thu 25/07/2024

10 Questions for Opera singer Rolando Villazón | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for Opera singer Rolando Villazón

10 Questions for Opera singer Rolando Villazón

Celebrated Mexican tenor talks Verdi, Puccini and chaka-chaka and takes on the bloggers

Villazón: 'This is the singer I am today and I am very pleased'

Few singers provoke more debate than Rolando Villazón. His off-piste projects - from his Romantic exploration of the Baroque to his spell as a talent contest judge - have been much discussed over the years. By comparison, there's something strangely calm and conventional about Villazón's two latest projects: a new album of Verdi on Deutsche Grammophon and a performance of John Copley's La Bohème at the Royal Opera House. Yet you'd be foolish to ignore either.

The celebrated Mexican tenor is the kind of singer who could make the Yellow Pages seem fresh. Theartsdesk caught up with him during rehearsals at Covent Garden and found him as impassioned as ever as he waxed lyrical about Verdi and Puccini, and then tore into his critics.

IGOR TORONYI-LALIC: Do you still feel the need to rehearse when you're doing an opera like La Bohème that you've done so many times in the past? Because some star singers in your position wouldn't think there was.

ROLANDO VILLAZÓN: Rehearsals are the most beautiful part of my job. In rehearsals you don't have the pressure to deliver. It's a time to penetrate the energy of others in a more relaxed way. A performance is just the result of a period of rehearsals. In some houses you do just a few basic directions. If your goal is just to throw your voice out, that's a concert with costume. At the Royal Opera House they don't do concerts with costume. They do opera and they respect the theatrical and dramatic part and the musical part too. The work with Mark Elder is fantastic. He says, "Hey, guys, let's look at what Puccini wrote in this piece." And you say, "Oh, wow, it's written like this. I'm not doing it correctly."

The most important moment in Bohème is also the trickiest. When Rodolfo and Mimi meet they instantly fall in love. One has to be careful to make this love at first sight seem believable. How do you do this?

I think it always works no matter the concept. In this production the concept is true love. They meet and they are immediately, like, "wow!" Mimi thinks, "This is the man of my life." Rodolfo thinks Mimi is the woman of his life. You can also argue that Rodolfo sees Mimi and says, "Wow, beautiful girl." It is Mimi who has been listening to his voice and seen him before. She is the one who says, "You are the love of my life." Rodolfo is more vague. In this production it is true love and Rodolfo is full of tenderness for Mimi (Mark Elder, pictured below).

I think it always works because the music makes it work. We don't question it. We don't laugh. Puccini wrote it perfectly. Everything is there. Rodolfo opens the door. "Please come in." "No, no, really." "I lost the key." They look for it. It's so playful. It isn't, "Oh, my god, O soave fanciulla." It's not that. It's got a little introduction. "I'll tell you who I am." You can believe it. You can imagine it. "Please come in." "I feel bad." "It's ok; it's just the stairs." "I'll serve you some wine." "Thank you." "Are you fine now?" "I'm fine but I have to get going." "Bye." "Bye." She comes back. "Oh god, I lost the key." "Let's look for it." Already they're flirting. "I'm very sorry, I lost the key." They look for the key. "Ok, I'll look for the key." "Oh." "What? Did you find it?" "No." Later: "Did you really not find it. Really not?" The dialogue works.

Then you add this music. He takes her hand. "Can I warm your hand?" He says a few things: "Fortunately the moon is here and you look so beautiful. Don't go, don't go. Let me tell you about myself; I am a poet. It's not big, this place, but it's a castle for me." He finishes and tells her something beautiful about her eyes. "Now you tell me your story." "What can I tell you?" She says some poetical things. "When the sun comes up, look at the flowers but the flowers don't have a scent." Rodolfo thinks, "Fuck, who is the poet here? She is the poet. I wish I could write the way she talks." Perfect moment for the guys to come in. "Hey, Rodolfo, give me blah-blah." Then: "O soave fanciulla". He goes for it. "You're so lovely." She says, "Wait." "Kiss me." "Don't kiss me." Later: "Tell me you love me." "Oh yes, I love you." "Let's go." Where's the problem? Is it true love? Is it really, really true love? We don't know. For her, yes. She chooses to go and die with him.

Your Verdi CD goes from the very beginning of his career to the very end - from Oberto to Falstaff - and takes in his songs, the Requiem and a whole selection of his operatic arias. You seem to love every note that Verdi wrote.

I wanted to provide this little journey, this microcosm of Verdi. I'm not interested in just sending out a new CD. All my CDs have a theme. Cecilia Bartoli is a master of this. There is a reason for those CDs to exist, starting with the Vivaldi album. How she has developed all of that is amazing. She's one of the smartest performers we've ever had. She's got great curiosity. She's a great researcher. This is not done to those levels. But we need to learn from those examples and use it to our own experience. Having worked with Emmanuel Haim on the Monteverdi madrigals, and watching how she put together that journey, how the madrigals came together, I saw that as a lesson.

