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Vittorio Grigolo Interview: October 5, 2010

Vittorio Grigolo

On Friday, September 24, 2010, Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with rising-star tenor Vittorio Grigolo – whose debut Sony release, The Italian Tenor, comes out on October 5. Mr. Grigolo will debut at the Metropolitan Opera later this month as Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Bohème, following a string of stellar operatic successes in 2010. In this fascinating and entertaining discussion, Mr. Grigolo discusses the path he’s taken toward this new album – featuring arias by Donizetti, Verdi, and Puccini, the meaning behind its provocative title, his successful career mix of opera and pop-infused “popera”, and much more. Throughout, Mr. Grigolo displays great charm, and a real sense of purpose as he tries to follow the path of his models, Placido Domingo and especially the late Luciano Pavarotti – whose presence is still felt by the young tenor. Don’t miss this interview!

“I needed to go out in this first opera CD with something that belongs to my inner soul, to my inner country. The Italian Tenor means one who brings a bit of Italy with his voice, all of its culture, and in all aspects of his singing: the kind of fraseggio that’s easy, because it’s part of my language.”
– Vittorio Grigolo

Nolan Gasser: Let’s start with your new Sony album coming out on October 5, entitled – with perhaps just a hint of playful provocation – The Italian Tenor; first, can you tell us how this album came to be: for example, is this a program that you’ve had in your mind’s eye for a while, or was it something that the folks at Sony helped you to design?

Vittorio Grigolo: This album was an idea that really came from inside me. The “legend” of opera has been vibrating in my veins since I was only four years old. My family introduced me to the joy that comes with this style of music – along with the full 360-degree range of musical styles that surrounded me as a child. I always grew up with a big dream: to record an album full of classic arias – arias that belong to my country, to my language, to my composers! But before I was ready, I first needed to grow, and to perform opera all over the world. So, if today, I still have that dream, it’s because I still have that kid inside me; and this kid is now ready to release this passion – and this album: this is the moment when I can say something with opera.

Even three or four years ago, I didn’t think I was ready – and even though I had the offer, I didn’t accept, because for me opera is such a delicate argument, and I wanted to have all the power to express myself. And because I felt I wasn’t ready, and that I couldn’t yet communicate this operatic sensitivity to the public, I tried to communicate in other musical styles – even though I was singing opera all over the world. That’s why I recorded my first album [In the Hands of Love] in a style that I call “popera” [a blend of popular and operatic styles] – to bring a younger media focus to opera.

But today, with this second album, I felt that I was ready to record a “real” classical album, of only classical arias. I chose all the arias on the album myself – and chose ones where I felt I could deliver a secure technique, so that I could fully express myself. You know, when you feel you are secure in your technique, you can then “destroy” it, and raise your heart – your “lion’s heart” that’s inside you: that keeps you fighting on stage, and gives expression to your emotions. And that’s why I chose arias that aren’t so common, arias that show people who I am today – and also who I was yesterday, and who I’ll be in the future. In a sense, this album is not just a collection of arias, but a way for me to connect to people – to say, “I’m here!” I want to connect my heart to people, to paint a beautiful landscape with lots of color… You know, the voice can be like a grapevine – and hopefully, mine will grow in just the right way, and in 10 or 15 years, the roles of these arias will be part of my life.

NG: Well, that’s quite an answer! Clearly, you have such tremendous passion for this new album, and it’s something that’s been building up in your life for a long while – as you say, the child within you has grown up, and has now reached a point where he’s ready to tackle these arias…

VG: Yes, I’ve always thought that CDs are very important; it’s not really about the product, or just having something “out there” – it’s that a CD stays around forever. I mean, if I do something wrong, or if I sing something that I don’t like, it stays like that forever, and I can’t take it back. So, there’s a lot pressure when you make a recording like this – especially when you have such a busy schedule, traveling all over the world, and it’s hard to find time to squeeze the project into the calendar.

