© Ian Cowan / Opera Lively
ARTIST: MATTHEW POLENZANI
FACH: LYRIC TENOR
BORN IN: EVANSTON, ILLINOIS, USA
CURRENTLY IN: LA TRAVIATA (Alfredo) - METROPOLITAN OPERA HOUSE, NEW YORK CITY
NEXT IN: MANON (des Grieux) - TEATRO ALLA SCALA, MILAN
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One of the most gifted and distinguished lyric tenors of his generation, Matthew Polenzani has been praised for the artistic versatility and fresh lyricism that he brings to concert and operatic appearances on leading international stages. This season Mr. Polenzani has returned to the Metropolitan Opera in Willy Decker’s critically acclaimed production of La traviata
opposite Natalie Dessay and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, conducted by Fabio Luisi.
He has also appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in Don Giovanni
, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis; he performed this same work in Francesca Zamebello’s production at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. Matthew Polenzani is about to return to La Scala in Laurent Pelly’s new production of Manon
opposite Natalie Dessay and has been to the Lyric Opera of Chicago to debut the title role in Nicolas Joël’s new production of Les contes d’Hoffmann
, conducted by Emmanuel Villaume. Concert appearances this season have included Verdi’s Requiem
at the Teatro San Carlo, conducted by Riccardo Muti.
Among the many highlights from recent Metropolitan Opera seasons are the premieres of Willy Decker’s production of La traviata
last year with Marina Poplavskaya, Julie Taymor’s legendary Die Zauberflöte
, Francesca Zambello’s production of Les Troyens
, Jürgen Flimm’s production of Salome
with Valery Gergiev, and revivals of Don Pasquale, L’elisir d’amore, Don Giovanni, Roméo et Juliette, Il barbiere di Siviglia
, Così fan tutte
, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
and L’Italiana in Algeri
. To date, he has sung over 250 performances at the Met, many conducted by his musical mentor James Levine. In other American theaters, appearances include La traviata, Roméo et Juliette
and Die Entführung aus dem Serail
with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Die Entführung
also for San Francisco Opera, and Die Zauberflöte
with James Conlon at Los Angeles Opera.
Following Matthew Polenzani’s debut as Gérald in Delibes Lakmé
with Opera Bordeaux in France in 1998, appearances in other major European theatres include productions of La traviata
at the Teatro Comunale in Florence, the Aix en Provence Festival (commercially available on DVD on Bel Air Classiques) and on a tour of Japan with Turin’s Teatro Reggio; I Capuleti e I Montecchi
at the Paris Opera; L’elisir d’amore
at the Vienna State Opera, Bavarian State Opera, Naples’ Teatro San Carlo and Rome Opera; Così fan tutte
at Covent Garden with Sir Colin Davis and in Paris with Philippe Jordan; Lucia di Lammermoor
at Frankfurt Opera and Vienna State Opera; La Damnation de Faust
in Frankfurt; Manon
on a tour of Japan with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden under Antonio Pappano; Idomeneo
in Turin with Gianandrea Noseda, and debuts at La Scala in La traviata
and at the Salzburg Festival in Don Giovanni
in a new production by Klaus Guth, conducted by Bertrand de Billy.
Matthew Polenzani was the recipient of the 2004 Richard Tucker Award and Metropolitan Opera’s 2008 Beverly Sills Artist Award. An avid golfer, he makes his home in suburban New York with his wife, mezzo-soprano Rosa Maria Pascarella and their three sons. His sister Rose Polenzani is a singer-songwriter of folk music.
Opera Lively thanks Mr. Polenzani's manager Sam Snook at IMG Artists for making the arrangements for this exclusive interview. We met him at Match 65 Brasserie in the Upper East Side, and we're also grateful to the nice and charming lady owner who got us a quiet table and lowered the ambiance music for a good recording. Almaviva and rgz (Ian) were OL's envoys.
A GREAT TENOR OPENS UP ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE OF OPERATIC SINGING
Matthew who let us call him by his first name is a delightful gentleman. We really liked him on a personal level, thanks to his candor and his ability to place himself as a person into his character and into the art form (you'll see that sometimes he refers to Alfredo and Germont as "me and my father." His passion for opera was visible in his eloquent phrasing during the interview (which unfortunately can't be conveyed in written form).
He is what we'd call a nice
guy we'd love to sit and have a beer with while chatting about opera... and we sort of did just that, except that Matthew had a diet coke and we had white wine... as well as a carpaccio and herb omelets. The conversation was so interesting and friendly that as an editorial decision, we'll keep the colloquial tone of it, without editing it into more formal written language.
Matthew was also very endearing when expressing his love for his wife and his three sons. We loved the fact that he enjoyed the interview and asked us to do it again when he comes back to New York City for L'Elisir d'Amore
next season, and of course we'll be more than happy to oblige.
Our readers will particularly enjoy the fact that Matthew Polenzani was very specific about what operatic singing entails. He described at length his feelings, worries, and experiences on stage, his relationship with his own voice, and his artistic process of getting into the character's mind.
We had met him backstage and seen him in La Traviata
the night before, alongside Natalie Dessay and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, so we started the interview by talking about the performance.
