Category Archives: Bel canto opera

have you read ‘Bel Canto’?

Editor’s Note: Since I will soon be publishing my own opera novel, I thought I’d repost a review of a very fine, award-winning opera novel.

I don’t do many book reviews on “Operatoonity,” but since we are featuring North American opera this month, I wanted to mention a beautiful read by a North American author that employs classic opera as a backdrop. 

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

The book is called Bel Canto, and for me it was a life-changing read. Bel Canto is a highly acclaimed novel by Ann Patchett that bridges literary and suspense writing. It won both the Orange Prize for fiction and also the Pen/Faulkner Award in 2002. An opera motif is a major thematic thread in the story. 

As you most likely know, “Bel canto” is a term from opera that refers to a style of singing that emphasizes beautiful tone, good phrasing, and a clean articulation of words, popularized in the 19th Century in Europe. 

More than any other single work, his book conveyed to me the importance that opera holds in some people’s lives. Granted, that could be because I’m a writer, and I respond to the language of words before the language of music. 

If you don’t know the book, here’s what it’s about:  

Bel Canto revolves around a famous opera singer who is taken hostage by local insurgents while singing at a private birthday party for a Japanese businessman. The siege takes place in the home of the vice president of an unstable South American country. The kidnappers’ plan is foiled from the beginning—their target—the president of the country is a no-show; he decided not to attend the party after all. So the guerrillas make a list of demands, which neither the police nor the government intend to meet—none of the hostages are very valuable, except for the opera singer. 

This is a character-driven piece of literary fiction with a strong plot. The inciting incident, the siege, is a riveting plot point, setting the stage for deep character development. The end is also gripping. What’s interesting about this book is that language is always in the foreground—that’s what makes it literary. The author doesn’t care whether the reader has any knowledge of opera in building the story—it’s only used as a tool for developing character and plot. 

Bel Canto does an exquisite job conveying there are people around the world with a fervent, even reverent love for opera—that the human voice is a powerful seductress and may be the best and the finest instrument in the world as “played” by some. That listeners have a deep and visceral connection with opera. That certain composers and arias can awaken things in the human soul that other forms of art cannot. And of course, opera celebrates the human voice. No one comes to the opera primarily to hear the orchestra. Opera is also an acquired taste, and I like the way Ann Patchett showed how these characters acquired their love for opera, when it applied, and what about opera and opera singers other characters less familiar with opera came to love. 

If you haven’t read the book and you enjoy both an engrossing read and classic opera, you absolutely must put it on your reading list.

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Spanish tenor Albelo replaces JDF in Bellini’s ‘I Puritani’

Celso Albelo replacing JDF in 'I Puritani' this month

Tenor Celso Albelo will travel to Japan this week to take the lead role in the opera I Puritani  vacated by Juan Diego Flórez.

According to his website, Flórez broke a small blood vessel on a vocal cord after swallowing some sea water which is not a serious injury but does preclude him from singing.

Albelo will be touring Japan with the Bologna Teatro Comunale alongside Italian soprano Desirée Rancatore.

The production, written by the quintessential composer of bel canto opera Vincenzo Bellini, will be directed by Pier’Alli and conducted by Michele Mariotti. It will premiere at the Biwako Hall in Otsu on September 11 then on to the Bunka Kaikan in Tokyo for two performances on the 17th and 21st.

Albelo’s tour of Japan precedes a season of European debuts including  performances with the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London (La Sonnambula), the ABAO in Bilbao, (Spain, L’elisir d’amore) and the Valencian Palau de les Arts (Spain, Thäis).

Celso Albelo in I Puritani / photo c. P. Stanzione

Other upcoming performances include a return to Tokyo to give a concert and a trip to Tel Aviv to perform Rossini’s Stabat Mater, as well as returning to La Fenice in
Venice, also with Elisir d’amore.

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For more information about Celso Albelo, visit his website, available in three languages.

