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Rolando's Return

Just when he was emerging as one of the star tenors of his generation, Rolando Villazón's career crashed in a very public way. Now, following delicate throat surgery, he is learning how to do everything all over again. JESSICA DUCHEN talks to the tenor about his recovery from a vocal crisis.

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Rolando Villazón as Nemorino in Vienna
© Michael Poehn/Wiener Staatsoper 2013
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Werther at Covent Garden, 2011
© Clive Barda/ArenaPAL 2013
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Alessandro in ll Re Pastore in Zurich, 2011
© Suzanne Schwiertz/Zurich Opera 2013

On a side street of the genteel Paris suburb Neuilly-sur-Seine, the air is alight with sound. Passers-by stare about, looking for the source. Any doubts that I've found the right building quickly dispel: opera fans would know that voice anywhere.

Upstairs, Rolando Villazón is in relaxed mode in jeans and a hoodie; although he is just back from a trip to his native Mexico with his wife and their two young sons, his energy seems scarcely sapped by jetlag. His is a mind, and a level of vitality, that apparently can't be contained in just one discipline: it's clear that singing is no longer enough in itself for him. This year, his first novel, Malabares, is being published (in Spanish), and he is writing a second. He is in demand as a broadcaster, presenting a program on Arte, the German–French arts TV station, that showcases rising young musicians, and appearing in various musical series on U.K. television channels. He has directed productions of Werther at Opéra de Lyon and L'Elisir d'Amore in Baden-Baden, and he is planning more. He draws lively cartoons. He performs as a clown — "Dr. Rollo" — with the Red Noses Clowndoctors in children's hospices in Germany and Austria. And since an operation in 2009 that removed a tripartite, peanut-shaped cyst from inside one of his vocal cords, he has totally reinvented the way he sings. 

Onstage, too, Villazón burns hot and fast, like a candle with multiple flames. "It's true," he acknowledges. "I cannot conceive performing in another way." Yet his turbulent vocal history, combined with the fact that he's now forty-one, and any voice must change over time, makes him constantly adjust his approach. "The real artist needs to be in total control of what he or she is doing," he says. "I think that's what maturity is.

"There are 'burning' performers, there are 'cerebral' performers, and the performers in between," he suggests. "The burning performers have short careers. Cerebral performers have very long careers. I think I can be both! I have been mostly a burning performer, but it's time for the cerebral performer to take over."

Whether Villazón can really turn himself into a "cerebral" performer is a debatable point: the temperature of the emotional engagement that bowls out through his singing remains uncooled, and in his recent album of Verdi arias there is no mistaking the all-out passion in the voice. He is a true romantic tenor: his sound is not vast, but its timbre seems to nail the classic tenor register right on target, and his warmth of expression often makes his performances irresistible. His almost excessive Latin intensity mingles to powerful effect with that darting, questing mind. 

After a swift rise to fame following his debut at London's Royal Opera House in 2004 in Les Contes d'Hoffmann, he was in constant demand, especially when a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon led to a much-hyped pairing with the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko. But in 2007, something began to go horribly wrong. 

Villazón faced a gathering storm of vocal problems: a growing cyst was eventually diagnosed as the cause, and in spring 2009, he finally announced he would be undergoing surgery. By that time he had had to drop out of a range of high-profile appearances, including the HD transmission of Lucia di Lammermoor from the Met (in February that year). The cyst had to be removed in a highly delicate procedure. Had the cord not healed correctly, he could have been left not only unable to sing but unable to speak. 

He was back onstage a year later, and he now seems, if not surprised that we ask about these events more than three years after the operation, then certainly a tad weary of the question. "You'd think that, in a globalized world, people would be aware that you've been singing — but usually it's only the bad things that get through," he shrugs. 

Vocal-cord operations, he adds, are more common than most of us realize. Surgery for nodules on the surface of the cords is not at all unusual (though cysts inside them, like his, are much rarer). "I know many colleagues who have been through this," he says. "It's just that nobody talks about it. I think I've been too outspoken about what happened. But I don't regret it, because I think it has helped other people. When I speak to young singers, they have questions about health, and I tell them that around seventy to eighty percent of singers go through an operation." 

His crisis was a complex matter, in both personal and physical terms. "I'm reading a lot about game theory at the moment," he says. (It is a theme in his second novel.) "In a way, singing is a kind of playing. And what happened then was that it stopped being like playing, and it became work. When I started my career and earned money, it still felt like playing. It was when I became a name, and there were expectations, that I realized this has become a profession, and it stopped being playing. It happened at that moment." He blames himself for having overdramatized the matter: "I think I could just have said that I want to read Proust and I'm canceling six months of my life to do that, and it would have been fine. But I felt I had to explain to my audience."

