Mid-Career Magic: : Piotr Beczala

Piotr Beczala was born in the relatively small city of Czechowice-Dziedzice, just southwest of Krakow, Poland, and began his training not far from there at the Academy of Music in Katowice. Much like his countryman Jan Kiepura, whose charisma and good looks found him at home in the Hollywood movies of the 1930s, Beczala can often be found appearing in productions with a high glamour factor, such as the 2012 Salzburg Festival’s La bohème opposite Anna Netrebko’s Mimì or as the Duke in the Met’s recent “Rat Pack” production of Rigoletto set in 1960s’ Vegas. With several acclaimed albums under his belt, including one of Slavic arias, Beczala’s live performances are also well captured on video.

His career began in Linz, after which he spent several seasons in Zurich. This season finds him returning to Zurich as well as singing at the Met, the Wiener Staatsoper, and the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. He endured a bit of a rift with Teatro alla Scala in 2013—a Regietheater production was badly booed, and Beczala publicly commented after that he would not sing at the house in the future. (But that difficulty seems to show signs of healing, after Beczala performed there in recital this past June.) The tenor is booked many years in advance, and though clearly a house favorite at the Metropolitan, his schedule often includes performances in Spain, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and major houses across the U.S.

I caught up with Beczala via Skype just before Christmas in Berlin, where he spent his holidays rehearsing and performing Rodolfo in La bohème at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Later this season, he will reprise that role just down the street at the Staatsoper im Schiller Theater. We spoke just a few days after the terrorist attack on a Christmas market in Berlin, so our conversation naturally began by my asking him what the atmosphere had been like at the Deutsche Oper since then.

Tell me about the day of the market attack.
We had rehearsals on the day it happened and I was on the way home to the hotel. Everybody is sad about it. The place it happened is maybe 700 yards from my hotel. Today I was walking around the area. Everybody is not scared, because it has happened already—but the Christmas market is OK, and everybody was walking around putting some lights and flowers. It was a shock for everybody, of course.

Let’s talk about technique. At first, you didn’t have the high notes a tenor needs, topping out at an A or maybe a B, and your work with your teacher Dale Fundling helped you to get those notes into your voice. So, what did the two of you do to get those notes?
It’s like being an alcoholic. First you have to realize you have a problem. I was already under contract in Linz and it was necessary to do something. What I did with Dale was actually to make the right diagnosis of my problem, which was not only technical, it was the mental part of the work. I had to relax and open my mind for this upper register.

And then, the strictly technical way to solve the problem was to reduce the sound, because at that time I sang very wide, so we had to reduce the sound to a little bit slimmer sound to allow me to sing Mozart and move my tessitura in the upper register. But it was a process, it doesn’t happen in a week or two. We started to work in 1992 and the first result was maybe one year later.

One thing I’ve enjoyed as I’ve gotten to know you in my research is how much you seem to really appreciate and pay attention to history and the old school of singers. Was Jan Kiepura a role model for you? And also I’d like you to talk about your lineage and perhaps your studies with Sena Jurinac and Pavel Lisitsian.
I’m from Poland, born in Poland, and my first contact with singing was with Jan Kiepura because he was the most popular singer in Poland when someone would talk about classical singing. We didn’t have too many recordings in the ’80s, but there were a couple of movies with Jan Kiepura and the Polish recordings of his arias and songs. That was the first time I discovered him. He was a brilliant singer—a very good technical singer as well.

We couldn’t find biographies of many other singers, but the biography of Caruso was one of a couple I could find, and I found it very interesting to read all the stories. But later, when I was a student studying at Katowice, I got the opportunity to go to a masterclass in Linz where I met Sena Jurinac for the first time. It was a very important step for me because she was the first one who told me I should sing Mozart and not Puccini at that age, and we worked really hard on this repertoire. A year later I met Pavel Lisitsian in Weimar, also in a masterclass.

They’re very important people in my life. They changed my point of view of my future, what it means to be a singer. You need an idea of what to do in the future. Not very many young students realize what it means to be an opera singer. And that was very important to me, to talk with somebody who had a fantastic career behind them and could explain to me how it would be.

