One of the most prominent young operatic tenors, Andrea Carè, was among the last students who had the privilege to study with Luciano Pavarotti. We met at the Royal Opera House, where he performs Don José, an army corporal who is fatally trapped in a web of passion and jealousy, in Bizet’s Carmen. Carè made his debut at the Royal Opera House in 2013 as Ismaele in Verdi’s Nabucco, an opera in which Verdi said:
“This is the opera with which my artistic career really begins. And though I had many difficulties to fight against, it is certain that Nabucco was born under a lucky star.”
Rivka Jacobson: Do you regard your performance as Ismaele as your lucky star?
Andrea Carè: Well of course. First of all because it was my first step into the Royal Opera House, so it was very significant. And also because I met Placido Domingo, who was playing Nabucco and was one of my personal heroes in opera. So working with him was really exciting.
I have to say that I love Nabucco as an opera, but I don’t love the role that I was playing. It is not an important role, so there aren’t many chances to develop the character; it is a bit flat. I discovered through the years that I like to act even more than I like to sing, so the characters who have complex minds, who are troubled, appeal to me giving me the opportunity to bring a complex story to life on stage. And Ismaele doesn’t give you that; there are no chances to put a lot of emotion into it, which is what I love to do.
RJ: What do you think is the role that most allows you to do that?
AC: The role I’m playing now, Don José in Carmen, it’s a character I have done many times and which I like very much because it allows you to be one person at the beginning of the opera, but you arrive at the end of the opera changed, you are developing it. I like to perform Stiffelio by Verdi as well – it is not very well known opera, but in terms of a challenge for a tenor, I think it is comparable to Otello. I sang the title role in the Royal Swedish Opera in 2014. Stiffelio has six arias throughout the opera, and he is loving and hating and killing – almost killing – and forgiving, which is challenging and fun.
RJ: Tell me about the relationship between opera singers and the orchestra.
AC: Well, it is different for everyone, but for me, all the details – the costume, the other performers, the music, the sets – all come together and affect my performance differently, every time. There are, of course, good days and bad days, sometimes it is frustrating. We are not always performing with the same people, so it is difficult sometimes to have the same chemistry, for example. Or sometimes things that have happened personally with the other performers can affect your performance. The orchestra is so fundamental in my performances because I strongly believe that everything it is written in the score it’s a feeling of the characters or of the moment we are acting on stage: the musicians in the pit are giving us the important elements to create the magic on stage. I have a psychological trick that I do that I was taught by my teachers: you look at yourself in the mirror once you have the make-up on, and forget to be yourself. You know the character, you know the story as it has developed and where your character fits into that story; you switch off your own sentiments at that moment and you bring the character to life instead. Otherwise, the emotions from real life can come through the voice, and disrupt the performance.
RJ: When did you realize that your future is in singing opera?
AC: I never realized it, I just went for it and followed my passion. I was always singing at home; my family gave me a lot, but they didn’t know much about classical or opera music. I was always singing jingles of the television and radio pop songs from the age of 2. When I was around 14 I started to have a business with it during piano bar evenings, restaurants, weddings and gigs. Then one time I was singing some Bocelli’s songs and a neighbour overheard me and she decided to educate me about opera. She gave me recordings while encouraging me to study opera, and so I went to the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory of Turin. I was 19 when I heard my first opera which was Tosca, but the first I saw live was in Teatro Regio in Turin was Mefistofele by Boito.
RJ: Did you have doubts at any point?
AC: I have a lot of students and they say they are scared about the future and concerned about having a lucrative career in opera. Since I come from humble beginnings, with my father as a labourer and my mother as an interpreter, I have always had self-discipline. I just needed to survive, so if I could manage to buy food and pay bills then for me it was okay; I’ve never put that much pressure on myself by clinging to high aspirations.
RJ: What was the most important source of encouragement for you?
AC: First of all my parents because they never once told me it was a foolish path to go down. I was exposed to all types of work when I was gardening, so I knew what menial labour was in comparison to the music business. This neighbour – Emma Macchetti – was also very encouraging.
RJ: How do you describe your voice? What is the main challenge to a young tenor?
AC: My teachers weren’t sure whether my voice was baritone or tenor. They could hear in the higher registers that my voice was blooming. But when I started studying I couldn’t pass the highest note for a baritone. I have a really dark voice and I can go down into the bass register, so it was a real challenge to get it there as a tenor. I worked really hard and found my own exercises. Every day I do physical warming up such as yoga and to help prepare my diaphragm, back and voice. I found out that I have a big throat like the most of basses, the length of vocal cords of a baritone and then the resonances of a tenor. I need to do a lot of warming up to get to my top register. But the advantage of doing this is that it protects my voice against damage. When I was younger and athletic from playing volleyball I was told to gain weight for a wider frame, but being fatter helping you sing better is a myth!
RJ: There are great tenors that precede you and have been recorded. Do you feel in awe of any of them?
AC: You always feel in awe. It’s a critical reflex unless you have a Narcissistic personality and believe you have a flawless voice. Each time I heard a great singer I used to think ‘Why am I doing this?’, but it’s stimulating and not just frustrating to hear those great tenors.