Willy Decker's production of La Traviata at the Met - © Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera, used with permission
WILLY DECKER'S LA TRAVIATA AND MR. POLENZANI'S COLLEAGUES
OL - First, let’s talk about La Traviata. How do you feel about the Willy Decker production? What characteristics of it do you consider to be strong?
MT - I very much like Willy Decker’s production. I think its biggest strength is how it places a very sharp focus on relationships between people. It brings into a very sharp relief what is in-between Alfredo and Violetta, Alfredo and his father, and of course Violetta and Alfredo’s father as well. In fact in any other production of La Traviata
that I did I had such a strong connected feeling to the father-son relationship as I had in this production, which I find incredibly enjoyable.
Then, part of it of course is being with Dmitri who is a very gifted stage animal. The scenes between the two are very strongly staged with a very real emotional tie that binds them together. It’s true also for Alfredo and Violetta, in a different way. It was difficult for me to accept her rude treatment of him in the beginning, when I did it last year. I didn’t know what to make of it; I’ve never felt anything like that before in any of the other productions I’ve done. It’s just a hard thing to get used to, I guess. But in the end, I think it turns up the emotional quotient, the emotional dial, to another level, because they come from a very far distance apart, to come together, and that makes their separation a deeper cut, it has a deeper impact.
OL – That’s in the music as well, because they start singing very different melodies, and they come together in unison, right?
MP – Yeah, huh! It’s quite strong; it’s a different production with no set, no real scenery or anything like that, but like I said, for me it just brings a sharper focus to the people, and this is hopefully what leads an audience member with a very strong sense of what has just happened and hopefully touches them in a deeper way.
OL - Once given in Salzburg in 2005, this production carried a big punch. What do you think of it right now, after it’s traveled around and has been revived more than once? Does it keep the same impact?
MP – I do think that the production has evolved since it was originally premiered in 2005, and even despite the fact that it was given by two absolute superstars in Rolando [Villazón] and Anna [Netrebko], each time new singers come, they bring something different, and all of us offer different ideas to Willy Decker, also because personalities match in different ways. Even though I’ve sung a lot with Anna, I don’t envision this being even slightly similar experience to the way it was with Marina [Poplavskaya] last year or even with Natalie [Dessay] right now, or Hey-Kyung [Hong] as a matter of fact since she sang the opening. Every time you come, a different personality brings a different life experience, a different thought process as to what they bring to a character. As we listen to our colleagues as they sing on stage, yeah, we know the music, we understand the music and we hear it, but the way it is delivered by a certain singer who stresses a certain word is different. Everybody sings a different way.
Nathalie Dessay as Violetta; Matthew Polenzani as Alfredo - © Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera, used with permission
So the production has evolved. I’d say the general staging is largely similar but each time it is revived with different singers it gets a new and deeper – or even less deep – impact. Some scenes may have worked better in 2005 than they do now, but some things now may work better than they did in 2005.
And this is just how it goes in the life of a production, because the production is not everything. It doesn’t come to life without singers to breathe life into the words and the music being sung. I’m sure it’s evolved a lot even if the staging is more or less intact. What Willy is going for, even his ideas have changed a little since then. He has said, “we used to have it this way, but you know, I like it better this way.” That’s not to say that it was poorly done in the first production; what he means is that those singers delivered it in that way, in a different way that we may be delivering it, so he makes changes to facilitate the strengths of the singers that are doing the production right now.
OL - As a performer, how different is it to be part of a new production versus a revival? Typically, I suppose, the stage director might be less invested in a revival.
MP – The big difference in a new production is that what you are creating will have elements of other productions you’ve done, if you happen to have done it before. Obviously, if you sang a part before – and this is the ninth production of La Traviata
for me – you add something more to the character. The good news about a new production is that usually the rehearsal period is longer so you have more time to explore and try. Hopefully your director has an interesting idea, an interesting take on how he wants to run the production, something new, a new idea. Having it be new doesn’t necessarily mean that it can be presented in a traditional manner, you know, set in 1850 or 1750 or whatever year the play takes place. In a revival it can be a little difficult because it depends on the person directing. If you are lucky enough you’ll have the original director but that doesn’t always go.
OL – Did it happen this time?
MP – Willy did come back for this, I think in big part because Natalie was doing it and also because we were doing it for HD and I think he wanted to make sure that he saw all the camera work in the dress rehearsal. He’s not here now, but he came back, also because he loves this piece. I think he is proud of his production and he should be. There’s a lot of good offered in it.
Matthew Polenzani as Alfredo - © Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera, used with permission
OL – By the way, I love it. Some people complain of the heavy symbolism, but I particularly love it!
MP – Oh, good! Listen, we are in the business of opera in something for which you can decide if you like or don’t like. Some people think that Pavarotti couldn’t sing, you know, crazy things that I as a listener cannot understand. But this is the great thing about opera: we can offer an opinion, and my opinion is no more valid than yours or anyone else’s. What you have is an experience in the theater. You are either moved, or you’re not moved, or you are partially moved, or whatever. You either like it or you dislike it. We as listeners have a chance to say, ‘hey, you know, I didn’t care for it, I thought he didn’t sing well, I didn’t like the production, I thought the conductor was bad.’ All these things are elements of a live show which we have a choice, a chance, to like or dislike.
