La Scena Musicale

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Ramon Vargas: Face to Face

A smiling Ramon Vargas talks in depth about his art of singing
(Photo: Joseph So)

Ramon Vargas: Face to Face
by Joseph So

Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas is one busy guy. After spending the summer in Berlin, Vienna, and Munich singing Don Carlos, Alfredo, Jacopo (I due Foscari) and Giasone (Medea in Corinto), Vargas is now in Toronto, preparing for his first-ever Manrico in Il Trovatore.  He recently celebrated not only his 52nd birthday on September 11, but also the 30th anniversary of his professional debut. It was way back in 1982 when the young singer won the Carlo Morelli National Vocal Competition that led to his debut in Haydn's Lo Speziale in Monterrey, Mexico.  The following year, he wowed audiences as Fenton in Verdi's Falstaff and as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, two of the most beautiful lyric tenor roles, ideally suited to the Vargas instrument. He went to Vienna to further his training, and it didn't take long for his lyric tenor with its sweet, clear timbre to be noticed. Soon he was singing in all the important opera houses in the world. He is regarded as one of the top tenors in front of the public today. This is his second engagement with the COC, having sung in the Company's Diamond Anniversary Concert replacing an indisposed Ben Heppner in November 2009.  It is the great good fortune of Toronto opera fans that he's returning for his Canadian opera debut.  

As soon as he finishes his eight performances of Manrico in Toronto on October 28, Vargas is slated to return to Mexico, to the beautiful Palacio de Bellas Artes for a special gala celebrating his 30 years in opera. On the program are Rodolfo in Act One of La boheme and Nemorino in Act One of L'Elisir d'amore, two of his most celebrated roles.  A few days after we met for this interview at the Tanenbaum Opera Centre, Vargas took time out from rehearsals to return to Mexico City to participate in a festive concert marking the Mexican Independence Day on September 15, an event attended by some 9000 people at the Auditorio Nacional, the largest concert hall in Mexico. Snippets of the concert can be viewed on Youtube  

In an age when singers are like meteors, shining brightly only to fade prematurely into oblivion, Vargas' thirty-year career is something of a phenomenon. His evenly produced lyric tenor has remained in remarkable shape, beautiful, sweet and flexible, which he uses with discerning taste. The natural maturity process means his middle and lower registers have acquired a new-found depth and solidity. To be able to sustain such a long career, a singer must have the right combination of vocal health, expert career management, wisdom in the choice of repertoire, and of course a strong technique, all attributes that Vargas possesses in abundance. Now with maturity - although Vargas looks many years younger than his 52 - the tenor is moving on to the spinto repertoire, having already sung Jacopo in I due Foscari and now Manrico in Il Trovatore.  While doing the research ahead of our interview, I discovered all sorts of interesting tidbits about him on his website where the tenor reflects in depth on his art and his life. It's always fascinating to hear what an artist have to say about their god-given talent - it tells us a lot about the man behind the voice.  So, in an early September morning, we met at the Tanenbaum Opera Centre for a relaxed, informal hour-long chat. Friendly and down to earth, Vargas has none of the divo air about him. He answered all my questions with candor and careful thought, in a charming and distinctly accented English that is all his own. In the following Q and A drawn from the taped interview, I tried to faithfully reproduce his way of talking as much as possible:  

LSM: First of all, welcome back to Toronto.  Was the gala concert in 2009 the first time you sang in Canada?  
RV: Thank you...ah, no actually I did a concert in Montreal several years ago.

LSM:  I hope you enjoyed singing in the Four Seasons Centre the last time you were here.
RV: Yes it was wonderful -  just too short (a time)!  I was excited and happy, and surprised how nice the hall and the acoustics were. 

LSM: I understand that you made your debut in 1982 after winning a competition. That makes it already 30 years, a long career! How do you keep your voice so fresh? What's your secret?
RV: You know, there's no secret. For me, the most important thing is to have a good technique.  Whether you are handsome or not, have a powerful voice or not, or whether you're a good actor, young, good on the stage - these are extra things. The most important thing is to have a good technique.

LSM: Have you always had a good technique, even in the beginning? Does singing come easily to you?
RV: People say we Latin Americans have a natural voice... I've always had a natural voice. The thing is to be conscious of what you are doing, and create a way to protect your voice and sing correctly for the rest of your career. That's the most difficult thing.  The art of singing has to be a good balance of intellectuality and emotionality.  If you are only intellectual or only emotional, this is not the art of singing. It is somewhere in between.

