‘I don’t want to lose my sense of wonder’
Tenor Marcelo Álvarez on his career, his love of traditional opera and hopes for the future
Marcelo Álvarez is famous for being one of the best tenors out there today but also for his late start and meteoric rise to stardom. In 1992, the Córdoba pop- and rock-singing owner of a furniture factory decided he wanted to sing opera and didn’t back down when most people just laughed at the thought of a 30-year-old man aiming to sing professionally in opera. He often remembers how he went all out when he decided to sell his business and leave, wife in tow, to follow his dream in Europe. Five days after arriving in Italy, he went from contemplating his future on a park bench to winning a voice competition and landing contracts with La Fenice in Venice, which paved the way for a soaring career.After making his Colón debut in 1997 as the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto, Álvarez is now back at Argentina’s leading lyrical venue in a notable version of Tosca.
His late start kept him from becoming a full-fledged divo but only just: Álvarez may sound like your next door neighbour, willing to chat a thousand miles an hour about politics and life and the younger generation and Internet haters, but there’s an undercurrent there that may sweep you away before you’ve even noticed. In an interview with the Herald, Álvarez discussed modern versus traditional opera productions, ventured some opinions about Argentines and left his haters in the dust.
What is it like to return to the Colón after almost two decades since your debut?
It’s beautiful and also quite stressful. The people I’m singing with now onstage are the colleagues I started with when I was auditioning all those years ago, so it’s both a beautiful and a difficult thing. Although I feel that everyone is supporting me, this slight unease is something you always feel when you return to your home country. But overall I’m happy.
What do you think about this production of Tosca?
It’s beautiful. It’s a production that helps me connect a little to my beginnings. There’s an old Oswald production which includes the best opera tradition, the stage looks just like Puccini meant it. It motivates you, it allows you to breathe in what you’ve studied. I keep touring the world and doing new productions that sometimes have nothing in common with what I’m actually singing.
So you’re happy to work in a version that’s not modern for a change.
You know, for a while there, I would say a couple of decades around 1980-85, singers started to lose their spotlight and the stage directors emerged as the new heroes of the day, inventing new things, shooting more smoke in the halls, opening the stages.
Why has that changed?
I’d say two or three years ago a new trend emerged in Germany because everyone was starting to get fed up of modern productions, of toilets and nudes and Flora singing and masturbating on a horse onstage, which is something I’ve had to deal with while singing Dei mei bollenti spiriti, in Traviata. And all of a sudden I see Flora, and I’m like, but what on earth is Flora doing??? “No, you see, she’s dreaming and imagining…” What do I care what she’s imagining, I’m seeing her with her little horse there and there’s no way to unsee that. Anyway, little by little, people started to become interested in singers again. And that’s what Darío Lopérfido is doing at the Colón: I’m not talking about this production, but about the international singers coming in the next season and that’s a good way to start. Because that motivates the resident corps of the theatre, the entire structure, and the audience. When you have nothing, you get depressed and anxious.
How was your connection with Lopérfido?
I liked the fact that he was a man of his word. I sang Rigoletto here in 1997, and then I had a lot of offers to return but they were always tentative and got stuck at the “Let’s see” level. After the first conversation with Lopérfido, my manager said to me, “This is the first time I speak with someone at the Colón and actually believe we might reach a deal.” And we did. And I have a new offer for next year. And you know what? For me, that is magical. That’s how you change the path of a theatre. Before him, it was always like a call into the void: “Are you available?” but it wasn’t that they actually wanted you, they were just feeling you out. Then they would check their numbers and resources and decided to step away. But these people are making a play for it and I’m so glad they are.
There’s the old adage about Argentines being more successful abroad than at home. Do you feel that also applies to you?
Of course, no man is a prophet in his own land. But you know what? I think that we, Latinos especially, have a particular angle, like, “But how’s that guy going to be famous when he used to live next door? I knew him, he can’t be famous.” It’s like we have this envy but it’s not the typical envy, it’s the loss of the friend who is getting away, the loved one who is leaving us behind. We are soft-hearted and, as proud as we may be and as much as we may want to help, there’s always the pain of being abandoned. It’s different in other countries, where as soon as a person shows promise, they’re being supported and encouraged, and that’s wonderful. Listen to me, if Argentines would actually try to support their singers a little more, we would have thousands of soloists here. There are so many beautiful voices, I’ve just heard the choir now. So the problem is that we’re a bit more difficult (laughs).
