Tenor Antonello Palombi in conversation with Irina Antesberger

Antonello Palombi is known world-wide for his legendary jump-in as “Radames” during a performance of “Aida” at La Scala (2006), when tenor Roberto Alagna rushed off the stage after booing from the loggione (= less-expensive seats for opera fans at the very back of the auditorium). However, even before that incident, opera houses all over Europe and the United States learned to love and appreciate the exceptional singer – a wide public celebrates the tenor, who has already embodied the main roles of his Fach (= vocal specilization) such as “Otello”, “Cavaradossi” or “Canio”.

Irina Antesberger: Signor Palombi, you were born in Spoleto, Italy, and joined the Carabinieri (Italy`s police force) at the age of 20. How does a police officer become an internationally active opera singer?

Antonello Palombi: To be accurate, I had already been singing before and also during my job as a police officer. Looking back, this job was a very important and good experience – you get paid, you have work to do, you make friends… I really liked doing it. But, however, I always had this dream of singing at the back of my mind and studied privately, until I made my stage debut as “Pinkerton” in “Madama Butterfly”. This was when I realized I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing this.

A.: You gained recognition and appreciation quickly – without competitions and young artist programmes. What do you think about the rivalry singers are exposed to nowadays, often at a very young age?

P.: That`s a tricky question. I would not advise anyone to avoid competitions at all, because this is a job where you have to be strong. Experiences like competing against others shape your personality, you develop self confidence… anyway, in my opinion, there are too many singers and too few opportunities. There should be a limit of participants, because this way the different juries would not have to cut back on so many competitors. Furthermore, I believe in singing and performing being an expression of one`s soul – which certainly cannot happen within some minutes in front of a table with a few people “choosing” whether a person is “good” or not. There are many more pros and cons, as everything in life this issue has positive and negative aspects.

I.A.: How important is “pressure” in this job?

A.P.: As a singer, you are always under pressure. What you have to do is manage to deal with it. I think “pressure” is positive as long as it does not turn into stress. You must be able to react to being put under pressure, as you have to react to different other situations, such as lack of sleep, etc. But as soon as you are negatively stressed, you have lost. Actually, this is valid for every kind of occupational field.

I.A.: You were born in the province of Perugia and still live in Italy. Certainly you witnessed the economic and political developments your country has been going through during the past decade(s). In relation to  artistic life – how has the situation changed?

A.P.: Well, the country`s cultural life is obviously not so important to the Italian government, compared to the situation in, for example, the USA or the UK. Italy has lost a lot regarding its artistic sphere and cultural life. Many establishments must close down because they do not get subsidies and financial support anymore. For private investors, the cultural field does not pay off – investing money into something that does not give anything back is unattractive. There are a few government-funded houses like “La Scala” and the “Teatro dell`Opera di Roma“, but the rest have to self-finance their work. It is ridiculous that for example in Venice, the opera house is turned into a party location for dinners etc. when there are no performances. It`s a pity, given that all the immortal greats of the operatic business have sung there once. And now I am in Klagenfurt, a small city in the South of Austria, and I see there are shows in the mornings and evenings, sometimes even in the afternoons. There`s always something going on and the house is kept alive.

I.A.: In Klagenfurt, you are singing the title character in Giuseppe Verdi`s “Otello” at the moment, an operatic hero that demands a huge amount of maturity. How do you decide if you are “ready” for a role?

