The Romanian baritone George Petean has a half brother 20 years his senior, Alexandru Agache, who is also an opera singer. As a little boy, Petean used to go see him perform.
Decades later, Petean, like his brother, is known for his performances in Verdi operas, and this month he is making his San Francisco Opera debut as Count di Luna in Il trovatore, one of Verdi’s most successful works, with a plot full of kidnapping, revenge, a love triangle, and secret identities. The production runs Sept. 12 – Oct. 1.
Petean studied at the Gheorghe Dima Music Academy in Romania and made his debut in the title role of Don Giovanni in 1997. He has performed leading roles all over the world, including at the Teatro Real in Madrid, the Bavarian State Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, and The Royal Opera.
Petean talked with SF Classical Voice about the Verdi roles he has yet to sing, his career, and seeing his brother in Simon Boccanegra at Covent Garden in London.
The role of Count di Luna in Il trovatore is your debut with SF Opera. What did you know about the company and its traditions?
I didn’t know too much about it, but I am good friends with Nicola Luisotti [SF Opera’s former music director], so he’s talked a bit about San Francisco when we’ve played pool together. He’s said it’s a wonderful opera house, and he actually tried to get me here, but I was not free. And I know it’s one of the most important opera houses in the U.S.A. I’ve seen some pictures of so many amazing singers who have sung here — Leontyne Price, Luciano Pavarotti, Nicolai Ghiaurov, and all these amazing names. I’m really happy to be here for the first time and also because the city is such a well-known city, which I also know from movies. I’m very excited to be here.
How did you get into singing opera growing up?
That’s a long story. First of all, my mother was a ballerina, and my brother is also an opera singer. We have the same mother but different fathers. He [Agache] has sung at the Metropolitan Opera and everywhere in the world. He’s sung in 14 different productions at Covent Garden. For example, he sang Simon Boccanegra with [Georg] Solti [there]. So, it’s a bit of a family tradition. When I was a child, 4, 5, or 6 years old, I would go to the opera and listen to my brother singing, so I fell in love with the music. We have this special music school in Romania, and I studied piano at this school and another school, and then I studied another seven years of trombone, and when I was 16, I started singing. I’ve studied music all my life.
You are known for your roles in Verdi operas. What does it take to sing these roles?
I think the most important thing is to have very good teachers. I mean, you need to have the talent because without a good voice or a great voice, it’s much more difficult to get on the highest level. I’m very happy that I have such amazing colleagues here, each voice more beautiful than the next. But it’s also a matter of luck and training. I have many colleagues in Romania, for example. We studied together, and they maybe have even better voices than me, but they didn’t treat them well. So, that’s a bit of luck to have a very good teacher [who can guide you]. Talent is mostly natural, and [those singers] perform well from the start, but some need to learn. I was a good talent, but I think I learned much more than my talent at the beginning, so in a way I got to a high level by having the luck of very good teachers.
I think it’s a very important thing to really understand the voice and to always try to get better. For Verdi especially, you need to have these Verdian voices. That means the voice has to already have this certain power and a certain quality, like a roundness. And Verdi, for me, in a way, is the most difficult to sing. It always goes to the limits of the voice. You need to be able to run 100 meters in 10 seconds to be a good Verdi singer. You need to sing all the colors. It’s very complex, and it’s also beautiful because some of the Verdi operas are the most theatrical possible, like Macbeth or Otello. You know, they’re amazing onstage.
Which of the Verdi roles did you want to perform growing up?
I’ve always wanted to do Simon Boccanegra because [of my brother]. And for me, it’s a special opera. [His performance at Coven Garden] was also before our mother died because she had cancer, so it was a very melancholic moment in my life, and I really fell in love with the music and the positiveness of this Simon Boccanegra character. It’s something that it’s in my heart, and I feel like I’m also a very positive person. The music is absolutely fabulous and very touching, and it’s sublime. So, that’s one of the Verdi roles I’ve wanted to sing since I was a child.
Then of course, there’s Rigoletto. I think everybody wants to sing Rigoletto because it’s the hardest role to do in a way. It’s very interesting because it’s the easiest to understand. Verdi composes it so clearly, and everything that’s happening in the opera, it’s so clear that it’s very easy to do, but to do it very, very well, you need so many different colors and so much power and stamina because it’s a very long role, and it’s so much about suffering. The role is so complex and so interesting to do because of it. You know, you have to be an actor at the beginning and a joker, and you have to show that you are mentally broken in a way.
And, of course, Macbeth is another very special role, which I think is wonderful, and it’s so well written.
What do you think about the role you’re doing now?
This is one of the most beautiful roles to sing. I think this piece itself, it’s not so much about the story because the story is very simple. But it’s a very difficult opera because everyone says that for Il trovatore you just need the four best singers in the world. So, it’s very difficult vocally for the soprano, for the tenor, for the mezzo, and for the baritone. It’s a really, really difficult opera to sing, but it’s beautiful and heroic, and it has power and lovely musicality.
This was once Verdi’s most popular opera. Why do you think that is?
La traviata and Rigoletto and Il trovatore — they’re the three society operas, composed closely together. I think Verdi was very inspired in that period, and there are some amazing musical moments that you find in Rigoletto like “Bella figlia dell’amore,” and Il trovatore has some [famous] musical parts like “Di quella pira.” How can you say it? It’s like when a pop song is very popular, and you go to the opera, and you want to sing it after.