Interview with Luca Pisaroni

Raised in Busseto, Italy, Luca Pisaroni has established himself as one of the leading bass-baritones of today.  Following initial studies in Milan, Buenos Aires and New York, he made his operatic debut in the title role of Le nozze di Figaro in Klagenfurt in 2001.  Strongly identified with the music of Mozart and Rossini, Mr Pisaroni is also widely recognized as a fine interpreter of a repertoire ranging from the baroque to the present day.  He has performed at many of the world’s major lyric stages including La Scala, the Wiener Staatsoper, Zurich, Toronto and Salzburg.  Recent, current and future engagements include Méphistophélès in Gounod’s Faust in Madrid, Mustafà at the Liceu, Don Giovanni and Leporello at the Met and Munich respectively, and the world premiere of Tarik O’Regan’s The Phoenix in Houston.  I caught up with Mr Pisaroni by telephone from his home in Vienna as he prepared to make his debut as the Four Villains in les Contes d’Hoffmann in Baden-Baden.

Photo: © Jiyang Chen

Mr Pisaroni, you’re currently preparing to make your debut as the villains in Les Contes d’Hoffmannn in Baden-Baden.  Tell us a little about your preparations for the roles.

I’ve been working on these roles for a while now and I’m incredibly excited that I’m getting to sing them.  I have memories of seeing Hoffmann for the first time at the Scala back in 1994 – 95 with Sam Ramey and Chailly conducting.  Since then, I’ve really wanted to sing these parts and I can’t wait to get on stage.  The only regret is that it was supposed to be a staged production, but instead we’re going to do it in concert.  These roles are really different, from Coppélius, which is like a bass, to Miracle which is almost a baritone part, then to Lindorf who is a bass-baritone.  You have the whole range vocally and also dramatically as well.  When I was studying the roles with José van Dam, he told me that you have to invent four different kinds of people, in fact.  And of course, doing the work in a staged production would make it a little bit easier to pull off, with the costumes and weeks of rehearsals to prepare.  But I’ve been working on the piece a lot and I’m going to the first rehearsals thoroughly prepared to really make something of the characters.

When you get offered a role, or indeed roles, such as this, talk us through your process of preparing for a debut.

First of all, I always stress the importance of looking through the scores before agreeing to anything.  Obviously in this case, it was an opera that I knew from listening to it, but I’d never actually had the time to study it.  So, when I was asked to do it, I looked at the score and from that, I got a sense of how it’s going to be.  When I learn a role, I always like to plan myself so that I learn it well in advance, leave it, and then go back to it.  I always learn roles in this way because I realize that it takes a little bit of time for the body to internalize a role, to become your own in your vocal cords.  Of course, it’s much easier if you know, for example, Figaro and Leporello and you move on to, say, the Count or Don Giovanni.  The roles are different, but the musical language is the same.  Hoffmann is different from other roles that I’ve sung.  I’ve taken my time to learn the notes, I coached it, left it for a while, then coached it again.  I do tend to sing through the role a lot in my preparations.

I also try to look for different interpretations from singers of the past.  It’s not about copying and stealing ideas.  It’s much more about looking at how people with different kinds of voices have dealt with the role and trying to understand where my voice fits in, which singer is similar to me and look at how he solved the questions that I have – how he got through a long phrase, for example.  This is how I do it.  Of course, everybody has a different approach.  I find it really helpful to listen to singers of the past and how they dealt with the technical questions of the role.  The process is tiring, exhausting and very long.  There are a lot of questions and very little answers.  I’m curious to see which answers we’ll find together with Marc Minkowski at the first musical rehearsal.

As Méphistophélès in Faust at the Wiener Staatsoper. Photo: © Michael Pöhn / Wiener Staatsoper

Have there been any differences in how you’re prepared for it given that it’s a concert performance as opposed to a staged production?

