EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH:
Imagine for a moment that you're a young opera singer trying to figure out if you’re a baritone or tenor. Easy enough, right? Then imagine that very soon after, you find that you’ve got Plácido Domingo and Ramon Vargas cheering in your corner, as your friends and mentors, mentioning to the biggest opera houses in the world that you're worth a listen. Too unlikely to even fathom? Well, there's one tenor who knows exactly what that feels like. Unreal? Maybe. Has it helped? Take a guess. Would it have happened at all unless these two masters knew he was heading for the big stuff? Never.
Meet Arturo Chacon-Cruz, a Mexican lyrical tenor who started out as a baritone (and bass) but got a tip from Plácido Domingo himself that “you sound like I did when I started out as a baritone – maybe you're a tenor too, like me!"
Needless to say, such a suggestion is worth considering, and so he did.
- I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him. I say all the time that I owe him a lot! He not only discovered me, he helped me with a scholarship that I got from a foundation that he supports as well as the Domingo scholarship, so I was able to continue my studies. Otherwise I don't know if I'd have been able to pursue it further because I was so young and people wouldn't pay attention to someone who was a baritone who might be a tenor, he laughs.
- So yeah, Plácido has been a great influence, not only that way, but he's influenced me a lot artistically by listening to his recordings, hearing him live, working with him repeatedly on several occasions. The great exposure I've had to this titan is amazing. I've been onstage with him, done concerts, operas and he's also conducted me several times.
How did you make the transition from baritone to tenor? How was it, technically?
- I did it in a pretty safe way, I think. I was ready to do it on my own, but I got a scholarship for Boston University as a baritone and told them of my intentions to switch to tenor because Plácido had suggested it. They said, "This is the perfect place, because we need a baritone for the first season and if you want to switch then we can use you as a tenor in the following season." So that's what I did; I did my first season as a baritone, singing higher baritone roles, and the following season I did tenor roles like “Idomeneo”.
- I was in a very secure place, I wasn't under the same pressure as someone doing their tenor debut at an A-house somewhere, which would have been a lot more stressful and probably would have destructed the process a bit. I was very lucky to find the University there helping me, and from there I jumped straight to San Francisco Opera's Young Artists' Programme, “Merola Opera”, and then Houston Grand Opera studio where I was able to sing all the tenor roles. It was very nice. I was 24 when I switched, which was the right time.
- Do you know who else switched from baritone to tenor at 24? (Carlos) Bergonzi! Nice coincidence!
How would you characterise your voice?
- Well, as it is I like to say that it's a pure lyric. If I say something else, I would get much more offers for stuff that I should be doing in five years. However, there is no hiding it - Plácido himself has told me that I'm going towards a spinto repertoire, but there's no rush.
- As long as I can sing the Duke, I'll keep singing the Duke. Probably the best advice he gave me was, "Don't go for the Toscas and Carmens quite yet." Although I can do them, my voice can do it, but the longer I sing this repertoire my voice will avoid being harmed by the bigger repertoire.
- Although I get offers for these bigger roles all the time, I could go another ten years, even twelve, before doing Callaf. I could easily wait until I'm 45. Tosca I'm thinking in the next couple of years, maybe three - but you never know, right?
It will be interesting to see where you are in 10, 15 years...
- Yeah, I wonder about that myself every day! he laughs. - Actually I came to the conclusion recently that I used to always think about where I'd end up, when in reality I should be enjoying where I am right now, every role I do, and that's made my life much calmer. I'm just less frantic about the future when I'm enjoying the present, and that's very nice. Although I’m away from my family right now, we do two hours on Skype every night and we get to share everything. We're not sacrificing everything for the job, so although we have to sacrifice a lot we can have a little bit of life still in our life, if that makes sense.
RIGOLETTO IN OSLO
Backtrack one question back to “Rigoletto” – this is where yours truly became aware of Arturo. In Oslo, nonetheless, where he's up against Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey in the title role. Arturo has, I'd say, an extremely sorted voice for someone his age – probably because it's always been. The normal “tenor disease” is to virtually have no middle or bottom, whereas they can hold a high note for the best part of half an hour – but this tenor, maybe because he was once a baritone, has everything sorted out. In addition to having some of the most thrilling top notes I've heard in a while.
- Oslo has been great! We had intense rehearsals when I first got here, and I didn’t get time to do a lot, but it was OK because it was so cold and we had snow up to our elbows. Once performances started the weather was changing and I was able to enjoy it a little bit more, taking walks and stuff. I think this production is great because I get to do a traditional Duke and with the new trends that a lot of opera houses are doing (modern productions) it's a breath of fresh air to be able to have a traditional one.
Speaking of which, where do you stand on the topic of “Traditional VS Modern” opera?
- I'm more traditional. I read something yesterday that storytellers aren't meant to put ideas into people's minds; they're supposed to make them think. So as long as the opera makes somebody think and is somebody's wicked, twisted idea of “Rigoletto” is imposed on you, telling you how it "should be", it’s OK. It can be modern as long as it respects the audience's thoughts and they go home taking some feelings with them. I'm not against true modern, I like modern. Sometimes, he winks.
