• The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Paulo Esper, Brazilian director and producer

    Opera Lively traveled to São Paulo, Brazil, and interviewed five artists from the very dynamic Theatro São Pedro on the occasion of their staging of Condor, written by Brazilian opera composer from the 19th century Carlos Gomes. We take advantage of the occasion to get to know several fascinating topics about the state of opera in Brazil, both in the past and presently. Our 200th interview was with the greatest name of Brazilian opera, maestro Luis Fernando Malheiro. Read it [here]; it's really, truly a must-read, containing gorgeous pictures of Brazilian productions and extremely interesting comments, such as how the maestro got to stage Wagner’s Ring cycle for the first time in Brazil, in the middle of the Amazon jungle. This interview #198 with the maestro’s right hand, producer and stage director Paulo Esper, is the perfect companion for the conductor’s, since it adds more information particularly about the opera company at Theatro São Pedro, and tells us more about the training of young singers, and the Maria Callas singing competition.



    Artistic Biography

    Born in Jacareí, state of São Paulo, Brazil, in 1967, Paulo started his lyric singing studies in 1984. His cousin, Brazilian singer Dalva Esper Nader, helped him relocate to São Paulo City, the capital, to study with soprano Claudia Mocchi, with whom he remained until 1992. As a singer, he had his stage debut in 1985 in Don Pasquale, and he sang Werther the following year. In 1987 Paulo went to Buenos Aires, Argentina, to study for six months at Teatro Colón, where he had an opportunity to sing alongside Regine Crespin in Pique Dame by Tchaikovsky. He then traveled to Barcelona, Spain, where he won a singing competition and was awarded a scholarship to study with the famous Italian baritone Gino Bechi at the Liceu.

    Back to Brazil in 1989, Paulo founded the Projeto Música Jacareí, which soon resulted in the founding of an opera company, the Cia. Ópera São Paulo, which has had to date more than 500 performances. In 1993 Paulo created the Maria Callas Singing Competition (he describes it in our interview). He also created and directed for six years the Opera Festival of the city of Florianópolis in the Southern state of Santa Catarina.

    Paulo is a frequent juror in international singing competitions in Europe. He was granted a medal by the Italian Ministry of Culture. He embraced the career of opera stage director and producer, and has produced numerous concerts, recitals, and fully staged operas, such as La Traviata, Cavalleria Rusticana, Madama Butterfly and Carmen.

    Since 2012 Paulo Esper is the Artistic Coordinator of Theatro São Pedro, where he was joined in 2014 by the great conductor Luiz Fernando Malheiro. Paulo also directs the Academy of the theater, a Young Artist Program. In addition to these prestigious positions, Paulo has acted as an administrator, music consultant, and director for many other cultural organizations and programs in Brazil, including the Italian Institute of Culture of São Paulo, which is an official part of the Italian government.


    Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Stage Director and Producer Paulo Esper

    This is our interview #198. Copyright Opera Lively; all rights reserved. Reproduction of excerpts is authorized for all purposes as long as the source is quoted and a link to the full piece is provided. Reproduction of the entire interview requires authorization - use the Contact Us form. Photos unless otherwise stated with specific credit are fair promotional use (we do not know the names of all photographers; will be happy to include them if we are told who they are)

    Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively – The Theatro São Pedro is an ancient organization, but more recently the venue has been utilized predominantly for opera. Please describe to our readers the operatic history of the São Pedro. When did the opera company start?

    Paulo Esper – The Theatro São Pedro like you said was inaugurated in 1917, so it is close to its centenary. The first opera here was Gianni Schicchi in 1983. I didn’t even know that the theater existed, but thanks to destiny and coincidence, that first opera had the artistic direction of Maestro Luiz Fernando Malheiro who is now São Pedro’s artistic director. The second opera was only in 1998, after the renovations and the decree establishing the theater’s historical importance done by Governor Covas, and it was La Cenerentola by Rossini, conducted by John Neshling with the old OSESP.

    Theatro São Pedro, exterior

    OL - More recently opera here has acquired intensive programming. When was the focus of the theater turned to opera?

    PE – The focus on opera started since 2003 when the OS [Social Cultural Organization] that administrated the theater opened bids for independent producers. I was one of those producers and almost every year I had a winning bid, but the production wasn’t entirely paid for by the OS. We producers also had to bring money. So, we had sparse seasons here. By decree of Secretary of Culture João Batista Andrade who is today the director of the Latin American Memorial, the São Pedro became an opera theater in 2008. In 2010 the next Secretary created the Orchestra of the Theatro São Pedro (ORTHESP). Then, from 2010 on, we’ve had stable seasons with the house orchestra, and this became even more intensive in the second half of 2014 when maestro Malheiro arrived, with great productions, rare titles, and titles that weren’t done in São Paulo, so it’s been very consequential seasons under his direction here in our house.