NG: Yes, I can imagine. Let’s talk about the program on the album. You mentioned how you chose arias that reveal who you are as an artist; and in the video promo that accompanies the album, you note how these arias have “accompanied you as you’ve matured as a singer”. The collection, of course, includes some all-time favorite arias by Donizetti [“Una furtiva lagrima”, track 2], Verdi [“Ah! sì, ben mio”, track 14], and Puccini [“E lucevan le stelle”, track 13], but it also includes some little-known arias, such as “Torna ai felici dì” from Puccini’s Le villi [track 8] Can you talk a bit more how you came to choose these particular arias?

VG: Everything I chose for this recording I’ve sung before; I had a chance to sing “Torna ai felici dì” in a concert in Las Palmas [Canary Islands, Spain] – and I performed it with conductor Pier Giorgio Morandi, who joined me for this album. I was really fascinated with this aria – and there’s a chance that I’ll sing the entire opera of Le villi in three years at the Southbrook Festival. So, it’s not something that I’ll abandon: it’s like I’ve had a taste of something sweet in a restaurant that I may want to come back to see if it’s as good as I remembered. In this aria, Puccini expresses himself in a different way than in La Bohème; there’s more suffering, more drama; and as I said, I wanted to show different colors on this album.

NG: It’s also a wonderful thing that you can do as an artist – to help introduce repertoire that’s not terribly well known. This was Puccini’s first opera, and has not really fared that well – though not so much due to the quality of the music, as because of the weakness of the libretto.

VG: Yes, you’re right. People often just want the mature artist or composer that they know, that they love; and if they don’t recognize that mature artist in a work, they’ll just skip it. I really want to know the full story of this artist, Puccini, and why he wrote music the way he did; and so you need to sing everything, and try all of his music. It’s the same thing with Il corsora; everyone says this is by a Verdi who is “not yet Verdi”, not the one that everyone knows – and it’s not true; it’s a beautiful story, and there are great melodies inside. It’s a shame this is not as well represented as some others of his operas.

NG: It’s nice, then, that you have two arias from Il corsaro [tracks 9-10], so that people can get a taste of this lesser-known opera. Of course, as noted, you do also include some real famous arias and operas, like “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca, and two arias from Verdi’s Rigoletto [tracks 3-4], which you just performed…

VG: Yes, and I know that since I already recorded a full performance of Rigoletto [singing the role of the Duke of Mantua], many people were expecting me to record “La donna è mobile”; but I decided not to, and instead to record an aria like “Parmi verder la lagrime” – in part because of the technical challenges, but especially because I think it’s a more important moment for the character of the Duke: you know, people think of the Duke as a real son-of-a-bitch, but maybe in “Parmi verder la lagrime” we sense some sort of love-lost, a love that he could never share with his people, because of his fear of losing power. I think power in those days [16th-century Mantua] was different than today; today we have lots of rich people, but if you were rich back then it was different: being powerful meant having a lot of responsibility.

NG: Yes, and this underscores something that I know is very important to you: it’s not just the technical aspect of singing, but also the need to inhabit the role – in terms of acting, and getting to know the complexity of the character.

VG: You’re exactly right. Actually this to me is the key to being a great singer: opera is not singing, opera is recitar cantando [acting while singing] – and you see that in Italian, recitar comes first. This means that you have to act – you cannot just stand there and sing. That’s why I say that we study technique so that we can “destroy” it – your technique has to be “put aside” to let the character come out, in the scene and also in the recording.

NG: In a way, this comes back to my first question, regarding the title of your album, The Italian Tenor – perhaps playfully throwing down the gauntlet, so to speak, that these classic Italian arias almost need an Italian tenor to bring out their full potential…

VG: Well, first of all, I’m not trying to “throw a bomb” and say, “Oh, nobody but an Italian can sing these arias…” I mean, I couldn’t go out calling myself, The Spanish Tenor, or The French Tenor – because I’m not Spanish or French, even though I love singing French opera. I needed to go out in this first opera CD with something that belongs to my inner soul, to my inner country. The Italian Tenor means one who brings a bit of Italy with his voice, all of its culture, and in all aspects of his singing: the kind of fraseggio [phrasing] that’s easy, because it’s part of my language; The Italian Tenor is one that uses his own instrument with his own language. I call it The Italian Tenor because I’m Italian, and I’m using the musical language I was born with. So, again, I’m not “throwing a bomb” – though maybe I can deliver something special, since I’m singing my own language.

