What do Giuseppe Di Stefano, Mirella Freni and Fritz Wunderlich have in common?
While the three opera stars never collaborated, they had a massive impact of Joel Prieto’s formative years. The tenor recently told OperaWire, in an exclusive interview, about how these three icons of opera transformed his life completely and still do in many ways.
Early Turning Points
It all started in the late 1980’s when the Puerto Rican-Spanish tenor was but eight or nine years old. He was a member of the Coro de los Niños de San Juan, one of the most famous such organizations in Puerto Rico. The chorus was given the opportunity to participate in a production of Puccini’s “La Bohème” with the kids getting prominent time on stage in the second act. Prieto vividly remembers enjoying the experience of being backstage.
“I loved getting into costume and running around with the other kids and playing,” he said. “Of course the best part for me at the time was going to bed super late at midnight and telling my friends at school about it.”
But the revelation for him came onstage as he watched a certain Mirella Freni take the stage and inhabit the role of Mimì.
“My reaction was ‘Who is this woman and what is she doing,’” he revealed. “I didn’t know who she was but I tell you what, the power of that voice and how connected she was with her emotions just made me fall in love with opera. She changed my life.”
He has never had the opportunity to tell the legendary soprano about that moment and how much she has given him, but he certainly made that impact loud and clear to his father that very night after the performance.
“We were in the car and I told my father that I was going to be an opera singer. And he turned to me, very quiet and surprised and told me that I had to wait until my voice changed. That confused me because I had no idea what he meant by that.”
And that’s when Giuseppe di Stefano came into his life.
As a gift, Prieto’s parents bought him an album featuring the great Italian tenor singing numerous arias. Now his intoxication grew, a new desire fueling him.
“Every night I was praying to God to let me be a tenor,” he explained. “I was not even that religious.
“Looking back it was stupid, because I love those other voices now and I could have been happy as a baritone or bass. But at the time I thought the tenor was the greatest thing ever.”
The dream would come true at age 15.
“I remember being in a voice lesson and the teacher told me I was a tenor. I thought I made it,” he enthused. “It was as if I won the lottery. I had no idea the amount of work I had to do but at that point, I felt like no one would stop me. This was it. I was thinking that all those years of praying came to fruition.”
But there was still a great deal of work to do, a reality that became ever more present when he arrived at the Manhattan School of Music at age 19.
Suddenly, he was listening to new singers and new ideas. But one singer had a profound impact on his education – Fritz Wunderlich. “I think one of my roommates was listening to him and I just had a moment where I just listened very closely and I was enthralled,” Prieto unveiled. “After that I listened to all his recordings and he became my role model. For me he was someone that he understood the voice so well. I fell in love for the third time.”
Another Master Leads Prieto’s Way
Prieto’s career has since bloomed with a victory at the famed Operalia competition in 2008 and the tenor is poised for what he feels an artistic milestone this week – the role of Belmonte in “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” with the Los Angeles Opera on Jan. 28, 2017. It will not only be his role debut in the famed Mozart work, but he will also be making his first ever appearance with the company.
“I waited a long time to sing this role,” he revealed. “It truly encompasses all the things I needed to learn over the years about Mozart. It is a very complete role in the sense that it has elements the other roles I have sung like Tamino [from ‘The Magic Flute’], Don Ottavio [from ‘Don Giovanni’] and it has elements of Ferrando [from ‘Così Fan Tutte’]. You need enormous dramatic maturity in order to infuse colors to the character.”
For Prieto, Mozart has been a major “cornerstone” of his repertoire, something that he shares in common with Wunderlich, a known interpreter of the composer. Prieto has made a number of prominent debuts singing the iconic composer’s work and since 2012, he has taken on 12 runs of four different Mozart operas including “Don Giovanni,” “Così Fan Tutte,” “Die Zauberflöte” and the rarely performed “La Finta Giardiniera.” Given this history, he was asked to take on the role of Belmonte seven years ago but turned it down. Like Freni, who was known for being particularly careful with the repertoire she engaged, Prieto is very careful with what operas he takes on and when.
