In conversation with Ferruccio Furlanetto

'I always live the characters I'm portraying. Honesty of the soul is fundamental, coming from the characters as much as from the performer.'

San Francisco, 11 June 2012


It is virtually impossible to summarize superstar bass Ferruccio Furlanetto's career: he is known to every opera lover for his signature roles of Verdi's Philip II, Fiesco, and Mozart's Leporello, among the countless characters to which he has given life in all the most prestigious opera houses. Elegant and charismatic, Furlanetto also comes across as inspiring and inquisitive: although already an accomplished artist, he is still driven by a genuine impulse to explore new artistic frontiers. And it seems like he has the power to make his operatic dreams come true: as he explains in this conversation, he has been able not only to perform almost all of his favourite roles, but also to bring back to a second life quasi-forgotten operas – such as Ildebrando Pizzetti's Assassinio nella cattedrale. On account of his collaborations with talented musicians and his respect and understanding of musical culture, he has become an authoritative and inspiring figure for artists and music lovers around the world.

Furlanetto returns to the San Francisco Opera playing the title role in Verdi's Attila, in a co-production with Teatro alla Scala that premiered in Milan in June 2011. We met on a warm Californian day at the War Memorial Opera House. I asked him how the rehearsals for Attila were going and what were his impressions of this production, directed by Gabriele Lavia and conducted by music director Nicola Luisotti.

'Rehearsals are going just wonderfully. This is a sober and effective production: it tells the story. We are working very well together, and the cast is excellent. I've known Maestro Luisotti for a long time – we had done another Attila in the past, and we had collaborated for a recording, as well. On the other hand, I had never worked with Gabriele Lavia before, but I'm very happy I met him. He is a great director and an admirable person. The atmosphere here at the SF Opera is ideal. In addition, I was very impressed by the youngest members of our cast, [soprano] Lucrecia Garcia and [baritone] Quinn Kelsey. Lucrecia is an excellent performer. And Quinn... in today's complete lack of Verdian baritones, he represents a hope for this type of voice. From the first day I arrived, I said to myself, "How beautifully he sings!" He has already been contacted by some of the most prestigious opera houses, and I'm not surprised. His type of vocality has been missing for a long time, basically from the times of Cappuccilli and Bruson. And I've had the chance to sing with both of them, so my ear is well trained! This voice type has a peculiar nobility of timbre. And Kelsey has the right colour, a beautiful technique – all the right qualities.'

Lavia has situated the action of this Attila in three different periods: Attila's historical time (5th century), Verdi's time (19th century), and our own contemporary age. As both Luisotti and Lavia have commented previously, this production aims to be a universal reflection on the danger of destroying a people's culture and of depriving people of their freedom. Yet, this production references some specific details about Italian history – such as the struggles for a united Italy during Risorgimento, in the 19th-century, and recent policies that turned many historical theaters into cinemas, altering – or destroying – the original architectural features of these buildings. How does he think the American public will react to some specific topics?

Furlanetto'The only unusual thing for an American public might be in the final act, where there is a particular type of movie theater that was very popular in Italy a few decades ago, in which both live theater and films were shown. But I have no doubt that the audience will connect with this production, whose centre remains Attila, the emblematic figure of the destroyer. Every century and every place has its Attila – in culture, finance, economics... He's an omnipresent destroyer. The final scene that Lavia set in the movie theater functions as a critique of a particular type of film industry. It is not only theaters, and the art of theater, that are being destroyed by lack of care and money. In the film industry, too, there are many products that are made only for economic profit, while artists who want to create cultural products are left without funding. San Francisco – both as a city and as a opera house – has a strong cultural tradition and the right sensibility to understand this type of topic. I also want to add that everything, in Lavia's staging, is made with total respect for Verdi's work and its interpreters.'

He has performed many Attila's in the past. What is the difference between this production and past ones?

