At the age of 11, a boy in Busetto, Italy saw a television commercial with Luciano Pavarotti and fell in love with opera. Lucky for him, Busetto is not only the hometown of composer Giuseppi Verdi, but the home of the great tenor Carlo Bergonzi. So as a teenager, while other kids were playing soccer or listening to pop music, this boy was sitting in Bergonzi’s studio observing lessons, absorbing bel canto wisdom from a master. Later, bass baritone Luca Pisaroni would have auspicious debuts with great conductors who would help shape his artistic sensibility, Nicolas Harnoncourt in Salzburg, and James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera, to name just a pair.
“Tutto è tranquillo e placido” is a favorite line of Pisaroni’s from The Marriage of Figaro, one of his signature roles, but the singer’s life is more active and exciting than tranquil and peaceful at the moment. His repertoire is vast, including 48 roles. The son-in-law of baritone Thomas Hampson, Pisaroni is as passionate about song and concertizing as his famous father-in-law, and the two sometimes perform together under the heading, “No Tenors Allowed!” Like Hampson, and most singers these days, Pisaroni makes his home largely on the road. Pisaroni and his wife, Catherine, travel with their two dogs, a miniature dachshund named Tristan and a golden retriever named Lenny 2.0.
With Don Giovanni and Rigoletto playing at the opera house, San Francisco is rich in bass baritones this month, but the opportunity to hear Berlioz’s Roméo e Juliette at the San Francisco Symphony is one that San Franciscans are sure to jump at. It is less commonly performed, like much of the diverse and interesting music that comprises Pisaroni’s repertoire.
He spoke with SFCV via Skype from his home in Vienna.
Carlo Bergonzi told you to wait to train your voice, and you did. Tell us about when he gave you that advice, and was it hard for you to wait, because you were so passionate about opera already?
I grew up in Busetto, and Bergonzi lived in Busetto, and he had an Academia so he was giving master classes all the time. So I would go to school, eat as fast I could, do my homework as fast as I could, and then I would run to his hotel, I Due Foscari, and listen to him giving lessons for hours. [Bergonzi opened this hotel, named for an early Verdi opera.] I used to do that as a kid. I loved to listen to him teach. Then, eventually, I asked if he would listen to me, and he said, ‘How old are you?’ and I said, ‘14.’ And he said, ‘You know, a man changes his voice between 14 and 18, so I think you need to wait.’ And I said, ‘It’s not going to be easy,’ and he said, ‘I know, but you really have to wait. There’s nothing else to do. You just have to let your voice change.’ And then I tried again when I was 17, and I realized that I was not a tenor anymore, and my voice had gone down. And then, at 18, I started studying with a teacher.
Tell us about Romeo and Juliette here in San Francisco. When you’re singing an opera or dramatic character on the concert stage, is it like doing an opera recording in that you have to put all the drama, all the character into your voice because you don’t have the ability to move around?
That actually should happen every time. I remember, when I was studying at the conservatory in Milano, the first thing that my acting teacher told me. He would put us in front of a piano to sing an aria, and he would say, ‘I don’t want you to move.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ Because there is the tendency to want to move the arms. I remember it like it was yesterday, he said, ‘You need first and foremost to act with your voice. A gesture is interesting if it adds something to what you are trying to express with your voice. If your movement is hiding the fact that you have no vocal expression, that is not good.’
This is not really an opera, I would call it more like a cantata, this Berlioz. It’s like a dramatic scene. It’s very challenging because you need to be able to express what’s going on with just your voice. I find that not too challenging because I’ve done quite a lot of recitals. And in a recital, you have a song, and every song is a small opera, and within the length of the song you have to express what happened before, what’s happening, what might happen afterwards, and paint colors for the audience so they can relate to this song, this piece.
I’m incredibly excited to do this in San Francisco because of the unbelievable sound of the orchestra and obviously because of MTT. Every time I work with MTT as a colleague it is a revelation. Every time you do a piece with him, it’s like, ‘Oh! I never thought of that.’ He is so brilliant, every time. I can realize how stupid, quote unquote, compared to him I am, because of his endless imagination and musical ideas. So I really can’t wait. I remember I did the Fidelio with him in San Francisco and it was really was a magical experience because it was a very distinct reading, and I love how the orchestra pushes the boundaries to try to achieve what he’s asking them to do.
Are you sort of a hometown hero in Busetto?
I don’t know. I don’t go back enough to know if I’m a hometown hero. But, at the time, when I liked opera, I was the most—
You were an opera nerd.
I was completely an opera nerd! And I was totally, completely, utterly uncool! Because everybody liked football. Everybody liked pop music. I was the only one who thought Pavarotti, Corelli, Freni, and Di Stefano and Del Monaco were heroes. But funny enough, I never cared. I always thought I would be vindicated. I really thought opera was incredibly cool, and there was something about this music that spoke to me, something I could relate to.
I felt a little bit like being an American speaking Chinese, everyone is speaking English, but I’m the only one speaking Chinese. The older people, I used to hang around with, because they liked it. I don’t regret it. In a way, I was lucky because I never had a doubt about what I wanted to do. I never had a second of doubt. I knew that I wanted to become a singer, that I wanted to spend my life in music. And lucky enough, I managed it.
I think I counted seven different operas that you’ll be doing in the next two seasons or so. You’re not one of those singers where you just do the same thing from town to town. And you have the recitals, you have concerts. Is that part of keeping your voice healthy? And I want to tack on one more question, which is that I wonder about the influence of your fabulous father-in-law, as far as this passion for recitals.