Whether you liked a production or not, hopefully what you went home with was a strong emotional impact in your life, and you were transported away from your normal life for three hours, and hopefully it took you to some place new, it opened your eyes to a situation in your own life that you didn’t know existed. All these things are possible with opera.
OL – Great answer! The original production in Salzburg was released with Netrebko, Villazón, and Hampson on DVD and blu-ray. Have you watched it as part of your preparation?
MP – I didn’t watch it. When the Met first asked me to do it I went on YouTube and I saw some clips of different scenes. This is a great thing for a singer who is interested in a production that might be a revival. Odds are good that there is probably a video of it someplace. I did look at a couple of the scenes that were considered the prime work of that production.
I didn’t buy the disk, though Natalie told me she bought it, she looked at it, and I understand why she did that. I mean, it’s a particularly big deal for her, you know, of course it’s called La Traviata
, it’s not called Alfredo and his Problems,
you know… (laughs). But I did look at a few clips on YouTube just to make sure it wasn’t, you know, people jumping around on spacesuits or something… (laughs).
Matthew Polenzani as Alfredo - © Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera, used with permission
OL – I wanted to get more specific on how this production differs from the other one, but you didn’t watch the whole thing, so let me just tell you what I thought. It seemed to me that the whole thing was more delicate in this production we just saw yesterday.
MP – Was it darker?
OL – Yeah… it was darker, and sadder. I think that the Rolando and Anna production was very energetic, and this one was a little more subdued, with more focus on the psychological aspects than on the physicality of it.
MP – Yeah, that could be! That is interesting to say that it was darker, I’m not surprised, actually.
OL – I think that Natalie is more fragile than Anna. She is petite and conveys a sort of pathos, while Anna is more imposing.
Nathalie Dessay as Violetta; Matthew Polenzani as Alfredo - © Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera, used with permission
MP – She is a brilliant actress. They both are. But I’d say Natalie definitely adds more towards the fragility of who Violetta is underneath the vivaciousness that is purely an act to continue the life style which she knows, even if she hates it.
OL - You got to work with two different sopranos so far in this run, due to Ms. Dessay’s illness, when she was covered by Ms. Hei-Kyung Hong. For you as the lead tenor who is alongside them, is it difficult to shift gears? Does that impact on your performance?
MP – The only direct impact it had is that I had to be a little more aware of what Hei-Kyung was doing, since I never rehearsed with her and she did things differently from Natalie.
OL – The blocking, you mean?
MP – No, she knew all the blocking, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that she did it in the way Natalie did. And she definitely offered things in different ways, and made it incredibly spontaneous and quite real. There was also this opening night energy.
I’ve sung with Hei-Kyung Hong before. I knew her already, we’ve sung a few things together, we’ve known each other for quite a while now. So, that was no problem, to be comfortable with her. But her characterization of Violetta is different!
She is a little more vivacious. But I think she was also able to descend to the same depths as Natalie does. I mean, she is different, she is a different woman with a different life experience, and so she brings the whole of her experience to that part.
OL – Do you think you sang differently on the opening night as compared to what you did with Natalie yesterday?
MP – Hm… that’s interesting. That’s a hard question to answer because I’m not generally aware of what I’m doing on the stage. I’m not really paying attention to what I’m doing, I’m more trying to just react to a certain input from someone else in the most natural way possible, which means that I’m not trying to think about what I’m doing… (laughs). I’m just reacting in the most natural way possible. I mean, they were totally different. They were completely [emphatically] different from each other, and just as different as Marina last year was. A totally different experience, all three of them. All three enjoyable, but in completely different ways.
OL – OK, so let’s switch to other Traviata productions – do you get inspiration from some famous Alfredos of the past? If yes, which ones? What do you take from them, if anything? Is this one of your preparation strategies?
MP – I’ve never watched La Traviata
on video, except that I saw the Ponelle film with Plácido and Stratas when I was in college in the eighties. I wouldn’t say that I take many acting cues even from things that I can see on YouTube. I don’t tend to watch that much. I listen a lot more. I listened to Bergonzi, to Kraus, to Plácido, to Luciano. Those are probably the people I listened to the most for this particular part. I tend to steal from those guys (laughs).
It is part of my preparation too, I listen quite a bit. Generally I try to take one person who has succeeded in the most ways and listen to how they did it. And if I hear things that I like, maybe I’ll take them, maybe I won’t. If I hear things that I don’t like I’ll make sure that I don’t do that. When it comes to great singing, we’re lucky that throughout the fifties, sixties, and seventies specially, there were so many great ones, and a lot of that has been saved on disk.
You think of Pavarotti, Domingo, Gedda… You think of Wunderlich who died at thirty-six, but oh my, thank God, there was actually quite a bit on record for him. That vocalism is unimpeachable, practically. I do listen when I’m studying a new part. I listen for things that I think are vocally interesting, musically interesting, and the complete opposite: things I think were treated not in the best way.
