Marcelo Alvarez: ‘directos know I’m a little hysterical’ – 23-04-2010 – from TIMES ONLINE
Marcelo Alvarez: ‘directos know I’m a little hysterical’
THE SELF-TAUGHT ARGENTINE TENOR, STAR OF DAVID MCVICAR’S NEW AIDA, INSISTS THAT HE IS NO DIVO, BUT NOR IS HE A PUSHOVER
by Emma Pomfret On meeting Marcelo Alvarez there is no clue that he is that rarest of talents — one of the leading tenors in the world. He is wearing jeans, trainers, a casual jumper and exudes a relaxed informality. Until, that is, he speaks and the performance begins; every impassioned word is enlivened by flamboyant gestures and facial drama.
Blusteringly opinionated and with mild egocentricity, Alvarez makes for a wilful star and a rollercoaster interview. Born in ArgentinaItaly, he talks in room-rumblingly loud volleys of Italian (kindly translated by the Royal Opera House press officer). and now living in
He is in town for Verdi’s Aïda, directed by David McVicar. It is Alvarez’s debut as Radames, the heroic Egyptian general caught in a love triangle between Aïda, a prisoner, and the scorned princess Amneris. This will be Covent Garden’s second new Aïda in seven years, which goes to show what a tricky customer the work can be. Do you go with sandals, elephants and wiggling beards or a stark Noh theatre concept, like the one that bombed for the ROH in 2003? More to the point, what would Alvarez prefer, given that he’s a self-confessed “old-fashioned and traditional singer” with little time for off-the-wall directors.
Covent Garden can breathe a sigh of relief because the McVicar magic is working. “I’m very engaged with the production,” Alvarez announces, explaining that this Aïda is no “earthy” Egypt but a mix of evocative ancient traditions: Aztec Mexico, Ancient Greece and samurai warriors. “It looks a little like Stargate [the sci-fi TV series],” he beams.
“Everything in the text is there — war, the tomb, human sacrifices — but you don’t see it. You feel it. David is the only one who thinks really forward and who has the courage to convince us to do these things. He understands Verdi!” Alvarez is glowing with an artistic crush.
In just 15 years — minuscule in opera time — Alvarez has claimed his spot in the exclusive tenors club alongside Rolando Villazón, José Cura and Juan Diego Flórez. This achievement is all the more incredible because Alvarez didn’t start singing opera until he was 32, selling the family furniture business in Córdoba, Argentina, and moving to Italy in 1994 with his wife and son to study singing. After one week he’d won a singing competition, and within a month he was snapped up by La Fenice, the celebrated opera house in Venice.
A classic Verdi and Puccini tenor — he has heroism, passion and rich melody on tap — his old-school style is compared to Pavarotti. At times he has the stagey gestures to match. For his debut as Radames, he’s finding a softer tone, which is sure to surprise the Verdi faithful.
“Normally Radames is sung with a big warrior voice: ‘Wah, wah, bah, bah!’ ” Alvarez barks like an hysterical seal. “But he dies for love. What kind of soldier is this? David is trying to show this humanity with my voice … but it was my intuition,” he adds, eager to assert his own artistic intelligence.
This will be the fourth new role that Alvarez has unveiled at the ROH, where he clearly feels comfortable. “When I debut in a role I need the theatre to believe in me. I need to feel cuddled and looked after. I decided to have my debut here because of Nicola [Luisotti, the conductor] and David. He knows my voice; he knows my body. He will do what’s best for me.”
Doesn’t a director always do that, I ask, knowing full well that Alvarez has had his share of directorial clashes. “No,” he says, gravely. “I’m always having to quarrel; the costumes don’t suit my body, the director sends the singer far — far! — from the audience, to the back of the stage, and this loses contact with the audience.”
Make no mistake, he believes that the singer is the star and should be showcased, not pushed out of his comfort zone by some intellectual concept. Alvarez almost walked out of Christof Loy’s staging of Lucia di Lammermoor seven years ago. Booed by the audience, it updated Verdi to the 1920s, with an orgy to boot. “I told the theatre three times I was going. I suffer so much!” Alvarez declares, wheezing and gasping theatrically as he remembers the smoke-filled stage. “I cried a lot. Is the smoke more important than the tenor? This is not right.”
He’s beginning to sound like a divo, I say. “No, no, no! I’m not a spoilt child! I don’t do it all the time. But I don’t want things imposed on me, like I’m a machine.” So instead, now 48, he will hand-pick his directors. “I’ve got no patience,” he says unapologetically. “I don’t know how long I have left and I want to spend these last few years in my own way, peacefully.”
Face to face, Alvarez’s passion is invigorating but quickly exhausting. A few years ago he was racing through new roles: Cavaradossi in Tosca, Don José in Carmen, Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera. On reflection, he says he was “pushing very hard in everything”.
“I was too perfectionist and I was pushing the voice. Maybe I was hurting myself more,” he says. He hasn’t slowed down — his schedule is full to 2015, including another almighty Verdi debut as Alvaro in La forza del destino — but he is calmer now. “I accept myself as I am; I have certain limits and certain qualities.” What, exactly? “I don’t have the body of a young man, but I’m athletic. I can move well on stage.”
A part of Alvarez seems to hanker for the erstwhile days of grand opera, when Franco Corelli and Maria Callas were like film stars, transcending worldly anxieties. He talks wistfully of restoring “opera grande”, regarding the current changes in opera as a crisis, not an opportunity. “We have many sufferings,” he says of his colleagues, and lists the collapse of CD sales, elusive DVD royalties, cinema screening rights and low wages.
“When I do a concert performance I don’t earn as much as Pavarotti did in the 1980s,” he begins. “The top fee [at an opera house] was fixed 12 years ago and it hasn’t changed. But we have to pay taxes at 40 per cent, agent fees, hotel bills, apartment bills have gone up … there’s nothing left. I’m not poor, but I’m one of the top tenors in the world and I don’t have the life of one of the top tenors in the world.”
Sorry, I say, but few punters will extend you much sympathy. “The audience think we are capricious billionaires; 20 or 30 years ago, yes, but not now. It’s not true.”
More relevantly, Alvarez argues that if he or a fellow super-tenor such as Roberto Alagna earn the maximum — which, he says, isn’t enough — the effect trickles down. “Young artists sing for £500 a month, in all opera houses; how can they survive?” Alvarez may be traditional, but he is shaping up to be a tenor not afraid to blow a few taboos and speak about the reality behind opera’s glossy veneer.
His greatest vitriol is reserved for opera bloggers, whose continual criticism and sniping gossip, he says, damages singers. “Perhaps you sing one bad performance and these websites attack and blow it out of proportion. They always write: bad, bad, bad!” he rants, drowning out the translator in English. “Some artistic directors read these sites and a lot of contracts go.” This hasn’t happened to him, and he cannot give me a direct example but, he says: “I know it has happened. This is the real cancer of our opera world.”
Of course, Alvarez can safely make these claims because he is one of opera’s biggest names, part of the exclusive tenor club. What does he feel distinguishes him from Villazón, Cura and Flórez? “I don’t come from the world of opera so I don’t have the traumas that many singers have. They’ve studied in conservatoires, where you listen to past singers and you want to be like them. But I don’t have that. I sing instinctively, the way I want to sing.”
And this, he explains, produces his other distinguishing characteristic: “All directors know that I am a little hysterical because I’m the one who always says what I think. That’s a problem.
Just as Alvarez hand-picks his directors, have some directors — to borrow an operatic cliché from Gilbert and Sullivan — got him on their list? “Yes, but very few. It’s more me versus them,” he laughs. “There are not so many tenors so they have to accept me the way I am.”