Q & A: Ludovic Tézier on His Career as Today’s Ultimate Baritone

By Mauricio Villa

The French baritone Ludovic Tézier has performed worldwide at the most notorious opera houses like the Met, Royal Opera House, Paris Opera, Wiener Staatsoper. He also appears in many opera CDs and DVDs. He is one of the most renowned and in-demand baritones sing today.

OperaWire spoke with Teezier during a run of performances of a new production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at Teatro Real.

OperaWire: Can you tell me about your musical background and why you became an opera singer?

Ludovic Tézier: I used to listen to music with my father when I was very young: French songs, Spanish songs, Argentinian songs, classical music and opera, of course. And because I was in Marseille, which is a Latin city, I used to listen to the Italian repertoire. Our favorite composer was Verdi. When I was playing with my toys I used to hum and sing Verdi areas. I was bathing in Opera music from quite an early age. But when I started taking vocal lessons, for the very first time, I was singing pop music in a rock band, like; Beatles, Presley, Stones. It was fun. I remember that my friends in the band kept asking me to smoke cigarettes so I could break my voice a bit, he, he ,he… But I didn’t want to smoke. I was doing lots of sports back then. And I was a “passive smoker” anyway, because smoking was allowed anywhere at that time. They said I sounded like Pavarotti too much. And somehow I picked up all the recordings and started to listen to opera music again. I was about sixteen or seventeen, and my voice was very clean and very high, so I began to sing tenor arias. I could sing very high notes in chest voice, which is not usual. But it was difficult for me.

When I started taking lessons with my first teacher: Claudine Dupra, I used to sing the tenor arias from “Carmen” and “Trovatore.” And after one lesson, my teacher said: You will become a great baritone one day. And that felt like the end of the world to me: baritone? But she explained to me that despite the very easy high range, my passaggio was in a lower zone compared to tenors. She told me I could pull the voice towards the high and low notes, but I shouldn’t change the passaggio. Therefore, I was a baritone. She showed me recordings of baritones who could sing B flats. But she told me that I wouldn’t be able to hold a tenor tessitura, without damaging my voice, because I couldn’t handle the passaggio in the tenor tessitura. So, in one lesson this woman saved my life. I trusted her from the very beginning. In one year, she gave me the “tool box” that I used for the first ten years of my career. She said, “You should never suffer in a vocal lesson.” After one hour of good singing your voice should be fresh and in a better placement. And this is true for opera performances too. Even with big roles like Rigoletto, you should start the performance okay, but you should end with the impression that you could sing the part twice. Because the voice placement should be in a perfect position at the end of the show, although you may lack the stamina to keep on singing.

OW: You won a prize in the renown Operalia competition. Was that what launched your opera career?

LT: No, not at all. I was 30 when I did the competition, and I joined the Lucerne Opera company when I was twenty one. I had to sing big parts, and just the first year I sang 80 performances, which is something enormous. I had just two weekends off during the whole first season. And that’s not enough even for a fresh young singer. But this taught me “how to survive,” which is very important for an opera career. I worked hard on my technique every day, so I could sing mostly everyday without harming my voice. I was just losing the will to sing, because after all you are young, and it was too much work. In July I just wanted to have some lazy holidays rather than rehearsals and performances. It was too stressful for me, but my voice was fresh.

I had only 50 performances the second season, which seemed like nothing to me. I moved on into the Lyon Opera Company, which was very different. The schedule was less tight, and I sang there with incredible artist. I did “Cosi fan tutte” with Sir Neville Marriner. Can you believe it? I sang with Gabriel Bacquier, Jose Van Dam, it felt like a connection with a “golden past generation.” And I learned very much from “these guys.” At that moment, my artistry was growing very much. Lucerne was like learning how to settle into an operatic career, singing every day, taking care of the voice and the technique. But Lyon was different, because you were sharing the stage with tremendous people, and you needed to put more artistry into your performance. You couldn’t just sing, you had to get into your part, and that influenced your way to make music too. I considered my experience in Lyon like my second big period of studying. I was on stage, but I was still studying: voilà! I’m still studying, and I will be til the end of my career. After three years in Lyon, I began my freelance career. I was around 27, still quite ahead from Operalia. I had already sung Germont and other bit baritone parts before the contest. It was my agent who suggested I join the Operalia competition because that would be the last year I could do so (because of the age limitations).

