An emerging artist and two-time recipient of the International Opera Awards Foundation bursary, Ricardo Panela (ricardopanela.com) is a Portuguese baritone now based in London. He joined me for tea at Bea’s of Bloomsbury to discuss his recent and upcoming roles as a gambling addict, a mad king, and the hero of Malta.
Sarah Gibbs: Thanks for joining me today, Ricardo. Can you tell me a little about your background, and how you became involved in opera?
Ricardo Panela: Sure. I started studying music at the age of nine. I began by learning the piano, and continued studying it until I was thirteen. I applied to my local conservatoire for tuition, but was put on a waiting list, as by then I was too old to enter the programme. I put piano on hold for a while, but continued to sing, which I had always done informally in school shows. It was when I was thirteen that I began to enjoy singing a lot more than piano, and started singing in choirs. I’m the only musician in my family, so I didn’t have anyone directing me to different areas. I was just exploring on my own. Growing up in the nineties, I wasn’t immediately drawn to the opera. I had some knowledge of classical music, but only from the instrumental side. Otherwise, my knowledge was basic. It being the nineties…
SG: Was there a boy-band phase?
RP: No, but I did want to be the next Michael Bolton. Minus the hair [laughs]. In my late teens, I started singing in choirs and karaoke bars, and getting a good response. I thought I should take some lessons. I applied again for my local conservatoire to study singing, and was admitted. At the same time, I’d started an undergraduate degree at the university in biology and geology. My initial plan was to finish my degree, and then pursue singing, but the opera programme at the conservatoire drew me in. After that, biology and geology were forgotten. I would spend days in the library listening to recordings of operas and reading the scores. I was absorbing the discipline like a sponge. I came to London after my studies in Portugal to complete the Masters’ programme at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. I’ve been in London for eight years now.
SG: You’ve performed in a variety of productions, including operas by Mozart, Massenet, Ruiz, and Mercadente. Do you have a favourite role?
RP: There’s a couple of favourites. The last opera I did in Spain, Massenet’s Manon, was an incredible experience. Since I started absorbing opera, it was definitely one of my top five favourite shows. It was great to have the opportunity to sing the only role in the opera for my voice type and in a full production. It was very special. So much of the enjoyment you take out of these things comes from the team you’re surrounded with, and I was very lucky to have an amazing team to work with. Before that, I played the lead in Noah Mosley’s Mad King Suibhne, which was amazing and definitely my favourite role thus far. My role as Lescaut in Manon had less emotional range than that of the Mad King. Lescaut is often the comic relief. The Mad King goes through an incredible emotional journey.
SG: Your repertoire includes eighteenth-century composers like Mozart, through to twentieth-century artists like Ravel, as well as contemporary works. Do different periods have different attractions, or interesting vocal challenges?
RP: Totally. Depending on when an opera was composed, the vocal challenges differ. If you’re singing something Baroque or some Mozart from the eighteenth-century, you don’t have to project through such a big orchestra. The vocal writing is going to be more florid and ornamented, so the challenge is to make your voice move very fast. If you fast-forward to something like Manon and a role like Lescaut, you don’t really have moments of extreme agility that you have in Baroque or eighteenth-century opera, but that’s because you’re having to project your voice on top of a much larger orchestra. You’ve got to balance your dynamic range because the minimum cushion of sound you’re dealing with is greater. Orchestration gets thicker as your move forward in opera history.
Contemporary operas, however, can go either or both ways: rely on vocal dynamics/colours and agility, and/or heavy orchestration. If you originate a role in a contemporary opera, you have a blank slate, and you can sometimes collaborate directly with the composer and librettist to create the character, and determine the balance of elements. I find enjoyment in all the different periods of opera. The Baroque, Classical and Romantic Operas are the works that you grow up with and always wanted to sing, and contemporary works offer roles you can make completely your own.
SG: What are the day-to-day challenges for emerging opera artists?
RP: I would say that constraint number one is obviously budget. London is an expensive city. There’s two ways you can come up as an emerging artist. You can either be gifted with a naturally good instrument, which catches people’s attention. Or, as was the case with me, you don’t have a particularly special starting instrument. Everything I can do today, I’ve had to learn how to do it. When you’re not one of those specially gifted people, you have to work at constructing your instrument, and sustain yourself while it is developing.
What the latter case translates into is a lot of budgeting. If you’re cunning enough, you can save money. I recommend TK Maxx for concert wear. It’s great. But you won’t receive discounts on your other expenses such as singing lessons or traveling for auditions. That’s one of the reasons why the Opera Awards Foundation bursary made such a difference for me for two years. Suddenly, I had money that was specifically dedicated to my development, a fact which helped me progress more quickly, and made me more employable in what is quite a crowded market. Vocal science has advanced so much in our day and age that musical instruction has become much more effective. It’s good, because there’s lots of amazing artists around. It’s also bad, because there’s lots of amazing artists around [laughs].
