Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni will make his house debut at La Scala in 2017 as Leporello. It will be only the second opera he has sung in Italy. The performances of Don Giovanni are just before his 42nd birthday. Astonishing: a prophet is not without honour save in his own country.
I grew up musically outside Italy. I began my career outside and for some reason I have only performed in Italy very rarely. I can't invite myself, so there's nothing I can do.
I don't think that the theatres really ‘know' me. I certainly haven't had hundreds of offers and always said ‘no', and sometimes when they ask me nowadays it is for next season and I'm all booked up.
Of course, to be honest, I'm not happy about it, not only because it is my home country but also because Italy is the home of opera, so not to be asked is not pleasant, but I can't complain because I've been fortunate to sing in some of the most wonderful opera houses in all the world.
He certainly has: the Met, tick. Covent Garden, tick. Zurich, Vienna, Paris, Chicago, Salzburg, tick tick tick tick tick. The last of these, Salzburg, is where I caught up with him for a chat during his back to back performances in Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro. It was also where the seeds of his La Scala debut were sown when Alexander Pereira was overseeing his last season before taking over in Milan.
Yes, he got Milano while we were doing Don Giovanni in Salzburg and when he asked me if I'd like to do Leporello at La Scala I thought it was the perfect role to make my house debut with.
It is a role he has performed all over the world. In 2012 Deutsche Grammophon released a recording of him in the part, and there are also DVDs of him in that 2014 Salzburg production as well as the earlier Glyndebourne production. Hugh Canning in The Sunday Times said his Leporello was “sensationally good” and Gramophone magazine said he's “the Leporello of choice”.
I love the character. I love to sing it and I love to act it. You can do so much with it, it's such an interesting role.
He's the only one who gets to talk to the audience, so he has a special connection with them and through his asides he manages to tell us what is going on. Like a Hitchcock movie where he walks into the frame. I have never had the desire of being Don Giovanni while playing Leporello. Leporello can never become a Don Giovanni. He gets a glimpse of what life as a libertine can be, and he loves it, adores it… I love to play the devotion he has to Don Giovanni.
I haven't done Leporello in a while, and coming back to it I thought, Wow, this is awesome! It's a little bit like being married for twenty years and then celebrating your anniversary, every time I go back it's like falling in love for the first time… there is always something else I can do, always something I can play in a different way, and that's what I love about this.
So when will be switch roles and gives the Don a go?
I have Don Giovanni in my calendar. I look forward to singing it, but I'm a little scared. Everybody has an idea of how this character should be: if you're too sweet they want you to be rougher, if you are a total seducer they ask where the dangerous part is… everybody has an idea of the their version of Don Giovanni so you know you are going to disappoint someone.
He didn't disappoint when he left Figaro for the Count in Le nozze di Figaro, when he was singing at Salzburg.
I had done so many Figaros, and when they offered me the Count I thought why should I do this, I'm happy with Figaro. But after I did it I thought, I don't want to do Figaro anymore! The Count is such an interesting character. Maybe it will be the same with Don Giovanni and I'll say, forget Leporello!
Don Giovanni at La Scala
La Scala's current production of Don Giovanni by Robert Carsen opened the 2011-2012 Season where ‘proscenium arches receded nightmarishly into a distant horizon in Michael Levine's stage-within-a-multiplicity-of-stages set' and it wound up with a ‘gobsmacking image'. Pisaroni worked with Carsen for 2011's Rinaldo for Glyndebourne which The Telegraph called ‘rather silly and adventitious' (though it did say that Pisaroni was ‘at the top of his game') and the Independent said that ‘what we see can and does contradict what we hear' (while admiring Pisaroni's ‘smashing' singing). Pisaroni, however, says,
Robert is a musician and he's very sensitive to what the libretto says and what the music says, and this makes a big difference compared to the director who knows nothing about musical language and treats an opera as a theatre piece.
So he's happy to have the chance to work with Carsen again?
