you take your inspiration?
Of course there are some. I love the past, what was before us, that means that I love Giuseppe Di Stefano, Franco Corelli, Mario Del Monaco, Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, Jussi Bjoerling, Nicolai Ghedda, who gave their everything to opera music. They are a strong reference point, even though things have changed nowadays: people don’t sing like that anymore, because of the taste of the time, or the conductor’s one. But I also love more recent voices, as Alfredo Kraus, or Placido Domingo, a total artist, or Luciano Pavarotti, with his great voice and incredible technique, or José Carreras, who always sings from the bottom of his soul.
Have you got any plans for the immediate future?
Now, right after the last Un Ballo in Maschera, I am leaving to Rome for the Madama Butterfly, then to Nice to sing the Bohème, then to the San Carlo Theatre in Naples for the Simon Boccanegra, to Japan with the Opera di Catania to play the Norma, to Torre del Lago for the Bohème, and to Frankfurt for Tosca, and finally in Trieste for the Simon Boccanegra and Tosca.
But this time it will not happen by accident!
No, not by accident! Now accidental things happen less and less often, but this is something positive, because it means people is knowing me more and more.
22nd November 2002