NG: I understand; though, of course, you’re also reminding us of the great line of Italian tenors – not only your mentor, Pavarotti, but going back to Giuseppe Di Stefano and Carlo Bergonzi, etc.

I liked very much what you said a moment ago, and in your video promo, about some of those characteristics that for you make up the essence of Italian singing: legato, bel canto, la fraseggio italiano, and another term you use that I like very much – la solarità, or “sunniness”.

VG: Yes, la solarità! Well, first let me say that Pavarotti was not really my teacher; we did spend some time together, and he was a great inspiration to me; he was the one who gave me that little extra “horsepower” I needed to start my career. He helped me prepare for La Bohème when I had my debut in Washington [in 2007]; who better than Pavarotti to show me some of the “tricks” of singing Bohème?

So, la solarità is a kind of happiness when you sing, even if the aria itself is not so happy; it’s like the sound of the voice when you open a window – like being on a balcony, and hearing a guy strumming a guitar and singing: that’s la solarità; it’s a kind of easy fraseggio [phrasing], though not too soft, but where people are comfortable when they’re listening to it.

NG: Got it. Okay, so maybe you’re not “throwing a bomb”, as you say, but you are suggesting that there is something particularly natural for an Italian to sing these arias – that as they themselves come out of the “sunny” Italian countryside, it takes an Italian to “get them” in a real intuitive way.

VG: Yes, that’s it – you’ve got it perfectly.

NG: Let’s back up a little bit now, and talk about some earlier points in your career. You began singing when you were quite young – you had your first break at age nine when you were invited to sing at the Scuola Puerorum [boy’s school] at the Sistine Chapel. As a child – and especially given the fact that you’ve recorded an album of “popera” – what kind of music did you listen to? Was it mainly opera and Italian song, or did you also hear a lot American pop and rock music?

VG: Yes, yes, and yes! As I said, I opened myself up 360 degrees to all musical styles. I always loved the great American singers – like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Barbara Streisand, Barry White. In fact, one day I want to sing jazz – it’s part of my soul, part of my body language. I feel that this music is part of my life; it’s beautiful, and maybe I’ll be able to add my own “juice” to this music – because I’m not only interested in opera. When I was a kid, I tried to learn by imitating everyone; that’s the first thing you do when you’re a kid – you imitate other people, other voices, and that’s how you learn to manage your own instrument, and how it responds to you.

NG: It’s interesting that American jazz is another musical realm that speaks to you…

VG: Absolutely! Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong – those singers could communicate with their instruments; they communicated their souls and their life experiences. This to me is the most important thing for a singer – to bring his own experiences to his performance, because no two people have the same experiences; that’s why life is so incredible and so beautiful, because we’re all different…

NG: Given your eclectic interests, it’s starting to make more sense that you entered the world of “popera” for your first album, In the Hands of Love. So, what was your approach in singing this style: were there particular “crossover” models that you followed, such as Andrea Bocelli ­– and did you likewise try to incorporate some elements of jazz singers, like Frank Sinatra?

VG: I was really trying to connect the two worlds of opera and pop music; I learned a lot from Pavarotti and the way he connected these worlds, such as in his album Pavarotti and Friends – where he always kept his “lyrical” voice. I always try to sing in an easy, normal style, but still using my “lyrical” voice. And yes, another model for me in my pop singing is Frank Sinatra; he’s less lyrical than Bocelli, but in his voice there is such color and such strength, he gave it “the Voice”, you know – [singing] “I did it my way”…

NG: And, of course, one of the things Sinatra is most praised for is his phrasing.

VG: Yes, it’s amazing – because when he’s phrasing, it’s almost like he’s not singing: it’s like he’s living the song. When he sings this sad song [“My Way” – singing] “And so I face… the final curtain…”, he really speaks; you can feel that this is a man who has lived a lot. He didn’t need a big voice with a huge range to express himself; he did it with four notes.

