Interview: Tenor Celso Albelo débuts at the Royal Opera in La Sonnambula

'What you express with the singing should be what the composer wants.'

29 October 2011

Celso Albelo (Photo © Joan Tomŕs for Fidelio Artist)Celso Albelo is dressed casually in a sweater and jeans, wearing glasses, and concealing little excitement as he sits down for our interview, fresh from rehearsals, in the little glass box that serves as Covent Garden’s interview room. Of course, Celso (the 'c' is pronounced 'th' as in 'through') has every reason to be excited: he is quickly on his way to becoming a leading operatic tenor.

Next week he makes his début at the Royal Opera in Marco Arturo Marelli’s production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula; despite his very quick rise through the ranks, Anglophones would be hard pressed to find an interview with him in English (this is his first). Indeed, Albelo understands more English than he can speak, so even this interview required a translator. As we spoke in a blend of English, Italian, and even some Spanish for little over a half hour, I learned about his thoughts on composers, style, repertoire, and his future plans.

Born in Tenerife and coming somewhat late to the operatic stage ('I remember my first time in the theatre was La Traviata'), Albelo made his début singing the Duke of Mantua (Rigoletto) at the Teatro Verdi in Busseto in 2006 (no small task, by the way, successfully singing Verdi in his home town and theatre). Albelo has a playful smile on his face as I ask if he was aware of the pressure inherent in this Verdian enterprise—Italians at the Teatro Verdi usually animadvert on performances, putting even the harshest critics to shame—or indeed, his current one. He is humbly defiant: 'either I do it well, or I go back to Tenerife and study [the] history of art; either I stay or I go back.' This is the first of several surprises: he holds a degree in the history of art, and began singing before his maturation in a university sponsored folk music group.

Firm foundations, it seems. A mere five years after his Busseto début, he is seemingly just as comfortable under pressure: soft-spoken, articulate, and cracking several jokes in a jovial spoken tone. Just who were, though, his main influences? Albelo has a list of teachers that reads like a 1960s 'Golden Age of Opera' register, one that includes Tom Kraus, Carlo Bergonzi, and Leo Nucci. This shows: the tenor has won several awards and has sung in most major opera houses in Europe, generally to great acclaim, and recorded with Cecila Bartoli and Antonio Pappano. Still, he credits his first teacher, Pilar Castro, with revealing the beauty of opera to him for the first time by giving him Bellini’s Composizione da Camera to study, and says that he loved listening, also, to Alfredo Kraus. His teachers were crucial to his exploration of repertoire as well, guiding him only to sing what his voice Celso Albelo (Photo © Joan Tomŕs for Fidelio Artist)could handle healthily.

Admittedly, he does make an operatic career seem rather easy to attain. He experienced a dream-like scenario when he sang with Leo Nucci (in Busseto), who asked him which agencies he sang with; Albelo replied, 'I don’t have an agent.' It took only two days for Nucci’s own agent to contact Albelo and groom the blossoming tenor for a pan-European career.

Perhaps because of his background in history, the topic of aesthetics is pleasantly and overtly discernible throughout our conversation, but was markedly most apparent when I asked him to discuss Bellini.

He strongly believes that Bellini is 'good at describing love for his country and love for his women,' that Bellini expertly manages the representation of feelings in music, to the point that, not unsurprisingly, he finds Bellini’s music ineffable. Interestingly, he is passionately defensive of what musicology would call composer primacy, arguing that the composer’s intentions are paramount to any successful interpretation of a role, despite the specific production: 'what you express with the singing should be what the composer wants.' When I ask which intentions he is referring to, he is quick to respond with  'the most important thing is the legato; I consider myself a modern singer…this production [at Covent Garden] is also quite modern…but if you can express a legato on the stage then you can always do it, but if you can’t, do film.'

He obviously adores Bellini, but how does he prepare to sing Elvino, La Sonnambula or any other role? 'It is difficult…my own character is completely different from Elvino…I am not jealous, I am very calm and quiet, and Elvino on the contrary sometimes has to react.' The direct turn to the dramatic demands of the character’s portrayal takes me by surprise, and Albelo responds with an insight on operatic acting rarely found. 'Sometimes Elvino has to come out enraged, and I feel it inside me as well…it is difficult to sing in the bel canto [style] without following the system that is the verismo. Verismo is much more imposing; bel canto is still enraged but within style.' Albelo is clearly aware of both history and style: this certainly will drive expectations for his début through the roof.

Celso Albelo (Photo © Joan Tomŕs for Fidelio Artist)When we do get to music, he explains 'there is a difference [in his musical preparation for similar or dissimilar roles]…it exists between the text and the music...which demands different preparation.' His repertoire is widely varied but revolves in a large way around bel canto roles. Does he have a favorite role to sing? 'It is hard for me [to chose]…but the one that has given me the most satisfaction is Arturo [in Bellini’s I puritani], but I cannot forget the Duke, Elvino, or Nemorino [in Donizetti’s L'elisir d'amore].' Since Elvino is one of his favorites, I ask what sets his rendition of the role apart from other tenors’. He is humble and responds that 'perhaps other people can say that better than me.'

Taking the musical preparation further, I asked how he juggles the demands of the production, his voice, the music, and Daniel Oren’s conducting. 'I like working with Oren because his conducting is magical; he gets colors out of the orchestra no one else can…And he waits [for the singers]…It is stressful working with him, but this is repaid in the ways he helps the singers.' I ask if his interpretation of Elvino changes based on the production he is cast in or the soprano singing Amina. He molds his interpretations differently only when his collaborators 'have something to teach me.'

Albelo is excited to begin working further within the 'French repertoire' (presumably this means Massenet and Gounod); after that, he plans on 'following his voice,' to decide what roles he should sing. Will he travel to America? 'I would very much like to go, but I have only been singing professionally for six years.'

This was perhaps the biggest surprise; he held a variety of jobs before he decided to begin singing, making my questions about advice to young singers at first seem irrelevant. He hints, however, at a perceived issue with operatic casting: 'I was doing auditions before my début at Busseto, but nobody wanted me; then overnight suddenly everybody wanted me…Why?' He further suggests that a young singer must 'do what he feels he can do; he must be true to his principles, especially when people are telling him how fabulous he is.'

At the interview’s close, after a lively and enjoyable conversation, I cannot resist asking if Albelo reads reviews. He responds, 'my mother sends them to me,' and throws his head back, carefree, laughing.

By Michael Migliore

La Sonnambula, starring Celso Albelo and Eglise Gutiérrez and conducted by Daniel Oren, opens at the Royal Opera House on 2 November.

Photos Credits: © Joan Tomàs for Fidelio Artist