Novelists are known to love reading fiction, and most visual artists make regular rounds of the galleries, but opera singers, with surprising frequency, are not opera fans.
Maybe that’s because opera is so intense and demanding that its practitioners, once they get offstage, have no interest in a busman’s holiday. Or maybe it’s because opera these days isn’t the popular art form it once was. In its early history, tunes from new works were sung in the streets, like Beyoncé singles; now, the canon largely set, audiences are for the most part limited to the rich and white. Whatever the reason, for many singers opera is their job, and just their job. They perform in Traviata, but in their spare time they’d rather listen to Taylor Swift.
Then there is the bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni.
“I really do love it,” he said in a recent interview at a hotel lounge across the street from Lincoln Center. “Guilty as charged. I’m an addict; I have no problem in saying that. I always have been. When I was going to high school, I loved opera so much that I would not eat so that I could buy CDs. My parents would give me an allowance for a week and I used to go to La Scala almost every night. So every evening I had to go to the opera I would not eat. I’m serious.”
As he talks with shining-eyed enthusiasm about the memorable Scala performances he saw in the 1990s, it can be hard to keep in mind that Mr. Pisaroni is himself a singer, rather than just a fan, one of those people you see every night in standing room.
At 36, he has already quietly entered the top ranks of opera. He is featured in two major new productions—and, no less important these days, two “Live in H.D.” broadcasts—at the Met this fall, playing Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Caliban in The Enchanted Island, the new Baroque pastiche whose story melds The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The two roles neatly summarize Mr. Pisaroni’s small, carefully chosen repertory of mostly Baroque and Classical roles. “I pay very much attention to what I can sing and what I can’t,” he said. “I always thought singing should be free. If it’s not free, it’s wrong.”
The result is that he has cultivated a smooth, rich voice that flows out with ease over its entire range. Tall and boyishly handsome, he is a Figaro with an undercurrent of melancholy; a Guglielmo, in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, simultaneously shocked and aroused by his seduction of his friend’s fiancée; an almost disconcertingly seductive Leporello.
He was born to Italian parents in 1975 in Venezuela, where his father ran a large chain of auto-parts stores. The family returned to Italy when Mr. Pisaroni was 4 and he grew up in Busseto, a small town whose claim to fame is that it was Verdi’s home for much of his life.
His parents were not musical, but his grandfather had a collection of opera highlights records. At a young age, Mr. Pisaroni heard a recording of the great bass Boris Christoff singing “Ella giammai m’amo,” King Philip’s aria from Verdi’s Don Carlo, and that was it: he decided to become an opera singer.
He studied at the conservatory in Milan but was frustrated by his teacher; doing recitatives, he would find his energy flagging before the aria had even started.
“Late in 1999 I was in conservatory and I did an audition in Austria,” he said. “And I won, and they said, ‘Do you want to sing Figaro?’ This would be my professional debut. I said, ‘Of course.’ But I thought that maybe, before I start my professional career, I should have an idea what I’m doing.”
A pianist friend connected him with a teacher who lived in Buenos Aires, and Mr. Pisaroni moved there for a year to study. He returned, and his career began in earnest. There have been few roadblocks. He had an audition in Zurich with the renowned conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who cast him as Masetto in a major production of Don Giovanni at the Salzburg Festival in 2002. (This was the production that also launched Anna Netrebko to international stardom, and the Giovanni was Thomas Hampson, who would later become Mr. Pisaroni’s father-in-law.)
“From there, my life just changed,” Mr. Pisaroni said. “I got a manager and I started doing auditions. I came to New York and auditioned for [Met artistic administrator] Jonathan Friend and two days later they called and asked if I wanted to sing for James Levine. And I sang for him and they asked me immediately to do Clemenza and they had an option for Figaro, and that was it. I still don’t believe it.”
He made his debut as Publio in Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito in April 2005 and returned that November as Figaro. He played Figaro again in 2009, conducted by Fabio Luisi, who has recently been named the Met’s principal conductor and who will lead the new Giovanni. Mr. Pisaroni’s parents, who came to New York in 2005 for Figaro but don’t like to travel far, won’t be here for it. They epitomize his sense of Italy as lovable but unadventurous.
“I like the heritage of my country but I don’t live there, by choice,” he said. “I live in Vienna. Italy has been a little ungrateful to me.”
He doesn’t sing in Italy at all these days, and cites several reasons. “They book way too late compared to others,” he said. “And also I guess it’s the same everywhere, that you are never really appreciated in your own country. My ideal career is not typically Italian. I really love doing concerts and recitals and this is not really an Italian thing. Apart from Bartoli, there are not a lot of singers who do liederabends [song recitals], but I would die if I just had to do one opera after another. It just is not interesting. It’s better for a human being and for an artist to do a variety of things.”
While he’s done some concerts in Italy, his only opera experience there was four performances as the second-cast Guglielmo in Cosi in Torino in 2003. In a career that has gone off without a hitch, there is one glaring blank: he’s never sung at the place where he spent most of his evenings for a decade.
“I would like to sing at La Scala,” he said. “But they don’t really know me. Italy is very provincial, meaning that, for Italians, to sing Don Giovanni in Catania is more important than singing Masetto in Salzburg. And of course those are not the same. As wonderful as Catania is, the level is not the same. It’s a pity because I think they are missing a lot in terms of innovation. It’s a country that is a little bit stuck in the past. I do work in Europe in productions that could never get pulled off in Italy. But it would be nice to go back there.”
Mr. Pisaroni is savvy about his career, a shrewdness that comes at least in part from being an opera fan and watching the way some careers rise and some don’t. (It doesn’t hurt that his wife, Catherine, grew up with a famous opera singer for a father and now does web design for major performing artists.) He’s well aware that in a culture not exactly attuned to opera, singers—especially bass-baritones—can easily fall through the cracks. That’s why, with the two new productions and two H.D. broadcasts, he recently hired a publicist, even while being ambivalent about the decision. “I want people to be aware of what I do because I think it’s good work,” he said. “But I don’t want to be in anyone’s face too much. In 10 years I can be in everyone’s face.”
With his teacher he sings dark, heavy roles like Verdi’s Attila, Gounod’s Faust, Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust, Fiesco in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra and the same composer’s Macbeth, but he won’t be singing them in public anytime soon. He is developing his repertory slowly and carefully: switching to the Count in Figaro; doing his first Henry VIII in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena in Japan next year; and Rossini’s Maometto II next summer. Faust is on the horizon, but it’s five years off.
“I see this as a marathon,” he said. “I want to sing until people tell me it’s time to retire. I always looked with admiration at Freni or Pavarotti or Domingo, people who had careers of 35 or 40 years at such a level. It’s very, very difficult to be at their level for so many years. You need to reinvent yourself; you need to be very clever what you sing. To have a five-year career then gone, it’s easy. But to have the long career, it’s hard.”
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