First thing, I’m a very curious person. If you want to kill me, make me do the same thing one hundred times, the exact same way. I love opera because every time I do a new Figaro, I say, ‘OK, I know who the guy is, but tell me more.’ I want to find something new. I like the fact that I’ve done a lot of Figaros and Don Giovannis, but there is a time in your career when you want to try something new. And I’m fortunate enough that the next two years, I have a lot of new roles. I had a Faust in Houston, I had Sonnambula in Vienna, Puritani at the Met, I’m doing Le Siège de Corinthe in Pesaro this summer at the Rossini Opera Festival, I’m doing Golaud [in Pelléas et Mélisande] in Paris for the first time, I’m doing L’Italiana in Algieri, I’m singing my first Pizarro [In Fidelio], I’m doing Hoffman, and I still keep all the Mozart, and I still do a lot of concerts.
Coming from Italy, a singer is an opera singer. I think a lot of variety is what keeps you alive. If you go from one heavy role to the next, this is very taxing. Eventually, your body is going to say, ‘I need a break.’ There’s nothing better than a recital as a nice balsam for the voice. Singing a recital is a lot of work, but it’s a different kind of work, in the sense that you don’t have to compete with 80 people playing in the orchestra. It’s a much more delicate, smaller setting. You can do many more things in terms of dynamics. And I notice, when I do concert work I can work on details of dynamics much more than sometimes you can do in opera because of the fact that you are not moving and you are close to the conductor and there’s not a weird set and you’re not 20 meters away and it’s just you, the conductor and the orchestra and you can be so extreme because you know that, in that situation, it works.
While sometimes in opera, we have all these wonderful ideas musically but it happens to be in a weird place in the set where there is not a very good acoustic or you are very far away or you are moving a lot so all the details get lost, unfortunately. So I always wanted to do this. I was always passionate about songs, long before I met Thomas. I always thought songs are so immediate, and I always loved the German repertoire because they are so sad.
You’re attracted to sad songs?
I think I’m a funny guy, and I can do comedy very well. But to be able to express sadness and despair, in a way that sometimes words cannot actually express, in a way that is so immediate, it’s not easy. And I love that about songs. For some composer to use three chords, and two words, and you’re already in another world of despair that no other words spoken could actually put you in.
And then I became part of Thomas’s family, and it was obvious that a son-in-law who was not interested in songs and concerts and recitals would not be allowed! [Laughs.] But he’s such a champion of songs, and what songs mean for us as human beings, and what they represent for us as a society, it was easy for me to fit in to his idea of what a singer should do. The thing I love about Thomas is his curiosity. He’s incredibly curious. He’s endlessly fascinated about new things. The thing we share is the idea that music is a language. And people should learn the language to understand who we are as human beings. It’s much more than entertainment.
As a traveling singer, you have to deal with different people all the time. Different conductors with different methods. And you seem like a pleasant, easy-going guy, but was there a time when you just felt like, ‘Oh my God, how can I meet the challenge of this?’
Every day! Are you serious?! It’s a struggle every day. Sometimes people think we go from one seven-star hotel to the next with a private jet, and this is the life. I tell you, now we are packing to go tomorrow, and not come back to our apartment until October. We are going to come back twice for 12 hours each to repack and go somewhere else. The thought of packing tonight, I want to cry. And my wife more than me. Because, I know it’s amazing, my job. I’m grateful, don’t get me wrong. But there are days when I’m sitting on my couch crying. Because it’s tough.
This job is 85 percent work. Just pure, unadulterated, boring work. If you don’t have six hours of work rehearsing, you are at home, studying. I’m doing [Bach’s] B Minor Mass in Leipzig, a recital in Madrid, then I’m going back to a gala in Leipzig, then I’m in S.F. then I’m doing this new role in Pesaro, then I have another gala and then I have Pelléas, then I have an entirely new Schubert program, then I do L’Italiana, which is new, then I do an Italian and American program which is new. So when I’m not walking the dogs, I study. I’m serious. People who want to be singers, think it’s fun and cool. It’s work. And it never ends. It will stop working when I retire.
Even a role like Figaro or Leporello, like I just finished at La Scala, that I’ve done a hundred times, every night there is something new. Or you have to pay attention because you have a little something in the voice. Because maybe you are a little bit tired and suddenly you have no bottom. This is a job that’s in constant motion and evolution and change, and it never ends. And the younger generation sees somebody in their career and thinks it’s just about the voice and looking good, and this has nothing to do with it. I’ll quote Mirella Freni to you. I went to see her in 1995, I think it was, she was in Bohème at La Scala and she was around 60. And somebody said something to her about talent, and she said, ‘Talent is worthless, if you don’t work.’ And then she went on and said, ‘If you don’t reinvent yourself in the sense that every day you are starting from zero.’ And I couldn’t believe that somebody of her level and fame could say something like this.
But, this feeling of being on a stage and communicating to an audience and seeing 3000 people staring at you, 3000 people laughing at you because you did something silly, or crying because you do something dramatic, makes me forget all the work I have to do. There is nothing more rewarding, more addicting, than being in front of somebody and seeing their reaction, and feeling that you are changing someone for those two hours of the opera. It’s like a drug. So I forget all the work, and I’m like, ‘God I love this job!’
But don’t call me in 15 minutes when I’m packing, because I might be in a bad mood.