I've spent many hours putting this CD together. I wanted this journey from the first opera to the last. In between I wanted to have three moments: young Verdi, popular Verdi and mature Verdi. And the three styles in which he wrote: the songs (which are forgotten), the oratorio (his masterpiece and for many the best thing he wrote: the Requiem) and what he is known for, his operatic arias. In this journey we cover all these aspects. The selection was not easy. Do I do an aria from Trovatore - although I have not sung it as an opera and who knows if I will ever sing it? If you put in the cabaletta of Trovatore the CD would go in a different direction. I wanted it to be a celebration of Verdi. It's an invitation. For those who don't know Verdi it's an invitation to experience the complete Verdi. For those who know a bit of Verdi, I want them to think, "If the rest of Oberto is like this aria I should listen to it" - so to invite new discoveries. And if you do know Verdi, it's just to remind you, wow, this guy is fucking amazing. 

 In fact one time I understood the guy booing. I thought yeah, you're right, sorry

Do you have a favourite Verdi character? They're all so flawed.

What I like is that they're very ambiguous. They're very real. There are none that are bad bad or good good. In Rigoletto the Duke can be very charming but he is also a son of a god. I loved the production here at Covent Garden, where I had to play him as a real bastard, a real villain. It made the story so much more powerful. But there is something about this negativity that is charming. I enjoyed playing Don José. He's not a villain. I wanted to make his transformation into obsession and madness understandable. "It is either me or bye-bye. You can take me to prison but now I am free from this obsession." Hoffmann is a great antihero. I love anti-heros. I prefer these to Rodolfo.

I love Don Carlo, a very conflicted character. Everybody wants him to be something that he never is. He wants to be with Elisabetta. He cannot be with her. Elisabetta wants him not to be in love with her. He can't not be. Posa wants him to be a hero and he cannot. He always does everything wrong. When he comes to the auto da fé, Posa has to say, "You're doing it wrong!" Verdi wrote it very well. And I don't agree when it's played in too heroic a way. The tradition to sing it...  [Villazon breaks into big boned singing]. I see a very lyric sound in it. It's very fragile. I remember the production by Willy Decker in Amsterdam. He was all the time on the floor and holding his head. He wanted to stress the schizophrenic and epileptic side of the historical character.

You seem to like complex characters. Twentieth-century operas have them in spades. Would you ever venture into more modern repertoire?

I'm doing Julietta, Clé des Songes, a very surrealistic opera. But it's hard because right now the bel canto suits my voice very well. When you move into the 20th century the placement of the voice changes. It's complicated. I would love to and I know I will, and I will make more discoveries. I have never been one type of singer. I have always created opera that makes knowledgeable people scream. "Why he is singing that? He cannot sing this!" I would not be happy repeating myself, doing Rodolfo, Alfredo, Rodolfo, Alfredo, Rodolfo, Alfredo. I am very happy to be discovering lots of Mozart. I'm learning songs by Elliott Carter. They're 11 minutes but it's taking me a long time to learn… I'm doing these with Barenboim: Mozart's concert arias next to a Carter cycle.

The attention on singers' voices has become more and more obsessive with the advent of blogs. Do you read these?

I don't read anything. I don't read reviews. I don't read blogs. Not even good ones. I know there is a great blog about my career, the Villazonistas, that I used to go to. I have chosen now to step away from everything that everyone says about me. Does that mean I close my ears? No. Singers are always being criticised. But by the right people: by the conductor and stage director.

Are they brave enough to criticise a star singer like you?

Yes. To me, yes. I go to them and ask them to tell me everything. But it's constructive. Mark comes to me and says it's not "Nei cieli bigi", it's "Nei cieli bigi". I say, thank you. No one comes to you and says, "That sounded like shit." It's the right criticism. When I do my baroque repertoire, I am working with the best of the best. When you work with William Christie he lets you work with your coloratura. He says, I think this note should have no vibrato. I call it criticism. It's actually just called working with others.

But in opera there's also the immediate criticism from the booers. It hasn't happened to you often but how does that feel?

Opera is full of rules. You have to do this and that. Well I refuse to follow those rules

I have been fortunate. I have not been booed that many times. If I remember it's always been one person doing it. And this feels like… pffft. Nothing. In fact one time I understood the guy being angry. I thought, yeah, you're right, sorry. There is a point where you have to concentrate on what you're doing. I am fortunate. I have achieved everything and more that an opera singer can want to achieve. One thing that I haven't achieved is longevity. This will come - if it comes. That said, I don't think that longevity is a necessary part of a great career. Di Stefano lasted 10 years and I think he is one of the most extraordinarily influential artists ever. I am not saying this to say goodbye. Hopefully I can be here for a couple more decades. But you never know. I have had my crisis. I had my health issue.

One of the reasons why I stopped reading everything was because they were all so wrong about this issue. And I stress that it was a health issue because some were saying that I got it because I sing like this or that, none of which was true. You know how many calls my doctor got? Zero. It impresses me that no one called my doctor. I didn't hide his details: his name and number were on my website. No one called him. And if they had, they would have been disappointed. They wouldn't have been able to write what they wanted to write. He would have told them the problem was biology. I would have got it if I had sung Mozart. It had nothing to do with repertoire or technique or how much I sang. You don't have cysts in your finger because you don't know how to write. Women don't get cysts in the breast because they don't know how to use them. It's nature.