SG: You were recently part of a new production of Maurice Ravel’s L’enfant et les Sortilèges in which you suffered both an eye injury and a bout of flu within days of the show’s opening. How do you handle incidents that threaten to sideline performances?
RP: You just go to the Italian Church and pray to St. Luciano Pavarotti to save you. You pray to the holy gods of technique [laughs]. You have to do what you have to do. I could still sing, though I couldn’t see from one eye, and my nose was completely congested, and I was coughing my lungs up. But my cords were vibrating, and the range that I needed for the role was there. The key is to be careful and determine how much voice you have, and whether it’s enough for the size of the role you’ve got to sing. The good thing about L’enfant et les Sortilèges is that it’s a short opera, and all the roles are short. The Cold from Hades struck on the day of the premiere. I had a fever, but my voice was working well enough to get through the run efficiently. I’ve only ever missed performing once in the past, and that was because I literally couldn’t speak. In the end, it’s a judgement call.
SG: What attracted you to Mad King Suibhne, a photograph from which is featured at the beginning of the post?
RP: As a lyric baritone, most of the roles you have the opportunity to play are comic, like Figaro in The Barber of Seville. I enjoy those roles. However, they’re not as rich from a psychological point of view. That’s why Suibhne was such an amazing role to play. Suddenly, there was this part that was within my vocal means, and was psychologically incredible. This person goes through an unbelievable journey in the course of the show. The opera begins after he has murdered a childhood friend who joined a rival political faction. He can’t process it. He exiles himself in the forest for a whole year, living amongst animals. There’s a phrase in the opera towards the end which, when we first went through it, really gave me pause: there’s a mystical character in the work, a witch, who encourages him to go back to his family and kingdom. She even shows him a vision of his wife being forced to marry someone else, and tells him he must return to the world. He responds, “It cannot be. There’s no goodness in me.” He no longer thinks he’s worthy of being amongst people. The reason he flees is encapsulated in those two lines and that feeling of being unworthy of love is something that really struck me and made me understand his downfall.
SG: Most works which deal with the Mad King’s subject matter conclude with acts of murder and madness. What does focusing on the aftermath of the events offer in the Mad King?
RP: It’s interesting because madness has always been a favourite subject of composers and librettists. I don’t think you can name a nineteenth-century opera that doesn’t have a “mad scene” in it somewhere. What I think is different and challenging about Suibhne is that there isn’t a single “mad scene”; with Suibhne, he’s mad for an hour-and-a-half, and you’re on stage the whole time. The whole thing with portraying madness is that you have to tap into those emotions, and, in this case, the emotions are the same as those of any person, but because of his mental anguish, everything is multiplied by a hundred. You have to tap into your personal experiences, and then ramp them up in a believable way. It’s a taxing thing to do, both physically and emotionally. His journey is very painful.
SG: You’re currently working on a documentary about the production. Can you tell me about the project?
RP: There’s a Portuguese filmmaker, Renato Guerra, who has a film company in London. When I did a recital at the Portuguese Embassy last year, the staff mentioned me to him, and he started following my career. We spoke about Suibhne and decided to start working together towards creating a documentary about the opera. A sort of behind-the-scenes look at the production. Hopefully, it will be available some time in April.
SG: Mosley’s work is a contemporary opera. For people who only want to see the classics, what does contemporary work offer that isn’t available in Mozart or Puccini?
RP: It will depend on which work we’re talking about, as contemporary operas vary a great deal. For example, if we’re talking about Turnage’s Anna Nicole, which premiered at the Royal Opera House a few years ago, it addresses the celebrity culture of the present day, which no other opera really does. That being said, opera is always a reflection of the society in which it originated, and the time in which it evolved. A big selling point for many contemporary operas is that the subject will be something that people relate to.
SG: You’ve sung in English, German, Italian, and French. What is it like to perform a work in a new language?
RP: Actually, the languages that I’ve performed in, I also speak. The languages are familiar, so it’s not an issue. Language skills are one of the reasons why I haven’t really gotten into Russian repertoire. Even though I love it, and many sounds are similar to Portuguese, I don’t understand how the language works from a grammatical point of view, so the words just become sounds. It makes the memorization process and emotional interpretation more challenging. You don’t have the immediacy you have when you speak the language.
SG: Do you think that opera is an international art form, in some sense, borderless?
RP: Absolutely. It’s always been like that. If you look at cast lists from the eighteenth and nineteenth century, composers would pick whoever was available. It didn’t matter where they were from. It is a truly international art form, and it’s also the most complete art form. It takes things from theatre and music and dance, as well as visual arts. When you think of the individual elements which compose the greater canvas, the diversity of the contributors makes for a greater, richer final product.
SG: How would you respond to people who associate opera with the elite, and argue that it doesn’t represent socio-economic diversity?
