Q & A: Carlos Álvarez on ‘Tosca,’ ‘Viva La Mamma,’ the Teatro Real & His BeginningsBy Mauricio Villa
It has been 16 years since Spanish barotine Carlos Álvarez last sang at the Teatro Real de Madrid, a theater where he had success early on.
Sixteen years! A long time for any artist, but particularly notable when you considered that Álvarez is a renowned Spaniard who is among the best singers in the world.
The baritone has, however, continued to perform in Madrid on a regular basis, singing at the Teatro de la Zarzuela and giving his Madrid audience acclaimed performances.
Now after a long absence Álvarez did not only return with one opera but with two very different productions showcasing his mastery of the operatic form. The baritone showcased his comic timing as “Mamma Agata” in Donizetti’s rarely performed “Viva la mamma” and his dramatic skills as Scarpia in Puccini’s “Tosca.”
Álvarez spoke to OperaWire about his return to the Tetro Real, his beginnings in Opera, comedy, and his new interpretation of Scarpia.
OperaWire: How did the pandemic affect you and what did you do to pass the time?
Carlos Álvarez: It’s been a terrible situation for singers young singers and those who depend financially on imminent contracts. In my case, it was disappointing to see projects I was looking forward to, canceled. I was set to the Met and was to star in a new production of “Rigoletto” at La Scala. I, however, feel privileged. I began performing at the end of June 2020 and have been offered alternate jobs that came up to compensate for all the cancellations. I haven’t participated in many streaming performances, but I sang at the Opening Gala of the 2020-21 season at La Scala. I went to record in Milan and I sang Iago’s “Credo” from “Otello.” It was a splendid occasion and a tremendous effort from Milan’s theater and Italian Television. I also had the chance to work from home as a member of the jury of a TV Talent show, which help me financially and was broadcast via streaming.
That being said, we must take into consideration the danger of an audience that is getting used to Opera performances online. They can raise or decrease the volume at will. Live music is riskier and more impacted and cannot be compared to a recording or a streamed performance. As I always say, we sing under the same conditions as singers from centuries ago. The conditions have changed a bit as the pitch has slightly increased as well as the number of musicians in the pit. We are asked to act. All this cannot be seen via streaming. On July 10, our performance of “Tosca” was screened in front of the Teatro Real and via streaming and the audience only saw a partial view of the opera because they saw what the video director wanted you to see. The audience inside the theater, however, had a complete picture. Streaming gives a fake illusion of a real performance when it is not, even if it is live screening. You cannot compete with the relationship and communication between the artist and the audience inside the theater. Opera has evolved, but it must be done live in theaters.
OW: After the pandemic, you returned to the Teatro Real for the first time since 2005. How has your come back been?
CÁ: Well, I have been singing in Madrid regularly at the Teatro de la Zarzuela, where I have done, “Katiuska,” and “La del Manojo de Rosas.” But it’s true, I haven’t sung at the Teatro Real since “Don Giovanni” in 2005 and my return has been overwhelming. I could not imagine the impact that performing these two operas one after the other, Donizetti’s “Viva la Mamma” and Puccini’s “Tosca,” would have on the audience. It’s been a challenge for me to sing two very different roles. They have such different vocal lines and the characters couldn’t be more different. But I am having fun. It’s been a pleasure to reconnect with some people that I have known since the beginning of the new Teatro Real. Take into consideration, that the reopening of the Teatro Real was programmed in 1995 with me singing “Don Giovanni” but was canceled due to delays during the renovation. Then, I sang Il Conte in “Le Nozze di Figaro” at the opening season in 1998. Therefore, I know the ins and outs of this Opera house. I also know the people who have contributed since the reopening to make the Teatro Real the best theater in the world. The Teatro Real received the award of “Best Opera House” at the “International Opera Awards” this year.
This theater feels like home. Life in Opera is like a big extended family, where you establish new relationships with people that you will meet throughout your career. And even if you don’t see each other for a long time, you keep this intimacy and deep communication. Having that sense of family gives “normalcy” to a career full of extraordinary events. And having spent two and a half months in the same theater has given me back this feeling of family and normalcy.
OW: You debuted with “El Manojo de Rosas” in Madrid and premiered the current production back in 1990. How does it feel to return to this work and production after 31 years?
CA: It’s been one of those gifts in my life. I remember I was thinking that it had been 10 years when I did a revival in 2000. But it has been 30 years! I am happy to realize that I still feel comfortable in the work and can sing this role with maturity.
It’s strange to see how the singer who sang the character of my girlfriend is now doing the role of my mother and the singer who performed Gilda alongside my Rigoletto just performed the role of my girlfriend in the work. So, I asked myself: How can I be still singing the same role? I think that making the correct repertoire choices throughout my career has kept my voice in good vocal health. But it is a difficult choice. When I sign contracts for roles in 2025, I am making a projection for my vocal development. But to be honest, I could not have imagined that after 30 years, I would still be singing this role.
OW: Talking about good choices, were you ever afraid of the consequences of turning down a role? For example, refusing to do “Rigoletto” at La Scala with Riccardo Muti?
CA: I have always thought that honesty should be above fear. So, being honest with my voice and maturity is the most important thing. But I thought back then when I was in London singing with Sir. Colin Davis, that I had to give my final answer to Muti. I strongly believed that my international career was over. But it was the other way around. It seems logical to me, to refuse a role when you do not feel ready.
OW: When did you discover that you wanted to be an opera singer?
