As the Royal Opera revives Phyllida Lloyd’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth, Mansel Stimpson talks to the artist making his Covent Garden debut as Macduff...
The tenor Dimitri Pittas, a New Yorker, joined the Young Artists programme at Metropolitan Opera in 2004 and when he performed there for the first time it was not surprisingly in a small role, the Herald in Verdi’s Don Carlo. What was somewhat unusual was that Dimitri had already appeared in a major role for Pittsburgh Opera, Rodolfo in La bohème. But when we meet at Covent Garden and he looks back on those two occasions he is in no doubt as to which was the more demanding. “Rodolfo remains one of the bigger roles, but singing in my Met debut for what was hardly more than ten or twelve seconds was more difficult than anything else I had done before. It was far more challenging than singing an entire role. As a youngster coming to a big house like the Met you quickly become very humbled. There’s so much history and such a strong sense that so many amazing people have graced the stage. Furthermore, I feel that you are put in your place by people who have been working there for twenty years and to whom you are just the new guy. I think that’s a natural part of it, something you have to work through in order to gain the ability to withstand the pressures. Some will say ‘I just can’t do this anymore’. It’s persistence that you need if you are to be able to push through those years as an apprentice until you are finally recognised as somebody who has earned their place.”
Judging by these remarks Dimitri has known difficult times, but his career, albeit not the one that he anticipated when he was growing up, is proving very successful. As his name suggests, his family is Greek but his mother was born in New York and his father had come to America as an immigrant at the age of fourteen. Music may have been present in the background of their life but, save for an uncle by marriage who was a cantor in the Greek Orthodox Church, Dimitri is the only one to study music and to engage in it professionally: initially he took up the violin and played the euphonium before joining a choir. “In sixth grade I was asked if I would take part in the elementary school show, which that year was The Music Man. They had already cast Professor Harold Hill but I was fortunate enough to appear as the Constable and the Train Conductor. I was immediately hooked. I went on to do musical theatre all through school and when the time came to think about my future I figured I would be a teacher with either maths or music as my subject. Eventually I decided on music.”
However, Dimitri had a rethink on going to university. “I landed in the voice-studio of an opera teacher as opposed to someone concerned with vocal jazz even though that was my interest at the time. I had a lesson there and he said: ‘With your voice you have the potential to study opera: would you consider it?’ I said: ‘I don’t know the first thing about it’, so he gave me that famous Jussi Björling and Robert Merrill recording, which includes the duet from The Pearl Fishers. The first time I put it on I fell asleep, but the second time I fell in love with it. I was eighteen years of age and at that moment my life changed.”
Dimitri’s new plans resulted in his parents being somewhat taken aback. “My father’s response to my becoming not a teacher but a singer was along the lines of ‘What restaurant are you going to perform in?’ But my parents were very, very proud when they saw me perform for the first time – that was when I was twenty-two and in university and the opera was La bohème.” The studies that Dimitri put in subsequently took him to the Crane School of Music in upstate New York and to McGill University in Montreal, the latter being where he studied with William Neill with whom he still consults. In his last year at Montreal Dimitri appeared with Highland Park Opera of Chicago and on graduation went to Santa Fe. That was in 2003 and it was at auditions there that he was heard by Christopher Hahn, artistic director of Pittsburgh Opera, who offered him Rodolfo in La bohème. Also out of that came an invitation to audition at Houston Opera, but his failure to make it past the semi-finals caused him to reassess his position. “I was so upset that next day I called up the Met and asked if I could come and audition as a Young Artist, and I got in.”
For all the pressures there, he is now very positive about this phase of his life. “What we were offered at the Met was very complete. We had wonderful music coaching and we had languages. It was a great part of my life and I wouldn’t change any of it since it enabled me to be where I am now and where I hope to be going.” It was on his return to the Met that Dimitri first appeared as Macduff in Macbeth, the role that he is now reprising at Covent Garden following appearances in the part elsewhere. But before discussing Verdi’s opera we talk about Dimitri’s repertoire, notable for a mix of standard works and of rarities. He is regularly seen as Rodolfo and Alfredo (he recently did La traviata in Berlin) while the Duke in Rigoletto and Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore are favourite parts. But he has appeared in Salieri’s Falstaff in addition to Verdi’s and was Reverend Parris in Robert Ward’s opera of The Crucible. In the concert-hall he may be bowled over by Verdi’s Messa da Requiem (“I would kill to do it any time!”) but is also enthusiastic about Dvořák’s Stabat Mater and Théodore Dubois’s Les sept paroles du Christ (“The Dubois is a wonderful piece – it’s lush and ultra-romantic and I would love to do it again”).
