Andrea, where is home?
My home is Ancona, in central Italy.
That’s the home of Franco Corelli, no?
Corelli, Benianimo Gigli, Mario del Monaco, Renata Tebaldi, Gina Cigna...everybody! There was a very strong teacher there, named Arturo Melocchi, leading what they called “la scuola del muggito”—the sound a cow makes [demonstrates: “Moo!”] The technique is based on making that “ooo” sound at the back of the vocal apparatus. All these singers—not Gigli, because he sang some thirty years before—had the same teacher. The school was very famous at the time.
And did you study with these people?
My first teacher, Alfio Rosati, was in the school with Del Monaco, in the class with Melocchi, and he taught me this method. For me, it’s quite natural—I’m a big guy with a big neck!
I like that, suola del muggito. We hear something like that cattle-lowing sound when you sing that amazing low F, repeating your name: “Sparafucil...”
Elise Bakketun, photo
What is your favorite Italian theater to sing in?
Honestly, the situation in Italy now is very difficult. I started to work in the States in 2000, and now I’d say that Chicago and San Francisco are my main houses. For me one very special theater in Italy is Torino. I sang my first Wagner there. And the best experience I’ve ever had in opera was there, The Devils of Loudun by Penderecki.
Sung in Italian?
No, in German and Latin. I sang the role of Father Barré, I was an exorcist, and did a real exorcism.
Cool! And it sounds like you were the good guy, for once! Do deep basses such as yourself ever play the good guy?
You’ve also sung Reimann’s Lear and Pizzetti’s Assassinio nella cattedrale...several more recent operas.
Yes, in Torino. At that time in 2000, all Italy was participating in the great Giubileo, a year-long celebration of the Catholic church. But in Torino our maestro, Claudio Desderi, programmed a series of operas against the church: Pizzetti’s opera on “Murder in the Cathedral,” a struggle between the church and power, with no winners, everybody loses; and Penderecki’s The Devils of Loudun, which involves an illicit relationship between a priest and a nun and a power struggle in the church. All year long, the operas were like this: Faust, Mefistofele. And Torino is a great city, I think one of the best cities in Italy.
It’s interesting that you’ve done some contemporary works there. You seem to come to Seattle just for good old Wagner and Verdi!
I love doing modern pieces, it’s so easy to relate to them. But I don’t do a lot of contemporary stuff, simply because today contemporary operas are mostly American and English, which means you need to speak English very well!
Have you sung in English?
No...I’ve done Sarastro and Osmin before where we sang in German but did the dialogue in English. But it wasn’t easy for me...one critic said my accent was like mafioso!
How did you get involved in the famous Turandot at Beijing’s Forbidden City?
That production originated in Florence, at Maggio Musicale. Zhang Yimou was the director, and Zubin Mehta the conductor. I sang Timur, in the second of three casts. In the video, I sing Timur’s line in Act Two, because the first cast bass was not feeling well the day that was filmed.
Actually, Sparafucile and Gilda are the only ones in this cast with real character. Yes, later he changes his mind because his sister threatens to wake up the Duke and ruin everything. But it’s true, he’s a killer with honor. You know, in Italy, in the mafia—maybe not now, but when they started—a lot of people were like Sparafucile. A killer with honor.
In Rigoletto plot summaries, sometimes they use an Italian word used to describe Sparafucile: they call him “a bravo,” as if that were a job. (Costume design for "a bravo," left, from www.internetculturale.it)
Yes, ‘bravo’ of course means ‘good job’ or ‘well done.’ It became a word for a person who you gave them lots of things to do, and then you could say ‘bravo’ to them. A servant. But in this case, we’re talking about ex-soldiers, people who had been at war. Good people become bad when they go to war; after you’ve killed one person, it’s easier to kill another. So these people can do any job necessary.
How many times have you sung this role?
Wow. Do you get tired of it?
No. It’s a great, great opera, and it never fails to move me.
One last question—I’m speaking to you on December 31, 2013, the last day of this bicentennial year for Verdi and Wagner. You’ve sung both for us—do you prefer one or the other?
I love both. They’re very different: one writes about men, the other about God. I love all kinds of music, and want to sing everything. I’ve done 90 roles, and my dream is to sing 150. I have three dream roles: Assassinio nella cattedrale again, Don Quichotte, and Hans Sachs. I can’t do Hans Sachs—my German isn’t good enough yet!
We’re very excited to hear you singing in your native language with this Rigoletto!