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Peak Form

He's often called one of today's most exciting young singers. But Piotr Beczala — Rodolfo in La Scala's La Bohème this month and the Duke in the Met's new Rigoletto in January — has been preparing for this moment for many years. SCOTT BARNES reports.

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Photographed by Marty Umans at the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in New York
Grooming by Affan Malik/Jacket: Canali
© Marty Umans 2012
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Beczala as Roméo at the Met in 2011 with Hei-Kyung Hong (Juliette)
© Johan Elbers 2012
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© Marty Umans 2012

Apparently, Polish tenor Piotr Beczala has never heard the rusty opera joke about tenors — that they have resonance where the rest of us have brains. The first thing that is apparent about Beczala is that he possesses an intellect to be reckoned with. He is highly capable of expressing himself fully and with nuance in English, and his slight accent only adds to his considerable charm. Possessing the affect of a much younger man, Beczala has actually been in the game for almost twenty years. His youthful appearance, fresh-toned, sunny tenor voice and the fact that American opera fans have only been aware of him for less than half that time initially lead one to mistake his seasoning for a sagacity beyond his years. 

Actually, his self-awareness is fairly on target for a professional in his mid-forties — it’s just that these days, when good-looking young singers are pushed forward into careers a Fach or two beyond their vocal and dramatic means, this kind of levelheaded restraint and self-imposed limitation seems to place him in the minority.

Once upon a time, Norma and Otello were mentioned in reverent tones, distant goals for solidly built careers, timed precisely as a singer’s vocal peak coincided with his dramatic maturity. As opera has borrowed more and more from the worlds of TV and film, it, too, has become a director’s medium. The “look” of many productions is paramount, with the musical and vocal components seeming like an afterthought. In times past, the argument was that we suspended our disbelief because the principals acted with “the voice.” Now our eyes may well be delighted, but it’s often the “bel canto part” that must be imagined.

No such concessions are necessary at a Beczala performance. Tall, trim and handsome, with a Hollywood smile, he also emits some of the most beautiful sounds to be heard on the current opera stage. Beczala works like a method actor; his entire body is an instrument of expression; he moves differently from character to character, and he generates real heat in his love scenes, without sacrificing vocal splendor. The idea of operatic romance seldom includes sex. There is a kind of playing at the carnal side of love; kisses are chaste, if the characters even end up in a lip-lock. However, when Beczala is the leading man, it’s clear that his Lucia has already made a few trips to the nuptial bed, and it’s apparent why Gilda risks incurring Daddy’s wrath over this Gualtier Maldè. When Beczala sang Massenet’s des Grieux in the Met’s Manon last spring, opposite Anna Netrebko, the St. Sulpice scene felt as inevitable as a Lifetime bodice-ripper. His dramatic performances seem improvised (“I have fans that have seen all nine of my performances of Werther and were never bored”), and his supreme vocal security allows him to be in constant adjustment to his acting partners and to his imaginary stage surroundings at any given moment in the opera. 

He unites all this with the kind of golden-age singing no longer expected from a full lyric tenor. In his Met des Grieux, Beczala fearlessly produced silvery pianissimos and beautifully long-lined diminuendos — the kind that aren’t often heard today — yet his “En fermant les yeux” was a completely all-out performance, utterly grounded in the truth of the moment. Last spring, in a live interview with OPERA NEWS senior editor Louise T. Guinther, as part of the magazine’s “Singers’ Studio” lecture series, Beczala was asked if these artful effects came easily. He chuckled and told the audience that it was welcome to listen to the fourteen or fifteen failed attempts he had recorded on his iPhone.

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Des Grieux in Laurent Pelly's staging of Manon at the Met, 2012, with Anna Netrebko (Manon)
© Beth Bergman 2012

“It takes time to come to this point,” Beczala says during our spring meeting at the Upper West Side apartment of his publicist, during his run of Met Manons — “to really play like an actor, seriously as an opera singer. The danger is to overact, or simply take care of the voice, and try to sing as well as possible. The ideal is somewhere in the middle. Technique exists to express the character, not yourself. It’s a process, like everything. In the beginning, I was very focused on singing. You have to be. But somehow, I was missing something — the playing part. Playing the character is much easier if you know what to do, and how to do it. I got a very good dramatic education in Poland. We didn’t really have enough vocal training, but otherwise, our education was very complete. We even had ballet! But two hours of vocal study a week is simply not enough for a singer. Even now, I study regularly, with the same teacher I’ve had since my days in Linz. I met him earlier at the Mozarteum. He’s American — a Texan named Dale Fundling. He was not a singer himself. He completely redesigned my voice. I had finished my Polish vocal education singing Cavaradossi, Calàf. 

