Q & A: Ramon Vargas on Celebrating his 40th Anniversary, His Fondest Memories & the FutureBy Francisco Salazar
On Sept. 10, Ramon Vargas celebrated his 40th anniversary as a singer in a gala at the theater where he first debuted, the Palacio de las Bellas Artes.
Since that debut in 1983, Vargas has gone on to sing at every major theater in the world including the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera, Teatro alla Scala, Wiener Staatsoper, and many more, performing roles in Italian, French, and Spanish from such composers as Verdi, Mozart, Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini, Gounod, Massenet, Offenbach, and Bizet, among others. He has recorded a number of albums, won international awards, and appeared in numerous HD and video recordings.
OperaWire had a chance to speak with the legendary artist about his career, his fondest memories, his future projects and what he sees for the younger generations.
OperaWire: What did it feel like to celebrate your 40th anniversary at the Bellas Artes?
Ramon Vargas: I was thrilled to celebrate my 40th anniversary at the theater where it all began, the Bellas Artes. I was also accompanied by many people I love, like Maria Katzarava and the studio artist members, a program I founded years ago. I was happy to do the concert with someone like me who is a veteran and Maria who is in a crucial moment of her career. Then we were joined by people at the beginning of their careers.
OW: What are your fondest memories at the Bellas Artes?
RV: My debut was really emotional because I was very young and I had not realized what was going on in my life. Forty years ago the world was different and we didn’t have the same communication we have today and we didn’t have the internet. We also didn’t have the same facility of information. So 40 years ago, it was a very different type of youth. Today youth is more informed than before and everything is much quicker.
But I remember my debut very well and how the audience cheered me on. They gave me a sensational applause. They knew I was a debutant so they supported me. But what is amazing is that even though it has been 40 years, a lot of that audience that first applauded me is it still around and they came to my gala. That makes me happy and grateful.
OW: When you first started, did you ever think you would get as far as you have?
RV: I never thought about it. I always had hope that something could happen but it was not my objective. I think that is important to say because I always tell the youth that if they are studying singing to become famous, it’s better that they don’t have this career. This career is very difficult and there is no guarantee. The only thing that they will leave with is frustration because singing is about passion. With passion, things may start to move forward. That is what I believe.
OW: What has allowed you to maintain your career for so many years?
RV: I don’t think there is a rule for how long a career lasts but from my point of view, the tenor and the soprano voice are the ones that wear easier. We are like the forward position in soccer and baritones are like the defense or midfield players. The basses are the goalies. Their vocal cords are less exposed to wear out. So it is a bit abnormal for a tenor at my age to continue to sing at the level I am singing. A lot of my generation has retired and I think the most important thing for a singer is to recognize his or her limits. I think that it is the most important. You have to know who you are and never try to pass that. That is what I think is going to guarantee that your instrument lasts longer and that you don’t force it.
OW: I imagine it also has to do with choosing the correct roles and knowing when to say no.
RV: You have to know what you can do and what you can’t do. Another way is to do the roles with your voice. Adapt them to your voice and your personality. You should not do dramatic roles in ways that are not suitable to your voice, If you do dramatic roles, you will have issues in the future. It’s like a Formula 2 motor that you want to put in a Formula 1 motor. That will not work.
Singing is delicate and you have to know those delicacies. If you have a lightweight voice and you try to sing with a heavy sound, then you will be at a disadvantage. If you have a Wagnerian work or a Leoncavallo work or verismo, and you don’t have the vocal weight to do it, do not sing them because you will be knocked out. And if you try to sing them, sing it your way. Bring to your voice.
For example, I just debuted Don Jose in “Carmen.” I learned a lot. Don Jose is a role everyone knows and the role is very difficult. For me, I have a medium-weight voice and I have to know how to work the dramatic moments in the opera. Since I am not a dramatic voice, I took it to an emotional level and I presented a Don Jose who is much more insecure and suffers a lot. I presented a less dramatic Don Jose who doesn’t know how to deal with his emotions. In the end, I gave it an emotional feel that wasn’t completely dramatic and was filled with frustrations and I think it worked very well for me.
OW: What is some advice that you would give young singers today?
RV: I think of the things that I had was a coach who helped me pick the roles and also worked with me every so often. That is something a lot of young singers do not have currently. They have agents and theaters that demand. They are not being guided. That is dangerous for young singers because they do not have the experience and they don’t get to mature their voices. They demand that these young singers perform. But young singers have to be patient.
