Marathon Man Luca Pisaroni
by Olivia Giovetti | Luca Pisaroni dreamed of being the next Pavarotti while growing up in Verdi’s hometown of Busseto, Italy. But fate—and puberty—had other things in store. Although gracing the world’s stages as a tenor was not in the cards, doing so as a bass-baritone was. Now Pisaroni draws inspiration from his fellow Fach sharers, including his famous father-in-law, Thomas Hampson. Success has not come quickly, however, and for this Italian bass-baritone, the journey is the destination.
Many singers view their career as a sprint to the finish line. Discordant with instrumentalists who can pick up the violin at age 3 and make their Lincoln Center debuts before they’re 10, and even fellow crooners in other genres who can go platinum before they’re able to legally drive a car, classical vocalists face a variety of developmental hurdles before the real work can begin.
Traditional training today leaves singers taking an average of one voice lesson a week and often being catapulted into roles—either by agents or opera companies—at preternaturally early ages, ages often included in (if not headlining) marketing copy. What follows is an inevitable, and often very public, burnout.
Bucking this trend, however, is bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni. Born in 1975, Pisaroni is just beginning his rise to prominence in the United States. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut at 29 as Publio in Mozart’sLa clemenza di Tito, but gave a star turn in New York as Leporello in the company’s new production of Don Giovanni (and returns this month as Caliban in the world premiere of The Enchanted Island). Compared to many of his peers who have headlined multiple Met productions and sweep across Europe, it may seem to some as a delayed trajectory—but for Pisaroni it’s not the majority of a sprint, but rather the first few miles of the marathon.
“It takes a life to master your voice, and it takes really only a few bad repertoire choices to ruin your voice. And once it’s gone, it’s gone,” explains the Venezuelan-born Italian singer over ginger ale at a hotel lounge that faces the Met. Growing up in Busseto, a comune in Parma and the birthplace of Giuseppe Verdi, Pisaroni developed an early passion for opera, admitting that he cannot remember his life without the art form. He listened obsessively to Boris Christoff singing the Verdi canon, from Don Carlos’ “Ella giammai m’amo” to Simon Boccanegra’s “Il lacerato spirito” to selections from the cabaletta-rich Attila. A few years later, at age 11, he saw his first opera—Aida. Around the same time, he destroyed a cassette tape of Pavarotti, singing over his recording of Tosca trademark “E lucevan le stelle” in tandem with the star tenor and checking to make sure his notes were high and long enough.
Such actions may not have made Pisaroni the most popular boy in school (he’ll be the first to admit that with a modestly charming self-effacement), but they did spark an obsession that has been instrumental in driving his career. “Coming from Busseto, it’s kind of easy because everybody knows who Giuseppe Verdi is and there is a festival,” he says. “It’s very important for this little village. I was immediately connected with this kind of music.”
While his peers would go clubbing on weekends, Pisaroni spent much of his free time with friends who were roughly 30 years his senior. He belonged to Amici di Verdi, a group that would travel by bus around Italy to see operas. At 14, he trekked over 125 miles to Torino in order to see a double-bill of Cavalleria rusticana and I pagliacci. He was back home at four o’clock in the morning and got up two-and-a-half hours later to go to school.
“This is passion,” he says. “Not everybody in Busseto loves opera, [but] I just loved it. I would not eat to buy CDs. I’m a fan.” Not many singers, as Pisaroni points out, listen to opera in their off time. Some have even gone on record saying that if it weren’t for their vocal talents, they probably would never set foot in an opera house. But in Pisaroni’s case, being a fan who also happens to have a voice has worked exponentially in his favor.
He spent the early part of his teenage years observing masterclasses held after school by Carlo Bergonzi, and goes on to say that while he never worked with the legendary Verdian (who in his own right led to many of the composer’s neglected works receiving precious exposure in the 20th century), he credits said classes with teaching him the art of singing, notably phrasing. Yet when he tried to audition for Bergonzi at 14, he was told he needed to wait for four years until he cleared puberty and his voice changed.
