“My mission is to try to give pleasure … nothing is more important than to sing” – Roberto Alagna [The Royal Opera’s Il trovatore, 13 April-7 May 2009]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the tenor Roberto Alagna as he returns to Covent Garden to sing Manrico in Il trovatore…

Roberto Alagna. Photograph: Alix Laveau

To a greater degree than is usual, Roberto Alagna’s character and outlook appear to have been shaped by the circumstances of his birth. Prior to meeting him I was aware that his parents were Sicilian so that the suggestion that the interview should take place not at The Royal Opera House but at a restaurant, Giovanni’s, seemed not inappropriate – after all, Pino’s, as some people call it out of deference to the owner, is described as “Antico Ristorante d’Italia”. Roberto is a regular customer and seems to be creating a home from home. Yet is he? The question arises because he was born in Paris and virtually all his life he has experienced what he calls a crisis of identity, the insecurity that comes from knowing that you are regarded by many as someone who does not belong.

“I always had this artistic flame inside me, but at the same time I was shy and because of that shyness it was very difficult for me to trust in myself. At the beginning I wanted to be a circus artist, an acrobat. I was then a very young child with a lot of energy. I remember that the circus came close to our house and each day I would go and watch, imitating what I saw. The boss-man even asked my mum if she wanted me to go with them to learn the trade, but she said to him: ‘You’re crazy – he’s much too young’. And I was. I was seven. However that decision did not leave me sad because my family was very important to me and I could not have left them.”

Roberto Alagna as Manrico in the Royal Opera's 2009 Il trovatore. ©Catherine Ashmore

But, despite young Roberto’s concern with family, the upbringing may not have been wholly beneficial. “My father and my uncle had beautiful voices and there was much singing in my family, but I felt that I was the ugly duckling. Their voices were better than mine and, when I tried to sing, my grandmother would often tell me to shut up. That kind of reaction upset me but, looking back, I can see the reason behind it, that she saw in my face the effort I was making and the fact that I was scared. After that, when I was ten, I started to learn the guitar because being behind that instrument gave me a sense of being protected. Helped by that I gained the courage to sing in public and at fifteen that was what I did for a year in a pizzeria. After that I had about eight years in cabaret. I’ve now heard some old tapes of myself singing when I was as young as four, evidence that I didn’t then really know what was happening and therefore wasn’t shy. But by the time I reached six or seven I had become aware and had retreated into wishing to sing only when I was alone.”

Despite the fact that Roberto’s years as a cabaret-artist found him on occasion doing imitations of Mario Lanza based on listening to a tape of his mother’s, nothing at this stage pointed to the career that lay ahead, although in this period he would study opera in the afternoons. When he was seventeen something important happened. “I started to study with Rafael Ruiz who was my angel. He was already quite old, probably about seventy, but he provided the right atmosphere and he gave me the passion. We would never talk about the challenges of singing, the dangers, only of the pleasure. He was crazy about Otello and I would sing it with him every day for years. He was so kind and when he was moved he would start to cry – that was how I would know when my sound was really good.”

This encouragement and Roberto’s study of opera led to an audition for Glyndebourne which resulted in his making at the age of twenty-two what can be regarded as his operatic debut when he appeared as Alfredo in La traviata for Glyndebourne Touring Opera (he had in fact done one week’s work earlier at an unknown theatre in France which had involved participation in five operas). But what really established Roberto was his success when at twenty-four he won in the final of the Pavarotti Competition in Philadelphia.

Roberto Alagna as Manrico & Małgorzata Walewska as Azucena in the Royal Opera's 2009 Il trovatore. ©Catherine Ashmore

Allow for the auditions at the start and then for the preliminary rounds of elimination and the whole process took at least two years. It had been just before all this that a young Sicilian friend had pushed Roberto, still shy, into making contact with Luciano Pavarotti (“he was like a god”) when he was signing his recordings. On being told of Roberto’s interest in singing, Pavarotti responded by suggesting that Roberto should write him a letter, which was duly composed, slowly and with great care, and a year later Roberto was asked to come to Pesaro.