Now singers debut in big houses in big roles. If they do not do well, they will not sing there any longer. If they do it well, the general manager takes credit for it. The singer and artist is the one who suffers. So you have to be patient and know when you should do it.
When I started, I sang in Lucerne which was a small theater and I was happy. That is a small theater that young singers do not have anymore because the small theaters now want to contract the big stars. That’s what is the point of regional theaters. I think it’s important to bring expert singers there because the youth can learn from it. But there should be places where the young singers can gain experience. That is disappearing and that is a huge problem.
OW: As a singer, you started with Rossini and slowly moved into Verdi and Puccini. Why doesn’t that happen anymore?
RV: It has to do with streaming and HD. Opera was not made for cinemas. It was made for singers who were experienced and had to sing in the theater. If you want to put a “Madama Butterfly” in cinemas, the younger the singer looks, the better for cinema. But that doesn’t work for theater because the role is for an expert. It’s a very difficult role.
Before the pandemic, the year of Offenbach, three theaters called me to save productions of “Hoffmann” because the singers were too young and couldn’t handle the role. You cannot cast based on looks. Every singer has to mature but there is no time to respect that time because the theaters demand younger every time. They want singers to be Hollywood idols. I don’t agree with that.
I think HD is important for exceptional performances but not for everything.
OW: You sang in HD performances. How was that experience?
RV: They had to adapt the camera to us. I did not adapt to the camera. I did it because it was the first time and it was an exceptional time. It was more important. There was also “Eugene Onegin” and it was a good moment. But to do everything? No. The casts are now being done for HD. It doesn’t matter how they sound in the theater. It matters how they sound in HD. The voices are unbalanced in the theaters but the visual and the image are balanced. And that is not the reason we do theater. It is great to do it and to experiment but we should not do it all the time. I like them but it should not be the objective.
OW: You will be doing “Norma” later this season. Do you think you are experimenting more with the roles you take?
RV: I am taking on roles that I did not permit myself to do years ago. For example, I started doing only “Tosca” a couple of years ago. I let that role sit for many years. I even canceled it twice because I didn’t feel I could do it. The same thing happened with “La Bohème” when I was very young. I didn’t accept the role and then I sang it in Bellas Artes and then rested it for a couple of years and then came back to it and the rest of history with it. So this career is about analyzing and knowing how to say no more than yes.
Now I am doing these roles that I am satisfied with and I am adapting my acting capabilities and my vocal capabilities. Today my voice is more centered so I am taking advantage of singing them. I also now avoid the higher roles because I know that I will be forcing my voice and it’s not worth it.
OW: What are some of your favorite roles and highlights of your career?
RV: The role that I love the most is Edgardo. I love singing it because I consider the role very special as a theatrical figure. Edgardo was my first contract in Europe. I sang it first in Bern and it was my debut at teh Metropolitan Opera. It opened up so many doors and for 24 years I sang at the Met for more than 230 performances in 20 different roles.
I also love Nemorino. Edgardo is noble and Nemorino is the nicest. These were two of my most important. I also loved Werther and I consider it one of the most complicated ones. I love Hofmann. It’s a tortured role and it’s a very interesting role artistically. These were my most famous ones.
But I loved “Un Ballo in Maschera” and it’s one of the roles I have sung the most. I enjoyed singing it.
OW: Are there any colleagues or productions that you most remember working with?
RV: I always have great memories of some of the best experiences. I have a lot of appreciation for Ruth Ann Swenson who I sang with at the Met for many years. I sang many operas with and she is an extraordinary artist. She was an amazing singer. With Mariela Devia, I sang at the beginning of my career. I sang a lot of the operas with her which opened the doors for me in Italy. I sang a lot with her and remember our performances. Those were my beginnings. I also loved working with Riccardo Muti a lot at the Teatro alla Scala and it was an honor to be part of the maestro’s team. I sang the 100th anniversary of Verdi’s death with him and I did “Rigoletto,” “La Traviata,” the Requiem, and “Falstaff” with him.
Ferruccio Furalnetto. I also sang a lot with him and there are a lot of artists who I have sung with that I have had great times with. Our generation is a kind one because the generation before mine was a bit more difficult.
OW: What are some of your immediate plans? What roles are you excited about in the future?
RV: Right now I have a number of concerts and I will return to Mexico to sing a Verdi role. I will sing “Norma” in Japan. I will also sing “La Clemenza di Tito” in Hamburg. There may be a “Lohengrin” and I think that will be the culmination of my career. I am very active but I am starting to slow down. I don’t need to sing that much and I need more time to recover. I recognize that now.