I try to make sure that I offer as complete a portrayal as I can, not only from the acting standpoint but also from a musical, a dramatic standpoint as well. There is not a Traviata production that sticks in my mind as being unbelievably tremendous; it has more to do with certain things that I take from certain productions. There are certain things that impacted me on a way that I’m still using today, from my first production. I tend to take certain moments from each production and try to recreate the feelings that I had.
But again, when you get a new colleague, a different soprano, a new baritone, it’s very difficult to pull all that stuff when those people are raising different things inside of you. So you kind of have to go with what your colleagues offer, and try and offer as much as you can in return.
OL - What is your reading of the Alfredo character, in terms of his psychology? I thought that your portrayal of yesterday really revealed his desperate and anxious nature. How did you try to convey him?
MP – He’s younger than Alfredos I’ve played in the past. I mean, if you are sticking strictly to the story, he can’t be more than eighteen. It’s obvious that he’s been under his father’s thumb, under hard pressure from his father his whole life. For him being with Violetta is not just… yeah, it stems from being in love, he is
in love with her, and it is more than just youthful lust. I really believe that he loves her.
There is probably an element of that, which is: ‘Hey Dad, look at me, I didn’t just find any old woman, but I found one of the most famous courtesans in Paris and she’s with me. Deal with it!’ I’m sure there is an element of that. When I see my father on the stage I do not expect him to understand anything that I’m going through. I do not expect him to understand love. I do not expect him to understand my circumstances, the fact that I’m with this woman. He says ‘you’re covered in squalor’. ‘Please, look around, Dad, it’s not as bad as you say it is, your view of the world is completely eschewed, I’m correct, you know?’
OL – ‘You’re an old man and you don’t understand what I’m going through.’
MP – Exactly.
OL – Then there is that slap… when it all dawns on you…
[Germont violently slaps Alfredo in this production, and the latter falls to the ground in shock]
MP – Yeah… the audience…
OL – People gasped around me.
MP – Yeah, of course, you hear it on the stage, which is great! Because nobody is expecting it. I love it! It’s very strong. It opens a whole new door for these two. You see a softer Germont. You get to see it a little bit in the duet with Violetta, you can see that he has a softer side to him. He is a loving man. He just doesn’t get me
. He doesn’t get Alfredo, and Alfredo’s view. Perhaps he understands Alfredo perfectly, but Alfredo can’t see it.
I expect to get this same treatment from my own sons… (laughs). I imagine that one day they will look at me and go, ‘Dad, you’ve no idea what you are talking about…’ Maybe that will happen, maybe not, who knows. But this is a parenting thing.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Germont - © Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera, used with permission
There is a horrible feeling in that moment between these two, that slap. And the energy that blossoms in that moment, it’s so far away from the correct life which Germont leads. I don’t see him as a guy who struck his kid. Maybe he spanked his child when he was very small or something, I’m not sure that this is really pertinent, but his adult son, to raise his hand and slap him down, it’s a very strong measure of how he is feeling and what is happening. He is trying to just get his son to open his eyes, and see what is going on. I love that scene, I said it earlier, it’s the strongest I’ve ever had in my relationship between myself and my father.
COMEDIC VS. DRAMATIC ROLES
OL - Now let’s move away from La Traviata. I saw you last year with Anna Netrebko in Don Pasquale, and yesterday in La Traviata. I confess that I personally found your work in this serious drama more compelling than in Donizetti’s opera buffa. This may be just because I like La Traviata better than Don Pasquale (which I also like, just not as much), but I’d like to have your take on this. You’ve done some very good dramatic roles, like the Duke in Rigoletto, Hoffmann, Edgardo in Lucia… Even in your comic roles like Nemorino, your hallmark was the dramatic moment in "Una Furtiva Lagrima," which you’ve been asked to encore many times. Are you more comfortable with comedy or drama?
MP – Ernesto in Pasquale
, he is a straight man in the comedy. He’s is not in what is going on between Norina and Malatesta, he has no idea, he only gets clued in at the end of the second act. So, I would say he’s not the funniest of guys. I’ll be interested if I see you after L’Elisir
next year, to see what you think.
I do enjoy comedy. I think I was pretty successful as Almaviva in Barbiere di Siviglia
. I never felt it was vocally special for me, I think there are other things that I do better. I was never as good at coloratura as Larry Brownlee or Juan Diego Flórez, it’s absolutely perfectly right for their voices in a way that it was never right for me. I could kind of do it, but it wasn’t the thing I was best at. I’m a little better at the long line. I think I’m suited to both drama and comedy. I probably gravitate more towards the heartache guy.
OL – Is it by preference?
MP – No, I don’t know what it is. Maybe it is musical, I can’t say what that is, actually. I absolutely do not put a restriction on my repertory in terms of that sort of thing. L’Elisir
is absolutely a comedy. You’ll see that our director got ideas for it to be a little more serious. It should be really interesting; actually, I’m looking forward to it. I met with him two weeks ago. [Production Bartlett Sher, with Matthew, Anna Netrebko, and Mariusz Kwicien - it opens on October 1, 2012 at 7:30 PM, see more information and other dates by clicking here
So like I said I don’t put a restriction on whether I’ll do a comedic part or not, it has more to do with music that I love. When you think of comic opera, anyway, after L’Elisir
, there are not too many things in my repertory that qualify. Think of all the French repertory that I sing; none of which is comedic. In my bel canto repertory L’Elisir
is the only one that qualifies.