LSM:  Manrico is a role that's a bit one-dimensional and people make fun of him. How do you get inside the character? How do you to relate to Manrico? 
RV: Manrico is a poor guy, always fighting with his identity, his emotions. His mother Azucena is all the time putting ideas of revenge into his head.  He's actually a nice guy, an artist, a poet and a troubadour. Yes he's also a warrior but something inside him stops him from killing his brother. Manrico loves his mother and protects her to the end, even though she's a killer. The music in Trovatore is so sublime, so beautiful. Verdi is a little superficial in the last part of his duet with Azucena [Vargas sings a line or two here], but the rest of the opera, the music is incredible!

LSM: Is Manrico your heaviest tenor role?
RV: I think Jacopo in I due Foscari is harder and more dramatic than Manrico. I think in the middle of last century, Manrico was sung by singers like Mario del Monaco and Franco Corelli with their extremely dramatic voices. The later tenor roles of Verdi, like Aida, Forza, Otello, are different - these roles are heoric while Manrico is not. Like 'Ah, si ben mio' and the cabaletta, it's really bel canto [once again he demonstrates by singing snippets]  They put heavy voices to sing a role that is not really heavy.

LSM: Would you say you sing it more like Carlo Bergonzi instead of like del Monaco or Corelli?
RV: Bergonzi is a good example, a good balance. I think his is more or less the right colour. Of course people like a bigger sound, but only two moments are dramatic - the 'Di quella pira' and the last scene, the rest is more lyric.

LSM: Do you find the concertato moments are quite heavily orchestrated?
RV: This is another point - it's true. If you put too heavy the orchestra, then you need bigger voices. This could be a problem. In big houses you lose the sense of bel canto because people have to force the voice. I think it is a mistake. Trovatore is a very intimate opera. We have to remember Verdi wrote Manrico for the same tenor in Traviata and Rigoletto.  Rigoletto is very high, but Alfredo is more central. Putting big voices in Manrico the last years, but big voices can't do the trill in 'Ah, si ben mio.' It's like making an elephant dance... you cannot!

LSM:  On the subject of roles, what about Alvaro in Forza?  
RV: I've never sung that. I don't think I want to... it's really heavy. Jacopo in I due Foscari is heavy the way Verdi wrote it... all those sevenths, it makes the voice go high and then down, make the voice more difficult to control.

LSM: Do you think Don Carlo is heavy?  You sing that a lot...
RV: Don Carlo is long...I have an idea of Don Carlo - he's not a hero, he's a victim, a poor guy. In the opera, when he tries to make something good, it's bad. Verdi puts so much into the story in this opera that that it's sometimes hard to understand...

LSM: Especially in a production like this! [I point to the Konwitschny DVD on the table, with Vargas as Carlo]  How do you deal with Regietheater?  Or do you like it?
RV: [pause] you know, I think now in our time it is much more harder to make a traditional production than a new one. To make a traditional production now you need to convince the people watching that the emotions are natural to our time. There are today still people like di Luna, Azucena, Manrico. their problems are still alive. If you do historical production, you put a barrier between the story and the people today. It would be easier to put it closer to our time. For example this crazy production (of Don Carlo) with Konwitschny, I asked why, and he said "Ramon, because people like Filipo are still around. You go wherever and there are still Filipos, still killing people and people don't say anything. It happens it Africa, in Syria. This was accepted before and it's being accepted today...we don't do nothing. That's his idea, to say what happened in the past is still happening now.

LSM: The Eboli's Dream in this production is a little strange....
RV:  The idea was to put in every note of the music Verdi wrote for this opera, including the ballet, although it was never performed - the ballet was already cut in the dress rehearsal. What can you do with a ballet in a Konwitschny's mis-en-scene?  It would be impossible!

