Argentine Export – Pablo Zinger – September 2002 – from Opera News
Marcelo Álvarez is a tenor to be watched — vocally gifted, theatrically intense, handsome, Latin, opinionated, ambitious and business-oriented to boot. Born in Córdoba, Argentina, some 400 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, Álvarez did not leave his hometown — or see an opera — until the age of thirty. At that point, he left behind his job selling furniture for what has become, in a surprisingly short time, a blooming international career. He has done in less than ten years what few others do in twenty-five. Who knows what he can do in ten more?
Álvarez made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1998, as Alfredo in the new Franco Zeffirelli production of La Traviata, and this season he returns to the company as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor.
OPERA NEWS: You have sung Lucia already….
MARCELO ÁLVAREZ: Yes, I have done it already many times with much success, and I love to sing it. I love the Metropolitan production, which I have done before in Toulouse (it’s a coproduction), and to sing with Ruth Ann Swenson again, and with such a great orchestra, is like being home. I also like the role of Edgardo, the seeker of justice who fights for his love, and vocally I feel very comfortable.
ON: What were your earliest experiences in music and singing?
MA: At the age of five, I started attending a specialized school called Escuela de Niños Cantores de Córdoba, where in the morning they taught mathematics and the like, and in the afternoon we studied solfège, theory, harmony, music history and, in the last three years, music pedagogy — three hours every day, from age five to seventeen, when I graduated as a music teacher and choral director. I was practically nursed on music.
At age ten, we had the first auditions for the children’s chorus. Whenever they would ask me to audition, I feigned having a sore throat in order to avoid the afternoon chorus practice! I was very enthusiastic about sports (handball and squash), and I felt singing was a waste of time. I think it was a good thing, because had I dedicated myself to music that early, and had I been this successful then, I would not have had the maturity to face it, and I would have felt I was Caruso or something.
After school, I left music altogether and went into economics. I spent my time in sports, and my family had a lumber business, and later we went into carpentry and furniture manufacture.
ON: Did you ever perform zarzuela?
MA: Zarzuela was the second thing I did in my career. People don’t mention it, because they consider it secondary, but I don’t agree. Some of my former classmates had remained in music — one had a rock group, the other sang folk music, another sang tango. In ’92, we were spending the summer together, and they all proposed that I sing as a soloist in their groups. So I mentioned this to my wife. She called me at my office and asked me, “Wouldn’t you like to sing opera?” and I went, “What?” [Patricia Álvarez had some contact with conductor Liborio Simonella and believed that her husband had to be a soloist, rather than a member of a group.] She has always been beside me. We left a whole life in Argentina, sold everything and packed two bags — and that was just the beginning. Not just any woman would have stood what we went through.
After I started studying opera, there was a last-minute cancellation by the leading tenor for Il Barbiere di Siviglia in Córdoba, and I was asked to learn the role in fifteen days, with a cast from the Teatro Colón. When they heard me, they told me that I should go to Buenos Aires, where I auditioned for the zarzuela Luisa Fernanda [in December 1994]. I was hired as sixth in line for the leading role of Javier, and after hearing me in rehearsals they gave me the opening night. In one of these shows, I sang with Spanish tenor Ismael Pons, who lives in Menorca, like Juan Pons, who was organizing another zarzuela, Marina. Ismael recommended me, and that’s how my whole European career started.
Zarzuela was a very nice experience for me. You have to sing and speak in the same vocal position, which is not easy. And the vocal writing is difficult. There are very brusque breaks of the tessitura, and if the voice is not very well trained, it can be damaging. In spite of that, I love the genre and had a lot of fun singing it.
ON: Brian Kellow of opera news saw you in 1995 in Turkey, in the Yapi Kredi International Leyla Gencer Voice Competition.
MA: I can’t believe he was there! This was a very nice experience. I had arrived in Italy, and I auditioned there and was recommended to Leyla Gencer. I went and won the second prize, and she was always very supportive.
ON: I have heard that you enjoy popular music, and you have recorded a tango record of the music of early-twentieth-century tango singer–composer Carlos Gardel.
MA: Our generation — I am forty now — was not interested in tango. When the military government fell, the youth of Argentinawent toward rock and protest songs. We felt that tango was about destruction and crying, and we did not want those negative vibes.
ON: What about Piazzolla?
MA: I heard Piazzolla with his quintet, live in Córdoba once, and I loved it. I fell in love with his energy, with his way of projecting it without even moving. I felt his music was much more current.
ON: How did the Gardel project come about?
MA: Sony proposed to me three times to make a tango record. I was reluctant, but they explained that the musicians and arranger [Jorge Calandrelli] involved would be very serious, and that the style would be more Piazzolla. I thought that if Luis Miguel, Julio Iglesias and Plácido Domingo had done tango records, why shouldn’t I? And I am happy for the repercussions of the project, because now that
I am better known, Gardel records sell in larger numbers. I did not want to imitate Gardel but to introduce the music of Gardel to the opera public. And if I have to do more crossovers in order to bring young people to the opera, I will be happy to.
