One day before the performance of Verdi’s Simone Boccanegra with Ferruccio Furlanetto in the role of Jacopo Fiesco held on May 26, 2017, a press conference took place in the Slovak National Theatre (Bratislava, SK) where, after the official part of the meeting, this world-known opera soloist answered the questions of opera publicists and journalists. Opera Slovakia is publishing this discussion in the form of an interview in which maestro particularly explains what was the essential driving force of his artistic growing up, how to achieve a synergy of musical, literal and dramatic artistic expression and discloses also his view on the contemporary problems of operatic backstage. The review from the performance with Ferruccio Furlanetto on the stage of Slovak National Theatre you can find HERE…
(Izabela Pažítková, Slovak National Theatre) Fiesco is not the most extended Verdi’s bass role. So, what is the reason that it is so attractive for you?
After twenty years of singing Mozart repertoire I turned back to Verdi, who created for the bass voice a series of, let say, wise but stubborn old men, for example Ernani, Zaccaria etc. The final scene provides a really forceful connotation because it shows Fiesco in a quite different, human light. Although my favourite Verdian role is King Philipp in Don Carlo such a dualism of Fiesco is really fascinating for me. At the beginning he is a determined noble man full of hate but at the end he finds out the redemption in up to unusual reconciliation with the destiny. This role is accompanying me for many years; for the first time I sung it in 1981 in New York. Therefore I consider it a little bit as mine; it became a stable part of my repertoire.
(Jaroslav Blaho, theatrologist) Have you ever sung the primary version of Simone Boccanegra from 1857?
No, I have never done it.
(Izabela Pažitková) For such a long time you alternated a lot of productions of Simone Boccanegra on various stages. How do the individual staging concepts influence the emotions which follow from the nature of this role?
Truly said, even though I am coming to the new stage standing in front of the new audience, after many years of performing one role the substance of it ingrains inside me so that there could not appear big difficulties, it should be only the matter of adaptation to the colleagues and understanding which kind of reactions would be expected from them. This is quite common practise and in the performances of my schedule there is allowed also some liberty for me.
You mentioned liberty. Up to which extent are you susceptible to the intensions of directors and which kind of compromises are acceptable for you?
This is rather sensitive subject. You drove the centre exactly. It was a great luck for me that at the beginning of my career I collaborated with the outstanding personalities. My first Figaro was in Paris with Jean-Pierre Ponelle, my debut in La scala was with Macbeth of Giorgio Strehler, my first Boris was directed by Piero Faggioni and Don Giovanni in Salzburg by Patrice Chéreau. All of them are wonderful people. Unfortunately, similar individualities are today rare and looking for them is really difficult. More and more often happens that the singer appears in a particular staging in rather difficult situation. Of course, if the stage direction does not contravene to the text, music or even to the intrinsic state of the individual persons and does not disable to replenish what the author was thinking about, it is possible to collaborate also today. However when the director decides to drive against at least one of these constituents, it is very difficult to find out the compromise. Moreover, after forty three years of my activity in this kind of art I can state that I am feeling myself little as an expert and I know that what I would like to do on the stage is a result of rather long-time experience. Perhaps this has any justification. I even created in my head something like black book containing names of people with whom I already don’t want to cooperate.
We have information that one of your extraordinarily favourite roles is Don Quichotte as a certain confessor of prettiness whereby just the spreading of prettiness should be the mission of opera.
I have been singing Don Quichotte parallel to the roles which need almost unbelievable deep utterance such as Philipp II, Boris Godounov as well as less known but fascinating role of Thomas Beckett in the opera Assassinio nella cattedrale by Ildebrando Pizzetti. Nevertheless, there is one role staying really very deep in my heart – it is Don Quichotte. Don Quichotte is an ideal moment in the career of singer because it enables to interpret the life in a not existing dimension where he is surrounded merely with the prettiness, immaculation and very pure love. This opera contains three hours of ideal life and I think that everybody should at least once obtain a possibility to experience it.
(Ján Marták, Opera Slovakia) What is your insight to the development of opera acting after forty three years on the stage?
You know, in my case it was just an opportunity to grow up and to study important roles with great directors who matched with me before, people like Ponelle, with whom we made a lot of work, even two opera movies Rigoletto and Così fan tutte. They, in particular Ponelle, understood that this boy has a possibility to become also an actor. He was the one taking it out and from him I learned about the possibilities of my own body and how can I use it: when to walk, when to use the hands etc. This is something totally separated from the voice – the body is for creating the character and the voice is for singing what is written in these masterpieces. However the body has magnificent possibilities if you are using it properly. Just I mentioned the hands. Their importance is enormous. Imagine that with the minimum movement you can fill a big theatre. Much more than if you do a big theatrical gesture. And all these details are growing with young man through the entire career. Especially at Mozart. In Mozart operas it is needed to be a character, you must build it through the music, most of all, through the recitatives in which you start to privilege the word. It is very important to speak the words pregnant and to experience intrinsic feel and mean of the each specific word in an attitude with the way how to work with body, hands. Everything must be connected together – this is a magnificent task. Then, if you see yourself in a movie or television achieving the results you really wanted, it is absolutely wonderful. But, I repeat, today there is not such kind of people in disposal for the young singers so that they are completely abandoned and reliant to themselves. Although some of them are still enough intelligent so as they can grow up properly, but most of them need help. For this reason there are still many singers with good voices who disappear after maximum five years. They love their track but they do not have anybody to help them how to follow the proper direction. It’s a pity.
