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Putting It Together

How does Matthew Polenzani balance the demands of an international opera career with his responsibilities as a husband and father? By always putting his family first. JAMES C. WHITSON talks to the tenor, who is back at the Met this winter for two Donizetti roles — Leicester in Maria Stuarda and Nemorino in L'Elisir d'Amore.

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Portrait photographed by Jörg Meyer at Maison Gerard, New York
Hangings by Thomas Boog / www.maisongerard.com
Grooming by Ralph Castelli
Sweater by Façonnable; watch by Raymond Weil
© Jörg Meyer 2013
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As Nemorino in Bartlett Sher's Metropolitan Opera staging of L'Elisir d'Amore, 2012
© Beatriz Schiller 2013
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As Offenbach's Hoffmann at Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2011
© Dan Rest 2013

"Hang on here" — a wail of distress has interrupted Matthew Polenzani mid-sentence — "I have to make sure this isn't as bad as it sounds." He covers the handset, and the sobs of a three-year-old occasionally break through a muffled parental inquest. It's August in the Polenzani household, and I have caught the tenor between productions, in the midst of a move to another house in Pelham, NY. The chaos at home — a place intended as a quiet oasis far from the desert storm of an international career — doesn't faze Polenzani. If anything, he seems to be drawing deeply from the mayhem. "Not as bad as I thought," he reports momentarily. 

Polenzani's priorities are clear: his professional achievement over the past fifteen years is bound to his home life with his wife, Rosa, and his three boys, Gianluca, Nicola and Giovanni. "First I'm a father, a husband, a family guy," he once said in an interview. "My identity is wrapped up more in my family than in my [career] — that outlook in life informs my singing." However he perceives himself, over the past decade his public has witnessed the remarkably steady growth of an artist in performances of nuance and polish, executed by a voice of great beauty and purveyed with superb musical taste.

Since that might also be a list of prerequisites for Mozart tenors, it's no surprise that the forty-four-year-old Polenzani puts Tamino, Don Ottavio, Ferrando, Belmonte and, lately, Idomeneo at the center of his repertoire. "I took on Idomeneo a couple years ago," he says, "even though this is a role that people have associated with singers like Pavarotti or Domingo or Ben Heppner. Frankly, I don't find Idomeneo as tough a night of singing as Ferrando, which is longer and a little higher." That Polenzani can assess his capacity with such confidence is a measure of his maturity as a performer and the experience he's gained in recent years.

On New Year's Eve, Polenzani sings Leicester in the Met premiere of Maria Stuarda, an assignment originally announced for Francesco Meli. At the end of September, before rehearsals began, Meli withdrew, giving Polenzani just four months to prepare the role. "It's going to be a scramble to get it learned, but in the end I was scheduled to do it in a couple of seasons anyway," he says. He describes the role as "Edgardo-like in tessitura, but in terms of anger content, it's probably not quite the same. Edgardo's got some — issues," he laughs.

Metropolitan Opera audiences witnessed Polenzani's Nemorino opposite Anna Netrebko's Adina last fall in Bartlett Sher's new production of L'Elisir d'Amore, which returns for a short run at the end of this month. The Italianate timbre of Polenzani's voice makes him a natural for the role, but in a house the size of the Met, singing Nemorino comes with certain risks. "My voice, okay, yeah — it's not the biggest voice out there," he concedes, "but it's a voice you can hear in a hall." That it carries to the back of the gallery is perhaps his greatest gift. Like Carlo Bergonzi, who was able to traverse dramatic territory with his modest-sized voice and not compromise his sound, Polenzani has been able, by dint of musical intelligence, technical mastery and a canny choice of repertoire, to move into heavier lyric roles in larger venues. 

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With Magdalena Kožená in Così Fan Tutte at the Met, 2005
© Beth Bergman 2013

When pressed, he describes his voice as "a lyric tenor with versatility." Polenzani sounds like a vocal composite of two legends — Fritz Wunderlich and Nicolai Gedda. They happen to be his heroes: he considers Wunderlich's vocalism "unimpeachable" and Gedda the greatest modern-era interpreter of the French lyric repertoire. Aspects of Polenzani's career have also mirrored theirs: after establishing himself as a Mozartean, he has steadily acquired bel canto and lyric Verdi roles and is turning toward des Grieux (Massenet), Faust (Berlioz), Werther, which he sang in Chicago in the fall of 2012, and Hoffmann, which he sings again in San Francisco in June. "All of these French guys suit me really well," he laughs.

Hoffmann strikes me as a stretch, but Polenzani knew he was ready for Nicolas Joël's production last season at Lyric Opera of Chicago: "I told [conductor Emmanuel Villaume], 'I prefer to do it more in the Kraus/Gedda way, so if you want Shicoff or Domingo's Hoffmann, then you're going to have to rethink things!' But he didn't want that at all, and I can't sing it that way anyway — my voice isn't built like that. One of my strong suits, I would say, is musicianship, and there's actually quite a bit of opportunity for that [with this approach]. Emmanuel was really very excited to be working on it like that, rather than just blasting away, you know?"