Ernesto is absolutely a bel canto kind of piece, but he doesn’t have much opportunity to be funny, beyond a funny face. He is the straight guy who is moving alongside without being a part of the dramatic motion, he is more trying to keep up with it. Once he realizes what’s happening then he is a part of it. But even then, it’s sort of the end of act II, all you have left is the beautiful serenade and his love duet with her, and then the finale is all fixed by Malatesta and Norina. Ernesto is next to the drama, he is not really a part of it. I do enjoy singing comic parts, but there are not that many that I get to do.
OL - What’s your preference: your Mozart roles, your bel canto roles? Verdi? French Romantic? Usually singers try to keep a repertory balance, but you must have a preference, deep inside. What is it? And most importantly (to go beyond the usual question “what’s your favorite role”), why? Please be technical in your answer (our readers can take it).
MP – If I had to chose, I’d probably choose to sing… (hesitates). No, I couldn’t. I couldn’t choose. There will come a time in my future when I’ll have to leave Mozart behind. Not Idomeneo and not Tito, but Ottavio, Ferrando, Tamino, Belmonte, I’ll have to leave them behind, but I’ll hold on to them as long as I can. Even now, I’m singing Idomeneo already and I have Tito in three years, first time – this part will be an addition to my repertory.
I love Mozart. But I love the bel canto repertory so much as well, and it suits me a lot. In the future I have a lot of Donizetti. Not so much Bellini, it doesn’t sit great for me, it’s not a specially good fit. Not having sung any I can’t say that with absolute certainty. And also one of the things I’ve learned is that I’ll never say never.
When I was twenty-two or twenty-three years old I remember somebody telling me – ‘Well, there is no possibility you will ever sing anything more than perhaps a Rossini or maybe a very light Mozart in a small Regietheater in Germany or something, but as for singing Mozart at the Met it will never happen.’ Of course, here I am a step or two further.
Alfredo and of course Romeo qualify as lyric pieces. Having sung Hoffmann in Chicago, I’ll have Werther for the first time later this year. Manon
I’m getting ready to go and do right now; and it’s a great fit for my voice.
So, I’m lucky because I have the possibility to do quite a bit of different repertory. And I make a point of trying to sing as many different things as I can. I have a friend who told me – that was five or six years ago, I know that he sung a lot more since then – he said he’d sung more than one hundred fifty performances of Don Giovanni
and he is younger than me. I though, man, how can you…? You know, at that point the thing I had sung the most was probably still Barber, and maybe the number of performances I had given was fifty. Maybe Ottavio now has surpassed that, maybe I’ve given seventy-five or eighty performances.
OL – Do you think that by singing so many times a role you’d get burned out?
MP – It’s more that I like to keep my musical mind functioning. Singing in French requires a different thought process. Singing in Italian, singing in English, German, all these things are just feeding my musical mind, my musical soul. If I confine myself to, say, six or eight parts, once I’ve sung them all over the world, then where am I going to be?
Eventually you come to a point where a theater can offer you Bohème
or whatever – once you’ve sung them once or twice in every theater then it gets harder for that theater to engage you again. But more than that, I believe that singing a varied repertory keeps my voice healthy, and this includes song and concert repertory as well. I like to sing with orchestras, I love recital work.
© Ian Cowan / Opera Lively
VOICE MAINTENANCE AND VOCAL TECHNIQUE
OL – You mean doing a little bit of light coloratura, or lyric stuff, a bit of everything?
MP – Yeah, switching gears from a French piece to a Mozart piece to a bel canto piece, to song repertory, back to bel canto, these things keep your voice supple and fresh. If I’m singing only bel canto all the time then it gets harder to sing French repertory. Plus the voice doesn’t grow as well when it’s stuck in one spot.
I’m not trying to get my voice to be bigger. My voice has grown because of the repertory that I sing, and just because I’m getting older, but I’m not fundamentally trying to make it bigger in size. It’s more a matter of keeping my mind fresh and interested, and keeping my voice flexible.
All right, here is a perfect example: I sang in the fall Hoffmann for the first time. It suited me very well; it was one of the best successes I’ve had in my career as a singer. Then I went straight from there to do Requiem di Verdi
with [maestro Riccardo] Muti in Italy, also a very good success and an excellent fit for me. And then as soon as this was over I had maybe a week, and then I had to start Don Giovanni
in London, and I noticed immediately that my voice was lower and I found it more difficult to access my real mezza voce
, especially in "Dalla sua pace," where you have to continue to keep the core of your voice in the sound, but be soft, because without the core the voice doesn’t carry, and the hallmark of my singing is that my soft voice is audible everywhere.
