Operagasm Exclusive: Loving on Luca
by Melissa Wimbish | Operagasm is on a winning Valentine streak! For the second year in a row, we have been fortunate to spend the holiday of love with some of the brightest hearts in the opera business. This interview seemed more like a much-needed therapy session for me rather than a conversation with one of the most popular bass-baritones in the universe. Even as the phone rang, I was thinking about the stack of music on my piano instead of realizing that Luca Pisaroni had already made three attempts at “Hello”. Ah! Focus!
Don’t worry, I recovered and managed to chirp some sort of greeting. And yes, exactly how you imagine the cutest Italian accent to sound over the phone at 9ish in the morning — that was my reality. Sigh…I forgot all about that stack of music…
MW: You seem to have had a very global education. Growing up in Italy, but also studying in Venezuela and New York, would you talk more about what this has done for your artistic journey?
LP: Certainly. Studying in different countries opens your mind a lot. There are a lot of stereotypes when you talk about Italians and…uh…you know.. 90% of them are true. (He laughs.) When you move to America, especially, it’s really different. It happened by chance, I have to say, I didn’t look for it. I thought it would be enough for me to study at the conservatory in Milano…but, you know, I had a terrible teacher and I was never able to sing the way that I wanted to sing. The way I imagined I could sing. I had to look for something and for somebody who could actually help me with that. So, first of all, I found this tenor in South America and then, because my wife was studying in New York, I began to study there.
I live in Vienna now because I like it and I think it’s a great city. Opera is part of everybody’s life. I like it also because it fits with my personality. There, I discovered Lieder and songs and this rich tradition of song-writing. When I was young, I decided that if I ever became an opera singer, I would always sing Lieder –we don’t have this tradition of song-writing in Italy, but it certainly makes my career much more interesting. The exposure to different cultures is so important. If I hadn’t lived for awhile in Austria or America, I wouldn’t have gotten in touch with this sort of repertoire. I always say, when you study, you should just go away for awhile because it’s always nice to find another home and try to discover another culture.
MW: I’m curious about what you do to set boundaries for yourself so that you’re not exhausted all the time. What do you do to stay in good vocal shape?
For me, the main thing is sleeping. I know I sound like an old man…but sleeping is probably the most important thing for me. Especially the day of a performance I need to sleep as long as I can. I always sleep in the afternoon…that’s why everybody makes fun of me for a show at 7:30, by 1 or 1:30 I’m already back in bed for, like, an hour and a half. If I’m rested I know that my voice is fine.
And the other thing that I didn’t do at the beginning of my career is to work out before the show. Not much, I don’t need to make myself tired, but I do run for 20 minutes and stretch. Over the years I’ve discovered that if my body is ready, the warming up of the voice takes much less time.
In terms of keeping sane, I try to do as much as I can with my wife when I don’t have to work. I try to go to the movies, galleries, the theatre…and I like to go to opera so if there is something in town that I want to see, you know…I would definitely sit through an Aida for three and a half hours. Definitely. Because I really like to go to the opera, I think it’s great. I’m not one of those singers that says, “Never opera, just Madonna.” No, the contrary! Only opera..and sometimes Frank Sinatra.
MW: You mentioned that when you were a younger singer, you knew you were capable of a certain sound but you weren’t singing that way. Can you talk more about that? It sounds so much like..
He begins to talk because the delay on the phone is a little bit weird and I think he thought I was done asking my question. Then, he stops short.
LP: What did you say? Sounds so much…?
MW: Huh? No, go ahead..
LP: No, what did you say? You said, “Sound so much like…”
MW: Oh, I was just going to say, it sounds so much like…probably what goes on in my head. You know, you go into these phases where you think you’ve figured out so much about your voice and you’re singing so well, and then you have these weeks when the inner-dialogue is more like, “What happened? Why can’t I sing anymore?”
One of the best parts of these interviews is going back to the recording, listening to all of the different laughs, and then identifying them. With Luca, there were three distinct kinds:
The pity laugh: This one happened a lot. It typically occurred when I said most things.