RP: The whole thing about opera being elitist— it has always been part of its history. If you look back to the first operas staged in Venice, you had people from all sorts of backgrounds attending the performances. You had kings and politicians, as well as the clergy, and the common people. So, I think it’s got both those aspects. You’ll always have the segment which comes from a higher social sphere which goes to it to enjoy the music, but also to network. Opera was composed for coronations and political events, after all. I wouldn’t say the form is inherently elitist, but it’s such a grand art form that it appeals to the elite. But if you look at the people who once stood in what we now call the Orchestra Stalls, those were the regular people. Opera was mainstream entertainment for much of its history. Culturally, it’s an art form for everyone, and the diversity of the audience and the response of its members enhances your individual experience. What’s actually most important is democratizing access to opera. It’s part of the discussion about how to ensure the form’s survival. If you tour operas, you can bring them to completely new audiences who wouldn’t otherwise have the means to attend. Also, a lot of people don’t realize that there are surtitles in contemporary opera stagings. They think they won’t understand the show because they don’t speak the language, and that stops them from going.
SG: Do you foresee changes in the London opera scene in post-Brexit Britain?
RP: I don’t think anyone knows what’s going to happen, to opera or to anything else really. But, if you imagine the impact of an exit from the European single market, it’s going to affect opera, and the whole of society, because suddenly mobility is lost. Certain types of roles, like Otello or Lady Macbeth, are difficult to cast. What’s easy for us now is that, if someone suddenly falls ill, you can fly in a replacement from Europe the next day. If you introduce severe restrictions to the freedom of movement, then you don’t have access to a lot of great performers. As well, European subsidies for art are substantial. It’s potentially disastrous economically. As a European citizen living here during the campaign, I felt that people were being lied to. But the Remain side didn’t seem to refute the lies, and present actual facts in a way that appealed to the majority. It’s the same sort of thing as Trump and Hilary Clinton. Donald Trump and Nigel Farage don’t appeal to reason, but to emotion. Opponents to populism need to learn to package and brand their message the way right-leaning parties have. Coming from a country that endured forty-three years under a fascist dictatorship, I don’t support isolationism, which is what Brexit is. Turning inwards isn’t the answer.
SG: You recently completed a cycle of lectures-recitals concerning the impact of censorship and political propaganda in operatic performance and composition. Can you tell me more about the project, and your conclusions?
RP: Sure. Whenever I’m learning a new role, I generally go and read a bit about the circumstances under which the opera was composed because it gives you an idea of what you’re dealing with as a whole. As I was reading, I found out about some operas that had some very difficult conceptions, and I decided to do a lecture entitled “Trouble in the Opera.” The talk spanned the Baroque period to the nineteenth century. I talked about an instance in the seventeenth century when opera was forbidden in Rome for three years because of church events and natural disasters. Composers had to turn to oratorio to make a living. Then, in the eighteenth century, especially with Mozart and The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, the operas reflected significant changes in society. The social order was being reversed; on stage, the servants were outwitting the masters. At the time, the political landscape has changed in Austria because the Arch Duchess appointed her son, Joseph II, who was much more liberal and progressive, as co-regent. He wanted to introduce Enlightenment ideas in Austria. Under the previous regime, Mozart’s operas would never have been produced. The Arch Duchess was not a fan of irony. Also, Don Giovanni being dragged to hell after his terrible conduct in life was very socially significant; it communicated that no one is above punishment. I thought the subject was fascinating. Opera is such a product of its time, and reading it more deeply is really rewarding. The experience is richer if you understand that more is going on behind the spectacle. I enjoyed the first lecture so much, I carried on and did a second one talking about the same subject but in the 20th century.
SG: What projects do you have coming up? Do you have a dream role?
RP: This summer, I’m performing with Longborough Festival Opera. It’s my second time working with the company. Previously, I was in the chorus. Now, I have my first role with them in Ariadne Auf Naxos. Later in the year, I’m creating a role in a new opera by Reuben Pace called City of Humanity. The production will be in Malta as part of the European Capital of Culture celebrations. It’s a cycle of two operas telling about the foundation of Malta. I’ll be playing De Valette, who was the knight who founded Malta. Lots of brass announces my entrance [laughs].
For dream roles, I’ve sort of established them for the next fifteen years [laughs]. But, I’ll maybe mention three of them. For the immediate future, I’d love to play Don Giovanni in Don Giovanni. Within the next eight-to-ten years, I’d really like to sing Rodrigo in Don Carlo. Don Carlo is one of my favourite operas. It’s also very political; it looks at the separation of church and state. There’s a great line when King Philip, after his session with the Grand Inquisitor, asks, “So the throne must always bow to the altar?” The role of Rodrigo is fantastic. He’s a Flemish revolutionary caught up in the turmoil. The other role—I’m not sure if my voice will get to the necessary colour and size—is Macbeth. The play is incredible, and the opera is an essay on the consequences of lust for power. It’s like a very disturbing episode of House of Cards turned into an opera, and both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have amazing arcs.
SG: Well, I think that’s a nice place to finish. Thank you for your time, Ricardo.
RP: Thank you.