A Venezuela-born Italian bass is rising to great heights
By Sebastian Spreng
Since his 2001 professional debut, Luca Pisaroni has made headlines in the musical press around the world. The Italian opera singer won the “Newcomer of the Season” medal of the Vienna State Opera and kicked off a flourishing international career. Regarded as one of the best bass-baritones of our time, he made his mark in Mozart and Händel. His Figaro, especially, has created a sensation from Paris and Vienna to the Metropolitan Opera and Santa Fe, and was particularly noted in Mozart’s hometown at the venerable Salzburg Festival.
A powerful voice schooled in the great tradition and a remarkable stage presence has made Pisaroni one of today’s most exciting young stars. He is now on his first American tour, which will include debuts at Ravinia (Nov. 4), Carnegie Hall (Nov. 13), the Metropolitan Opera (Le Nozze di Figaro,starting Nov. 23) and this weekend in Miami, where he will perform Beethoven’s Ninth and arias fromFidelio with Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony.
Born in Venezuela, he returned with his family to Italy when he was four. He does not remember his early years in Venezuela, yet he still speaks perfect Spanish with a delightful “Made in Argentina” accent, where he completed his vocal studies. Growing up in Busseto, Verdi’s hometown, his love for opera and singing was encouraged by his grandfather. At 11, he knew he wanted to become an opera singer as he explains in a phone conversation from Amsterdam, where he is performing Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.
LP: It was thanks to a TV commercial for the World Soccer Championship in 1986 that I decided to become a singer. The commercial showed an Italian player running ecstatically after scoring a goal while in the background Pavarotti sang Nessun dorma. I turned to my mother and said “I want to do that!” First, she didn’t know if I was referring to the soccer player or the opera singer, but then she realized it was the latter as I did poorly in sports.
SS: You attended the Accademia Verdiana of Carlo Bergonzi in your hometown and then Milan…
LP: I was a teenager when I sat in classes Bergonzi taught in Bussetto. After school I went to the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in Milan and then left for Buenos Aires to study with the Argentinean tenor Renato Sassola.
SS: Being the center of the operatic world, why Argentina?
LP: When Sassola moved to Buenos Aires, I decided to continue working with him and went there for a year. I realized it was more important to prepare a repertoire than just getting a degree from the conservatory. After Buenos Aires I went back to Europe and in 2002 I went to Salzburg where my whole life changed….not only my career but also my personal life. I went to Salzburg to sing Masetto to the Don Giovanni of Thomas Hampson. That summer I had the fortune of not only meeting Thomas, but also his daughter Catherine, who is now my wife. My whole life changed.
SS: Why is Mozart so difficult to sing?
LP: It’s not a secret that if you want to sing Mozart well, it’s very demanding. You need a solid technique, good diction and a huge range of colors. You need to be a well rounded singer. For a young singer it is the best vocal gym, it allows you to grow as an artist without damaging your instrument.
SS: You sing Figaro, Leporello, Guglielmo, Papageno… why not Don Giovanni?
LP: Don Giovanni scares me a bit. The problem is that there is nothing between being a great Don Giovanni and a bad one. I have two models. First, Thomas Allen who really changed how we perceived it and then, Thomas Hampson who defined the role for my generation. Whenever I sing Leporello I think about how elusive Don Giovanni is as a character, like a chameleon continuously changing colors. Frankly, the role is less of a vocal challenge as it is a challenge to portray the character dramatically. If you go on stage and do not electrify your audience, you are in troub
SS: As Figaro in Santa Fe last year, you exuded a contagious joy of singing not common nowadays.
LP: I try to sing it as naturally as I can. Mozart and da Ponte are all about humanity and truth. Nothing should be artificial or sound manufactured. You need to have a strong core and sing with your heart. I will sing also the Count in the future. He is a very intriguing character and a good intermediate step between Figaro and the Don.
SS: Mozart and Handel lie at the core of your current repertoire
LP: Handel’s music sounds so modern to me, even a bit “jazzy.” The agility is not simply a showcase of vocal virtuosity but a chance to infuse a scene with dramatic meaning. It is very good for my voice—it keeps it high and light. In every Handel opera you find many astounding moments that let you dive deep into the human soul.
