A Tale Of Two Otellos
Gary Hollander, Entertainment Today, January 17, 2002

An intimate interview with Roberto Alagna, the singer who recently stepped in for his friend, the great tenor Plácido Domingo

Saturday, Jan. 11 at the Music Center was no ordinary day for tenor extraordinaire Roberto Alagna. At virtually the last minute, our city's great tenor, Plácido Domingo developed a severe case of bronchitis and had to cancel his singing of Act 4 of Verdi's Otello and Acts 3 and 4 of Massenet's Werther. The rest of the cast was secure, with the incomparable mezzo Frederica von Stade ready to sing Charlotte in Werther. Domingo called Alagna, who was at home in Paris, and the show went on with Alagna taking over for Domingo and Domingo conducting Alagna in the last act of Otello. Principal conductor Kent Nagano conducted the remainder of the program. There were two Otello's in one performance; one singing and the other as maestro. The operatic results were sheer magic but you had to be in the audience to realize the electricity present. The other good news is that three more performances are scheduled, two of which are possible to attend after this interview is published: Fri., Jan. 17 and Sun., Jan. 19 at 7:30 p.m.

Before meeting Alagna at the hotel, we first met and spoke to his charming sister Marinella who also lives in Paris. We were discussing talent and she said, "Talent, yes, but you need the passion  that is Roberto. Music is always on his mind." Then he came up to meet us for the interview and photos. In person he is most gracious and prepossessing.

Entertainment Today: Yesterday you made your L.A. debut with the Los Angeles Opera and it happened so quicklyyou hadn't sung here before.

Roberto Alagna: It was a real adventure to come here. First of all my passport was expired. I had to go to Geneva to exchange my passport. It was impossible in the American Embassy in Paris, to go there. After that I arrived just in time to do one rehearsal with orchestra and that's all! And, you know, we had no costumes. I brought something I used in the movie Romeo and Juliet, my vest and my trousers. I had to put on something and you saw the results yesterday. It worked. (Laughter)

ET: How did you feel with Plácido there conducting Otello?

RA: It's funny because you know Plácido is the Otello for today and I remember when I read his book about when he sang Cassio for the first time with DelMonico as Otello and Ramon Vinay as Iago. Yesterday was a similar experience for me, and very moving, because it was 'Otello' managing me.

ET: It must have been a great challenge for you to prepare, on such short notice, not just one role but both the Otello Act 4 and Acts 4 and 4 of Werther.

RA: When Plácido called me I was very surprised. How was it possible to do Werther and Otello in the same night? I can come to sing Werther if you want and you can sing Otello. And he told me, 'I need to rest; it's impossible for me to sing Otello but if you want I can conduct you.' So I said to call me tomorrow. So I had my night to think about this and with that I said OK.

ET: That must have been really electric to be singing as Plácido was conducting. I was watching you from the front row and noticing you glancing over to Plácido.

RA: In fact, all the time, I saw him singing at the same time. He vas very involved with my singing. I don't know. Maybe it was a surprise for him too. I don't know why but I felt that. At that time it was a real communication. It was something special. And maybe this electricity you felt in that momentit was that.

ET: Just after Desdemona was strangled I looked over at Plácido and he had this expression on his face, he was so moved. You must have seen him at the same time.

RA: Exactly. Of course we are very different, Plácido and I. We have a different point of view. And I think for him it was a surprise He knew me when I was young. It was like a new discovery something strange happened that night and for me it was the same because it wasn't the same relation between a conductor and a singer. It was more intimate. It was like if we share a secret.

ET: He could sense when you wanted to go a little faster or slower

RA: Yes. Everything was instinctive. We spoke about nothing before. It was only improvisation, but positive improvisation. For this reason I was surprised, he was surprised and everybody around us was surprised. When you have these kinds of ingredients the night is perfect.

ET: The electricity in the audience was certainly palpable. This was promoted as an evening without any staging. We pictured a bunch of music stands and scores.

RA: It was the same for me because I brought my frock with me. I thought I'd be using the score. When I arrived Plácido said, 'You know, it's difficult to die with a score in your hand, mijo. Maybe we can arrange something.' Everything was so fast and so quick and OK; today I am very happy. I think it's nice when you have this kind of miracle.

ET: You think that perhaps there is a little too much rehearsal generally?

RA: I like sometimes to be surprised on stage. To surprise the conductor, the audience, to surprise everybody and (for me) to be surprised too with my colleagues. This is real theater. It is alive. I like these kinds of challenges. To be sure I am here because Plácido is my friend. He needs me and I come. But also I like the challenge.

You rehearse too much and you lose something, the real engagement. It could become routine. I prefer when the rehearsals are shorter when there is little bit of pressure and you have to give your best.

ET: In Werther the chemistry was almost doubled because von Stade is herself such a marvelous actress and a wonderful person besides. I could see the interaction. It was almost hard to breathe.

RA: It was the same for me. I was very happy to sing with Frederica because she's such a very nice person, so kind, so professional, so simple at the same time, charming, everything, a beautiful person.

ET: Sort of the opposite of what a person thinks of as a diva.

RA: Sometimes you need to be a diva. Because today you might say, 'I can't sing' someone else might say, 'she's a diva.' This instrument (the voice) is so fragile, everything is nerves. It's a difficult profession. And sometimes you are a little difficult. It's to protect yourself.

ET: In Werther, the French was so easy for us to understand and that is rare.

