Friends of Chamber Music brings renowned opera tenor Matthew Polenzani to Portland on January 28 as part of its Vocal Arts Series. Accompanied by veteran pianist Julius Drake, he’ll sing music by Beethoven, Liszt, Ravel, Satie, and Barber. ArtsWatch’s Alice Hardesty talked to the 46-year old New York resident about that performance, as well as about singing at the Met, making recordings, appearing in broadcasts, and making the “terrifying” transition from singing in a big fully staged opera in front of thousands of fans to giving an intimate vocal recital.
On reaching large audiences via the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD broadcasts.
Everywhere I go, I meet people who say, “Oh, I love watching you in the Met on HD, and I couldn’t wait to hear you in person!” I admit I had reservations about the idea at first, and I can now say wholeheartedly that I was completely wrong. It’s been a great boon for the artists and for getting the art-form out to the public.
I’ve been singing at the Met since 1997, but the first performance in HD wasn’t until 2006. It was The Magic Flute and I was in it. By that time I had been singing at the Met for nine years, so that stage was a pretty comfortable place for me. In fact, you don’t really notice those cameras when you’re singing. The camera that’s just below the edge of the pit is probably the most intrusive one, but I don’t look down very often — in fact I tend to keep my eye level a little higher. However, I will say that before the show, there’s a lot more pressure, knowing that it’s going into all those theaters. Live!
You know, what we do is really a high wire act. Especially as a tenor, we’re singing notes that the human voice wasn’t really built for. You have to train your voice to do it, and even the best training doesn’t always yield perfect results. Name any famous singer, and sometimes their voice just doesn’t come out the way they want it to. That’s the function of being in a live performance. So the pressure of having to produce something for HD, millions more than the 4000 people who are in that theater, it’s a little different!
That being said, I’ve always felt that I can’t sing any better for James Levine or Ricardo Muti than for the Butte Montana Community Association. I always want to give the best I can give and make as much beautiful music as I possibly can. Whatever comes out is whatever comes out and I can’t change it.
On making recordings.
Recordings are so much cleaner than they used to be. But I love the singers of the older generation, pre-1970. These are the voices that I listened to in my formative singing years. Some of the editing they did back then is really comical, it’s so obvious. I know it was in service of a nice product, but even the untrained ear would wonder what the heck just happened.
But now it’s almost impossible to tell where something stops and where it starts again. You can go back and fix every single note if you want. You can sing just one phrase, stop, and sing another phrase, and then another. It’s incredible how they can hook these things together. It’s insane! These days, if they’re recording a tenor, they save all the high notes for the days when you’re feeling great! You just record the high notes of whatever arias you’re doing and then they hook it all up with the rest of the aria.
But there’s a problem with that. The better the quality of the CD, the higher the expectation when you walk out on the stage. Almost nobody can match the quality of their CD. Even Pavarotti couldn’t match everything he had done on recordings. So it’s kind of a double-edged sword.
On how opera acting has evolved.
Handling the emotional quotient of each part is a big job, and it’s only getting bigger. Directors and presenters are placing the same emphasis on being able to play the part as they do on the singing. That’s not to say that the singers of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s were not good actors, but what was expected of them was different. They did as much acting with their voices as they did with their bodies. But these days there’s greater emphasis on the stage drama and the histrionics, the demonstration of what’s going on inside each character.
On switching between performing in operas to singing in a vocal recital.
Well, it’s terrifying. The first recital on this tour was two days ago, in Dallas. It went well, but before the concert I said to Julius [Drake, his accompanist], as I always say, “Julius, what in the hell was I thinking of?” Why would I do this? In an operatic setting you’ve got costumes, sets, and an orchestra. There’s nobody sitting right on top of you. And if something goes wrong there’s a prompter right there to give you the words. There is a big safety net all around the operatic stage.
When you’re singing a recital, it’s just you and the pianist. If the words don’t come, there’s nothing you can do but mumble until you find a way to get back on track. If your concentration lapses, you lose the thread of your story and there’s nobody to get you back onto it.
One time in a recital some years ago, I made a mistake on the first verse of the first song. I sang the first line, and then I sang the second line of the third verse. Oh, it messed me up so badly. I have to tell you that it wasn’t until I got to the eighth or ninth song before I was able to stop running the words from upcoming songs in my head. Like I was singing the second song and my mind would be flipping through words for the fourth and fifth songs to make sure I knew where everything was. Of course this is a terrible way to go about singing a recital. I really wish that I’d stopped the whole thing and said, “You know what, I’m going to start this over. If you don’t mind, we’re only 25 seconds in, and I think you’re going to be much happier with me.” I’ve seen other singers stop. It’s not an uncommon thing, but I just wasn’t ready for it then. Well, I learned a big lesson from that.
I’m lucky to have somebody as good as Julius, and he’ll be paying close attention to what I’m doing. If I jump a word or something like that he’ll go right with me. I work with several other pianists but Julius is one of my favorites. Julius and I are great friends and we seem to have a natural understanding of what the other one is going to do. This lends itself to a quality of ensemble that you can’t get everywhere. Whenever I think about playing a recital somewhere I immediately look to see where Julius is and what he has going on.
On his Friends of Chamber Music recital.
I’m so happy about every piece I’m singing. This program is full of things that people won’t know. There’s only one real chestnut in the entire night and that’s “Oh! Quand je dors [Oh, while I sleep],” the last of the French ones by Liszt. It’s a famous song and a lot of people will know it. I really think there’s almost nothing else on this program that people will know. All of this music is incredibly rewarding to sing and to listen to. I can’t tell you the number of times that Julius and I have stopped and said, “Is that not the most perfect song ever?” And we said it about practically every song on this program.
I welcome the opportunity to talk to the audience to let them know that I’m not only a performer, but I’m a guy and Julius is a guy, and we’re there, hopefully, to take them away from their regular world and into this tiny, intimate chamber setting.
On encouraging his three sons to follow his musical path and that of his wife, the mezzo-soprano Rosa Maria Pascarella.
Well, they all love to sing. Their ages are eight, six, and four, so it’s a little early to know whether or not they’re going to be singers. The eight-year-old has inherited his musical ear from their mother and me. Just a couple of hearings will give him the clue for what he needs to do. I wouldn’t discourage them from becoming musicians, but I probably wouldn’t actively encourage them either. It’s a really difficult world. But you never know. Both of these boys seem to have some real musical gifts and I hope and pray that music becomes a part of their lives.