 

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up close & personal with tenor René Barbera, 2011 Operalia triple-winner

Bel canto tenor René Barbera, 2011 Operalia triple-prize-winner

On July 24, 2011, two days after his mother’s birthday, American tenor René Barbera made Operalia history in Moscow, becoming the first male performer to win three prizes in the world’s most prestigious competition for young opera singers. What an extraordinary achievement!

(What a fabulous birthday present for any mom, anywhere in the world!)

After all the prizes had been distributed, René had won first in opera, first in zarzuela, and first in the audience prize. He’s still getting used to the feel of a Rolex on his wrist. (That’s the audience prize by the way–a shiny new Rolex watch.)

If you’ve seen the YouTube video of the Operalia Awards ceremony, René looks unbelievably calm and collected, like he was born to compete internationally. The real story is that he was having a hard time understanding who’d won what–because the winners were announced so quickly and in multiple languages. When no one else stepped  forward, he realized he’d won, he explained in a recent phone interview.

Quite an accomplishment for someone just 27-years-old and a serious student of opera for only five years.

As a third-year member of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center, he is swiftly establishing himself as a young artist on the rise. He triumphed as Tonio in The Daughter . . . of the Regiment for Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

“Tenor René Barbera…has a thrilling voice…His account of ‘Ah! mes amis’ the one with the famous nine high Cs, was tossed off with such apparent ease that some might wonder what all the fuss is about.”–St. Louis Post-Dispatch

He is a 2008 winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and was a member of the San Francisco Opera’s prestigious Merola Opera Program that same year. He studied at the North Carolina School of the Arts from 2004 – 2008 and further studies include the the American Institute of Vocal Arts in Graz, Austria, and the Vocal Arts Symposium of Colorado Springs.

Welcome to Operatoonity, René!

René, wearing a logo jacket of his favorite team, the Dallas Cowboys

Can you tell me a little about your childhood (did you grow up in San Antonio?), how you grew up, and how it affected your decision to become a classically trained singer?
I was born in Laredo, Texas.  I lived there for nine years where I took piano lessons for a good bit of time.  I moved to San Antonio at 9 and my third grade teacher attached a sticky note telling the music teacher of my next school to get me into choir because she thought I had a pretty singing voice.  (We used to sing the national anthem daily if I recall correctly).  I grew up with one brother who was 10 years older than me.

My parents were both teachers and were always very supportive of any decisions I made.  I remember being told at a very early age that they will love me no matter what I decide to do with my life and will support me as long as it makes me happy.

When I auditioned for the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) I had planned on majoring in education as I wanted to be a high school choir director.  My choir director in high school, Gordon Ivers, was a great influence.  He pushed me to keep singing and never told me to hold back. always wanted me to sing more and sing out.  I’ve found that to be pretty uncommon among choral directors.  He has always been and remains a very supportive friend.  After my audition at UTSA some of the voice faculty suggested I change my major to performance . . .  I thought to myself, “Why not . . . let’s see what this is all about?”  Turned out to be  Opera. Who knew!

After struggling to wrap my head around the idea, I dropped out of UTSA and moved to Colorado to live with my brother and find work while I figured out what to do with my life.  Eventually I ended up at the North Carolina School of the Arts (again largely because of how supportive my family was and continues to be) where I studied for 4 years before starting my career as a young artist.

René Barbera, competing at Operalia, from the Operalia FB page

You were invited to compete in Plácido Domingo’s Operalia in 2011, representing the US. How did that invitation come about?

The application process is fairly simple.  I sent an application form along with a CD with 2 recordings (if I remember correctly) and waited.  I received the email on April 1st letting me know that I was officially invited to participate in Operalia 2011

How was your Operalia experience—the first ever winner of opera, zarzuela and audience prize? All high points? Any low points (nerves, catering, whatever)?
I had a great time at Operalia. I made some great friends and some excellent connections.  Being the first ever winner of all three prizes was pretty spectacular and VERY unexpected!  Mostly high points. I was disappointed with my semi-final round performance . . . I didn’t feel that I sang my best and, as a result, felt that I wouldn’t be going on to the finals.