And then I asked my agent: Is Plácido Domingo really going to be there? Or is it just a name? Because my only reason for attending Operalia was to meet Domingo in person and thank him for all that he had already taught me when I sang over his recordings when I was young. And it happened that Domingo was supervising and taking care of every singer who was in the contest. I wondered how could he have such energy, but as he is still singing today it doesn’t surprise me anymore. He was like a good father giving advice, and spending a lot of time with each singer, even with the singers that lost a round in the competition. So, I won one prize in Operalia, but this did not help me in my career much because I had a career already. And I have never showed-off that I was an Operalia Winner. I’m not like that, and I knew my reasons for joining the competition. But I have very good memories from it, it was like living in a bubble for a week, it was fun, and the organization was amazing. But I came back home, and my life and my career continued as it was.

OW: Despite having performed lots of Verdi roles, you have also performed Mozart, Bel canto, Puccini, French, German and Russian repertoire. Is there a specific Verdi style when approaching his roles?

LT: I would say that what makes Verdi more exciting than others when you are doing it (because on the score all the composers are genius) is that you have everything in Verdi: the volume of Wagner, the musical charisma of Mozart, you have the beautiful melodies like in Bellini or Donizetti, but you have the “big theatre of Verdi”, “The big machine” which is the impact of the words to me. Every word seems to be part of the music, they are melted together, and I think that’s unique.

When you are singing Wagner, and I love Wagner, you are kind of surfing in the music with the words. In Verdi, you are the music. If you sing Wagner without the orchestra people will be bored after a minute, but if you sing, for example: Count di Luna or Posa you will get lots of attention because “you are the music.” Verdi is like a confrontation between two orchestras, the one you have in your throat and the other one in the pit. Some parts of Verdi touch the Everest of what you can do vocally (Wagner too), and nobody has written something so theatrical in music.

You would succeed by singing Mozart without an orchestra too, and I remember I used to say when I was younger: I am singing Mozart like Verdi, while I think that I am singing Verdi like Mozart right now. I find there’s a connection between Mozart and Verdi. Take, for example, the recitatives in Don Giovanni and the ones in Verdi, they are much alike. That’s why I always advise young singers to sing Mozart, because you can find in his music the way to sing everything, even Wagner. So, there is a connection between Verdi and Mozart.

As there is one with Bel canto and Mozart. Bel canto means beautiful singing, and that’s how you have to sing Mozart. There are just some specific differences like the “aperto ma coperto” technique or the way to approach the passaggio, for the Bel canto repertoire which you don’t need for Mozart. But I would sing Verdi the way I do Mozart, but not in the way I sing Bel canto, because in Verdi the words are first, not the voice. You cannot imagine the great Titto Gobbi in Bel canto (Especially at the end of his career because his voice wasn’t especially beautiful), but his Falstaff is pure madness. At the same time there are moments where you can apply the resources of Bel canto like in Posa’s dying scene. He dies like an angel, so you need this “beautiful singing” to inspire you for the long legato lines. But it is only a tool, nothing more. You have to get out of it many times, you have to take risks, you have to overdramatize sometimes.

That is why singing Verdi is so challenging. Some roles like Yago, for example, you need to find a different color for each line. Because you cannot grab this character, he is like a snake, he is changing all the time like madness, because he is the personification of evil. So, you need to master vocally in every aspect including the Bel canto technique. But there’s a lot of Mozart in Iago too, like in the line: “Era la notte, Cassio dormia…” which has the same quality of “Deh vieni alla finestra” from “Don Giovanni.”

OW: Are you still singing the Mozart repertoire?

LT: I do sing Mozart for myself every day. Unfortunately, I am not asked for Mozart roles anymore, which I consider a big mistake. I would sing Mozart tomorrow itself if I am asked. Because it is my center, the home of my voice. When I have the chance to sing a concert with my wife, who is a wonderful Mozart singer, we sing Mozart duets and it feels so relaxing, so healthy.

OW: Speaking of Rigoletto, which you are currently singing at Teatro Real, is this the ultimate baritone role?

LT: Yes, it is one of the biggest. Like most Verdi baritone parts (like Renato in “Ballo in Maschera”) you have to change gears. You begin like a high baritone, but at the point you are going to sing the Quartet in act three you are a bass-baritone, but with high tenor-like notes like A flat in “Vendetta” or A natural in the final “maledizione.” And a bass-baritone with high notes is a dramatic baritone. You have to go through this arch from a lyrical high baritone to the dramatic one at the end. The Quartet is very low writing.