“Like today, teachers hear a young singer’s potential. Sena Jurinac was very important to me — a hero. She saved my vocal life, telling me to put down the Puccini and do Mozart. At twenty-two, [I found] Cavaradossi more comfortable than Don Ottavio. Of course, Mozart was harder work for me, and I wanted to play the hero. Screaming opera roles is very easy for a short time, and also very exciting for the public. But behind the scream is nothing emotionally. It takes courage to sing quietly. I like to use the whole range of dynamics and expressivity.”

Beczala began his intensive vocal work with Fundling when he was a contract singer in Linz. “I was a ‘short tenor.’ I could sing an A and force a B. I was so angry with that, because I knew something was wrong. I just didn’t know how to sing the top of my range. Accidentally, a couple of times in my life, I sang high. But I didn’t know how. So I sang heavier repertory, which is generally lower. I saw two interviews, one with Alfredo Kraus and one with Nicolai Gedda — both known for their tops. I was very angry with Kraus. He said if a tenor doesn’t have a C or C-sharp, he will never get it. He’s a short tenor, and basta. I thought, ‘One moment. Gedda is my size, has the same Slavic face, physically very similar, and he has a high D. Probably, I have it too, but I just don’t know how.’ Every singer, good or bad, has some place in the voice which is very good. And you can build on that.”

“Piotr somehow managed to sing a good audition,” says Fundling. “Unfortunately, he did not have the slightest idea of how to sing. He was hoarse for his first premiere, Così, and he had to cancel. He literally cracked on every — and I do mean every — tone from G up. Therefore you can imagine that no one, including his wife (told me so herself), ever thought that he would become a singer. We began deconstructing him, and for the first two years he never got past the first phrase of an aria. There were too many wrong reflexes to correct before being able to build in the right ones that you hear today.” Fundling continues. “So if you ask me to tell you in all modesty and honesty what contributions I made to his singing, I would tell you that everything you hear from him now is because of me. He worked hard to do it, but the information came from me. The functions that allow him to phrase like no one else, he learned in Linz. Releasing his voice to make his talent heard was done by me. The ability to actually improve with time, instead of ending up a talent judge on television, he learned at his lessons with me. The love and respect for the art was nurtured by me, and you will constantly hear my words coming from him.”

Fundling readily admits, “The knowledge I have was not born in me. I learned it from someone else, a wonderful Hungarian soprano named Eva Illes, when I was teaching at the Mozarteum. And she learned it from an Italian tenor named Sartoni, who learned it from another expert in bel canto, and the chain remains unbroken.”

Beczala has consistently, in print and video interviews, credited Fundling with guiding his vocal progress. “Dale and I worked together every year on new roles. He lived in Salzburg, and when I was in Linz he came to work with me every weekend. Now I spend a week working with him every day on a new role. It’s very important to have someone like that to control your development. My wife, Kasia, is a singer, and she is my eyes and ears. Feedback from the audience is the most important thing. In the moment that you’re singing, you can’t also be listening to yourself. You have to trust, which is why you do the technical work. I spent months to find the specific colors that were appropriate to des Grieux. The piano that I use in ‘La Rêve’ is special to that character. Also, you must remember the composer — why he wrote the music this particular way. For me, it is important the articulation of what the composer wrote — the tenuti, staccatiand also the ligatures. The notations of composers are very important. It’s a pity that not so many conductors are understanding these signs. I have the first recording ever of Manon. The tenor’s voice is not really ‘important,’ but the way he used the words and the style are essential. 

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As the Duke in Rigoletto at Paris Opera, 2012, with Ilona Krzywicka as Countess Ceprano
© Christian Leiber/Opéra National de Paris 2012

“I am a singer who looks back on the big singers of the past — di Stefano and Del Monaco — such great beauty, but no understanding of the [vocal] system. Young Carreras was also amazing. Very big idols — certainly Wunderlich for me. When I hear him, I’m speechless. Very quick, passionate. But also, I like very much Tito Schipa — his line. The voice is not that rich, but there’s something. He was not a good Turiddu, because Turiddu needs some craziness, but the siciliana was perfect! Basta. No discussion. And Björling. I love the silver tone. In my opinion, he did too much verismo, but he was amazing for pure singing. I love Corelli, but I know I am not that. He is the best in verismo and some heavy Verdi, the best Alvaro in my opinion. He was completely relaxed in the throat. And for that you need huge support. I love Kiepura. He is the quintessence of a tenor. In Poland, Kiepura equals Tenor, still to this day. It’s a pity he sang not so much opera. He could make it, but he had another idea. He wanted to sing with his wife [Marta Eggerth, with whom he did many musical films and two thousand performances of Merry Widow, in several different languages]. They did it right. He was happy, and an exceptional tenor. His piani on the top — maybe Miguel Fleta could play in the same league.” 

