sun 27/09/2020

theartsdesk Q&A: Opera Singer Rolando Villazón | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Opera Singer Rolando Villazón

theartsdesk Q&A: Opera Singer Rolando Villazón

Mexican tenor opens up about love, analysis and Netrebko

In the next few weeks the wider public will be introduced to the charms of Rolando Villazón (b. 1972). Anointed as a star of opera houses around the world in the last decade, the Mexican tenor is about to participate in ITV1's Popstar to Opera Star. As singing celebs from the world of pop music take on the big arias, Villazón has been cast as mentor, panellist and figleaf. It is all a very long way from Covent Garden.

His label Deutsche Grammophon is taking advantage of the exponential hoik in profile to release Tenor, a new CD of operatic favourites, some culled from his back catalogue, interleaved with the odd moment from the musicals. The CD finds him singing in English on disc for the first time. Lloyd Webber inevitably features, as does "Maria" from West Side Story, but so too does a tune that got him started as a singer, as he explains in this wide-ranging interview.

Villazon_drawing_self-port_CArmenIn his idiomatic English, he also talks frankly about the period in 2007 when he suddenly took half a year off in order to recharge his voice. For a while he feared he might not return.

"Tenor is wood here," Villazón says, tapping his head. Not in his case. His conversation reveals a manic intellect, set off by a laughter pealing frequently from the golden larynx. He is a prolific and gifted cartoonist of the backstage opera world (one of his deprecating self-portraits in 'Carmen' right). There seems little doubt that he will be a television natural.

JASPER REES: Which language do you most like singing in? If someone said, "You can sing in only one language for the rest of the year…"

ROLANDO VILLAZÓN: Well, I guess it would be Spanish but there is no operas in Spanish. My own language of course - that would be ideal for me. But since I sing nothing in Spanish except for zarzuela songs, if I had to choose a foreign language, uum, I guess Italian. I love the difficulty of the French language. It's the most difficult language to sing in.

More than Russian?

Much more because there are many more sounds in the French language. In the Russian there are a couple of new sounds for me. In Spanish it’s A, E, I, O, U, basta. In Italian they have the open A. But in French on top of that the eu, the on, the u… blablablaba. But I do love to sing in French. Also I’m happy that I don’t sing translations of things. I don’t think singing everything in Spanish would be ideal for me. I like the challenge of the new sounds. It’s not only about sounds. It’s about understanding the language, where to go in the phrase. For that you need to learn. That was the difficulty for me when I sang Onegin. Because that I don’t speak at all – nothing of Russian. The other ones I speak and I can understand it. I love to work with specialists, because it makes a real difference when you know which word to stress, how to colour certain phrases, whether that makes sense emotionally, whether that makes sense grammatically.

How often have you sung in English?

I sang “The Impossible Dream” in a German TV show. I think that’s about it. “To dream the impossible dream,/To fight the unbeatable foe,/To bear with unbearable sorrow!” I love it, Man of La Mancha. I started imagining myself on a stage thanks to Man of La Mancha.

Did you come across it via the book Don Quixote?

No, I was captured by the musical because I still had not read the book and I fell in love with the character, I adored the character. He became a god for me. I had Man of La Mancha mementoes everywhere in my room.

Would you like to do it one day?

Yes, I will. As soon as I reach Don Quixote’s age-  that’s his 50s - if I reach that age and I still am able to sing I want to do it. Everything I do is to reach Don Quixote. It seems ridiculous but it would be the most wonderful thing for me because it’s a child’s dream. I have seen I don’t know how many times Peter O’Toole’s film of Man of La Mancha. Whenever I see it’s live I go and see the performances. It’s really a dream that I hope I can fulfil. It’s not an exaggeration to say that would be the – how do you say? – the cherry…

CONTES_HOFFMANN-1BFD1819_RT8-ROLANDO_VILLAZN_AS_HOFFMANN-CCLIVE_BARDALeft: Rolando Villazón as Hoffmann in Les Contes d'Hoffmann at the Royal Opera House, 2004 (© Clive Barda)

How much do you need to know about a character before singing a role?