It seems like your relationship with Zurich is almost that of a home company. What’s important in a relationship with an opera house, or how does a good relationship work?
I was already in Linz for five years and I realized that being a part of an opera company is very important at the beginning of a career for a singer. When I changed to Zurich, it’s much higher than Linz, which is a very small opera house. Zurich at that time was very popular, and all the big stars were singing there. When I started there, the opportunity to sing onstage with such great performers—Edita Gruberová, Leo Nucci, José Carreras—it was very special.

I was always a singer who looked up to those personalities and I could sit and talk with them in performances and rehearsals. Then you can build up your own personality, technique, and point of view of how to manage this strange occupation to be an opera singer. Now, when I’m traveling between so many opera houses, to be a part of an opera house is not so important. Of course, the same feeling is there a little bit at the Metropolitan Opera, but that is a huge company and that is not the same kind of intimacy.

You heard all the great tenors in Zurich. Pavarotti and, I think, Alfredo Kraus was there when you were there . . . .
Yeah, it was really fantastic. My second season in Zurich, I think it was, Monday Pavarotti sang a recital, Tuesday Domingo sang Pagliacci, on Wednesday was Kraus with Lucia, and then Carreras was Sly [by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari] on Thursday, and I think it was also Faust with Paco (Francisco) Araiza, and Shicoff was also there. It was a fantastic combination of great singers.

I’ve heard you say that these days people are very specialized—you don’t have to go back and forth quickly, like back when a tenor would sing Siegfried and then two days later sing Rodolfo. But in February, you will be doing Rodolfo in Berlin and the Prince in Prague, and going back and forth between the two cities. How are those two roles different in your voice, and what do you do to change gears for each character?
That’s a good description, changing gears. Prague and Berlin are not that far apart. You can drive it in three hours. But the most difficult part is to change the repertoire. Between Bohème and Rusalka is not a huge gap, but it is still a different style and different language and attitude. But fortunately I’ve sung both of these roles for so many years, and they’re not too close.

I would never do this when I have one day between performances. I have a couple of days to change gears, as you describe it. I’ve done more difficult things in my career. In one week at the Metropolitan I sang Lucia, Onegin, and Rigoletto. That was a challenge.

You have six recitals in March in various cities. Do you have any health tips for singers, especially what to avoid to stay healthy?
You have to take care when you travel a lot, not to get dry on the airplane. When you have a heavy schedule in front of you, you have to take care of what you eat, what you drink. Of course, I’m a normal human being. I like to have dinner maybe with one or two glasses of red wine—but everything has to make sense, to be under control. I have doctors everywhere, friends of mine. When something happens I can always get to them.

Of course everybody gets sick, gets colds, and then you have to be very careful in that condition what you sing. I try to reduce my activity when I have a cold. There are always a couple of days when it is not possible to use your voice, and you have to accept it.

Have you had an experience you’d like to share, about when you’ve had to cancel?
I’m pretty stable. I cancel maybe one or two performances a year, and that’s a very good quota. The thing is the responsibility. If you cancel the performance, people are disappointed. You are responsible to your public. It breaks my heart, but it has to be. You can’t do anything besides that. I just saw some Facebook postings about that. Oh well, you get better and sing some other performances. That’s life.

I’m going to quote you: “This is my rule when I’m doing opera: I try to relate to a character according to the music.” Can you talk about Rodolfo? What does his music say about him as a character?
I really believe the composers are the most important people in the art of opera because they put the words to music, and the result is the opera. It is the Partitur [score], and you have to understand as a singer why he wrote this line and not another line. Why this kind of situation is prescribed this sort of orchestration and not another kind. All these things help to find the right interpretation and the right style, because each composer uses different ways to describe what is happening onstage. There’s a reason this person is sung by tenor, another by baritone, another by bass, soprano, etc.

My job is to realize what he thought and sing as close as possible to the Partitur. The person who said this best was [Herbert Von] Karajan, who said to sing exactly what was in the Partitur plus a healthy portion of musicality. That describes how I try to sing my roles.

You just had a very successful Lohengrin. What might be the next Wagner role you do? And do you think there is such a thing as a Wagner singer versus an Italian singer, or is that not such an important distinction?
Probably Lohengrin will be the only Wagner role in my repertory.

Really?
Yes. Because it is exceptional. I think Wagner should be sung by a specialist tenor. Not only tenors, but the tenor is a special voice, and the whole Wagner style is not really [such] that you can use your technique and musicality and style from the French, Italian, or Slavic repertoire. It was easy for me because Lohengrin is maybe the most Italian opera of Wagner. It sounds like that, but it’s still Wagner and it’s still the German language.

