(Credit: © ROH Photographer: CLIVE BARDA)
The influx of new and younger opera stars is always a major touchstone of the art form across generations. But the old guard is a key part of their development, presenting a gateway between traditions of the past and today’s trends.
Italian bass Maurizio Muraro loves being a part of this bridge. He has performed alongside a plethora of major singers over the last 30 years and is now finding himself taking the stage with some of the youngest emerging stars.
The bass, who is a regular at the Metropolitan Opera House, Opéra de Paris, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Wiener Staatsoper, Teatro alla Scala, San Francisco Opera, Bayerische Staatsoper, and Semperoper Dresden, among others, recently spoke with OperaWire about his career trajectory and being a mentor for younger artists.
OperaWire: You were born in Italy. How was it like to grow up in a country with such a strong renaissance roots, and also the origin of opera?
Maurizio Muraro: For sure, it was a big advantage for me to be born in a country where so many things about art have started – from painting, literature, music, and also technical inventions. I also feel it as a big responsibility. Since Italy is also a primary origin of the opera, I did not have to move out of my country to study singing in a very quality manner. It is a very special thing to be an opera singer in Italy.
I consider myself somewhat of an ambassador of opera, because I am lucky to perform in many different countries. I also believe there is something in the DNA that I discovered through the music and developed through the lyric opera. Basically to be a part of this culture is something that makes you feel proud. Being on stage, being able to perform, I see it also as a part of this big Italian renaissance tradition.
OW: When did you decide to take on operatic singing as your profession?
MM: I was quite young, 14-years-old, when I started to sing in the church choir in my hometown near Treviso. At the same time I approached one small amateur theater in my hometown. There I started to play in Venetian comedies. My wish at that time was to become an actor. But the church choir master told me that I was blessed with a special sound of voice.
When I was 15, I was listening to different kinds of music, so my feeling about opera was not that intensive. I come from a non-music family, so opera was pretty far away from me. The church choir master kept insisting until I said yes – let’s go to the first vocal coach, and then I will decide what to do.
I met my next Maestro when I was 17-years-old. He told me that I could invest my time and energy to become an opera singer, but only if I had enough passion, as the process would be very long. He also told me to be very patient and persistent.
At the age of 18 I started with my first vocal lessons. But theater was also my big love, and two worlds coexisted very closely in me. I was very quickly attracted to the lyric opera. What also impressed me, was the fact that I studied the instrument that I could not touch: my own voice. I found that very fascinating.
I decided to fully invest in developing my voice and then graduated on the Conservatory of Music in Milan. After that I started to sing in Chorus in La Scala for 3 years, and then started a soloist career.
OW: During your long career, performing on the biggest operatic stages in the world, you had the opportunity to sing with some of the best voices of the past. How did that feel?
MM: Yes, I was very blessed, and I can say also very proud to be on stage with some of the best singers ever. I was very lucky to touch that fantastic generation of singers, like Edita Gruberová, Kiri Te Kanawa, Plácido Domingo, Ruggero Raimondi. For me it felt like touching the sky with my own hand. All of them had such a huge impact on me. I literally tried to catch and learn everything from them – from smallest technical details to the behavior. Like, to be always on time for the rehearsals, to be humble and respectful to the conductor and orchestra members, to everyone, including technical staff. That was a life style that is today difficult to find.
OW: You are traveling a lot, performing in different countries, on different continents. What cultural differences do you notice?
MM: Well, I can see the difference between Europe and the United States. I started mycareer in Germany 25 years ago. Opera houses in Germany are very straight. For me it was a big experience to sing dress rehearsals at 10 AM, with no excuse. That had a huge impact on me, to develop my behavior in a certain way.
Of course, that part is pretty much the same in the US – if dress rehearsal is early, you have to be there. I find that in the United States there is much appreciation for the potential of an artist. For example, if you have talent, they will appreciate it much more than in Italy. Americans are also very good in the marketing field, much better than Europe. They are really able to create gigantic careers for good singers. They are also much more selective than in Europe. Because of the large numbers of theaters and opera houses in Europe, not every night you get the highest quality of shows, unlike the Metropolitan. The Metropolitan Opera House is a very demanding stage, and you must deliver 100 percent every night.
OW: Your signature roles include Don Magnifico in “La Cenerentola,” Don Pasquale, Dr Bartolo in “Barbiere di Siviglia” and “Le Nozze di Figaro.” How did you develop those roles over years?
MM: My approach is pretty much the same, not depending on the role, be it Don Pasquale or Dr Bartolo. I try not to be a basso buffo, because I think it is very dangerous to go with cheap solutions. I want to be a character on stage, I try to find funny things through real life. You will be funny if you are serious. I also observe people in everyday life and try to catch that attitude in every situation. When it comes to funny characters, the key is not to force a funny situation.
OW: In 2008, you performed the role of Leporello at the Wiener Staatsoper. How did you approach the role?
MM: Leporello was one of the favorite roles that I had the opportunity to sing, during several years. Leporello is actually a very serious character. He is the one who has to be able to resolve nearly every situation his master is involved in. By doing that he tries to take Don Giovanni on the right path. I never forgot those important points while singing the role of Leporello.