The soft chuckle: Used a lot while talking about his wife. It was sweet.
The explosive-major-triad-guffaw: No, seriously, I’m pretty sure he laughed a major triad. It was awesome. That’s what happened right there when I hit “Pause”. Okay, we’re back.
LP: I laugh because I gave a young bass-baritone a coaching when I was in New York. He was talking about his ups and downs and saying, “Sometimes I think I know it and then three days later nothing works!” At the beginning of my career especially, I had exactly the same feeling I had. There were some lessons I walked out of saying, “That’s it, I know it,” and two days later I was back to square one… I didn’t remember how to take a decent breath.
This is, unfortunately, what happens at the beginning of a career, you know? You’re trying to figure out your technique…and it takes awhile. You have to be patient, it’s the hardest thing when you’re trying to get better.
MW: Your career appears to have been carefully planned. You made smart, marked repertoire decisions. How did you resist the urge to overextend yourself? What recommendations do you have for students in dealing with overly-ambitious teachers or coaches?
I always had an idea about how I should sound..not in terms of color because this is not your job. I always say “Let your voice be.” This is the only way it will ever develop. It’s not healthy to “color” your voice and to try to push it somewhere. I always had an idea of how easy it should sound. I wanted my vowel sound easy throughout the range. When I was in Milano, I knew the person I was working with was not helping me with this. So, I was constantly looking for someone else. I remember singing a page of recitative sometimes, being out of breath and wondering, “How is this possible? How do people sing an entire opera? This is simply not right.”
I knew what I wanted and how I wanted to sound. I tell you, I believe very strongly that a singer has a sixth sense and has to listen to it AT ALL TIMES. Every time I didn’t listen to my instinct, I was really really unhappy. If my gut feeling tells me this is the right person for me or I can sing this repertoire, or I can’t, you have to trust that. Your voice will certainly suffer if you don’t. These decisions can sometimes make or break a career.
Be patient. Don’t ever do anything that is not right for your voice — do what your voice is happy with. You will never damage yourself singing Mozart.
Every other month, opera companies are closing all around the world. As an opera-goer yourself, what do you think audiences are craving that they are not currently receiving?
Yeah, I mean…It’s really sad to see this. It’s really scary. I talk as a professional who works in this business and I also talk as an audience member. It’s sad because I remember when I was an adolescent 20 years ago. The opera theaters were incredibly full. And there was actually passion, you know? People had passion and people wanted to go and people talked about it. Nowadays, I feel like opera is viewed more as entertainment rather than something that has some kind of value and some kind of relevance in people’s life, you know? That’s the thing I’m really worried about.
What can we do? (Wow, I sounded really desperate just then.)
That’s a good question. I honestly don’t know. There is no magic wand here. The amount of things that are available to people, the fact that in school people aren’t taught about music…there are so many things. Obviously for an adolescent to spend 80 dollars to go to the Met and see an opera or 12 dollars to go to a movie — I’m pretty sure they will go to the movie.
I remember when I was in school I had no money, but I had the passion, you know? I would sit and wait all day to get the standing-room tickets that were worth 5 dollars. I don’t know…I don’t know. I’m sad because art and music reaches people. It’s sad when our society doesn’t pay attention to this.
Do you think this is a world-wide deterioration in awareness, or something you have come across mostly in the United States?
Ummm…no. I read yesterday that the house in Barcelona is closing for two months now. It’s a general problem. There is a different approach about opera, in my opinion, in America and in Europe. Still 99% of the money in American institutions comes from private donations while I’m sure more than 60% in Europe comes from the government. This proves at least some kind of interest from the government to actually keep this art form alive. It is a little bit different. I have to say that as much as the Met is “The Met” and I love singing there and it’s renowned everywhere, I feel like the house is not as much in the center of New York life as I would like it be.
I love Vienna, because when you take a cab in Vienna, you know, every single cab driver knows the name of the director of Wiener Staatsoper. The election of the director of Wiener Staatsoper is a national thing. Everybody knows. Austria, yes, it’s much smaller, but it’s nice to see how relevant opera and classical musical in general are there. I admire private donors in this country…They’re amazing. Without them, this art form would not exist at all. A mixture of government money and private donors would be the perfect thing. I don’t envy people who have to run an opera house. It’s not easy.
