Q & A: Eugene Brancoveanu on Rigoletto, Modern Music & Opera San Jose

By Francisco Salazar
(Photo credit: David Allen)

Romanian baritone Eugene Brancoveanu recently returned to Opera San Jose for the title role of “Rigoletto” as a Resident Artist Emeritus. It’s a role he has performed on numerous occasions and one that he continues to explore with each production.

His return to Opera San Jose was also special as he has been with the company since 2019 first as a Resident Artist and now as a freelancer. It’s a company where he has built an audience and where has also been able to explore with repertoire.

OperaWire had a chance to speak with Brancoveanu about Opera San Jose, “Rigoletto” and dreams roles.

OperaWire: Tell me about working with Opera San Jose and your experience with the company.

Eugene Brancoveanu: In 2014 was the first time I sang here. It was in “Don Giovanni” back then, conducted by my good old friend George Cleve, who’s no longer with us. He invited me to come and sing Leporello, not Giovanni, and any chance I would have to sing with George, I grabbed it with both hands.

Once I came to San Jose, I realized this wonderful feeling of camaraderie. Everybody’s pulling the same chord, whether it’s costumes, makeup, the music department, the singers, and of course, the California theater. Everybody’s pursuing the same goal.

And that’s when my artistic life with Opera San Jose started. Joseph Marcheso and I had been friends back in 2008, and there were several attempts by him and me to try to make projects work, but because of conflict difficulties, it never came to fruition. But then six years later, it finally worked out. And then I was repeatedly invited back in various capacities as a guest artist.

And then in 2019, somehow my schedule opened up enough to become a resident artist. And then Khori Dastoor, who was then General Manager, approached me just as we had started rehearsals for “Moby Dick” in 2019. And then once I saw what the season was going to be, I said, I cannot turn this down under any circumstance which is too good to be true.

I ended up singing Eisenstein in “Die Fledermaus,” a role that I’ve always wanted to do, and the Father in “Hansel and Gretel,” which I had never done. I also did Count di Luna in “Trovatore” and Papageno in “The Magic Flute.” So it was a buffet table for any baritone with all the lights.

OW: Would you say that your time with San Jose has allowed you to grow as an artist and also to experiment with roles?

EB: Yes. I mean the the stage is always the best classroom and Opera San Jose is unique in its approach of taking young singers and then developing them further. When I joined as a young artist I was already in my early 40s so I was not exactly fitting the mold agewise and I had already had 25 years of a career.

But being European, the concept of having young artists perform and staying connected to a theatre for three and a half seasons appealed to me greatly. I feel very young at heart and I think music keeps us young.

OW: Rigoletto is considered one of the most challenging roles in the repertoire. Tell me about Verdi’s writing for this work and why it’s such a challenge.

EB: The process that the opera had to go through just to be approved in the 1850s by the Austrian governing court of censors is operatic in and of itself. And I looked this up when I first heard the role back in 1999 when I was very young. It was considered by one of the censors, a repugnant example of immorality and obscene triviality.

Perfect. What’s not to like?

But Verdi put together unforgettable melodies, with equally unforgettable characters, and storytelling that is so tightly woven and cuts so clearly to the chase. Verdi’s opera feels very much like a verismo opera even though it is from the 1850s and much removed from later Puccini’s time of verismo opera.

The work translates to today, beautifully and the common denominator of lust, greed, betrayal, vengeance, and the desire to leave it to a higher power through curses appeals to the darkest side that we are.

But the music is incredible and this was the fifth time I sang “Rigoletto” and every time I feel like I’m starting from scratch.

OW: Tell me about that journey and how the character has evolved for you.

EB: In certain moments in “Rigoletto,” Verdi just does not like the singers to breathe. So technically speaking in terms of letting go of the diaphragm and getting a good enough breath, even if it’s just a tenth of a second, it’s challenging. But when I first sank this I was only 22 years old and it was back in Romania in 1999. I was neither married nor did I have children.

Now I’ve been married for over 20 years and we have a daughter who’s 20 years old and my son is 17. When I spoke to Dan Miller, I told him that when we get to that moment and I have to sing, “Gilda mio Gilda, e morta,” that strikes very differently for someone who has a daughter than someone who is inhabiting an emotion or acting an emotion.

And with each time that I sang Rigoletto, I felt that 10 years ago as well, when Ileana, my daughter, was 10 years old, it was just growing bigger and bigger inside. The paternal instincts that I have that by nature are so powerful and each time that I prepare Rigoletto, I discover something about the music that I may have not seen before, despite my best efforts and I learned so much about myself. There are different worries and different fears that arise.

OW: Tell me about your big scene in Act two.

EB: “Cortigiani” is the tricky one. It feels like the fast cabaletta after “Pieta di rispetto, onore” from “Macbeth” because it’s inverted. You have the fast dramatic music first then and you go into the long legato lines. To invert that is very, very difficult and to top it off I do certain things physically. The actor inside of me wants to go to just the deepest depths and finding the balance is a challenge every single time.

As a performer with a role like Rigoletto, I feel you can never afford to just do things because then you’re missing out and not doing justice to the music.

OW: How does Rigoletto compare to other Verdi roles? How do you feel the baritone writing evolved throughout his career?

EB: I’ve sung Germont, Renato, Di Luna, Ford, Rigoletto, and Iago.