It was, however, with this voice change that Pisaroni found himself—much to his own horror—progressing from his comfort zone in the tenor rep to the brave new world of bass-baritone-dom. He moved from emulating the big, round sounds of his beloved Pavarotti to descending lower into the bass tones of his first flame in Christoff. Like any Busseto-born singer worth his salt, Pisaroni originally aspired to fiery and ardent roles like Gustavo in Un ballo in maschera and the title role of Otello. Pisaroni, who jokingly calls himself “a tenor trapped in a bass-baritone,” lights up when he describes Pavarotti’s takes on these star turns, before shrugging, as if to say “Che peccato” of his own vocal lot and sigh, “It is what it is.”
From there, Pisaroni enrolled in Milan’s Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi where his obsessive nature helped him to emerge from a poor conservatory experience and a bad voice teacher. “I remember struggling with the recitative before ‘Madamina’ and I remember starting ‘Madamina’ already tired,” he recounts, referring to Leporello’s Catalogue Aria in the early part of Don Giovanni. “You need to sing two hours, and after a page of recits I’m tired? There is something wrong.”
In his third year, his teacher suggested he sing Zaccaria’s aria from Verdi’s Nabucco for an exam, a work that Pisaroni knew intimately and also knew was innately inappropriate for his still-developing voice. “I remember saying, ‘If I sing Zaccaria in my third year, by my graduation I’m going to sing Wotan.’” In secret, he prepared Somnus’ aria from Handel’s Semele and Assur’s andante from Rossini’s Semiramide instead, bringing them as alternatives to the table and surprising his instructor with the off-kilter yet entirely appropriate repertoire.
“The problem for me is a lot of voice teachers, they don’t know the repertoire,” he adds. “And it’s very dangerous because not everybody’s born like Renato Bruson, who sang Trovatore at 26.”
Another major event in Pisaroni’s conservatory experience was being offered a contract to sing with the Salzburg Festival, an act akin to an American college student being asked to perform at the Met. Yet Pisaroni put off his professional debut, reasoning that “before I start singing professionally, I better know what I’m doing.” He sought out Argentinian tenor Renato Sassola, who has also taught Marcelo Álvarez and Erwin Schrott, and whose career included performances under the batons of Tullio Serafin, Erich Kleiber, and Karl Böhm.
Pisaroni considers the year he spent studying in Buenos Aires with Sassola “the best thing I have ever done in my life.” Like Pisaroni’s current teacher, the Amsterdam-based Margreet Honig, Sassola’s theory focuses on freeing the technique, a quality that dovetails nicely with Pisaroni’s belief that singing should be natural and easy (after, of course, a significant amount of work). He would be constantly asked to scale back recitatives, eventually building a trust in his body and voice to allow the voice to “happen” without a significant amount of pushing.
“I never want the audience to feel like this fear, this, ‘Oh my, is the note coming out?’ or ‘I can see he’s struggling, I hope he’s going to make it,’” says Pisaroni. “If this is how I look, it’s not what I want to convey. Also, you should have your technical issues resolved before actually going onstage because you shouldn’t give an audience a voice lesson, you should give an interpretation. You should have enough tools so that actually your interpretation comes across.”
In the last decade, Pisaroni’s repertoire has been concentrated on Baroque and Mozart roles. His professional debut was Figaro in the Austrian city of Klagenfurt, followed by a Leporello in Germany and finally his Salzburg debut as Masetto in the 2002 production of Don Giovanni. It was in the Salzburg Giovanni that Pisaroni performed alongside his future father-in-law Thomas Hampson (Hampson’s daughter, Catherine, designs websites for a variety of classical artists). He also sang under conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, whose accounts of Mozart’s operas—not to mention Baroque works by Bach, Monteverdi, and Purcell—are the stuff of historically informed legend, period instruments or not.