I have to tell you that as a performer the least informed you come to the first day of the rehearsal room the better, unless it’s a revival and you only have one week and you have to come up with certain ideas. But for a new production I really believe the best is to come empty. It’s the stage director who has to have all the answers of the universe, of the world he’s about to create. And it doesn’t hurt to know things once you are doing the production.

I don’t read the books on which the operas are based. I have read some of them because I like to read, so it’s about something else but not because I’m going to sing this I will read this. The only time I did it was Bohème and it’s not a very good book and it has coincidences with the Puccini story. Normally this is what happens. The opera becomes a new play. So all the answers of your questions should be in this play and in the mind of the stage director.

I remember I did once a Macbeth that was strongly based on the film by Kurosawa but then I went and saw the film and you could have the sense of where it comes from and what he’s aiming for. It’s like listening to recordings. The danger of listening to one recording is that you might like very much what it is there and you get used to that. And then you come here and there’s different ideas.

Do you listen to recordings much?

Not very much. When I learn I do and what I try to do is I buy as many recordings as I can find and listen to them one time. If I need to I go back and listen.

You don’t listen to Domingo more than others then?

Especially not him because the danger of sounding too much like him, because of how much I like what he does and how much I agree with what he does. Even if you are not aiming for that, it’s what it is in your ear and it comes naturally. Everything has to be discovered in the time. I don’t keep scores, for example.

You have done some analysis. Does it inform the way you play characters?

I think it helps. This is private. When I go to analysis it’s about my life and about my things and sometimes of course because characters are part of my life, books are part of my life, art, I can speak about these things and I can see, for example, how much certain situations onstage can be difficult because of a personal situation of my childhood that has a reference to this. But actually very few times my characters have been there in the analysis.

Whether that helps, yes, I think when you are doing a psychoanalytic process you learn to dig inside and to have bigger explanations and bigger justifications to certain acts, which is what happens also when you read good literature: you understand characters from the inside. The judgement is not, you’re good, you’re bad. You cannot go to a character and say, “Don Carlo is this or that.” No, it’s a human being and you have to imagine a whole bunch of information. And therefore I think that it depends. It can help to go and read Schiller. But I still think it’s better to use your imagination, to create your own character.

DON_CARLO-2212_0462-VILLAZN_AS_CARLOS-CASHMORERight: Rolando Villazón as Don Carlos in Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House, 2008 (© Catherine Ashmore)

In playing thwarted lovers, have you ever drawn on your own experiences of frustrated love?

Fortunately not. I started that right at the beginning. It was a decision. I remember my first Bohèmes or Traviatas I was thinking, do I think of my own troubles in order to understand it? And I said, “No, I think not.” I would end probably not wanting to sing certain things because my own experience in suffering would come out. So I am able to divide. I can relate. If you would come to me and say, “I’m having this trouble.” I would go, “Oh shit, I know what it is.”

Sometimes I actually do this. When I’m alone in my apartment, for example, I start to imagine this therapy group with all my characters and what would they be saying? What would Hoffmann be telling about his own story? Don Carlo would say, “Well, I have this problem with my father,” and Alfredo saying, “Yeah, but your father didn’t marry Violetta.” “Well, yeah.” And then Nemorino saying, “I don’t know my parents, I was born in this little village.” “Oh, that’s so sad.” And then Romeo speaking about love. I love to play like that and listen to the characters talking each other and then I join and start speaking about myself.

Do you read about the history of opera or composers?

I have read but I don’t have discipline for my readings. I read whatever I feel like. Normally I have a list. I read English original, Italian, French. German I have never. The thing is I hate not to understand and have to go to the dictionary, because I don’t do it to learn. For me reading is like going to the movies or watching TV. I don’t watch TV. I prefer to read. It’s a pleasure. So what I have done with the French books is I read it in Spanish and then I read it in French so then I don’t have to go to the dictionary.

Most opera stars' CDs don’t have a narrative. But the story of Cielo e Mar (2008) is one of romantic disillusionment. Why did you choose that path?

I have a huge admiration for Cecilia Bartoli. And I think she is the one who started doing this concept: the CD as an artistic object; an idea for the CD that’s not only arias put together. I have done it. My second CD was Gounod & Massenet Arias [2005]. The third one [Opera Recital, 2006] is different languages but the truth is it’s several arias together. The first one was an Italian album [Italian Opera Arias, 2004]. But more and more, and in these times when the CD is suffering, we need to give something more than just a bunch of arias that you could download each. So I didn’t come up with the intellectual concept or an idea of why these arias of the same period. It was more with an impulse of a poet writing a poem. It has this idea.