'This is the fourth time I will be doing Attila. I did it in Trieste, in Florence, at La Scala with Muti, and I'm doing it now. As I said, I like this production hugely. It works incredibly well. When they first told me that the last scene was set in a movie theater, at first I wasn't convinced. But then I saw it, and I changed my mind because I understood that Lavia's concept is coherent from beginning to end. In the last scene, Attila's film with Jack Palance is projected on a screen in the background in a decrepit movie theater. And this works as a powerful reference to today's politics, when all cultural things face challenges and are destroyed, with nobody caring to rebuild. Also, it seems like a majestic production, but it actually is very sober, both in the staging and in the costumes. Costumes are not traditional, as one might expect, but they are right for this type of production.'

And what about the central character of the opera – Attila, who is ruthless and vulnerable at the same time?

'Verdi made of Attila a king, with the nobility and soul of a king. This contradicts the history, even if we don't really have reliable historical sources about Attila. We don't even know exactly where the Huns were from... probably from Mongolia, and then they established themselves in what we today call Hungary. They remained a nomadic people, but they had a chief nonetheless. In this opera, Attila is the only one who never betrays anyone, while all the others are traitors. Attila always keeps his word, he has an integrity. The audience can sympathize with him, because he is a honest, loyal warrior. And yet, he is also a destroyer. For these reasons, I love this complex character – he fascinates me. And we can put him in relation to other Verdi roles, such as Fiesco, in Simon Boccanegra, that I performed so many times in the last few years. When I first started studying this role, I thought he was the classical stubborn old man, a little like Silva in Ernani. But if you live the character through Verdi's music, you realize that a great nobility of soul comes to the fore – in Fiesco, as in Attila, as in Silva. This latter is perhaps the most difficult to sympathize with; still, he is a man that wants to keep his dignity and moral attitude, and never becomes a traitor. I believe – I hope – that in my interpretation I managed to make these characters come across with an intrinsic nobility, honesty and coherence – even when this honesty is corrupted by hatred, as with Silva.'

Furlanetto'There's a special kind of relationship that the audience creates with the protagonists of Verdi's operas... and I always live the characters I'm portraying, and I always try to make them feel close to the public. Honesty of the soul is fundamental, coming from the characters as much as from the performer.'

Furlanetto has acquired a worldwide notoriety because of his ability to couple his extraordinary timbre and vocal technique together with a profound care for his characters' psychology. Did he learn his techniques from a particular school, and does he think that music pedagogy has changed in the younger generations, with more attention to dramaturgy?

'Unfortunately I don't belong to the youngest generation of today! But I can tell you that, when I started, there was no one who could properly teach you about dramaturgy. On the other hand, in the field of stage direction, there were lots of inspiring people. I was so lucky to do my first Le nozze di Figaro with Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, my first Boris Godunov with Gian Piero Faggioni, Don Giovanni in Salzburg with Patrice Chéreau, Macbeth with Strehler... and I worked with Zeffirelli, too. I had the privilege to work with all these marvellous directors, and they taught me so much. Among my teachers, I also want to mention lots of other talented directors that, for different reasons, did not become as popular as the ones I've mentioned so far, but that are amazing artists nonetheless – for example, I'm thinking of Beppe de Tomasi. I've learned so much from all of them. In particular, Ponnelle was the one who saw in me the potential of becoming an actor-singer. I learned from him in an unconventional way... he almost didn't teach me, instead, he let me understand, slowly and deeply, how important interpretation and words are, in opera. Word, infused with music, are the vehicle that we singers have to touch people's hearts. And there is not a special pedagogic school that teaches that: it's up to us performers, it's our duty to take it in. For instance, Lavia comes from the theater, and he is not only a great director, but a great actor as well, and he is musically well prepared. Also, importantly, he has a complete respect and understanding for vocality, and of the acoustic requirements that are necessary for singing. '

