Q & A: Rolando Villazón on Being Fulfilled, the Major Turning Points of His Career & Never Quitting

By Mike Hardy
(Photo: Stéphane Gallois)

Through his uniquely compelling performances, Rolando Villazón has firmly established himself as one of the music world’s most critically acclaimed and beloved stars and as one of the leading artistic voices of our day. It was as the winner of several prizes at the “Operalia” Competition in 1999 (including the audience award and the Zarzuela prize) that Rolando Villazón first illuminated the international music scene. He went on to become one of the most sought-after performers of his generation, as highlighted by a string of highly successful debuts with Europe’s leading opera houses.

In addition to his singing career, Rolando is also a stage director, to critical acclaim, a television presenter and personality and a successful published author.

Opera Wire caught up with Rolando at his Paris home.

OperaWire: Thank you for speaking to us, I know you’re very busy preparing for concerts in Dresden on the 23rd and Monte Carlo on the 24th February.

Rolando Villazón: It’s my pleasure! Monte Carlo is actually the same program I did a week ago in Andermatt and Dresden is the SemperOpernball or Opera Ball, live on TV in Germany. It’s a busy time!

OW: Congratulations on a hugely successful “Magic Flute” at the Met at the end of last year. Of course, you have always been a renowned performer as well as a singer, and this role allows you to do just that.

RV: Thank you! It was very nice to be back at the Met with this production. You know, the first time I did this role, some people said, “Oh, he’s now a baritone.” But the reason I recorded Papageno, and am happy to sing Papageno today, is because I feel a deep connection with the character. I just love Papageno. And, it is important to note that the role was written for the librettist of the “Magic Flute,” Emmanuel Schikaneder who also was the first Papageno. He was not a baritone, he was an actor who possibly had the voice of a baritone.

To me, and knowing Mozart the way I know him now, Mozart wrote music for the people he was working with, and he was extremely flexible and adapted his compositions for the artists he was writing for. When he had the tenor Anton Raaff, whom he loved, for “Idomeneo,” and he heard him sing, he said: “Wait, let me re-write this for you. You cannot sing all these Coloraturas.”

Mozart always wrote for the person in front of him and he wrote Papageno for Schikaneder, not just a generic baritone.

OW: You incurred a nasty injury last year when suspended in a harness whilst rehearsing “Orfeo.” How have you recovered from that?

RV: Ah, fortunately that has healed well. The harness wasn’t well placed in that rehearsal, and to compensate, I had to use my muscles too much and I strained them. I don’t know how I managed to finish the rehearsal. They offered to stop and get me to hospital but I said, no, let’s finish the rehearsal. The first show I did I was still in enormous pain, and then it slowly got better. But it’s fine. The production was fun, and I’m fully recovered now.

OW: In your own words, your career “exploded” when you sang Hoffman in 2004 at Covent Garden. What was it about the role that you embraced and were able to perform so well?

RV: There are always a couple of elements that “make” a career and you cannot point at just one, but what was important for me in that first Hoffman in Covent Garden were the opportunities that particular role gave me as a singer and an actor. The invitation to sing it came after I sang in Operalia in 1999. Peter Katona, (Director of Casting at The Royal Opera) was there as part of the jury, and he first offered me the role of ‘The Italian Singer’ in “Der Rosenkavalier.” I tried it and decided I wasn’t going to do it because it’s too short and it’s quite exposed, and if I have a crack then that’s it! That’s all the role, you have nothing else to show.

Then some time later, Peter came back and offered me the role of Hoffman which was a big thing because it was my debut in that role and my debut in the opera house, and in such a legendary production. I remember when I was interviewed they asked me…. “So, this production was premiered by Placido Domingo, it has been sung by Alfredo Kraus, Francisco Araiza, Marcello Alvarez, Schicoff… all these great tenors, great names, great stars have performed it. How do you feel about that?” I said “Well, now comes Villazon! Whatever that will be! What can I do?” I’m not trying to compare myself with history or anyone really. It was a joy for me to come and sing it and remains one of my favorite roles. You can find so many colors, there is an incredible dramatic arc, it’s comic and tragic. The three stories that he tells are three different characters, in fact, so you get to sing four different characters: one that sings in the prologue and the epilogue and then the naïve one in Olympia….the more ‘Don Giovanni’ type or aggressive one in the Giulietta act and then the more romantic one in the Antonia act. They are all united by the same character so the essence of who he is must be there in all these stories. The first time I sang the whole thing through was in the dress rehearsal, up until then everything had been split up… one act here…. one act there… the Prologue and the Epilogue together, for practical reasons. So the very first time I actually tried, with full orchestra, with acting and with everything in place was the dress rehearsal. Mad!