Pisaroni cops to having arrived at the Alpine opera haven a bit “cocky. I thought, Harnoncourt does not speak Italian, I’m Italian, Masetto’s a small role.” However, he soon found that the work was hard, albeit hard in a way unlike his exhausting conservatory experience. Daily coachings allowed Pisaroni greater insight into Harnoncourt’s musical intentions, particularly with the recitatives. “His vision of what the music can do is unparalleled,” Pisaroni says with no small trace of awe. “The guy is so knowledgeable that even if you don’t agree with what he’s asking of you, he gives you an explanation that is so convincing that you end up loving it.”
For singers in Pisaroni’s Fach, Masetto is a rite of passage, sung even by Bryn Terfel (against Thomas Allen’s Don Giovanni). Being in an opera with three bass-baritone roles, it also provides an ample learning experience and plenty of observation time. Pisaroni studied Hampson’s Don and co-star Ildebrando d’Arcangelo’s Leporello, doing the same with the two other Masettos he sang before officially graduating to the role of Leporello, singing against Michele Pertusi’s Don at the Teatro Real in Madrid (he returned there two years later to sing in Martín y Soler’s Il burbero di buon cuore, an opera that opened in Vienna in the same year as Le nozze di Figaro).
“I love this character,” Pisaroni says of Leporello. In a DVD from Glyndebourne’s 2010 production, he plays opposite Gerald Finley’s Don, serving as an unwitting paparazzo to Finley’s Fellini-esque lothario. His recitatives, so easily written off as inconsequential vehicles from aria to ensemble number, illuminate his character, caught between his fellow servants and peasants and the renegade nobility of the opera. His Catalogue Aria is gleefully perverse, indoctrinating the spurned Donna Elvira as one of the 1,003 Spanish conquests of his master. He is the window into Mozart and Da Ponte’s warped world, a far cry from his incensed and indignant Masetto who rages against the machinations of the entitled Don.
At the Met, Pisaroni’s take on Leporello earned him some of the highest reviews of the production. After the Don is dragged to Hell, Pisaroni’s Leporello turns several shades darker. Donna Elvira goes to him in the finale, extending a hand of reconciliation, but he shakes his head. He is shell shocked, stupefied—in Pisaroni’s words, “a normal person who is affected by something extraordinary.” Here, Pisaroni wanted to convey the sense of emptiness, mirroring the immediate loss that Donna Anna feels at the top of the opera after losing her father.
“I remember talking with [director] Michael Grandage and I said, ‘Don’t ask me to be happy. I can’t do it. I would really have to force myself to do it,’” he explains. “Because I honestly think when something like this happens, such an energy is taken away from you. Your life afterward cannot be the same. We don’t see Leporello two months after, we see Leporello 30 seconds after the guy is dragged down to Hell. I might get another master, but it’s not going to be somebody as exciting as Don Giovanni.”
While cultivating his Mozart repertoire, Pisaroni has also expanded his résumé with the singer-friendly Baroque repertoire. It’s a far cry from the full-throated Verdi. Yet in these works Pisaroni brings a certain sense of visceral verisimilitude to roles ensconced in 17th-century tradition. Even as the eponymous Ercole amante at De Nederlandse Opera, which outfits the singer in a plastic, Ken-Doll-like costume—replete with bendable legs—on the 2009 DVD he is remarkably fluid in movement and characterization with a rich, uninhibited tone. Such interpretations have also served him well at Glyndebourne last summer in his first non-Mozart role as the dastardly Argante in Handel’s Rinaldo.
“I think it’s an incredible tool for a young singer to keep his own voice on track, because at the time there was no distinction between bass and baritone, so it’s fairly high,” says Pisaroni of his affinity for the repertoire. His aria in Rinaldo pushes the upper register, a means of keeping the voice in check. (“As my father-in-law always says, ‘There’s always time to start having a wobble and to lose high notes,’” he laughs.) The reduced orchestration of a Baroque orchestra versus, say, Wagner also lessens the pressure when it comes to producing a large, stentorian sound.
