The Royal Opera's season reaches a climax this month with a brand new production of Verdi's Aida. In spite of being one of the most popular works in the repertoire, the opera has had a chequered history at Covent Garden, with the last couple of productions proving disappointing and not enduring much in the way of a revival.
So one can see why the company has put the piece into the hands of some familiar faces: director David McVicar, familiar from his popular productions of Salome, Rigoletto, Le nozze di Figaro and The Magic Flute, amongst others; conductor Nicola Luisotti, who's enjoyed Covent Garden success in Il trovatore, Madama Butterfly and Turandot and who recently became Music Director of the San Francisco Opera; and tenor Marcelo Álvarez, who's long been a favourite singer on the ROH stage.
I caught up with Álvarez a couple of weeks before opening night in order to talk about the production, not least because he'll be singing the role of Radames for the very first time. He is something of a specialist in the Verdi repertoire, having triumphed in everything from Rigoletto to Un ballo in maschera to Il trovatore, all of which he's performed at Covent Garden. Earlier this year, he also released a Verdi album on the Decca label, for whom he records exclusively, so this Aida is an important new development for him.
'I've waited because I needed time,' he replies when I ask him about the timing of the debut. 'I started with this repertoire bit by bit. Aida is one of the heaviest roles, so I thought it was more important to do other things first. And it was important to me to do it here at Covent Garden with a great conductor, a great soprano, a great cast, and David McVicar. It's fantastic.'
The tenor discusses the challenges of the role. 'Aida is so difficult for the tenor because you need to come onstage and immediately sing 'Celeste Aida'. It's so difficult because it lies in the passaggio. Verdi writes in the score that it should be dreamlike, but when the voice is cold that's very stressful. Usually there's no success when singing this aria! But for me and for David, the most important thing is to find relationships between the acts, because everything begins in the third act. All the pains and emotions are there, and if you just focus on the vocal part of it, from the point of view of vocal acrobatics, then you miss all the colours.'
Álvarez agrees that it can be difficult to make an impact as a soloist in such a large-scale opera. 'This is the character we have to break from Aida. It's all 'boom-boom' and grand in the first two acts, then suddenly the third act is lyrical. This is where I come into my own, because this is where all the intimate colours can come through. That's the new idea I want to bring to this role.'
Of the character of Radames, Álvarez says: 'Here is a warrior. But David has pointed out that from the beginning, Radames has a plan; right from singing 'Celeste Aida' he's trying to find a way to save Aida. Vocally, I have to convince the audience of the relationships I have with Aida and Amneris. But it's very easy to end in Act 2 where all these things happen and become a very two-dimensional, cold warrior, and instead I want to do something new and take it further into the opera.
'I don't know what the reaction of the audience will be because it's such a new and clever production. For instance, David chooses not to stage the opera in Egypt. Radames is dressed up like a Samurai warrior with a big sword, but the hat is more inspired by the film 300. He mixes various traditions, and what comes out is a very multi-ethnic, multi-cultural style. He's gone out of a specific time to make something that appeals to everyone; it's exotic rather than Egyptian. There is a square on the stage floor, and everything happens inside it, so I think of that as representing the base of the pyramid. It's something you have to imagine.
'David has an amazing energy that he communicates to everyone, and he puts his own energy into every gesture, so it's very tiring for all of us, but also very stimulating. This kind of production fits perfectly with London, which is a place where people want to discover new things.'
Álvarez and Nicola Luisotti worked together on Il trovatore in 2007 here at Covent Garden, and now they're back together for this Aida. The tenor declares, 'I love him. We're very lucky to have two people [Luisotti and McVicar] with so much energy, and I myself am full of energy. The energy doesn't create a clash but rather a union. It's my debut with this role and I want to learn from Luisotti, but he also trusts my instincts. There's an exchange of ideas, and we talk a lot: I say things I'd like to do, and Luisotti makes suggestions. This orchestra in London is so wonderful to work with because they want to listen to the singers. They don't just play for the orchestral sound; they're actually accompanying. I know that the more colour I add, the happier the orchestra is! We can have a real communion.'
