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OPERAFOCUS met with renowned bass Ferruccio Furlanetto at the Royal Opera House in London a day before the opening night of “Don Carlo” on the 4th of May. If I´m being perfectly honest, I was feeling really rather nervous before this interview, mainly because I have so much respect for Maestro Furlanetto as an artist and as a singer. He´s always struck me as very… authoritative, and rightly so. I wasn´t sure what to expect – but he showed up right on time, dressed in a beautiful tailor-made suit, started chatting to us straight away as we waited to be taken to the press room of the opera house. Not only that, he really is a rare breed of old-fashioned gentleman: opened doors, ladies first (even down to sitting taking his seat last) and he gave very generously of his time. He was utterly charming, relaxed and witty.

Ferruccio Furlanetto is a King, not only on the stage – and when the King speaks, you listen respectfully.

What do you remember from your first “Don Carlo” with Eric Halfvarson?

“Ops! That I honestly don't remember,” he laughs softly.

- We have done so many “Don Carlo”s together, basically everywhere. Here [in London], France, Torino and in America all the time. I don't remember the first time we did it together but I do remember when we met! It was a looong time ago at Carnegie Hall when we did the “Hamlet” by Ambroise Thomas in a concert version. It was with Sherrill Milnes, so you can imagine how long ago it was! [laughs].

- Then, for several years we lost track because he went in one direction and I was mostly doing Mozart. Unfortunately I never had him as a Commendatore. When I gradually came out of Mozart and back into this repertoire we met again.

I take it you remember your own very first “Don Carlo”?

“Oh yes! My first “Don Carlo” was in 1980 in Kassel, Germany. At that time the general director was Giancarlo del Monaco, the son of Mario, and he was doing the stage direction. It was quite a special moment because on the way to Kassel I went to Salzburg to have an audition with [Herbert von] Karajan. In 1986 I was doing the opera with him in Salzburg, so it was a good prelude,” he laughs. 

- This is my 33rd year of doing it. I did the Inquisitor only twice; in 1980 for my debut at the Met and in 1982 or 1983 for a revival, which was also world telecast with a stunning cast of the time; Mirella Freni, Plácido Domingo, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Tatiana Troianos – and let's not forget about Jimmy Levine. He was, and still is, probably the best opera conductor we´ve ever had because he was, even now that he's not in a great shape physically, always conducting by heart. He was always with the stage and that's always such a big help for those of us on it for the general result.

- Then of course between all the big “Don Carlo”s I can't forget the Karajan one because this “Don Carlo” changed my life in a matter of twelve hours. I was in Salzburg at the Easter Festival in 1986 to do the Anton Bruckner “Te Deum” and Mozart´s “Coronation Mass” with him, which we did the year before in the Vatican for the Pope in the Cathedral. I had a contract to cover the role of King Filippo and it actually happened because my colleague – who was supposed to sing – was sick. I would have never imagined that even on this occasion I would end up doing it because Ghiaurov, Raimondi or whoever would have been ready to jump in for Karajan – but Karajan wanted an unknown, young singer and I tell you: the morning after everybody knew about it and it really changed my life like *that* [snaps fingers].

Photographer: How wonderful for the people in the audience to say "I was there"!

“I would say that it´s even more beautiful for me to say that I was there!” he (literally) roars with laughter.

- That was a good birth because Karajan was somebody totally on his own. Today we don't have another Karajan. We don't have somebody who is doing everything beautifully like he was doing, whatever repertoire. Everything was superb. He was a sensational manager of himself and of his festival. Not only the Easter Festival in Salzburg, which was his own toy, but even the Summer Festival at the time of Karajan, Salzburg the Olympus of music. You had the best conductors, the best directors and the best casts – the best of the best, for many years.