SS: And Rossini?
LP: I have plans to sing Maometto II. Rossini’s music is the natural progression after Mozart and Handel. Maometto II is special to me, ever since I saw Samuel Ramey at La Scala in 1993, I have been dreaming about it.
SS: When is Verdi’s turn?
LP: When I turn forty, you can ask me this question again. It takes time to inhabit these characters. You need to have achieved a certain maturity. Remember that a bass-baritone is like a bottle of red wine, like Brunello di Montalcino—the older the better.
SS: How do you compare the current styles of American and European productions?
LP: America has traditionally resisted the new European way. I feel that in America audiences are more “voice driven” while Europeans are more “production driven”. Regarding directors I like to work with someone with ideas. It doesn’t matter to me if the production is avant-garde or traditional, it’s about whether it is intelligent or not.
SS: Like singing the part of Jesus in Robert Wilson’s staged version of Bach’s Saint John Passion?
LP: [Wilson is] a master of creating atmosphere with lighting and a few gestures. Singing within the stillness he demands was very hard at times. An extraordinary experience. Movement is an essential part of any of the performing arts and different genres call for different styles of movement. Wilson’s techniques are invaluable for my recitals. Every Liederabend is a collection of miniature scenes. One has to be more restrained. You act with the voice creating scenes that the audience can imagine without seeing it.
SS: When preparing a new role, how do you start?
LP: First, I like to work on the piece by myself. I don’t agree with some of my colleagues who say that you are not supposed to listen to recordings to prepare a role. If you want to paint, you need to know the masters, right? If I am learning a German lied how can I not listen to Fischer-Dieskau? I do not see anything wrong with getting inspiration about tempi, diction or phrasing from the voice of experience. After I have done my research I try to make it mine.
For instance, my Carnegie Hall recital will include Schubert, Rossini, Meyerbeer and Liszt. The German lied is very close to my heart and also my personality. It is curious but I feel more Mittel-Europäisch than Italian. I am really very much into the deep and sometimes dark German lied art form. I would love to do a recital on the theme of “Desperation and Suicide”. That tragic stuff is closer to my heart than, for instance, the sunny songs of Tosti.
SS: How do you feel about historically informed music practice?
LP: The great thing about music is that there is no absolute truth; art is a process more than a product. I don’t believe in dogmatic approaches. In those times, there was no distinction between bass and baritone and the instruments were tuned at a lower pitch; as a consequence many Baroque roles played with modern instruments are much higher than they used to be. Working with an orchestra playing historical instruments makes these parts much more comfortable to sing.
SS: Any attempts into the contemporary opera repertoire?
LP: A new role that I wanted to sing and that was cancelled due to budget problems was the Figaro in Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles. It was a great chance to portray Figaro in a modern piece. I haven’t sung many operas in English and to sing at the Met I need to do at least one thing a year that scares me. I call it my yearly challenge. It keeps me going at full speed.
SS: In conclusion, can you name some of your role models?
LP: Without any order of importance, my first was Pavarotti. I love the intrinsic beauty of his instrument, that unbelievable sound that flooded the theater. I was seventeen when I first heard him at La Scala in 1992. I was sitting far up in the loggione and when he started singing I turned my head thinking there was a speaker behind me. I never felt anything like that ever since.
From Carlo Bergonzi, I learned a great deal especially about diction and phrasing. For his incredible musical imagination, for the way he is committed to a role, for being so serious and profound in everything he does, Thomas Hampson is a role model. Last but not least: Nikolaus Harnoncourt. When I sang Masetto for him in Salzburg I thought, “Ok, here I go, I am Italian and this is going to be fairly easy.” And then, I realized that I had no idea about anything. Harnoncourt has this incredible sense for the words and for the drama and after working with him you never look at a piece of music the same way. For me time falls into “before and after Harnoncourt.” I admire his love, respect, passion and dedication to this art form and I hope to have half of his musical curiosity when I reach his age.