Interview with Piotr Beczala

Tenor Piotr Beczala returns to the Opera Bastille in Rigoletto as the Duke of Mantua, after two years of phenomenal success…Vaudemont in Iolanta at the 2011 Salzburg Festival, Romeo at the Metropolitan Opera, Faust in Barcelona, Alfredo at Covent Garden, a long list now topped by his forthcoming Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon for the New York Metropolitan, which will be broadcast live in HD in several movie theatres. He last performed at the Opera Bastille in the 2010/2011 season as Jenik in Smetana’s The Bartered Bride of Smetana. Since first performing at the Palais Garnier as Lensky (Eugene Oneguin) and Tamino (The Magic Flute), the pace of his life and work has changed radically. Now at the height of a career that he has patiently planned and watched develop for twenty years, Piotr Beczala talks about life, success, music, stage partners and directors, rubato, legato, golf and kayaking…
Mr Beczala, thank you so much for accepting to see me. Your beginnings read as an incredible story: you have this idea that maybe you’re maybe going to be an engineer, suddenly you’re singing in a choir, I think you meet your wife there, in the choir, and then you move to music. When did you become sure that singing would be your life?
I thought about this by myself… when did it happen?  But I can’t really put a finger on it. One of the really important moments was meeting  Sena Jurinac in that first master-class…she opened my eyes to the real world, I mean, we were living in Poland at that time like in some closed, special village. You couldn’t really travel. You had no access to knowledge, exchange of information, like today with the internet. Now we can be in touch with any of our colleagues, but at that time it was really complicated. And Jurinac opened my eyes. She saved my singer’s life. Because she was the first to tell me to forget Puccini at my age and take Mozart…
So, when you were at the Conservatoire in Kartovice, you were singing Puccini?
It was my idea, I was stupid enough to think it was my way.
Doesn’t every young singer want to sing the hero?
Absolutely, singing Tamino is boring for youngsters and I was exactly like this, I still say a young singer has a right to be stupid! This is just how it is, a process, nobody is great and smart at the age of 19, 20 or 22. Eventually you discover all these new terrains. It’s more complicated now than twenty or thirty years ago. I saw such great productions with Pavarotti, Domingo, Corelli, Carreras and co. Zeffirelli productions, beautiful, and so charming…Singers today have to see and watch new modern productions that look like nothing. Maybe these productions are artistically very deep, but so often not like the ones we used to have. My dream was to be like Domingo standing with a sword and singing “Esultate!”.That was my dream! Your meeting with Sena Jurinac came in the beginning of your musical studies?
It was my second year at the Conservatoire.
And so she says “Mozart, Mozart, Mozart” and puts you on the right track but does she know herself that you are going to become a great bel canto tenor?…
Not really…
She was making sure you took care of your voice though?
She put me on the right way in her eyes. At 22, if you have not the voice of Del Monaco you have nothing to do with Puccini.
Did Del Monaco have his voice at 22?
I think so, that’s natural force… I don’t know, I think so.
You know there’s one comparison with you that I find incredible to think, a comparison, different sex but the same opera, with Joan Sutherland…in 1959…
Yeah, I know what you’re talking about…
She revolutionized bel canto with Lucia di Lammermoor and 50 years later, in 2009 you redefine male bel canto style, also in Lucia di Lammermoor, in the role of Edgardo…
She changed the whole epoch a little bit, in her own way. She was the first who sang bel canto with a full voice and it was something special, without this very tiny singing, and it was revolutionary…
This is what you are doing
I try…
Joan Sutherland gave, in a famous video, her definition of singing technique as “breathe, support, project”…
Of course, of course…but I would add one thing to this very important definition: imagination. Singing is like a table…two feet are not enough, two feet to keep the table steady, you need a third one. A fourth is even better. But too many is also not good. Basically, singing is projection, support, breath and… imagination. You have to imagine first, to have the idea: what is my voice? How can I build the voice, my own voice, and then start to produce it without imagination? That’s a tough, tough job because you have to really create the space with your voice and that’s really, really hard.
Could you explain more this idea?
What I study with my teacher Dale Foundling is that the idea of my technique is very “imaginable”. How can I say that? You have to imagine first what you’re doing… to visualize your voice, your tone, and then do it. That’s the miracle of the natural singer: they have no technique, and they sing like gods. Why? Because it comes naturally, they know exactly how it has to be done. Later they lose this natural voice, because the reality is, that all the different roles make this feeling too complicated to keep up, this fresh feeling and fresh imagination, this fresh view. But in the beginning it’s really something special. The idea of technique is actually to start from this point that sounds natural and be able to use natural voice in different roles and different styles…now that’s very special. Singing without construction is impossible… I mean: don’t try as a singer to change something that’s not happening anyway. Find this natural point first. Some try to make voice and nothing starts, because the voice doesn’t exist at that moment… that’s a problem!