- Today, unfortunately for my young colleagues, there isn't this kind of opportunity to change your life in twelve hours. Nobody can do it. We have many good conductors and good artists, but somebody so charismatic and so immense like Karajan doesn't exist anymore. Those were, I must say, very special years because there was Karajan in strong activity, there were conductors like Sir Georg Solti, Leonard Bernstein, Carlo Maria Giulini, just to name a few. The best stage directors like Jean Pierre Ponnelle, Giorgio Strehler, Piero Faggioni. For a young singer it was, in a way, easier, to approach this profession and to start in it because you had a chance to learn. Today, it's gone. Today if you're a young singer and you constantly fall into very controversial productions, you either know them very, very well and you've digested it extremely well – otherwise you don't have a chance to learn a damned thing from these people. This is sad and not right. There is too much improvisation in that field today and there is very little we can do. Somebody who already has a career and has had a lot of experience like myself can say, "OK, with this kind of people I don't work!" and you have your blacklist! The young ones ,who have to climb and find their own way, have it pretty hard.

Young singers will be afraid of turning work down in fear of not being asked again.

- Of course. This has been a topic often brought up in interviews in recent years, but WHY do we have this terrible wave of producers? They started in Germany and spread all over. They were there before too but it was different then because the artistic directions of the theatres were made by people who were extremely competent, extremely prepared and coming from the world of music and theatre. Today, most of the time, there are general managers who are very good at finding money but not able to make any artistic decisions – but nevertheless they do it!

- In many countries, in mine for sure, many artistic directors are in their positions because they belong to the proper political party. In other words, it's a political decision and the result is this: the choices made by incompetent people are destroying the chance for us to have our beautiful world of music. I repeat; I was lucky to make my first steps surrounded by highly professional people. You didn't have to have Ponnelle or Zeffirelli, there were a lot of very good producers coming from opera and directing opera. Not lent by Broadway, by the movies or by the Schauspiele with no knowledge of music or the language of the opera they're going to stage. So this is the situation.

Some directors seem to think they're cleverer than the composer so they change the storyline… 

- Yeah, it happens all the time! Recently there was – and I didn't go – a “Rigoletto” based in Las Vegas. Not even current time, but in the 50s or 60s. Does it add something to the masterpiece? I doubt it. Even so, what was outrageous is that in order to make it fit the concept they change very often the text.

There was a recent "La Bohème" where the director kills off Mimi during "Che Gelida Manina" and for the next two hours she's just a figment of Rodolfo's imagination.

[Deep sigh] - Puccini didn't think about that, you see...! he adds sarcastically.

Photographer: I saw a production of “Jenufa” where the baby was taken to an attic and died of starvation and wasn't buried under the ice...

[Demonstrably rolls his eyes and chuckles] - You would almost be surprised to see something be done normally these days. By normally I mean with respect. I am not at all in favour of tradition. Tradition, sometimes, is a bit old fashioned. On the contrary, for three years in the mid-90s I did “Don Giovanni” with Patrice Chéreau that was anything but traditional and it was stunning. It was splendid. It was better than any other I'd done before – but you need Chéreau. You need to have somebody extremely talented, more talented than normal, otherwise it simply doesn't work because you have to have a genius around.

- Four years ago was the last time I put a foot in Paris, because I was really fed up with that production of “Macbeth”, directed by [Dmitri] Tcherniakov. It was... a shame. So disgusting. It was so disrespectful. Even worse than the director was the conductor who let Tcherniakov to do what he wanted, also acoustically. Just to give an example; during the scene where Macbeth sees the ghost of Banco there was a girl – who was super – laughing out loud (demonstrates) for five minutes while the baritone was singing these beautiful Verdi lines. The conductor allowed this kind of thing to happen.  

- It's a bunch of improvisers. Of course, opera has for many years – maybe a bit less now with the crisis – been a better business than theatre. So a lot of these Schauspiele people came to opera purely for economic reasons. Since they don't know music, since they don't know the text, they don't know vocal necessities, they do whatever they want – and you are just a simple puppet, a toy in the hands of amateurs.

There seems to be a bit of miscasting as well, where young singers who aren't ready for the rep, are shoved into things too soon.

- Yes! Again, listen, when I did my first “Don Giovanni” I had to participate in a competition in Treviso. They still do this competition and they put the roles in an opera up for the competition. If you participate for the role of Don Giovanni and you win, you have the chance to have your debut and sing. At that time I was 27. Nobody, no theatre in Italy, would have ever given that role to a young boy. Never. It was considered a final target, something for someone who was ready for this kind of important step.