To me Verdi’s big baritone parts are split in two, and it’s very difficult to change gears, like with a sportscar that you have to change from fifth to third gear. Until the “vendetta,” Rigoletto is full of energy, and then he becomes very mad. But when he returns to the stage for act three, he is more bitter, he is on the other side of the mirror, in the dark side of the mirror, and therefore you need to find a much darker sound. Because he is obsessed with vengeance and killing the Duke. When people are that obsessed they basically stop eating and sleeping, they become thinner.

And that’s why I think Rigoletto’s character changes drastically, during this month which passes between the “vendetta” and the third act. You can feel that he is eating himself with hatred, and this fascinates me. He changes, of course, when he has his daughter dying in his arms. He becomes, for the very first time, a “real” father. He sings he is not allowed to cry in: “Parisiamo…” but tragically, he can finally cry at the end. After this whole long story, he is finally a normal human being. Because of the pureness of Gilda and her sacrifice, he is allowed to cry.

OW: Many baritones in Verdi’s most famous operas, except Posa, are villains or fathers. You have performed in two French operas where the baritone is the hero and protagonist: Hamlet (which you just sang last February in Paris Opera) and Werther (the baritone version). What would be the difference between a leading French baritone role and Verdi’s?

LT: They are vocally very different, because the language is different. You have to adapt your technique to the language you are singing. Then again, the French legato is very different from Verdi. The French legato is one syllable after the other that comes through your eyes and gets into the room. In the Italian legato you open your throat, and the sound goes straight into your mouth. And these differences are the reason why it is sometimes, too hard to skip from one into the other. The only common thing between French and Italian repertoire are the high notes. High notes are just high notes. So you have to work on the different legatos which mark the style so you can sing with different colors, otherwise it would be too boring because it would all sound alike. Working in different repertoires widens your color palette.

OW: Is Hamlet harder than Rigoletto?

LT: Oh Yeah! It’s huge. And it is not as well-written as Rigoletto is. The role was originally written for a tenor who happened to not be available for the premiere, so Thomas (Hamlet’s composer) had to rewrite the part for a baritone, and this is sometimes shown in the vocal writing of Shakespeare’s hero. But it’s above all a theatrical piece, you really have to pull in the direction of the theatre. Otherwise, it is just nice music. And music should be beautiful, strong, intense… but not nice.

You have a song in “Hamlet,” the “wine song,” and you have to sing it as it is. But the rest of the role is words with music and that requires a different approach, so the role works both vocally and dramatically. You have to be connected to your character the whole time. You can not be a singer who sings. It’s really demanding and difficult, but very rewarding at the same time.

OW: You are a regular at Teatro Real where you have sung “Ballo,” “Puritani,” “Trovatore,” and “Rigoletto.” How do you feel working in this theatre?

LT: This is a house that improves every time I come, and it was already a wonderful theatre the first time I came. I debuted at Teatro Real with Ballo in 2008, when I had to step in as I was singing “Le Nozze di Figaro” in Barcelona. So I found myself alternating between two very different roles and taking the AVE (the fast Spanish train) daily. It is funny because back then Joan Matabosch was the director of Teatre del Liceu, and is director of Teatro Real right now.

After “Ballo,” I sang in Madrid one of the most beautiful productions of “Le Nozze di Figaro” I have ever done. It was directed by Emilio Sagi, a Spanish stage director who is a genius and is an angel. Two qualities that rarely mixed together. When he looks at you, you immediately know what he wants. And then after “Puritani” I did a wonderful production of “Il Trovatore.” It was legendary. So, I have sung my best Figaro and Count di Luna at Teatro Real, so you can imagine how I feel about this theatre.

Plus, the atmosphere at the theatre is very relaxing while working. They are super professional and easy going. They are like a big family. It is beautiful and it sounds good. When some trouble or problem arises during rehearsals, they just fix it. And that is the point: to make beautiful performances not beautiful rehearsals. I can tell that they work very hard about this. And then, how many theatres around the world did what Teatro Real did during the COVID? (Teatro Real opened its doors in June 2022, after three months of mandatory lockdown, with a strict social distance in the audience and the stage). It was along with Monte Carlo, the only theatres opened worldwide. That is why I really appreciate this house, and I have many beautiful projects in Madrid in the next few years.


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