Don’t get Beczala started on the discipline that an opera career requires unless you have plenty of time. He doesn’t smoke or drink, and when he’s in the middle of a run of performances, he avoids parties. While singing Roméo a few seasons ago, he realized that he was too heavy to be singing such a romantic part and lost twenty-five pounds. “Young singers feel like it will go on forever,” he says. “The problem is really how far into the future a singer can think. A beautiful voice is wonderful, but not interesting enough. I need to be heard and understood. Imagination is very important. As a singer, if you don’t believe you can hit the high C, or can’t imagine it will happen, it won’t happen. There are extreme moments in operas, like you have to sing a high D or something — that’s special. Pavarotti said that the high Ds sound easy, but they cost him much. He needed three days’ rest afterwards. I think the last healthy tones for a tenor are C, C-sharp. E is out of the range! It’s possible, but it takes too much tension. Dale told me that falsetto doesn’t have emotions — the theme of falsetto is emotionless. It’s not connected to the body — it’s just a sound. Sometimes it’s beautiful. Opera is so connected with the body. The right mix of body and mind is the perfect sound, no matter what voice type.

“Becoming an opera star is like Mt. Everest. You can get to the top in a helicopter, but then you die after five minutes because of the compression, the oxygen, etc. But if you go by foot, it’s much safer. It takes longer, but you can stay longer, too. That’s what the young singers don’t understand. They have a right to be stupid, but they must be smart enough to hear the right people, the right singers. Two examples — take Franco Corelli and Jussi Björling. If you try to emulate Björling, you can probably never go wrong. If you try to do the same thing with Corelli, you will probably hurt yourself. Young singers imitate result, not how the singer created the tone. The art of creating the tone of Franco Corelli is one of the best, but Corelli started with great physical strength. It was right for him. For a young singer, it’s almost impossible to understand it, and to make it in the right way. These singers are strong and young and fast and furious, but they need experienced people to show the way.” 

In recent years, Beczala has been very vocal about the growing power of the director on the opera scene. Although certainly not a hard-core traditionalist, the tenor has given much thought to what works and what detracts from both the performing and the viewing experiences. 

“The biggest problem in opera today — is the director a creator or an interpreter? The film director can do what he wants — complete freedom. A theatrical director has less freedom, and the operatic director has even less, because everything is done — music, text, dynamics. If the director cannot accept this lack of freedom, he is wrong for the job. Film directors are completely lost in the world of opera. Their freedom is gone. But if he likes opera, he won’t go wrong.

“It’s wonderful to work in America, because we don’t have productions that are so far from the composer’s intentions. Now I am in a position to choose. I have a sense of humor in life, but not so much on the stage. I take the characters I play very seriously. So when a director doesn’t trust the work or me, but only himself, that I don’t want to participate in. I don’t even say, ‘I don’t like it’ — I say, ‘I hate it!’ Those people destroy opera. Sometimes the director has a concept. If it makes sense and works, that’s okay with me. But if it is stupid, then it falls to me to explain it. This audience did not come with popcorn. So I try to understand why the director is doing what he is doing. Good directors need to be good psychologists. A couple of times, mostly for festivals, I ‘believed.’ It took me over. But when I got some distance from it, I could see that it was actually crap. It’s like with lying. If you say something two hundred times, you start believing it’s true!

“Opera is for sensitive people, not just for people who want only to be entertained. My targets are sensitive people. If they gained sensitivity through my singing, then I am doing my job. I want to be a traditionalist with an open mind, not someone who will do any crazy production that comes along. Within limitation, there is endless possibility. When I make a decision to sing a certain way, I am fully in charge of the consequences. You have to think that if you do something stupid, your performance will not be at the level it should be. And maybe no one will notice, but I will notice. There are small differences between ‘good,’ ‘great’ and ‘brilliant,’ and my job is never to let it go below ‘very good.’ You have to believe in what you are doing. If you do, then it’s clear to the audience. And I’m very serious with my job. I am not doing my job for myself, my wife and a couple of friends.” spacer 

SCOTT BARNES is a New York-based acting coach and audition strategist for opera singers. 

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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2