Q & A: Bass-Baritone Alex Esposito On Singing Verdi, Interpretative Honesty, & The ‘Monster’ Inside

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Victor Santiago)

Italian Bass-Baritone Alex Esposito has an established and successful career, particularly in roles from Mozart and Rossini operas, although he is certainly not to restricted to this repertoire. He has appeared in many of Europe’s premier theatres, including La Scala, Covent Garden, Berlin’s Staatsoper, Vienna’s Staatsoper and many more, and worked alongside many of the world’s leading conductors and directors.

Yet, when talking to him it would be very easy to get the impression that his success is down to nothing more than innate talent and little bit of luck, for he has an easy-going, almost casual air and plays down his determined, thoughtful and professional approach.

In a recent interview with OperaWire, he often shied away from self-praise, preferring to focus on how others have helped him, or to make light of it with an amusing aside. Ultimately, however, it was not possible to cover over his own achievements, nor the careful consideration he gives to his performances.

OperaWire: What was your motivation in becoming an opera singer?

Alex Esposito: Ever since I was a child I have always loved the theatre in all its forms: the opera, drama, comedies, puppet shows, the circus, everything.

However, I discovered opera when I went to La Scala to see “Nabucco,” and immediately realised that I loved it. But, I also realized this was something very far from my own life. I lived in the countryside and my family were not interested in opera at all, because they had never experienced it. It was something foreign to them. They thought it was something for posh people, for rich people.

My next experience of opera was as a soundtrack to a movie. It was “Macbeth.” I remember thinking that the movie was beautiful, but that the music was amazing, so I asked my parents to buy the tapes. I remember my parents looking at each other in the shop, and discussing whether or not to buy it for me, and the owner came over and said, “Don’t worry, it isn’t porn!” Anyhow, they bought it. It was the recording by Sinopoli, with Renato Bruson, and I discovered this wonderful music, and I soon learnt all the parts, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Banquo.

I then started to ask my parents if I could go to Verona, to Milan, and to my local theatre, Teatro Donizetti, in Bergamo. So my parents used to take me to the opera, and my interest just grew.

OW: What training did you undertake?

AE: When I finished school I knew that I wanted to be on the stage, but I didn’t know exactly in what capacity. I wanted to do an audition for the National Academy of Theatre in Rome, as I was considering becoming an actor, and as part of the selection process you must sing something, so I thought I had better take some singing lessons.

So I went to my first teacher and told him my plan. He asked me to sing something and suggested, “Ella giammai m’amo.” He told me I had a beautiful voice, and asked me why I wanted to do spoken theatre when I could be an opera singer. Anyhow, I still went to the audition, and they told me the same, that I could be an actor if I wanted, but that my voice was so good that it would be a shame to give up the opportunity of becoming an opera singer.

So after a couple of months at the Academy, I took their advice and decided to study opera seriously. But I never went to a conservatory; I studied music on my own, with private teachers.

OW: In the past you tended to specialize in bel canto and Mozart, but recently there has been a movement towards a more varied repertoire. Is this because you need new challenges?

AE: I never get bored with singing a role, although if the production is not very good I can become bored. So if I am singing in “Don Carlo” for the first time, and the production is boring, I will be bored. But I tend to allow my voice to tell me what to do; if I try something on my piano or with my teacher and it works, then I risk it, it allows my career to evolve. Of course, it does not just depend on my vocality, but also on the maturity of the character; if you are 25-years-old, you can’t play Filippo II.

Also, it is not interesting for a career to develop in a way in which you only stick only to the best parts, the ones you know you can do well. It would be like a famous restaurant known for a particular menu, which it never changes. It would stop being interesting, for the chefs, and for the customers. It is the challenge of producing new dishes which maintains the interest, and keeps the menu fresh.

OW: At the moment you are singing Banco (Banquo) in Macerata. How are you finding the role and the experience of performing on its enormous stage

AE: Banquo is not a difficult role. He has a beautiful, beautiful aria, which is easy to sing. You can find it among the collection of arias which are studied in the conservatories. The difficulty here is once more one of maturity. Not the maturity of the character, but the maturity of the singer, and what they have learned in the past, such as their ability to sing legato, or how express emotion in the voice.

Mozart and Rossini are very good teachers in this respect, because there is a lot of recitative in their operas, and this is where the real theatre takes place. When you sing only Verdi for example you risk singing it without the necessary expression, even if it sounds very beautiful. Mozart and Rossini prepare you for this, because when you sing a lot of recitative you must act and bring the drama into your voice. Remember that recitative is very easy music, and this means you risk making it boring, so you must work on its expressive qualities, and by this I am not simply thinking just of the meaning of the words, but also the meaning behind the words.