“You have to know that you can sing the entire opera from start to finish. Otherwise it can be a huge risk. If I have the slightest, even smallest, doubt, then I won’t do it. That’s what happened with Belmonte,” he explained. “Sometimes you have to jump in and really risk it, and I do, but not with this role. It is really exposed and I needed to wait until I was completely ready.”
Now he is ready, not only vocally, but emotionally to take on “Die Entführung aus dem Serail.”
“Belmonte is very courageous and lots of conviction. He longs for his Konstanze, but deep inside he knows he will find her. He is not afraid about the dangers he will face. He isn’t thinking about that. He is only focused on the end goal,” he explained when comparing how he is similar to the Mozart character. “I can identify with him in the sense that I know what I want and I go for it. I am not afraid about what I will encounter. When I face a difficulty, I just deal with it. I don’t think about the problems well beforehand.”
After his Los Angeles debut, Prieto will perform the role in Dresden in April, but sandwiched between presentations of “Die Entführung” will be a run of “Die Zauberflöte” in Warsaw.
Whereas Belmonte presents a new world of exploration for Prieto, Tamino is a well that he keeps returning to find new treasures. He first performed the role at the Deutsche Opera Berlin in the early 2000’s, an event that he remembers for his naivete.
“I didn’t speak a word of German and I was singing it for a German public. I was freaking out. It was a good first role because it taught me how much I had to prepare for other things in terms of style, dramatic point of view and singing,” Prieto noted. “It is extremely pure singing so you need a great technique to take on this clear passages that are very exposed. You are constantly surfing around the passaggio so you have to negotiate your registers all night long.”
His relationship to the role has since grown, with the tenor constantly finding new insight into the music and dramatic qualities of the work.
“I see this opera as the journey of mankind. You gather information, you learn from experiences and you continue forward looking for this mystery of who we are and trying to answer those questions. He’s looking for love, but he’s also looking for himself. There is a bigger picture,” he narrated. “Each time you have to find that child-like quality within and developing it throughout the night.”
(Listen to Prieto sing an aria from Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte below)
Taking on all of these Mozart operas has been of great value for the tenor as he continues his rise in the opera world.
“If you can sing Mozart and it feels comfortable, it teaches you how to sing other things that are easier,” he noted.
Now his body is asking for him to consider taking on more repertoire, ironically a lot of the operas that Di Stefano was associated with.
“My voice is now asking me for early Verdi or lighter Verdi like Alfredo in ‘La Traviata’ or the Duke in ‘Rigoletto.’ It’s asking for French repertoire. I hope in a few years I could do Roméo [in Gounod’s ‘Roméo et Juliette’] somewhere. I don’t need to rush this, but at the same time my voice is ready to move forward,” he noted before explaining that there are other things he wants to do, though those dreams will never come true. “Sometimes you want to sing something but intellectually you know it’s not going to happen. For example I would love to sing Wagner’s ‘Siegried,’ but I know that is never going to happen.”
Zarzuela is also something that he is interested in potentially exploring further. The tenor won a top prize at Operalia in the Zarzuela section and also did a run of “Doña Francisquita” in France in 2014. Along the way he got to know Plácido Domingo, who encouraged him in taking on this repertoire.
“The music of Doña Francisquita is incredible. It is a complete work, much like many of the best operas in the repertoire,” he enthused. “And I think they can be just as popular as those operas, but they need people like Plácido Domingo to expose them. Zarzuela is incredible, filled with passion and humor. It’s like an Almodovar movie. It’s tragic and comic. I would love to do some more of it if the opportunity presents itself.”
He would also love the opportunity to work with kids and inspire them the way he was inspired at that age.
“It’s important to bring opera to people at a young age and if there is a chance to change their lives the way mine was changed, then I would be so happy to do it.”