Nine house debuts in one season. That’s a pretty daunting task for any artist, especially when considering the pressures that come with each individual one of those contrasting environments. But imagine making those house debuts while making role debuts. It’s one thing to try out a new opera in a familiar place, but to do it where you have no idea how your voice will work? That’s tough.
It’s what tenor Rene Barbera has been up to for the better part of the 2017-18 season. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that it has defined his season.
The Texas-born artist began 2017-18 making a debut at the Deutsche Oper Berlin before going home to his Dallas Opera debut. Then came debuts at the Semperoper Dresden and an unscheduled Opernhaus Zurich debut.
The debut journey continued at the Bayerische Staatsoper and now, the tenor is headed for his seventh house debut of the season at the opera house of all opera houses – Teatro alla Scala.
But it doesn’t end there as he makes a stop at the Palau de Les Arts in Valencia for his eighth debut and concludes the series of first-time appearances at the Stuttgart Opera.
How would you feel about that trajectory over the course of one year?
“It didn’t register that I had nine debuts until I looked at my season finally and there was a moment that I said, ‘I see I have a lot of debuts. That’s kind of interesting,’” the tenor told OperaWire in a recent interview. “Otherwise it’s just kind of business as usual. I started out my career making a whole bunch of debuts and it continues so I’m kind of used to it now. I’m excited about all of them.”
For a season filled with so many debuts, it’s hard not to be excited about all of them. But of course, some carry extra enthusiasm.
“The Bayerische Staatsoper is a pretty big deal. It’s kind of like an audition. You don’t sing a brand new production there until you have sung something else there. It’s a very important company in Europe.“
While those two are considered the most important of the bunch on paper, there are a few others that have more sentimental value attached for the tenor.
“It was great to debut in Dallas and I’ve been wanting to sing more in Texas because I am from Texas. It was really a surprise because I stepped in last minute and it was a great time. It was great to be home and my family came to see it and that was a blast,” he noted. “It was also exciting to make my Opernhaus Zurich debut. That was also a surprise because I got a call for that two days before the rehearsals began and it went well. It’s an exciting season and I am thrilled to get through the rest of it.”
A Legendary Debut
With all that said, Barbera knows that no debut that he is making this year comes with greater responsability than the one at Milan.
Most artists will tell you that making debuts at La Scala can be intimidating. After all, this is the place that has seen some of the world’s most prestigious artists booed and jeered. It’s the place where some of the most important operas in the repertoire made their world premieres.
Barbera, however, isn’t really thinking about any of that.
“I try not to let that come into play. Usually, it happens sometimes right before I go on stage or a few days before when I’m in the dressing room. It has happened and the one that really got to me was the first time I sang in Europe. It happened in Naples. When you stand out in that theater and see beautiful architecture and the incredible house. There is that moment when you ask yourself, who has been on that stage in this exact spot. There is a little bit of that.”
There was another major occassion that got him thinking in a similar fashion – his Metropolitan Opera debut.
“I remember the day very clearly because normally I’m relaxed sitting at home on the couch doing nothing. But my phone, by noon, had something like 200 notifications congratulating me in advance and wishing me good luck. By 2 o’clock, the weight of that hit me and I realized this is a huge deal. And it’s one of those moments where I was freaking out and I called my voice teacher and told her this never happened to me and I don’t freak out. I’m very calm. For me, what’s the worse that could happen? I make a mistake, I screw up, crack a note and okay. I wouldn’t be the first or the last and no one dies. I’m going out to sing and the worst is that I can make a fool of myself. That doesn’t bother me and when that happened at the Met, it was a whole other level.”
Having had that experience, Barbera is a bit calmer when it comes to La Scala.
“I have the Met experience so I don’t think it will really weigh on me too intensely. For me, La Scala debut is a huge deal and it’s always something I have dreamed of.”
With his debut at La Scala, Barbera will have the opportunity to work with a former collaborator and a new one. He will open a new production of “Don Pasquale” by David Livermore, with whom he worked at the Rossini Opera Festival in 2016. He will also get the opportunity to work with conductor Riccardo Chailly for the very first time.
“He’s a big deal. He’s an important conductor and has a wonderful reputation and from what I understand, [he’s] a great musician. I am looking forward to working with him very much.”
For Barbera, the opportunity of working with Livermore again is important he knows what to expect, making it easier for him to concentrate on keeping things simple.
“It’s not something that’s been on my mind. The debut is the important part. I’ve always been in good productions so that has never been a huge problem for me. I guess that if I was making a huge debut and the public hated the production then that might change my mind about that. So far that has not happened and it’s business as usual.
For his final debut in Stuttgart, the tenor will return to a role he’s only done once – Arturo in “I Puritani.”
“I remember the first time I learned ‘Puritani,’ my brain was having a hard time,” the tenor revealed. “I was like ‘Okay, I’m singing this line, I’m singing this line. Wait what key am I in? What just happened?’ Because you’re expecting it to follow a typical pattern like you almost rely on what you’re singing and know where the phrase is going and where we’re going to end up harmonically. That’s what happens with Donizetti, Rossini, and even Mozart. But with Bellini it’s a whole other monster. It’s a great challenge.”
Bellini’s music also requires several high notes that were originally written. One such note in “I Puritani” is the famed High F in “Credeasi Misera” which is sometimes skipped by tenors. Barbera is playing coy on what he might do this time around.