It’s exactly the same.  I have to say I feel even more responsibility to make something out of the character dramatically in a concert performance.  In a staged production you’re helped by the costume, lighting, set – it makes entering into the character much easier.  Obviously now, I also need to think about how I can make these four characters look and sound different in a concert setting.  It’s not an easy task.  In a way, it’s nice because you can really focus on the music.  At the same time, the hard part is that it’s not easy to do a piece like this and not be able to see the conductor because he’s behind you.

You’ll also be part of a cast with a number of role debuts in fact. 

Once you’ve reached a certain level in your career, you don’t have the luxury of trying things in a smaller venue.  Especially these days when you can sing anything, anywhere and someone will write about it.  I remember that in the past, a singer like Bergonzi, would have debuted Cavalleria Rusticana in a provincial house in Italy without the pressure of doing it for the first time in a big house.  Now, everything is so accessible.  I’m happy to be part of a cast with such great colleagues.  I’ve worked with them before, I know all of them, and there is a sense of being part of the same adventure when you know there’s a fellow singer making a debut just like you.  I’m extremely excited about this Hoffmann.

As Don Pizarro at the Scala. Photo: © Teatro alla Scala/ Brescia-Amisano

Later this season you have another debut coming up, that of Claudio in Agrippina in concert which, like this Hoffmann, will be with another period instrument orchestra.  What do you think are the differences when you sing with a period instrument band as opposed to when you sing with modern instruments, for example?

I’ve sung some roles with both modern instruments and old instruments, and when you sing them you realize that they were not made for modern instruments.  These days, orchestras like to tune higher because the sound is more penetrating and has more shine and brillo to it.  For a singer, there’s something more comfortable, for want of a better term, when it comes to singing at baroque pitch.  Often composers write so much in the passaggio area and singing it at a quarter of a tone lower does make a big difference.  When I sang Così fan tutte at Glyndebourne with Iván Fischer and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, I was able to bring out certain colours in the voice at the lower pitch, finding a different position of the voice and making a sound that, when you sing in a big house at modern pitch, you aren’t always able to.

Mozart is key to your repertoire in many ways.  You are recognized as one of the leading Leporellos before the public today, but later this season you’ll be making your debut as Don Giovanni.  How do you learn another key role in an opera you know so well? 

I had the same experience with Figaro.  I’d sung almost 150 performances as Figaro before I started singing the Count.  I thought the second act finale would be a disaster because I’d never remember when Figaro sings, when the Count sings.  In fact, in 2015, I made a recording of Figaro in Baden-Baden while I was rehearsing the Count in Salzburg and I never made a mistake.  I think it’s because they’re just so different in terms of personality and character.  It’s the same with Don Giovanni and Leporello.  I’m excited about taking on Don Giovanni because I’ve been thinking hard about how I’ll create the character because, up until now, I’ve always seen the action from Leporello’s perspective.  It’s going to be fascinating to see the murder of the Commendatore, for example, from Giovanni’s point of view.  I was asked over ten years ago to sing Don Giovanni, but back then I didn’t feel ready – I felt it was too big for me dramatically.  I’m so happy I waited, because it’s even more exciting to take this role on now.  I’ve been waiting a long time to get my hands on this role.

As Leporello at the Staatsoper Berlin. Photo: © Tatjana Dachsel

You grew up in Busseto, a place closely identified with Verdi, how did you discover that you had a voice and how did you grow it?

I’ve always had a passion for opera.  When I started singing, I tried to imitate Pavarotti.  Then, when I was 13 or 14 years old, I went to a masterclass held by Bergonzi, who was living in Busseto.  He heard me and told me to come back when I was 18.  At 18, I started taking lessons.  I know that this sounds quite easy and natural, but that’s how it was for me.  I grew up in an environment where opera was central to what we did.  Every Sunday, I would go to the Salone Barezzi and listen to opera.  Growing up, listening to Verdi, that’s what people did.  And there were two options – either football or opera.  And I was very bad at football, so I went for opera!