ON: In some of your reviews — of Rigoletto, for example — the critics emphasize your theatrical interpretation, sometimes even to the detriment of the musical or vocal comments.
MA: Bravo! Thank you. For me, today, opera needs to be credible as theater. People are sick and tired of a guy who stands and sings with arms outstretched. Today, TV and the movies show us truly real things. People want actors, and many of today’s stars are good actors with a technique to boot. It happened in several places that when I went for the final curtain, I did not get an ovation. If you really act the part of the Duke as the bastard he is, people should [want to] kill you! Next day, when members of the public or the media talk to me and congratulate me, I can see that I was successful. Or when the technicians are whistling “La donna è mobile.” At any rate, I don’t listen too much to reviews. It’s like shoes — not everybody likes the same pair.
ON: Your career has been extremely different from the usual, coming in from outside, relatively late in life. Do you consider yourself an outsider or an insider?
MA: I am very much an outsider who is now inside, because I am a participant in this change that opera is going through. We need to adapt to the new, visionary ideas of the directors, who change things drastically from the originals. All of this is good to attract young people, but I don’t agree when such things are done without coherence, or when directors come, libretto in hand, trying to figure out what comes next.
My studies of economics have helped me a lot. Onstage, I forget about business, and I sing with my heart, but offstage I try to keep a business outlook. I have refused many a conductor’s offer to sing heavier roles, since I have to take care of my only asset — two tiny vocal cords.
ON: What, if anything, would you like to change in the world of opera?
MA: I would like to increase the participation of the younger generation. In Spain, they started promoting opera among the young, and they have managed to increase subscriptions by 25 percent! We need to prepare the young before they get to the opera house, since it is difficult to appreciate the genre without some previous understanding.
ON: What was the first opera you attended?
MA: La Traviata in Córdoba, when I was thirty! When I auditioned for a teacher later that year, he asked me to sing “O sole mio,” and I did not know it.
ON: I understand that when you auditioned for the Teatro Colón, they paid no attention to you.
MA: Not at all. And the same with José Cura, Raúl Giménez and Luis Lima. They were actually in the chorus, and the Colón gave them no chance.
ON: How could they fail to recognize the talent that resulted in so many major careers?
MA: First, nobody is a prophet in his own land. Second, we are all from the provinces, and we were not part of the school of the Colón. They could not accept that people from the interior could sing better than those trained by them. I participated in three competitions and failed in all, because there were vested interests behind others, who went on to have no careers whatsoever. When I sang that zarzuela in ’94, [Giuseppe] di Stefano heard me, and he said in front of everybody, “This kid will make it. He reminds me of myself when I was young.” Everybody laughed. I requested to audit a class, and I was rejected even for that.
ON: In Argentina, politically and culturally, the investment is heavily biased in favor of Buenos Aires. Do you see a connection?
MA: All of Argentina’s problems, including the present political difficulties, are due to one thing: arrogance. Buenos Aires is the center of everything, just as the Romans felt that they were still the center of the Empire. Now we are paying the price. All these teachers who saw us coming from the interior imagined us wearing little ponchos. We feel that we are Europeans, sons of Spaniards and Italians, but we were thrown into a faraway land, and we are Argentines. Now we need to love what’s ours and support our own talent.
ON: How has the present Argentine crisis affected you and your family?
MA: I have my whole family in Argentina, brothers and father. The daily activity continues, but people have lost their buying power because of the banking freeze, and the middle class has been affected for the first time. Corruption is a big problem, and the International Monetary Fund does not want to give any more loans, because they are afraid the money will be stolen again. But now that the middle class is affected, they have greater political influence, and they will demand a stop to corruption. I hope this will lead to positive changes.
ON: You have recorded in Spanish (tangos), in Italian and in French. Since you did not have a regular opera-singer background in languages, how did you cope?
MA: Singers usually have at least three or four years in smaller, lesser-known theaters, where the public is less demanding. Not I. I arrived at La Fenice in Venice! All my debut performances were in big theaters. I did not speak Italian when I arrived in July ’95. I learned on the march. The first time I did Werther, my French was very poor, but then I found a coach, and now I am very well accepted in France.
ON: What differences do you see between the audiences in Spain, Italy, France, England, the U.S.?
MA: It’s in the applause: the Americans have a large and very warm applause, but short; Germans have a very long, sustained applause; the French have the screams of brav-O-O, and the Italian is a cold public. It seems incredible, but I have realized it is because they are quite old. You look at them, and they are smiling, but they are not expressing themselves physically. The English are extremely warm, when they like it. The public in the Metropolitan is very demanding. They hear the greatest singers all the time.
ON: Has your Argentine origin been a problem?
MA: In America you are not so quickly accepted if you are a Latin. I had sung successfully under Solti and Mehta, but when I came here I felt that I had to prove myself all over again. It is not that they don’t like you, but you have to go through a “quality control” process. They want to make sure you can deliver consistently.
PABLO ZINGER is a pianist, conductor and music director of the Town Hall Sunday Afternoon Opera Series, in New York.