Seen and Heard Interview
There is no ‘passaggio’: Finnish bass-baritone Juha Uusitalo talks to Bill Kenny about musical training, singing and his personal philosophy. (BK)
Juha Uusitalo’s career has rocketed to international status in a remarkably short period and the one thing that everyone knows about him is that he started out as an orchestral flute player, not singing at all until he was almost thirty one.
I met him backstage at Finnish National Opera in Helsinki the day after his magnificent performance as Scarpia and he talked about changing over to singing, the so-called Orfeo Method (the music training system that he still studies) and the values that nowadays guide his career.
BK: Had you done acting? Because that’s another important thing about you - you’re a very good singer actor….
Well, I think that there have to be no technical problems
with the music to act. If you have to count and control,
for example. If there is no technical control –
if there are no singing problems – then you can be free.
You have to be musically free - and so the most important
thing if I am studying for a part like Scarpia for example,
is to wait until I feel free - until the music isn’t a
problem and then I am ready. Then there is no more Juha
Uusitalo and only Scarpia, and Uusitalo jumps outside
and there Scarpia is on stage. (laughs) And then he lives
his own life… why should Scarpia shout all the time for
instance? So I have learned to sing many passages much
more quietly. You can be just as evil without always shouting,
JU: Yes, and there was my own interest in music – Finnish tango music for example. Actually, my wife is a school teacher and a music teacher and she advised me, ‘Why don’t you take some lessons? You have a very big voice unfortunately and it disturbs our normal life at home here. (laughs) So she said ‘Don’t just shout in the shower. Go and take some lessons!’
BK: So you had lessons with him…?
JU: Yes, but there was also the so-called Orfeo Method. It started with Luciano Pavarotti – he was our idol (that’s me and the oboe player Ilmari Varila) how he produced his voice – and that came only from good recordings, I still haven’t heard him live - and also David Oistrakh. The big question mark about him was, ‘How is it possible that he is playing so well? How does he make such a good sound?’ Everything looks so natural.
BK: So ‘Orfeo’ is about music as a whole rather than just the voice? It’s an approach to thinking about music…?
JU: Exactly. It’s about the freedom – there is no physical thing between you, the human, and music. Like I told you about music and acting. But you have to study your anatomy – you have to know your own body so well that you know so much and can forget about it.
Having enough control not to have to think about control?
You just have to let it happen?
BK: Are there special places or centres where you go to study this? How do you find teachers?
JU: Ourselves. It was just ourselves. We allowed ourselves to make mistakes, to play in an ugly way. Nobody can control such an ugly way and nobody tries to play in an ugly way of course, but it was important to find out what was happening when the sound is ugly.
BK: So you play a tone and discover how you feel physically and mentally when it sounds good or bad? It’s about self-awareness, about noticing what is happening when the sound is good or bad but also about using the music to lead you to the best sound? But is it also about not worrying too much about what you are doing?
JU: Not any attention on for example, how to focus the voice. There is no focus, only freedom. The focus it works by itself and always it leads to freedom. We call it… like how to find the perfect intonation, the single tone from the bottom to the top, three octaves. So I started with the flute and Ilmari Varila on the oboe – two different kinds of instruments but the same kind of practice. These are always the problem instruments in an orchestra because they are very high and you hear them very clearly over the others. Conductors are always asking for the flute to be a little bit sharper or lower and for the oboe to be louder or softer and so the problem is how to find the right intonation while not losing the quality of the sound. That’s the thing. So if the single tone is wide and big enough then there shouldn’t be any intonation problems. Of course the ground level when an oboe sounds an A natural for the orchestra, is that it has to be right so the orchestra can tune properly, but if you concentrate too much on intonation while playing with colleagues, it disturbs your musicality.
BK: So always you’re looking for the right sound with the least conscious technique. You say that the method has been around for a long, long time but where are its origins? It’s called 'Orfeo', so is it from Greece?
JU: It is, yes.
So it’s a kind of philosophy almost? It reminds me of
a martial art training or the ‘The Inner Game,’ the thing
that some sportsmen do: concentrating always on the result
rather than on technique..
BK: Did this sort of thinking make your life difficult with singing teachers?
JU: It did. So I don’t have any singing teachers now. In the beginning I did have them of course for advice, but now I have to say that it has nothing to do with them. You can’t produce a clone. Some teachers can be helpful but always you have to find your own way, your own spiritual way.
