ARTIST - PAULO SZOT
FACH - BARITONE
CURRENTLY IN: Manon (as Lescaut), Metropolitan Opera House - His April 20th appearance was cancelled due to illness, but he is still scheduled to resume the run for the last performance on April 23.
NEXT IN: Le Nozze di Figaro (as Figaro), Aix-en-Provence, France, July 5, 7, 10, 12, 14, 17, 20, 23, 25, 27.
[Opera Lively interview # 20]
Opera Lively has interviewed face-to-face outstanding Polish-Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot, currently in Manon at the Metropolitan Opera House alongside Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala. OL's envoys were Luiz Gazzola and Ian Cowan. Mr. Szot friendly received us in his beautiful apartment building in New York City, where we talked over good coffee about his performance we had just attended the previous night. The interview was done in two parts; the first one in English, which is what you'll be reading next, and the second one in Portuguese, for the International Section of Opera Lively, to attend Mr. Szot's Brazilian fans.
The content of these two parts is very different, but they are both very interesting. Over here among a few other topics, Mr. Szot spoke about his character in Manon, and about working for two and a half years in a Broadway musical, for which he received many accolades, including a Tony award for the best performance as a leading actor. Click [here] for the second part of the interview, in Portuguese, where he spoke extensively about opera in Brazil, and gave us a bit more information on his personal background and career.
Mr. Szot was born in São Paulo, Brazil, and raised upstate in Ribeirão Pires until he moved to his parents' native Poland at age 18 to pursue his artistic training. He learned piano since age five, and later added violin and classical ballet. His trip to Poland was on a scholarship from the Polish government to study ballet at the prestigious and ancient Jagiellionan University in Kraków (a.k.a. The Kraków Academy, with alumni such as Nicolaus Copernicus and pope John Paul II). Over there, Mr. Szot suffered a tragic knee injury and had to give up classical ballet dancing. He then turned to singing and became a professional member of the Polish National Song and Dance Ensemble "Śląsk" in 1990.
Soon, Mr. Szot turned to opera and made his operatic debut at the Teatro Municipal de São Paulo in Brazil in 1997, in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. After extensive operatic experience in Brazil in thirty-two different productions encompassing the gamut of the standard baritone repertory, he made his American début at New York City Opera in Carmen in 2003. He then took on regional opera companies in North America and Europe, such as Palm Beach Opera, Canadian Opera Company, Opéra de Marseille, and Vlaamse Opera, among others.
His big operatic break came after two and a half seasons on Broadway between 2008 and 2010, when he was spotted by Peter Gelb and invited to sing at the Met in the new production of Shostakovich's The Nose under maestro Valery Gergiev.
This was followed by portraying Escamillo at the Met's Carmen in 2011 alongside Roberto Alagna. His third Met appearance is the current run of Manon. Meanwhile Mr. Szot sang with the New York Philharmonic alongside Liza Minelli, and also appeared in concert at Carnegie Hall with Deborah Voigt. He performed the role of Guglielmo in Così fan Tutte in Paris at Opéra Garnier. Doors are opening fast for Mr. Szot, who is scheduled for his La Scala début.
Photo credits, interview shots, © Ian Cowan at Opera Lively. Manon production shots, © Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera, used with permission from the Met Press Department.
Interview, © Opera Lively - Disclaimer: this exclusive interview is copyrighted by Opera Lively with all rights reserved, and is not to be reproduced without express authorization. Brief excerpts can be used after consultation (use the Contact Us form) as long as proper credit and a link to the full interview on Opera Lively are provided. Links to the interview can be posted without authorization.
FIRST PART, IN ENGLISH (Link to the second part in Portuguese is here: Paulo Szot in Portuguese)
OL - This production of Manon explores some comedic elements, for example in the figure of Guillot. I’ve seen productions that go for a more dramatic feel. What is your take on this issue? Should Manon be presented with some comic relief to sweeten the drama?