I try to do everything I can to make this art form more accessible, I use Facebook and YouTube and make videos for kids because kids are the future generation who are actually going to watch me sing in 15 years. Recently Joyce [DiDonato] and I did a video for this school while we were singing Enchanted Island and we said “Hi” to them at the HD broadcast… and it was so cute because I received probably 35 letters from the kids saying how awesome that was and how much they love the opera. So, it’s very important to do this. I don’t envy people who have to run an opera house. It’s not easy.
Young singers are constantly thinking about their technique as they make the transition into performing more and more on stage. How does that awareness evolve as you become busier with traveling and learning to adjust to life on the road?
I work 11 months out of the year, but every time I have a little bit of time I go to my teacher in Amsterdam. I try to see her at least twice a year. I like to work on the repertoire that I will eventually do because I believe in studying something ahead of time, preparing it early, leaving it alone for awhile, and then coming back to it later, you know? This helps me so much.
The sad thing about technique, and here I’m quoting my father-in-law (Thomas Hampson)..the sad thing is that you never get it right! You learn to make less mistakes. I always thought, “Oh, there is going to be a day when you know what to do and that’s it!” There is a time like that, but it’s very different than this. You learn the pillars and you build on that and you know that no matter what condition you are in, “that” sound is going to come out. It might not be your best sound of the day, but you are going to be able to get through a performance even if you don’t feel 100 percent. My debut was 11 years ago in Figaro and I can’t even imagine how that would sound to me now. I didn’t have the technical security.
It’s a process. Everybody goes through it, it takes awhile, but life would be incredibly boring without it. I happen to like it.
Now, for the fun questions!
MW: I’m pretty sure that I’m the first person that created a FB for my dog — are you copying me? I see that your dogs, Lenny 2.0 and Tristan, recently came aboard.
LP: I thought it would be nice to see the life of a singer through the eyes of a dog. They travel with us all the time unless the schedule is just too much for them. I think my dogs are special and that all other canines should be jealous that my dogs have so many Facebook friends! (He laughs — wow, he loves those dogs.)
It makes me feel like we are at home no matter where we go.
MW: What composer would you most want to portray in a film?
LP: My father-in-law stole my answer. Verdi would be awesome.
MW: Has anyone ever told you that you look like Dennis from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”?
MW: What’s a favorite role not in your Fach that you would love to sing in your dreams?
LP: You know, this is going to take an hour. (He laughs.) I have to say I am a missed tenor. When I was an adolescent I had a tenor voice and so I know most of the Italian arias by heart…Otello.
MW: How did you meet your lovely wife? How did you know she was “The One”?
LP: (Really long laugh. Makes me wonder if she was in the room. So cute.) Thomas introduced us and I remember him looking at me in a very menacing way as if to say, “Don’t even think about it.” Well, she was at every staging rehearsal and we began talking about the production, you know, small talk. It was so funny because Thomas and I had a fight scene in the opera, and it became one of the most realistic fight scenes I have ever done! Very well-choreographed. (He laughs.)
At the party after the premiere, I just…you know…I kissed her. (I “awwed” appropriately.) She thought it would never work out because she was very focused on her studies, she went back to New York…but I knew she was the right one, you know? She is the good half of me. She is so damn smart, she makes everybody around her better, and for that, I was determined to make it work. At the beginning she didn’t like me that much, but Thomas defended me…
It was very romantic. I find it very cute that we met during my debut in Salzburg and that it was all opera-related. Of course, she has her own life and her own profession, but she is a very important confidant and supports me so much. I am very lucky to have her.
And please, put a Facebook link to my dogs. We are working on getting to a thousand friends.
Awwwwwwwww…..! We love him. Love. Love. Love him. Happy Valentine’s Day to all of our dear Operagasm readers and to the dashing Luca Pisaroni!