July marks the first time Australian audiences will get to enjoy one of the most sought after voices in the opera world. Roberto Alagna has been welcomed into the top opera houses including La Scala, The Royal Opera House in London, The National Opera in Paris, The Met in New York. He’s the guy you call when Jonas Kaufmann calls in sick and the Met did just that in January. Alagna had just completed their season in the leading role of Pagliacci the day before. The Met rang in a panic asking him to take on the lead of Manon Lescaut. Alagna is one of the few you can rely upon to rise to the challenge and not just make it through but become one of the major redeeming features reviewers loved the most about the production.
“I had five days to memorise the role. After that I had to start directly with the orchestra and the cast on stage. I had Monday to Friday and then it was General Rehearsal,” Alagna tells Fine Music magazine.
After more than 60 roles in opera through his career, including two operas that were written specifically for him, you would think the thrill would wear thin but Alagna still feels blessed to be in such a special career.
“We have the opportunity to deliver a message to people … An artist is there to enrich as many people as they can. You can bring the message of love and fraternity. Like a prayer, I see it like a communion between the audience and the artist.”
Alagna was already familiar with that communion by the time he began his opera career. Before he hit the big time he was a largely self-taught singer busking on the streets, singing cabaret and pop music in clubs around Paris where he was raised in a Sicilian immigrant family. This career path broadened his appreciation of music, gave him precious stage skills you wouldn’t normally learn in a singing school and he’s well-known for his great generosity with fellow performers, totally devoid of ego. However, he still feels life experience is what really counts in adding depth to the performance.
“Everything is useful in opera, you have a lot of things to do. You must play like an actor, you must have the discipline of a sportif. You have to be very comfortable with your body, you have to be able to fight or to do acrobatic things, you must be a seductive lover. All of this can be drawn from life.
“I was a widower when I was 29 years old (his wife died from a brain tumour, leaving him with a two-year-old daughter) so, I lived out this very, very sad moment with my first wife and in La Boheme, the same situation… With experiences you learn a lot. Otherwise it’s impossible to be a good interpreter if you only have good moments,” says Alagna.
He says his solid family support is what kept him from losing his mind and they are still very much a part of his life and career.
“It was very difficult when I was in America (far from home in France) because I was all the time thinking about my (daughter) Ornella. It was impossible for me to see the beauty around me and I was all the time suffering from the separation… I was alone, I was far away doing pleasure for people but not my daughter.”
Now with a new wife and another young daughter, life feels very happy for Alagna.
“With the first daughter, I became a little bit older because of the responsibility and with the second one I became younger… something strange like I am reborn, like I open my eyes again,” he says.
According to the tenor, the program he’s put together for his Australian tour will be value packed with more than 30 arias plus songs from his Sicilian, French and Neapolitan roots.
“For this first time I wanted to give the most I could for the people. If I just come with the classical program where in a typical program you sing six or seven arias and after some
encores it’s finished,” said Alagna. “Number one, I wanted to give the most possible… to give a program that is easy to love but with also a demanding program, very full and dense.”
Joining Alagna on stage will be young Australian soprano Siobhan Stagg who is establishing herself as a rising star in Europe, recently stepping in to take roles with the Berlin Philharmonic and at the Royal Opera House in London. The Australian Sinfonietta Orchestra will accompany at what is sure to be a sold-out Sydney concert.
– Annabelle Drumm