Interview with Charles Castronovo

Recognized as one of the finest lyric tenors before the public today, New York-born and California-raised Charles Castronovo has been charming the public with his renditions of the works of Mozart, Puccini, Bizet, Gounod, Massenet and Donizetti among others.  In all of these he demonstrates his warm tone, easy line, wonderful stylistic awareness and use of language combined with a remarkable ability to enter into the very core of a character.  His recent engagements have included Des Grieux in Toulouse, Nemorino in Vienna, Faust in Baden-Baden and Tebaldo in Paris.  I caught up with Mr Castronovo between his outstanding performances as Rodolfo at the Royal Opera. 

Photo: Pia Clodi
Photo: Pia Clodi

Your performances as Rodolfo here at the Royal Opera showed an ability to completely enter into the soul of the character and give us an incredibly honest and believable portrayal.  Who is Rodolfo for you and what are the challenges and the rewards of singing the role?

I would say that Rodolfo is one of best tenor parts ever – it’s gorgeous, it’s emotional, it has some of the most beautiful music, it has the happy moments, it has everything!  It’s an ideal tenor role.  I find him very realistic.  For me he’s a typical man, he’s kind of frisky, he’s romantic.  He does get jealous even though in the third act we see that it’s a kind of façade for him being so worried.  I think especially when we’re younger we can be a little insecure, hence comes the jealousy.  He’s a real pleasure to play because he’s very honest.

For Puccini I’ve only sung Rondine and Bohème and this is basically my second run of Bohème.  I think with this music it can be quite thick sometimes in the orchestra, but you have to stay focused and it has to be quite voluptuous at the same time.  I focused a lot when I was getting ready for the role on making sure that the core is really getting through, some of that extra little buzz in the voice.  It’s a really fine balance of making sure it’s very present and cut and it’s still fluid and not squilante all the time. The third act is the most emotional.  I won’t say dramatic because it’s not that the orchestration is any bigger than any other section, it’s the emotion of it and it’s easy to go sometimes a little too far with it.  You always want to feel involved, sometimes you let your voice and your body do more than it really needs to in the effort to communicate all your emotion.  At the end for example when you sing ‘Mimì’, if you’re really involved it’s hard to sing ‘Mimì’, not because it’s such a high note but because you’re almost breaking up a bit because you feel you want to cry. I think in this case when he says ‘Mimì’, if there’s a sigh or a little shake to it, it actually works because he should be basically breaking down into a million pieces.  There’s a fine balance to controlling it a bit and becoming emotional.

Charles Castronovo as Rodolfo in La bohème © ROH / Catherine Ashmore
Charles Castronovo as Rodolfo in La bohème © ROH / Catherine Ashmore

Let’s talk a little bit about Mozart, because you started your career with Mozart and you moved on from Mozart into Puccini.  How much has singing Mozart influenced your technique?

I think it influenced my technique hugely in positive ways.  At the same time, you don’t use that many high notes in Mozart.  If you sing only Mozart, even if you do have great high notes, you never use them. The next time you do a role that has a B-flat or a B-natural it feels like it’s in the stratosphere.  At the beginning of my career when I sang a lot of Mozart I found that I had to stretch myself in between shows or even during a Mozart role, I would stretch myself higher so that I didn’t forget what it feels like.  Mozart is constantly in the passaggio so I always have been in very good control of my passaggio.  For a tenor it’s really the most important part.  Of course, high notes are the money notes and you need them but most of the time you’re singing in the passaggio.  That’s been the positive aspect of singing Mozart.  It’s so exposed, you have to stay controlled but it’s still emotional.  I never sang Mozart with my gloves on.  I always sang it more Italianate and because of that I think it made it more virile.  There are still certain parameters you have to stay in though.  I found it a major positive thing for me to sing lots of Mozart – and I still sing most of my Mozart roles – Ferrando, Ottavio, Flute.

Charles Castronovo as Tamino, Gaynor Keeble as Third Lady, Anita Watson as First Lady and Hanna Hipp as Second Lady in Die Zauberflöte
Charles Castronovo as Tamino, Gaynor Keeble as Third Lady, Anita Watson as First Lady and Hanna Hipp as Second Lady in Die Zauberflöte

How do you decide which roles to take on? 