For singers, it’s a balance between what is chosen and what comes their way. Dimitri’s attitude to repertoire is based on two things: the need to handle his voice in a way that will help to provide longevity and the desire to retain freshness in all he does. “You need to know at what point you are, what roles are appropriate for you, but it’s also important to remember which roles are those that fit so well as to always bring you back to where you need to be. Some roles I hope to do for as long as possible. Nemorino is one of those. The tenor voice really enjoys going up and that part treats the voice perfectly from the bottom to the top. Alfredo is another role that I love to sing and Rodolfo, although it’s a very low role with the exception of the aria, is a part about which I feel the same because it suits the colours in my voice. Then there’s the French repertoire: I love Faust which I am now beginning to do more and there are a lot of fantastic roles in French opera which might come to suit me just as in Verdi I am considering moving on from the more lyrical early tenor roles to his more weighty ones. Over the next few years I hope to take on some of those as my next step. Meanwhile, there’s Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor which is one of those works which straddles the two being written in the bel canto style but containing also something of the drama of those Verdi roles to which I am looking forward.”
Dimitri’s first visit to Britain came in the 2008/09 season when he appeared as Nemorino with Welsh National Opera. For Covent Garden he is making his debut in the role of Macduff. “I’m so grateful to my manager for helping me to use this role to introduce myself to four international houses. That first time at the Met it was a kind of breakthrough role for me and then I did it in Munich at the Bavarian Staatsoper followed by the Vienna Staatsoper – in the latter case it was with Simon Keenlyside as Macbeth as it is here at Covent Garden. He’s a wonderful colleague who possesses all the strength that the role demands but also the ability to reveal the weaknesses inherent in Macbeth’s character. Verdi does a good job with that, but I think it’s up to the singer to bring it to the next step and that’s where Simon is so special. Because of that it’s a pleasure both to hear him and to watch him as Macbeth, and we have too a fantastic Lady Macbeth in Liudmyla Monastyrska.”
As regards Dimitri’s role, Macduff may be the character who kills Macbeth and saves Scotland from tyranny but he appears relatively briefly even though he has two significant moments which in musical terms count for more than his slaying of Macbeth. In Act One he discovers that King Duncan has been murdered and proclaims it and in Act Four he has an aria expressing his anguish over the killing of his wife and children (there’s also his flight from Scotland set up at the end of Act Two but he is not seen in Act Three). We first discuss Dimitri’s contribution to Act One. Macduff’s revelation of Duncan’s murder could be seen as a melodramatic moment although it is immediately followed by all the other characters involved offering an initially unaccompanied prayer to God. They may be asking for vengeance but they are also asserting their belief in divine powers. “When Macduff bursts in with ‘Orrore!’ his expression of horror could be classified as melodrama, but life can be melodramatic and as a depiction of someone reacting to the discovery of a crime it’s also naturalistic. Verdi paints it very well, and it is necessarily the starting point for the rest of the scene as hysteria turns to prayer. The prayer itself is a great piece but when the a cappella music begins it needs to build on the tension established by Macduff’s music so what I do has to contribute to the mood of the remainder of that scene if it is to be fully effective.”
If Verdi is adroit here, he seems less so at the end of Act Two where Macduff’s expression of his need to quit Scotland can be lost amidst what the chorus is singing. “How that is put across is, of course, up to the director but Phyllida Lloyd who did the original staging here is very crafty over this. She provides a very poignant scena which depicts Macduff saying goodbye to his family before he leaves. It’s all downstage and well lit and it helps the audience to recognise who it is when Macduff reappears at the start of Act Four. It’s done with action and not through singing but it brings out my character a little bit more which I think is helpful. This is the first of the four productions of Macbeth in which I’ve appeared where this has happened.”
In praising Phyllida Lloyd, Dimitri also refers to the fact that his Met Macbeth was staged by Adrian Noble. “He is associated with the Royal Shakespeare Company and doing my first Macduff with him was a great experience for me because he obviously had an extra insight into the character beyond what Verdi provides. There are, indeed, some similarities between this production and his which I like and which may be related to the way in which the English treat Shakespeare. There is a directness and a believability to it and the behaviour and mentality of the characters are never treated in opposition to the music but seem linked to it.”
Although Verdi revived Macbeth (that being the version staged at Covent Garden) some critics stress its comparative immaturity. Dimitri does not. “Macduff’s aria lamenting the loss of his family follows a chorus dealing with the oppression of Scotland. I regard it as one of the greatest choral moments in any of Verdi’s operas. It comes across wonderfully under maestro Pappano who brings out all the pain, sorrow and fatigue of these refugees. It’s then for me in the aria that follows to take that pain and to turn it into something personal, an individual tragedy expressed through one voice that echoes the wider suffering.” For a few minutes here Macduff commands the stage and Dimitri is grateful for what Verdi has given him. “It’s a wonderful role not least for a debut, because the weight of the show isn’t on my shoulders even though the start of Act Four is a pivotal moment dramatically. For three Acts the audience hears all that drama and tension expressed between the soprano and the baritone and then they are ready to respond to a tenor. So I just kind of come in and do my thing and hopefully when they leave the house the audience will be saying ‘I’d like to hear that voice some more’. So with luck I will be back to show what I can do.”
Macbeth – Nine performances at mostly 7.30 p.m. from Tuesday 24 May to Saturday 18 June 2011 [7 p.m. on the 18th]