In the opening night, I didn’t know really how the performance was going because there is no audience reaction for you until the final curtain. I was just giving it my all and enjoying it. I had a blast. So, when I came at the end there was just this storm… this love… this energy and madness… it remains so very special for me. Maybe my most cherished premier. It came at a moment in my career when I began to realize… OK, something big is happening and I need to now deal with this something big, because to be honest, I was not prepared. I have always tried to be careful with the dreams. When I was a child, I was dreaming of singing with Placido Domingo, but it was just a dream. It was not something I thought was going to happen. Maybe there were things I did in order for that to happen but I never made a conscious decision to become this tenor, or have this career. I’ve been very lucky. And, of course, as things were happening, I needed to deal with fame, deal with expectations, all of a sudden.

Throughout, I never wanted to lose sight of the artist I wanted to be and to remain faithful to that artist.

OW: You refer to Plácido Domingo quite a bit. Of course, Domingo played a pivotal role in your development as an artist. He grew up in Mexico, also. Were you aware of him before you knew you wanted to sing?

RV: Yes, I discovered his voice, his singing, by accident. My father used to work in CBS, a recording company at the time. He used to get a lot of boxes with LP’s, vinyl recordings, and many of them were classical music. That was how I first got into classical music. I saw a beautiful LP with a picture of a violin, and I said, let’s hear what this sounds like. It was Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, and I fell in love, practically from the first movement. So I started taking out these vinyls and listening. I must have been around ten years old and I came to be known as this weird boy who likes classical music. So one of my best friends gave me a present of an opera vinyl; and that was Plácido Domingo. But it was NOT opera, it was Domingo singing with John Denver “Perhaps Love,” a crossover album. But I fell in love with this voice and this way of singing. I learned the songs and I tried to sing like him.

I was maybe twelve or thirteen and I was singing in a school event. In the audience was a baritone, Arturo Nieto, and he said to me: “If you work on your voice you might be interested in singing opera.” I wasn’t sure, I thought I didn’t like opera. So, I started to get a little teaching, not just about singing but about what opera is…..repertoire, composers, etc….by which time I was around seventeen or eighteen years old.

And so, it was wonderful how years later, I ended up singing for Plácido in an audition and he invited me to Operalia. It was not my goal to win the competition, all I wanted was to be part of the final gala. So, I had only to win one prize to be in the final gala. At the time, there was the final with orchestra, and the winners got to sing in a gala with Plácido Domingo. And that was all I wanted, you know? I didn’t know if I could win anything. There was this bass, Orlin Anastassov, and I just knew we could not beat this guy. Joseph Calleja was there, Giuseppe Filianoti was there…. Mariola Cantarero was there….

So I put all of my energy and focus and concentration into the Zarzuela where I thought I had the best shot. I didn’t win the first prize but I won the second prize….and I won the Zarzuela and I won the audience prize. But really, to me, I was in heaven to know I was going to be in the gala with Plácido.

And then, when we were putting together the repertoire for the gala, Plácido turned to me and said:
“Rolando, do you sing the duet from ‘La Bohème’?”

I said: “You mean with Mimì, in the first act?”

He says, “No, no. ‘O Mimì, tu più non torni’ with the baritone.” And I felt really stupid because I didn’t know where this was going and I said: “Yes Maestro, but there are no baritones.” To which he replied: “Ha, I already sang it for Pavarotti so I can sing it for you!” (Laughs).

And so we sang together and this was just……I could not believe it….these were things you see in bad movies….and I’ve had many moments like this throughout my career, it’s crazy.

And of course, Plácido remained this incredible inspiration. I was so lucky to see him also in rehearsal because that was a great lesson for me: I watched an artist who I think is the greatest of all time, working as if he was just coming out of the conservatory. Asking questions…..asking permission to do things……giving ideas and accepting it if those ideas didn’t work, not telling people what to do or where to be but just being there for the best of the whole thing. That was so impressive to me.