“I thought that it was for a private audition, but on arrival I realised that it was the preliminary for the competition. I was awed by hearing the girl who auditioned just ahead of me – it was Cecilia Bartoli. Like everybody else, she did two arias but I, not knowing what the event was, had not come prepared for it. On the spot I opted to sing Rossini’s La danza. After only a bar or two Pavarotti stopped me and I, having used up my money to get there, felt devastated as I turned away. But then an assistant came up to me and said ‘Bravo’: she was explaining that it wasn’t a rejection but simply that he had heard enough for me to qualify. Later I spoke to Pavarotti about teachers and explained about Ruiz who lacked some qualifications. Nevertheless, the response was as clear-cut as it could be: ‘Don’t change the teacher: he’s very good for you’ – so that’s what I told Rafael on my return.”

Given that win in Philadelphia and the debut in La traviata, it was hardly surprising that La bohème, Rigoletto and L’Elisir d’amore soon followed. The one drawback was that despite Roberto being bilingual this seemed to define his repertoire. “I felt sure that I could be good in the French repertoire, but almost every time I suggested it I was told that I had an Italian voice unsuited to singing in French. Fortunately the director at Toulouse, Nicolas Joël, was an exception. He asked me what I wanted to sing in French and I said ‘Roméo’ and that was what he gave me. Doing it was something of a revelation in France because I put something modern into the diction and now in many parts of the world I’m considered a French tenor.”

Roberto Alagna. Photograph: Alix Laveau

It was indeed Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette at Covent Garden which in 1995 earned Roberto a Laurence Olivier Award. It was also in London that he first met the Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu – that was when he was making his Covent Garden debut in La bohème in 1992 and in 1996 they would marry following the death of Roberto’s first wife from a brain tumour. The fame that Angela and Roberto now share as opera’s most glamorous couple has resulted in the kind of media treatment more often reserved for people who are famous for being famous. But, despite such gossip and intrusiveness, Roberto doesn’t complain. Indeed, he’s rather more eager to stress the importance of promotion through publicity. “It’s there for every discipline: in sport, in the movies, in fashion, everything. So why not in opera?”

Where he does express disapproval is of public susceptibility to the media as to the press itself since he feels that too many people accept as gospel any view expressed. “For example, I recently saw I Capuleti e i Montecchi and both Elĩna Garanča and Anna Netrebko were amazing. The way in which the two voices blended – the colour, the weight, and the acting rapport – it was all like a dream. But the press got everybody talking about how fantastic Elĩna was, and at the end of the performance Elĩna got very big applause and Anna rather less so. But there was no difference at all: they were two great artists, but sometimes it goes like that and it’s just not fair.”

When preparing for this interview I noted a comment that Roberto made some years ago about performing with Angela. It prompted me to ponder on an issue to which I had not previously given much thought: what a performer experiences when the opera is in progress. Is there some kind of balance whereby in part they remain themselves and channel what they do while also to some extent being drawn into the character they are portraying? The answer to that must link up with how they view the person who shares the stage with them, and it could be that, in this instance, when that other person is their wife the balance shifts in some way. This speculation was encouraged by Roberto’s response back then: ‘It’s not your wife you see but a combination’.

Roberto Alagna as Manrico & Sondra Radvanovsky as Azucena in the Royal Opera's 2009 Il trovatore. ©Catherine Ashmore

In the Covent Garden revival of Il trovatore it is Sondra Radvanovsky, not Angela Gheorghiu, who sings the role of the tragic heroine Leonora, but Roberto’s response to my enquiry is no less relevant for that. Indeed, his comments prove more complex than I had expected and take us back once again to his childhood. “Because of my shyness as a child it was a case of my real life being a mixture of fiction and reality: for example, when I saw Zorro, I was Zorro, and when I saw Robin Hood I was Robin Hood. When I was with my mum I was Robertino, but with others I was someone else: all the time, all my life, I was playing a role. Why was that? I think that it was born of that crisis of identity that I had through being a son of immigrants and the first to be born in another country. Even in my family I was a stranger because they were Sicilians and I was the first to be French too. But at school I was always the Italian guy, someone regarded as different. I never felt that I was in the right place, nor indeed in the right epoch because in my temperament there was something romantic and nostalgic. So it was very difficult and, in trying to fit in, I would try to understand myself even as I played the role that would make me accepted.