    Theatro São Pedro, interior

    OL – What are the funding lines? What percentage of the expenses are covered by the funding? Is the company in the red, or even, or profitable?

    PE – No, we are not profitable, because we are an OS. So, the OS does not make a profit; it administers the theater. I don’t even know the total budget because this belongs to the administrative headquarters [The Pensarte Foundation – a pun that would roughly translate as Think Art]. But even with the budget cuts from the economic crisis, we have been able to do a season more than dignified, with great names of the lyric scene in Brazil, and many invited singers from abroad. I believe that our budget has been stable, because no boss has strangled our neck yet, so it’s all good, fortunately.

    OL – Is it difficult to make opera in Brazil?

    PE – It is very difficult.

    OL – What are the obstacles?

    PE – It is very hard because the majority of public administrators – which fortunately is not the case of São Paulo which is an exception to this, in Brazil – don’t believe in culture and in classical music. You see, we talk with many conductors from various orchestras in various states; the situation is really very ugly, and it is disappointing for all of us who produce classical music and opera. So, this is the biggest hurdle, because good artists we do have; we have good conductors, good set designers. What is lacking is really participation from State in a country that is different, as you know – since you live in North America – in which sponsors and private donors, especially dose from individuals rather than corporations, are almost non-existent, because we don’t have the culture that North America has, that Europe has. So this makes it much harder for us.

    OL – What is the size of the singing body? How many singers are under permanent contract? How many are free-lancers, and how many are students?

    PE – We work with an average of one hundred Brazilian artists per year. Already last year we have created a body of fifteen singers who graduated from our Academy and are now in our permanent ensemble, under contract. It was a wonderful idea by maestro Malheiro, to have these youngsters practically daily here in the theater studying operas, Brazilian chamber music, and art songs from international composers. This is all part of a career cycle for all of them. They are very happy about it. They participate in 80% of our casting for the season, and on top of this we have the Academy of Opera like you cited, with twenty-three participants in this year that started in February, and already last week they did their first show with lots of public success, with songs by Beethoven.

    One of the student performances at Theatro São Pedro

    OL – Does the public appreciate it? Is it common to have sold-out shows? How is the popularity of opera in Brazil, up or down?

    PE – Very much up! That’s what makes us even more upset, that politicians don’t see how opera is growing among our youngsters. Last week here, on a sheer Sunday, with the young singers from the Academy who are virtually unknown in the operatic environment, we had four hundred here in the theater supporting these youngsters. That means, we do have the public, and it doesn’t matter if the tickets are free or for sale. What we need is to offer something to the public. The São Pedro has more than eighty activities this season. We had six performances of Don Quixote, all sold-out, and they coincided with two days of intensive political manifestations here in São Paulo and even so the house was full to capacity. So, we had great success, and we were all very satisfied.

    A full house watching Don Quixote

    OL – Please describe the activities of the Academy of Opera.

    PE – They are many. They have repertory classes, vocal technique, French and Italian languages, theatrical arts, acting, with activities every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday all day long. Many of our students are from outside the city of São Paulo so we chose to make the didactic fall on specific days so that they are able to engage in other activities in their cities.

    OL – How many youngsters apply to these positions?

    PE – We had more than one hundred-fifty this year. We had eighteen spots, and ended up enlarging the group to twenty-three spots, due to the huge number of applicants.

    OL – Is the quality of the training similar to what is done abroad?

    PE – I don’t know too many Young Artist Programs but I believe we are on the right track. When I wanted to have a career as an opera singer – it was short because later I started to produce operas – I was a student at the Institute of the Teatro Colón of Buenos Aires, and also the Superior Institute of Art of the Liceu in Barcelona. The curriculum was the same: vocal technique classes, etc. On top of the permanent teachers that we have here, when we invite important singers for the opera season, they also spend time with our students for a few days, giving masterclasses, teaching diction, teaching breathing; this is very important so I believe our path is going well.

    OL – What about the universities and conservatories, for Master’s and Doctoral degrees in music? Which ones are the best ones?

    PE – In the rest of Brazil I wouldn’t be able to quote many names. I know that unfortunately we have only a few. Here in São Paulo we have the EMESP which is very good and they have a program for lyric singing. There is the School of Music of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and I don’t know the others very well. We do have a lot of private singers, and there are private conservatories like the Santa Marcelina, which is also very important.