RA: For me it's the most important. The diction. If I am in the audience and I can't understand the words more than half of my pleasure is gone. It's a reason I love Gérard Depardieu. When he speaks it's like music. You have to use the music of the words not only the music of the note. The words can touch you directly in your heart. La peine, bonheur, charme, (sorrow, happiness, charm) each word is so beautiful. Georges Thill had wonderful diction but today it is so difficult to define. Maybe the big halls and orchestras lead to the need for more volume of the voice and you lose the sensitivity of the words. When you sing with good diction, the awareness spreads and everyone wants to sing with good diction. The great singers have great diction. I am in love with the music of the words and I need to understand the words very well to sing well. I love the sound of Russian and German, but it's a pity I don't have the harmony of both the words and the music. I need both to sing in those languages to my satisfaction.

ET: Speaking of difficulty, it's amazing the sheer number of roles you undertake, and of varying stylistic periods from bel canto to dramatic.

RA: It's easier to stick to a particular period, like bel canto for example. You project your voice one way and you sing everything from the same position. When you choose the more dramatic you have to change the position. The most difficult is to do both. I think singers from the past were like this (doing both) and conductors of the time were used to this. Because it's my passion I like this change. I'm never bored because I do these different types of roles. And the audience isn't either because it's always fresh. You need to find the right key to these challenges.

ET: Speaking of challenges, can you tell me about your new Berlioz recording?

RA: I am very proud of that CD. It was a very old dream. Berlioz is my favorite composer. I like his persona. He was self taught, played guitar and his music employed much change of style in the same piece. It's a constant challenge. I identify with him. I am very happy on this CD because I have only friends with me including Jeff Cohen and Gérard Depardieu. I sing the "Marseillais" on it. It's very powerful. Thank God it was the last to be recorded or I could have lost my voice!

ET: I'm glad it's his bicentennial year.

RA: And sometime I would like to sing the complete les Nuits d'été.

Talking about the future Alagna mentioned his full schedule.

RA: We are booked until 2006 and are working on 2007.

ET: Maybe you could sing in the new Disney Hall.

RA: It's fantastic. I saw the models.

For Roberto Alagna, these challenges are what keep the music alive for him. He communicates this passion in his portrayals.

ET: The audience was amazed at your acting ability. You had to experience it to believe it.

RA: When I am in love with a piecewith a characterit's because I feel some relation with me. Manrico in Trovatore is maybe a Gypsy or maybe not. It's the same with me. I am Italian or I am French. What am I? So I feel this type of relation. And when you sing you feel the electricity in the audience, ready to explode. I felt it yesterday in both performances. The audience seemed especially very surprised at my first appearance in Otello, even with a minimal set.

Alagna explains that you have to give your best when the time arises.

ET: Did you have special acting training?

RA: The acting for me is at each moment. In your life you have to act sometimes, no? Because my parents are Sicilian and Sicilians are very exuberant, DeSica used the people in the Sicilian streets and they weren't actors. You have to study yourself. You know I am self-taught. I learned by myself. My singing, acting, music, techniques, everything, because, I repeat, it's my passion. I started when I was 17. Now I am 39. When I sang eight years cabaret in Paris, it was more difficult than singing opera; 12 at night until six in the morning each day. It's a very good school. There's a new audience each night, there are many languages and you have to please (the audience) very quickly. I learned a lot in cabaret. The Parisian cabaret had a lot of class. There was a new musician each night, you had to be well dressed and there was a stage. It was very important to move, to dance, to speak with people, to be in good form each night. During the day I studied opera with my "teacher," a contra-bassist. He played jazz. He was an amateur of opera. I had to change my voice each night and maybe for this reason I can sing many styles. I had a large repertoire, about 70 songs that I had to know by heart. I had many people who were my fans and followed me where I would perform. It was very nice. I made a record of that. I was at that time a small star in that world. I've composed a lot of songs. Maybe sometime I will do an album of my songs. But I became excited about opera.

ET: And your first experience with opera?

RA: My early experience with opera happened when I was 10 years old.

ET: I understand that before you were an opera singer and singing cabaret you were always singing in the family. Your father loved singing.

RA: Yes, I remember all my life singing because my dad and my uncle, my grandfather, everybody, they were singers. I remember when I was very very young9 years oldI was very shy. It was very difficult for me to sing then with all those beautiful voices and I started to play guitar to be with them. I felt protected by being behind the instrument and that gave me less shyness

ET: You gained self-confidence.

RA: Exactly. I was 15 when I started in cabaret. At 20 I decided to become an opera singer. I stopped the cabaret because there was smoke and so many people in a small space. I needed discipline. I worked at odd jobs, driver, electrician, in a restaurant. But I was lucky because I soon auditioned as Alfredo (La Traviata) in Glyndebourne and have worked continuously ever since.

My mother's brother had a fantastic operatic voice. On my mother's side everyone sang opera and on my father's they sang popular. With my uncle it was for me something not human. It was so powerful. After I saw the movie with Mario Lanza my uncle became my hero! I said it's 'like my uncle'. It was better than Robin Hood! I was so impressed. But I was discouraged at first. Everyone in the house said it's not for you. Years later, when I made a small CD and had to promote it without really singing live, I felt shy doing that. My friend told me to change to opera where the audience is real and I could sing with no mikes. That was for me. In that moment I changed for good.

As a youngster Alagna was no stranger to popular music. He had an insatiable thirst to hear new and interesting music, popular and classical.

RA: As I've said, singing is my passion. Sure it's my profession today but first I am a mellow man. I love opera. I love music. I love to listen to CDs. I love to discover new singers. I like the sound of beautiful voices including pop singers. The first voice I fell in love with was Elvis Presley. Then there is Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, voices with a beautiful round sound. Their color is warm and sweet yet virile at the same time. There is energy and passion. I like these kinds of singers. In fact, I love the human voice.

ET: It couldn't be better said than that.


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