Q & A: Roberto Alagna on ‘Al Capone,’ Singing With Aleksandra Kurzak & His Own Upcoming Projects

By Mike Hardy

Roberto Alagna is a renowned French-Sicilian tenor whose career could grace a fairy tale novel.

Considered to be the least talented in a large family of musicians, he nonetheless spent his youth busking around Paris cabarets, singing pop music accompanied with his guitar. But his passion, fired by Mario Lanza films, was opera and, largely self-taught, he pursued that dream. That culminated in him winning the Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition in 1988 after having been discovered by French impresario and opera director Gabriel Dussurget. There is an account of Pavarotti inviting him to an audition, after Alagna sneaked in to get his autograph when the great Italian tenor was visiting Paris.

In 1995, he received the most prestigious British theatre award, the Laurence Olivier Award, for his performance as Romeo in Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette” and he was subsequently catapulted to international stardom. He was constantly referred to as the “NEW Pavarotti” or “The fourth tenor,” referring to the renowned trinity of Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras. The government of France named Alagna Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur in 2008. He is married to Polish operatic soprano Aleksandra Kurzak, where Opera Wire caught up with Roberto at his home in France.

OperaWire: Congratulations on your recent run with Jean-Félix Lalanne’s “Al Capone.” Despite its apparent success, I understand they have closed the run early?

Roberto Alagna: Yes, it has been a wonderful and successful artistic adventure. I thank the audience who warmly cheered us on during the 45 or 46 performances we sang, which is quite an achievement. All the more so that the run occurred whereas the atmosphere in Paris was very messy. In addition to economic downturn and inflation, a highly tense social climate was really negatively affecting the day to day life. There were strikes in the public transport, the trains, the airplanes, we had power outages due to fuel blockades, demonstrations in the streets, tons of rubbish not collected … it was very difficult to arrive at the theatre, many renounced to come from province or from abroad. But you probably don’t imagine the real account, the real cause of why they closed without extra period.

I was surprised, they said in the newspaper, that the show supposedly gave a bad image of women in 2023. The producer stopped the performance to completely rewrite a new story, and they changed everything. In the revised story, they would like to put Al Capone in danger from the women, and it changed everything. The composer did not agree with this, too; I said, “I can’t do another musical, you know?” But the producer says it is this or nothing. So it has been nothing. And it is a pity because we sang every night for a full house, and each time we received standing ovations. You know, it is terrible; we are living in strange times.

In this story, Al Capone was a nice guy and the bad one was rather Eliot Ness. Capone was taking care of his fiancée and of his sister. It was like a “Romeo and Juliet” in Chicago … It was very nice, with a beautiful music, everybody was so happy; the cast, the audience. But they wanted to change everything. A pity.

OW: This musical marked a major move away from your normal repertoire. Tell me what was the experience like for you, what difficulties you encountered, and how did it differ from performing your usual operatic roles?

RA: Yes, different but it was a very pleasant experience. It was difficult because we have to sing every night and, on Saturdays, two shows and after that, matinee on Sundays during one entire month. I was happy, too, because it was something new for me, a new adventure. I hope now we will have the possibility to perform, at least, the show on tour. But the problem is the composer gave the rights to the producer, and I think they are now in a conflicted relationship.

OW: You are usually described as a FRENCH operatic tenor. Of course, you obtained French citizenship in 1981, but I’ve always described you as Franco-Sicilian. How do you describe yourself?

RA: Right, I was born in France, my parents were from Sicily. But do you want to hear something funny? When I started, many years ago, a director of an opera house asked me: “What do you want to sing, here next year, in this theatre?”

I replied: “I would like to sing Romeo and Juliet.”

And he replied: “That’s impossible, you are an ITALIAN tenor. You can’t….you know, French, it’s something special. You have to be French.”

I say to him: “OK, but I AM French!”

They say: “No. No…..you’re like Luciano Pavarotti….this type of voice….”

And today, they say I am a French tenor …

OW: I remember your meteoric rise to fame, and you were frequently referred to as the “4th Tenor”, and ‘The NEW Pavarotti’. Knowing that Luciano Pavarotti was your idol, how did this moniker impact you?

RA: You know, I was never ambitious; never ever in my life. I was so shy all the time! I was the first to be surprised to be qualified at such a level.

I remember when I spoke with my father, I used to say: “Oh, watch this guy, he’s very good, or THIS tenor, he’s good…” and my father would say: “Oh, but you are better.”

And I would say: “No, it’s not possible…”

But it was always like this. I was very, very humble my entire life, and still today. Still today, I have always to find something to study, to progress, to explore, to make evolution. Of course, being described like that as a young singer, it also meant a kind of pressure. In any case, it’s all the time pressure when you go on stage. People, sometimes, would like to attend every night a miracle. It’s not possible, to do a miracle every night.

And indeed, when a performance is good, it IS a miracle. I say that, and I was very lucky. I have had a lot of beautiful performances during my life. And I’m still here, not so bad is it? This year marks my forty years on stage. And do you know what is important? I still have this flame inside. This fire. This passion. This is why I’m lucky. Sometimes, you don’t lose your voice. You lose the pleasure, the nerve, the passion, the spark. But as for me, I still feel the same thrill for singing like at the beginning. I have an unaltered desire to always try to do better and better; To study; To try to reach out and find other possibilities. I am like this. I am an eternal student.

OW: You come from a big family of musicians and singers, of course?

RA: Yeah, yeah… And yet, when my Mum asked me: “Are you sure you want to do this profession?”

I responded that I wanted only to enter in the choir. It was my biggest ambition, to join a choir. And after that, when I started the career, I remember I said to my Mum: “Ok, if it could last five, six years it would already be very nice.” And now it has been 40 years!

