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Bat Man

Tony-winner Paulo Szot is back at the Met this month as Dr. Falke, the eponymous "Bat" in the madcap world of Die Fledermaus. WILLIAM R. BRAUN talks to the Brazilian-born baritone, who has one of the music world's most varied careers.

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Photographed by James Salzano at Maison Gerard, NYC
Grooming by Affan Malik
© James Salzano 2014
FROM THE ARCHIVES
Double Bar Red Spacer 1213 "The Two Worlds of Paulo Szot"
A visit with the baritone shortly before his Metropolitan Opera debut. (Jennifer Melick, March 2010)
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Szot in his cabaret act at 54 Below in Manhattan
© Noam Galai/FilmMagic 2014
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Escamillo in San Francisco Opera's Carmen, 2011
© Cory Weaver 2014

Aspiring singers who wonder what it takes to sustain a career might consider the engagements Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot has fulfilled in the past nine months. March and April brought Szot to Milan's Teatro alla Scala for Alexander Raskatov's A Dog's Heart, one of the crankiest opera scores of recent years. In June, Szot sang a gala fundraiser with the New York Philharmonic, mixing classical music (Jacques Ibert's Don Quixote songs) with Broadway duets in the company of Marin Mazzie and Megan Hilty. July brought Mahler's Rückert-Lieder in Brazil, but Szot was soon back in New York for a cabaret run at the swank club 54 Below, where he sang "Summertime," "Fly Me to the Moon" and "What Kind of Fool Am I?" He then went into rehearsals for the Met's revival of Shostakovich's Nose, the opera in which he made his Met debut in 2010, and he finishes 2013 on New Year's Eve with the opening of the new Met production of Strauss's Fledermaus, in which he plays Dr. Falke, the "bat" of the opera's title. 

This last engagement, in ways that are not always obvious, may be the most difficult of all. It's possible to go to performances of Die Fledermaus for thirty years and never come across one in the proper style — light, funny but elegant — and the difficulty is compounded in a large opera house. Asked how to make a success of operetta, Szot's answer is immediate. "You have to trust your director. We never know in opera, because we don't have previews like on Broadway, what the reaction of the public is going to be. Comedy is the most difficult thing. It's about sensibility and about exchange with the audience. Of course it's very hard to establish the connection when the stage is so big. That's a task where we have to work harder. But sometimes, even if one day people loved what you do, people are laughing like they couldn't even laugh any more, the next day it's quiet. You say something that's funny, and" — here Szot makes the sound of a single, lonely cricket — "it's silence. And inside your head you're like, 'Oh God, this is horrible,' and you have the whole show ahead of you, and what can you do? It's live theater."

The Met, no doubt, is banking on Szot to carry it off on the basis of his two-and-a-half-year run in the 2008 Broadway revival of South Pacific. Szot's performance as Emile de Becque won him a Tony, but first he had to find an opera singer's approach to the extensive dialogue scenes. The original de Becque, opera basso Ezio Pinza, placed severe strictures on the amount of singing he would do when a show played eight times a week, but in the end Pinza had vocal difficulties because of the dialogue rather than the singing. "I was really scared," says Szot, "because as an opera singer you never really get lessons in speaking into a theater. It can be very dangerous vocally for a singer. In a Broadway schedule, when you have eight shows a week, it really makes a difference, because if you technically don't resolve all these problems in the speaking moments, once you start doing something wrong over and over, it can affect your singing voice too." 

His solution, it turned out, was the opposite of that espoused by several singers who have spoken to OPERA NEWS on the topic. "I think our job is to create a music in the dialogue, to create notes in the dialogue and phrasing, as a Shakespearean actor would do. You should create a melody when you speak." (He repeats this last sentence with a slight waltzing lilt.) "You create nuances that your brain and your body understand as music."

Szot gives unending credit to Bartlett Sher, the director of South Pacificfor supporting him until he found his way. "He understood that I was going through something new in my life, that I had to understand how speaking was just another channel of communication. Because at the beginning, of course, there is resistance — 'I am an opera singer, and I do things as I always did' — and he helped me break the idea." After the experience, Szot's relationship with directors was forever changed. Of Sher, who in addition to his Broadway work has directed Il Barbiere di SivigliaLes Contes d'Hoffmann and Two Boys, among others, at the Met, Szot says, "Patience is one of his main qualities. He led me, very carefully, through all these sinuous curves, and in the end he got the result he wanted for the show. He was very wise doing that with me, because I think you can lose confidence in your director. Because he is really the person that you are doing everything for — you want to do this for him, because you believe in what he is doing." 

When Szot moved on to his Met debut in William Kentridge's insanely complicated, eccentric new production of The Nose, he was ready to commit to it fully. "It was the first time that I as an actor was treated as a live sculpture. And that was fantastic. The final result, I've never seen anything like this before at the Met. It was really something important, unforgettable." Indeed, the very complexity of the production, combined with the singleminded but humorous industriousness with which Szot navigated the scenery and Shostakovich's idiosyncratic, nose-thumbing score, made for one of the most successfully integrated Met productions of the past thirty years.

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In The Nose, with Andrey Popov (The Police Inspector)
© Beatriz Schiller 2014

Szot was born in São Paulo. Bantering with the audience between some of the romantic Broadway numbers at the Philharmonic concert, he said, "For Brazilians, love is not possible without the drama." Asked later whether this is just something he says onstage or if it's really true, he laughs. (Szot has a wonderful, disarming laugh, sly and liquid.) "Oh, it is true, and it's something I always repeat, because it is part of the identity of Brazilians in relation to love. I think it is part of the telenovelas tradition." 