BK: I’m sure that takes very great determination. One of the things I wanted to ask you about was working with Gustav Kuhn and the Tiroler Festspiele. As a young singer did you study at Kuhn’s Accademia di Montegral? I have the recording of Siegfried with you singing the Wanderer at the festival.
JU: Oooh, gosh. (laughs) By that time Ilmari Varila and I had stopped practicing together and if you have that recording you will hear that I was like a baby elephant who wanted to shout like hell with the great passion of the music. I was very blind as you can tell if you are listening to that recording.
Well, it’s still obviously Uusitalo I think, but what
were your first singing engagements and what eventually
took you to the Tiroler Festspiele?
BK: So you started off singing in a small way and then gradually worked your way up?
BK: I heard you here in Fanciulla in 2001 and remember thinking then that your voice was developing fast and was already much freer.
JU: Yes, that’s the thing. To find the freedom. You have to ask where the power of the voice comes from. It shouldn’t come from the muscles. It should come from finding the freedom and then you have to discover that you can still live and sing without using the muscles. Then you have more space in your head and you can actually control yourself easily because you are not always concerned about pushing yourself all the time.
The tenor's disease! (JU laughs) But let’s go back to
that Tirol Festival Ring - I have seen that production
twice now, once in the 24 Hour version. What happened
when you went there? Were you invited?
BK: I’m fascinated that you have this huge range of roles - Don Magnifico, Rance, Balstrode and Scarpia as well as Wagner. And you enjoy them all.
I really enjoy it, yes. When I did the first Magnifico,
the day before I had sung Jago, and actually, they are
brothers although Jago is much younger than Magnifico.
They are both evil although Magnifico is more angry because
of his behaviour, his drinking problems and lack of money
but in a way you can find similarities between them. For
Jago, you have to leave your body and be like a snake
and for Magnifico the role is more physical but the two
roles can really help each other.
BK: Won’t there be pressure on you to do mostly Wagner though because you’re so good at it? You just did a Wagner concert here with Leif Segerstam, singing all kind of Wagner roles, some of which weren’t typically yours, and it was a great success I hear.
JU: There is pressure to do Wagner. If I look at my schedule I have three different Rings in the next two years – in Valencia, in Florence at Maggio Musicale, that’s the same production in different places, and also in Vienna. I start rehearsing for those next Spring.
BK: Do you feel now though, that you have sufficient stature to choose what you do more carefully so that you can keep singing a wide repertoire?
JU: I feel more free now. I would really like to sing Don Giovanni or Leporello or both and maybe that will happen some day. Perhaps I will.
BK: There’s a wonderful even quality about your voice now throughout its whole range. I have described it as effortlessly seamless, without ‘gear changes’ on more than one occasion and others have too….
JU: There is no passaggio. Some people would kill me for saying that with a smiling face but there is no passaggio. There is only for example, like singing folk music and then reaching for some extra higher notes. Of course there is a kind of passaggio but there is no special trick to it. Once again it is about freedom in placing the voice and again too, it is the music that leads you.
Does that apply to diction too? I have heard you singing
in Italian, German and English and always every word is
audible and clear. How do you make that happen?
if you have no technical problems with singing then the
tongue is also freer and the diction automatically becomes
clearer. It’s exactly the same process.
He includes Sir Colin Davis, Zubin Mehta and Sakari Oramo among conductors he admires for their musicianship and ability to work with singers cooperatively to ’find the music’ as he puts it. He values cooperation very highly indeed and mentions a serious disagreement he once had with Riccardo Chailly about how to perform Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. He says that although the orchestra had applauded his singing in rehearsal, Riccardo Chailly summoned him afterwards and told him that he did not understand Bach. Chailly was apparently quite threatening in attitude and started the discussion by implying that he could damage JU's career considerably. A difficult exchange of views followed in which JU reminded the maestro gently that he had performed a great deal of Bach as a flute player but also said that in his view, Chailly's way of presenting Bach was more like mathematics than music. The result was JU's immediate dismissal and the experience upset him very much, he says. Despite being invited to do so, since then he has refused to work with Chailly again.
becomes clear to me that Juha Uusitalo is very much his
own man these days, quietly but firmly assured about his
current abilities but also willing and ready to learn
from anyone for whom mere rank or ego is not a problem.