For projection?
Absolutely, it must be how far I can sing, how far I can project my voice…it depends on the repertoire. When I’m singing Mozart, I don’t need the same huge projection that I need for Puccini or Bel Canto or Verdi because the music is fine, it’s more pure. It takes many, many things together. When you start with projection and support, you have a space you can feel in the voice. Without this compromise, singing will be standing, or running behind something that is… continually disappearing. You know what I mean? Some rabbit, now you see it, now you don’t… like an illusion! The problem with young artists is that they really don’t want to spend so much time creating their career. I really know what I am talking about because I am one of those singers, not the only one of course, who have done the whole way from the bottom to the top, from small operas and small roles to the top where I am now… To experience starting from the bottom and moving through all the levels, it really takes time. Really great colleagues have been singing for 20/25 years in great opera houses. When I give master-classes I talk with the young people: “you have a great voice but take your time, your dream role is maybe Tristan, but in fifteen years. You have the voice for that, but if you don’t do it this way, taking about ten years to develop your voice, your personality, everything, then you will never reach it…and maybe the world of opera will lose one of the best Tristans it ever had!” The balance between time and technique is everything.
Figures of the past? Could you tell me about some of your role models?
There are so many, some not so well known… Tito Schipa, Georges Thill for French repertoire, Fritz Wunderlich, Jussi Bjorling…further back, Jean de Reske. Those singers all took time to study. The problem today is that people think being famous is more important than being a good singer. The two things are not self-exclusive, you can put them together, as long as you are first an opera singer and then a celebrity. What people expect of celebrities today is completely incompatible with being an opera singer…A good singer is like an athlete. You have to be fresh, concentrated, focused on your job, relaxed and balanced…that’s really difficult.
How do you keep fit?
I’m not really crazy about jogging and so forth. I play a little golf in summer. I walk a little. Sometimes I go to a gym, sometimes for a swim, but I’m not really sport conscious. Everything is balance. Diet also. I lost 13 kilos two years ago, especially for the role of Romeo, and keeping trim is important to me now. Having some control over your life. But not too crazy. Doing something as much as you can, having a plan. Not necessarily from day to day, more like from year to year.


Are there roles that you identify with more than others?
The Romantic hero, maybe…Lensky, Werther, Romeo… but of course, in this kind of repertoire, the composer has already told you, exactly and specifically, how to sing the role, how to play the character. Faust is a bigger challenge: giving the illusion of old and young Faust, two different ages for one and the same person. My teacher told me not to worry about the beauty of the voice in the prologue. Thinking about color is completely wrong there…all that comes later. In a couple of years my choices will change, as I take on new roles. Right now I’m enjoying the amazing privilege of singing the roles that are for my voice, for my character. Well, maybe Rigoletto is not so much my character…
Yes, I was wondering about Rigoletto, because he’s a bit of a bastard really no?
Yes, he’s a bastard. But you have to enjoy it as a contrast…
You have managed to learn so many roles…
Not so many!
How many could you walk in tomorrow and perform?
Ok, let’s say…fifteen.
That’s incredible…
It’s nothing to compare with Placido Domingo…it’s nothing. You know, before, when I started, it was much harder in a way because I was doing eight new productions in one season in Linz. That was really hard, learning six or seven roles in one year. These days, it’s more complicated. In Linz, I sang a lot of roles, small, medium, big roles but there was not so much pressure. If tonight I have a new production in Paris, London or the Metropolitan, there has to be a whole new dedication to the role …it’s complicated at a different level. I don’t mean I wasn’t well-prepared back in Linz. I was. But now, everybody expects me to go very deep into the role. I need time for preparation. I started on Des Grieux 17/18 months before, reading the basic literature, listening to different recordings of specialists in this kind of repertoire, this style. Especially since today, if you sing a wrong note, you know they are making an HD and a DVD, and a year later, it’s on the market… you can’t take it back. It’s done.
I see your recording of Slavic arias for Orfeo has topped the list of last year’s twelve best recital recordings in the January edition of Opera News… congratulations!