Singing at Macerata is a beautiful experience. It is the perfect compromise between an open air theatre and an indoor theatre. It has a big wall behind the stage which makes it like an indoor theatre, but without a roof. It is one of the biggest stage in the world of course, but for music it is perfect: you can hear everything. I can hear my own voice very clearly.

OW: You are playing the role of Filippo II in Verdi’s “Don Carlo” in La Fenice’s opening production of the 2019-20 season. How do you see the see the role?

AE: I don’t think Filippo is a bad character. Often he is played as if he is a devil, but if you think of him as a devil, what is the Inquisitore? Filippo is in the middle of the situation. He wants the best for his son. He wants the best for himself. Maybe he is in love with Elisabetta. We don’t know. And he has complex relationship to the Church. So I see Filippo as a strong character, not a bad character. He is man pulled in many different directions. He is in a storm.

But he is also the king and has to take decisions, and make the right compromises, balancing his love for his son, his love for his wife and the power of the Church. He is a multi-layered character.

OW: You have sung the prologue of Boito’s “Mefistofeles,” Berlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust,” which you will sing again in Turin next season. You will also be singing in Gounod’s “Faust” at the Palau de les Arts in June 2020. Are you attracted to playing the devil?

AE: Of course! The devil is the most interesting part of us. Everybody is attracted by the devil. The devil is sin, the dark side, but it is not necessarily all bad; Faust is emblematic, he wants to enjoy life, wants to meet beautiful girls, have sex, to drink, to be rich. This is something common to all people, and we must find a compromise with this part of ourselves. Everybody loves Don Giovanni, no one is interested in Don Ottavio.

OW: Do you find yourself living the character, at least inside your head, after the performance has finished?

AE: After the performance I try to stop thinking about what I have been doing because it is important to be grounded in the real world. It can be a dangerous job if you think about the character 24 hours a day. You risk being sucked in, which might be good for your career, but not for your life.

Some singers actually try to become their character is real life, to be Tosca or Don Giovanni, and it is dangerous. Although I must add, this happens less now than in the past; singers have become more balanced in their approach.

OW: Apart from the singing, your performances are often acclaimed for your ability to act out roles. Do you work on this aspect of performance or is it something which comes naturally?

AE: Maybe I have a natural talent, I don’t know.
But I have been very lucky during my career because I have worked with many excellent directors. In the past, maybe 20, 30 years ago, directors would instruct the chorus to stand here, the soprano to enter from there, for the tenor to hold the sword like this and so on.

Fortunately, this is no longer the case, but it only started developing in Italy relatively recently, while in Germany and other countries this approach has had a much longer history. I have worked with directors who helped me develop characterization, to find something new in a character, to take risks.

OW: From what you have said so far, you seem to place a high importance on interpretive honesty. Is that a fair assessment?

AE: Absolutely! Recently, I was in London and I went to see the “Guillaume Tell,” directed by Damiano Michieletto. It was a big scandal. The soldiers rape a woman, and they strip her naked, and everyone started booing. I mean, it was a rape, what do you expect the soldiers to do? Ask her politely to take off her clothes?

If you think of “La Traviata,” which is the most perfect of operas, it is was so modern when it was written and it was a big scandal, and today we must reinvent it, if you want to uncover, and remain true to its spirit. Today we know prostitutes are on the streets, and no one is scandalized by Violetta, who lives in beautiful palaces with a lot of money given to her by very rich people.

If we show the prostitution Verdi had in mind, we are not scandalized and, therefore, don’t understand the power of “La Traviata.” It has to be done in a modern way so that the audience can understand the dramatic themes of the piece. Otherwise, you only see the beautiful costumes.

Visconti had Maria Callas take off her shoes, and this was considered a scandal. Now Violetta must take off her underwear to scandalize people, but it must be done carefully, because otherwise it risks becoming vulgar and pornographic. It has to be done at the right moment in the opera, after having developed the character fully; then it will work, then it will help the audience experience the truth in “La Traviata.”

OW: How would you describe your voice?

AE: It is a monster which lives in my body. There are two of us in my body: me and my voice. Sometimes we live in harmony, but sometimes we fall out. It is as if you are living with someone, and sometimes you fight with them. I say, come on, you sang these notes yesterday, what’s wrong? But, of course she doesn’t answer. When you do a job like this you must be very careful with the voice, but I also want to enjoy life. I don’t want to stay with a scarf around my neck all day, when its 25 degree and the sun is shining.

OW: How do you see your career developing in the future?

AE: If you asked me this question in 1992, I would have said to sing in “Macbeth” and “Don Carlo.” These dreams have now become a reality. Now when I look forward, I dream of singing Wotan. It is such an amazing role, and appears as if it has been written for two different voices. In “Das Rheingold” it is a bass, but in “Die Walkure” it is higher: it is a bass-baritone. But my voice isn’t ready for it yet. Maybe it will be in five or ten years.


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