“Don Giovanni” is a drama that people love, with a good reason – the music is great, it was very well-written, but that is not enough. If we consider ourselves actors as well, we must go beyond cheap solutions. We have to work on a role in a very humble way and to make the role we are singing very alive.
Leporello is, in that way, not just an Harlequin in La Commedia dell’ Arte. I had to make him credible on stage and give him the best possible reputation based on the story.
OW: Sir John Eliot Gardiner came to Berlin with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and Monteverdi Choir for a semi-staged performance of “Benvenuto Cellini.” You were there, but not as a part of the original cast. What happened?
MM: A few days before the start of rehearsals for series of performances of “Benvenuto Cellini”, I got a call. The role of Giacomo Balducci was uncovered, because a colleague of mine who was supposed to sing it canceled. I sang the role of Balducci four times on stage, in a fully staged productions, the last time with John Osborn and Pretty Yende at Opéra de Paris in 2018. That was the famous Terry Gilliam production.
They figured that I was probably the right replacement, so I was invited. I accepted. I knew John Eliot Gardiner as we met last time in London, at the Royal Opera House at the end of the last season. He was conducting Mozart’s opera “Le Nozze di Figaro,” while I was singing the role of Dr Bartolo.
The project was a very ambitious, semistaged production. Four performances in four very important places over the course of 10 days – Festival Berlioz , Berlin, London BBC Proms, and finally Palace of Versailles. But there was a catch. The score of the work exists in three main versions, and Sir John selected the parts of all of three versions for these performances. I had to work hard to learn these new parts, new music. For example, for the staged productions I was singing the aria of Balducci, at the very beginning of the opera. But for this semistaged production, that was omitted. Vocally it was pretty much the same commitment.
“Benvenuto Cellini” is not an easy opera for anybody. It is very demanding, physically, vocally, the orchestration is strong, and you must have strong voices as well. You need to overcome that big wall of sound coming from the orchestra so you really need to have a very big voice. Though it was semi-staged it was still very demanding, on a par with staged productions I did in Paris, Amsterdam and Barcelona. I am very proud that I took part in this fantastic production with Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
OW: In your opinion, what is more important: to have a bigger volume of voice, or to project better?
MM: Obviously it is the best if you have both. You can have a small voice, project it well but it is still a small voice. Projection will not make it bigger. If you have a big voice with a good projection, then it is an ideal combination.
It also gives you more challenges, so you can sing different repertoire. In very big opera houses that can be really felt. For example, Metropolitan Opera House is huge, The Royal Albert Hall in London is huge. In order to reach every spectator, even those sitting near the roof of The Royal Albert Hall, you just need to have a big voice.
OW: Right now you are in the middle of series of performances of Rossini’s opera “Il Viaggio a Reims” at the Semperoper Dresden, singing the role of Don Profondo. You are in the cast with tenor Edgardo Rocha and Operalia 2nd prize Winner Maria Kataeva. What are your impressions of new, young talents?
MM: I see myself as just older and older; that is a natural order of things. I am very impressed by the young colleagues that you mention to me. They absolutely deserve the prizes they won. If they are careful and smart about roles they are choosing in the future, they are on the very good way to become the best singers in the world. They are doing great jobs at the moment in “Il Viaggio a Reims.” There is a big risk for an early burnout by the system that sometimes relentlessly pushes in the lyric opera world. What I wish for both of them, and every other talented young singer in the world, is to make long-time career in an old-fashioned way.
Every generation produces new, young singers and we need ongoing arrival of new voices. I hope they will do that and express themselves in the best way possible. There are many details that make a big career. For now I am just proud of them and laughing at myself at the same time, because now I am being considered the grandpa at my age. In my fach there are only few colleagues that belong to my generation or older generations.
OW: In the last seven months, you had two instances when you were singing while you had a severe cold. How do you find your strengths in those moments?
MM: This is a very difficult job. Sometimes it can be really tough. First, I have to work on myself psychologically, so my brain can convince my body that it is able to deal with that situation. Second, I have to force myself with the technique to sing over the illness. Third is the feedback I am getting from these two steps – if it is positive, then I can beat the inflammation that is causing the problem. That is the moment where experience is the most important component. For example, if I really don’t feel well, sometimes I have to skip the risky notes, and then I use the skill to overcome that.
For example, during one of the performances of Donizetti’s opera “La Fille du Régiment” at the Metropolitan Opera House in March I was under a severe cold. The night before the performance I was totally convinced I couldn’t sing. And I will never forget that moment, I was in a cab returning from the doctor’s office.
I got a call from Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera House. He asked me how I felt, and I responded that I was not feeling well and most likely would not sing. That was on Friday and the performance was on Saturday and it was being streamlined live in a HD resolution within MET’s HD live season. The opera house really needed me to sing, and I was asked to perform regardless of the situation. Mr. Gelb told me they preferred me over someone else for the role of Sulpice, and asked me to try my best in order to perform, so I said yes. It was a very positive injection coming from him. Sometimes you really have to keep going.