- Now you have a good voice coming out and they throw him onstage in a role that is way, way too big and in a matter of a very few years you see great, beautiful voices disappearing because of this reason. What should be re-organised today is the position of the artistic directors in the theatres, because they are the ones who are supposed to make the right decisions, to put together the right cast and to cast a specific role with a specific voice. It´s as simple as that! In some very few houses it's still happening, but in most cases… forget it. If you have a good PR and you make a lot of smoke, they'll be immediately caught by the new Callas or the new Corelli or whatever. Then, after a couple of years, the new Callas is gone – and  there's always someone else ready to take over and to receive the same treatment.

If an artist is offered a role through their management that isn't right, the manager should have enough knowledge to advise their client to turn it down too.

- Sure, sure! Also, that field has changed. When I started for the first years in Italy I was freelance and didn't have a specific agent. When I started my international career I had, luckily for me, Michel Glotz in Paris who was also a recording producer for 35 years. He knew what he was talking about. He was also the manager of Callas, so he knew. I never thought for a second that he made these very wise choices just for me because he trusted me. No, he was also going after money – like all the others – but he was clever enough to understand that in 40 years you get more money than in 3 or 4.

- This is the big difference. Today they have a list, they wait by the phone, it rings and they look through the list to see who's free and who's not. Why were the great agents of the past called impresarios? Because they were building careers, addressing people in a certain direction because they knew that was the right direction for that particular singer. This was extremely good for the singers and rewarding for the agents. I'm still with the same agency. Michel died, unfortunately, few years ago, but the agency is still there and the way of thinking is the same.

- A clever agent should think the way he did. If certain roles come too early in the career of a singer you have to be clever enough to say, “No, let's postpone it and talk about it again in 2-3 years”. Give the poor singer the chance to develop, to have experiences, to work without being exposed.

I´d just like to bring us back to “Don Carlo” for a moment. Obviously, these are actual historical characters, so I´m curious to what extent you've studied King Filippo´s background?

- You have to. I did the same when I first did Boris. When you approach a historical character you need to know as much as you can in order to have, somehow, the mentality this person had. Of course, there's an enormous difference between Don Carlo in Schiller and Don Carlo in Verdi. The figure of the son in Verdi is heroic. Historically he was a handicapped boy, totally crazy, torturing servants and animals, had a hunchback and was a monster. Here, he's a romantic hero. King Filippo remains closer to the truth. Well, it's up to the performer to keep him as much as you can close to what it was.

- The big advantage in this opera is that with this sensational music that Verdi wrote for Filippo, you have the chance to give him some more colors. For instance, it's wonderful to think that the most powerful man on the planet at the time was having this poignant moment of solitude, weakness if you want, in his room where nobody can listen to his thoughts. The aria is a thought, it's not something he sings out. He will sing out with the Inquisitor and then again with Elisabetta, but the aria is a simple and pure thought, in a state of drowsiness at in the beginning of it. This is a sensational possibility that you have as a performer to give humanity to a character, to a person that historically probably didn't have any. For the simple reason that they were born to be King and grew up to be King. They were totally away from the reality of the normal world so you can't expect special feelings in somebody grown up to be the leader of the state.

“Don't forget, in the time of King Philip Spain went into bankruptcy twice. Of course, in this case the church was very good, very “useful”. Creditors could be called heretics and burnt! Today we cannot do that,” he laughs heartily.

- The situation that you had between state, church and finance was extremely important and delicate – then like today. Of course whenever I sang in Spain, for instance in Seville, I could see the part of the Alcazar palace where you still can visit rooms that King Philip had done according to his taste which was very sinister and dark. If you go to the Escorial Palace outside Madrid, it's even more sinister. You really feel the oppression of the church as it must have been.