'Caring for the music is fundamental for opera directors. Since when I was a child, I have always been fascinated by the balance of sound between the orchestra and the singers, and the crispiness of the sound in a music auditorium – and I'm thinking precisely of La Fenice in Venice, that is one of the most wonderful theaters in the world... its acoustic qualities are unique. The balance between instruments and voices is perhaps the most important goal in live music. This is why is crucial that the performers are put in the physical condition for contributing correctly to this balance. Unfortunately, a bad school coming from the tradition of regietheater has destroyed some of this awareness – the awareness that in opera, singing and music cannot be second to anything. Some directors force you to sing in impossible positions, or at an inconceivable distance from the orchestra. This is because some are ignorant of the necessities of singers and the requirements of the music.'

'But, as I said, I have fond memories of many directors... for instance, collaborating with Chéreau was wonderful. He loves working in cinema, and he is incredibly talented both as a director and as an actor. But he is also a great opera lover, and he had always wanted to experiment with opera. He became Strehler's assistant at Piccolo Theater in Milan, and he has trained with the most talented directors. For me, he is one of the best directors. One of his greatest attributes is that he has a sense of humility. He is a genius, and yet he has the humility to learn from conductors and musicians. He would always ask, "Is this possible, from the musical point of view?" This is something that often is missing from directors. And I'm not saying that we should only have traditional productions. In fact, traditional production can be bad too. Of course, there is an in-between way, and you need people with talent to understand that.'

'I also want to add that, in terms of learning how to sing and act, great conductors like Herbert von Karajan, Georg Solti, Carlo Maria Giulini, also gave me invaluable experience and knowledge. What they've given me is incommensurable, and I'm so grateful. I had the honour of working closely with Karajan during the last four years of his life, and that has been... I cannot describe it: saying that it was a privilege does not even begin to cover it. We did Don Carlos, Don Giovanni, and many concerts together, including some for Pope John Paul II... it was particularly thrilling to be part of those concerts, as Karajan had always dreamt of being the Kapellmeister for the Pope.'

Recently, live broadcasts in movie theaters have acquainted more and more people with opera. What does he think of the combination between live performances and contemporary media technologies?

Furlanetto'Live broadcasts are a brilliant idea. They give the chance to people from any place in the world to experience opera. It's both great publicity for opera houses and a great opportunity for the people, and I'm glad that these technologies are spreading more and more and that are becoming one of the most popular ways of experiencing opera. It's also very moving for us performers: for instance, after our Ernani in New York, that was broadcast around the world, I received emails from people in Buenos Aires, from Saint Petersburg... that was incredibly thrilling. Of course, it's a performance without net, so to say, so if you fall, you hurt yourself – if you make a mistake, it's going to be recorded and seen all over. But mistakes, too, are part of the performance, and that's the charm of live art.'

He has always had a special relationship with Russia, and with the Russian repertoire...

'Yes. The Russian repertoire for bass is extraordinary. I started in the early 1990s, thanks to [pianist] Alex Wesseinberg. We belonged to the same, wonderful, agency, and he once told me: "We really need to do something together – a recital featuring Rachmaninov and Mussorgsky." Alex was a great interpreter of this repertoire. We chose the pieces, one by one, and we began performing around 1993. Unfortunately, he started suffering from health problems. He stopped performing and, for a few years, I didn't go back to the Russian repertoire. Eventually, Alex mentioned what a shame it was that I stopped performing that repertoire. I realized he was right, and so I started again singing and recording with a brilliant young Ukrainian, now German, pianist, Igor Tchetuev.'

'For me, Russian music, and the Russian "soul" are very charming. I had the privilege of singing this repertoire in Russia, as well – I did recitals in Moscow and in Saint Petersburg, and I've sung Boris in Saint Petersburg. I'll do Boris again at the Bolshoi in the autumn, in a historical production from the 1950s, where it will also be filmed. For me, this is an unbelievable honour. After doing it at the Bolshoi, I'll be the only Westerner singing Boris in the most important Russian opera houses.'