CA: I began singing when I was seven years old and joined my children’s school choir. In fact, I sang the children’s chorus of “Tosca” when I was 11 years old. It was fun for me and I could not imagine that this hobby would become my career. I sang polyphony and kept on doing it when my voice changed during puberty. While I studied medicine for four years, I joined the recently created opera chorus in Malaga in 1988. This opened doors for me to be seen as a professional opera singer. I sang my first solo role, “The Marchese” in “La Traviata” in 1989. I kept on singing small roles until stage director Emilio Sagi heard me sing and asked me to audition in Madrid for his upcoming production of “El Manojo de Rosas.” I got the principal male lead and this gave me the confidence to follow an operatic career.
OW: Were you afraid of the instability an opera career could have?
CA: My parents taught me to think critically and be determined. When I decided to try a professional singing career, I found support from my family and my girlfriend, who would become my wife. That allowed me to grow artistically. Today young artists are required to have immediate success but I had the chance to gradually grow as an artist. I was 22 years old when I sang my first professional solo role and I was incredibly young and naïve. But I feel truly fortunate that I had the chance to gradually develop and feel at home on stage. I remember I was scared when I auditioned at the Met in 1993 because I got lost in the corridors and ended up on the orchestra pit looking up at the vast auditorium with fear. Three years later, I made my Met debut.
OW: Like all careers, you have had some ups and some downs. Can you tell me what happened when you left singing during a moment in your life?
CA: Yes, of course. As a matter of fact, it started in this theater. It was in 2008 after “Otello” in Vienna and “La Forza del Destino” in Salzburg. I came enthusiastically to the Teatro Real for a new production of “Un Ballo in Maschera.” During rehearsals, I started to feel uncomfortable while singing and lost my upper register. We then discovered damage on my right vocal chord. We never discovered where it came from, but it was not an injury caused by singing. I felt very fortunate that I knew my voice well and could detect that something was wrong because this kind of injury untreated could develop larynx cancer. Since we were not sure of the origin of the injury, we looked for medical treatment rather than an operation. Sadly, the vocal chord did not heal with the treatment and we opted for surgery.
I was in and out of the stage for three years, singing and canceling. In 2010, I had to drop out of the dress rehearsal of a new production of “Attila” with Muti at the Met Opera because I couldn’t sing anymore. Our fears were confirmed by a medical test that the injury had reappeared. I remember that Muti told me, “Carlos, it’s time for you to go home, get well and come back because we will be waiting for you”. This gave me the strength to fight and return to singing and I went through the final surgery. In May 2011, I was back on stage, and I have never had any further problems since. Ginés, my otorhinolaryngologist and friend, who operated on me, was surprised to find no trace of the injury or the surgery at all when I went for a regular checkup.
OW: Did this experience affect your vocal technique?
CA: Not at all. But I was extra careful with my repertoire choices so I could grow gradually and eventually challenge myself vocally. I did Don Giovanni, Germont, and repertoire like this where I was confident enough. The opera companies also allowed me to choose specific roles and repertoire. Life gives you few chances but I have been given three chances to go back to work. The trust that theaters showed me, gave me the courage to keep on singing to the best of my abilities. So, it didn’t change my voice but it gave me a new life perspective.
I have always been a positive person who has tried to give the best of a given situation. For example, leaving the United States in February 2010, allowed me to be with my father until the last second of his life. He passed away holding my hand. If I would have been working with my normal schedule, I would have missed that moment that has been transcendental to me. I keep in regular contact with the people I love, like my mother and my children. I call them regularly so we all share my life together. I try to be present, even if not in person, in their lives to keep my emotions balanced and so I don’t regret missing anything in their lives.
OW: Now you are back at the Teatro Real and sang two very different roles. Tell me about “Viva la Mamma” and what it felt like to sing in drag, sing in falsetto and interpret the character of Mamma Agata?
CA: When Joan Matabosch asked me to sing “Viva la Mamma” I immediately accepted, because I already knew the challenges of the score. But I could not imagine back then that it would be so hard to make the transition from “Mamma Agata” to “Scarpia.” Both roles are so different vocally and theatrically. I remember that during the rehearsal process I remained for hours in the rehearsal room working on getting into the character. That is part of my job. But it has been worth it because performing “Mamma Agata” has given me a new perception of the opera world. It even made me feel that you can be whoever you want and feel today. Now that I am settled in “Tosca,” I am happy to be singing legato again.
OW: With this current production of “Tosca” you are giving Scarpia more layers than we usually see in other productions. Could you tell me about your characterization?
CA: Stage Director Paco Azorín told me to create this vision of Scarpia where he is a man in love, rather than this evil character who seeks his own sexual gratification through violence. Parting from this point of view we found a Scarpia who can feel empathy. Another difference in this production is how Tosca sings “Vissi d’arte” to Scarpia. She asking him why he is treating her like that, rather than it being a religious prayer. He is a frustrated person, who can achieve all that he wants but cannot obtain Tosca’s love. This situation combined with his heavy drinking leads the character into moral denigration. I like this approach as it gets away from the evil clichéd Scarpia. This will help me in future productions to give depth to the character. It is always important to be open to new ideas from a director. You must try and play, and enjoy what you are doing. You must transform challenges into enjoyable games. We must value and respect the director’s work.
OW: Tell me about the vocal challenges in Scarpia’s music and how it has evolved for you over the years?
CA: I have learned to use Bel Canto to approach all kinds of characters. When I say Bel Canto, I don’t mean the style, but on the essence of Bel Canto singing. I have wondered for the past few days what singing Verismo means. I think it means being truthful to the score and voice and that includes elegant and beautiful singing. You can scream and emote to give impact and dramatism, but at the end what you have to sing are long vocal lines. You create and sing the character according to your own ideas, but you need to share and debate them with the conductor and stage director to obtain a good result. As a baritone, I don’t find Scarpia particularly hard. I get paid the same for singing two acts of “Tosca” and three long acts of Rigoletto.