PS – Absolutely, yes, I think this kind of piece -- which is a very heavy story -- needs this kind of comic relief, whenever characters make it possible. There is Guillot, and even my own character Lescaut I think is sometimes comic, because his situation is of a man who is in a comic position in life. And the music is also comic. The music of Guillot illustrates all his little steps and everything [Guillot in this production walks around in little steps like Chaplin’s], so if you get a very sensitive actor/singer such as Christophe [Mortagne, featured below in the picture], you just use that music in your favor for the comic effect. I totally agree that the music needs to be heard most of all; it leads you everywhere, and if you are a good director you just need to listen to the music composed by Massenet and follow its leads.
OL - What is your reading of your character Lescaut? Is he completely lecherous, or does he have any redeeming qualities?
PS – That is very complicated. As you look at Lescaut’s complete trajectory, it is easy to believe at the beginning that he is only a guy with a tough face and hard feelings, but when we see him in third act singing to Rosalinde, [À quoi bon l’economie… Oh Rosalinde, il me faudrait gravir le Pinde] he is a romantic guy, he wants love just as everybody does, so it is hard to play him as a tough guy. He wants to be seen as a tough guy; his defenses are those of looking like a tough guy, but emotionally he is weak. He falls for money all the time; he has a weakness in money and in women and he is trying to play the tough guy, that’s how I see him. Underneath the appearance of a soldier, he has these issues going on. He is very weak and he doesn’t want anyone to see these issues but they are there, they are part of who he is.
He is not a very profound philosophical guy, he is a very simple guy who sees an opportunity. When we see him in the first place taking his cousin to the convent, of course he will sell her for a price; he realizes that she is worth a lot of money. So why does he get so angry when she disappears in the first act? It’s not because he thinks, “Oh my God, my little cousin has disappeared!” No, he sees money from the first moment. We see in the second act de Brétigny playing him, to invent a story to get Manon back. By the third act he is a servant of Guillot; Guillot is paying him money to organize things; so he takes money from whoever gives more, he doesn’t have any problems with that.
He is a very simple guy, very straight-minded. He thinks of money, he thinks of women, he thinks very shallowly, with no philosophical or deep emotional traits attached to him, at least in the opera.
OL – What do you think of this production? We loved it. What is your opinion of the staging, the scenery, and the stage direction?
PS – For me as an artist first of all -- it is the Metropolitan Opera House, so it’s always a pleasure to be back at that house. It is an honor for me as a Brazilian singer to sing there, whatever the production may be, that’s the first thing. In second place, approaching Lescaut for the third time in my life – I did Lescaut many years ago in Brazil at the Manaus Opera Festival, then in São Paulo, and I really remember having lots of fun with that; we did it with Fernando Portari and Rosana, his wife – I realize that the fun is still there. I think the artist – me, Paulo - has matured since I did it the last time, and because of that the character is a bit more mature, it’s not the same Lescaut that I did twelve years ago or so. The production is a beautiful one.
OL – Laurent Pelly was actually here working with you, right?
PS – Yes, he came for a week. I had four weeks of rehearsal. The first week Laurent wasn’t here, so we were just learning the blocking - where to go, where not to go - and he arrived and started to direct, it was great. It is a beautiful production I think; it’s very amusing; the costumes are beautiful as is mostly everything. Laurent really directed everyone to go to the right places where we should go. For me it is a very difficult set, because I start all the way in the back, so the contact with the conductor is very hard. All of my scenes in the first act when I have a little aria then I come back for another aria are very far away. It is not that it was difficult to listen to the colleagues and the orchestra, but rather the visual contact, because the Met stage is humongous. There was no other way to do it because the set is built that way. There are big stairs and I go downstage and upstage all the time. So that was a bit of a difficult moment for me in the first act. And it is usually the act when you are nervous.
OL – Needing to warm up the voice?
PS – Yes, we warm up the voice, but I think it’s more a question of warming up to the whole theater, to the energy that is going on in the theater. So your first entrance is never easy.
OL – What about working with Anna and Piotr?
PS – Oh, that’s the best part of all. I met Anna years ago but we had never worked together, this is the first time I've worked with her, and with Piotr too. He is my companion from Poland, and it was a good opportunity to speak Polish again. Both are sensational as artists and as people, so the atmosphere was great. The cast is fantastic, and we get along very well. The energy between us is very simple and in the rehearsals there is no authority figure among us. We are so very open to changes, which is great! You can share emotions on stage, you can share ideas, and it is fantastic.
OL – And maestro Fabio Luisi, is it the first time working with him as well?