Any uncertainty he may have felt about his Hoffmann debut was somewhat allayed by putting it before a friendly home crowd. Polenzani was born in Evanston, just north of Chicago, the oldest child in a musical family. His mother is a pianist, and both parents are barber-shoppers, as was his grandfather, Lynn Hauldren (the "Empire Carpet Man," a Chicago-area legend). Rose Polenzani, Matthew's sister, is a folksinger and recording artist. Polenzani's public debut came at New Trier High School, as lead singer in a cover band, Empty Pockets. 

He won a scholarship to Eastern Illinois University, where he pursued a degree in music education, intending to teach high school. Polenzani began to consider a career in opera almost by accident, after stumbling across a cassette tape of José Carreras that his voice teacher Jerry Daniels had given him years before. Captivated by "E lucevan le stelle," he rewound the tape repeatedly. His interest piqued, Polenzani took the advice of bass-baritone Alan Held to audition for admittance to the Yale School of Music. Entering the graduate program in 1991, he began studies with Doris and Richard Cross, and within two weeks he met a fellow student who eventually became his wife, mezzo-soprano Rosa Maria Pascarella. 

After graduating, Polenzani was accepted into the young-artist program at Lyric Opera of Chicago, where he studied with the late Margaret Harshaw. In 1997, he was invited to audition for James Levine, and the move to New York came shortly thereafter. Polenzani sang small parts with the Met for three years and steadily acquired roles in regional American and European houses. In 2001, the Met finally offered him Lindoro in L'Italiana in Algeri, opposite Jennifer Larmore's Isabella. His performance was well received, but the tessitura didn't suit him. "There are some things I do really well," he remarks with characteristic candor, "and some things I just do.''

An unlikely watershed the following season was his Iopas in Francesca Zambello's production of Les Troyens. "O blonde Cérès" marks one of the magical moments in the score, sung by an otherwise forgettable character — something like the Italian Singer's aria in Rosenkavalier — and Polenzani's performance was greeted with raves from both audience and critics. "Matthew is very deep, complex and thoughtful onstage," Zambello notes. "He may have done a role many times, but he brings a kind of wide-eyed freshness to everything. He's willing to jump off any cliff without a parachute to figure out how to do something in an interesting and unique way. That's a lot to ask of many people when they sing the kind of difficult roles that he sings." 

"Every once in a while, you get a hurdle that you have to surmount," Polenzani admits. "I did a production of Elisir d'Amore in Munich last year, and 'Una furtiva lagrima' was sung from the top of a lamppost. And not like a Singin'-in-the-Rain, Gene-Kelly lamppost, either, I mean like a freeway lamppost — maybe thirty feet up in the air! So Adina and Dulcamara left the stage, and I walked out, climbed up, and there was a little seat on one of the rungs," he remembers, "and I just had to hold on and sing it. I'm not really afraid of heights, but climbing up there and getting my breath under control and leaning to the side to make sure I could see the conductor was a little harrowing." In the telling, such a demand sounds more like a stunt than an effective piece of staging, but Polenzani has no regrets. "I'm told that it was incredibly effective. Look, I'm going to try to give the director what they had in mind, and if it doesn't work for me, I'm going to pray that they realize it's not going to have the intended effect." 

Here, then, is a tenor who doesn't really throw his weight around. This extends to an acting technique that might best be described as reactive. Polenzani doesn't put over emotion by initiating gesture; he moves in response to others. His Ferrando in Jonathan Miller's production of Così Fan Tutte, which appeared in Seattle in 2006, is a case in point. The entrance of the "Albanians" at the end of Act I is pure slapstick, but Polenzani managed an extra layer of hilarity (disguised in chaps and chains) with ludicrous surfer moves. The joke here wasn't so much the obvious physical shtick as how Polenzani timed the laugh — as a spasm triggered by a sharp look from Guglielmo. Funnier still, it came from the straight man, a semaphore expletive directed at the antic baritone. 

"He's very generous onstage," says baritone Russell Braun, who sang with Polenzani in Milan last summer in Laurent Pelly's production of Manon. The two struck up an intense friendship during the run, away from the theater on the golf course. Both Braun and Polenzani are sports fans (Polenzani regularly performs the National Anthem at stadium events), so the links were a welcome out-of-town respite from the frantic pace of La Scala. Braun rented a Fiat 500 during his stay. "We listened to a lot of different types of music on the way to the golf course. We both love vocal jazz as well as lieder, and we discussed most of the things that have to do with our careers in the car. But there's something about the tranquility of being together on a golf course that allows you to — with the right person — discuss more personal things. We talked a lot about our families, our struggles, our joys. For all his success, he has suffered some hardships, too." 

The event to which Braun alludes is the loss of the Polenzanis' infant daughter Alessandra on Christmas Eve 2005. The Così performance I witnessed came on the heels of the tragedy, and it coursed with naked emotion. "'Un' aura amorosa' was never about Dorabella," Polenzani has said. "It was always about the smell of my daughter's room."