Yes, that is so cool, totally cool, because so unexpected…especially since I did it for a smaller label that is not top in terms of marketing…
Maybe it will be in the top bracket soon thanks to you…
I would love that. The reason I’m working with them is because they gave me such freedom, in my choice of repertoire, orchestra, recording location… The whole experience was something else, very special. It’s our little baby. We really thought about the dramaturgy of the recording, how people would listen to it, making it easy for them to go very deep into this particular repertoire, to discover new things…
Perhaps it will even incite theatres to program Slavic repertoire…
Absolutely, that’s also my plan: that the recording could open new avenues for this repertoire.
What about your partners? The fabulous DVD of Lucia di Lammermoor with Anna Netrebko has gone round the world. You sound fantastic together….does it help to feel comfortable with a partner?
I have no problems with any partners. I think my colleagues will say I’m really easy in this respect, maybe once or twice, a few problems, but basically never. Of course, if you have a partner like Anna…she’s completely relaxing, very concentrated, professional and a nice person. We know each other from 2004 or 2005, when we did Rigoletto in London. That was our first time together, and you know…it works, because she’s so real when she’s playing her character, she’s not playing Netrebko, “la Netrebko” or whatever, she’s concentrated on playing her character, and she’s really fun, she loves to sing. For me, that’s the most important thing.
Two singers really listening to each other?
Absolutely! Look, the positive connection is very important. Because you have to like your partner on the stage … really. It’s something very special. I try to create some connection with every partner on the stage…anyone I’m singing with. I try to really do the character. My Alfredo loves Violetta.  My Rodolfo loves Mimi… you know, and that’s really something so special. I would even say, private feelings are completely unacceptable on the stage…
When you project yourself into a character, do you use your private feelings to bring you to the place you need to be, like in method acting…how does this work for you? Do you think of personal experiences and try to bring them into play?
Not so much…you have to keep your privacy away from the stage… I concentrate more on my movement…for example when I studied Faust (he stands and imitates an old man with bent shoulders), I was studying the movements of old people…it’s more visual things that I work on. I try to find ways to stay in character. Feelings are much easier, because feelings are in the music. If you do something extra, it’s wrong… I think. There’s nothing worse in opera than when hysteria replaces excitement…that’s so, so bad, because it also takes the singing with it, there’s nothing worse than a hysterical singer….horrible, horrible!
You have been very outspoken about stage directors who see themselves as the “modus vivendi” of the whole operation and leave the singers, even audiences, almost out of their considerations. Who are some directors that you feel have been interesting to work with?
First of all, I have to be more precise: I have no problems with modern staging. My problem is stage directors who don’t like opera and yet still do it. That’s my problem, knowing these guys hate opera, yet are making their careers as stage directors. They hate it, they don’t like singing, they don’t like opera, and yet they make it…that’s really horrible! But I have no problems with modern staging. I worked for example in New York on Romeo and Juliet with Guy Joosten. It was wonderful! Romeo and Juliet was a revival of a 2005 production, but he has done a couple of modern things. With Guy you see from the beginning he loves opera, I have no problems. I can discuss things with him. You can’t do this when someone is coming with some agenda, some “modus operandi” like you say, to save the “horrible” opera! I don’t know this director who did the last Traviata in Vienna State Opera. I just read the reviews and a couple of interviews where it seems he is saving the Wiener Staatsoper by creating a new, wonderful, high-art opera. If it was like this, it would be OK, but mostly it’s a disaster. When they create new productions that are really bad in a repertory theatre, we singers have to live with that. You know what I mean? Take operas like Traviata, Boheme, Ballo in Maschera or Magic Flute, there’s one in every opera house every season. It’s basic repertoire. And if opera houses don’t have a really good version, it’s a problem. It’s not fun to sing, to just go through your paces on stage. I want to create my character. I’m working for the public. And these operatic stage directors, they are often working exclusively for themselves…not for the public.
Why do we always have to have something new? Should we not try to keep productions that are successful for a longer time?
I don’t know…I understand opera managers. They try to put on new productions. I understand: it’s a gust of fresh wind…but we are talking about balance. It’s easy to do in Zurich where you have thirteen new productions a year. If you get five hyper-modern things, there are still seven classic ones. But if you do this in Hamburg or Berlin, you end up with five productions and four are modern. Hyper-modern. The balance is not there, and that’s the surest way to turn the public away from opera. I’m often talking to people after performances, I take my time, stay sometimes for a half-hour talking with them. There are lots of people who truly love opera, and not just crazy, old traditional opera buffs. If they see a really great production, even with modern staging, they love it. But it doesn’t happen often enough.
Traditional audiences are changing now with internet. What concrete things can we do to attract younger audiences?