Opera has undergone quite a simplification in the last decades, there are even subtitles now, for instance. What happens, though, with these supports when used with modern productions?
Do you think they’re still supports? How do you think I feel when I’m singing something not in the slightest connected to what’s happening onstage? Honestly, I can hardly stay in character, it pulls the inspiration right out of me. When you’re singing about a fontana and what you see is a piece of wood or a small car… They can’t change the text, though, as much as they may want to. Sometimes they try but I get angry, they’re not going to make me change… Or when they try to discredit the Italian or Latin essence with attitudes like, “Oh, that’s what Latinos do.”
And what exactly is that?
Sometimes it’s gestures we tend to make, passionate gestures. And they say, “No, no, that’s Italian-like exaggeration.” You know what? All of this was born in Italy, whether you like it or not. There’s this constant intellectualism and I think that, in truth, the more intellectual you are, the more you learn to accept and respect. And I just don’t like it when they want to change the text in order to bring in a naked bambola (Italian for “girl”). Once, when I was singing in Paris, I went onstage and everybody’s laying there dead and naked, with 30-cm sexes sticking out. It was grotesque! But let me ask this: why would you put this before me, I’m singing and I’ve got a dead guy pointing his thing at me… It’s disturbing. It may be modern, I’ve sung it, I’ve lived it, it’s got a heart, I get it, but it’s difficult, as comical as it may sound (laughs).
In a recent interview with conductor Baldur Brönnimann about the violent nature of Die Soldaten, he said Tosca is more violent, it’s just that people are more inured to it.
Well, let me tell you: we can’t be that hypocritical. The graphic violence on television nowadays, come on… We are living in a constant state of aggression, nothing frightens us anymore. And you know what? We’ve lost our sense of wonder. Today the Internet gives us everything, we see it all online and then, when we get to see something similar in person, we’re only thinking, “Oh, I’ve already seen this, this trick is easy.” But I don’t think that Tosca or anything that you may see in a theatre can be more violent than ISIS or what people consume online.
What would you like to have them say about you after you’ve stopped singing?
That I was honest. Because I believe that’s what I wanted most in this environment where everybody shakes your hand, turns around and stabs you in the back. I’ve realized by now that many people don’t ask me what I really think because they don’t really want to hear it.
Your career is always described as a mix of miracle and passion. What about soul-breaking work?
It was tough, I’m not going to lie to you about that. I started out and everyone kept telling me there was little point in trying. Like I said, we Argentines are very destructive of our peers. When I was leaving, nobody was telling me, “Good for you, Marcelo!” What I got was mostly “Really, Marcelo, you’re 33, no one is going to listen to you.” Or “come on, man, your voice is no good.” Very few people told me: “Go on, go.”
Well, you had your wife…
Yes, my wife, a very close friend, a couple of others but I didn’t have that many people supporting me, it was something I really had to believe in myself. It’s really strange, I mean, it’s art, it’s music, but people can be so mean and spiteful. I lived my entire career hearing that my voice would dry up by 1998, then that this role or the next would definitely kill it. I’ve been going on like this for 23 years.
But today nobody is saying your voice will soon end.
No, but they may say, “He’s broken.” But you know what, this doesn’t really hurt me because theatres don’t pay attention to these voices, theatres know the singers. This hurts young artists who see what is happening and think to themselves, why would I even try to become part of this? So many young singers chose to work in choirs today because they fear the system.
So how do you hold on to your sense of wonder?
You know, the most beautiful thing I have is that I still find myself amazed, just like a child, and I don’t want to lose that. I love it. The moment I lose my sense of wonder is the moment I become mediocre. And that’s something I will never allow. And now let me tell you why I’ve got my little system here: because I don’t want to be mediocre. I want to face it all and do my best for these people. That’s enough for me.
Where and when
Teatro Colón (Cerrito 628, www.teatrocolon.org.ar). August 26, 28, 30 and 31. Tickets available at the venue or from www.tuentrada.com.