Both Beast & Man
By Stepan Atamian | “I didn’t know what my costume was supposed to be like until the production was announced. When I saw the sketches, I just thought they were wacko.”
“Wacko” might be the only way to describe the costume Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni had to wear for the Metropolitan Opera’s “The Enchanted Island.” Donning long black braids, white and yellow face paint, and particularly hairy feet, Mr. Pisaroni was virtually unrecognizable as the monster Caliban, particularly for audiences who saw him in the fall as Leporello. Although Mr. Pisaroni is a tall well-dressed man in real life, his Caliban was a deformed creation only Frankenstein could be proud of.
After a long rehearsal for a recital next month, Mr. Pisaroni looked wiped out as he sat in the Met Opera cafeteria. When speaking about his costume, however, Mr. Pisaroni lit up.
“The costume is so outrageous that I had to come up with a posture and way to walk that was a bit weird. I could not just walk straight and normally – it had to be more animal-like” expressed Mr. Pisaroni excitedly in fluent, if accented, English.
In his massive outfit, Mr. Pisaroni lurched across the stage like a character from an old horror movie. Surprisingly, however, Mr. Pisaroni did not turn Caliban into a one-dimensional character and instead made him an extremely sympathetic being, which Mr. Pisaroni attributed to the work itself.
“I like my character because there is variety. He has a journey,” mentioned Mr. Pisaroni. “He starts out upset, falls in love and becomes almost human, and then goes back to his rage. When the drama is interesting, that’s when I love performing.” Chuckling to himself, he added, “Playing Caliban is very hard on my legs and back. It’s not easy to sing a challenging aria when you can’t stand up straight. At the end of the day though, it’s really rewarding, and I have no regrets.”
In the past few years, Mr. Pisaroni has become one of the most sought-after bass-baritones in the world. Though light, his voice carries in the largest of houses with a burnished, muscular sound.
With his flexible voice, Mr. Pisaroni is one of a select few who can perform the dramatic roles of the Baroque repertoire. Later this month, for example, Mr. Pisaroni sings the notoriously challenging Argante (containing what Mr. Pisaroni calls “possibly the most difficult aria ever written for the bass-baritone”) in Handel’s “Rinaldo” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Although Mr. Pisaroni gave a thrilling performance in “The Enchanted Island,” he received even better notices for his Leporello in Mozart’s masterpiece “Don Giovanni.” Though he was performing among the likes of Peter Mattei and Barbara Frittoli, Mr. Pisaroni dominated the action as the Don’s servant.
While he sang Masetto early in his career and plans to sing the title character in the future, Mr. Pisaroni considers Leporello to be his favorite character. “There is so much to do with that role in terms of how to play it. It’s been such a pleasure every time I’ve done it.”
Mr. Pisaroni has sung Leporello in several productions, but there are certain aspects that he explores in every production he attempts. “There are some pillars that are fixed to every production I do.” He specified: “I always think about and work on this relationship with Don Giovanni, and it is incredibly important to me that this comes out throughout the opera.”
Perhaps his favorite aspect of Leporello is the role the servant plays throughout the performance. “It’s the fact that Leporello has this incredible gift that Mozart gave him, which is that he has a direct dialogue with the audience. He’s the only character in the entire opera who has a relationship with the audience, and I have always thought this was a privilege.”
This relationship between audience and character could hardly be clearer through Mr. Pisaroni’s rendition of the “Catalog Aria,” in which Leporello recounts to one of Giovanni’s ex-lovers the thousands of affairs his master has had. His Leporello was hardly of the buffo mold of the past but mixed humor with darkness. Although his Leporello was extremely funny, he also made one aware of the horrors Giovanni had committed.
Raised in Verdi’s hometown Busseto, Mr. Pisaroni decided to become an opera singer as an adolescent. He grew up listening to his grandfather’s opera recordings. When he heard Boris Christoff sing King Phillip’s lament “Ella giammai m’amò” from Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” that was it. “From that point, I got hooked on it, and that’s all I wanted to do,” he said.
Fortunately, Mr. Pisaroni has had excellent mentors throughout his career. Other than his current voice teacher in Amsterdam, he is lucky enough to have the great baritone Thomas Hampson as his father-in-law.
When asked how much advice he gets from his father-in-law, Mr. Pisaroni stated matter of factly, “I talk to him all the time about technique and rep, especially when I’m offered something that isn’t in my normal territory. He’s been around for almost 30 years now, and it would just be stupid not to take advantage of his expertise.”
Other than the Mozart and Baroque roles Mr. Pisaroni is now famous for, his website lists heavier roles as part of his repertoire, ranging from the “Faust” Méphistophélès to the blind old Archibaldo in Montemezzi’s “L’amore dei Tre Re.” Though he has studied these roles, Mr. Pisaroni expressed that he has not and will not perform roles like these for quite some time.
Lower male voices such as Mr. Pisaroni’s take a long time to mature. It is generally accepted that most basses should not attempt heavier roles before they hit 40, as they might risk damaging their voices. At 36, Mr. Pisaroni is taking his time.
“A bass-baritone before 40 has no idea what he can do. You have no idea where the voice is going or how it’s growing,” explained Mr. Pisaroni. “It makes no sense to push it. You just have to let it be and see where it takes you. It’s a much more interesting journey to be surprised by your own instrument than to push it.”
In the next five years, he hopes that his voice will be ready to sing Méphistophélès, as he believes the French repertoire is a natural progression from Handel and Mozart. As Mr. Pisaroni expressed, “the great thing about singing is that you learn something now and think it’s difficult. Two years later though, you come back to it, and everything seems much easier.”
At the moment, he is staying away from the Verdi staples like King Phillip. Besides the fact that most of these roles are for older men, Mr. Pisaroni prefers to wait because of his personal roots to Verdi. “I grew up in Verdi’s hometown, so I have a devotion to this composer. I want to do it when I know I can nail it; otherwise, I’m not doing it.”
Interestingly, Mr. Pisaroni is branching out in the lieder (song) repertoire. In November, he recorded his first CD, an unusual mix of songs by Rossini, Liszt, and Schubert, and he will be making his Alice Tully Hall recital debut next month. It is an extremely different challenge for him.
“There is a level of communication and expression that is so high in lieder singing, which makes it incredibly appealing to me. It’s fascinating to me to have just two pages of music yet it’s like a world of its own… songs are like miniature scenes from an opera.”
He cited the German repertoire as his favorite because “I like sad, painful, and tormented music. You can tell that these composers suffered when writing this music. It’s music that speaks directly to your heart.”
After a moment, he added, “It’s unimaginable that I would just have an opera career. Without the costumes and in a smaller space, there is much less distraction. You can express ideas in greater detail. When you sing lieder, it’s just you and the audience. It’s more immediate. Sometimes the audience knows a great deal more about the artist after a recital than after an opera.”