Your impressions of Moscow? Of Plácido Domingo? Of the competition?
Moscow is a lovely city with some seemingly nice people.  I don’t speak the language but never ran into trouble with people being frustrated or impatient with me.  Domingo is truly a great man who has done and is still doing so much for the opera world.  He is truly trying to help the young singers of the world in any way he can and I am thrilled to have made a connection with him.  The competition itself is incredible.  The level of talent this year was unbelievable. The prizes truly could have gone to any one of the singers that were there!

René Barbera, The Girl of the Golden West, Chicago Lyric Opera c. Dan Rest

You’ve just won Operalia. What are you going to do next?
I’m going to Disneyland!  Okay . . . kidding.  I’m going to finish up my final year with the Ryan Opera Center at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and then I’m off to the races with some outside gigs.  Starting with Barber of Seville in Vancouver and Gianni Schicchi in Toronto.  After that… we’ll see!

What has been the greatest thrill in your career thus far? Greatest challenge?
Operalia is certainly way up there.  I don’t know that I can choose one thing . . . singing Nemorino for the student matinees at the Lyric Opera was incredible and getting to sing my first leading role ever (Tonio in Daughter of the Regiment) at Opera Theater of St. Louis was definitely up there.  Greatest challenge has to be the distance from my friends and family back home and dealing with how little I get to see them.  Also missing being the best man at my best friend’s wedding a few years back and missing my grandfather’s funeral.  We have to sacrifice a lot in this business.

Singing in Millennium Park 2009 / c. Robert Kusel

Do you have any favorites? Composer? Opera? Role? Venue?
I’m quite fond of Donizetti and lately have found myself really liking Rossini! Favorite Opera though . . .  really is anything I’m currently doing!  (might be strange to say that)  I LOVE Nemorino . . . such a great character.  The Lyric Opera of Chicago has to be my favorite venue . . . it is home to me after all of this time.

What is something most people don’t know about you, something not on your professional bio?
People who know me know this but I am a motorcycle rider.  I’ve been riding for a year now and really enjoy it!

Where can we see you in 2011-12? (A few gigs)
I will be singing Arturo in Lucia and Brighella in Ariadne auf Naxos at the Lyric followed by Barber of Seville in Vancouver and Gianni Schicchi  with the Canadian Opera Company Toronto.

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You can learn more about René at his website. You can also “like” him on his Facebook page. Here is the link to his winning performance in Operalia.




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today’s top tenors

I put the task off until today. But since it’s the last day of Talented Tenors month, it was now or never.

(It being the list of top tenors singing today.)

Strangely, there’s lots of information on the best tenors of yesteryear. Just not the best tenors performing today. What’s the cause of that? Recordings, I suppose, are infinitely more accessible than live opera performance though I much prefer to see them and hear them.

These singers range in age from 38 (Juan Diego Flórez, the youngest) to age 70 (Plácido Domingo, the oldest). Apart from Domingo, there’s no more than ten years’ difference in the ages of the other tenors selected. This is important because it presumes a requisite level of experience and exposure that can only be gained over years of time, which is why there are no twenty-somethings on this list.

So, in alphabetical order here they are–the best tenors in the world–today.

Roberto Alagna

Roberto Alagna — born June 7, 1963, a French operatic tenor of Sicilian descent. He made his professional debut in 1988 as Alfredo Germont in ‘La Traviata’ with the Glyndebourne Opera touring company. His performances as Romeo in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette at Covent Garden in 1994 catapulted him to international stardom.

Marcelo Álvarez

Marcelo Álvarez — born February 27, 1962, an Argentine lyric tenor. He achieved international success starting in the mid-1990s, his first role being Count Almaviva in “The Barber of Seville” by Rossini in Córdoba in June 1994. Four years later, he debuted at the Metropolitan Opera La Traviata in the role of Alfredo.