OW: Your career was blighted, for a period, by the well-documented vocal issues that you have encountered, and it’s a testament to you as an artist that you were able to change and evolve so well where others perhaps would, and HAVE, quit. Could you explain what impact those issues had on you and how you managed to adapt? I also understand an operation for an acid reflux problem a few years ago may have helped?

RV: Yes, I had to overcome three big, existential issues as a performer: the congenital cyst, massive performance anxiety problem, and then severe acid-reflux. Many people would probably quit just with one of these, yes.

The stomach operation for acid reflux was in 2018, and it really did change everything, because before, I thought I was ready to quit. I was struggling so much, it became just impossible. I told myself that I will try to make it to 50 and then call it a career.

I had the congenital cyst removed in 2008 and in the two years before that, I was forced to adapt my technique and was not singing in the healthiest way. As my surgeon later said though: “You don’t have a cyst because you pushed your voice. You pushed your voice because you have a cyst.” That was of course extremely important to hear because I understood that I should not blame myself.

I saw 23 doctors around the world, and I got 23 different diagnoses, but they all had one thing in common – they didn’t know how I was able to sing at all given the cyst. One doctor in New York said: “You’re singing at the MET? What I don’t understand is how you are able to speak with these vocal cords.”

After that surgery, things were better for a few years but it didn’t last. The anxiety came, and then the reflux.

Luckily, I had a chance encounter with a colleague who had had surgery for acid reflux. He referred me to his doctor and he diagnosed me with massive acid reflux which could have caused oesophageal cancer, and recommended the surgery. COVID then gave me the time and space to re-work my technique, which was a bit of a blessing.

So when I did turn 50 in 2022, I didn’t quit but instead celebrated the beginning of my next chapter with a big, televised gala concert – and Plácido was there, among many treasured colleagues. That meant so much.

Right now, I think “fulfilled” is the best word to describe my state of mind. I’m very skeptical about the word happy. I think happiness is just little moments in the line of life in general, for every human being. I don’t say that we live in unhappiness, but that happiness are these special bursts of light that we have in just living. I’m at the point in my career where I don’t really expect nothing more than doing well with what I have. And fortunately, my years are full of great adventures.

OW: You said that at your concert to celebrate your 50th birthday, you sang some roles that you hadn’t sang for many years. Do you think that your voice of old is coming back, would you want to try and sing some of your old repertoire or do you want to focus on new roles?

RV: I think my voice is the voice I have at 52. I have found a technique that goes hand-in-hand with this voice. And I want to focus on repertoire that feels exciting to me. Now, I think I could sing Alfredo, “La Traviata,” but I don’t want to sing it. What I wanted to say with Alfredo, I have already said. So, I am a 52-year-old performer that has adapted his technique in a way that allows him to feel secure with what he sings. Maybe “Hoffmann” is something? But I’m also looking forward to more new stuff. I’m doing “Idomeneo” next year for the first time, so I’m excited about that. It’s a wonderful challenge I look forward to embracing.  I sing Ottavio, I sing Tito, I sing Orfeo, Loge, Pelléas, Eisenstein in “Die Fledermaus,” so many wonderful things. Lensky, “Eugene Onegin,” is also a role I love and I’m happy to sing today. There is only one opera I wish I had sung and I don’t think I will ever sing – “Tosca.” But apart from that, there is nothing else.

OW: You mentioned “Tosca.” You have or had a longing to perform the role of Cavaradossi?

RV: Ah, yes, the only role where I really wish I had performed it. Who knows, maybe it will come just before I finally retire (laughs). But really, I need to be doing repertoire that allows me to be free as an artist, and fulfilled.

Once in an interview, I was asked, “What would you tell the young Rolando?”

I replied that I would say: “Look. This is me. You will be 52. Do you like what you see and what I am doing, because that’s going to be you?”

And if the answer of the young Rolando is: “Yes” then I would tell him: “Then don’t change anything. Do everything exactly the same. Whether you think it’s wrong or right, do the same because this is the consequence.”

If the young Rolando answered: “No,” then I would tell him: “Then don’t change anything because I DO like who I am at 52, so you’d better keep doing what you’re doing!” (Laughs)


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