Álvarez is here to rehearse Aida for several weeks – a comparatively long, exhausting rehearsal period. How does he feel about that? 'For me, it's fine because it's a debut. I wouldn't want to take so long on a revival. I'm not saying this just because I'm here now, but I truly think that here in London you rehearse until you absorb the role into your pores and are completely ready. It's been like this every time I've had a debut here, which has been six or seven times now. So I feel comfortable with long rehearsals because I learn a lot.'
The tenor commends Micaela Carosi and Marianne Cornetti, the soprano and mezzo who'll be joining him onstage for this new production. 'I'm so lucky with these two women: they cuddle me through the rehearsals! We really know each other and have worked together a lot, so we help each other to get through it. They are there in every step I take. And they don't do it to demonstrate that one is better than the other or to create a clash: it's the triumph of communion. That's the spirit of opera, in fact: if everyone works together, there is a true collaboration.'
As noted above, the Verdi repertoire is central to Álvarez's career. 'After studying for years and years, Verdi is the confirmation that you can actually sing well!' the tenor jokes. 'The position of each colour in each phrase is perfect. It's like having different buttons that you can push: after you've studied for so long you have them all available to you, and Verdi wants you to push them all at once! So I'm very happy that Verdi is one of the main composers I work on. I sing these roles all over the world all the time, and it means that I'm not just a good vocal acrobat, but I also feel them as well. I love all the colours that are related to the words.'
Will he be adding any of the other operas to his repertoire? 'In 2012 I will do my first Alvaro in La forza del Destino, and I have two or three more in the future, including here in London with Pappano. For me, Pappano is one of the most important conductors in the world. Whenever Pappano talks to me about future plans, I always agree with 90% of his recommendations because Pappano understands the voice and knows the sound of the orchestra. Nowadays things are changing, so if I sing very lirico spinto roles, it's because the audience is changing. And the opera houses, too, because they want to offer something new in this repertoire. These roles can't just be sung with colour and coloratura but also with emotion.'
Does doing his first Radames mean he'll lose some of the lighter roles? 'I'm 48. I'm singing these roles now in order to be able to sing them better in three or four years. Otherwise, it will be too late because I'll soon be 60! This means that I have to leave behind some other roles because I don't have the time. Obviously, my voice is changing, too, and these new roles suit my voice better. Between now and 2015 I'll be learning eight new roles. Since 2003, I've done nine new roles. And that's leaving aside the bel canto roles I did when I was younger. But I also bring the bel canto into these new roles. It's not better or worse, but it's something new for the audience. I don't mean it as a comparison with the past; I just think it's a new way of doing this music.'
When I ask him about his relationship to past singers, he answers: 'I'm very proud of being Marcelo Alvarez. When I sit down to study a new role, I read the notes in the score. After that, I listen to the singers of the past. That process inspires me to find new ways of singing the music. So whatever roles I do, you can like it or dislike it, but it's always personal and new. That's what interests me the most: to find something of my own without being intimidated by the giants of the past. I've always been told that my way of singing is wrong, but I feel I've triumphed in the end. I don't have the normal tenor voice with the nasal sound, as if I was just talking, and I was always criticised for "having no technique". But my singing is my own way of doing it.'
Remarkably, Álvarez didn't start his operatic career until he was into his thirties. I ask him whether he thinks it actually helps him not to have been through the conventional conservatoire system. 'I've always sung in my own way,' he says, 'but until 17 I was singing in a specialist music school. Then I thought that music was not the career for me, and I became an accountant. But after 30, I started singing again. I had the basic knowledge of music, but I didn't have the vocal technique. That was my strongpoint, in a way, because I was not ruined by the traditional conservatoire environment. Very often, people start singing in a conservatoire when they're young and their heads are full of what past singers have done. So many singers are full of fear even before starting to sing. Instead, I was mature and had my own intuition.'
Was it the joy of singing or his love of music that made him change career? 'I felt it in my heart. I'd finally found what I really wanted to do. Even though I was in Argentina, miles away from opera, and had no money, and I was very late to start, I really wanted to be a singer. The maximum joy for all of us is to find ourselves.'
