For Miami-based tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz, Los Angeles Opera is like a second home. Indeed, since making his 2007 mainstage debut with the company as Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème, the musician has been seen regularly in LA Opera productions. And on Sept. 17, Chacón-Cruz sings the role of Edgardo in the company’s season opener, Lucia di Lammermoor. Running through Oct. 9, the Simon Stone-directed work will be led by LAO’s new resident conductor, Lina González-Granados.
Since taking honors at Operalia in 2005, Chacón-Cruz — who was born in Sonora, Mexico, and was a graduate of, among other programs, the Houston Grand Opera Studio and San Francisco’s Merola Opera Program — has decidedly been on the ascent. Described by The Washington Post in a 2006 production of Madama Butterfly as “a star worth watching, a singer with a light, firmly supported lyrical voice, a lovely legato, and the ability to sound effortless,” the tenor has sung more than 60 roles in 30 countries.
Last season alone he tackled the parts of Don José in Carmen, Gabriele Adorno in Simon Boccanegra, and Manrico in Il trovatore (the first two in Italy and the third in Spain) and sang concerts in Mexico City, Paris, and Vienna. In addition to an extensive existing operatic discography, last year the tenor released a solo album, Arturo Chacón le canta a México, which features music of his home country, accompanied by the Orquesta Filarmónica de Sonora.
Chacón-Cruz’s many honors include Houston Grand Opera’s Audience Choice Award and being tapped as a GQ Mexico “Man of the Year” in 2018. During a recent telephone conversation, we discussed his attraction to certain roles, working with LA Opera, and what it’s like to sing for royalty.
Among your many roles with LA Opera have been Alfredo in La traviata in 2014 and the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto three seasons later. What is it about the company that keeps you coming back?
This is basically home to me, and [Lucia] is my 11th participation in this company. [By contrast] I have sung only three times in Miami. I believe that this company is very — I don’t want to say loyal — but there is a mutual understanding and mutual appreciation of professionalism, combined with camaraderie and friendship. Understanding music and opera is not just producing a final product, it’s more like producing a living being, something with a soul.
We [LAO and I] have become a family. Even in post-COVID times, many still aren’t hugging, but here we can’t help hugging. It’s like a homecoming. It’s rare to find a company that is like this. With how the world is going, everything is focusing more on economics and budgeting — [that’s] a little bit focusing on the easy way out of things. Sometimes being more human makes things a little more complicated. But I see it on their faces — not only the singers, but the staff, which is really heartening for me.
For those who might not know, Donizetti’s Lucia is about a girl driven to madness and murder because she’s forced into a marriage with Arturo, when she loves Edgardo. Have you sung the role before, and how do you prepare for, in this case, Simon Stone’s updated production — set in a declining, present-day town in America’s Rust Belt — a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera that was first seen in April?
I sang it a few years ago in Spain, and it was a big success. My voice has taken me more to Verdi and Puccini roles. I was convinced I wouldn’t sing it again, but when this offer came — I still believe I have a few years of bel canto left in me.
When I prepare for a role, there are several factors. I saw the interviews of director Simon Stone, who wanted to show the ugliest side of America and the ugliest side of human nature as well. But there has to be some beauty to rescue there. It’s an interesting production, and we have to really let it sink in. What I said about the ugliness of human nature, it’s been there for centuries and probably is going to still be there for centuries — if we manage to keep our planet alive, of course.
Musically, it’s such a blessing to come back to this opera. I feel I can do it more justice than I did in Spain a few years ago. I feel very comfortable with the role. I don’t know how to explain it, but Verdi came after Donizetti, and since I have been singing early Verdi works and some later ones, it made me find some aspect of my instrument through my soul.
With the last few years of loss and uncertainty of what’s going to happen, [I saw] a lot of that in Edgardo’s life. I feel I’ve reached a deep understanding of the character. Paired with Simon’s vision, it’s something to enjoy for the audience and for me to explore and grow as an artist.
You’re singing all six performances, but with two different Lucias — Amanda Woodbury and Liv Redpath. What happens if there’s no chemistry between you and the soprano?
I’m blessed with many years of experience. I’m celebrating the 22nd anniversary of my career as an opera singer and 25 years with vernacular singing. I was once doing an opera, and there was zero chemistry with the soprano — I won’t say who. But the more I kept trying, she would never look me in the eye. It was very difficult.
At some point, I talked to one of my acting teachers. “What do I do? What’s going on? This has never happened to me.” He said, “Imagine the person you love the most, and look at her. Just do that.” When the review came out, they couldn’t stop talking about the chemistry.