    OL – How do you compare the operatic environment in Brazil, and in other large South American countries that have important theaters, like Argentina, Chile, and Peru?

    PE – Since I started singing lessons thirty years ago, the Teatro Colón has always played a very important role in Latin America. In spite of all the crises the theater went through over the last twenty years, it is still a very important theater. We have the Municipal of São Paulo, the Municipal of Rio de Janeiro, and the Theatro São Pedro. Unfortunately the other ones are more marginal. We have an important festival, the Festival Amazonas de Ópera in Manaus, and they’ll do this season a very important edition, with Medea in French, by Cherubini, which is the composer’s original version. They will also do Verdi’s Requiem, many concerts, and will stage also Adriana Lecouvreur which is in co-production with Theatro São Pedro.

    Chile of course has a theater that among all the above quoted, is the one I think had the least ups and downs. It has always held regular programming with important names that come to Santiago. Now the artistic direction has changed, after twenty years. The general director Andrés Rodriguez went away, and a Frenchman from the theater in Toulouse took over, and it seems like he will make the quality of the season even better.

    OL – Are there many contemporary operas being composed in Brazil? You are staging this season the world première of a new Brazilian opera, O Espelho [The Mirror]. How is the market for the composers? Are they getting productions?

    PE – Unfortunately Brazil doesn’t get a lot from its own composers. Maestro Malheiro works a lot with contemporary opera, and when he came here in the second half of 2014, already for last year’s season he created a series called Brazilian Chamber Music of the 20th and 21st Centuries, exactly to give some space for these composers to show their works. This has been very satisfactory and a very positive surprise for all of us, with these young composers showing their pieces. The maestro always includes a Brazilian opera in his seasons. Last year we had Poranduba by maestro Villani-Côrtes and it was a triumph, also with six sold-out runs.


    This year like you said we’ll have O Espelho in our season. We did recently two nights in our Nights of Opera of a work by a composer from São Paulo, Leandro Oliveira, called Musa do Subsolo [The Basement Muse]. It was a very pleasant surprise with a full house as well, both nights. It was for one soprano, two actors, and eight musicians, and it was really a surprise composition for all of us. The market exists. João Guilherme Ripper is a great Brazilian opera composer, who is now the president of the Foundation Teatro Municipal of Rio de Janeiro. What we need is more space for Brazilian operas. The São Pedro is leading the way in this.

    This year we also are giving back to the public, which is our obligation, the works of Carlos Gomes. The Theatro São Pedro did Condor with piano accompaniment, and did a great concert with two hours of Carlos Gomes music in April. The Municipal did Fosca, and Minas Gerais did Il Guarany, so this year we are rescuing Carlos Gomes, who in spite of being 19th century, is also an obligation for us.

    Paulo taking a bow after the young cast's performance of Condor which he directed

    A staging of Carlos Gomes' Il Guarany at Theatro Amazonas

    OL – Right. I know of your Maria Callas Singing Competition. Tell us about it.

    PE – The contest was created by me in 1993. We’ll have this year the 14th edition. We receive youngsters from Brazil and South America, because this competition is closed for South Americans. I am a member of the jury in many competitions in Europe, and I see that when there are voices from Russia and Eastern Europe, and many Spaniards who now took over the Italians, all these youngsters especially Koreans, they come and gobble all the big prizes. So if you make a competition open to the entire world, we already have a sparse opera season in Brazil for the size of our country, so it would be too unequal. It’s what I’ve always thought.

    The contest is always a success. This year maestro Malheiro is the president of the jury for the third time. We will have the presence of the great American soprano June Anderson who had a stellar career in all the big theaters in the world, and she will be praised during the competition. For the last four years, the competition stages in one of the other cities in the State, not here at the São Pedro, an opera with the winners. That’s what we did with Rigoletto and The Barber of Seville, and then last year Carmen. This year it will be Puccini’s La Bohème. So, will see what talents will surface, so that we can do this La Bohème.

    OL – Wow, nice! Are there other competitions in Brazil?

    PE – Unfortunately, no. South America is very lacking, regarding this. The Colón had one but it doesn’t exist any longer. In Brazil specific for opera there is only the Maria Callas, and we have another one in Peru, in the city of Trujillo, which is an interesting competition of lyric singing – I was in the jury there, once – and that’s it. Very few, unfortunately. In Chile, nothing.