PS – Yes, the first time. It is his first year as principal conductor at the Met, and all I have to say is that he is phenomenal! He is a great, great conductor, and most of all he is very patient and a very nice person. He would never scream at you, never raise his voice. He is always smiling, which is a very positive thing for me. Whenever conductors scream at people, it reveals their insecurity, and in this case the maestro is the very opposite: he is very secure and he smiles all the time; that’s how he wins us over by being so secure and not being afraid of relaxing at work.
OL – I see. Shifting gears a little bit from Manon to your career, you’ve won several prestigious awards - including the 2008 Tony - for your work in a Broadway musical, South Pacific. Please tell us about your take on the border between opera and musical from the standpoint of the singer. Several aspects might interest our readers. Let’s start with this: How different it is to prepare for a Broadway role as compared to an opera?
PS – It is very hard to do a Broadway show, not because of the show being a musical, but because of the eight shows a week. An opera singer has no idea of what eight shows a week means, because we never, ever do that as a regular job. A few opera singers have done it, like Ezio Pinza who first started in South Pacific - the show was written for him. But he was at the end of his career as an operatic singer. Cesare Siepi also tried to sing on Broadway after he was older.
But the fact is, because opera singers sing in a way that your whole body needs to work in order to produce that sound, it is very exhausting to work eight shows a week. How to use your voice, not to lose your identity as an opera singer, and still do the eight shows a week, that's the most difficult question. The main challenge does not come from changing the style of singing; the amount of work is what is most difficult. So when I accepted that, I had to think about whether this was going to be a good or a bad thing for me, so what I did was that I tried to adjust my technique a little bit to the opportunities that Broadway gives you, which is the microphone.
OL – So, the strain is minimized by amplification which happens in Broadway but not in opera, right?
PB – Yes, the microphone is a wonderful thing when it’s used on a Broadway stage. First of all, because no Broadway stage has natural acoustics like in concert halls. Everything is carpeted and it is designed not to give back any reverb, so you can be Anna Netrebko and you’re going to sound like you have no voice if you sing without a mike in a Broadway theater. If you have no mikes in a Broadway theater, you have no voice. That’s first. And that gave me the opportunity to learn how to use the mikes; to still keep my technique but to get used to the easiness, the facility of the microphones. At times when you don’t feel so good or you’re tired, you can still perform when you have mikes, so it was something I had to learn. And also, the speaking parts are much more extensive, and without the mikes they’d be hard. Another point is that without the mikes it would not be possible to get the intimate scenes going. You need to have a whispering voice sometimes and that was a good thing to learn.
OL – Broadway musicals typically require significant acting skills. How was the experience for you?
PS – Yes, as opera singers sometimes we think we can act (laughs). This is very funny because the fundamentals of an actor and an opera singer are very different. An opera singer has to focus on his technique most of the time and the singing voice is the most important thing. We can never go through the whole process which an actor goes through, which is trying to eliminate yourself, basically; putting your personality aside and building a new character from scratch. So it takes a lot of humility for you to be able to take the Paulo aside, to scratch everything you’ve done before, to make it be nothing, and then you have to build from the floor up a new character. That is the fundamental of theater, and that is how actors build characters. An opera singer cannot do that, first of all because we don’t have the time to do that - rehearsals are very short – and if you destroy yourself it means that you destroy your voice.
You can not destroy your voice if you are an opera singer, so you have to build your character around you. You have to be yourself, and then you have to be around you, around the voice that you have. The voice cannot ever change as an opera singer. You change the inflection from language to language but the technique that your instrument has needs to be the same. I cannot be a tenor and make another kind of voice. I need to be me.
This is not possible in the theater, people cannot see you - the artist - in the character, they need to see only the character if you are doing a good job. So it was very interesting to be in an environment surrounded by actors, and to see this process happening. And I kind of did the same thing as they did; I tried not to bring Paulo to the rehearsals, I had to be Emile de Becque at the time, so it was a very interesting process for me as an actor, and as a person too.
It is a fundamental difference, but at the same they both theatrical actors and operatic singers find themselves in the same channel of communication with the public, which is the expression on stage. There are similarities as well, not just differences.
