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Interview with Giuseppe Filianoti

G. Filianoti (Courtesy SD Opera)

Italian tenor Giuseppe Filianoti has won acclaim around the world for his soaring and powerful lyric voice. A mainstay at the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala, Filianoti comes to San Diego Opera to sing Nemorino in Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, opening Saturday, February 15th.

ConcertoNet: How are rehearsals going for L'elisir?

Giuseppe Filianoti: Good, we've almost finished all of the staging so now we are just checking to make sure everything works well. I've already done this production, in Los Angeles, so I already knew a little bit of it, but every stage director likes to change something and it's nice. It's nice to work in the same production but to add something new. It's going well.

CN: What are you finding that's new in this role that you've done quite a few times?

GF: You know the idea of the character of the opera is always the same, so you cannot change a lot, but you can add more specific things. For example, some gags in different places, or little things that may be more deep in the character.

CN: Do you find comedy easy?

GF: Yes, comedy is always easier than tragedy because it's quite easy to find a way to make people laugh or make people smile. It's very difficult to make people cry [laughter]! You have to find a balance, which is very difficult. If you do too much with the comic part you can cross the line. You want to make the audience laugh or smile, but not to force the comedy. If you force it, I think it becomes cheap as an actor and that's a problem with Nemorino. Everybody tries to get attention with this character, make it stupid, too funny. He is funny because he is a naturally naive character, not stupid. And we always have to remember that this is a melodrama and not a comedy. It's not Barbiere di Siviglia. Always with Donizetti there is a balance between romantic and comedy. So it's important not to put on an opera like L'elisir d'amore only in a comic way.

CN: How does Donizetti portray Nemorino like this musically?

GF: Musically, we can say we have three wonderful arias. At the beginning, "Quanto è bella," "Adina credimi," and the famous "Una furtiva lagrima." I would also add "De' miei sospiri," it's just two bars, and also the beginning of the first duet with Adina, "Chiedi al rio perché gemente." That's enough to put the attention on this character not the story. It's musically talking about this. He is a very lovable character. He's never funny. Dulcamara is funny. Belcore is funny. Nemorino is just simple.
What is important are his feelings, that he has them and he's ready to express them. He's ready to express love. Adina is not. So, Adina and Nemorino, represent the serious characters among the others that are not very serious. But the tradition and many other things make Nemorino a little bit of a funny character. That could be, but you have to arrive the aria "Una furtiva lagrima," and that means you have to show your romanticism from the beginning. I think that's important. That's well done by Donizetti from the beginning. Just from the first duet, Nemorino says something that normal people cannot say. "Chiedi al rio," is very poetic.

CN: I think "Una furtiva lagrima" is done so often in concerts and recitals, it's obviously such a beautiful aria, that we forget that it comes from this dramatic comedy type situation where Nemorino's baring his feelings. It's such a beautiful expression.

GF: It's like Forrest Gump. Maybe he's too naive, but that doesn't mean he's less than the others and also Nemorino could also be played in a smart way. You have a lot of possibilities. But if you look really deep inside the music, you can do more of a complex character.

CN: We talked about comedy a bit, and how important it's not to make it cheap. What are your favorite comedies outside of opera?

GF: You know, I don't usually watch TV. I like to read. But I think the books I choose are not so funny! When you have a really natural comic side in you, you can express it only on the stage, not in real life. You don't look for that outside. Let me explain better. I know many people who do comedy are usually not so comic in real life. That's a little bit strange, but it's like something you have inside that's coming out and you have to perform it. So, I don't look so much to watch comic things. I may be more interested in watching dramatic films. Drama is a much deeper feeling for me. I don't know why.

CN: Tell me about some of your musical influences such as the great Alfredo Kraus.

GF: He was the best way model of an opera singer and to follow his way of singing, his behavior, to be a man also. He was so elegant in life, he was so elegant singing. He was so precise in his technique. What was really special, he told me at the beginning, "you have a beautiful voice. Please always respect your voice and never stop studying because your voice changes with your age. Going on you have to adjust everything."
Singing is like doing a sport. So your life, your body, your mind, has to be disciplined to sing. If you don't have a passion, a very strong passion from the beginning, it's better to change jobs! Another thing he told me, which was very smart, "when I start to sing, there were a lot of tenors around me. Everyone was having big careers, big roles (he never said names), but at this age, I'm still here singing. They disappeared! That means that my technique was good and maybe I did the right things." And I remember he was so elegant, he was always there to tell me how to do something. I have a very good memory of him.

CN: How did your time your time with him help you through your vocal paralysis a few years ago?

GF: I think that every big singer, at a certain point, has a technique that is good for him. If you copy that technique, you will be like that singer and not yourself. Everybody has a different instrument and you have to play with your instrument. What was important for me was to take something from Kraus and adjust it in my throat, in my face. We have different faces, different shapes. The mechanism is the same, that's true. So you have to breathe well, that base of the technique is the same for everybody, but the adjustment you have to do in the voice. You have to learn it by yourself, singing, listening to recordings of yourself and change everytime, because your muscles change, you grow. That's normal.
So about the technique of Kraus, his technique at the end was totally focused to obtain big security in the top range, sacrificing something in the middle. That's logical. If you do something in one part you have to have to do something in the other. That's because he wanted to maintain that repertoire. He wanted to use his voice in that way. It was a choice. Pavarotti made another choice. It depends on the singer you are and the repertoire you're doing. So what I want to say is, it's dangerous to follow in every step. One career is different from another. Everybody has to follow his career. For me, Kraus is an example. Aureliano Pertile is another example. Or listen to Schipa or Gigli, other examples.
Let's talk about passaggio for example. If you listen to five of the best tenors in the world they do it differently. So, which is the right way? [laughter] Find yours! What's important for you is the result. For example, Kraus always said there is no passaggio. Pavarotti said you have to do the passaggio well immediately. So who was right? They both were. They were different ways.

