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With Heart and Soul : Marcelo Álvarez,  Covent Garden’s Don José, talks to Jim Pritchard (JPr)

Marcelo Álvarez -  Picture © Sasha Gusov

I had been given a file of press clippings covering the meteoric rise of the Argentinian tenor Marcelo Álvarez’s career and I decided to concentrate on the present and future rather than dwell too much on a past that has been so well covered. It is surely an old clichéd Hollywood script of the sort of film they do not make any more; born in Córdoba to a not especially musical family, he nonetheless went to a specialist music school training to be a music teacher.  However,  having completed his studies he went into the family’s furniture business. He reached the age of 30 and realised he was not happy with what he was doing and although he had sung only occasionally in bars, his future wife Patrizia encouraged him to go into opera.

The rest is now history,  and maybe sometime legend.  Every week, he travelled 12 hours by coach each way to Buenos Aires for lessons. It was then  1993 and Norma Risso his singing teacher said to him within five years he would be singing all over the world. And indeed by 1998
Álvarez had sung at The Met, La Scala, Vienna, in France and England. A Covent Garden regular ever since,  he is back to make his role debut here as Don José in the first revival of Francesca Zambello’s 2006 production of Carmen under conductor Daniel Oren. It  begins on the 25th of March.

I had noticed his involvement in four productions of
Carmen between February and July this year alone and wondered how that had come about.


In fact it is five as I will perform it also in Rome; I have just come back from The Met and with Florence and Orange as well to follow these at Covent Garden. In my career it has always been like that and as soon as I do a new role all the opera houses call me up.

Having been rehearsing all day I wondered how easy it was to recover from the drama of the last Act?

Well I’m an actor and if I may say so I am very good in that Act. You must be a very convincing actor and it is difficult for the voice too. Don José does not want to kill Carmen and when he does all his world dies too and the magic they once had together dies with her. What is proving difficult is that with all the Carmens I am doing the music is of course the same but the spoken texts are different everywhere.

I gave him the W C Fields’ quote ‘Never work with animals and children’ and asked him if that causes any problems. [There are several in this production including a horse. Ed]

It can be difficult but we have that in La Bohème too. For me the problem is where there were many horses like they had at The Met and I am allergic to animals and that can cause asthma … But I am not allergic to children [laughs heartily]. I like them and have a son of my own.

How had been his experience of working with Francesca Zambello?

She is a very great director and we needed to find a way of working. She had worked so well with Jonas Kaufmann [the original Don José] pushing him to be very Latin in the way he looked and acted. I do not need that as I am Latino! At the start I felt I was being asked to do things I perhaps didn’t need to be told about and that are in my nature already. Francesca Zambello and I had to get to know each other, then we changed a few little things and now I feel so much better. Zambello is great because she has given us freedom for the characters to act as they really would. I feel very good about it all now.

What did he look for in the productions he is in, something with new ideas or something more ‘traditional’?

I am keen to do opera and the new media I am becoming involved with for young people and perhaps they might prefer new approaches.  But for me when I sing on stage,  I prefer the traditional one. If something is changed and it is not in the text then it is very difficult for me to convince the public. If I am not convinced myself how can I convince those watching me? Before, the public seemed to think if they did not understand something maybe they were too ignorant, now they are getting angry if they don’t. More and more well-known singers do not sing in these new type of stagings and I want to know in the future what the production will be like:  and many of us do this. Audiences seem now to want to see particular singers and not non-conventional ideas. In some countries people subscribe to many new productions and sometimes these may be a little bit silly and they will not be with the top stars. People are now more prepared to see an opera in another city, at another theatre, with a more traditional production because the better singer will be there more times and the public want that quality.

In 1994 Giuseppe Di Stefano came to Buenos Aires to hear professionals at the Colón and after Álvarez had sung to him,  he said to everyone how it had come from his heart and that he would have a great career. Sadly Di Stefano died recently  (see obituary) and I asked Álvarez how he remembered him.

I am only here because Di Stefano suggested I should go to Europe. I came for a singing competition but was given the dates too late, so when I arrived the competition was already over. Eventually I won a competition that led to a contract at La Fenice. Di Stefano was like a father to me and gave me lots of suggestions. I was invited many times to his house and when I had any problems we would talk, often on the phone, and he always told me the right words that would calm me down and make any problems seem much smaller. I feel the fans I have now who follow my performances are actually fans of Di Stefano because I feel we are rather similar now. People understand I believe,  that I am genuine and no Divo. When I am working I work hard and am concentrating on the opera. Then I go out of the stage door and can be myself, I have my life with my wife and son and leave the opera behind.

As an obviously happy family man how does he cope with the periods of separation?

Whenever I am away we miss each other. They travel when they are able to and meet me but anyway we try not to be apart for more than 20 days. In Europe it is easy to take a flight back to northern Italy where my home now is. Of course I have to work more than before and am very happy that everybody seems to want me. I don’t accept so many recitals as I used to but I try to have good relations with all the theatres and make everybody happy throughout the year. It is very difficult to have a break because even in the summer there is a big public for the arenas and Orange, Verona and Torre del Lago call me, they pay me and this is very much my moment now - my moment for my career and for my voice and until I am 50 [he is 46 now] I must do as much as I can. After 50 I cannot be sure how my voice will be.

What is it like singing outdoors in the arenas and in big concerts as in Central Park, New York?

The arenas such as Verona are incredible places to sing in and I have trouble understanding how I can hear my voice in a place that is so big but it still does come back to me I find. It is difficult to explain the feeling I have with all those people surrounding me on stage and in the audience but it is incredibly exciting.