A.P.: For Otello, for example, I did not simply know I was “ready”, not at all. I started my career with roles for tenore leggero, such as Nemorino. If someone had played “Dio, mi potevi scagliar`” to me then, telling me I`d sing this one day, I would have responded, “You are crazy!”. When I sang in “La Fanciulla del West” at Seattle Opera in 2004, there was Maestro Oleg Caetani conducting. One day he said to me he would do “Otello” in Australia – and he`d like to have me singing the title role. And I started to think about it – Australia was a whole different world, as well as the role of Otello. The fact that Caetani lived in Florence, close to Pisa, where I live, was also very convenient in relation to our situation. He said, “Come over, we`ll study the role and practice together”. For one year, I was preparing the part with my pianist, an awesome woman who had also worked with the great Galliano Masini, and I studied with the vocal scores of Masini, all his marks etc. That was so precious for me. After I had practised with the pianist, I went on to work with the conductor. And when I arrived in Melbourne, where I was scheduled to sing the role, all my colleagues were asking, “How many times have you already sung this role?” And I responded “Not any, it is my debut!” They were amazed. After having studied the role so intensely for over a year, it was like a part of me. So, today I say – yes, this was the “right” moment. And since I have sung Otello for the very first time, I have never gotten tired of it. Whenever you talk to singers doing the role – “Oh, nooo, not this one…” I don`t feel this way about the part. Everyone who has ever interpreted Otello has done so in his particular and his own way. And this is what I do, as well. I don`t try to change my voice for any role. No matter what part you sing – as soon as you find yourself trying to imitate someone, you are on the wrong path. A voice is like a fingerprint, you were given a certain one and you are not supposed to change it. You can activate some “devices” and maybe “adjust” it a bit in different directions, but you are never supposed to try to change anything. And this is a good thing, because it makes each singer unique and irreplaceable.

I.A.: What guides you when you decide to add a new role to your repertory? How important is the language to you?

A.P.: Well, I must say I prefer singing in Italian over all. Sure, I could sing in other languages, but there`s so incredibly much to discover in the Italian repertory! This is not supposed to mean everyone should sing in his native language only – this can`t be. But I believe every human being is physically and mentally destined for a certain language – the one(s) they spoke since childhood. Singing in a foreign language does not only mean singing the words and understanding the phrases, no! It also means discovering, understanding and feeling all the hidden meanings and sounds. One has to “own“ a language before they are able to perfectly feel it and hit all the profound significations. A topic that occupies me in this regard is subtitles. I like to compare this to text messages: if you only read words, maybe you understand the content, but you can never feel it the way you would if someone articulated it – the way their tongue moves, the way they mouth it, the accentuation, the facial expression… All of this makes a phrase complete, because only this way, emotions can be delivered directly to the audience.

I.A.: Since it is what you are singing at the moment – Otello certainly is one of the most challenging parts for tenor, how do you – mentally and physically – prepare the day of a show? How do you try to keep your character alive?

A.P.: For me, every performance is different. A human being changes constantly. I am not anymore the person I was twenty minutes ago. I can`t say I take extreme care of my voice, for me it is more important to be as relaxed as possible on stage. It is, furthermore, important to interact with and respond to the other singers. You have to use body language, have to put yourself in your counterpart`s position. This way, it is possible to feel and experience something new and vivid

each time.

I.A.: Music and especially the classical genre is inextricably linked with big drama and grand emotions. When and how did you have your most intense moment with opera?

A.P.: Music is my way of expressing myself. It is my way of expressing and sharing my emotions, my energy with a larger public than myself. I have always loved to make people happy. Already as a little child, I wanted to spread love and positivity. It is so important to create a deep connection with everyone around you, especially when you are part of an ensemble. You need to know each other, trust each other, … This way, you can come to terms even with negative, horrible, sad incidents – supported by the group of people who are close to you. Only together you can keep going .

I.A.: Per la fine… Is there advice you want to give young singers?

A.P.: To establish a limit. A time limit. If you say, “I wanna be a singer, I wanna do  this for the rest of my life!” – you have to establish a date. And if you haven`t reached or achieved at least part of your goals until then – quit. No one is supposed to spend an entire life dreaming of something that is not going to happen the way one wants it to. Life is too short to spend it with false hopes and unrealistic dreams. We have to be very pragmatic nowadays – we are all given one life only. Hence, it is so important to always have a plan B – in case you have to realize your plan A is not what your destiny has planned for you. But until it comes to this – never stop dreaming. A human being without dreams and hopes is a dead human being.