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As Alfredo to Marina Poplavskaya's Violetta in La Traviata at the Met, 2010
© Beth Bergman 2013

On the recital stage, Polenzani's chief collaborator in recent years has been pianist Julius Drake; together, they have appeared in London, New York, Boston and Philadelphia, in programs featuring Schubert, Hahn, Britten and Beethoven. Drake selected Polenzani for his first volume in a projected complete cycle of Liszt songs for Hyperion. The Liszt should figure prominently in their European tour scheduled for early March. "Matthew is very still as a performer, not at all histrionic," says Drake. "Not many opera singers are great recitalists as well. The expressive requirements of lieder singing are very different from acting on an opera stage. Instead of acting a person and being a part, you have to be this sort of narrator and all the characters in a song," he posits. "But one thing you are not is acting with your body. You've got to somehow internalize the feeling of the song, the feeling the composer has put to the words, and then let us feel it. Matthew can do that — he's top-shelf." 

Just as Polenzani's capacity for listening has made him popular with colleagues on the opera stage and recital circuit, so it stands him in good stead among symphonic ensembles. He withstood the "stress test" of Elliott Carter's setting of six Robert Lowell poems, In Sleep, in Thunder, scored for tenor and fourteen instruments. Although it has been eleven years since he performed the piece with James Levine and the Met Chamber Ensemble, Polenzani vividly remembers his process for mastering the imposing work: "I had [assistant conductor and vocal coach] Linda Hall record just my pitch on the piano, all the way through each song, and learned the vocal line completely muscularly. Then I would put the recording on one headphone and play the orchestral part over the speakers and just stay with the headphones. 

"Eventually, we began putting things together, and Linda would say, 'Okay, the viola is playing this, or now you're going to hear the flute playing this, or you're going to have to go up a third from what the cello is playing here….' It took some months to put that together — I don't think the piece even lasts twenty minutes. It just took rote learning, so I knew exactly where I was even if I had no idea what the orchestra was doing. All I needed was Jimmy's beat, and I sang exactly what I saw in the score." The hard work paid off. Polenzani received accolades for his phenomenal accuracy not only from critics but from the composer himself. "Mr. Carter came up to me after one of the performances and said, 'Young man, how did you learn all those notes?'" he laughs.

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© Jörg Meyer 2013

Applause is an artist's most immediate gauge of his success, but even Polenzani was surprised by the enthusiastic response to the Met's L'Elisir d'Amore. "They clapped when she finally admits that she loves him, when she grabs him and kisses him. It's like they're saying, 'Thank God, it's about time!' Bart [Sher, the production's director] made an effort to focus on the human side, and he treated this not as a comedy but as a love story, so the whole thing felt a little more real to people who might have been expecting the buffo. He treated the drama in a more realistic way." 

Polenzani admits that drawing realism from the turbocharged emotion of most operas is a tall order. Werther, a role new to him this past fall at Lyric Opera of Chicago, is a perfect example. "The poor guy is a case study for Prozac," he laughs. "He's in such a bad place for most of the night." When we spoke, he had yet to play Werther, but he sensed that the key to a persuasive portrayal lies in the character's absolutism. "For Werther, love is a painful thing. When he speaks about it, he speaks with pain, and that's a difficult thing to put over. By the time he contemplates suicide, he has come to a place where he's welcoming death, you know? He's not willing to go on without his soul mate, the one perfect person for him in this world." 

One can't help but be impressed with Polenzani's success in shepherding the multiple tracks of his career — gradually widening his opera repertoire, pursuing different concert genres, all the while vigilantly maintaining his voice. He was the 2004 recipient of the prestigious Richard Tucker Award and, at the Met, winner of the Beverly Sills Artist Award in 2008. Grateful as he is for the recognition, he isn't resting on his laurels. Coming off the success of his Chicago Hoffmann, he traveled to Italy for a Verdi Requiem with Riccardo Muti. A week after that engagement, he began rehearsals for Don Giovanni at Covent Garden. He noticed immediately that his voice was lower, and it was more difficult to gain access to his mezza voce. The hallmark of Polenzani's singing is his soft voice, which can be heard everywhere because of a sovereign technique. "What I realized is that my voice has deepened and grown in size, and I couldn't sing mezza voce the same way I used to." He pauses to reconsider. "Actually, I could sing it exactly the way I did, but the quality of the mezza voce sound didn't match as well with the full sound." Over several months, Polenzani seamlessly reintegrated the mezza voce into his ripening sound. "I've resolved the issue, I think. Singing doesn't just — you're not born with the ability to just do it. It requires work. I can't tell you the number of times people have asked me, 'What do you do for your day job?' Uh, this is what I do for my day job — this is all I do for my day job!" spacer 

JAMES C. WHITSON is an achitect and writer based in Seattle. 

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Current Issue: October 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 4