Always Singing & Smiling – Roberto Alagna On His Undying Passion For His Art, Taking Care of His Voice, & The Challenges Facing Young Singers TodayBy Polina Lyapustina
(Credits: Charly Hel)
OperaWire’s initial interview with Alagna was set to take place after his performance of “Don Carlos” in Paris. But two acts into the performance, he had to withdraw from the performance and also postpone the interview.
“I’m sorry we have to postpone,” he warmly said that evening. “I’d better not use my cords today to keep it safe for the next performance.”
One might imagine an artist stressed after such an incident, but the French tenor was all smiles, most of them due to the success of his wife Aleksandra Kurzak in her debut as Elisabetta on that stage.
A few days later, when the interview proper took place, he was smiling yet again, the sun shining on him through the glass roof.
But he couldn’t quite get settled just yet. A bird got in the way.
“I’ll go away from the bird,” Alagna stated as he exited his winter garden. “He’s singing.”
The tenor led the way into his home in Paris, finding an ideal place for conversation. But there simply wasn’t anywhere. “Singing,” it turns out, kept getting in the way.
“I’m gonna sing here soon too,” Alagna’s wife Aleksandra Kurzak stated as he walked into the living room.
“If we would be in Poland, my daughter would also sing somewhere,” Alagna noted with pleasure and his big trademark smile.
Making the Choice to Cancel
Naturally, the conversation circled back to that opening night performance where Alagna was to headline a star cast in “Don Carlo” that also included René Pape, Anita Rachvelishvili, and Étienne Dupuis. The decision for Alagna was not an easy one to make.
Everyone knows how it feels in the auditorium. You receive a notice — the tenor will be replaced. But how does it happen backstage? Such a decision affects the whole performance and the many people working alongside the artists, but ultimately, it comes down to one person.
“I make this decision myself. No one else can affect it. But still, I always try to sing until I’m sure that it’s time to stop,” Alagna explained. “Sometimes, when you’re not well, you can do beautiful things on stage. I sang many times when I was in bad condition. And this added something unusual to my singing. This is the beauty of this profession. It’s vivid. If you’re all the time perfect, every time the same, it might be nice, but it’s not my style. It’s so good to show the essence — your soul to the audience. When everything goes well, it’s a miracle. At the same time, it should be safe.”
And that’s the key. Understanding your limits even if you don’t want to disappoint others.
“You have to know your instrument to understand the capacity. That’s why I know that my decision on the first night of Don Carlo was right,” the tenor noted before elaborating on the importance of having these experiences. “I actually think that it’s a very good experience for a singer because you learn a lot. During the premier, I might have been able to continue, but I stopped because I had to think about the rest of the run. If you’re singing and forcing your throat when you catch a cold, you risk to lose your voice for a long time and then you have to cancel everything. I felt confident and my voice was good, but I noticed some problems with swallowing. And I know that I have to pay attention to such signs.”
Naturally, the choice to cancel would lead to conversations about the state of Alagna’s voice and singing, especially with social media’s prominence.
“People love to speak. They love to share their opinion and now, they can do it on social media with no struggle. The worst thing is that people would rather share a bad opinion. It seems like human nature. Sometimes they speak without knowing anything. As a human and singer, I have to manage that. Well, they speak — I sing. This is all the difference.”
The Tenor Voice
Roberto Alagna sings every day. His family, interests, hobbies merge with his profession. People have stated time and again that taking a break from it is essential, but that’s not something the tenor is interested in.
“I’m like this bird singing. It’s my life,” he enthused. “I have only one word for all of that — Passion. I’m now 36 years on stage and I think I’m very lucky to be able to sing today. I received more than I’ve ever expected. More love, more success. I have an amazing family. My children, now my grandchildren, my parents, brothers, and sister. I always had great support. I had a good education, with tolerance and respect for others. These are the best lessons I received.
And I got a gift. To share my emotions. This is the greatest thing you can do in your life. Everything I wanted. And every day I wake up and thank heaven, for I’m still here and the world is the same and things are going well. We forget to praise our awakening.”
Alagna feels that a key to developing that gift is to immerse yourself in its world. For him, it is not enough to limit his knowledge to the roles he is singing. He wants a “large culture of music.”
“Some teachers said: you have to stop listening to other singers. I think it’s just stupid,” he stated. “It’s like a writer would never read a book. You must know everything. You must be able to understand what you would never do yourself. You need to try different things and sometimes you need to imitate to understand different techniques. And then you can be smart enough to become a self-critic and understand if you’re ready to develop your voice or need to fix something first.”
This, for him, is the key to better understanding his voice.
“It’s important to find, to discover the right voice you received. It’s natural. Your instrument is basically a part of your body. No one can feel or know it but you. It’s programmed in you like on the computer. And when people or companies advise you, it’s like a bug for this program. And then you need some kind of meditation to find in yourself where this bug is, to fix what damaged you. It’s difficult.”
