Q & A: Celso Albelo on Tackling the Bel Canto Repertoire

By Mauricio Villa
Photo: Joan Tomàs

The Spanish tenor Celso Albelo debuted in the role of Duke of Mantua alongside Leo Nucci in 2006. He has performed since then in major opera houses around the world. For 17 years, he has been singing leading tenor roles.

Being the Duke is one of his signature roles. His extensive tessitura–he can sing a stratospheric high F in full voice–and astonishing volume and projection made him specialized in bel canto roles, which are rarely performed due to the vocal tenor difficulties like: “I puritani,” “Il Pirata,” “William Tell” or “Anna Bolena.”

The tenor debuted the role of Macduff in Verdi’s “Macbeth” at Teatre del Liceu, and OperaWire caught up with him in Barcelona the day before one of his performances.

Opera Wire: How did a child born in Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, end up in the operatic world? Did your family have a musical background?

Celso Albelo: The folkloric music is very rooted in the Canary Islands, and everyone plays the guitar at least. I have always played the guitar and sung, but I always became hoarse and voiceless after singing.

When I studied “History of Art” at university, I joined “La tuna” (a group of university students who play in traditional university dress, using traditional instruments and sing serenades), but I kept having serious vocal problems. So, I decided to start taking voice lessons to train my voice.

My first teacher was Pilar Castro Palazón, who was the first person who hooked me up on this “healthy drug” that opera is. It started as a hobby, but little by little, it became serious work. I never thought I had the qualities or the talent to sing opera, but after years of training, here I am.

OW: You began your career singing in opera choruses. What was the transition like going from chorister to soloist?

CA: When my voice had improved enough, I started auditioning and joined the chorus of Opera de Tenerife. After a while, I moved to the peninsula and kept auditioning for different choirs, but I never passed a single audition.

I felt I wasn’t ready for principal roles, but I tried auditions for small opera roles. It seemed I wasn’t good enough either. I almost felt like giving up an opera career and going back to my town. But I decided to join a competition in Italy.

The great tenor, Carlo Bergonzi, heard my participation and came to me and said: “If you study with me, I will make you sing in the biggest theatres around the world.”  That was my last “try.” The rest is history, and here I am.

OW: It’s difficult to believe that nobody wanted to hire you at the beginning of your career.

CA: Well, that’s life. There are multiple factors to be taken, not only talent and good quality. I have been vetoed because I am “fat.”

It is unbelievable that nowadays, when we are fighting for racial and LGBTQ+ rights, and against sexual harassment, I am still losing contracts because I am “fat.” And it is not fair because I am fit. I can run, jump, climb; not everyone is a “model” in daily life. You can fall in love with a person who is not skinny.

It was really hurtful at the beginning of my career, but I have learned to accept it because, somehow, it is something I cannot change. And I am not talking about “morbid obesity.”

I am conscious that I am overweight and that I don’t have a slim figure, but I am not “crippled,” I can move, and I can act. But still today, I am losing some contracts because of my size.

I know that opera has changed, and that it is a global spectacle right now, that you need to act, that it is not just about singing. But I can act, I am fit, and I am agile. I don’t think my weight compromises my performance.

Would Luciano Pavarotti or Monserrat Caballe have the big career and impact they had today? I don’t believe so. Can you imagine what the world of opera would lose without voices like Pavarotti or Caballe?

OW: Most of your repertoire has always included the hardest operas of the bel canto repertoire. This repertoire is sung by lirico-leggero voices who can deal with the high tessitura and extremely high notes. But your voice does not belong to that classification; your volume and projection are bigger, and your timbre is darker. So, how would you define your voice?

CA: I couldn’t say. Because of my vocal range (which goes up to a high F), my fraseo, and the qualities of my sound, I have always felt comfortable singing high bel canto and certain Verdi roles (Albelo has been singing the tenor roles in “Rigoletto,” “La Traviata,” and “Falstaff” from the beginning of his career).

But I think my voice is becoming more lyrical now, although I can still sing a high F; that is the normal evolution of a healthy tenor voice. “You cannot run 10,000 meters if you haven’t trained and run 1,500 meters first.” So, I believe I started as a short-distance runner, and I am a long-distance runner now.

OW: You mentioned that your voice is going through a natural evolution. But we see how short careers are nowadays and how quickly opera singers have disappeared. Don’t you think your “natural evolution” depends on a wisely chosen repertoire?

CA: Yes, that is essential to maintain a healthy voice. To sing roles that feel good for your voice. It is important not to overwork, too. There’s a tendency today for young singers to sing everything and everywhere quickly.