At the same time, Pisaroni adores Baroque for the manifold opportunities left to the singer for interpretation. As opposed to Verdi, composers like Cavalli and Handel erred on the light side of dynamics and color indications in the score. It’s an ideal situation for a singer to stand out and create an individualized interpretation—and, in Pisaroni’s view, still reap some challenges: “The spectrum of feelings is so wide. You go from one aria to the next and then sometimes even a duet, so you have very little amount of time to try to convey what your character’s feeling at the moment to the audience. Which is the challenge of opera.”
Handel, along with Vivaldi and Rameau, factors heavily into The Enchanted Island, which in the tradition of 18th-century musical pastiches and masques combines well known musical numbers (and, in this case, the plots of The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) to form a new setting. As Caliban (a character Pisaroni jokes is “Leporello flying to New York, getting in a crash, landing on an island, and getting rescued six months later”) Pisaroni delves deeper into his penchant for monsters and broken personae—one, not for nothing, that eludes most tenors.
On paper, the bass-baritone seems to be treading a career path that is in many ways similar to that of his father-in-law’s. However, with Pisaroni at the brink of his career and Hampson three decades through his own, there are plenty of chances for points of departure. Not that such differences mean there isn’t much for the former to pick up from the latter. Though Hampson’s higher baritone and devotion to German (especially Mahler) Lieder is a stark contrast to Pisaroni’s more sonorous tones (a former Valentin next to a future Méphistophélès), it’s Hampson’s stamina and endurance over 25 years that has helped Pisaroni to realize his own long-term goals.
“When somebody’s at that level for such a long time, he must have done something right,” Pisaroni says. “The older I get, the more I understand that it’s actually very easy to get it wrong, meaning to make a mistake and then you never recover. I would be stupid not to take advantage of the fact that [Hampson] has 25-plus years of experience. If you find someone who actually is honest with you, hold onto them, because it’s not easy. We can talk to each other honestly and we know that it comes from the heart. Even his criticisms I take because I know he means well. I’m very lucky in this.”
Surrounding himself with a small but dependable circle of people he trusts has also kept Pisaroni on the path to a long and varied career. Ever the opera fan, he cites colleague Samuel Ramey as one who began with Figaro and Leporello before moving into Handel, Bel Canto, the French canon, and even mega-roles like Boris Godunov. He recalls advice given to him by Ferruccio Furlanetto, who advised him to sit tight until age 40. “If you do the right thing at 40, the voice changes and you can do pretty much what you want,” he explains. Among the praises he sings of composers like Handel and Gluck and Mozart, Pisaroni also acknowledges that “this is what I need to do to do the repertoire that I want to do.” A time will come, he acknowledges, that he will be too old to sing Guglielmo—but at that time he’ll also no longer be too young to sing Iago in Otello.
The development has already begun: after singing Mozart’s Figaro in Madrid, Santa Fe, Salzburg, San Francisco, Vienna, and the Met, Pisaroni took to Houston to sing his first Count Almaviva, an ascension not unlike that of Masetto to Leporello. He works tirelessly with Honig in Amsterdam when he can. He currently lives in Vienna—a far cry from Italy, but a move that he found essential to avoid stagnation (Pisaroni has sung only a handful of performances in Italy and just one opera, which he owes to the country’s dysfunctional political and cultural system).
“My list is endless,” he says of his dream roles, but adds, “I think I need to see where my voice is going to go. You need to let it grow naturally. At the moment, I think I’m a bass-baritone, but I’m right between the two Fachs.”
Following The Enchanted Island, Pisaroni reprises Argante in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Rinaldo under Baroque maestro Harry Bicket. He returns to Germany and Austria for some additional Figaros and then is back in the United States this summer as the title role in Rossini’s Maometto II at Santa Fe. “I just started singing some Rossini,” he says of his slow build-up to roles like his first Méphistophélès in Gounod’s Faust, but that’s still another five years off. No matter, Pisaroni has plenty of time.
“There is a saying in Italy: ‘Every season brings a different fruit,’” he says. “I think you just need to wait when it’s the right time for you.”