I think you can make lower ticket prices for certain galleries. That’s possible to make 200 tickets on the top of the opera house like 20/30 years ago, then students and young people they could go to the opera.
Did you go to the opera like that when you were a student?
I started when I was 19, you know, it was my first opera…I was 19 or 20…
What was it?
It was Elixir…and I can’t remember the tenor, it means he was either very bad, or very small voice and I couldn’t hear him. I don’t know because I remember the soprano very well but I can’t remember the tenor…
Were you fascinated as a young man by the stage?
I was fascinated by the voice. I remember from my childhood being fascinated with the human voice. What noises this human voice can make! Singers with this wonderful aesthetic thing! The beauty of the voice, this was always fascinating. Of course, when I started to sing in the chorus, it was a different sound… I couldn’t sing, I would just do something (laughs).But it was fun of course and part of my development…
You have spoken quite frequently about your work with Dale Foundling, your coach…
He’s a teacher actually. Coach is not the word. Every opera house has two or three coaches but there’s only one Dale Foundling…
I would like to hear you talk about this…the way you trust and accept the advice of someone with whom you have a working relationship…
You know I was so lucky, I found Dale in my first season in Linz. He was working at the time at the Mozarteum as a pianist, and privately, he taught. I realized that the technique I had in that moment was not good. I needed something, somebody…I was a short tenor, no top, and I had to do something. I found him and it was really hard in the beginning…my first lesson I remember was just one phrase, (he sings the opening of  Don Ottavio’s  Il mio tesoro intanto), just this, for one hour…can you imagine? This kind of technique, this singing philosophy, because it’s not just technique, it’s not just singing, it’s universal. And the great thing, one of the biggest things about Dale, is that he’s not a singer. This means he listens to you as a teacher, not as a singer, not hesitating, not saying, well, I’m doing this, so what’s the problem? Every singer, well not every singer, but most singers who teach, try to find in his/her own voice the solution to the problem…when I teach (people now occasionally ask me to give master-classes) I’m not teaching how it is that I’m singing, I’m teaching how I would like to sing….the ideal way. Because nobody’s perfect, you know. I’m also human. Nobody’s perfect. Of course, singers on the stage have to be sure, know what they’re doing. And to be really sure, they need good technique to be able to sing. That’s your responsibility as a singer. But if you work with others, creating, helping them, you can’t teach them what you do, because you’re not perfect. You may teach bad things, your problems, your complexes. It’s a huge responsibility… I’ve been working with Dale for 19 years already, or 18 and a half years, and the first four were really very, very, very hard. We met every weekend and I spent half my money on vocal lessons. After, we saw each other maybe once every two months, and then there was a break for two years while I was in Zurich. But frequently, we did every new role that I was doing, together…
This is incredibly intelligent and no-one really discusses this…
I sometimes wonder that my colleagues, my stage partners, don’t think this way because everybody has a problem in the voice. It can be small, you know, just little, like something in your body, but if you don’t do something about that, it can kill you…
The nature of legato singing. Could you talk about this?
I would like to compare it with something outside singing, though it’s essential to singing technique… it’s like you’re paddling, you’re on a kayak. If you have good technique, it’s easy and you go forward fluidly. When you don’t know how to do this, you are jumping, because you are (he moves from left to right) hacking in the water…singing is the same thing. It’s not only to make vowels longer and consonants shorter… it’s, in my opinion…how to describe it…not to lose the mainstream of your voice. If you want to have legato in your voice, you have to reduce that left and right influence that comes at you from the text. Of course, to do this you don’t need to be an opera singer. Because great legato singers are also people like…Frank Sinatra, or Tom Jones, whatever, whoever really understands singing. Singing means legato, it’s not something separate. If you are not legato, you are not singing, because singing is about putting a couple of small tones together in a phrase…
When I hear your legato, I think that every note is in the right place in the phrase…
Mainstream!
When you perform, do you think about the climax in every phrase?