Plácido Domingo

Plácido Domingo — born January 21, 1941, a Spanish tenor and conductor.  His launch into international stardom occurred in February 1966, when he sang the title role in the U.S. premiere of Ginastera‘s Don Rodrigo for New York City Opera. In March 2008, he debuted in his 128th opera role, and as of July 2011 his 136 roles give Domingo more roles than any other tenor.

Juan Diego Flórez

Juan Diego Flórez — born January 13, 1973,  a Peruvian operatic tenor, particularly known for his roles in bel canto operas. Flórez’s first breakthrough and professional debut came in 1996, at the Rossini Festival in the Italian city of Pesaro, Rossini’s birthplace.

Jonas Kaufmann

Jonas Kaufmann — born July 10, 1969,  a German tenor, particularly known for his spinto roles. He was a prize-winner at the 1993 Nürnberg Meistersinger Competition. One of his breakout roles occurred with the 2003 Salzburg Festival for the role of Belmonte in Mozart’s “Die Entführung aus dem Serail.” Another significant step in his career came about in February of 2006 with his début as Alfredo in “La Traviata” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, at the invitation of James Levine.

Rolando Villazón

Rolando Villazón —  born February 22, 1972, a Mexican tenor. He came to international attention in 1999 when he won both first prizes awarded in Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, an international competition for emerging opera singers – in opera and zarzuela. He made his European debut that same year as Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon in Genoa. swiftly followed by further debuts at Opéra de Paris as Alfredo in La traviata; and the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin as Macduff in Verdi’s Macbeth.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing both Álvarez and Flórez at the Met in the last year and seeing Domingo conduct a beautiful Butterfly at WNO. I sincerely hope to see Alagna, Kaufmann, and Villazón in the near future.

What say you? Would these singers be on your list of top tenors?

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chattin’ up David Lomelí: Mexican tenor, toast of NYC!

Tenor David Lomeli

He’s an Operalia winner. He’s a recent graduate of San Francisco Opera‘s prestigious Adler Fellows program for the most advanced young singers.

As Nemorino in Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love presented by New York City Opera this past spring, tenor David Lomelí was the rising star New York critics raved about and audiences gushed over:

“Mr. Lomelí captured the opera’s potent combination of hilarity and pathos. He certainly deserved all the applause and bravos. He was, in a word, delightful.
–The New York Times (full review here)

After David sang “Una Furtiva Lagrima” on opening night (his first Elixir ever, by the way), the audience applauded for a solid minute and a half. “The choristers backstage timed it,” David said in a recent phone interview.

I saw David sing the role for New York City Opera. In my review for Backtrack, I cited his second-act aria as one the most magical moments I’d experienced as an operagoer, the kind we all pray to be in the audience for and are fortunate to witness.

Without equivocation, David Lomelí was la estrella de Nueva York. As The New York Observer said in their feature “Who Matters Now,” David Lomelí brings “Latin ardor to the stage.”

In case you didn’t know, his first name David (which he pronounces daVEED) means beloved. How fitting! This is one performer who is simply adored — whenever he sings, wherever he goes.

It seems that this love fest for David Lomelí began 29 years ago when he was born in Mexico City into a musically talented family. As a small child, he had blonde hair and pink skin, and the thirteen women he grew up with fussed over him to no end because of his fair coloring. And it seems as though all the fussing over David Lomelí has never stopped. 

(Or maybe it’s only just begun.)

Since winning Plácido Domingo’s Operalia in 2006, to this day Maestro Domingo mentors him, regarding David not only as a protege but also embracing him like family. David has been generously encouraged by many big names in opera including Luciano Pavarotti who once told David that being a next generation opera star would be much harder than the challenges he himself faced because of the acting and staging demands opera performance requires these days. He considers another very famous Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón his generational idol.

David is currently playing Rodolfo in 'La Bohème' at Santa Fe Opera / photo by Ken Howard

David Lomelí is talented and  hard-working, putting everything he has (mind, body, soul) into each of his performances. He is uber-friendly, utterly charming, and yet very down-to-earth, having agreed to be profiled on Operatoonity though he and I had never met prior to this interview.