TenorEssentially all the troubles of humans are about fighting solitude and fighting solitude means joining society and joining society means falling in love and it’s done. The essence of who we are and the problems, the hells and the paradises that we discover or build with this situation, is the essence of who we are. And so that was the idea. I wanted to make this journey the way I read. Literature is the art form that is created by two: the writer and the one who reads, and they have the same responsibility. You receive a painting. The opera you receive. I expect an audience to be awakened and also people who go to a museum should be awakened and not go for the whole room but just for the three paintings that will grab them and not let them go. But in literature everything depends on your imagination. You are the stage director. You are receiving the information and you are using faces you want, you are creating the faces.

I wanted more or less the same effect. To create a story that would engage the listener into their own story or into another story, whatever it is. A subconscious story or a real story. And in order to have that, if you go to the arias we all know, you have already pre-established a story with that, even if it’s simple. So I wanted to have arias that were not known. So it was this combination of things that ended being the idea of this journey.

If it would be the end of my opera career I find something else, that’s fine

But I have to say the idea is not only disillusion. The last track is "L'ara o l'avello" from Luisa Miller. It’s like the crystal castle being built and then a stone comes into the crystal castle or a huge rock and it’s broken and there’s delusion and there are all these arias talking about despair and jealousy, but at the very end there’s this very energetic cavatina. For me it’s like fighting for love. It’s taking the pieces of this broken castle and putting them together with your own blood and building up a monument, this thing. It's yours, that’s your real story of love, not the utopic castle, that’s what love is about. And after that it’s yours, it belongs to you, it’s real, it’s made of earth.

We have these dreams in own head but you have to dig your hands and you have to work and it’s worth doing it. For me that’s why it finishes with this thing, and I would like to think the end of the CD is not this cavatina but the seconds or the minutes that the listener needs to come back from the place where he was taken by the music, this secret subconscious place – or probably conscious – of his own story, or still  unwritten story of these feelings going on inside him.

Bartoli loves sniffing around in old dusty libraries. Did you enjoy that part?

I’d love to answer, “Yes, I went into the libraries and I stayed hours.” I didn’t do that. Somebody did it for me. The producers of Deutsche Grammophon sent me all the music and I had to do the selection. I’m not sure if I would have the patience to go into the libraries and all that. But [Bartoli] has come up with this wonderful way of putting the whole thing together. It's the CD, it’s the tour.

anna-netrebko-und-rolando-villazonWhen you took your time off, Anna Netrebko (pictured right with Villazón) told me that she and other sopranos were all missing you. What did you do in your five months off?

What I did was first of all recover myself. I was exhausted. My iron was low, I needed vitamins. I was concentrating again. It was like going away from the mountain in order to see how the landscape looks. When you are in the mountain there’s some things that you don’t realise - in today’s world more than ever, not only in opera, in everything we do. I sensed, OK, here I come, there’s a couple of very difficult years. My calendar was full already with opera engagements. And I knew how important promotion is today. Without promotion you cannot record. You need to tell the people, “This exists, this exists, buy it.” I don’t feel that companies push you or squeeze you. They do their job - opera houses, CD companies. I have to say they all were very supportive when I called. My doctor said, “Take five weeks off.” And I said, “No, I’m going to finish the year now. I will take five months. I need to cleanse myself.”

Also there was a point where I was not concentrating enough on the artistic aspect. I was flying in all the other stuff. And so I wanted to go back to this without losing the other thing, because the other thing is important as a consequence.

So for the first three months I didn’t hear anything about opera, didn’t read anything about opera, and didn’t sing one note. For three months I closed and for the five months what I did was I was with my family. We have a house on a beautiful island. We went there at the weekends and I was home taking my kids to the school, drinking coffee with my wife, going to a lot of exhibitions in Paris and I actually enjoyed very much, doubting whether that was the end of my career.