Knowing his voice as well as he does, Alagna has taken a bold step in recent years of traversing the challenging repertory of the spinto tenor. Among the roles he has taken on are Otello, Don Carlo, Canio, Samson, all of which he professes to having dreamed of for years.
“When you’re young, you want to sound more mature — dark, and heavy, and big,” he noted. “And it’s a mistake. In fact, for tenor, I think it’s natural to be young in his voice. Singers try to take care of our bodies, and it’s more and more difficult in years. But you can remain young in your voice if you accept its sound. You can be bright, and light, and simple.”
Retaining that brightness and lightness, Alagna feels, is the key to a long career as a singer. He noted that Francesco Tamagno, who was the first Verdi’s Otello, also sang Gabriele Adorno in “Simon Boccanegra.”
“We say Otello is dark, like a baritone. If Verdi would have wanted a baritone, he would certainly write for a baritone. He would have changed it with Iago. Yet he never did, right? And when you listen to the singers of the past, they sang bright and clear. Not only tenors but basses and baritones. Then the taste changed.”
Most theaters today would not want a bright or light Otello, opting instead for a heavier and darker voice. And Alagna knows that there was always the possibility that he could have pushed for this vocal development earlier in his career.
But there was one particular moment in his career that solidified his current philosophy on his vocal technique.
“I was 22 when I met Pavarotti during the competition,” he narrated. “He came and said that my voice was beautiful and fascinating. I could only confront that my competitors, no matter if they were young, were big and dark voices. He simply noticed that they were old. It means their voices were too mature for their age. And they have nowhere to move further. And it was true since I’ve never heard about those guys. You must, and so Pavorotti did, keep the brightness and the youngness of your voice. This is my secret.”
Remaining true to himself, the tenor never gets tired of drawing his inspiration from the past where the light and bright voices dominated.
“I had a wonderful experience, recording my last CD ‘Caruso 1873,'” he added. “It was research, a documentary. I sang in the same way as Caruso did. Prepared in the same way. In that time they never sang without the support of the voice, without the brightness. It was all the time full sound, full voice, also managing some details in the way they would do them at that time. And you can see in this recording an evolution of the singing technique and also the evolution of the technology of recording. We started with the last recording of Caruso and moved back to the first. So I hope it will be very interesting for singers to hear the difference in singing, in modes of projection of the voice, with no modern effects.”
Young Singers In A Changing Time
Live operatic singing hasn’t changed a lot with the development of technology, and yet the opera industry and its requirements have faced major upheavals.
“When we sing on stage, for us singers, nothing has changed, but if you’re watching a stream — it’s all different,” he explained. “Some said it’s an opportunity, but I still don’t like it. I always try to put a mic as far as possible — to collect the natural sound. When the mic is too close, the sound seems artificial, and it’s simply disturbing for me.”
He felt more comfortable when recordings used to feature the microphones at a distance. But now they are closer to enable easier editing in studio. While Alagna feels that it can be positive in terms of modifications, it is not authentic to the real experience of listening to a voice. The same goes for the online streaming of operas.
Another major change going on in the industry comes from how theaters and companies are approaching singers. During Alagna’s time, singers’ abilities were more crucial to getting to the top. These days, agents and media play a more preponderant role in career development than even the voice sometimes.
“Now it’s different. It’s way more difficult for young singers. Theatres want a rotation all the time. New people. And young singers have no time to grow and develop. I had 10 years of a serious career before I had my first recital, but now singers are forced to have it in two to three years,” he stated. “They do promo, CD, recital, without even knowing themselves enough. Everything goes fast. If you don’t seize a moment, somebody else will do it.”
He also noted that many young singers don’t use the tools at their disposal to full effect.
“Today young singers have Youtube. Where you can watch, and study everybody. I could only dream about watching other singers, and now it’s so easy. Masters, stars, all the possible operas, and styles. I watch, I still learn from them,” Alagna added. “But many singers seem not interested. They prefer to rely on someone. On coaches who might never sing on stage. On stage, you lose half of your power, and you still sing. So the only real Maestro for me is a person who sings on stage. And you can observe, study and even ‘steal’ from them to find your way and to improve.”
He also thinks that the development of singers should not be segmented or fractured into specific steps. The tenor believes that an all-encompassing vocal education is the key to developing young talent.
“When you are young you must sing everything. Not just a particular repertory. You can equally kill your voice trying different things or singing just Mozart,” he emphasized. “Sometimes, you should go over your abilities, so you can develop your voice and discover new possibilities. Not to sing only heavy or light repertory, but balance them.”
He also added that there is nothing worse for the voice than not singing.
“Your cords are muscles and you need to train it. And when you’re young, it’s the best moment to try. If you want to have muscles, you have to put weight,” he added. “But you should remember about singing with your voice, not to push it into some artificial qualities. And so, one or two diverse roles a season, I think is quite safe.”