His is fluent in English — he attended a British school in Mexico — and so his answers are his own. (No translation required).

Bienvenido, David! Since your performance in ‘Elixir’ so gladdened my heart (porque cantando se alegran, los corazones), it is such a pleasure to have this chance to talk with you.

Can you tell me a little about your childhood (besides being a native of Mexico City)–how you grew up and how it affected your decision to sing opera?
Well, in my family there was always music.  My grandmother and my mother were singers — my mom a mezzo and grandma a soprano. I was raised by them my first years. My dad plays the guitar. You can tell by the quantity and quality of the Mexican tenors, that we are surrounded my music all the time — between salsa, mariachi, corrido, cumbia and boleros we always singing. The opera path opened in college where I finished an engineer career in computer systems. The beautiful way of Mexicans to do things happened in college.

My university had a theater of 2,500 seats with  a concert series featuring artists like Pavarotti, Ramon Vargas and Gustavo Dudamel coming every year, a musical theater company that made many Spanish world premieres of Broadway shows and a full orchestra. But there was no music degree offered, so we did operas and musical with whatever student of other degrees wanted to do it as an extra credit. The opera company of the university offered to pay my tuition as an engineer if I dedicated my extra time to sing with them and that’s how it happened. They sent me to Barcelona and Milan to study my degree in evening with  musical training in the mornings. I learned a lot by doing performances, graduating with more than 300 performances in the school theater productions. It was a great period of my life.

David won Operalia in 2006, a competition open to all voice categories for singers ages 18 to 30 years who are ready to for the world’s great opera stages.

You were invited to compete in Operalia in 2006, representing the United States (according to the website). How did that come about?
You are right – the site says that I represented the US.  But, I am not sure why, because  when I won they said, “David Lomeli, tenor from MEXICO.”   I do owe a lot to my US  training and support, but my green Mexican passport does not lie.  Ha ha ha!  I am still proud to be Mexican! (The citation has since been corrected to reflect his real country of origin.)

What are your memories of that experience—being named a finalist and then winning 1st prize and zarzuela?
It was a dream come true. It was my first real competition, and  my career was starting so fast. In February 2006, I just was sneaked up by my teacher Cesar Ulloa for an audition with Plácido Domingo. By August of 2006 I had a legal working visa and I had my first musical rehearsal ever! And it was next to Ferruccio Furlanetto, Salvatore Licitra, Eric Halverson, the dear Dolora Zajick (she gave me multiple suggestions on voice and career) — all conducted my maestro James Conlon. It was wild! I was surrounded by new friends and idols like Rolando Villazon and Anna Netrebko and then — kaboom! Two months later I won Operalia. I really appreciate so much the judges that trusted me that I could represent the label of an Operalia winner, when I think they saw a green raw potential and they offered the help needed to really jump start my career.

I remember clearly the system —  I was last in the operatic round and also last in the zarzuela one. I didn’t have any rehearsal with the orchestra and I had never sang those pieces with orchestra ever. “O souverain” from Massenet’s Le Cid was my operatic piece, and it was a different version!!! And the zarzuela piece was very complicated. Thank God  Maestro Domingo was there to take care of me on the pit. An angel intervened that day for sure.  I was so nervous.

How has Operalia impacted your career since winning the contest?
It gives you a label that never goes away.  It is like being number one in a tennis rank or golf list.  It is an accomplishment that gives certain validation to your work.  And it is a very different kind of competition. Most of the competitions are judged by singers now retired or in their way to retirement. This is a competition judged by impresarios and general managers. Also there are more than 40 other scouts for management, PR and companies there. If you score high with the people that hire, then I think is a very good sign of your possible potential. Another positive difference  is that this is a world competition — you have to compete against the Latin tenors, the Russian beauties, the Korean baritones, the American superlatively trained musicians.