There’s an Italian singer too that I love a lot, who for me was a model of expression: Franco Califano; he had a rough life, and was in jail a lot – but that rough life gave him such beautiful colors. The way he declaims – it’s no longer a song, it’s a beautiful poem.

NG: It really comes back to what you said earlier – that it’s as much acting as singing.

VG: And do you know what the different is between acting and just singing? The big difference is the “pause”. Great musicians understand when they need to take a break – to pause in between the words. Frank Sinatra could sing [singing, dramatically] “And now… the end is near” or he could sing [singing, perfunctorily] “And now the end is near”; it isn’t the same. Just a fraction of a second – that’s how a great artist can make a difference. Even in comedy: a great comedian is one who knows how to place the pause at just the right time, and it’s the pause that makes you smile.

NG: In English we often say, “it’s all in the silences”; but maybe “pause” is better – because the thought continues, it just needs the right pause.”

VG: That’s good! And it’s not just the meaning of the words, but also the emotional tension. It’s the same in opera – the meaning and the tension work together in that fraction of a second, and that’s what makes a difference. It’s that tension that makes the audience grab their chairs and say, “Oh my God; I just got goose bumps!”

NG: One last question about your involvement in “popera”: I assume that you’re probably going to continue in this vein, and I’m wondering if you’ve thought about trying to collaborate with some American producers – people like David Foster [who has likewise worked with Bocelli, Josh Groban, and other “crossover” vocalists]?

VG: You never know… in fact I already know David, and we worked a bit together: I was finishing up my second “pop” album – which was never released – and did all the editing and mastering in his studio in Malibu; and he was there sometimes. Mine was actually the last album that was worked on at his studio, because it burned down shortly afterwards in the big Malibu fire [2007]. I was very lucky to have saved all my files, even though the album never came out; there were some songs I really wanted to record again.

NG: And will that album ever come out?

VG: At some point, maybe; but I think I’m going to re-record most of those songs – though not right now.

NG: And is Sony open to you going back and forth between opera and “popera”?

VG: Yes, we’ve actually already discussed this; right now I want to work more in the opera field; but I’ll come back to it eventually.

NG: Okay, so, let’s get back to opera ourselves: the year 2010 seems to have been such a great year for your operatic career – it’s been a bit of a breakout year for you…

VG: I’ll tell you: I have friend who is a tennis player, and he says that this year I’ve won my Grand Slam! It’s been my PGA Tour or my US Open, you know? You have to be like an athlete when you travel and perform all over the world as I have been.

NG: I know that you’re also an avid racecar driver, so for you maybe it’s more like the Indy 500!

VG: Exactly [laughs].

NG: For those who are not aware: in June you had a huge success singing the role of Des Grieux in [Massenet’s] Manon at the Royal Opera House, with [soprano] Anna Netrebko – where you came in to replace Rolando Villazón. From what I’ve read, it seems that you sort of stole the show. Am I right to think that this was a transformational moment in your career?

VG: Yes, it was, for sure; and it was a great working with Anna. The whole thing was unbelievable, and the London public really went wild. This happens pretty rarely – it happened to Rolando [Villazòn, with Les contes d’Hoffman] – and then to me. The theater exploded, I never before heard that kind of wave inside a theater; it was like a pop concert. I had to kneel – I felt like a chevalier receiving his investiture; I was very happy about it.

NG: And did you see it coming – that is, did you hear something special in your own voice during that performance?

VG: Yes, I knew it, because I felt such a great connection with the audience, which is so important. And also, you can’t be special on stage if you don’t have a singing partner that gives you back the energy in the same way that you give it; if your partner doesn’t share that energy, it sucks your energy instead. And I really need to thank Anna for being such a great partner – she knows the role [Manon Lescaut] so well; I was new to the role of Des Grieux, and she made me feel very comfortable on stage. [Conductor Antonio] Pappano was also terrific – I had just come from six other debuts that year, it was crazy; I came to London and didn’t even know the score yet. Pappano said, “Don’t worry, we’ll help you in any way we can” – even though there wasn’t a prompter. So it was hard, but everyone worked with me to make it a big success; and I felt I wasn’t really alone.

NG: It seems that you had a great challenge, but that you rose to the occasion, and you were given a nice reward for it – so congratulations.