CN: As a young singer, what did you find most challenging?

GF: What is strange is this: everybody from the beginning of your career identifies you in a particular repertoire. If you change something you will ruin yourself. Kraus constantly changed repertoire a little bit. For example, at the beginning he did La Fille du régiment or I puritani, later he did La favorita. He decided later not to do Puritani or Favorita. Why? Because he was growing and the body and the voiced changed. Usually the body changes in a different way. The voice became warmer. The voice changed in a different way and became a little more lyrical that in the beginning, fresh but warm. This is the way it usually happens for tenors. To do repertoire like you did when you were young is not so easy. You have to change something. This is the choice. You make a step forward and go to a different composer. For example, I started with Rossini. Later, I said "Rossini is too light for me," and I went to Donizetti, then I did a little bit of Verdi. That's the way. For example, if you ask what's easier for me to sing, L'elisir or Werther, I'll immediately say Werther. That means the French style is easier for me where my voice is not put immediately in like Donizetti into the passaggio, passaggio, passaggio consistently.
But you know, it's like the voice is like a car. The first days, it's wonderful. You go, voom! You have to learn how to drive it! It's going like crazy! You can do everything. After a few years you understand how to manage, but have to change some pieces inside because it's getting older. You can control better, but the car is not like the beginning. Maybe you can drive a lot better, but you can do another path, another way. The old one isn't easy anymore, but something else may be easier. For example, maybe Puccini could be easier than Donizetti or some Verdi.

CN: You mentioned a few times about your body as it grows older, what do you do to keep your body conditioned and how does it help?

GF: I think it's really important. There is the idea that singers have to be fat to have energy. I remember Kraus was always in shape. He was always going cycling every morning. A favorite soprano is Maria Devia, she's still going right now, doing gym and everything for her body and her voice is really young. That depends a lot on technique and also on your DNA, many things. For me it's important to stay in shape. I've lost 10 kilograms! Doing this job, it's very easy to gain weight. You finish late, you sang well, you want to eat now! You are always out, you eat out, it's not healthy.
There are two problems with singers today. Today all the companies, the directors don't care too much about your voice. They care about the character, the staging. You have to be Nemorino, you have to look like Nemorino. You have to be Werther, you have to look like Werther. You have to be Traviata, you have to look like Traviata. That's a problem, I think. The cinema, everything, puts opera on the same level. Today you have to take care of your shape, not only for your voice, but also for your appearance on stage. Many stage directors ask you to run from one side of the stage to the other. That was impossible for Pavarotti, for many other singers of the past. "I have my aria, I have to stay there and sing it!" Today, if you have to run all around, your breath and your heart rate have to be good, you have to do cardio. I like to do it, because I like to stay in shape. It's very good to maintain your muscles.

CN: You're pretty active on Facebook, Twitter, you were in a live in HD from the Met. Do you think this engagement with technology is a good thing for opera?

GF: Well, do you want the truth? I think opera is dying this way. You have to do this because everybody wants you to do this. But people stay at home and read it online. They go to the cinema and watch it. They have to come to the opera if they want to listen to opera. Today there is radio and everything. That's the problem. Technology is taking over our jobs. The fashion, the cinema, all of this is against opera. Opera was born in a certain way. You have to go to the theater, you have to judge a singer, not from the recording, but for what he does on the stage. That's a big, big, big problem. That's a big business. But you have to do it. Because, you know, I am part of this job. You are there, and if you are not on YouTube, Twitter, in HD, then you are no one. Nothing. You don't have a website, you are no one. If you tell someone you're a singer, they go immediately to the internet. If you are not in Wikipedia, you are not important. Come on. That's sad in my opinion.
For example, I love to read. I love to have paper in my hands. Technology is destroying this. I am for technology with a limit, but they are destroying having paper in your hand and reading it. To keep it, to have it on your library, when you feel, you smell the book, the age through that book, it reminds you of that particular moment. It's the same with opera a little bit. Today you sing in an opera house, the day after you're on YouTube. If someone has a possibility to see a show or buy an opera, they will go to the DVD or go on the internet to see it. It's easier. They stay home. They judge. They're eating when I listen. It's easier, no? [laughter]

CN: I think it involves a commitment from the audience when you go in person. That shows a certain amount of respect to the music and performers.

GF: Yeah, for everything there is a balance. Working today, there is the work you can do at home with the computer. Technology is very good and very better for everything, health, medicine, doctors, everything like that, maybe for art you need to be a little bit old fashioned. I think for productions sometimes it's too much. Because they're trying to force an old opera that was born a certain way into something new. But nothing can be new because the music is old. It's our museum [laughter]!

Giuseppe Filianoti’s website

Matthew Richard Martinez



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