I think there are very few in the world that give so much money in prizes and accept singers from over the world. I was never a viable candidate because of my immigration status to compete in most of the famous competitions held at the US, so when I won this competition, certainly my career got a boost. Most importantly, it brought together my team.

Operalia and the L.A Opera Young Artist Program brought to my life my coach Anthony Manoli and my guru and agent Matthew Epstein. These men,  together with my teacher, have helped me shape every aspect of my singing nowadays. They are constantly pushing for vocal excellence, correct preparation of the roles, appropriate rest time, the suggestion of  having a little project every performance to improve something each time, and they ask me to retain a sense of every performance being better than the last. Also, of course, the help find me a lot of singing debuts. Ha ha!

What has been the greatest thrill in your career thus far? Greatest challenge?
The greatest challenge has been to understand that I was not yet ready. When I won Operalia, I was suddenly around the globe in operatic publications and magazines. I was mentioned in lists next to Ana María Martínez, Rolando Villazón, or Joseph Calleja. But I was really only an engineer. I needed high class training and on the speed of lightning. Thank God, Maestro Domingo and their family, the guys at CAMI (Columbia Artists Management, Inc.), and the people at the Merola Opera Program and Adler Fellowship Program at San Francisco Opera were there to calm me down. I needed help  to understand that this career is not of speed but of continuous improvement.

David as Nemorino in 'Elixir' at New York City Opera / photo (c) Carol Rosegg.

In truth, the greatest thrill of my career so far was the three previous bars to start “Una furtiva lagrima” on stage at NYCO for my premiere. I sensed it was the make-it-or-break-it moment for me. It was just a phenomenal rush of adrenaline and the moment that every tenor dreams about.  When I finished the aria,  it was a very big moment for me.  It made up  for years of sacrifice, lonely times when you lose yourself and then later find you in a different corner of a different city, wearing the same clothes, but speaking another language and a different composer.  It justified so many moments of tears. I was laughing and crying at the same time and I couldn’t stop for a long time after. It was at that moment that I had the sense of my OWN satisfaction with my own voice.

Do you have any favorites? Composer? Opera? Role? Venue?
I love Donizetti, and I am dying to sing more of it. Favorite operas:  Dom Sébastien, La Fille du Regiment. Favorite role: Duca d’alba. It is like Donizetti wrote for voices like mine. I adore his lines and the extension. My personality is a combination of Nemorino, Rodolfo, and Werther. So each three roles are a treat for my soul when I have the opportunity to voice them.

You got rave reviews in all the NY press after your debut as Nemorino for NYC Opera. How does it feel to know NYC is dying to have you back to sing? Are you coming back–soon (fingers crossed)?
As you know, the opera world is very booked in advance but there have been talks for me to come back.  It’s not yet possible for me to schedule a return, but I hope so in the future.

What is something most people don’t know about you, something not on your professional bio?
No one really understands how passionate I am about soccer. I have traveled the world for the experience of soccer in a stadium. I am a huge supporter of Manchester United and also my home team Barcelona. Just yesterday my country became champion of the world in the under 17 cup hosted in my birthplace, Mexico City.  To see more than 100,000  voices singing “Cielito Lindo” brought tears to my eyes so far away.

Where can we see you in 2011-12?
I start my season with the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto doing the Duke in Rigoletto, then I go to Germany to sing Edgardo in Lucia at Deutsche Oper Berlin, and again the Duke in Karlsruhe with my dear Stefania Dovhan as Gilda.  I am looking forward to my debut  in Houston Grand Opera with Maestro Patrick Summers as Alfredo  in La Traviata and also to my first major solo recital to be held in Birmingham, Alabama.  My season concludes with Bohème in the magnificent summer festival at Glyndebourne.

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David  is performing at Santa Fe Opera Festival through August 26, and is excited about Santa Fe’s upcoming Press Week (early August). He has a new website soon to launch, designed by the talented Catherine Pisaroni, who has created outstanding websites for many of today’s most renowned opera stars. You can also follow him on Twitter @davidlomelink, where he Tweets, con gusto, in Spanish and English.



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