OW: How long have you been singing “I Puritani?”

CA: I have been singing “Puritani” for seventeen years, since the beginning of my career.

OW: Very few tenors have managed to maintain that opera in their repertoire; it’s a title usually sung a few times at the beginning of a career but left behind rather quickly. How is it possible that you are still singing “I Puritani” after seventeen years?

CA: Well, I have always felt that this role really suited my voice. It just felt comfortable. I don’t think “Puritani” is a lirico-leggero role. You have the duet with the baritone in the First act that requires certain vocal density, and the orchestration is heavier than previous Bellini works. You need to have a wide vocal range; I had that.

OW: Pavarotti said that to sing “Puritani,” you only needed secure high notes, but on the other hand, you had to be a good singer to sing “Sonnambula.” What do you think about this?

CA: “Sonnambula” is written in a higher tessitura than “Puritani,” but it does not go higher than high C. So, it always depends. Maybe a tenor who deals well with a high tessitura but doesn’t have a high D can sing “Sonnambula” and not “Puritani.” But you shouldn’t ignore the true nature of your voice.

I’ll be fifty years old soon; that’s a reality. Can I sing “Sonnambula” today? Yes, I could. But, being honest, I have always thought the character of Elvino is a bit dumb, sexist, abusive, jealous, and selfish. I have sung the role in beautiful theatres, Covent Garden, Liceu, and Wien, but I have had enough.

OW: Did you always have your extremely high notes?

CA: No, quite the opposite. When I started taking singing lessons, I could barely sing above the passagio;  F sharp or a G was my top register.

It was through hard work and years of vocal training that my voice expanded, and I discovered I could easily sing over the high C. But then again, I think I have been very lucky in my career.

I have always been quite healthy, and I have canceled performances very little. I never felt pushed by the theatres, for example, when I had to cancel because of a throat infection.

It is important to know when you have to stop and rest, or else you could hurt your voice badly. Then again, I have never felt that “Puritani,” for example, put my voice to the limit. It is not easy to sing, but I don’t feel it is extreme.

People usually think that I was born with the qualities that my voice has, but it’s not true. I had to work hard to develop my voice. And if I make two or three mistakes on a few notes, this could affect my whole performance.

OW: Do you think the same about Arnold in “William Tell,” which is another of the ‘impossible’ roles you have sung?

CA: “William Tell” is not programmed very often, but I have sung it a few times. The role felt comfortable for my voice and the French language–I have always sung the French version–which has helped me a lot.

I think that every role you sing should feel comfortable for your voice. If a role demands an extreme effort for your voice or stamina, you shouldn’t sing it. It is not right for your voice.

I have no problem with high tessitura and high notes now. I can sing about forty or fifty high B flats per night. The incredible amount of B flats, B naturals, and high Cs present in Rossini’s last opera don’t seem like an extreme challenge for me.

There are sections in the duet with Mathilde in Act two that demands singing legato and mezzo voce in a high tessitura. It Is really hard to “sing beautifully,” which is what bel canto means, and sing the correct dynamics. That’s the real challenge for me in this role.

But I think that this should be a “must” for every role and every kind of repertoire. You sing to express different emotions. Those emotions are expressed musically in the score through the dynamics. This is very noticeable from Verdi onwards, in what is called “singing as talking.”

In bel canto, you usually have the same emotion during the four minutes that the aria lasts. But since Verdi, the use of dynamics is more specific according to the different emotions and mental states of the characters. That is why the singer should respect all that is written in the score. That is how I learned to sing and what I think singing is about.

OW: Since we’re talking about Rossini’s “William Tell,” tell me about singing the short role of the “fisherman.”

CA: Oh yes! There was a moment when it seemed I was the only one available for that role. I even have two recordings: a DVD from Pesaro Rossini Festival and a CD with Pappano.

It is really a hard part, somehow even harder than Arnold, which is the leading tenor role. You have a single aria, at the beginning of the opera, with no chance to warm up your voice on the stage.

The writing of the aria is quite central, between central E and G, but there are two high Cs and a B natural. You’re completely exposed as the orchestration is mostly a harp, and you really need to have secure high notes. The whole performance lies in a three-minute aria.

OW: You are famous for singing effortlessly and mezza voce throughout your whole vocal range, even in the highest register. Is this an innate quality?

CA: Not at all; it is the result of hours working the “failure.” When you’re studying or working on a score, you find that some parts feel like “a limit” to you. So, I always work trying to surpass that limit. Because either it is a vocal or a physical limit, or both. So, I work hard and try to go over the limit to see what they are.