I know a story of Enrico Caruso, that he sang a couple of performances of Lohengrin at the Metropolitan Opera in Italian, and they tried to push him to do this in German, and he said, “No, this language will ruin my voice.” And there is something to that. You have to make right choices, to use the language in the right way.

I speak German very well and I’ve sung a lot of Mozart and I know how to manage this—but, still, when I started to prepare Lohengrin, I found a coach who could train me to go over the vocal problems that could happen in this repertoire. But when you find the key, actually, singing Lohengrin is not more difficult than another opera.

People make a big deal out of the fact that at the beginning of her career Callas sang Isolde and Kundry, but she did sing them in Italian.
Basically, when singers start to think they are able to sing everything, it’s very dangerous. [Laughs.] Because nobody can do this.

You’ve said that “opera is for sensitive people.” How do you protect yourself as a sensitive artist from critics, from the toughness of the business?
I’m already 24 years on the stage and I’ve created some resistance to the things you mention. I’m trying not to read all the reviews. I’ve gotten great reviews and I’m very happy with that—but sometimes it’s too much, when you start to realize, “Oh what did I do, what could I do differently?” Of course I’ve had thoughts like that. After every performance, after every concert, you could do something different—this phrase, this aria, maybe better, maybe different. But for me, when I’m finished with the performance or with the concert, it’s done. I’m very serious about that.

I’m always trying to do my best. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s fantastic, sometimes it’s just good, but the judgment is not on my side. [It’s for] the public and other people. Also, I’m trying to enjoy myself when I’m playing a character on the stage. When you do this not as you, as a private person, it’s much easier—when you play Rodolfo, Faust, Werther, Duca, whoever—from this point of view, it makes my job a lot easier.

It seems as if you and your wife make decisions together, that you really are a team for your career. Can you talk about the personal side of things?
My wife was a singer also. She started a big career 20 years ago, and after a while she stopped because we decided to be together and work like a team. I don’t know really a good example of two singers who are married, are together, and are singing. That’s a very rare situation. We travel together. She also studied with Dale Fundling. She knows my voice better than me probably, because she can hear it all the time and I can’t. She’s in rehearsals, she’s at performances, and we talk about many things.

She’s very sensitive and she knows a lot about style and customs and acting, and actually we discuss the process of developing the roles a lot. She’s really responsible for the moment where I am now, because it’s really teamwork. Of course she has a huge influence on all decisions I make. I never sign any contract without discussing all the plusses and minuses with her.

To be together is really rare in this profession because we’re traveling all the time. And I know the frustrations of my colleagues. After a big performance, we are together—but they are going to the hotel alone, and that’s a very unfortunate moment.

You returned to La Scala this year for a concert. Do you think you will return to that house to sing roles again?
Of course I could. It was a fantastic concert. The public was fantastic. We talk with Mr. Pereira [CEO and artistic director of Teatro alla Scala] all the time about possibilities. But you know, I’m a very busy man and they plan too late, to be honest. I’m also very serious when I sign a contract. I will not cancel one contract for another contract.

When I’m booked for another five years, it’s difficult to find a time for another opera house—but we are in touch, and it always depends on the repertory, and that’s the most important factor of my decisions. When somebody asks me for Tristan—it doesn’t matter where—I’m not singing that because it’s not part of my repertory. I’m just doing what is good for my voice and my personality.

One last question, I’ve interviewed so many opera stars who are into golf and I’m always curious: Has golf taught you anything about singing or does being a singer help you at golf in the concentration or the coordination? I’m still trying to find out why so many singers love golf.
It’s what you said. It’s coordination, it’s imagination, it’s projection. All these things, they have something in common with golf and singing. But the most important thing for me, because we spend our whole lives [in theaters] without windows . . . , it’s so important to go out of the buildings and relax on the greens and the fresh air and have some fun. That’s very important to have a balance between work and fun—and feeling free.

Since my wife plays also, we play together, and it’s really something special. This sport has a positive influence on singing. I think I’m a better singer since I’ve played golf. You can also get your frustrations out when you hit a golf ball, and it doesn’t hurt anybody.

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at Lisahouston360@gmail.com.