You started your career with Verdi, then you devoted yourself more to Mozart and after many years you again turned back to Verdi. What was the reason for such a progress?
Verdi was my original repertoire. When I was 27 I turned mostly to Mozart. This was fundamental for me because Mozart is like a medicine for young singer. Whichever fake or natural vocal utterance is unpermitted in his music. Mozart has to be sung with the clear meaning of the word. I did it in the central part of my career for a long time and this made me an arrival in the mid fifties with the voice freshness which I would never have if I did Verdi instead of Mozart from the very beginning. It was a great luck and also a lucky choice. My manager was a great man Michael Glotz, a great agent and a great recording producer who built my career in a proper direction.
(Izabela Pažitková) Forty three years on the stage can be harvested also by submitting of experiences to young singers and adepts of opera singing. Do you perform also some pedagogic activities?
It cannot be said that I teach. I think that neither successful career is a guarantee for being a good pedagogue and teacher. After all, my career still continues so that I must devote to it a lot of power and energy. I cannot exclude that, together with my colleagues, I sometimes contribute to such activities, but to undertake preparing somebody for the profession of opera singer from the very beginning is a great responsibility. I am not feeling that I can do that. If somebody spreads his protecting wings over the careers of beginning opera singers, he takes de facto the responsibility for their lives. Such man has to be definitely sure that he can firmly lead his trainees. However, so far I do not feel enough sureness for this.
(Vladimír Blaho, opera reviewer and publicist) It seems that there are fading away deep, so-called black basses (“basso nero”) from the world. What do you mean about this problem?
This question is closely connected with the same what I just indicated a moment before and it is not only a matter of bass. When I started to sing Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras were rather young and Mario del Monaco, Franco Corelli and others were still active – pretty companions, big number of outstanding “superstars”. Such personalities started to miss, because, for example, neither today the respected tenors are not artists with the comparable authority as well as there are no more Verdian baritones like Cappuccilli. Where are they? They already don’t exist. For the basses it is the same. There is a plenty of singers, let’s call them hybrids, who are partly this and partly that, in fact bass-baritones, but in spite of this they are confronted with the roles of basso profondo and the society accepts them. So where should be the problem? As I already said, I think that outstanding voices are still forming and they are coming from schools. The problems consist in the impossibility of working with great artists – conductors and stage directors. It was a luck that I had an opportunity to sing if not the first, but my first important Philipp with Herbert von Karajan. He was a personality which was able to change the life of young singer in twelve hours only by touching and selecting him. However, this doesn’t happen today.
Could this be also a fault of artistic agencies?
Agencies managing young singers calculate with their maximum five-year long activity because they know that after them the others are coming. Of course, also in the past the agents were thinking about the profit but for them it was more acceptable to build up one singer enduring thirty years than ten singers enduring three years. With the singers it is the same as, for example, with athletes. If the nature provided to somebody the prerequisites for 100 meters sprint he cannot be excellent in 10 km run. The singer should find his natural givennesses and according to them devote himself to the certain vocal discipline. Today the market forces them to sing the roles with completely different voice demands compared to that given to them.
It is also necessary to realize that unlike the times when the pieces like Simone Boccanegra or Don Carlo were created the pitch of orchestra moved to almost one semitone higher. This is also a big load for the voice of young singer who, at the time of his stage debuts, still has not the development of his voice finalized and hence he does not govern his vocal technique up to 100 per cent. Therefore, the voice is not satisfactory self-checked because achieving this needs some additional time. Maybe it would be suitable to transpose these pieces a little bit lower…
“Renata Tebaldi was able to sing La traviata because the pitch was lower”, commented Jaroslav Blaho and added that such increase in pitch is rather not enough reasonable idea of conductors.
So, in the past the high tones were sung simpler. This doesn’t concern primarily the separate high tones in ornamental places and culminating moments of arias but rather transposing higher the whole ambit inside which the singer commonly sings i. e. tessitura.
(Vladimír Blaho) Besides La scala in Milano there are also other important theatres in Italia, for example San Carlo or La Fenice but it seems that in the presence their importance declines. Why is it so?
I think, the reasons are especially economical. La scala is a first class world-known theatre and its management is in a good condition while other, also important theatres, which stand, let say, in the second order have big difficulties to keep their course on a world level. Years ago the culture and arts stood among the chief priorities in Italia and it was possible to handle with them as with market items. However, the politics created during the last decade does not feel the seriousness of the situation. However this was just due to it.
(Zuzana Vilikovská, Slovak Spectator) Concerning all these shady aspects of the opera backstage a question crossed my mind: don’t you have sometimes a will to intervene in these events resp. to make a stage direction or deal with opera production?