I actually thought that that could have been another of those fast careers that end after six years. And I thought, well, if that’s the case it’s very sad but it’s not the end of my life. If it would be the end of my opera career I find something else, that’s fine. But I never got the point of, OK, where should I apply now? Because I was confident and I started working with my voice.

We were singing too much together and it’s very good that she goes and sings with other tenors

How much of a problem did you have with your voice?

You know the voice is the body, so yes. Being exhausted it was difficult to sing and singing high notes became a struggle and doing the pianos became a struggle, and I hate that. I don't want to sing like that. That’s why I thought it was probably the end of my career. I could have sung like that, continued singing, but I don’t like that. I don’t like to stand on a stage and be, how do I sing now this note? This I want to forget. Of course there are little moments that you fight, but not “Oh God, I’m not reaching it.” It’s the body. The moment the body is weak, is tired, is sick, it’s a huge struggle. The struggle should be a dramatic struggle. I love the struggle of the performer. I am very nervous when I go on stage, very nervous. And that’s a wonderful struggle, I’m not afraid as long as it’s not fear. When it’s fear it’s bad and I started to feel fear in those times, and then it’s horrible. It’s horrible, really horrible.

I spent some concert performances where, OK, one more act, here I go, here it comes. No, I don’t like that. Nerves bring fire. I would be very worried if I were not nervous when I’m singing. It’s not easy for me to sing, it’s not easy for me to act. It requires total concentration and total engagement but then it’s good. if you are healthy the struggle goes to another place, to the right place, where struggle should be. So it’s exciting to see that struggle. It’s not exciting to see someone fighting to reach a note.

You and Netrebko were marketed as a golden couple. You sing together less now.

I think at a certain point it’s healthy that when something becomes too expected, you as an artist know which tricks work well, you know each other too well, and the danger is that you start to become a copy of yourself in every single production. I don’t think we reached that but it was close to that. We were singing too much together and it’s very good that she goes and sings with other tenors and I go and sing with other sopranos. I think it was a very fortunate artistic event for both of us that we came together. It's fantastic to sing with Anna but I think it’s also very rich for the art form that energies like Kaufmann-Netrebko come together, Alagna-Netrebko come together, and for me Dessay-Villazón, Fleming-Villazón, Gheorghiu-Villazón. It enriches you as an artist and the art form also. A Bohème between Angela and myself - it’s another Bohème than the one I sing with Anna.

Watch Rolando Villazón and Anna Netrebko perform "O soave fanciulla":

Why did the partnership work? You come from completely different national stereotypes.

I don’t know how opposite I would say. I think we have things in common. But I think we learn things from each other. It was an exchange of artistic strengths. We took from each other - the fun of singing together… You know when they ask me this question I want to say I don’t want even to know. I don’t have an explanation. I don’t want to have an explanation.

You’re very similar personalities. Both very open, demonstrative and passionate.

Well, we all are who we are.

Do you go home to Mexico much?

No, unfortunately no. I don’t go as much as I would love to. There is no time.

Do you feel like an adoptive European?

Yes. I love being in Europe. You know, I feel a foreigner everywhere. Now even in Mexico I feel foreign because I’ve been away so long. I don’t even know the local jokes. That’s my condition. Even if I have a French citizenship and I live in France. The good thing is you don’t get used to the beauty of things and the bad things. You are always surprised, always discovering things, you are always finding something exciting about the corner in the street. You renew all the time your curiosity and you’re breathing of life and of human contact. You discover so many different cultures. The one thing I love about Europe is you have to learn how to live together. You go to the States and if you want to go to Los Angeles it’s as far as going to Europe.

handel_villazonYour last CD was a collection of Handel arias. What made you want to move into that repertoire? And what changes did you had to make to sing Handel?

A lot. I worked for seven months more or less. The placement of the voice is different. I didn’t want to sound like a baroque singer. I must sound like Villazón. But you have to respect certain things. I worked a lot with specialists about the style. When I want to sing something I feel that I can do it and I have something to say with that repertoire. And there was something in the rhythm of that music, in the pulse of those character, that I feel inside of me. I always talk about a bell inside of me. When an opera, a character, a book rings a bell inside, I know that it’s good for me. I don’t know that it’s good for them.

Watch Rolando Villazón performing "Dopo Notte" from Handel's Ariodante:

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters