Q & A: Luca Pisaroni on Why His ‘Personal Idea of Hell is Repeating the Same Thing’
In Gramophone’s Opera recording of the year, Handel’s “Agrippina” with Erato Records, there are many shinning vocal performances, including those by Joyce DiDonato, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Franco Fagioli, and Luca Pisaroni, to name but a few. Luca Pisaroni wows the listener in the role of the bumbling Emperor Claudio.
Pisaroni is perhaps best-known these days for his work in Mozart’s major operas as well as the Bel Canto repertory. But he’s also a lover of baroque music, which dominated his early career.
In this interview, the Italian bass-baritone described his experience with the recording, the balancing acts between lyrics and music, vocal and emotional expression, and why he is not a fan of Claudio.
OperaWire: I mainly wanted to talk about the “Agrippina” recording. How was the process of recording it? Was it recorded before the pandemic?
Luca Pisaroni: Oh yes, it was recorded before the pandemic. We recorded it in May 2019, and the good thing about the recording is that it came after the tour. We did a tour with several concerts in London, Luxembourg, Barcelona, and Madrid. It was consequently much easier to come up with something that felt like we were doing a production. For me, it is really challenging to do the recording of a piece when I haven’t performed it before. It’s really hard to create this kind of urgency and this flow that you get when you do a performance.
To be able to record this after a series of concerts made the recording process very easy and fast because we knew what we wanted to do musically. And the most challenging part of the recording was the recitative because you know this opera has endless recitative; pages and pages of it. We didn’t cut; we wanted to do a complete version so we didn’t cut anything. When you have a recitative that is six minutes long, you know, it has to be really crispy and interesting to make it easy on the ears of the listener. I think we worked much more on recitative than on aria. The aria was ready in, like, half an hour. The recitative took a really long time because it’s really hard to give it the kind of energy that you would get from a production.
OW: Do you have any tricks on how you take yourself into the story when you are recording?
LP: The funny thing about the recording is that we were all in a fixed position because we had the microphone. The funny thing about the microphone is that we all try to act so much when we are on stage, but because we were fixed by the static microphone, everybody was just gesticulating, using their energy because we were not able to move very much otherwise. I think everybody tried to derive some kind of energy and inspiration by acting with their arms.
The thing about the recording– which is so amazing –I think is that you need to be able to express something without anything else. You need to act with your own voice and this is where it is really difficult. You realize when you are on stage with the costume, with the lights, with your arms, and with your body, that you can say so much even without singing. When you do it for a recording or a CD you realize that you are only in your head and nothing else. And so you better act with your voice. Otherwise, you won’t get across to the audience what your character is living in the moment.
OW: Is it difficult to find how to really act with your voice or do you just try to use the colors and some kind of phrasing?
LP: You know I’ve done –like everybody– a lot of recitals. They are the best example of being able to act without moving: it’s just you and the piano. I think, therefore, that we singers are all used to expressing feelings through voice. We feel very comfortable trying and experimenting. When doing a recording you can push the boundaries of dynamics, you can accentuate the forte and the piano because the microphone picks up on the smallest details. So I said certain lines in a whisper and certain lines in anger. You lose that on a stage since you need a certain level of volume to project out to the audience.
OW: How do you see your character Claudio?
LP: There are certain roles that I think are really difficult to find the key to. Claudio is the least interesting character in this piece. He’s not well-defined dramatically; neither evil nor exciting. It’s a little bit in the middle. In the scene where everybody shows exaggerated emotion, I am relaxed. It is challenging, but at the same time, it’s the beauty of doing this repertoire.
When you’re doing a concert, it is really hard to express all your inner experiences and to show it straight away. I found some new nuances to the character throughout the performing process because every performance was different. We had four or five concert tours so that the product of the recording is much more developed. We made theatrical entrances, added gestures, and a little bit of acting. You can experiment, search for color and the audience gives feedback. It’s a process. People were responding very well in all the places.
OW: What was it like to sing Handel’s opera?
LP: It’s a baroque piece, so there are not so many performance –tempo or dynamic–indications in the notes. It gives you more freedom and more room for your own interpretation. But on the other hand, it is more difficult to balance all the music and language elements on your own. Recitative has a repetitive structure, so you have to invest energy in finding a different way of singing the same material and bring different meanings to it. It takes time to find varying dynamics, accents, vibrating tones, and colors. It makes you go deeper to understand all the categories and not just read the notes and repeat the formula; you would get bored doing that and so too would the audience. It’s always good to push the boundaries, trying to make it as interesting and as theatrical as possible.
OW: How have you changed as a singer throughout your career?
LP: Now I am in my forties and I have had 20 years of experience, but music always gives me so much energy and makes me feel young. It’s like bubbles in champagne: it’s electrifying. Over time everything changes and evolves with life: my voice, my musical tastes. Now as a soloist I can express more feelings and experiences. There is so much going on in opera that helps you dig into your own personal life, get inspired by it, and add it to the scene.
OW: Is the expression of feelings and experiences more important than technical vocal expression?
LP: Now, even if I want to, I cannot control the emotion on stage. The music drives me forward, I get involved in the experience and sometimes vocally I sound crazy. It’s impossible for me to separate the singer and actor parts of me. But emotional authenticity is more important for me than a clean vocal performance. It makes the piece much more impactful. When I was in my twenties I wouldn’t get this feeling: now it all comes from my experience of all emotions–pain, anger, disappointment–that resonate with and arise from the scene. That’s the process of getting older: you follow where your voice and body want to take you.
In Italian culture singing has always focused on beauty and there has been a school to examine and control your emotions in order to produce a perfect sound. For me the voice is an instrument to express emotions. I don’t look only for beauty but also for the truth and the core of the piece and the character. I have always been a performer who loves to immerse himself in the character and dive deep into the psychology of a role. To me art is about storytelling and about a journey for the performer and the audience. So the best compliment is when an audience member didn’t even realize it was me on stage.
OW: So the words are more important to you than music?
LP: I prioritize the words, I always over-articulate. Sometimes I even get into trouble because of it.
OW: Do you find it comfortable to express negative elements of your character and life experience?
LP: It’s great to play an evil character because it’s always rewarding and fun. I enjoy making villains human and normal, not cartoonish. This subtly of approach is always much more impactful. The normality of something awful is really scary. In opera, there are certain emotions that you need to reach and they have to change according to the story. Anger and all the other negative emotions are physical. I remember my colleague once looked at me and said “I was so terrified: you had been building up so much anger before you snapped.”
I have a rule to be respectful of me and my colleagues’ auras. The better everyone is, the easier it is for all of us to give the best possible performance. And I enjoy it when colleagues throw me curveballs when they do something unexpected, different than from the rehearsal. It allows me to invent something new and keeps the overall performance fresh. My personal idea of hell is repeating the same staging identically as the last time. That would be catastrophic. So the creation of something new, something that has never been written before, is the most important thing for me.
OW: Was it difficult in the recording to choose only one interpretation and imprint it forever?
LP: That’s the curse of doing a recording. It’s like taking a photo of something at a specific point in your career. With every recording I have done I would sing them completely differently now. It’s so difficult to listen to them. Pavarotti once said, “if you want to ruin a friendship with me, invite me for dinner and then put on a recording of me singing.” It’s a nightmare, but you have to live with it. You say to yourself that this is the best you can do and once you approve it, you just never listen to it again. At a certain point, you just have to let it go.
OW: The recording received many accolades and press reviews. How do you deal with it?
LP: I can take neither good reviews nor bad reviews. If I could cut the applause at the end of a performance, I would, because it’s almost uncomfortable. I consider it a private and personal moment. Having people talking about it is challenging. Your work is so close to your heart and you put so much energy into it, you delve deep, you are involved. So it hurts and you start doubting your own judgment, you suddenly start thinking that the performance might have been superficial. But it’s part of the job. And the audience also makes the performance special: they hold their breath when something heartbreaking is happening, they laugh when you make a joke.
OW: How was the last year for you?
LP: The pandemic has been very challenging because there were projects I was looking forward to, which I put effort into preparing for. After an emotional and mental roller-coaster, I decided to take some time to regroup and now I feel much more stable. One thing this pandemic taught me is that I really love being on stage, performing for people, and communicating to an audience. Not being able to do this for a long period of time is challenging.