Of course that sometimes I have a mind to intervene but on the other hand it must be said that there are also stage directors who achieve very good results in spite of selecting modern approach. However, this can do only few people. When I cooperated with Patrice Chéreau in Salzburg it was very difficult too, also for me, but he was a great talent. The difficulties rise up when such a direction is caught by the talentless person. Unfortunately, there are no more people like Patrice Chéreau and many others hide their impotency or loss of knowledge behind the modern adaptations.
(Ján Marták) During your career you cooperated with various conductors. It uses to be recalled that especially Herbert von Karajan and James Levine influenced your growing up. However these two gentlemen are of really different nature…
Absolutely – they must be because otherwise the world would be boring… But, you know, musically, the most beautiful figure I have ever done was with George Solti. It was in 1991 during a tour around Europe with Le nozze di Figaro in concert version. Maestro was almost 80 but his temperament was great like a volcano. Then I cannot forget people like Carlo Maria Giulini with whom I sang Verdi’s Requiem, Leonard Bernstein and others. All experiences with these great names as well as others maybe not so great were extremely important for me. At the beginning of my career there was an enormous quantity of Italian names ‑ great musicians and directors ‑ who were working, let say, on me and they created what I succeeded to be. But this happened just because I got this chance. Among them, of course, at most Karajan. Levine and Ponelle. Karajan and Ponelle were the two who made me. For me this was an enormous privilege and luck. But in this profession you simply need luck. When I jumped in Don Carlo with Karajan it was a lottery. I won.
Since you have rather rich experience with Russian music I would like to ask how do you feel it as a native Italian, what does this music signifies for you and how did you cope with Russian language?
I think, it is quite natural to be pulled by the Russian music. Such attraction is nothing extraordinary, after all these are very important and emotionally intensive pieces. I worked up a recital consisting from pieces by several Russian composers, later I sang Boris Godounov by Mussorgsky or Khovanshchina, such music is really emotionally amazing. Concerning pronunciation – there was a lot of training and work behind it. Everything is possible to learn although today people sometimes miss such endurance. It is simply continual repeating, work and again repeating behind. Among my first contacts with Russian music I could mention a recital with music by Rachmaninoff and Mussorgsky. To each of these composers I devoted one half of the program. I was studying this recital for two years.
For us it would be very interesting to know your view on the differences between Russian and Italian music – also from the psychological aspects of individual characters.
This all comes from specific characters. Let’s take King Philipp and Boris Godounov. I don’t care about the language but I care about the meaning of the words applied to the sensation of music and from the dramaturgic aspect to the sensation following from the built up of characters. Both languages – Italian and Russian – do not have anything in common in this specific case except one thing: when it comes to singing they are suddenly similar because they are both based on vocals while the consonants are smooth and very soft. There are not such words like, for example, “schlecht” in German. Everything is soft and this privileges the sound. On the other hand, French is very difficult language for the expression. Because of the nasals it is not possible to sing in the same way as to speak. I remember what José van Dam told me: “You have to sing in French in the same mode like in Italian. Therefore forget about the nasals and sing like in Italian.” This means clear vocals, soft consonants, but musically.
And how it is with German?
In German I sang very few things. I performed twice Orest in Strauss’ Elektra with Claudio Abbado. It was quite funny and all right but I would like to appoint Winterreise because I love it. However, I do not consider the text of Winterreise German but Austrian which is much sweeter. For example, in German “so wie so” is pronounced like [zo: wi: zo:] but in Austrian it is [so wi so]. The “s” is [s]and not [zzzz]. Anyway, this amazing masterpiece was conceived by Schubert in Austria, not in Germany. Therefore, there is a possibility to interpret this piece in German much more musically. The German privileges, let say, the sound from the throat (guturale) but in Schubert it can be avoided. And this is the only reason why I feel it mine. Because I can do it in this way. Otherwise, for instance, the people often ask me to do some Wagner. I don’t care about it because I don’t feel any attraction to this music. It is amazing world but it is not mine since it does not give me any emotion. It is an enormous amount of music but… I would never forget the discussion between the chorus master from Parma and the German coach. It was going a talk on Verdi and Wagner. The guy from Parma finally said “Yes, it’s a lot of music; it seems it’s going to the heaven orgasm… But it never comes”
(Izabela Pažítková) Finally, one question for relax. In one of your interviews you stated that after the performance of Don Carlo in Salzburg with Herbert von Karajan where you sang Philipp II you requested the wig. Is it truth and have you still got it?
It was in 1986. Initially, I ought to participate there in Mozart’s Coronation Mass in C KV 317 and in Bruckner’s Te Deum and, additionally, I had a contract to the role of Philipp II as a cover for the case that something happens. It happened and I had to sing this performance which was transmitted to the world by various televisions without any minute of rehearsal. As I already mentioned, this performance was a break in my career so that after finishing it I felt a desire to recall the magic of this evening. Therefore I bought that wig as well as the make-up and until now I still have them. This is my only fetish
Thank you very much for your answers
Provided by: Ján Marták