    OL – How is the situation at the Municipal? As the name indicates, is the funding separate from the State funding you get here at the São Pedro? It seems to me that you are producing more opera here than at the Municipal.

    PE – What the situation is at the Municipal I don’t know. I just know that the budget there is thirty million reais [a bit less than 10 million dollars] and ours is three million. We need to do a season with three million, five operas [Editor’s note – not counting the other seventeen in other series of the season], more than twenty concerts, the Academy and everything else. We are fighting for this to improve. We have good support from the Secretary of Culture but it happened that the economic crisis last year changed all these plans. Fortunately we haven’t had to cancel anything last season, and we pray that this year we’ll be able to deliver everything that we’ve promised.

    OL – So, with one tenth of the Municipal’s budget, you are able to have sufficient resources for sets, costumes, etc.?

    PE – Obviously we always want more. The more you have, the more you invest, but with what we have, we’ve been able to do it. I don’t know about the total budget, and I don’t know how much is spent on each opera at the Municipal.

    OL – I heard that you have another company, Compania Ópera São Paulo, and you perform in the city of Jacareí, and have had more than five hundred shows all over Brazil. Tell us about it.

    PE – So, I started my career as a singer in 1884. When I went to study in Spain at the Liceu in Barcelona in 1988, I had the honor of getting to know the great baritone Dino Bechi, the great stage and recording companion for Maria Callas. One of those days he said “Paulo, if you have to return to Brazil” – and I had, because I did not have the resources to stay in Europe – “you have to create something for your city like I did for Florence, which is my city.” Then when I came back I had that in my head, then I created a project called Music Project of Jacareí which is my native city, in 1989. Since our activities were always talked about in the local newspaper which reached the entire Paraiba Valley, secretaries of culture called me asking for information about what we did. Then I said “let’s create an opera company” with the name of the State of São Paulo [the city of São Paulo is the capital of the state of the same name] because I couldn’t take shows to Taubaté or Caraguatatuba with a project called Music of Jacareí; it didn’t make sense. Then I picked Compania Ópera São Paulo that encompassed the whole state. And we started staging operas already in 1991.

    Em 1993 things got much more solid. It’s when I created the Maria Callas competition. Exactly that year, for an irony of destiny, Dino Bechi died. I had his address written on a piece of paper, with his phone number, in his own handwriting, which I still keep today. I knew nothing of his family, but I wrote a letter to that address talking about my sadness for the passing of the great maestro, and saying that the first Maria Callas Competition would have a prize dedicated to Giuseppe Verdi for the best Verdi interpreter because Callas had been a great Verdian, but that prize, that year, would be called Gino Bechi.

    After a month and a half I received a letter from Dino Bechi’s widow – I didn’t know of her existence because that’s not the kind of talk I had with him during our stay in Barcelona – thanking me and saying she was very happy and honored with my initiative and with the prize on the name of Dino Bechi.

    So, we did shows. Nowadays the company is in the hands of my helpers who work for me in many cities, because as the Artistic Coordinator here for the São Pedro I can’t be absent too often, but the company continues doing its job around.

    OL – You wrote a book, right? Tell us about it. [Editor’s note – Paulo Esper is finishing a book that he wants to call “My first 30 years of artistic career and my 1,000 shows” – “In the book, I’ll tell a little about my career and my artistic life that started in 1994. It is still in planning stage and I intend to distribute it to friends and people who are interested in my work.”]

    PE – It’s not properly a book, it’s rather a summary of my thirty years of career. I’m very proud of the fact that I was quoted in the latest Dictionary of Opera in Europe written by a Spanish critic, a dictionary with more than 1,000 pages and my name is there, with my picture, talking about my work in Brazil, and I’m the only Brazilian there besides Bidú Saião. I feel much honored. I’ll still write another book. In our next competition, numbered XV, I’ll write about the impressions I had – although I never listened to her singing live – of the career and the person of Maria Callas, comparing her with other colleagues from her time. I’ll send you a copy.

    OL – Thank you. We do have a small publishing house – Opera Lively Press – and maybe you’ll be interested in publishing with us.

    PE – Ah, let’s keep in touch about it, then.

    OL – Tell us about the lessons learned in thirty years of artistic career.

    OL – The lessons are many. It’s a lot of love, isn’t it? At times we have to leave the emotions and the heart aside – and we learn it the hard way – because we can’t succeed in everything we want to do every time, so we have to be anchored on the ground and not try to make opera without the financial backing. But I think the balance is very positive. I have had in these past two years the unconditional support of Maestro Malheiro who is my artistic director, to invest on the great names of the international lyric scene. Many who come, in spite of having had twenty, thirty years of career, are coming to Brazil for the first time. It’s something I’ve always felt.