It's great working with him; he's so well prepared with such an imagination, and although he has a structure he moulds it on your body, your personality, your voice, which I appreciate. When we did Rinaldo he was happy about change, it was all about giving and taking. He's good about telling you what works and what doesn't.
Carsen will return to La Scala to oversee the restaging; something Pisaroni's pleased about.
That way you can asked the director the important question ‘why?', which assistants cannot answer in the same way. It makes such a difference because then everything makes sense and it means I can keep his vision alive. It was Bryn the first time around and I'll be a different Leporello.
He's seen a video of the production and is looking forward being part of it. I asked him if he's ever been in a production that he's loathed.
No, though there have been scenes that I wasn't happy with, moment that didn't make sense to me. But I'm a fighter and I always question, and if there is something that I really hate I will say, can we find another solution? 99.9% of the time I've found directors who are open and are willing to find something else.
There is no director who wants you to do something that you hate because if you're not convinced, how can you convince an audience? It makes a big difference, because only if you believe in what you do, can you be believable to your audience; if you're doing something you think is crap then good luck trying to convince 2,000 people in the audience!
It is the same musically. I always talk, for example, about Harnoncourt, who didn't have conventional ideas, but he was so committed to them that I always followed his vision; he deserved 100% of everyone's energy.
The conductor for Don Giovanni at La Scala will be Paavo Järvi, Gramophone magazine's Artist of the Year 2015. Not known as a conductor of opera, or even vocal music, he is nevertheless a highly respected orchestral conductor whose ‘keen ear, eye for detail and rigorous baton' (The Times) will surely provide new insights into Mozart's score.
When you've done an opera a lot, I love it when you go to the first rehearsal and somebody says something I've never thought about. My ideal of hell is to do the same opera the same way 100 times. It's much nicer when someone has different tempi and different musical ideas. It makes it more interesting for us as artists. You can look at the same opera from many different perspectives; I look forward to exploring Järvi's Don Giovanni.
Pisaroni is very animated when he speaks, his voice running up and down the vocal spectrum, leaping into falsetto when he gets particularly excited, and he seems to thrive on new and even surprising changes.
I love it when a conductor does something unexpected during a Sitzprobe… oh wow!
Even during a performance?
I believe that there should be at least 10% of unknown during a performance… I prefer 20% but that's not everyone's cup of tea. 10% of unknown keeps the performance alive. It mustn't become a routine. Sometimes it can go in a different direction and I love that.
I ask him if being onstage with his father-in-law, Thomas Hampson, will allow him to go for that 20%, being that they know each other so well.
Thomas has an incredible energy onstage and a great capacity to adjust to what you offer; he doesn't play tennis, but he's a great tennis player on stage. It makes life so much easier when you have a wonderful colleague who is capable of reacting to what you do, so if you do something different, he isn't thrown off balance but actually answers it, and in a way you're not expecting, which gives you in turn the opportunity to do something different too. I know him very well, but I've never been his Leporello, so I'm excited to see what kind of Don Giovanni / Leporello relationship we will create.
As part of the Mozart 250th Anniversary celebrations in Salzburg, when all 22 operas were staged, the two men were together for Don Giovanni, though in 2006 Pisaroni was Masetto, so they didn't have much interaction.
It will be interesting to see an older Don Giovanni and a younger Leporello which can add an extra layer to play with. I think it's going to be fun.
As Hampson and Pisaroni are both tall, good-looking singers with an overlapping repertoire, maybe there's a little rivalry?
It might help the believability of the confusion of characters in the second act. Elvira won't seem like a mad woman this time!
Rivalry? No. We are two different voices and with different schools: Thomas is an American centred on the German repertoire — and an unbelievable lieder singer — and I'm an Italian singer. I knew ten operas when I was fifteen, whereas the first complete opera Thomas heard was one he was singing in. We are different, including our voices. It doesn't make any sense that we are rivals. The great thing about this art form is the uniqueness of artists. I can't be him and he can't be me. I can't be Erwin Schrott and he can't do what I do. That's a great thing. I don't think that anyone in this business would want to be someone else.