How do you get into the mind-set of playing someone who's a love rat with a clear conscience?
- (laughing) It was tough! I remember when I was at school – as I said, I started as a baritone and when I was trying to switch to tenor I pulled out the Duke's arias that tenors sing all the time, and I remember a teacher was saying that, "I don't think you'll be able to sing the Duke, you're too nice." I'm normally gentle and whatever, but I remember my teacher saying it and I thought, "Well, that's acting!"
- The way to justify the Duke's behaviour is to think that he doesn't think he's doing something wrong. Would you say a bull is mean when it goes for the matador? The Duke... nobody's told him otherwise, and I think he's just being who he is. I don't think he does it out of malice.
- I remember reading Pavarotti's idea of “Rigoletto”, and he said it kept his voice in line. The longer he could sing “Rigoletto”, the longer his voice was going to be well-placed, because if he wasn't singing the proper way the Duke wouldn't be possible. I feel the same way, because the moment I have trouble with “Rigoletto” I know I'm doing something wrong, so I need to fix it.
- I can sing “La Bohéme” or anything else by Puccini and be a little bit *off* - I don't mean the sound, I mean technically - and it won't have a big consequence. The Duke has to be sung properly; otherwise you won't finish it because it's so high. At least for me, for a lyric voice.
Who have been your inspirations, apart from Domingo?
- I love my teacher, Ramon Vargas; he was a very big inspiration. Also Pavarotti, we listened to a lot of Bjorling, of course, Corelli is one of my top tenors. He's a big influence, especially the top. I like to listen to how he does it and approaches it, and I've learned a lot from just listening to him.
- I've worked with Galuzin and I've heard Giacomini, and I adore their voices, but since my instrument is not the same - I have more of a Spanish instrument like Carreras. I like listening to them but there's not much I can emulate from them. Whereas from Plácido, Ramon, Bjorling, Corelli I can take a lot from their voices, and I do.
LA BOHÉME - an easy quest
He may do a good Duke, but the opera he's done the most is “La Bohéme”. Seventeen productions. Keeping in mind he's only turning 34 later this year, that's quite a number. It's his signature piece, but why does he think that is?
- I guess a part of what that teacher of mine said a long time ago, that I couldn't sing the Duke, was probably because I can sing and act Rodolfo easily. It's close to my own personality and I guess people see that. I'm comfortable in every role now, but people can probably see that it's a perfect match for my personality and my voice tends to go towards the Puccini way of singing, so I guess it just happened that way.
One has to ask: With such a great instrument at hand, what does he do to keep the voice going?
- I do a lot of small exercises, just warm-ups. Everybody does differently, but in my case I need to take care of what I eat because I get a lot of acid reflex, and when I eat heavily my voice gets a little... gravelly. As much as warming up and keeping the voice well warmed up every day, I take care of what I eat and drink and sleep. I try to do my vowels and keep it covered. You know, tenor stuff, he laughs knowingly.
A NEW ROLE? Sure, give me three days...
In addition to having done seventeen productions of “La Bohéme”, he has a huge repertoire of everything from Pinkerton (“Madama Butterfly”), Rinuccio (“Gianni Schicchi”), Lensky (“Eugene Onegin”), Alfredo (“La Traviata”), Romeo (guess), Faust (guess again), Tamino (“The Magic Flute”) and the list goes on (and on!).
So how does he learn these roles – and how long does it take him?
- It's a tricky question because I have photographic memory, so I learn the roles really quickly. That can be either very good or not so good, because your muscles need to adjust and learn how to sing it too. So, I learn roles in a week, maybe two if I decide to take a few days off, but if I have to learn a role for an emergency I can even do it in three days. It's just luck because I have very good memory for those kinds of things.
- What I do is I actually go through the text first several times, I speak through it, and then I do the rhythms and the rest just comes when I hear the music. Of course, if you do a Stravinsky piece or something more challenging it will take longer. Italian, French and German repertoire is easier to learn than Russian and English sometimes, funnily enough.
- I have several different coaches depending where I am. I schedule two weeks for learning and I take three hours a week with a coach, so I do six hours all in all. The rest of the time I do it on my own at the piano and listen to my favourite tenors doing the role and see what they do.
Needless to say, you're very lucky to learn this quickly!
- Yes, I know! I just hope my brain keeps up! he laughs heartily, and adds with a grin. - I fear sometimes that you only have a certain amount of brain cells that so many high notes are going to kill!
Did I mention that he knows a few languages? Italian, French, English, Spanish, German and Greek – only to name a few, I'm sure! Photographic memory clearly helps here too...?
- Once you start singing your brain starts making connections from one language to another, so it becomes easier to learn the next one, so that's helpful. I speak many badly; I don't speak them that well. For instance, if I'm in France for two weeks I can speak if much, much better. Right now, if I tried to speak French I would sound like Tarzan trying to speak to Jane.