RJ: You studied under the giant Pavarotti. How was he as a teacher?
AC: I was so lucky to meet him. After studying for three years I won the Spoleto International Opera Competition in 2005 and one of the privileges was that I have access to a two-year academy with many master-classes. One of the classes was with Raina Kabaivanska who then became my permanent teacher. After the first class, she called me on my mobile phone and it was such an honour to have a great singer contacting me outside the academy. She told me how much she admired my voice and perseverance, giving me free tuition as long as I promised to work hard. After one year of hard work with her, she then told me I needed some tips from a tenor and that she only trusted Luciano. She spoke with him and arranged an audition in Modena. Pavarotti was already suffering from pancreatic cancer, but he told me that I could come and visit him every afternoon if his health was fine. I moved to Modena and found a flat; I was having lessons each afternoon from January to June in 2007.
Something he helped me with is the technique of passaggio, which is the transition area of the voice that is especially important for a tenor, it is important to rest the voice and prepare it before the higher register. Pavarotti was telling me to tighten my control during those notes rather than opening up immediately. He told it is like a horse preparing for a jump – it has to slow down before launching itself, and that is what I had to learn as a singer – not to push in that area. Pavarotti was amazing because he was presented on television interviews as this big personality, but I found him to be so generous with his time for me and other students he was seeing – four or five others each afternoon in fact.
RJ: You are Italian, is it challenging to sing in other languages?
AC: I sing in French the most and I studied it in school so I don’t find it too challenging. Last year I sang in Czech and I’ve also sung in Russian. It’s difficult to learn an opera in a language you don’t know. Some people say French is tricky to sing in, but I think a lot of these apprehensions are only in the mind.
RJ: Acting and singing – do you find the acting part more challenging? How did you feel working with Barrie Kosky?
AC: I find the acting part more fun. For many singers, it is a problem as they prefer to focus on the vocal part, but for me, it gives sense to what I’m singing. Working with Barrie Kosky made me wish I had more time to converse; he’s very intelligent. I worked more with his assistant, but I think I could have benefitted if I had more face-to-face time with Barrie.
The mixed reviews for this Carmen are because it’s a new point of view; nothing like it has come previously. Some reviewers say that they missed the emotion of the story. I think that the people who have seen Carmen many times can be disappointed. You don’t have the real drama but you have a great show – you can’t always do the same things. There are some very fast tempos and it’s less traditional, but it’s not wholly different since it still respects the score.
RJ: You worked with many leading conductors. What difference does the conductor have on the singers? Is it the conductor’s call or the director’s?
AC: There have been many Italians I’ve worked with but also lots of other nationalities. I had my première of Carmen with Jakub Hruša a young conductor I never heard before but he is very talented, easy to follow and precise. He allows room for the singer’s interpretation as well.
The other conductor in this production is Christopher Willis with a very different style but so great an expert in terms of voices. There is no percentage I can give for responsibility between conductor and director: it changes from production to production. Sometimes I owe my character to a director, conductor or just myself.
RJ: You had many leading roles. Which is your favourite?
AC: Probably Don José, but I also like Gustavo in Un ballo in maschera and Cavaradossi in Tosca.
RJ: Do you think this production of Carmen adheres to its original genre of Opera Comique?
AC: Opera Comique is a kind of composition that includes spoken dialogues it’s closer to cabaret and entertainment. But Carmen is a tragedy in four acts. We see a rare version of this score in this production. It’s the first score that Bizet composed before he cut and edited the work. When it debuted he started to incorporate the criticisms to create the version everyone knows, but it’s also fascinating to appreciate the process and the origin.
RJ: What is your interpretation of the character of Don José?
AC: Barrie[the director] doesn’t like the character because he says that he’s not able to laugh. I believe that he’s a grave and real man. There’s not a lot to laugh about in this story. It’s about a man loving the wrong woman, saying that he wished he never met her. In the novella by Mérimée, you cannot say he is a good person because he already killed a man in a fight. He is passionate about his temper but also unlucky. I think he has good ideas for his future and what he needs to fill the void of his village life. Carmen is a magnet for him and he cannot refuse the attraction. It’s, of course, deplorable what he does and how a man can arrive at such actions, but I think in each of us there is a Don José; we have good and bad sides. His tragedy is that he is situated in the wrong place and time.
RJ: What is the most demanding aria in this opera and why?
AC: The aria in the second act is called ‘La fleur que tu m’avais jetée’ and it is filled with pure love. This marks the first breakdown of Don José. We meet him as a soldier, then he starts to break the rules and falls in love with Carmen, eventually spending two months in prison. He doesn’t know that she just wanted to flirt and be fanciful, but he begins to count the seconds before he sees her again. He is swearing about how his passion rages, as she teases him about his ardour. He is almost hitting her when she does this, realising that he doesn’t want to injure because he loves her so much.
It is one of the most difficult moments of the opera because you are alone with such a delicate line. There must be the passion, pain, fear, frustration yet also control. He has never said anything like this to a woman and obviously will never again.
RJ: On this note, we must end. It was a tremendous pleasure meeting you Andrea.