- I was thinking during one of the past days that it was quite fascinating to do two operas in a row based on the same problem; state and church. In San Diego I just did "The murder in the Cathedral" and now "Don Carlo" here. In both you have the clash between the state and the power of the church. Of course, in the times of King Philip, clearly the power of the church was on top. It's amazing to think that 350 years before that, in the UK, there was already a tremendous clash and the King was having the win because “poor” Beckett was killed for the same reasons. Of course, you have to go into history and read, and not only read but, even better, to be in those places, to breathe it. If you are in the Escorial, you’ll see the little bedroom of King Filippo. It´s so spartan; just one tiny, metallic bed with a little table, one chair and one window inside overlooking the major altar of the Cathedral. Then you’ll have a much clearer idea of the character.

To remind him...

- Yeah! This gives you an idea of what kind of bigot he was. His daughter had the room next to his, same story. The window and the church. Hard times.

This is why his big aria is very interesting because it's the only moment when he shows some humanity. 

- This is a possibility, yes. In my very second opera ,"Don Carlo", I was singing the Monk. King Philip was Boris Christoff, who was stunning. For me, as a singer and interpreter, he was and is a God. He was really stunning. His King Philip was extremely cold, dry, probably as he was in history – also in the solitude of the Studio’ scene.

- I started to think, when I got the experience and got into this role more and more, that it was a big waste to not give this character the possibility of showing some humanity. It's written in the words and in the music. If he sings “ella gammai m´amo”, "she never loved me", well, then you should think that way. So I started taking it in another direction but that was after I did digest deeply the role and lived my experiences. Ponnelle taught me how extremely important was to become also an actor. You must live these characters under your own skin so the pain, the joy, whatever other feeling must be yours. This is why, for instance, whenever I do a role like this; Boris, Filippo, Beckett or Don Quichotte I need to have the right make-up, the right face. I couldn't imagine doing any of these characters with my face, because I need to see myself different in order to use that little bit of schizophrenia that an artist should have in order to become somebody else. Otherwise it will be routine therefore boring. You need to look in the mirror, to see somebody else, to believe you're somebody else.

We briefly touched upon the Grant Inquisitor scene before we came in here. This is widely regarded as one of the most powerful duets in opera. It may sound mundane to ask, but how does it feel to be right in the middle of it?

- A privilege! It's a privilege because this act, starting with one of the most beautiful arias ever written for whatever vocality, and go on to this amazing, incredible duet which is politics, religion – and love. You would like to think that Filippo is not really keen or happy to sign a death warrant for his son, but nevertheless the way he asks – (and Verdi wrote it that way): "Can I send my son to death?"

- It's not a piano but it's confidential. You understand from this that it is something somehow premeditated, something he had already thought that in order not to have trouble with the Flanders. He knows that he has to cut the problem from the root and if the root is your son, then you have to do it. But it´s also because of jealousy. He eliminates the political threat and also the person who loves the same woman. It's so full of these contrasts; human weaknesses, politics, religion.                                  

- The Inquisitor is just like a tank. He doesn't have any weakness. He is an integralist. When he pretends to have a weakness it is part of his simulation, "Well, but you could return to your duties" with this kind of priesty voice. "Just be a good boy and give me… Posa". This is basically the coldest mind in the world having a duet with the coldest heart in the world. It's a very specific way to present a phrase, an attitude and acting. It's a monument to theatre.

-33 years passed since my first “Don Carlo” and in these 33 years it's amazing how you can continuously find different motivations, different intentions, different colors – even in the same production. This is my 5th time in this particular production, three times here and two times in New York. Even in this very production, even with one month's difference from New York to London, there are subtle differences. It's different but nevertheless right and possible. And this is the fantastic possibility that Verdi gives us.

I like the moment in the duet when he raises the knife behind the Inquisitor's back…

“That I don't do anymore. I did it a month ago, but this time I don't,” he laughs. “Originally I was doing it with the crucifix, which would be more interesting I would say – but unfortunately Eric grabs it before so I cannot pry it out of his hand,” he chuckles again.

- Considering the big fight that's going on between these characters, and considering the fact again that the church will win in the case of King Filippo, then it's more interesting to see Filippo's resignation rather than aggression. Maybe next year it'll be different, who knows? 