I like to take risks when I study; I think it is the only way to improve; otherwise, I get bogged down. So, it is really hard work and a long way. When you are ready, it feels comfortable, easy, and secure.

Don’t misunderstand me; I don’t take risks in performances. I just like to put my voice and my body to the limit to see how far I can go. But as I said in the previous question, all the dynamics you “need/have” to sing are written in the score, and if they are not, I find the dramatic context around which a phrase should be sung.

In “I Puritani,” for example, on the recitative before the “fountain aria” in Act three, Arturo sings: ‘Oh patria! Oh amore!’ You cannot sing both lines with the same intention. He sings: ‘Oh patria,’ lamenting the country he has left behind. But then he remembers the woman he loves that he abandoned too, so there’s an inflection, a change.

The line is written right in the passagio between G and F. I feel the need to sing ‘amore’ with sweetness and sadness, and therefore, I usually do a diminuendo. It would obviously be easier to sing everything in forte, as it is in the passagio where the voice breaks easily, but I feel the need to work hard on this line to be able to sing it as I feel it should be sung. But later on, in the aria, Bellini writes in: ‘par duol’ a G above the stave, which lasts three bars, and he writes a crescendo/diminuendo. If you hold this note that long in forte, it sounds heroic and strong, but Arturo is feeling remorse, regret, and sadness. So, this dynamic “has” to be done to express the correct emotions of Arturo.

I think that I am an “honest” singer. I have read reviews and comments that I abuse singing high notes. I honestly don’t think so. But I can sing forte, piano, and mezza voce, and I am conscious that my high notes have a big volume. But somehow, I feel that sometimes they don’t value my singing, but my high D, E flat, or high F. And I consider that my singing is not “common.” It somehow has the quality of the “old school.”

If you hear me sing, you can recognize me. But this is not really appreciated; quite the opposite. But I always feel I have to give my personal touch to my interpretation. With total respect to the score, of course. The score is like a map that leads you to the treasure, and you have to follow and discover that path. It is dangerous to have preconceived ideas. Everything you need to know is in the score and the story. But I remember that when I started studying, people used to say, “This tenor won’t last more than three years” Well, here I am seventeen years later, and I believe I am singing well.”

OW: You are going to debut “Il Trovatore” in a few months in Bilbao. You have recently sung Percy from”Anna Bolena” at the same theatre. You are probably the only tenor that can sing both titles in the same season.

CA: I haven’t thought about that. To me, it’s like an homage to the tenors of past eras where they sang all kinds of repertoire with their own voices. There were not the voice classifications we have today, so as long as you don’t force your sound and sing naturally, you could sing nearly everything. But you have to sing according to the natural qualities of your voice; you cannot “scream” a role.

It is a question of how you sing the “passagio” zone of the voice. It depends to me on how it is written. It depends if there are high notes before or low or if the tessitura is central. So, I have found different ways of singing the “passagio,” and for me, this widens the repertoire. In Macduff, for example, the line, ‘Ah! Trammi al tiranno in facia’ goes from central A flat to F. I had to sing this F covering and lightening the sound because my vocal cords couldn’t sustain this note in forte. But right now, I can sing the F with full voice in forte; I can give dramatism and consistency to that note. But still, I need to have the ability to sing the “passagio,” softening the sound if I want to keep my higher range.

I feel that I can combine both of them now without compromising my voice. Anyway, I don’t think Manrico is a spinto role, as I don’t think that Percy is a leggero role. To me, both roles are quite similar. They are both lyrical roles to me. If you look at Percy’s vocal writing is quite central and heroic ( without considering the cabalettas, which have lots of high notes), so Percy’s second aria: “Vivi tu,” has the same romantic approach as ‘Ah si, ben mio, coll’essere.’ The more I study Manrico, the more I find parallelism with Percy. And I feel I can sing both well, so why shouldn’t I do it?

I really enjoy challenges. I will be singing with Anna Pirozzi, Ekaterina Semenchuk, and Juan Jesus Rodriguez which are probably the best singers available today for “Trovatore.” I feel secure singing with them. Even if the “Euskalduna” (the theatre in Bilbao) is a huge theatre. But I have sung there many times, and I know how my voice works there. I deeply admire maestro Francesco Ivan Ciampa. I have already started studying Manrico’s part with him, and I will travel to Berlin to study with him some more before Bilbao.

I have already found some theatres showing prejudice towards me because of this opera. What will I offer to this tenor who sings Bolena and Trovatore? I still have to think that I have something unique to offer in this competitive career. So, I am looking to open my repertoire so I can have more opportunities while never going against my voice.