“I did performit in Paris and I think I’ll perform it in Stuttgart again this time, unless the conductor says otherwise. It’s a bit of a challenge and I must admit I don’t often think of the high notes. I just do them. But when I went to Paris I did think about it every night. Is it there? Will it be there? Especially because it’s towards the end of the opera, so there is always a bit of concern.
“So, it is unfortunate because it does take up a lot of your mind and your mental space when your singing that and you know you’ll be singing that High F.”
But Barbera is also conscious that high notes shouldn’t be the only thing on his mind when singing the repertoire. He believes that no matter what Bel canto role you sing, it is about creating a character and following a story.
“It’s a matter of focusing on the text and your characterization and what’s going on in the storyline. Without any of that, it’s very easy to lose track and try to be flashy. You try to make music as best you can and incorporate dynamics as best you can.”
A Rossini Marathon
Throughout this season, the tenor has been taking on one of the composers that has come to define his career – Rossini. Unlike the Bellini, his characters in Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” “La Cenerentola,” and “L’Italiana d’Algeri” all figure into comedies. But what Barbera finds most refreshing about all three is the fact that they are so different.
“With Almaviva [Barbiere] you have multiple characterizations that are very distinct from each other so at some point you have a weird voice. Combining those two is slightly easy. With Don Ramiro [‘La Cenerentola’], it’s very easy to let him become a one-dimensional character because he’s angry all the time. So, the challenge is to make sure you do afford those beautiful moments between the singing, the character, and music to shine through. That is easy to forget. With Lindoro, he is very different from all of them. He doesn’t really do much. He is kind of a victim of circumstance, so he doesn’t really motivate anything. He is a slave, and everything is kind of miserable and when she arrives, things are great. She takes care of everything and he is kind of floating around. “
Within the comic timing, the tenor also must find time to sing the incredibly challenging coloratura runs Rossini wrote. And while all three operas might have a similar style vocally, there is one that stands out as the most difficult.
“With ‘Italiana,’ it’s a whole another animal. I much prefer the second aria because the first aria is a total beast and it is so difficult, and the coloratura is insane. You hit High Cs and Bs in the middle of runs at one point and it’s kind of a relentless aria followed by a relentless duet. I always look forward to the end of the first aria because then I know I’ve survived it.”
But “Barbiere” is not necessarily easy.
“’Barber of Seville’ has always been somewhat of my arch nemesis. It’s a very difficult role to sing because there is plenty of middle of the voice singing as well as lots of highs. And when you incorporate ‘Cessare piu resistere,’ which I do, it turns the entire piece into a different animal altogether. But I do enjoy the characterization because he is a funny guy and he gets to do a lot of interesting things.”
Of the three roles, he finds Don Ramiro in “La Cenerentola” the most comfortable.
“I love singing Ramiro. With Ramiro, he’s always angry. That’s kind of easy to portray and it goes well with the coloratura. It’s much more naturally written, and he’s got the really beautiful aria in the second act.”
Outside of his many debuts, Barbera will also get a chance to explore the Mozart repertoire, which he admits has weirdly been absent from his schedule, even though he enjoys singing it.
To this day, Barbera has only done two of his works including Tamino in “Die Zauberflöte” and Tito in “La Clemenza di Tito,” which he will represent at the Palau de les Arts for his second-to-last house debut of the season.
“The truth is nobody has ever hired me for Mozart. I really like Mozart and his writing poses a different type of challenge, but I’m always interested in challenges to continue growing and learning. I mean, I understand that people see me as an Italian singer, but there are plenty of Mozart works that are Italian.”
And Barbera believes the lack of offers for Mozart has to do with the fact that he is one of the few tenors currently dominating the Rossini repertoire, a rare breed in the industry.
“There are not many Rossini tenors in the world and the thing is, I don’t consider myself a Rossini tenor. I am a lyric tenor who happens to have coloratura, but that is something that I developed and it’s something that still doesn’t come easy.
So returning to “Tito” will give Barbera a chance to showcase a different part of his vocal talents.
“Mozart is quite different from Bel Canto and this particular role is quite different. It is lower than the high flying Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. But I can do it. I have a decent middle voice and it has some coloratura. There is a lot of legato singing and it has quite a lot of recitative and that is the thing with Mozart that stands out. There is quite a lot more recitative than other things.”
Barbera is still young and there is still a lot he wants to do. While he admits the roles he is singing right now are part of his dream roles and he enjoys singing Bel Canto, he wants to explore new repertoire.
“I just debuted Alfredo in ‘La Traviata,’ and I want to do the Duke in ‘Rigoletto.’ I really want to sing Rodolfo in ‘La Bohème,’ and Nadir in ‘Les Pêcheurs de Perles.'”
But there is still lots of Bel Canto Barbera still wants to do.
“I want to sing more Bel Canto like the Three Tudor operas. I sing quite a lot of Rossini and I don’t really consider Rossini Bel canto. When you compare his writing to Donizetti, Bellini, and even Verdi, it’s totally different. I would say Rossini is closer to baroque. The coloratura aspect is 70-80 percent coloratura while Bellini and Donizetti, it’s not. There are more legato and lines of phrasing. I want to sing more legato bel canto.”
But the one role he hopes to bring to some of the major theaters is Nemorino in “L’Elisir d’Amore.”
“I have only done a couple of times at regional opera companies. My dream role is Nemorino and I want to sing it in bigger houses. I love that role. I love the entire opera. Thankfully, I’ve done it and I hope there are more coming. It is the big one for me.”