Monday, October 3, 2011

Meet Our Singers:
LUIS CHAPA, Don José

Today we get a chance to speak with Mexican tenor Luis Chapa, who is making his US debut as Don José in Seattle Opera’s production of Carmen. Chapa shares the insights his career as a civil engineer gave him into this great role, and tells us about his flirtation with Wagner as well as how his career has finally led him back to the western hemisphere.

Many Mexican singers focus their careers at home or in the United States. You took a different path.
It's true, I thought, first, it’s better not to follow the road that is already well-traveled. And secondly, I had a hunch that, after all, opera is a European art. And ten years of study and working there proved that I was right. I established my career there, and now come here.

Luis Chapa as Don José rehearses a fight scene with Michael Todd Simpson as Escamillo (Alan Alabastro, photo)

This Carmen is your US debut, although you've already sung in Mexico.
Yes, earlier this year. When I had enough roles to stand out, and decided it was time, I sang Manrico in Il trovatore, in the north of Mexico, near where I grew up.

And where is that exactly?
I was born in Monclova, in the north of Mexico, in Coahuila. I grew up and went to university there.

Is that very urban, or remote?
There’s a million people in Monclova...so I guess for Mexico, it’s small! It’s not far from the border with Texas. Long ago, Monclova was the capitol of a state called “Coahuila and Texas,” but after the Mexican War, when the United States got Texas, the capitol went to another place.

Is opera a big deal in that part of Mexico?
No. There are music schools. And stylistically, folk music is very operatic down there. As for me, I studied civil engineering, graduated, and started a company. But at the same time I was also taking singing lessons. When I graduated, I wanted to give myself a chance, to try and see if I could sing. I closed my company--a construction company, you know, you can open and close at any time--and focused on studying voice.

Chapa shares a smile in rehearsal with YAP baritone Joseph Lattanzi, who plays Moralès (Alan Alabastro, photo)

And that’s when you moved to Europe?
I moved to Germany, studied there for a year, and then moved to the UK, to Manchester, where I had a scholarship from the Royal Northern College of Music. After that I decided to live in London. When I sang the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition I got a lot of opportunities.

What’s your favorite role?
There are many, but they have the same denominator: drama. One of my favorites is Don José. I love the story of the decay of the man...how José deteriorates from the first moment. It can be hard to have sympathy for such a man, it’s hard to say, “He’s charming!” Unless you have a similar story.

Have you ever known anybody like José?
To a degree. I knew someone who left his wife and family to follow another woman, and as soon as he moved with her, she moved on to another man. A similar story to Don José’s.

Anita Rachverlishvili and Luis Chapa (Alan Alabastro, photo)

How similar?
He didn’t kill her, of course! But the pain and the suffering he experienced, and shared with me over many...bottles of tequila! (laughs)

Do you have anything in common with José yourself?
Well...I suppose I am also of Spanish descent...

But the character is French.
Don José comes from Navarre, in the Basque country. If you know any Basque person you would say they are very strong, very centered. If you know anything about building, you know that the harder the material, the easier it breaks. Don José is like that. Also like myself Don José is a deeply religious person.

I love the line in the final duet when he tells Carmen, “I gave up my soul’s salvation for your sake!” So many feelings, at once.
He knows he is lost, but he cannot help himself. I think any one of us, given the right motivation, could follow him into that abyss.

Rehearsing the Seguidilla (Alan Alabastro, photo)

And your other favorite roles?
Another role that I love, which is similar, is Otello.

He deteriorates the same way.
Yes, I like those kind of characters. Laca in Jenůfa is one of my favorite parts, too.

What about a role like Calaf in Turandot? That story goes in the opposite direction.
Yes, and something interesting about telling that kind of story: if you take that character but only go from 90% to 100% it’s dull. But if you show him really climbing the ladder, going from 10% to 100%, then I love it.

Do you consider yourself a Wagner tenor?
I love Wagner, love to sing some of those roles. I’ve sung Erik, Tannhäuser, and I hope to do Lohengrin--his Italianate tenor parts. These roles are very fulfilling as an actor. Most of all, Tannhäuser...the character really appeals to me.

Tannhäuser goes through that same deterioration process you mention with José and Otello.
Yes, particularly in the final scene. Plus, as a sports fan, I love the fact that you have to sing that part after you’ve already been singing for two hours.

Speaking of that: did you grow up paying any attention to bullfighting?
We raise lots of cattle in the north of Mexico. We don’t have bullfighting, which happens in some places in Mexico, but we do have a tradition called “Charrería,” a little like rodeo--it evolved from how cowboys used to mark the cows. You don’t kill the bull or the cow. I’m not so sure if I approve of bullfighting.

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