Thinking about voice types, what does it mean to you to be a bass-baritone?

At first, I was disappointed because when I started singing, I really wanted to be a tenor.  Then I wanted to sound like one of these big Russian basses.  Ultimately, you have to work with the voice that you were given.  I have to be honest that, throughout the years of my career, it’s the best kind of voice I could have hoped for.  It allows me to try so much repertoire when, so often, people only tend to give you a certain repertoire.  With my kind of voice, I get to sing songs, I sing concert repertoire – Beethoven, Haydn, Brahms.  It’s a voice that’s difficult to categorize.  Many times, people can comment that ‘it’s too baritonal for one role, or it’s not baritonal enough for another’.  On the other hand, my voice allows me to push my limits and do many more things than I might have been able to do if I’d had another type of voice.  I can’t complain.

In many ways it sounds like a gift.

Yes and no.  Yes, in the sense that it is a gift and no in the sense that sometimes people come to a performance with a preconception of how they expect the singer to sound.  I try to hear with an open mind and see what a singer can offer in the role they’re singing.  You can have different memories of every singer that you‘ve heard in a role and each one had something else to add to the story.  This is much more interesting to me than the colour of a voice, because every role has been sung by a lighter singer or a very heavy singer.  The spectrum is so wide and in this art form, I don’t think there’s a truth.  We can all guess what the composer wanted from what’s written in the score.  Often, an ‘allegro’ might mean one thing to you but for me, it can mean something completely different.  I always think that an ‘allegro’ for a 20-year-old is different to a 70-year-old because one walks faster than the other.  But the truth is that everybody sees things in a different way – and that’s what’s amazing about opera.

As Mahomet II in Le Siège de Corinthe in Pesaro. Photo: © Amati Bacciardi

You’re very active on social media, particularly with images of your beautiful dogs, but you also often discuss politics there.  As an artist do you feel that artists have a role to contribute to a discourse about society on social media in particular, and do you think that artists can make a difference?

I think that as a person, I have the responsibility to make a contribution.  I don’t think what I do on stage is political, meaning, you can’t tell what someone votes by how they sing, to be honest.  That’s impossible.  But as a person, I think we all have the duty to talk about what’s close to our hearts.  For example, I am very much engaged with the wellbeing of animals, with empowering women, and supporting the rights of the LGBT community.  I feel very strongly as a society we do better if we do better together.  When I’m so privileged to do the kind of job that I do, I believe that I have the duty to speak out about subjects that are very important to me.  If we don’t do this to make a better society, why do it? We do what we do to understand humanity better, to understand our relationship with each other, to understand that we’re on this journey together.

And for that you only have to think of that final scene of Figaro for example, because if anything defines what humanity is, it’s that.

Mozart understood it so well – that really is the most beautiful moment.  Opera is about understanding who we are, where we come from, where we’re going and why we’re here.  Understanding that the struggles we go through in 2018 are the same that they went through 300 years ago.

As Figaro in San Francisco. Photo: © Cory Weaver.

Let’s look at the future.  You’re in the middle of a very busy season.  You have several important debuts – we’ve already discussed three of them.  Looking forward what else can we expect from you?

So much!  It’s always the great thing about this job that I get to do so many interesting things.  The variety really keeps me going.  I get to do concerts, I get to do interesting roles – I’ll try my best with what’s in store.  I have an incredibly interesting season ahead of me with the Hoffmann, Italiana, Don Giovanni, the world premiere of the Phoenix in Houston, as well as the Agrippina I’m also going back to Golaud, a role that I adore.  I’m lucky that I get to do what I love.  It’s a lot of work but it’s great work and I’m so privileged because it’s my passion.  I don’t get up in the morning dreading having to go to work – even when I’m sleep-deprived, half-sick or in a terrible mood.  It’s amazing that even when I’m having the worst day, there’s something about stepping on a stage that says ‘man, let’s go for it’ and that’s such a great feeling.

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