'I've had great satisfactions performing this repertoire in Russia. I've also performed in Massenet's Don Quichotte, there – another of my favourite operas. This is a French opera, but it was conceived for a Russian voice: Massenet wrote it for the great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin, when it debuted in 1910 in Monte Carlo. I performed it on 19 February 2010 in Saint Petersburg, the day of the centenary of the premiere, in a concert performance. It was the second time ever that Don Quichotte was performed in Russia – the first time was in 1915 with Chaliapin himself. The feedback of this audience was incredible, unique... So, this year, in December, we're going to do a fully staged, new production at the Mariinsky with Valery Gergiev – who loves Don Quichotte, too.'

With a lifetime of musical achievements, are there any dream-roles left that he would love to perform?

Furlanetto'If you had asked me this question fifteen or twenty years ago, I would have said Figaro, Don Giovanni... all the Mozartian roles. They are incredible, and they've taken up a good part of my career, almost twenty-five years. Figaro's fourth act is pure happiness for me. But these roles are pretty specific to the age of the singer – they're all roles da giovanotto [for young guys]. When you're not a young guy anymore, the happiness of performing can turn into exhaustion – you always have to be running and jumping! Yet, vocally, I would do them any time, I adore them. Today, for me, it's important to keep singing the roles that I'm already singing. My four favourite characters are Boris, Filippo II, Don Quichotte and another one that is basically unknown, Thomas Becket, from Pizzetti's Assassinio nella cattedrale [Murder in the Cathedral, 1958, based on the play by T.S. Eliot]. I'll be performing that role in San Diego in 2013, and that will be the first time that Pizzetti's opera is performed in the United States. Gergiev wants to do it too: since he is the principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, we are trying to plan a semi-staged performance in Canterbury, and that is very exciting!'

'I sang in Assassinio a few years ago in Milan, and it was all sold out. Thomas Becket is a role of incredible depth and theatricality. This opera deserves to have a second life. It premiered in 1958 at La Scala, and in those years it was performed all around Europe. Then, no further performances until a few years ago. Pizzetti is a great musician, and his declamato style is particularly suitable for this wonderful libretto, adapted from the T.S. Eliot's original English text. Putting this opera on stage is a significant, courageous cultural choice, and we should be grateful to the San Diego Opera. And such a move can actually benefit a company: it's an opera with a very simple action that can be staged very simply, and with incredible theatricality. I hope this is the beginning of a new revival of this opera. And San Diego is a wonderful opera house, both because of their artistic choices and because of all the wonderful people who work there – artists and administrative people alike. Moreover, their public grew along the years, both in terms of number and culturally. If we also consider the tremendous cultural work of the San Francisco Opera, I can see that California is a special place for opera culture.'

'Apart from these roles that I've performed, some other dreams remained dreams... like Baron Ochs. I put a lot of effort on studying this role, but then I realized that quantity of text is unbearable if you're not absolutely fluent in German. I learned the part, but I always had to concentrate too much on the action, and that wasn't working to create a full character, both for the singing and for the acting. I couldn't do that to myself, nor to Strauss, nor to an audience.'

'There's another role that I really want to do and that I finally will do in about one and a half years, in Vienna. That is Ivan Khovansky from Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina – it has always attracted me. And then there are some other little things... for example, a couple of weeks ago I was in Moscow with Gergiev for a concert, and there they asked me if I was interested in a religious repertory for choir and bass. I thought that was marvellous. And I'll do it.'


By Marina Romani

Photos, from top to bottom: Furlanetto portrayed by Igor Sakharov; Furlanetto as Attila at the San Francisco Opera (Cory Weaver); as Silva in Ernani at the Met (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera); as Boris Godunov at Wiener Staatsoper (Poehn/Wiener Staatsoper); as Don Quichotte at Teatro Massimo, Palermo (detail from a photo by Franco Lannino).


Join the debate: if you have any comments on this or any of our articles, visit our forum