In Central Park in 2003 singing to over 50,000 there on the Great Lawn: wow, what another amazing experience. I was with Salvatore Licitra performing songs from the Duetto album. It was my first time using a microphone and that caused me to be a little inhibited at first. In opera you must sing over the orchestra, the conductor and then to the public but  here there was nothing but the microphone. It could have a negative side because you could get too used to the microphone and not be able to sing any more in an opera house. They called us back for more and more. There is a big difference between pop and opera audiences and they are a different public as we did a signing afterwards of the CD and sold 1500 copies. The maximum on the night for opera would be 5 or maybe 10.

But can you attract new people from these events into the opera house?

I learnt that some of the people there did then go to opera I was in but it can only be very few of them because many of the places where it is put on, still do too little to spread the word and still don’t get rid of the idea of elitism attached to it. Opera was originally a popular entertainment for everyone. In many early theatres there was an anteroom for people to speak, eat and do business even while the opera was on. So business could be interrupted and they could go and listen to the opera, or it was performed a second time so they could hear what they had missed. Things will not be like that again but I think something will change.

The Met broadcasts to cinemas in the Europe and all over the US have been a great success. Soon La Scala and Covent Garden will be doing much the same thing so this is a big moment now for the future of opera. People who are afraid of feeling ignorant if they go into the theatre can now go to the cinema, enjoy themselves more and it is cheaper. Italy was thought to be a difficult country to sell this to as Italians were believed to like to see their singers live but now it is on in 48 cinemas there and they are all sold out. This is a clear sign something is changing and people want to get closer to the opera. Opera needs to be a big popular art form once again soon otherwise it will die.

Álvarez had recently been directed as Manrico in Il Trovatore in Zürich by Giancarlo del Monaco, the son of Mario, a famous Manrico himself. How was that experience and was del Monaco’s a voice he had admired?

Giancarlo was very smart and as his father was a tenor he knew all the things a singer does not like, so he tried to make me do them all [laughs]. He is a gentleman and in the end we came to an agreement and the production worked though it was a little bit strange. Del Monaco wasn’t one I listened to,  as nowadays he would have been stopped from doing some of the things he did. For me,  I listened more to how Pavarotti, Di Stefano, Corelli, Björling and Aragall sang, amongst others. I am looking for more than just a beautiful voice, which I can tire of easily, and I want a voice that communicates things to me. At the beginning when I was a Lyrico Leggero I listened of course to Krauss.

For instance with all these Carmens and all the different conductors I wondered how difficult this would be. And mentioning conductors how much does he enjoy working with Antonio Pappano a frequent collaborator of his at Covent Garden?

The singer is now often more important than the conductor and for me they now know what I can do and want to get the best out of me. I always try to be myself as I have explained, and the conductors accept that. I can get suggestions from them but although it may be a little different from one production to the next it is always me, Marcelo. I am pleased they now respect me and don’t need to ask anything. That’s lovely because the voice is where the opera actually starts.

As for Pappano he is one of the greatest music directors I could ever work with because of his passion, vitality, energy and patience to teach me and other people. All the great conductors in the past did that but no one has the time any more. When you learn a role with one of these big conductors it stays with you ‘big’ for all time and very seldom do you change your approach to it.

I noticed that he is not back next season at Covent Garden, why was that and will we see him here again soon?

Next season is the first one recently where I have nothing to sing in here although they did offer me things but the productions were not suitable. I feel so good here in London, have many friends, the public know me and it is very important that I make a strong debut here, Rodolfo in Luisa Miller and Gustavus III in Un ballo in maschera were like that. I will come back in 2010 and many times after that but it is a secret at the moment because the opera house wants the exclusivity.

What about new recordings and new roles?  Was there any news he could give about these?

Well of course the CD industry is very difficult now, but I have signed a contract with Decca and we will make the first CD in August, possibly in Milan, of Verdi arias that will be out hopefully next January. I also have a contract with Decca to do a number of High Definition DVDs for the box set due out in 2013 ‘Tutto Verdi’. This is another important moment in my career and I am very proud of being involved in this. There will be new Verdi roles that are not perhaps usual for me with big conductors in big opera houses. I will do all the roles but not in the same opera house : some will be in Italy, at least one here in London and another in Spain. It will be important where it is and, as I said earlier, what the production is and who is the conductor. I think we will also have to change the public’s expectations a bit too, as there are no longer the big voices there were in the past. Those voices existed because there were different audiences, theatres, conductors, orchestras and an entirely different sound. Nowadays it is so difficult as we all travel too much for very many performances.

And what about his voice how has it changed or is it still changing?

It definitely is a little bit more lyrical, but more importantly my mind has changed as has my approach to the public who listen to me. When I was a Lyrico Leggero I was holding back a bit and taking great care with my technique. Now I can sing more freely and powerfully. I am pleased that after 28 Manricos, 35 Cavaradossis, many Carmens and Ballos that I have not lost the pianissimo in the voice and for me that is very important. I want to sing to every person I can and am happy when they say to me that they have been moved by my singing and say I seemed to be singing just for them. Changing to this way of singing was a very important step for me:  it is like I must sing with heart and soul for my audience and I feel they are with me always when I sing.

Throughout our talk Marcelo Álvarez’s English was much better than I was originally led to believe. He mostly understood my questions and occasionally responded directly in English but wanted to make sure overall his answers were clear so there was an Italian translator present. I have commented on the petite size of the Royal Opera House’s interview room before and here it was made even smaller by the size of the two of us - along with the linguistically skilful press assistant who was interpreting Álvarez’s answers - and the tenor’s wonderfully affable, totally honest and large outgoing personality.

© Jim Pritchard

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