Did you know that the same tenor premiered “Traviata” “Rigoletto,” and “Trovatore?” Apparently, the three operas have different vocal writing and range. But according to Verdi, the same tenor should be able to sing them.

OW: How do you study a new role?

CA: I obviously start by reading the score. I read the text and see where the character comes from and what the relationship is with the other characters.  I usually read the original source ( the novel or the play). But I don’t spend much time studying the original source because the librettos in opera always compress the story. Then I put the text in rhythm.

The next step is the notes themselves. And finally, I work with a pianist to properly sing and value the different ways of tackling a certain line and playing with different options. It is very important to me to be open to different interpretations when I start musical rehearsals with the maestro so I can adapt and offer different solutions according to the maestro’s musical point of view of the opera.

OW: Why have you decided at this point in your career, after years of singing leading tenor roles, to debut the short secondary role of Macduff in “Macbeth?”

CA: It always depends on how you value Verdi’s work. Macduff has one of the most beautiful arias ever written for a tenor. And I am planning to move my career toward the Verdi repertoire. This role is pure Verdi language. This is an opportunity for me to study and perform Verdi’s style without much risk. But it is still a big responsibility, and I have studied this role the same way I do with longer or harder roles.

I have always sung, since the beginning of my career, Alfredo in “La Traviata” and the Duque in “Rigoletto.” And I have performed Fenton in “Falstaff” and Riccardo/Gustavo in “Un ballo in Maschera.” But as you mentioned before, I will debut “Il Trovatore” soon. I have heard comments and reviews that my voice was too light and with a white-quality timbre, which wasn’t adequate for Macduff.

OW: I have always thought that you have a dark timbre.

CA: I think too. Despite my high notes, I have always thought my voice was lyrical. And as I said before, I feel my voice is changing according to a natural evolution–even though I can still sing a high F. We’ll see where it goes in ten years’ time, though I don’t see myself singing when I am sixty. Because the body deteriorates with age, as does the voice. After all, singing is a physical activity where muscles are involved, and you can keep working to keep your muscles elastic and strong, but there’s a point where you can’t keep those qualities, and that’s when the voice starts failing.

OW: Do you have any plans when you retire from singing?

CA: I honestly don’t know. I have bought a Laundromat in Rome, so I will maybe work in that business. I don’t see myself teaching voice lessons or becoming a stage director as some singers have done. I wouldn’t mind giving some advice to young singers. After all, I have sung with many generations of singers. I have sung “Rigoletto” with Renato Brusson, Leo Nucci, and Dimitry Horvrostovsky. I have sung with Edita Gruberova and Mariela Devia, and there was something pure and “truth” in their singing. I think that we’re losing those qualities today.

I hear young singers that hide their vocal deficiencies behind coloring their voice and not because of the score demands. It is just the only way they can sing, and this pays its toll. That’s why opera careers are shorter nowadays.

I believe I have something to say to future generations about what I have learned from great singers from the past. That doesn’t mean you have to sing like singers from the past. The technique changes, and so do the circumstances. But you have to be aware that something is not working well when so many voices don’t last today.

OW: Which role would you never sing again?

CA: I think Elvino in “Sonnambula”

OW: And which role would you like to sing in the future?

CA: Verdi roles in general. There’s something that happened to me when I was rehearsing my debut in “L’elisir d’amore,” someone came to me and said, “You will sing Verdi’s Otello one day.” And many people have told me that since then, but I honestly don’t think I can sing Otello. But who knows? I remember I dreamed about singing “Ballo,” but I feared it was completely out of my vocal capacity. I have already sung “Ballo” in Naples, and it felt wonderful. You see, I feel I am in a calm place right now. I can deal with “pressure.” I know my limits. I enjoy my work. Being an opera singer can be a wonderful experience. I have an amazing family. But it is true that the opera world can be stressful, full of negativity, and competitive. But I have passed that period, and I have had my bad moments, but right now, I enjoy every single moment of my life.

OW: To finish our interview: Is there any project you want to talk about?

CA: As a matter of fact on March 31, I am giving a concert at Teatro de la Zarzuela in Madrid, where I will sing Spanish Serenades. I have already recorded a CD with this repertoire. “Serenata Española” on Atlantida records. I did with the “Orquesta de pulso y púa de la universidad complutense de Madrid” which is a special orchestra of string instruments like guitars, lutes, mandolines, bandurrias. I really enjoy singing this kind of song, and I am very much looking forward to it.

And the best part of it is that there are only a few partial-view tickets available. The rest are sold out.


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