Monday, April 30, 2012

Meet Our Singers: STEFANO SECCO, Pinkerton

Today we hear from our opening night Pinkerton, Stefano Secco. Originally a drummer, as a tenor Secco has mastered the technique the Italians call ‘squillo,’ using a vocal edge to slice through the sound of a large orchestra. (No unamplified human voice could possibly outshout a huge opera orchestra, like the one in Butterfly; but with squillo, a singer can make himself heard among all those instruments.) We spoke, in a mix of Italian and English, about his career and about this curious character of Pinkerton, whom audiences cheer for his tender love-making, at the end of Act One, and boo for his thoughtlessness, superficiality, and cowardice at the end of the opera.

Welcome to Seattle! Since this is your first time singing here, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?
Yes, I was born in Milan. It was strange I became a tenor because I started as a drummer. I was playing blues, rock, a little bit of jazz, as a 16 year-old.

So you were a kid in Milan, the opera capitol of the world...did you grow up listening to opera, as well?
Yes, my passions, as a kid, were opera and drums. I was a drummer, and then I decided to study singing, and I realized that I was a tenor, just from how my voice extended up when I vocalized. I used to listen to Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti, and also French repertory, which is what I now sing.

Doug Jones (Goro), Stefano Secco (Pinkerton), and Brett Polegato (Sharpless) rehearse a scene from Madama Butterfly
Alan Alabastro, photo

So did you ever sing rock, or jazz and blues?
No. I studied at the Conservatory for a year, and about 6 months with Franco Corelli, who was living at the time in Monaco. And then I won the 1995 Competition for Young Opera Singers of Europe, and then made my debut in Rome. My first roles were Rodolfo, the Duke in Rigoletto, Alfredo in La traviata, and Edgardo in Lucia. And French opera...the first was Nadir in Pearl Fishers. Then Manon, and Faust, which I sang with Patricia [Racette, our Butterfly] in San Francisco.

Catherine Cook (Dame Marthe Schwerlein), Patricia Racette (Marguerite), and Stefano Secco (Faust) at San Francisco Opera
Cory Weaver, photo

And you sang Pinkerton in San Francisco...
Yes, and many times in Italy. I sang it at the Puccini Festival at the composer's home in Torre del Lago.

And what about the "heavier" Puccini roles, Cavaradossi and Dick Johnson and Calaf?
Yes on Cavaradossi, no to Calaf, and Dick Johnson--maybe. Next month I make my role debut as Don José in Carmen, in Venice.

Don José, that will be fun, that's a heavier-duty sing than Nadir. Do you anticipate moving into those bigger, "spinto" tenor roles in the coming years? You don’t have exactly the same voice as Corelli, but all of us at Seattle Opera were impressed by your squillo when we first heard you.
Yes, but squillo is a technical matter. With Corelli, there was the technique but also a corpo di voce [body of voice] of a good size.

And you need that corpo di voce for those big tenor roles--Radames, Otello.
Maybe with age I'll gain more corpo di voce. But squillo, being technical, is what it is, it's simply part of your's not like you apply a different singing technique for different types of roles.

Have you always been able to use squillo?
Yes, even when I was 16, it was possible, as soon as my voice had changed. But it isn't easy. Sometimes I have to think about it as a kind of head voice. [Demonstrates chest voice] This is very, very simple. [Demonstrates squillo] Not so simple, this!

What’s your favorite moment in this opera?
The love duet.

Stefano Secco and Patricia Racette rehearsing the love duet
Alan Alabastro, photo

At fifteen minutes, it's one of the longest love duets in all opera.
Especially for Puccini: such long, wide phrases. It requires a great deal of breath control and legato. [Demonstrates singing a long phrase from the duet on a single breath, and then interrupting the same phrase with lots of little gasps, which ruins the effect.] Not this!

It’s wonderful you get that space to slow down your breathing and indulge, in that duet. Do you find the rest of this opera--the wedding scene, for example--much choppier, more disjunct?
Much of Butterfly is very sparkling music: light and high and bouncy, parlando, like the carefree Duke in Rigoletto. But the duet is very, very legato.

Now as tenor, normally you play the hero.
Not in this opera. Pinkerton, I’m sorry to say, is a very, very bad guy! I think he is empty, superficial. As a person, he is like the Duke, even more so. It's a very modern personality type. It can be difficult to show this with the voice, but that’s what he’s like.

He sings about regret and remorse in his Act Three romanza “Addio, fiorito asil...”
Ok, maybe...but still he is selfish, he's singing just for himself, not for the others.

And what other tenor character would run offstage before the final scene, crying “Fuggo, son vil!” [I'm fleeing, I am a coward!]
You know, in the original version he didn't even sing that aria. So there he was REALLY superficial.

Do you worry about whether or not the audience will like Pinkerton?
I think maybe the audience loves Pinkerton at the end of Act One, after all the tender words he sings in that love duet.

Yes, it's Butterfly's wedding night, and he turns out to be a good lover.
Yes, because of that he wants to find a way to make love with tenderness, to caress her. But it’s not true. It’s just a kind of seduction, a joke.

We know he doesn't take their union seriously, because he's said as much to Sharpless. But do you think he's just assuming that she, too, understands that this 'marriage' isn't going to last? Without his having to say it?
Maybe. She was a geisha before.

Perhaps he thinks that since she was a geisha, maybe she’s immune to falling in love.
Yes. Sad, but it could be.

Stefano Secco (Pinkerton), Sarah Larsen (Suzuki), and Patricia Racette (Cio-Cio-San) in rehearsal
Alan Alabastro, photo

Pinkerton is an American created by an Italian.
By a Toscano [man from Tuscany]!

Many have asserted that Butterfly is really an Italian woman playing at being Japanese. Do you think the same is true of Pinkerton, that he's an Italian pretending to be American? Or is there anything particularly American about this character?
There are things that are very American for me: [sings] “America forever!” He has this attitude: Don’t worry, be happy! Oh, that’s wonderful! Nice to see you! So...maybe. I don’t know if the love duet is very American. That may be more Italian-style.

Do you think there's a chance for redemption with Pinkerton?
I think he will reflect a great deal on what has happened. He is ashamed: "It’s my fault, it’s my fault." So maybe some things will be better with his new wife and son. But the tragedy is extremely strong. At the end of the first act, the audience loves Pinkerton. At the end, they HATE Pinkerton. "Boo!"

Have you ever been booed, as Pinkerton?
Yes, in America! When I hear booing, I know I've accomplished my goal!


  1. I remember I saw that play - it was something absolutely perfect - i like the protagonist most of all!

    how to convert mov to avi | Tom

  2. Thank you, Sr. Secco, and Jon!!!
    A very interesting interview and a great psychoanalysis by Signoe Secco of Lt. Pinkerton. I'm sure Sr. Seccco's Pinkerton won't be secco (dry)!!! Toi, toi, toi!!!
    Win H.