So I noticed immediately that I was having a hard time accessing that, which had been natural and without thought, and I realized that it was a really good thing for me to have Ottavio on the other side of Hoffmann and Verdi’s Requiem
. Because what it did was, it brought me back into a more centered spot, perhaps lighter.
You know, I don’t change the way I sing for whatever repertory I’m singing; I can’t sing any louder as Alfredo or Hoffmann than I can as Ottavio or Ferrando. I can’t be louder or softer, my voice is the same way no matter what repertory it is in, but what is required of it for Mozart is a different thing than what is required for a Hoffmann
, or any sort of heavier, more lyric repertory.
So, it was very interesting for me, and I found that I had to reset myself, reset my voice technically, so that I could access that mezza voce
without thought again. It’s been a long time since I really sung that way, and certainly Hoffmann is a much heavier, much more dramatic part than Ottavio, so it makes sense, but I hadn’t expected it. I was gone passed Lucia, Rigoletto
, Alfredo, and Damnation de Faust
which is quite heavy, without having to try to figure out where this mezza voce
was. It was the first time really that I didn’t have it where I was expecting it to be.
VOICE EVOLUTION AND LIFE EXPERIENCE
OL – How interesting! You’ve been singing for decades and your voice can still surprise you!
MP – The voice is growing! We can’t stop that! Your voice changes as you get older. I think a voice doesn’t really reach maturity until its mid-forties.
OL – For tenors?
MP – I think for any voice. It’s a personal opinion, I could be completely wrong and that’s OK, but I’ve always thought that you need not just a voice experience but a life experience which adds to the quality of your voice. I had never wanted to take on Tito, because I didn’t think I had the life experience to bring any dramatic impact to it. I hadn’t lived a life that could possibly give me any clue as to how he deals with the stuff he deals with. It’s easier to deal with lost love, everybody has experienced that, or a death… these are things we are more familiar with.
Going back to your question about the repertory, I needed all this different repertory not just to keep my voice flexible but to keep my mind flexible, to keep my interest above just ‘OK, I’ve done this before, I’m going to do this again, here is my paycheck, I can pay my bills.’ You need to keep your musical mind engaged; you need to continue to learn, so that you don’t forget how to learn, which you can do. I think it’s very important to do all these things.
OL - As a person [Almaviva] of Italian descent myself, I’d like to talk a little about your characteristics as an Italianate lyric tenor. I assume by the name Polenzani that you are also Italian-American, and I’d be interested in knowing – if it’s the case – how this background may have influenced your choices and style (beyond your fach, of course).
MP – I can’t say that my background had any impact at all on my singing or on my italianitá
which exists in my voice. My grandfather was born in Italy, but he came when he was younger than six. When he arrived in America the parents forbade any speaking of Italian in their house. ‘Now we are in America, and in America we speak English.’ Only his parents were allowed to speak in Italian to each other. The children of course were speaking English all the time.
By the time I knew him, he had married an Irish-American woman. My other three grandparents were all born in America. I’m the quintessential American in that I have Irish and German and Italian mixed European blood. I have really an American background. And of course I grew up only speaking English; I didn’t start speaking Italian until I started working in Italy.
OPERA TODAY AND THE MARKETING OF OPERA
OL - What can you tell our readers about opera in America today?
MP – I think opera in America is struggling to remain relevant in the face of television and movies, and even the Internet, which has become such a huge part of our daily lives. Even now in the Consulate [Matthew was coming from the Italian Consulate where he got his work visa for his next engagement in Italy] I forgot to put the address of my hotel in Milan down, so I had to look it up on my phone, and I was just grateful that I had the possibility to connect to the Internet via my phone, but at the same time when it popped into my head, I thought to myself, ‘Gee, I wonder if I could have done without this; do I need this so badly?’
On the other hand opera is at a very interesting point right now, because there is a lot of good singing going on, there is a lot of good singers out there right now. I think we are at a very interesting time for singers, not just because there are a lot of good singers, but also because acting has become more important. People are accessing emotions for audience members in a different way than it used to. The impact used to be mostly musical, which is not to say that there weren’t great actors in the past, absolutely there were, but the focus was not necessarily on a production, or on a dramatic moment. The dramatic moments were being made by the music.
So, I think today we see a little bit more emphasis on production and drama, and I’m not sure if it is to the detriment of the music or to the help of the music; I think that remains to be seen. The period that is turning around, that is happening, is too short for measurement.
It’s a very interesting time to be a singer but also a difficult time, because financially our world is in chaos, in turmoil, and frankly without public funding it is very hard to make our theaters profitable. So it’s a good thing and a bad thing.
I really wouldn’t want to be an intendant
of a theater right now, it’s a difficult job to do, and not just for Peter Gelb, or Anthony Freud, or Plácido Domingo or whoever; their jobs are really hard right now. We have to continue to try to figure out ways to make opera relevant to a younger group.
There is always this demographic they always talk about – 25-year-olds to 50-year-olds, nineteen to forty-five or whatever that important demographic is that everybody is trying to reach. Opera is trying to reach that demographic too. Finding out ways to do that is our marketers' nightmare or their fantasy, depending on what kind of person you are.
