First inspired by hearing Pavarotti singing in a commercial, Luca Pisaroni now has an international career.
Here we are backstage at the Met in New York, where you’re currently playing Leporello. Tough gig.
I love to play Leporello! He’s like the Cherubino of the Bass-Baritone world. He has a real relationship with the audience; he gets to be cheeky and charming and has a lot of fun commenting on what’s going on…
You’ve recently recorded the role for DG and were at Glyndebourne with it last summer. Are there other characters that compare for that level of engagement with the audience?
That I play? No.
This is your first Leporello at the Met, but you’ve become something of a regular at this house?
I love to be in New York! The city is amazing and it’s a dream come true to sing at the Met every season!
You’re very passionate that opera should be intelligent; more than just entertainment…
I think opera is something that can lead to better understanding of yourself and others. It’s not about an audience saying: ‘Entertain me, I don’t want to think!’ There is a huge misconception that people assume opera has to be old-fashioned or modern to be intelligent and interesting; not everything modern is some kind of Eurotrash nor is everything traditional boring or static. What matters most to me is that a production is intelligent and engaging which is not only determined by the look of the costumes or the period it is set in.
There’s a lot of Mozart in your repertoire at the moment. What does his music mean to you?
[laughs] Um, everything? I’m interested in singing roles that are dramatically interesting and I find Mozart is the best director out there. His pieces push you to the limit, they challenge your acting skills. I like Mozart because every night is a different night. As a singer, I like to listen; I don’t like it, when you can see that a singer is thinking about what’s coming next rather than what has just happened. What just happened determines what’s coming next.
What’s it like to sing the same Mozart role night after night?
Mozart’s masterpieces never get old. His music leaves a great deal of freedom for performers. I play with the recitatives – one night I may sing a phrase with total seriousness and the next time I may choose another way. Mozart allows you to experiment, to create on the spot, to be completely spontaneous.
What’s the defining moment, for you, in Mozart opera?
For me, it’s the end of Figaro when the Count asks for forgiveness. That line, ‘Contessa, perdono’ and her response – well, it’s very close to perfection. In that brief moment the Count is honest and the music is honest. I recently made my debut as the Count in Houston and I said to myself, ‘my god, you really need to control your nerves…’.
So you still get nervous?
Are you serious? Of course I get nervous before a performance. I think, ‘Why am I doing this, I wish I could be doing something else…’ Then the curtain goes up, the music takes over and I’m not nervous at all.
If you could do something else, what would it be…?
[thinks a long time.] Nothing. I decided to become a singer when I was eleven. I saw a commercial in Italy, Pavarotti was singing Nessun Dorma, and I knew at that moment I wanted to become an opera singer. I was lucky enough to already have a voice. I was a tenor. Later on my voice changed to a bass baritone, unfortunately. [chuckles]. I love the tenor repertoire and being a tenor pays much better! No, seriously, there is a lot of amazing music for bass-baritones as well.
What’s on your iPod?
Always Mozart, always Verdi, always the Rat Pack.
Aha. Which Rat Pack member are you?
Dean Martin. There is a special color in Dean’s voice that I love, and his rubato is amazing. He goes in and out of the melody so naturally; in and out of tempo like it’s the most natural thing in the world. That’s what I try to do in opera – Harnoncourt once told me, ‘let’s be together at the beginning of the bar and at the end. In the middle you can do whatever you want.’ At my first audition for him he told me to sing like Frank Sinatra.
Where would you be, in the world, if you could be anywhere?
I think in Vienna – it’s where I live. It’s a great city – the quality of life is incredible. Musically, it’s so active and they push boundaries, in a quite surprising way. I’m Italian but I feel very “mitteleuropäisch”. I’m fascinated by lieder, I love the dark Viennese sense of humor and even have Schadenfreude sometimes. So, in a way Vienna is my natural home!
The Viennese take their music very seriously; that must appeal to you?
For them, music and opera should provoke a discussion and enrich you as a human being, and this is what music is about. Of course, music can be entertaining, but it can do so much more than that.
The world’s about to end; you get one final role. What it is?
Stuff that I can actually sing, or anything?
Oh my god… Well. There is a role I would love to sing. It’s Otello. My first Otello was Domingo. It was just an experience that was out of this world. As a bass-baritone, though, it would be Filippo from Don Carlos. To sing ‘ella giammai m’amo’, you really need to have lived.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Say No. If you want to have a good career you need to learn how to say “No” – especially when it comes to repertoire choices.
And that you’d give?
Singers have an inner voice and trust me, it’s always right. If you don’t listen, you will not find your way. Also: don’t stand still, as a human being. You need to have hunger. You need to evolve. You cannot be an engaging artist if you are not an interesting human being.
© Clemency Burton-Hill
Luca Pisaroni is currently performing in Don Giovanni at the MET.