What do you consider the biggest vocal challenges for a bass in “Don Carlo”?

- There are amazing vocal challenges but of course these are things that you are digesting very much in the years. Honestly today, if I'm in a good shape vocally and with no health problems, it's purely a joy. It's just the joy of playing with your instrument, playing with the colors. When you are a young singer, to find the proper colors and intentions is very difficult, one must make experiments and grow. You can take directions from other singers of the past, from Boris Christoff and Cesare Siepi etc., but when it comes to do this role with your own instrument you must find how it works for your nature. My Philip with Karajan was beautiful and right but it's another planet from what I'm doing now in a matter of intensity, depth, maturity.

You’ve mentioned Quinn Kelsey quite a bit in interviews and have been quoted as saying that there’s not been a baritone like him since Renato Bruson.  

- Last year around this time, at the end of May or June, I arrived in San Francisco for “Attila”. The first rehearsal we had was a musical one with [Nicola] Luisotti and there was this big boy from Hawaii that I'd never heard of or seen before. When he started to sing I was [illustrates jaw dropping]. I was so fascinated by the color, that Verdi color that's totally lost for baritones, by the technique – very good, safe technique – and the pronunciation. The Italian pronunciation of Quinn Kelsey is absolutely stunning. You couldn't tell that he isn't Italian – and that he doesn't speak Italian.

- He's a boy full of talent and I was so fascinated to find all these things in one person that the same night I went home and I wrote an email to the Royal Opera House and to Vienna to tell them that, "We finally have a Verdi baritone!" They both took him. I don't know what he'll be singing here, but I know that both theatres took him.

- He will have a sensational career because he's intelligent, he sings well, with a great technique and in a very safe way. The color is beautiful, everything is there. It was fun to be there and do “Attila” with him.

- I love Quinn. Every time I see him I'm so pleased because he represents a wonderful reality which seemed lost.

I first saw him in Oslo in his first “Rigoletto” and the audience was pretty much gawking whenever he opened his mouth. 

- I can imagine! He's also a very good actor, which is very important for a baritone. He's a stunning singer. We were together in Chicago in the fall where he was singing Paolo in "Simon Boccanegra" and covering Boccanegra. I'm sure that when he will do “Simon Boccanegra”, AS Boccanegra, he will be fantastic. I hope to be in that production when it will happen because I will be very, very excited. He has humanity, he has colors – he has everything.  

- We will do "Don Quichotte" together in Toronto. I am really looking forward to it.

If you were to give him some advice for the future, what would it be?

- He has to continue in this direction. He has to become the baritone of the next 25 years in this specific and important repertoire. He should continue to do “Rigoletto” – but not so often. In ten years, after a decade of healthy growth, he can go back to it and to whatever else.

What does it take to be a Verdi singer?

- Colors. Weight and colors. Color you should have by nature and the rest is just a result of proper growth. Of course, when you are in your early 30s you can't have majesty and the power that you’ll have 30 years later. You need just to grow, using the little grey cells, [he giggles].

- You also need life experiences. You don't need to necessarily go through all the hardship and tragedies of your characters but when I talk about growing I mean to live your life in a healthy way. The result will be a puzzle that is completed, at his point starts the hardest part: to keep the puzzle together as long as possible.

Photographer: I just have to say that I love “Don Quichotte”

- Oh, don't get me started… The production that we just did in St. Petersburg in December is sooo beautiful. That's something that you should see! I will do it on the 29th of June in the White Nights festival and the production is by Yannis Kokkos, a man of high class and great taste. He never does traditional things, everything is always rather abstract, but both “Don Quichotte” at the Mariinsky and ”Assassinio nella Cattedrale” in Milano are stunning productions. It will be filmed in the next months, probably by the end of October.

- This Mariinsky’ production is beautiful without – and I repeat – without being traditional. So if you have the chance...! From Norway it's not even that far!

See Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Filipo in “Don Carlo” at the Royal Opera House in May 2013

Read Operafocus's review of the opening night

Read Operafocus's interview with Eric Halfvarson

Read Operafocus's interview with Jonas Kaufmann