Since everything was wrong in these blogs, it did nothing for me. It only affected me in that it made me angry. Because no one was saying the truth. And this is such a taboo. Seventy per cent of people get operations in this business. And no one says it. And you see why. They see the way I was treated in the blogs and press, and they think, "I'd better shut up. It's better to say I had a little problem with my ear." The dramatic stories are always more interesting. Alagna gets booed by five guys at La Scala. You see the video and it's five idiots booing a very good performance. And it's a scandal. Yet when he has unbelievable successes everywhere, it's local news. It's not fair.

So I tell young singers, "Don't read any of that. It's not meant for you." But I don't mind blogs. It's like football. You go to a football website and they write, "What an idiot! How can he have all this money and he didn't score that goal! I wish his whole family dead! Cut his head off!" If you read that and take it personally, it's horrible. It's not for us. Performers live in very difficult times. Sixty years ago, you went, you sang, and the only thing you heard about your performance was what your friends told you and what the critic thought. Today everybody has an opinion and the world knows. I once went to one blog and it was so terrible I thought, "Whoa whoa whoa, I better get out of this." I don't think you learn anything from blogs and reviews.

How do you feel the surgery has affected your voice? Do you feel it's got better in any way?

One cannot think of these things. This is the singer I am today and I am very pleased. I couldn't have done Mozart before, for example. I am more accurate technically… Every singer sounds different at different stages. It's not better or worse. You are just the singer you are. 

What would you have done if you'd had to stop singing? Did you ever contemplate that?

Please sing Mozart with a very bad voice! It doesn't matter

Not really. Not until the moment when I couldn't sing. That was very hard and very long. But no… I do many things now. I do a lot of television. I do staging. I write books. I work with clowns. I am somebody who does a lot of things so I am not worried. If something had happened it's okay… Talking about how I feel though: I feel that the Verdi album is one of the best things I have ever recorded. That's how I feel about my career and my life. And that's how one has to feel. If I didn't it would be wrong, no? And it's not just me being positive. I really feel it.

Do you feel you were wrong to participate in Popstar to Operastar?

No, it was great. The first series was great fun. The second was less fun. I was a little disappointed. First time I thought I was changing something in favour of opera and classical music. In the second I thought, not really, no one really cares about opera here. To work with pop singers was very interesting. I had great experiences. I learnt a lot. And it gave me the opportunity to do other things. I have my own programme now. In Germany it's called Stars of Tomorrow. It's on every Sunday on Arte Channel. And it has lots of viewers. 

Fortunately operas can defend themselves. We don't need to fight for them. No one would have cast the winners. Instead It was great publicity for opera. But critics say that I make people think that that is what opera is. Yes? So what? Do you think that people who know opera are now confused? What a joke. Watch it with a glass of wine and laugh. It was just a game. Anyway, if their point is that if you're going to sing Mozart you respect it by singing it well, what happens if someone wants to sing it while cooking? She shouldn't because it is disrespectful? Of course not. Please do it. Please sing Mozart with a very bad voice! It doesn't matter. None of these people will be cast by any opera houses. So what's the problem?

After Popstar to Operastar I did a documentary for the BBC, What Makes a Great Tenor?, and I was told that this was one of the most watched documentaries in the history of the BBC about opera. This was possible only because of the six million who watched Popstar. Some of them were curious to go see the chaka-chaka guy. And in this programme there was information. I've achieved what I have achieved. At the beginning I was trying to say some important phrases. No one gave a damn. I realised I needed to come up with a catchphrase. That's why I came up with chaka-chaka. You don't know how many people went to Werther after seeing Popstar. I worked with the same seriousness. But I work within the rules. The game is to say, "Wow, it was so touching." And I believed what I said. The guy who won, Joe McElderry, I told him if you go to the conservatory you could become an opera singer. He still could if he wanted to (ViIlazon and Katherine Jenkins in Popstar to Operastar, pictured below).

I remember seeing Pavarotti get so much trash for working with pop singers. He once sung with Liza Minnelli, for example. It's on YouTube and it's wonderful. It's about people having fun. And I remember when he died there was an obituary in Le Monde. I wanted to smash whoever wrote it. There was a little paragraph about how great he had been at the beginning and then it said how he had become a clown and he started to sing in these stupid concerts and he lost his credibility.

I thought, how can you make that an article? He was the greatest of all time. And boy, did he sing for a long time. And here was someone concentrating on something they didn't like. This is the opera world. Opera is full of rules. You have to do this and that. Well, I refuse to follow those rules. Verdi refused too. When you talk of bel canto, you talk about Donizetti and Rossini. When you talk of verismo, you talk about Puccini. When you talk about Verdi, you talk about Verdi. He doesn't fit into a box. This is what any artist has to do. I don't care. Smash me. Destroy me. You say I should not sing Handel. Good: don't buy the CD. You say my voice is too rich for Handel. Fine. Don't buy it. But until now my best-selling CD was Handel.

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