On the Beat: Breakthroughs.
Angelo Villari scores big in Wexford’s Guglielmo Ratcliff; Justin Sayre’s novel about an opera-loving kid hits bookstores.
by Brian Kellow.
TWO THINGS BECAME CLEAR immediately when I arrived in southeastern Ireland last October for the sixty-fourth annual Wexford Festival Opera. One is that the fortunes of this town of 19,000 are again on the rise; Main Street boasts a number of new businesses, and building is picking up once more. But the most exciting word-of-mouth on the street concerned the festival’s staging of Mascagni’s long-neglected Guglielmo Ratcliff. Of this season’s three operas, Ratcliff was the hands-down audience favorite. The title role is a high-lying killer; to sing it, Wexford engaged Sicilian tenor ANGELO VILLARI. He’s little-known now, but that will probably change before long.
I spoke with Villari at the café of the Irish National Opera House one day before his final performance of Ratcliff. Operatic arcana are nothing new to Villari; his C.V. is dotted with works such as Casella’s Donna Serpente. “It is difficult to accept these roles,” he says, “knowing you probably won’t be singing them again. With La Donna Serpente, I knew that at least there would be one revival of it—only they pick up another tenor! With Ratcliff, it’s doubly hard. You have to learn a role you won’t repeat, and it’s so technically difficult. It’s medium-high, medium-high all the time. Your only consolation is that maybe someone will hear you and think, ‘Well—maybe if he can do Ratcliff, he can sing this and this and this.”
Fortunately, Villari’s voice is naturally high-placed. He had an unusual and belated start as a singer: he failed conservatory exams at eighteen, went to work in a fabric shop and put his dreams on hold for several years—then resumed his studies at twenty-six. “Naturally, my voice is in the direction of verismo,” he says. “But it doesn’t want to push that far all the time. I want to pursue more Verdi—Trovatore, Luisa Miller, the ones with more cantabile singing.”
He loves the Wexford audiences. “It’s a very warm public here,” he says. “They don’t give me a big response after my big arias, and initially I thought, ‘Why?’ But they save it for the end, at the curtain call. I’m hoping the reaction here in Wexford will help put a light on my name.’”
I DON'T THINK I'VE READ a young-adult novel since the sixth grade, when I picked up Phyllis A. Whitney’s Secret of the Samurai Sword, but recently I had a wonderful time with JUSTIN SAYRE’s new book, Husky (Grosset & Dunlap), about Davis, an overweight, misfit kid who discovers opera as a kind of passionate refuge that he feels is his alone. It might sound maudlin, but it isn’t: it’s a charming and impressively wise look at adolescence.
“The opera angle was something that excited my publisher early on,” says Sayre in a recent phone interview. “The wonderful thing about kids today is that with the Internet, once they have a kernel of interest, they can see just about anything. And I am always thrilled to see kids at the opera. It’s such an important piece of theater.”
At one point in the novel, Davis’s nemesis, Allegra, asks if opera isn’t just for fat people. “In the book, Davis’s weight is always his crutch,” says Sayre. “It’s the thing he thinks he has to hide from. It’s what people have to deal with when they have weight problems—their own sense of displacement and discomfort. And ‘husky,’ as he’s called in the book—it’s such a lie of a word, you know? It’s a softening of a word, but it’s not a good thing. No one ever says it like it’s a nice thing.”
Sayre is also a television writer (2 Broke Girls), anactor (The Comeback, with LISA KUDROW) and a brilliant, inventive stand-up comic. (His monthly show, “The Meeting*,” regularly sells out at Joe’s Pub in downtown Manhattan.) His own opera favorites include Norma and Susannah. “I love Susannah’s open, American fifths,” he says. “It’s a gorgeous, expansive opera. It was the first time I heard an American story that could have the kind of grandeur and enormity of a Greek tragedy.”
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