OW: Both yourself and Aleksandra Kurzak withdrew from performing “Tosca” in Barcelona in 2022. Aleksandra famously stated: “I signed a contract to sing Tosca by Puccini, not pricks by Pasolini!” What was your take on the production?

RA: I consider that a staging that I can’t go to see with my daughter and cannot be good for me. That’s my criteria and THAT was the problem. Not because of the nudity, because today we are used to that. But among other things, they put on stage a young girl wearing a muzzle, a mask, like a dog, you know? It had a lot of things like that. It was inspired by “Salò” by Passolini. You can’t go with your nine-year-old daughter to see that. How or what can I explain to her, why her Mum and Dad are playing in that?

For me, opera is like the puppet show when you were a child. It is the same for adults and for anybody. We need to take pleasure and have the possibility to go and enjoy with our family. And our daughter loves opera. She wants to see her father and mother performing. It’s for her that I’m still singing on stage. I could stop today. But I still sing so that Malèna, (Alagna’s daughter), can perhaps keep some beautiful memories of her father and mother on stage. And with that Tosca, I said to myself that I can’t do that to my daughter.

By the way, do you know that after that story, they finally made major changes in the production? Maybe because of us, they changed everything.

OW: You withdrew from performing “Lohengrin” in 2018, citing your heavy schedule and inability to fully learn the role. But you went on to successfully perform it in 2020. How did this role differ from your other repertoire, and what were the difficulties you found learning it?

RA: At that time I was troubled in the last months of my preparation by the consequences of some health problems. But I have to say that what also contributed to this situation and my discomfort was that the atmosphere was just not good there, (The Bayreuth Festival). I had a lot of problems there and finally, I realized that this festival was definitely not for me. Today you know, I’m no longer a young guy at the beginning of his career. I come to sing in good conditions. Not to feel like in a jail, constrained and under pressure. They wanted me to do something I didn’t want. They wanted me to open a part of Lohengrin that is usually cut from the production. I said I disagree because it’s a very heavy part, they insisted that I had to learn it and I said no. So they made the production with another tenor, but… WITH the cut!

Since then, I went on to sing the role twice in Berlin. Once streamed without an audience because it was during the pandemic and the lockdown, and once with an audience and it was very nice. I hope to have the possibility to sing this role more, because I love it.

OW: So, after a 40-year career, what else is left for Roberto Alagna? What other roles would you like to perform?

RA: I’m the first to be surprised that I sang this very large repertoire. Because for me, everything was difficult. Even ‘L’elisir d’amore.’ Every role was a challenge. And I sang far more than I expected. I sang a wide range of scores, quite a lot…..maybe too much, I don’t know. So what else can I still dream of? I don’t know, maybe “Forza del Destino,” I never sang that. Or maybe “La fanciulla del West.” Maybe something like this, otherwise I believe I sang everything possible for me.

OW: In recent years I know you’ve been an advocate of restoring to prominence neglected French operas like Alfano’s “Cyrano de Bergerac,” Massenet’s “Le jongleur de Notre-Dame,” Lalo’s “Fiesque,” and new works – Vladimir Cosma’s “Marius et Fanny.” Tell me what inspired you to want to do this?

RA: Yeah, but I made the same with Italian operas too, you know? I sang a lot of pieces from less known operas, “Francesca da Rimini” or “L’amico Fritz,” this kind of repertoire. I sang also that. Because, I was and am still in love with opera. I love opera, it is my passion and each time I had the possibility to sing something new, or something unknown, I made it. Also, new compositions, contemporary works. I think I was lucky. I was lucky because I received a lot of possibilities. I never asked for something. I never made an appointment with an opera house to say: “Oh, next year, I would like to do this, or this or this.” Never in my life. All the time I received a proposal to sing, and I said yes or no. I think when you are in this position it is fantastic. It’s a chance, a privilege. And I am very grateful for that.

OW: My personal favorite role that I saw you sing, sadly only on DVD, was Puccini’s “La Rondine.” That final act was the most heart-rending, gut-wrenching thing I’ve ever seen. You were very clearly distressed in the final act, with genuine tears. How did you manage to evoke that?

RA: It’s the music! It’s the music. Sometimes in music, you have such harmonies….such accord… it makes this sensation to you. I had that many times. In “La Rondine,” in that moment… invariably I have tears. Because of the accord. Because of the sound of this music. I have this emotion sometimes when I listen to Chopin. It’s the same. In one or two phrases or melodies, I can’t hold my tears.

It was the same when I sang “Orfeo ed Euridice.” My brother used the happy ending, he transposed that for choir, and he put that passage at the beginning of the opera, during the accident. And it’s crazy because it was the happy ending, but in that version with the choir singing that, every time, every night, I had tears in my eyes. Real tears, because of the music. I had that also in “Andrea Chenier,” when the baritone sang for his father. Two words there are enough to make me cry.

I am like this. Sometimes, in the opera or even in a movie, a certain gesture or something. I can’t restrain my tears. The same in “Cyrano,” in the letter scene, I have to control a lot because otherwise emotions overwhelm me. In that moment when he starts to read the letter to Roxanne. (Sings a few notes), The music, makes me cry. I can’t control that.

OW: Finally, of course, you have sung many roles with Aleksandra. What is it like living with a soprano and how do you guys decide what roles to perform in?

RA: Ah, to be a couple of opera singers, for me it’s wonderful. Singing is my lifelong passion, and to have somebody who understands me, and I understand her, it’s perfect for me. Sure, it’s difficult sometimes, to manage our schedules, conciliate our private and professional lives and so on, it’s true, but to be with somebody who can’t understand you, it’s difficult, too.


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