How do you balance a career in opera with a high-profile presence in musicals and cabaret?
While crossover is frequent among many artists, it is rare to see a singer split his or her time between opera and musicals.
However, that has not been a problem for Polish-Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot, as his work in opera has been met with critical acclaim while he has garnered the distinction of having won a Tony Award, the highest honor for a Broadway star.
In many ways, this was always the baritone’s dream. “It was always something that I had in mind. Music, in general, shouldn’t ever be put in categories. My goal was always to sing songs that I liked. It must be music that makes me feel and I appreciate what I am singing,” Szot said in a recent interview with OperaWire.
Szot’s first career path was opera. And yet his first major success came from somewhere else – “South Pacific.”
“It opened other doors that were also a dream for me. This show opened up doors like the New York Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall with the New York Pops as well as Jazz at Lincoln Center, which was my first solo show back in 2009. After that, I was able to have my cabaret debut at the Cafe Carlisle in New York and after that, this became a regular thing along with my original work in opera, which came first,” he noted.
While “South Pacific” has been his only Broadway engagement, Szot has also had the opportunity to portray Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady” in Brazil; next, he goes to the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival for “Evita.”
Portraying these diverse roles has allowed Szot to grow as an artist and to see a broad range of audiences he would not normally be able to reach as an opera singer.
“I am glad that I can balance the Paris Opera with the Dutch Opera and other great stages with Carnegie Hall doing musicals and smaller events like the New Jersey Performing Arts or 54 Below. It’s very diversified and I love it because as an artist I can reach people from different backgrounds and share my music with them. I don’t limit myself to one kind of public and I think deep inside every artist wants to do that.”
Broadway vs. Opera
In opera, a singer must learn to project throughout a huge auditorium and fill the space. Broadway singers, on the other hand, can project with the aid of a microphone and the singing normally does not require the chest voice. From this observation, one might conclude that you need a different technique for each. However, Szot feels differently.
“I try not to change my technique. I still vocalize every day as I would if I were doing an opera to keep my instrument alive the way it was built to work whenever I need it. It doesn’t matter whether I sing with a mic or not. What I do when I sing different styles is just adapt to the style,” he noted. “Opera in most of its repertoire has the dramatic side to it, so it has to have the dramatic color. Songs are different. But it does not exclude the possibility of being dramatic in a Broadway show.”
However, Szot knows there are differences, and the first thing he always looks at is singing with a mic. While some opera singers have a hard time adapting, this is something that Szot has really embraced.
“When you start to do these shows you trust that you can be that intimate and the microphone is just an extension of your expression. You can dare to be very soft and you can dare to whisper and that’s a kind of expression which is new for opera singers,” he said. “We’re used to breaking out of the orchestra and being heard by a theater that is almost 3000 seats. So that is our concern. With a mic, we can find other colors and channels. It’s very different but not difficult.”
And the other thing that makes Broadway different is the schedule.
“The first thing is eight shows a week. That defines it and we opera singers are not used to it. And although we rehearse every day it’s not what we do. From my experience here in New York and ‘My Fair Lady’ in Brazil, your body becomes exhausted. It’s not even singing, it’s a physical thing. You give so much energy all the time and I am the type of performer that doesn’t save anything. There is no other way and I give everything I have all the time. So I become exhausted after months of doing the same show.”
But regardless of these differences, Szot knows that both art forms are very much the same.
“What connects us all is that people come to the theater to be touched and they want to see something that they don’t have in real life. They want to feel things that real life doesn’t give to us. It’s our job to transport to another world. That’s the main connection for every artist.”
Musicals and Cabaret
This year has been filled with many surprises for Szot. He began performing opera at the Paris National Opera and Dutch National Opera before transitioning to musical theater and show tunes. He performed at the New York Pops gala before giving a series of cabaret concerts at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and performed on a Playbill River Cruise. He is slated to give a tribute to Broadway at 54 Below and then comes his next major musical role, Juan Perón in “Evita.”
“I think it’s a great story and it’s a great score by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Juan Perón is a very iconic persona in the world; we all know Evita became the main attraction and she became the star of everything in those political times. But Juan Perón was there before Evita and after Evita. And he was such a powerful man.”
Another aspect that Szot relishes and constantly jokes about is Perón being able to have an accent.
“Juan Perón can have an accent because he Argentine and this is one of the roles in musicals that I can actually play,” he joked.
Szot has never performed a single number from the work in any of his cabaret shows or concerts and as a result, has saved all of his energy for his role debut. And while he will know the score for his first day in rehearsals, what he is most excited about is bringing the character to life.
“It is real to bring the depth of this character which is so powerful and I think that is the biggest challenge. It’s more than the technical. It’s the psychological work from the acting perspective. You have to be credible that people will see that Evita had a connection with him.”
A Return to Opera
Following an intensive foray into the musical world, Szot returns to Opera in the fall with his favorite composer, Mozart.
“Mozart is the best ever in the world. And I am very glad to sing ‘Così’ in Paris. I did it at the beginning of the year at the Paris Opera and I am returning in the same production.”
Earlier in January Szot made his role debut as Don Alfonso after years of portraying Guglielmo, which he admitted was a treat. But what brings him, even more, joy is to be returning to the same production he created this season, particularly because for him Mozart is not only medicine for the voice but the best to sing.
“I think Mozart is a genius and he is a vocal genius. He puts your voice in the right place and he gives you tools to bring it to the right technique. So whenever you feel like you have no idea what to do, just go back to Mozart.”
Following the Paris revival, Szot returns to the Michigan Opera, the second opera house he ever performed at in the US 15 years ago, for Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro.” For him, it is a momentous occasion because he will be performing his favorite opera, only this time in a different role.
“I have done Figaro but I have to confess that I enjoy playing the Count much more and the music of the Count fits my voice better,” he noted. “It sits a bit higher than Figaro and I think the character of the Count is much more interesting than Figaro. He thinks himself of an intelligent and wise man but he is not. Everything is ahead of him. And that is the beauty of playing a character like that.”
Szot also finds the Count’s music much richer.
“You can have comedy and melancholic phrases and colors and I think it’s perfect. And of course the last phrases of the opera are enchanting and beautiful when he repents.”
Moving forward in his schedule the baritone gets to a play a little with the operatic form as he will sing his first Kurt Weill opera, “Street Scene” at the Teatro Real de Madrid. The composer has been known for mixing genres and that is something that will give Szot a chance to show both of his musical languages.
“I have seen many productions of ‘The Threepenny Opera’ and I love that piece so much. It’s so connected with theater and the music is fantastic.”