So Catherine — Hampson's daughter and Pisaroni's wife — didn't marry her father?
God no! Don't forget, Thomas is an American, and he's very put together, and then here I come, screaming, talking always that little bit too loud, and getting all emotional about things. My wife will say, “Why are you getting all worked up about something so irrelevant?” and I say, “It's a question of principle!”
Pisaroni has been playing Leporello and the Count at Salzburg, though for the recently issued CDs of Le nozze di Figaro, was recorded live in 2015 at Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, he was Figaro. Despite great acclaim in the role (and for this recording: The Sunday Times said he's ‘the finest on disc for his relish of the text' and Stereophile magazine said that he ‘creates one of the most spot-on, lovable Figaros you are likely to encounter on disc'), Pisaroni now prefers playing the Count.
There's more variety and the Count gives you diverse possibilities as a character compared to Figaro. Figaro has beautiful music. He's supposed to be the deus ex machina of everything yet everything happens despite all he tries to do; for me the ‘machina' of all this is the Conte and the Contessa. Figaro doesn't grow so much whereas the Count has so much going on. Contessa perdono shows the genius of Mozart because in the midst of all this craziness this guy goes down on his knees and says “sorry, I messed up”. You know that he's honest in that moment. We've all made mistakes and I love that despite his pride he stops and says, I'm sorry — I love that, I really love it.
Figaro has been put aside for a while, and another Mozart role that has been put on the shelf is Così fan tutte's Guglielmo. Unlike Figaro, however, he's a character who evolves during the course of the opera, so why doesn't he want to sing it anymore?
I've done it a lot, it works well when you're a young guy, but eventually there's nowhere to go. I did a defining production, for me, at Glyndebourne with Nicholas Hytner and Ivan Fischer conducting, and it was one of the best experiences of my career.
It was such an eye-opening experience that after that the other productions were like, ok, I get it, but there were no more revelations. I've done the Count many times and every time he is a new guy for me. That's what I like.
Mozart features heavily in Luca Pisaroni's schedule and his operas have brought him success. To sing Mozart is like sending your voice to the gym to keep it in shape; Pisaroni explains.
With some heavier repertoire you can put a portamento here and there and be – quote, unquote – “sloppy”, and it can still work. With Mozart there needs to be clarity and precision and without that it just doesn't work.
It has been an incredible journey with Mozart because I've grown as an actor and a singer but without ruining my voice. If you go into the heavier repertoire without knowing exactly what you're doing, you can hurt yourself and often you can never recover from that. Mozart keeps you technically in check, yet is dramatically interesting which allows you to grow. My voice seems at home in this repertoire.
Though technically and musically it is not easy.
There is no Mozart role where you can say, oh this is not so difficult. To sing Guglielmo is not easy at all if you respect all of Mozart's intentions. With Secondate, aurette amiche, for example, you have to sing beautiful piani because it's a serenade, yet it lies in an area of the bass-baritone voice which doesn't come so easy; Guglielmo is a difficult role because it is neither a bass nor a baritone. It's a little bit too low for a baritone, and a little bit too high for a bass. Nothing is easy, nothing.
Pisaroni illustrates everything as he speaks, from snippets of arias to demonstrating what ‘too high' and ‘too low' sound like. An aural fountain.
Unlike many Italian opera singers, Pisaroni also performs on the recital platform. It is an area of career that he treats seriously and he devotes much of his schedule to recitals and concerts.
I have always liked singing song. The repertoire is incredibly compelling. You can go wild with your imagination. There are so many images that a song can evoke and I like the possibility to tell my version of the story to the audience.