“Today it’s the same for me: when I play a character, be it Manrico, Alfredo or whoever, I don’t really play the character. All the time it’s little Robertino trying to find in it pieces of the puzzle of my life, of my temperament, but I work the character beforehand, not on the stage. When you appear it is too late to try to be an intellectual telling yourself that you want to do this or that. On stage I am real: the sentiment I have at that moment is real, but I am Robertino who has put himself in the situation of the character. Maybe my gesture in not real and not good because I try to play with the gesture, but inside of me the sentiment and the interpretation are real. And when I am with Angela it is more real because she is my wife and I have more reality, but I love to sing with everybody because that enables me to find another piece of myself. And it’s because the sentiment has to be real when I am on stage that I cannot sing if I have trouble, as I did that time at La Scala (in Verdi’s Aida). I can’t be false and can’t force myself or my voice to do something that I don’t want to do inside. Yes, on stage I’m real and maybe it’s the only place where I am myself because in real life I am always a character who is not me: even at this moment I am playing the guy who is doing this interview with you.”

Roberto Alagna as Manrico in the Royal Opera's 2009 Il trovatore. ©Catherine Ashmore

Rather belatedly I move on to talk to Roberto Alagna about Il trovatore which, coming between Rigoletto and La traviata in Verdi’s output has less emphasis than either on arias and in that sense seems closer than they do to the world of Wagner. As Manrico, an off-stage introduction apart, he has to wait until Act Three for his solo spots even if his is the title role and I wonder if it is more difficult for a singer to establish a character in trios and such like without the benefit of some key aria. “Everything is difficult in opera, especially for the tenor. But when I sing an opera it is because I am in love with the entire opera, not only with my part, and I am such a music-lover that ideally I would like to sing everything. For me it’s not important to have an aria which I know will be a success in earning applause. The truth is that I sing first for me – it’s not for money or popularity and I don’t really sing for the people.

“It’s terrible to say that, I know, but I sing for myself because it is my pleasure – and after that I’m made really happy by seeing the reaction when the public is happy too. Indeed, my mission is to try to give pleasure to the multitude and for me nothing is more important than to sing. I’ve done it all my life and one day I could end my career and stop singing on stage. But at the same time I think that the day in which I will not sing alone at home just for myself I will be dead. That’s because for me singing is like breathing. I’m a little bit strange but that’s how it is.”

One more question about Il trovatore: is it, I wonder, a victim of a certain snobbish disdain also expressed by some for Tchaikovsky’s most famous pieces, a reaction based on the false belief that what is popular cannot be great art? “That again is the responsibility of the media and brought about by the public believing what they have been told. Somebody says that the story of Trovatore is very complicated and then for years you hear people remarking that it’s a strange tale and impossible to understand. But the fact is that the movie The Matrix is far more complicated, and they can understand that but not Trovatore – and all because they’ve picked up on this idea. It’s a pity because, like Puccini and Mozart, Verdi was a genius and, even if the stories of some of his operas may not be to everyone’s taste, the fact is that he had the inspiration to take this story and create from it a great opera with wonderful music. Do those who criticise in this way think that they are more clever than Verdi?”

Before concluding I mention to Roberto the seemingly surprising fact that he once said that the highpoint of his career came on 14 July 2005 when he was asked to sing La Marseillaise on the Champs-Elysées. The reason for his choice is rooted once again in his childhood. “As a child I was Italian in the eyes of the French people and was an immigrant despite being born in France, someone with only an Italian passport. Later I did my military service and qualified for dual passports. But even then inside me I felt that I was not one of them, not really Italian and not really French, but nothing. And then on their great National day the French asked me to sing La Marseillaise in front of the politicians and the entire country. In doing so they perhaps recognised a new generation of immigrant sons because there was I, this little Italian guy, singing for them that historical and beautiful song. In that moment I became French too.”

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