I think Verdi left the best for last when it comes to music. “Falstaff,” which I did a year ago is sheer genius. That opera is unbelievable. But Verdi reinvented himself. There is the imperious, majestic quality of Germont that never loses except for one moment never loses his cool. He always floats with righteous indignation and delivers these beautiful musical lights. In Renato’s case in “Ballo in Maschera,” he is a trusted bodyguard who then becomes the vengeful husband and then the murderer. In Rigoletto, the first scene is like a Rossini character. He’s like the Barber of Seville and then he dips into Hamlet’s territory and then he becomes the father in “Much Ado About Nothing” and then he has the face of Nabucco where he swears vengeance.

So vocally there’s not even any kind of real through line except for Bel Canto moments and then pure recitation like a Shakespearean soliloquy. So you need every tool out of the toolbox, every arrow out of the quiver.

OW: When you were first studying the role, was there any recording or interpretation that inspired you?

EB: Every singer I’m sure is unique in their approach. I love to listen. The recording that I first went to was the 1958 one of George Solti conducting, Alfredo Kuras as the Duke, Anna Moffo as Gilda, Robert Merrill as Rigoletto, and Ezio Flagello as Sparafuccile. I think it’s one of the most beautiful recordings because it is just the right level of orchestral franticness and it keeps the tempos tight yet it breathes and it has a real beauty to it.

But there are other Rigolettos that I admire. For example, Renato Bruson, with whom in 1998, when I was very young, I was covering a baritone who was singing the role of Ford and it was Bruson’s final production of “Falstaff” in Macerata, Italy. And on opening night, the guy who was supposed to sing Ford with Bruson fell ill. So now I was in the hot seat and the conductor and the director, both asked me “you’re good?” And I said, “I’ve got this.” I thought of course I’ve got to say I’ve got this. But I was shivering in my boots and Renato Brusson took me out to lunch and I could barely eat because I was so nervous. And he saw that I was nervous and he said to me, let’s go for a long walk. We talked for two to three hours and it was the day of opening night. You would think that he would need to rest and he was like, “I’ve done this so many times”

As we were doing this long walk, he said to me, at this moment I’m going to do this and you’re going to do that. And then during the entire performance, he put me so at ease. So I was lucky at that moment to also talk to Bruson about Rigoletto.

OW: Tell me about working with your director and what you learned from this experience.

EB:  Dan Miller, our director, and I had very good talks on the very first day of rehearsals. I remember he said to me, Rigoletto is a coward and that is very interesting.

It’s the first time Dan and I have worked together and right off the bat, he fosters this environment of let’s play. And even though we did a traditional production, he has the ability, which I admire, to find an angle that I had not seen before, whether it’s in the Sparafucile scene or in the scenes that I had with Melissa Sondhi, who’s phenomenal Gilda.

When you’re encouraged like that, that allows us to explore, grow, and pursue an avenue that may not work precisely in that moment but it will lead to something that will work. It’s exactly what I would have hoped for Rigoletto and its rewarding.

OW: What are some of your upcoming projects?

EB: Well, I’m constantly working very closely with Gordon Getty and his music. So there are a few projects that I can’t divulge about right now because they have not been finalized yet. But then I will also return to Europe where I will be spending late July to early August singing a series of concerts in Venice.

And then there are a few modern operas that are now being conceived where I’m going to be somewhat involved. Right now we are talking about where I will fit into the whole mix of course, but if you look at the next season, this is just as delicious as this one.

OW: You said that you are working on modern works that are being developed with you in mind. Tell me about performing these works and how do you adapt your style of singing to these works? Do you change anything about the way you sing or do you always keep the Bel canto or the Italian school within the way you’re singing?

EB: Yes to all. I always want to end up singing Bel Canto style of music so that the voice can have its natural time to develop and grow within each phrase. But that is not how many composers write these days except Jake Heggie, Kirke Mechem, and John Adams.

I just recently was directing and singing the lead role in an opera called “The Necklace,” which was written by Haris Vrontos from Greece. And it’s a very modern piece. The first time I was given that score, I was approached to sing and directed it.

And I said, well I’ll do both, but it was a real, “oh my god” moment. “I’m going to do this.”

And then as I listened to it, “I thought, Oh my goodness, what did I agree to?” But then the more time I spent with it, I started to notice certain motives and I began to see a pattern.

So as singers, once we sing modern music, naturally it will change our onset and the way the voice emits, and the way we deal with vowel modifications is completely different.

OW: What are some of your dream roles that you would love to perform in future seasons?

EB: If we’re talking Puccini, then Scarpia in “Tosca.” He’s just so fantastically evil. But I’d also like to do Michele in “Tabarro” and certainly Iago in “Otello.”

I would like to get another crack at “Flying Dutchman,” since I’m a German citizen and German as well as Romanian are my mother tongues. Wagner wrote “Flying Dutchman” inspired by Verdi’s music. That’s why “Flying Dutchman” was the only Wagnerian opera that is not through-composed, where you have very clearly defined Aria, recitative, scene, and so on.

Then a role that was offered to me 15 years ago that I turned down but I would do now would be Doctor Schön in “Lulu.” I would also love to do Berg’s “Wozzeck.”

So now that my voice has matured into this repertoire, where I can do more dramatic roles effortlessly, where it fits the voice, now is the time to strike the iron.


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