    The directors of opera theaters in Brazil – today it’s changing but up to recently it wasn’t – were not people from the operatic milieu and they didn’t know the big names to get them invited. So we had for example Renato Bruson, Juan Pons, Mariella Devia, all people I brought here to the Theatro São Pedro. They came to the Colón in Buenos Aires but had never been to Brazil. That is, it’s absurd, everything that is happening in our Brazil. It’s a hiatus of more than twenty years without big names here.

    Our youngsters need them, because Latin America is too far from Europe and North America, where you can substitute an artist at the last minute, you call and in two hours the artist is in your theater. We can’t do that, we have a 12-hour flight to Europe or North America. So the youngsters need this contact. It is why the Maria Callas Competition every year brings a big voice – big in the sense that I’m saying of having a big career – to be with them for a week, so that they can be with them upfront. So for example I brought Fedora Barbieri who sang with Callas for many years, brought Magda Olivero, Fiorenza Cossotto, Virginia Zeani, and recently we had Stefania Bonfadelli, and Juan Pons. Our singers need to be together with these people, to learn a bit. Gabriella Tucci who sang Medea with Maria Callas, Teresa Berganza, Fabio Armiliato, Daniela Dessì, names who are still having important careers in Europe and North America, so our youngsters need them. But we learn that with perseveration, there is a way, and we pray, right? The Saint Spirit always helps us. [laughs]

    OL – About stage direction, what do you think of the Regie movement? Do you use this movement’s concepts in your productions here at the São Pedro?

    PE – We had a production that wasn’t conservative, because it was very modernist but not deviating from the libretto, which was the Don Quixote with the direction of Jorge Takla. It was a triumph. Now we’ll have the opera Adriana Lecouvreur that is based on a classic of French literature although it was composed by an Italian, with a totally modern production of André Heller-Lopes that is not far behind. I mean, you have to bet on directors who are sufficiently intelligent to not take these modern ideas and transgress, and offend the libretto written by the librettist who was trusted by the composer when he set it to music. So, they are opposite versions, but both elegant on stage and very interesting. You’ll have an opportunity to see a bit of it [he invited me to attend the rehearsal, after the interview].

    Rehearsal of Adriana Lecouvreur at Theatro São Pedro - photo Opera Lively

    I’m not against the Regie movement at all. I’m against a Calixto Bieito [controversial Spanish director] who does a Ballo in Maschera in a bordello inside a bathroom, with one of the protagonists singing one of Verdi’s great arias sitting on the toilet reading a newspaper. This, I’m against. I think it doesn’t bring the public to the opera house. Much the opposite, it chases the public away. Unfortunately we see this every day here in Cracolândia [a drug and prostitution-infested neighborhood in São Paulo], so nobody buys a ticket to see a singer on a toilet with his pants down, reading a newspaper. It’s not what the public wants to see. The public wants to see, of course, something modern, but well done and well produced. And the São Pedro has been doing both styles – traditionalist and Regie – very well since last year. I believe we have a good season. The Municipal also does Regie, and so does Belo Horizonte. But Brazil doesn’t do a lot of these German bets. In Germany there is a lot that I don’t like. I’ve already booed many operas in Germany because of that. I’ll yell the name of the composer but not the name of the stage director. [laughs]

    OL – To finish, please tell us something personal about your life philosophy and your hobbies.

    PE – In reality we have no time for hobbies, because they are a luxury for people who work in an opera house. My life is dedicated to opera since I was seventeen. I have thirty years of career. I don’t know how to love anything other than opera. I have neglected many personal issues in favor of opera, and I don’t regret it. One of my hobbies, if I can call it such, are the trips that I’m invited to do three or four times per year to go to Europe to be a member of the jury in competitions. It’s not tourism, it’s a working trip, but of course you go see productions in great theaters, you meet great singers and directors. It’s work but not hard work because working with music is a pleasure. I think it’s God’s blessing. We are blessed for working on this field.

    OL – Would you like to add anything that we failed to ask?

    PE – I’d like to thank you for all that you do for music and for opera, and for your interest in being here in Brazil for these interviews with the people of Theatro São Pedro. Thank you very much.

    OL – Thank you for the great interview.

    PE - You're welcome; anytime you are in São Paulo let me know so that we can have lunch together and chat about opera; and I hope you'll see one of our fully staged productions.

    OL - It will be my pleasure.


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