His parents, who keenly follow his career, were Polish émigrés. "They were taken during the war to Germany, to a labor camp, and after the war, with their parents, they chose to go to South America, where they had job propositions." They were not musicians, but, says Szot, "They were great lovers of the arts. Music school was more important than regular school. In my home my parents had all kinds of records and music, and when I was growing up I didn't really want to play soccer, though of course I did play soccer, but my main play was to stay inside with the records and listen over and over again. Of course I would break many record players, and my mother would replace them. When I was four or five, I would stay there forever."

A few years later, Szot decided that he wanted to be a dancer. "The Polish consulate in Brazil was offering a test for Polish families to send their children for arts study in Poland, so I took the test, and I got the scholarship to get there. I didn't have any money at the time, so my parents bought me a ticket on a cargo ship. It took me twenty-three days to get there across the Atlantic, but it was beautiful, because I was eighteen, and it was my first time out of Brazil, and I got the whole ocean just for me." But the dancing was his downfall. "I really wanted to work hard, so hard that it was too much, and I had this injury. The doctor said, 'If you want to keep walking, stop dancing.' At that moment I was desperate, because I crossed the Atlantic to be a dancer, and all of a sudden my dreams were crushed."

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As Lescaut in Manon at the Met, 2012, with Anne-Carolyn Bird (Poussette), Ginger Costa-Jackson (Rosette) and Jennifer Black (Javotte)
© Beth Bergman 2014

At this point, two of the threads in Szot's life story intertwined. Just after his injury, he became aware of José van Dam. When Szot sings the Don Quixote songs of Ibert or Ravel, or "I am I, Don Quixote," from Man of La Mancha — particularly in the burnished but rounded, full upper-middle of his voice — Szot brings to mind the great Belgian bass-baritone, who sang all of this repertoire, even performing in a Brussels run of L'Homme de la Mancha, Jacques Brel's French translation of the musical.

"When I was beginning to sing, I went to see the movie La Maître de Musique, [van Dam] was acting, and I didn't know him at all. And then he was singing, and I thought, 'Oh my God, this is so beautiful,' but then I thought, sometimes the actors are not the same voices as the singers. But then I bought the album, and it was this man singing, and I was totally in love with his voice. I had no idea if I wanted to pursue a singing career, and then this movie was about that — it was about young singers having a great teacher. And that motivated me a lot."

Soon enough Szot was, like van Dam, an opera singer, with a steady diet of Escamillo in Carmen, the Count in Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni. As it turns out, South Pacific was something of an anomaly. Toward the end of the run, he was offered a Broadway revival of La Cage aux Folles. "And I thought at that point, this is totally not for me, because it requires a very great actor with lots of experience to lead this cabaret show within the show. But they insisted very much, and I was willing to do it, and I took some coaching, but it didn't work out with South Pacific getting extended for another year." He is more energized by the idea of singing new operas, particularly after the experience of learning A Dog's Heart. "I was fascinated by how you can become more and more concerned about the theater of new opera, how to tell a story that is going to shock in a good way. And the challenge of music that is so difficult. I always loved working. I love this job when it is complicated. When you have to count, I love it. When you have to look at the score again just before going onstage, I love it." He is already adding the role of the Captain in John Adams's Death of Klinghoffer to his repertoire.

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As Don Giovanni at Dallas Opera, 2010, with Morris
Robinson (Commendatore)

© Karen Almond, Dallas Opera 2014

Occasionally, opera gets in the front pages for non-musical reasons — Klinghoffer was a notorious example of that — and last fall Szot, arriving at the Met for rehearsals of The Nose with Valery Gergiev, found himself part of another political story. When Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a law banning "propaganda" about "nontraditional sexual relationships," an online petition called on the Met to dedicate its opening night of the 2013–14 season — a Russian opera (Eugene Onegin) with a Russian prima donna (Anna Netrebko, who sang Manon to Szot's Lescaut at the Met) and a Russian conductor (Gergiev, who conducted Szot's debut in The Noseas well as this season's performances) — to the cause of gay rights. Asked how he as an artist decides whether or not to take a position on such a matter, Szot says, "I think it's hard, once you become a public person, to not have a position. In this particular case, it's not a question of political things, it's a question of human rights. And this is a horrible thing that's happening in Russia. In my life I have never seen anything like this before. It's a regression. And at the same time we get so many good things about human rights all over, even the Pope saying, 'Who am I to judge what others do?' It's terrifying, the idea of in another part of the world someone is denying the freedom of speech, the freedom of people being who they are. That's horrible."

In all other ways, Szot gives every indication of being a happy man. He is the rare singer who doesn't get tired of traveling. "It isn't suffering for me. But I miss my dogs." He has four Weimaraners, the breed famous for the posed photographs of William Wegman. Asked if he poses his dogs, Szot beams. "They love it. That's a very special thing. Now, whenever I have a cell phone and I want to take a picture of something, they want to be in front of it. They love cameras. But they are huge dogs, and they can't travel. It's not this kind of dog that you put in your purse and you can travel. But I don't mind travel. Once you've survived a cargo ship, you survive everything." spacer 

WILLIAM R. BRAUN is a pianist and writer based in Connecticut. 

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