Not really… I know that, I studied that, I practiced it, but when I’m singing on the stage, it’s too late to think about it…it’s already happened…I can practice it, but on the stage you don’t think about appoggio and place of your voice, that’s already happened by preparation, by warming up before the performance. And that’s something that I really recommend to all young people, they’re singing too much when they’re singing. Instead of thinking before they sing, they try to think in the moment of singing, that’s too late…it’s just too late! It’s like playing golf…if you want to hit the ball, you have to think before… and in the moment of the swing, just let it happen…and finish it! Finishing the phrase gives you the chance to start the next phrase at the same level. That gives you an even bigger sense of legato, legato in big phrases. Not to lose the mainstream. In the case of legato, it’s one tone with another, in the case of big distances, one phrase ends at the same position as another one begins. That gives you one direction. Of course sometimes, the composer writes something different because one story is finished. But basically that’s the rule. Sometimes the easiest things can become very complicated if you don’t follow these rules. You can also compare it to car-driving…smoothness in changing gears: that’s legato. You have to learn it. It’s as much a part of singing as of driving the car. Of course, people are smarter: they made the automatic gear-box. But even the automatic gear-box had to be built. I know what I’m talking about…I drive around in an old car, a real old-timer and it’s a really hard job with the gear-box… phew!..it’s not easy! It’s a sports car, I have to be very precise…breathe-support-project-imagination, these are all parts of the manual gear-box of singing…it’s easy if you understand the parts of singing first. Then, the next step of making something from this knowledge is also easy. Of course, you never finish, because if you do something well, new problems are continually arriving. I call this kind of technique: multi-dimensional technique. When you don’t think, things only happen on one level. That’s really bad and can sometimes turn a wonderful voice into nothing. You have to change one-level, flat thinking and reinforce the positive aspects in your singing. That’s the process of learning how to sing.
Do you think a lot about rubato when you are singing?
Yes, that’s a part of the style. And I’m fighting with any conductor who tries to make everything metronomic because music is life. It’s not an option… Maestro, if you want me just to sing in tempo, I don’t need you. There is music where you only use a little rubato, like Mozart, the classical period, and music with a lot of rubato like Verdi, Puccini or the bel canto repertoire. This music is written for the human voice, and the human voice is not exact. The human voice is not an instrument in that kind of way, rubato makes this thing alive. I love it, I love it. An extreme example is Maestro Santi. Singing with him is really something. Sometimes he’s very exact, very concrete, and that’s the moment where you can really do something amazing.
In Wagner, there’s not so much place for rubato because everything is written. But when Verdi writes um-pah-pah, um-pah-pah, he is including rubato in his phrases. Look at the sextet from Rigoletto (he sings): “Bella figlia dell’amore…plom. plom. plom.” Now to sing that strictly is simply boring to me. It took the genius of the composer to get it down on paper. Great Italian and French composers really thought about how people will sing this. Verdi thought about his singers and how to keep them on the right track. He knows the tenor has problems going down. So to avoid resorting to too much portamento, he puts tenuti in the line, not so much for the tenuti in themselves but more to avoid the portamenti…it’s real genius. In rubato, everything is in the writing and also connected with the technique. For every portamento down, you have to take your appoggio up a little. You have to think to really prepare this. Otherwise it’s dying, it’s dying…in golf it means your ball is splicing off to the right all the time…you never hit the green.
Can it be hard for a teacher to help a singer find his true voice?
Young people sometimes have only five tones all together, the rest is crap and you have to select this and build on this. It’s a huge job. To recognize the right voice first. What happens when a tenor is singing as a baritone? Maybe it’s not so much work for him. Maybe it’s a good quality for the beginning. For him G-flat, G is no problem. But after 10 or 15 years of singing, when the natural build of his voice has to change, which is normal, everything that he has learnt will disappear and he has no way out. It’s tragic! It’s so important to realize and recognize the real voice. I’m sure if I was born in Germany, I would have been a baritone. I’m 100% sure, because I didn’t have the high notes and my low ones were very good. I can still sing the baritone but it is not the same quality. The essence of opera singing and teaching is about getting the very best qualities possible from the voice. And so we come back to Joan Sutherland who started as a dramatic soprano with no coloratura, but had someone who urged her to try this, to try that. If you have the courage to do this and take your time to do it, you can be a winner.

 

One Comment

  1. Cynthia Chase

    I heard and saw Piotr Beczala last night, in Luisa Miller, at the Met–the Live in HD production (I am in Paris, not New York), He was magnificent, as were Sonya Yoncheva and, in a different way, Placido Domingo. This is a wonderful interview, rich and thoughtful and serious. I am flying to Zurich to hear him sing Werther. I heard him first in San Francisco, in Lucia di Lammermoor; the whole performance changed, when he came onto the stage. I think Un Ballo in Maschera, in Vienna and in Munich, involved a role–or productions?–that made it more difficult for him to create the character. Which Rigoletto production(s) does he like best, I would like to know, because I’m about to teach this opera in a course about books made into operas (so we’ll read Hugo’s Le Roi S’Amuse).

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