- It's one of those things where practice makes perfect. It's not difficult to learn operas in different languages, really, especially since the language for opera is very similar. I mean, most French operas use the same vocabulary; it's very romantic and that's very easy. In German it's also very operatic and it's not very colloquial, so it's not very hard to learn, I guess.
FROM ENGINEERING TO OPERA
In fear of asking the obvious question... how come your choice was opera, as opposed to...
- ...engineering! I was an engineering major in college when I came in contact with classical music. I almost finished my engineering degree when I met a voice teacher and we started working. Six months later I was convinced to drop engineering first semester and pursue music, but I liked it so much and it went so well that I left engineering altogether and continued with music.
- The choice was obvious once I was presented with it. I just couldn't see myself doing something else because this life, hard as it is and sacrifice oriented as it is, it's very rewarding. What I do, the music I get to sing. I don't think I would be happy with another type of job. Or maybe after a few years doing this I would be able to retire and do something else, but as it is right now I can't see myself doing something else. The choices are nil.
Do you come from a musical background?
- Yes, but not professionally. My mother was a pianist and plays guitar and my father plays guitar. They taught me growing up and I was always surrounded by music. My uncle, my mother's brother, used to be a professional Mariachi singer at a very high level in Mexico. He died very young, but I grew up listening to his records. I won my first singing competition at seven years old, it was Mexican music so nothing classical, but I think Mexican music is much related to operatic music in the way it's sung.
Do you think this is connected to why there are so many successful opera singers coming out of this part of the world?
- Possibly, I think so, and I think we're not so shy about singing in public because everybody does it, whether you have a good, medium or bad voice doesn't matter. Everybody sings and nobody's criticized for it. In Mexico, in a bar like this, someone could break into song like in a movie! he laughs.
- That's normal there! We're not shy about it, and I think it has a lot to do with the first stages of singing. Many of the students I've taught have had problems with stage fright or with shyness of singing in front of someone else.
You’re teaching too?
- I've taught for fun in Boston and in Mexico, but I don't do it anymore because I don't find the time. I could probably see myself heading in that direction. I've told my wife sometimes when I see time isn't moving and I want to visit them, that I'm just going to send my resume to the University and see if they'll have me, he grins.
- I love singing, and a teaching job would just take all of my time now, but one day! Corelli, Gedda, Bergonzi have all done it.
OPERA TO THE PEOPLE
How could we attract greater masses to the opera?
- Very good question! It has to be more accessible. What I said before about stage directors giving the opera its strength of moving people, I've never seen a young person who's gone to the opera for the first time and seen a production of for instance "Madama Butterfly” and don't leave crying and saying, "Oh my God, I thought opera was boring!" So exposure is necessary, I think, and at first bring them to the more accessible operas by Puccini or Verdi, things that people would relate to. Of course, not putting on a very psychological or intellectual staging where only avid opera goers would understand.
- I think what many opera companies are doing, like the MET doing the live broadcasts, helps - but I think in order to get it, to get people to come back, they need to see it live. It could be to do performances for a big, big audience, outdoors for instance and do it very accessible. Accessible singers too, to look at. I'm not saying they shouldn't be a little chunky, but sometimes they can be a little on the obese side. These days you see many opera singers taking care of their figures in order to sell to the audience, and I think that's good for the art form. It needs to survive and we need to do everything you can.
- So, do you sing? he asks.
(Insert semi-long tirade about the neighbour's cat fetching a rope to hang itself in the basement once I open my mouth)(No, in other words)
If you had the choice to experience someone live that you haven't, for obvious reasons, who would it be?
- Oooh, my... I've heard so much about Del Monaco, so I've always wondered because on recordings he sounds very impressive. So I would say Del Monaco and Bjorling. There are so many, a lot of the old ones I'd enjoy. Corelli of course! I think you get the thrill even in recordings with Corelli, that's the thing.
A FATHER TO BE
How do you cope being away now that you're expecting your first baby?
- God, it's so hard, it's so hard. We talked about it before we even started trying, it's a part of the job but we'll make it. Lots of Skype!
Where will you be after the baby is born and you're back on the road?
- I have a week off to be with them, and then I go to Cincinnati to do “Rigoletto” again, back for another five days, then Paris to do “Stabat Mater” and then two months off to be with them. After that I'm off to Munich to do “Hoffmann”. I'll be busy, but I'll be bringing them with me.
- My wife and I met in school nine years ago and she's a singer as well, but she decided to stop singing because of our family. She sang a little, and enjoyed it, but now she's ready to be a mum. It's hard in a relationship when you're both singers, especially when you work at the same time, because you never see each other. This way we'll be able to travel together, at least until he goes to school.
- She's in Montreal at the moment; she's Greek-Canadian, because as I can't be with her in Boston she went to her mum in Montreal who's taking care of her. Thank God! She would kill me if I left her alone right now!
- I'm very lucky I guess, to have such good influences in my life, and I'm just here to make the best of everything! he muses and gets ready to go.
Probably to get in another Skype-session with the expecting missus before getting some rest ahead of tomorrow's 6th "Rigoletto" in Oslo.