I like the challenge because I can use colours and dynamics that are not possible on an opera stage when you have 80 people playing in the orchestra. The set can be acoustically unfriendly so you may need to sing mezzoforte even if it's supposed to be piano, yet with the piano you decide the dynamics and the balance so that gives you the choice to do something else. I think all singers should sing recitals. If you sing songs, your musical sensitivity changes and your approach to the text is different. Everyone can profit from that.
Recitals demand a different vocal approach from opera in order to respect the scale of the work and often the size and acoustic of the hall?
I completely believe that you can't sing a recital in the same way that you sing opera. It's impossible. It's a question of volume: you can't scream for two hours so it's a different approach; it's often in a different language and you have to learn it. It's especially difficult for Italians because we don't grow up listening to Schubert, Schumann, Wolf and Mahler, we grow up with Bellini, Puccini, Verdi and Leoncavallo. Just as the German singer who wants to sing the Italian repertoire has to learn our language, it is the same for the Italian who wants to sing the German song repertoire.
Many opera singers say that they dread being in front of an audience as themselves: no character, no costume, and looking the audience in the eye.
I used to be terrified but now I like it. I am shy, but there is a side of me that is incredibly extrovert. I'm a Gemini, and when I'm on stage, the extroverted guy takes over and I actually enjoy it, despite that fact that the other half of my Gemini is on my shoulder saying, Oh, you shouldn't be doing this, this is embarrassing, you're not good enough; but, as my wife says: Fake it until you make it!
The guy checking his phone and the girl rummaging in her bag… a distraction or a challenge?
Our senses are so present, so engaged, that you notice people in the audience. I can go backstage and say, there's a white-haired lady in the seventh row sleeping, and people say, how can you see that?
I take it very personally actually. I think, look I'm trying really hard here to be funny, for example, and I really want you to laugh. I will show you that I can make you laugh by the end of the evening. It's good to have a certain tension between you and the audience.
La Scala is a full-blown opera theatre, not an intimate specialist venue like the Wigmore Hall, yet it sees its fair share of German Lied and French chanson. It has a tricky audience for recitals, it's not Salzburg or Vienna, and many singers, understandably, resort to opera arias for their encores. What would Pisaroni take for his first La Scala recital?
Without question a mix of German and Italian songs. I would approach the Italian songs with the same respect and attitude that we all use for the German. If you start adding in high notes that are not written, or a rallentando that is not written, then it becomes too operatic, but if you do a Rossini, Bellini or Tosti song as you would do a Schubert song, they are really, really nice.
Unfortunately, I sometimes hear from theatres that their audience is conservative and they want a ‘traditional programme', and they say, “There's no way I can sell this programme”, and so you need to come up with something else. It limits our repertoire tremendously and I wish we could be more experimental. Audiences are more adventurous when it comes to repertoire than we give them credit for.
A fellow Italian singer is an expert in giving the public something they didn't knew they liked, singing on the concert platform as much as the opera stage, and being cherished more outside her homeland. As we talked, she was in Salzburg preparing to revive the Whitsun Festival production of West Wide Story: Cecilia Bartoli.
Bartoli is the first ‘rock star' in opera: making a disc and then touring with it. She is so passionate and innovative and has done an amazing job rediscovering forgotten repertoire. I sang just a couple of lines on her Maria disc; they asked me, it was Bartoli, so I did it, but I wish that it had been a duet.
She is a committed performer and every word has a colour. She is an incredible musician and technically she is unbelievable. The Vivaldi recording changed attitudes towards this repertoire and afterwards a wave of counter-tenors arrived to rediscover this music; it changed the Baroque repertoire.
The Vivaldi Album sold so many copies… already years ago they told me had already sold 500,000 copies! That repertoire… and for a mezzo soprano… it's unbelievable! What she did is unbelievable.
The Vivaldi Album has now sold almost a million copies.
I admire her. It's too bad I came into the business a little too late, otherwise I could have done some Rossini with her… L'italiana in Algeri for example.
As an Italian singer she truly created her own, very unique path. Before her it was about the mainstream Verdi/Puccini and here was an Italian singer doing it all differently.
