Leader of the Pack
By Louise Flind | Luca Pisaroni is shaping up to be one of the most successful baritones of his generation. He talks to Louise Flind about his growing recognition in major opera houses around the world, and how his trusty dogs help to keep him grounded.
There may be a handful of opera singers as tall, dark and handsome as Luca Pisaroni, but few are as adorable, funny and ambitious. He and his American wife Cate (petite, blonde and foxy, if you’re asking) were at Glyndebourne last summer where Pisaroni stole the show in Robert Carsen’s new production of Handel’s Rinaldo. I met the pair as they disported themselves in the gardens with their two delightful dogs, Lenny (after Bernstein) the Golden Retriever and Tristan the Dachshund. The weather was idyllic, the dogs frolicked and Pisaroni kept his film-star sunglasses on throughout the interview – a mercy perhaps, or else those seductive Italian eyes might have swallowed me up.
Born in Venezuela to Italian parents, Pisaroni moved to Busseto, birthplace of Verdi, in northern Italy when he was aged four.There are no musicians in the family, but Pisaroni knew from the age of 11 that he wanted to become an opera singer. ‘It was my calling. Busseto is a small town and everybody was going to football and the disco. When I was a teenager, the best way to spend Sundays was getting on a bus to Genoa, Turin, anywhere in northern Italy, to see opera.’
The blame for this extraordinary adolescent behaviour lies squarely on Pisaroni’s grandfather, who presented the boy with his collection of operatic records. His favourite among these was Boris Christoff singing Verdi.
As a child Pisaroni was a tenor. ‘I never had a “boy” voice,’ he says. ‘I had a voice like a man as soon as I started singing. I knew every single tenor aria.’ After his voice broke, Pisaroni was horrified to discover he was a baritone. Growing up didn’t suit him at all: he was all weird hairdos and awkward artistic temperament. ‘Misunderstood?’ I venture. ‘No, just really unpopular,’ he grins.
Pisaroni’s big break came from an audition with the conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt in 2000. As a result, he was booked to sing Masetto in Salzburg’s production of Don Giovanni, with the great American baritone Thomas Hampson as the Don. ‘Thomas and I got along immediately, and then I met her (he nods at his wife Cate, who happens to be Hampson’s daughter). ‘So really, you can say that one production changed my life,’ he beams.
The two married in 2007, and since then have travelled the world – always taking their dogs wherever they go. Does he need the dogs? ‘I’m a pack animal like a Golden Retriever. I don’t function very well alone. This job is difficult because you may only spend two or three weeks at home at a time, which is horrible. I’m lucky because I have my wife with me and she’s a web designer so can work from anywhere. The doggies keep me grounded. No matter where I am – Paris, New York, San Francisco – I’ll take them for a walk first thing. I love it.’
Handel and Mozart have been the mainstays of Pisaroni’s career so far, but he says he’s heading for the bel canto and the French repertoire these days, and adding a new role each season. Rossini and Gounod are the next composers in his sights: ‘I’m 36, and I still have the flexibility at this age. I’m not in a hurry. For me it’s very important that everything sounds natural. I don’t want to make my voice darker artificially. It’ll get heavier in its own time, and if everything goes to plan I’ve still 25 years of career ahead of me.’
So, Wagner one day? ‘Oh no, let me sing some of my Italian repertoire. If I have to dream, let me dream of Verdi: Philip II and Attila. But I want to sing these in my own way. I think the best a singer can do is take his own voice and present it in his own way.’
Luca Pisaroni will be singing the title role in Rossini’s Maometto II at the Santa Fe Festival from 14 July to 16 August 2012. www.santafeopera.org