VG: Thank you so much.

NG: Now, another big moment you had this year was your work with Placido [Domingo] in a film production of Rigoletto – filmed live on location in Mantua [the dramatic setting of Rigoletto]; what was that like?

VG: Being part of such an important project – being broadcast in 140 countries – was incredible for me. Rigoletto was almost like another debut, because I hadn’t performed it since 2003, in Hamburg. The key word for me in this production was “challenge” ­– everything was a challenge in this movie. Every time you take an opera outside of the theater, you’re going to have problems with acoustics, with the weather, etc.; and not just those things but practical issues like having the orchestra show up on time and having monitors. But I knew that with so many legends – Placido, Giorgio Caoduro, and [conductor] Zubin Mehta – it was going to happen. It was a great challenge for me, and for everyone, to make this connection with the camera; in the opera house, everything you do is “amplified”, because the public is thirty meters from you – and if you want to communicate, you have to do something big. But with the camera, at five centimeters from your face, everything has to be re-focused; I have to put myself on a leash with regard to my expressions – to try to become a movie actor. But it was an amazing project; and I think it is only good for opera to do this kind of thing.

NG: It must have been a wild experience to be shooting these scenes on the streets of Mantua, at the Castello di San Giorgio, etc. I know that some people look down on these sorts of video productions, as being too commercial, but you take a different tack: that this is a good thing, because it helps to draw young people to opera that might not otherwise be interested.

VG: It does. I also filmed La Traviata at the train station at Zurich; it was kind of the same experience – though not at the level of Rigoletto. I think we need to bring opera out of the theater if we want to introduce it to more people; we need to use the media and the Internet to make a connection to more people. I received notes from people who said, “Wow – I was at the Zurich train station, and I saw this guy singing, ‘Libiamo’”… these are the things that connect life and opera.

NG: Of course, a number of opera companies – the Met, San Francisco Opera, etc. – are taking advantage of video, and these kinds of multi-media broadcasts and simulcasts. And that makes a nice segue to what’s coming up for you: your big debut next month at the Metropolitan Opera, as Rodolfo in La Bohème.

VG: Yes, and I’ll be the same age as Luciano [Pavarotti] was…

NG: Is that right?

VG: Yes, Luciano debuted the same role at the same age [33]. I’ll tell you a little story: when we were filming Rigoletto in Mantua, I was sick because of the rain and bad weather; the day before I had to sing, Placido knew I was sick, and he gave me a pep talk. Afterwards, he said, “When you got those high notes tonight, I think there was one guy helping you out.” I asked, “Who?” He said, “It was Luciano – and do you know why? Because today is September 5, the anniversary of Luciano’s death.”

NG: I know you have a very strong connection with Luciano. There’s also the story – which you downplay – about his writing “Il Primo” [the best] in your notebook….

VG: Well, that was just when I was a kid… You know, shortly before Luciano died, I visited him in his room, as I leaving for Washington to sing La Bohème – which he helped me work on. He opened the door, and speaking pianissimo, he said, “You are my champion; you can now go to Washington; take care of the success you deserve and then return… and remember, Vittorio, you have charisma – you are a signore tenore [gentleman tenor].” It was difficult to believe getting such compliments from a guy like this, with such a career; and it gave me such energy: you know, the drive from there to the airport was four hours – and I did it in an hour and a half in my car!

NG: You were flying high, as we say.

VG: Yes, flying high!

NG: And I know that you’ve also mentioned how Placido has been a great model for you in terms of building your career.

VG: Yes, these guys are such legends. The amazing thing is that they can keep a career going for thirty or forty years, with the same level of energy, the same delivery; that’s the trick. You don’t want to burn yourself out in five years; you want to figure out that “potion”, that “magic trick” – that keeps these guys alive all the time.

NG: Well, I’m sure Luciano is still with you, and that he’ll be with you when you debut at the Met.

VG: Yes, he will be there – you can be sure he will sing it with me.

NG: And help you some of with those high notes! Well, thank you so much, Vittorio, and best of luck next month.

VG: Thank you so much – I hope we can do a second round!

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