And has it been a struggle? 'It was not easy. I've always been criticised. Whenever I started doing anything, I was told it was wrong. And I was 30, and everyone said I was too old and that nobody would give me a job because of my age. But I said "I don't care", and I've gone forward. And I've had huge success in the bel canto roles but now continue to add new roles all the time. How many people have done La fille du regiment, Puritani and Aida? After fifteen or twenty years, I've done all these different things in the very best theatres.
'I'm proud but I'm not vain. This is an example for young singers, to let them know that you don't have to scream. You just have to sing well to get a job. Lots of young singers have the stress that they have to sing like Corelli and then have no voice after a couple of years. I'd prefer these young singers to imitate me in the sense of using the lyrical voice that we have, to do these roles. If you have your own voice, you'll be your own Corelli because you've had the patience to wait.'
Why did he choose I Puritani with which to launch his career? 'It suited my voice and my vocal apparatus wasn't fully developed. My vocal cords were weak at that point. I just had the top notes, rather than the passaggio, so I didn't want to lie too much around the middle. Donizetti wrote a lot of operas in French, and I love the French repertoire because it can teach us a lot, but lots of singers don't like it. Young singers think it requires a very nasal approach, but that's not true. It's the posture and the style that matter. Now I can sing what I can sing because I've sung the French repertoire.'
So vocal health is what matters the most? 'Always. The stronger I sing, the more I listen to my piano. Because I know that if I can do that, my voice is still health. After all these roles – Tosca, Andrea Chenier, Il trovatore – my voice hasn't even lost a bit of its pianissimo, and I think that's healthy for a voice.'
Álvarez confesses he's always worried that he might lose the lighter colours in his voice, 'but everyone's anxious about something – some people worry about the traffic on the way to work! It's the same for my voice: I must always take care. I have to make sure I don't push too much, and I must take my time in taking on this heavier repertoire. The vocal cords are two tiny muscles and you never know when they might stop working.'
What new roles does he intend to sing in the future? 'I'll do one new French role, and lots of Italian – not only Verdi but also Puccini. I'd also like to do Lohengrin in the future for my German fans. But if I wanted to do that, I'd have to stop for three or four months in order to learn it. I'd love to do it for my fans. I think Lohengrin is the most Verdian of Wagner's operas!'
So what about doing Peter Grimes for his British fans? 'Now I'm focusing on this repertoire, but I'm completely open-minded about things I might do in the future – even something in English!' He also plans to record a verismo album in the coming months.
Any other ambitions? 'When I first started singing in Italy, all I wanted to do was sing in a choir, so I've already fulfilled all my ambitions in a way. Every day I never stop being marvelled by what I've been able to do. I think that I'm a very normal person, and I don't do all this for the glory of being the best, or anything like that. My ambition is to be good at what I do – that's what makes me happy. If you went to my rehearsals, you'd see that I spend hours and hours studying music.'
I ask him if he has any non-musical ambitions. 'I've got a very close friend in Argentina who owns a big, important company. We have an agreement that we're not going to talk very much until we're 55 because we're going to work hard. And then we're going to tour round the world together!'
We chat briefly about his relationship to young singers. 'I love working with them. Whenever I'm in conversation with theatres, I make deals with them. I always think about future generations, and I want to make sure that young people starting now can work in better conditions. Looking after the first salaries, or building up syndicates to help younger singers, or making better circumstances for auditions, are all things that I'm concerned about. Singers tend to think for themselves, but I also try to think of others. The world needs a lot of singers, so it would be nice to have 25 Marcelo Alvarezes, 25 Kaufmanns and 25 Alagnas. It shouldn't be just a few singers going all over the world all the time. That's why we have to have young singers and I think that there are lots of good voices coming up.'
As our conversation comes to a close, the tenor says: 'I'm optimistic in life in general. If I wasn't like that, I wouldn't be happy in this job. It would be sad if there was nothing after me. I would be happy if there were 5,000 singers better than me, after me, because it would mean I've done a good job.'
Aida opens at Covent Garden on 27 April 2010.
Photo copyright: Sasha Gusov
Bizet's Carmen with Marcelo Alvarez (March 2008)
Puccini's Tosca with Marcelo Alvarez (Met broadcast 2009)
A Little Night Music at the Menier Chocolate Factory (November 2008)
Sail Away at Lost Musicals 2008
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