OL – Do you think of ways to do that? Such as using MTV or music videos?
MP – Oh boy, I’m not sure I know how to answer it. If I knew, I’d be in marketing. I do think that making sure kids are introduced to the art form when they are younger is big, but the problem is that the baby boomers are reaching a point where it’s their children whom we are trying to get to.
From personal experience, the first opera that I ever saw was the first one I was in. I didn’t go to the theater to see an opera or even a musical, even though I grew up in a quite musical family. Both my parents liked to sing, my Mom plays the piano, but I never went to the opera, it was never introduced to me as an art form or a form of entertainment that could equal, say, going to a movie, or watching TV.
PAST VS. PRESENT SINGERS
OL - Singers of the past – such as Nicolai Gedda, Giuseppe di Stefano, Mirella Freni… - and singers of today. Is there a difference in quality?
MP – The people you’ve mentioned – Gedda, di Stefano, Freni – and even people I’ve mentioned too – Wunderlich and Kraus, Pavarotti, Domingo – I mean, is there a difference in quality? Well, yeah, because those people were those people. I think there are just as good singers singing today as there were then. I think the level of singing today has actually gotten quite high. There are quite a few really great singers singing right now.
You just need to go as far as the Manon
production the Met is doing right now with Beczala and Netrebko, they are two excellent, excellent singers, world class singers! And look here, we have Natalie and Dmitri in this Traviata
, I mean, these are strong singers who bring many, many things to an opera stage, not just great singing and musical impact but also dramatic impact.
Yeah, there is a difference because Gedda was who he was, and Freni was who she was, and Pavarotti was who he was, and Polenzani is who he is, and Hvorostovsky is who he is, and we are all different, we bring different things to the stage.
I think the only difference between now and then is that it is much easier to be in different places at the same time. In the fifties and sixties an artist would come from Italy and stay in New York for 3 months, and do four or five productions. In one given week [Richard] Tucker could sing Butterfly
and Trovatore, and this doesn’t exist anymore.
You can finish your show on a Saturday afternoon and fly that night to Vienna or London and be rehearsing the next day for your next thing. I try hard not to do that. I keep my calendar generally completely free of things like that whenever possible, because I think that’s difficult. The travel can wear on a person, and we certainly travel a lot more than singers from that era did, and with much more ease. It’s a lot easier to go from America to France, then to the UK, then to Russia, and you couldn’t do it those days.
MATTHEW'S WIFE AND HOW SHE HELPS HIM
OL – Now, let’s switch to some more personal aspects, if you don’t mind. Is your opera singer wife Rosa Maria Pascarella your best coach, fan, and advisor?
MP – Yes, I would say that of all the people on this Earth she knows my voice the best, she’s been listening to it for almost twenty years. When I need a strong statement about what is going on with my voice, she is absolutely the first person I will turn to. She hears things…
For example, opening night I was quite sick, I had the same cold that Natalie had, but perhaps not quite as bad as she had because I was still able to sing, my voice was largely clear. But Rosa, the first thing she said to me was, ‘how do you feel?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ (laughs). And she said, ‘listen, I can hear you have a cold, but I can guarantee you that maybe two percent of the theater might be aware of it. Those two percent are probably people who know you a little bit for a long time. Your voice sounds very clear, you sound healthy, don’t worry!’ Of course, I needed those words.
Yeah, we always worry; it’s not just that you are trying to satisfy a theater and an opera-going public. You want the staff at the opera house also to be impressed and to want to hire you again. Maybe this is the clearer indicator of whether you’ve succeeded. Even if you get booed all night long, if the theater calls you and says, ‘hey, by the way, we are very happy about your Alfredo, would you bring us a Rigoletto in two years time?’ then you know you’ve succeeded. This is the true measurement of whether or not you’ve had a success.
So for Rosa to have said those words… because you know, you can’t hear yourself. If you are listening to yourself then you’re not producing sound in a way that is healthy. I go by feeling. I’m still kind of congested in my sinus, but it’s much better.
But if I don’t have this nice, bright focus, the squillo
right here [gestures with his hand in front of his face], then I feel like my voice just goes like here then it stops. And nobody can hear it passed three inches in front of my face. So, that’s important, she is very important for me.
And not just from that standpoint, but also because I’m gone half the year. Somebody has to raise our children, somebody has to be strong enough to do it on her own, and if there was a woman made for that kind of thing, it was her. I never have to worry that my children are getting the best possible care that is available in the world.
Which is not to say that there aren’t great nannies, I know many people whose nannies have become a part of their family and that’s a blessing, but not to have to worry about that is also a blessing for me, and allows me to be on the road and do what I do with a comfort level that might not exist if somebody else was watching my kids.
MATTHEW'S CHILDREN AND OPERA
OL - How do your three sons relate to having opera singing parents?
MP – First of all, my wife is not singing anymore. But they understand, they have seen her on TV because occasionally she will do ringer jobs for choruses, so they’ve actually seen her singing, which is kind of fun for them. This year was the first year that my two older sons saw me singing. None of my children had seen it before. My older one is only five. I thought about trying to have them come to The Magic Flute
, this was two years ago, he’d only have been three. His is a good enough boy that he would have been quiet, but I think he would have been scared by some of it, especially the Queen of the Night.