It sounds a little crazy but since I first started I was a huge listener, especially to tenors.  Basically what I did, when I was first starting out, was that I made a list and found as many biographies as I could of my favourite tenors.  At the back of the book they always show when they debuted roles for the first time and I would just check how old they were.  I would then make a chart.  Of course, when you listen so much you start to figure out where you belong in that map of tenors for yourself.  Are you closer to Correlli or are you closer to Kraus? If you have any ear at all you start to figure out for yourself.  So I took people like Gedda, Kraus, Tagliavini, even Pavarotti, and I saw what they were doing in their career and I just thought ‘where do I fit in there?’  It gave me at least a marker.  Of course every voice is different and of course as I got to know the repertoire so well, I started to listen to myself how it felt. And I have always been patient.

I just turned 39 and this is only my second Bohème. I could have done many more but I just didn’t accept them all.  The example I would use that was for me the most obvious, even 10 years ago, I got my first offer for Lucia and I said ‘no, I don’t want to sing it yet’, so I dodged it for 4 or 5 years and finally got an offer to do it in Brussels.  It was a long rehearsal period, it’s a small theatre, a nice acoustic so I said ‘I think I’ll try it now’.  I did it, it went well, I didn’t think it was perfect and so I put it away.  I had no problem doing that.  I never take a role that I think I really can’t sing, of course, but if they invite you for something three years from now, how do you really know? It’s difficult.  When I took the Lucia, it was good but I knew that it wasn’t exactly right yet so I put it away and now I’m ready and looking forward to doing it again soon.

You grew up in Southern California, to a Sicilian father and an Ecuadorian mother.  To what extent does that influence your approach to music and language?

That’s a good question.  My parents were immigrants, they came over to America – my mother was 15 years old, my father I think came over when he was 16.  It was a different kind of mentality then so they didn’t use their native languages with us constantly.  It was like a mix.  First off, my father spoke Sicilian, which is quite different from Italian and my mother spoke Spanish and it was always mixed up.  Of course I have a great ear for languages; I have no problems singing in any language.  How it affects me with how I actually sing, I think it’s a positive thing.  Because in my family, there are not many musicians but they are very colourful and loud and open.  I think I have a bit of that.  Since I was a kid I always wanted to perform, I was in the plays or in a band – I was in three rock bands.  All the time I was performing something.  I think that has to do not just with my personality but with my family background.

Charles Castronovo in La rondine, The Royal Opera © ROH/Catherine Ashmore, 2013
Charles Castronovo in La rondine, The Royal Opera © ROH/Catherine Ashmore, 2013

Talking about languages, when I hear you sing in French it’s fantastic because there are so many singers, even native French speakers, who have trouble with itYou have a lot of French roles in your repertoire, how do you overcome the difficulties with the language?

I prefer to sing in French more than maybe any other language.  I don’t know why, I think it’s just the nature of my voice because I usually sing the best vocally, when I don’t need to do anything extremely declamatory but more kind of legato, more elegant.  It’s more natural to me.  French repertoire really suits me better in general.  The language itself, I just love, so when you love it, you pay attention and because I’m not a native French speaker, I pay even more attention to make sure I get it right.  When I’m in France singing a French opera usually everyone says ‘wow, we understand every word you sang, it’s really good’.  Perhaps I roll some of my ‘r’s a little too much but I think that’s more of a vocal thing.  With the vowels, you don’t need to move so much and I feel vocally I have the least amount of stress, singing in French.  Of course the roles are amazing – with Roméo or Des Grieux for example, you have the lyric and the dramatic sections, they’re huge challenges and I find them extremely gratifying.

And then you have Berlioz’ Faust in your repertoire too…

Yes, this is something different because it’s so cerebral.  It’s not a matter of who has the best arias or not, it’s just a complete piece.  But doing something like this is so interesting.  It’s not like Gounod which always has beautiful melodies and more structure, Berlioz is more unconventional and very satisfying.  Of course, you have the two beautiful arias and you feel like you’ve really accomplished something at the end of it.

Another interesting thing that I’ve found has been helpful, maybe because I was in all those rock bands, is that I developed a very good reinforced voix mixte.  I think personally, it’s from singing in a lot of bands and in French music you can use it often.  I sang Pearl Fishers many times.  If you sing ‘je crois entendre encore’ full voice it ruins the mood.  So, I can sing this kind of reinforced voix mixte, still do a piano, it sounds full but it’s not tense.  And only in French music can you really use this, so I use it when I can.  For example in ‘ange adorée’ in Damnation de Faust, I do use it and it sounds connected, it sounds full but it’s not screaming your guts out.  That’s why I like French music.