At the time, his singing partnership with Netrebko was in full swing. Some felt that the hype around them must have contributed, but Villazón says that was not the major issue. "The thing is, the cyst was already there, it was starting to feel uncomfortable, and I decided to stop because I was experiencing a disturbance in my singing," he explains. But at the same time the demands of their schedule had become intolerable — "every day singing, a rehearsal, a performance, flying…. I remember when we sang for the fortieth anniversary of the Met [in April 2007]. I sang a concert in Europe, and the next day we took the plane, the next day we sang at the Met, and the next day we had to start a recording of La Bohème. It was like that — nonstop. That rhythm is not healthy. Did I get a cyst because of that? No. Did I get tired because of that? Yes. Is that no good for the voice? Yes." The duo with Netreb­ko, he adds, was fun. "It was great! But I don't think either of us wanted to be primarily a singing duo. I would love to sing with her again, and I recently sang for her Verdi CD, but our voices have gone in very different directions now."

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As "Dr. Rollo" with the Red Noses Clowndoctors in Berlin, 2011
© Eventpress Schulz/dpa/Corbis 2013

Following a necessarily protracted recovery from surgery, he made a cautious but successful return in L'Elisir d'Amore at the Vienna State Opera in March 2010; in the U.K., his comeback was in Werther at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in spring 2011. Now he has rethought everything about his singing, but he says he has not abandoned his existing repertoire; rather, the new roles he has been tackling are completely different. For instance, Mozart has become vital — he's been singing Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, Ferrando in Così Fan Tutte and, this summer, the title role in Lucio Silla at the Salzburg Festival: "It is not easier to sing Mozart [than later repertoire]," he adds. "It is much harder! With all the work I have been doing on my technique, I now feel able to sing these roles, when previously I would not have. 

"You cannot sing everything in the same way," he declares. "Each opera to me is a huge challenge, because I need to find the qualities in this music that demands to be sung completely differently from anything else. Each role is like learning a new composer." 

The Verdi bicentenary has kept him busy with an extensive recital tour of Verdi arias around Europe. While there are plenty of Verdi roles he would like to sing — notably Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera — he is against resuscitating early, below-par operas for the sake of it, suggesting that the composer himself would probably have preferred to put them aside in favor of his masterpieces. 

"We were talking about fiery and cerebral qualities, and if there is one composer that combines those two, and in which they have to be perfectly balanced, it's Verdi," he says. "He is the center of gravity for the operatic repertoire. You can understand both Britten and Handel through him. Sometimes he was accused of being too classical, too traditional, and it was true that he kept the models — but he didn't stop evolving. He brought new challenges to the human voice. Others, like Wagner, were demanding a new way of singing and of approaching music. Verdi was rooted in bel canto, but he brought into singing this dramatic extra force, this completely theatrical understanding through technical means. He knew the voice extremely well — his writing for the voice is challenging, fantastic and merciless. He made the voice tell the story. Whenever there's coloratura, he transforms every line, every legato, every high note — everything has a dramatic purpose."

If Villazón is a new singer after his traumas, the opera world, too, is changing at a rapid pace. The development of worldwide live-cinema relays provokes a polarized response: "I think it is doing great things in terms of opening opera up for new audiences," he says. "It is a different way of experiencing opera. But for me as a performer it brings way too much pressure." Audiences have little sense of the technical demands of the broadcasts: "When you are wired up to the equipment, you're singing, you move your head, and you think, 'Oh no, did I move the microphone?' It's a constant distraction. And when it's over, it's a relief. I prefer the sense of joy you get from a normal performance."

Yet ultimately, this artist of complex identities refuses to play it safe. "Where am I going to land? I don't know — because the word 'landing' sounds too much like establishing something. Perhaps that is one of the things that have made me who I am and brought me the problems I have dealt with," he adds, "but I take both." He says he would never have been content to stick constantly to the same repertoire and do nothing else. "I needed to expand. I see myself as more than a singer. And that's why I do my writing and my clowning and my directing, and why I'm happy to be in new productions that are challenging. It's as if I have a little clown with me, the one that always puts things in perspective and helps me to laugh whether things go well or not, to expand fields, to see the world upside-down and to enjoy the uncertainty. And I'm happy." spacer 

JESSICA DUCHEN is a music journalist and novelist based in London. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine.

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Current Issue: September 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 3