So this year they came to Don Giovanni
, and my 5-year-old and my 3-year-old came and sat on the side of the stage in the second act. It was so great… It was very distracting (laughs). They both had orange shirts, and anytime I could look to that side of the stage I could see them perfectly (laughs) and it was really hard to keep my mind on the task at hand.
But it was so great, and of course the older one actually after the end of the show, after the curtain came down came out on the stage, looked at the set, saw the lights and things like that… It was a very cool thing for him, and gave him a great idea about what Dad does.
They’ve heard me singing at the house, and they know that I’m a singer; they know that my wife sang. Anytime that they hear any sort of classical music they say, ‘Mommy, is that you? Daddy, is that you’ and of course (laughs) it will be some sort of Helden baritone, the complete opposite of any sound that I might make (laughs). We get a very nice laugh out of that.
So they are not really, really aware yet. This year was the first year where they started to get a clue. But next year for The Elixir of Love
I’m sure we’ll invite the older one. I’ll have him come and watch, because this is light, there is nothing scary in it, and it’s funny. For sure we’ll have him come for at least one act and see what he thinks.
FEARS OF AGING AND VOICE DECLINE
OL - Is there anything to fear in the fact that you’re now a famous singer who gets asked to perform in the world’s most extraordinary temples of opera?
MP – One of the hardest things I would say to do as a singer gets older is matching the youthful quality that an audience member, having listened to you over the course of quite a few years has grown used to. The fact of the matter is, as your voice gets older generally, not always, it gets less beautiful. There are exceptions to that, when you look at Kraus and Pavarotti and Freni, when you look at Domingo and even Gedda, they sing great. Philip Langridge is another one who really sang really well – they all did, into their sixties or even seventies.
But I’d say that the general opera career on average doesn’t last so long. And especially if you are a big recording artist; well then you don’t have just to match what you’ve been doing in years past, but you also have to match the perfection of whatever you recorded. Because in a recording situation, of course, you do multiple takes, you can put things together, you can make it sound like one whole piece, even if it was done in seven or eight or ten or twenty sections. Putting something perfect out on record ultimately may make your job a little harder because when we step on the stage at night, anything is possible and real life intrudes in a performance.
You know, if you are going through a divorce, or if you suffered a death in your family, or you are having a fight with your brother or your sister, all this stuff has an impact on who you are as an artist when you step on the stage. Hopefully we can let that stuff go and concentrate on whoever the character is that we are playing. But the fact of the matter is that all that stuff is there even if it is right below the surface, it may be informing your subconscious and the decisions you make as an actor and as a singer on the stage even if you are not really aware of it.
OL - One day this ascending curve will inevitably reach a plateau, and then there will be decline. How do you prepare yourself psychologically for it?
MP - Yeah, it’s a difficult job, and it is difficult to get older (laughs). Where is the case when you are getting better and better as you get older? There is a great joke, it kind of holds true for every career. It is the five stages of a singer’s career.
So the first stage is ‘Who is Matthew Polenzani?’ The second stage is ‘Get me Matthew Polenzani.’ The third stage is ‘Get me someone like Matthew Polenzani.’ The fourth stage is ‘Get me a young Matthew Polenzani’ and of course the fifth stage is, ‘Who is Matthew Polenzani?’ (We all laugh).
I’ve met young singers who have never heard of Corelli, or Freni, or Bergonzi… and of course my mind boggles. When opera became important to me in my early twenties, I didn’t get bitten by the singing bug until I was 21 or 22. That was when I started listening to these people. My teacher was Margaret Harshaw, and she came from that era, she sang in the forties and fifties and sixties so I listened to a lot of singers from that era. Even after she died I started singing with a student of hers, a woman who had been taught by Mrs. Harshaw for twenty or twenty-five years, so I was kept in the same sort of vein.
CROSSOVER, NON-CLASSICAL MUSIC
OL - Your sister Rose is a singer-songwriter of folk music. How did you guys diverge in terms of classical music and folk music? Do you think of singing any crossover?
MP – I don’t know how to answer the first part of this question. As for the second part, I never really thought much about singing crossover music. I wouldn’t mind it, I remember joking around at one time with Bryn Terfel about doing Les Misérables
, and him singing Javert and me singing Valjean, I thought that would be fun (laughs). I don’t know if I could do it. That requires a specific skills set that I’m not sure that I’m equipped to handle.
It’s fun to listen to my sister, though. I love her music, I listen to pop music, I listen to folk music, I spend a lot of my time listening to this kind of music, so I’m not limited only to classical music, but I love this kind of music as well, so it’s fun for me to see her career go the way it’s gone, and fun to see her still making music, which is great, so yeah, I love it.
OL – Any closing statements?
MP – No, I hope that I’m still singing in ten years and we can have another interview (laughs). We’ll see where everything goes; it’s a difficult world we live in right now.
OL – Now you gave us the same endorsement that theaters give to a singer, right? You want us to interview you again!
MP – (Laughs) Oh, that’s right, that’s right!
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