Your most recent recording was an album of Neapolitan songs, which you also performed in London, in concert in an intimate setting.  Tell us a little more about that album.

That was just like a passion project for me.  I always loved that music.  One of my favourite tenors is Di Stefano. He has a lot of recordings of the Neapolitan songs and there’s something very honest and beautiful about them.  I thought it would be great to do them in a more intimate way.  I missed playing with a band and I thought ‘why don’t I just put together a small group?’.  I found some guys and we made our own arrangements of the songs.  I chose the songs and I tried to mix it with things that are not so popular because there are so many little gems that people don’t normally do.  Of course there are some famous ones on the album too.  We did some concerts and it was such a great feeling.  Someone had heard about it who has a small, boutique label and said ‘this would be great, why don’t we record it?’.  So we did.  People seem to like it, it’s fun, there’s a great mix of songs and it really was an ode to my background on my father’s side.  My grandfather always wanted a singer in the family but there were none and I was only 11 when he died so he never got a chance to hear it.  My next idea is to do something similar, also with a small group, maybe different instruments but all Spanish, Latin music from my mom’s side.  Not just music from Ecuador but things from South America, maybe a few Spanish things because my great-grandfather came over from Spain to Ecuador.  I need to do more exploring, find some good music, find a nice line in there. That’s an idea that’s brewing.

Charles Castronovo as Alfredo in La traviata. © Catherine Ashmore
Charles Castronovo as Alfredo in La traviata. © Catherine Ashmore

That brings us nicely to our last question, which is talking about the future. Tell us a little bit more about your future plans

I’ve always paced myself well.  There are some years where I have more new roles – this year, I’ve had a couple. Bohème was basically new, I’ve only done it once. I did Manon the first time, just this last year which I was very excited about.  I have some interesting things – I’m doing another Faust, which will only be my third I think, it’s in Turin, coming up this season.  I’ll be doing some more Damnation de Faust with the Berlin Philharmonic in Berlin and Baden-Baden.  I’m doing Rondine again in Berlin, that’ll be fun because Rolando Villazón is directing the opera.  I still have some of my Mozart roles – I don’t do them as often as I used to, there’s still a few in there.  I’m still doing some bel canto – I have a new Lucia coming up that I’m really looking forward to.  I’ll be doing my first Lensky in Vienna, in March/April next year.  I’m also making my debut in Barcelona soon in September and I’ve never sung there which I’m looking forward to.

I have some interesting projects – I’m always interested in doing the French repertoire, even if it’s unknown.  Next year I’m doing a concert performance of a Gounod piece called Cinq-Mars, which is never done. It’s going to be a mini-tour that we’re doing in Munich, Vienna and Versailles.  I’m not adding anything too much of a jump, I’m basically staying in my normal, lyric repertoire.

We’ve talked about different things.  For example someone asked me about Adorno in Boccanegra in 2017.  I’ll be 40-something. I’m not going to hurt myself especially if the soprano is lyric, so I’m considering it.  It’s kind of like a next step in Verdi and one day my dream would be to sing Ballo – I’m in no rush but it’s a long term plan.  When I’m thinking about a role, I’ll sing through it a bit and then I’ll be really honest with myself – if I feel I’m going to be too stressed to do it or if I have to push to the outer limits all the time, then I might wait.  I’ve been asked many times to sing Don Carlos in French, which in a way is kind of tempting, it’s more lyric but it’s still long and it’s still Don Carlos, so I said no, but who knows what can happen – it’s a great piece and it would be interesting in French.  I feel I would be more suited to the French version even though it’s longer than the four-act Italian.  I’ve also been offered Don José.  There are a few big phrases in it but it’s still lyric.  I didn’t accept anything yet but it gets you thinking, even Gedda sang it – a lot of lyric tenors sang it also.  I think for now my main goal is to keep singing most of the repertoire that I sing, mixing in the Mozart and the bel canto and doing the French stuff but little by little adding new roles.  Maybe I’d like to do some more Bohèmes now, get back to Lucia.  Things like that.  Lyric things.



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