I’ve been rehearsing with Amanda, and she is amazing; Liv I sang with in Rigoletto. We shared many hours of rehearsal, many hours on stage. It’s going to be fine, chemistry-wise. If there’s a little hesitation, I promise I will add that trick.
What attracts you to certain roles? Rinuccio in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi is a far cry from, say, Macduff in Verdi’s Macbeth.
It’s all about human nature and the ability to connect with everybody. I feel every time I get a call for Nemorino [in Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love] or Rinuccio, they’re very young and naive and basic characters. We need to connect with those, too, and move beyond the basic things. There’s a beauty in their innocence, in how they see the world — full of love. They don’t see the meanness of the world. That helps me keep it real. There’s enough of Macbeth, Luisa Miller, I due Foscari. It’s nice to go back to that and then all the way to the other side of innocence.
You’ve also worked with formidable film directors, among them Sofia Coppola. She made her operatic debut with Traviata, which featured costumes by Valentino. What was that like?
In 2016 was the first time, and we repeated the opera in 2017. It was an initiative from the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. They wanted to bring a big name to the theater and bring a lot of press. They succeeded. We had sold-out performances, over 20 performances. It was wonderful working with somebody who is familiar with drama and elegance but not familiar with opera.
We would cheat on the side of non-elegance to make it apparent to people in the back row. Her job with me was to clean me up and make it simple. Be elegant and not overfussy. Be natural and elegant. There were small movements and direct communication between the characters, which changed the way I work. We had a month and a half of rehearsals, and we did it again in Spain.
That sounds fascinating. Since Sofia is the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola — and starred in Godfather III — I would love one day to see a Godfather: The Opera. After all, she had two musical relatives: Grandfather Carmine Coppola was a composer, and great-uncle Anton was a conductor. What do you think?
I did not know that. But if there is a Godfather opera, I don’t want to sing Fredo. Maybe Sonny? No, I’ll be Michael.
Yes, you’re decidedly the Michael character — complex, brooding. And besides, Sonny gets killed off in the first Godfather. But while we’re on the topic of pop culture, you made a recording of Leonard Cohen’s iconic hit “Hallelujah,” accompanying yourself on guitar. You also recorded the song with your wife and son and then put these videos online. They’ve since racked up hundreds of thousands of plays on digital platforms. What inspired you to do that?
It started as one of those peaceful moments at home, but once the pandemic hit, we started doing “Hallelujah” on Sundays on Facebook. It started as seven days of music because we thought the lockdown was going to be two weeks. I would have a day of opera, a day of zarzuela, Mexican music, tangos. People loved it so much, we started doing a concert every Sunday and did 40-something concerts in total. It was me, my wife, and son. My wife played piano, and they would join me.
What’s it like singing private recitals for royalty, as you did for King Felipe of Spain and Queen Sofía.
I will always tell the story of after the recitals because, during, I love singing, it’s my life. When I sing for royalty, or for the average Joe, I will sing the same and give my whole heart. I cannot lie to you, I was a little nervous. In Spain, after the concert, there was a protocol meeting to take pictures. I wasn’t expecting the king to be so small; he’s 5-foot-6, and the queen was born in Greece.
I said, “Your majesty, it’s an honor to meet you. My wife is Greek.” In Spanish, the king said, “You speak Greek?” I said, “I don’t speak Greek,” and he started laughing. He did a joke about it and hugged me. It was like being with my uncle and such a beautiful experience showing how normal people can be.
What advice do you give aspiring opera singers?
I always tell them not to get hung up on social media. If you see my social media, it is what it is. I’m not trying to pretend to be something I’m not. “Be yourself,” I tell them. “Be human, dedicate yourself to the basics. Go back to the basics every day. Practice. Find your connection with your soul. Don’t make stupid mistakes. Always give your best.”
It’s so disheartening when you get to rehearsal and they’re taking selfies — looking beautiful but not sounding great. We need to find a balance. Image is not all. You have to have substance.
Where do you see yourself in the next five to 10 years?
I see myself reaching the peak of my maturity as a tenor, which is arriving now, in my 40s. In five years, I’ll be 50, [and] by then I want to have my group of mentees. I’m mentoring some students and working hard to really teach singing technique that’s disappearing slowly — the old Italian technique. Everybody’s teaching new techniques. The Caruso technique is not being taught anymore. I see myself in more mature roles, and the planet has already started to teach me more — to be transitioning [by] staying home with less traveling.