LSM: So as a singer you are willing to work with the directors, and to understand their ideas for a production?
RV:  What I want in these modern productions are two things - first, a good concept, and second respect for the story and the singers.  Sometimes the directors, like Konwitschny, cut the music, even Traviata!  Sometimes the cabaletta is cut, but sorry (the director like Konewitschny) is not qualified to cut the opera. When I did my debut of Don Ottavio in Mexico, it wasn't cut but (the sequence of the music) was changed. Sometimes they totally cut the last scene - I think that's too much, you cannot!  If you respect these principles, if the concept for the new version respects the music and the singers, I can accept making the experiments and the new ideas.

LSM: I saw a Berlin Butterfly where at the end of the opera, Cio-Cio-San stabs the baby, slashes Suzuki, and when Pinkerton comes in, Butterfly is waiting for him behind the shoji screen with a knife!  Would you sing something like that?
RV: No, that's not the story.  I cancelled in Munich the "Planet of the Apes" Rigoletto (Chilean tenor Tito Beltran took over). I couldn't do it... I said to them I had an identity crisis! I didn't know if I was a human or went back to the past, or the future (big laughs). It was ridiculous. That was totally stupid. The director is still working in opera, although she doesn't understand anything about opera.

LSM: When you were a student studying voice, did you have an idol, singers whose voices you admired? 
RV: Yes, three. One was the young di Stefano - an incredible voice.  He had one of the most incredible natural voices, but he wasn't disciplined. There was one record he did in 1948 when he was at the Met. He made a recording of Mignon, absolutely beautiful....I like him a lot.  Then I like a lot Aureliano Pertile. He was an incredible artist, his way with the words and the music was very beautiful. I heard a lot of his recording. And the third - maybe the most incredible voice, was Pavarotti, the most important vocality maybe in the last 100 years.  The way he was singing, the freedom of his voice - the voice of Luciano was totally free, you can hear all the emotions inside. Even if he was not so deep in his interpretation, his voice was like a pure crystal, you can see everything inside through the voice. You can see the fragility of the human being through his voice. I still now hear him and admire him a lot.

LSM: Other than Manrico, do you have plans for other new roles?    
RV: Now I am a Verdi fan. In the future, Ernani. Last year I did Faust in Boito's Mefistofele. I will do again Massenet's Des Grieux. I also have Cavaradossi in the future.

LSM: Tell me, when you sing a light role, like Alfredo and Nemorino and then sing Manrico, do you make vocal adjustments?
RV: Yes, what I do is when I go from a role like Manrico, I try to come back to something lighter. It happened before when I sang two or three productions of a heavy role, I didn't find my voice (to be) very well, and I had to come back. I know now I do Manrico, then I do Ballo, which is not so heavy. I cannot do any more Cenerentola, these high things...

LSM: Did you ever do Puritani?
RV: No, I never did...they offered me a few times, I even accepted many years ago, but at that time my teacher Rodolfo Celletti, said "don't do that, are you crazy?!"  I sang the last act for him and he said "very good but please don't do it. I'll tell you why. If you sing this repertoire people will ask you to just sing that, and then you'll risk you voice. Forget it, don't do that."  I never sang it, I only prepared the role.

LSM: You worked with the late Rodolfo Celletti. Do you still work with a voice teacher now?
RV: No, I haven't for many years now. You know, I'll tell you something a colleague told me once - you finish a performance, go home, clean yourself, go in front of the mirror and [he clears his throat a few times], you'll know you sang well or not. This is true. For me, after I sing a role and if my voice is too tired, I have to reflect on what happened. If I sing this role and I am tired every time, something is wrong...

LSM: So after you sing a performance, you're not tired?
RV: Sometimes....we are not machines. But it is a kind of tiredness that you know is ok. But the next day if you are like [he makes raspy sounds], then something is wrong. Your next day, I don't do anything with my voice, I stay quiet and rest my instrument. That is one of the rules I have for myself - when you finish one role and you feel it in your voice, then you have to reflect if you should continue to sing this repertoire or not.

LSM: Do you ever think if in the future you'll do Otello?
RV: No, I don't think so. I tell you why - (the timbre of) my voice is clear, but for Otello it should be a little more dark to make the character of the role.  I like the Otello of Luciano, the recording but I think he only sang it in concert.

LSM: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. I hope you'll come back to Toronto to do some of your new roles. 
RV: Yes, I'd love to come back! I like this city and the people...

LSM: That'd be great! We don't have too many Mexicans in Toronto, I don't think....
RV: That's OK... We have a lot of Mexicans in Mexico (big laughs)

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