OL – Any pressure from your colleagues, or from opera directors and conductors not willing to hire someone who sang on Broadway?
PS – Yes, usually some conductors would say that I should consider carefully whether to accept that job or not, because it can be very dangerous to sing eight shows a week for a long period. The first contract was supposed to be for six months which is a long enough period, and then after the success of the show, they extended it for six more months, and that happened several times until I was there for two and a half years.
OL - You started your career with piano, violin, and classical ballet, then suffered a knee injury and turned to opera. How was that transition for you? Any regrets about this career change?
PS – Not at all. Dance gave me a lot of pleasure all the time. When the accident happened and the doctor said I should stop dancing in order to keep walking – I was in communist Poland at the time and the doctors were very straightforward - I was a beginner. They said: “You know, I think you should find something else,” I said: “OK, of course I’ll try.” And two weeks later I joined the chorus at the university, and when the conductor heard me in audition to classify my voice as tenor or baritone, he said “You have a very good voice, you should see a voice teacher and try to invest in it” and I heard that as a call again, as something new that was happening in my life, and at that point I said “Why not?” So I found a teacher who said “Of course there is material there, you should invest in it.” And I started to sing.
OL – And do you love opera as much as you used to love classical ballet?
PS – I love performing opera all the time, but I do sometimes miss that joy that I had as a teenager dancing. Giving up the dream of becoming a professional dancer was a little frustrating because I loved to do it so much; for me it was very natural. I really love what I do, but I didn’t know opera at all before I started to learn singing. I knew all kinds of music but I was not really in love with opera; I didn’t understand it. But I got to know it little by little and opera involved me in a way that I couldn’t get rid of it anymore. It was part of my life, part of my job, part of what I am and what I became to the world. So I learned to love opera because it didn’t come naturally as a teenager for me.
OL - Your path to international fame was unusual – Brazilian born, trained in Poland, relatively late-comer to opera. Did you encounter any difficulties in making into the prestigious theaters and becoming a member of the small circle of elite singers in the world – which you now are -- because of this different path?
PS – First of all I’m very honored to be part of these big houses. Since the time when I first became an opera singer that was the main goal, to work in good houses, of course. I was lucky enough to work a lot in Brazil at that time when I was there, and Brazil taught me a lot by giving me the opportunity to be on stage and learn on stage. Learning in a classroom in school is very different. So I had an opportunity to go on stage many, many times in Brazil. But Brazil at that time was becoming very difficult for opera singers. Now the situation is even more difficult. Unfortunately I have friends in Brazil who are opera singers and they are jobless, and it is difficult to maintain yourself as a singer. But at that time when I was there I was singing, there were lots of productions, I couldn’t complain, I was singing all the time. But I started to see the movement that the operatic environment there was declining, and I thought “If I want to survive as an opera singer I should expand my horizons.” Then I was lucky enough to meet my international agent Bruce Zemski. When I was there, he was there too; I sang to him and a month later I was here auditioning for opera houses in America.
So everything happened very naturally. Of course I always worked hard; I always respected my profession and wanted to do my best on stage. But things happened in a very natural way, one step after another. I worked a lot in Brazil then I started to work in small American theaters – well, not so small – my first American debut was at New York City Opera, it’s a very large theater too. I mean, I was singing in houses that were smaller than the major opera houses in the world. So I worked for many years in the States; I worked a lot in France, and in Canada and England, but the biggest offer from a major opera house which was the Metropolitan Opera House came only after South Pacific.
I auditioned many times for the Met and they presented offers to cover many roles there which is fantastic and which I did, but a major role offer only came after Peter Gelb watched South Pacific and came to me, and offered me The Nose by Shostakovich. And that was the main step in my opera career; after that many things happened. After you sing at the Met of course many other doors open to you. Next year I’m having my Milan debut at La Scala; so yes, the Metropolitan is a fantastic place, when they like you they like you, and they keep hiring you.
See this interesting YouTube clip about Mr. Szot's The Nose at the Met:
Here we can hear Mr. Szot singing in the Met's Manon, fourth act trio, although Ms. Netrebko's booming voice doesn't leave much volume for her colleagues in this low def web video (we did receive the high def file but its size precludes this kind of web use). Video courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera House Press Department, used with authorization.
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