Busseto boy sings Verdi
Giuseppe Verdi was born in 1813 in the village of Le Roncole, an hour away by foot from Busseto, and his family transferred to the town when he was eleven. Luca Pisaroni was born in Venezuela and his family travelled more than 8,000 kilometres to move to their new house in Busseto when Luca was four. Living in Busseto instilled him with a love of opera and a couple of years ago he told me that his dream role would be to sing Filippo II in Verdi's Don Carlo.
It would be really nice… we'll see if it happens. It will be some time before I sing this role though. Right now I focus on the repertoire I'm doing; I have so much music to learn, that I don't have time to think what's going to happen ten years from now. In 2019 I will sing Don Giovanni for the first time. I also have some other new roles before that [he makes his debut in I puritani at the Met next February] with a new Rossini and some French repertoire.
It's a dream of mine to sing Verdi, and I sang Paolo in the recording of Simon Boccanegra, which I enjoyed very much. Especially for the Verdi repertoire, there is a tradition of who can sing what and when which is a little bit daunting. We'll see.
Tenor brain, bass-baritone body
Pisaroni once said that he was a tenor trapped in a bass-baritone's body; for his temperament or for the repertoire?
Both. I love the tenor repertoire; especially the music Verdi wrote. I grew up listening to Carlo Bergonzi, THE Verdi tenor. That's what I wanted to do, that's what I wanted to sing.
On the other hand, I'm a tenor also mentally. I'm always questioning what I'm doing, and I'm always a bit nervous… yeah, without question I have the personality of a tenor. Worrying about the high notes, worrying about having a cold, worrying about how you look. It's about the emotional trouble a tenor goes through in his head before a performance. Waking up and feeling a tickle in your throat and thinking, oh my god I have no voice today. I'm very good at this. I think I've told my wife about five times in all these years, oh today I feel good… otherwise I'm a tenor trapped in a bass-baritone body!
On the road with Lenny & Tristan
It is almost impossible to talk to Pisaroni without mentioning his dogs, and they've made themselves heard during our talk. Tristan and Lenny have even got their own Facebook fan page where their listed hobbies are traveling, hiking, swimming, chasing rabbits, hanging out backstage, getting photographed! Doesn't it get complicated touring the world with two dogs?
It's not too bad, it just needs a little organisation, I need to plan in advance because not every apartment or hotel allows dogs, I'm very compulsive and 99% of the time I'm on top of it. I'm pretty organised. When I sang Figaro at the Royal Opera House, they came too. I rented a car, we went through the tunnel, their passports were checked, they had their rabies shots and everything, so we were allowed in. I've been doing this now for ten years, and it's not so difficult.
I think about Margaret Price's problems during Great Britain's quarantine years, and her giving up gigs for the impossibility to have her dogs with her.
But she had four or five goldens, and travelling with five golden retrievers would be a challenge with or without quarantine. I have a golden and a miniature dachshund who is very small, so it's a dog and a quarter, not too bad.
Back to Milan
I haven't been back to Milan in a very long time. I knew so many people at the opera house but I'm sure that now everybody is completely different so it's going to be interesting, but also nice as I studied at the Conservatorio. I want to take Catherine to see the Conservatorio as I spent so much time there, crying over my lessons and all the doubts that you have when you're about to start a career.
It wasn't the happiest period of his life when Pisaroni studied in Milan. Not for city life or friends, but for a teacher who tried to push him into heavier repertoire, something Pisaroni resisted. Now in his forties he's returning to Milan with just the sort of role that, in his twenties, his teacher was trying to distance him from. So instead of the Dutchman, he's arriving at the world's most famous opera house with Leporello, and still possessing the voice of a teenager.
It's going to be scary being at this theatre because I used to go to see things several days a week there and now I'm going to be on that stage singing. There is such a huge tradition and you feel that weight on your shoulders.
I might have to drink a beer before the first rehearsal! We'll see.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.