The Mozart Effect
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The Mozart Effect

Bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, the scene-stealing Leporello in Don Giovanni at the Met, has a passion for Mozart. FRED COHN reports.

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Photographed by Dario Acosta in New York
Suit by J. Crew / Grooming by Affan Malik
© Dario Acosta 2015
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Blue Spacer 814 “Sound Bites” A brief profile of Pisaroni, a young artist to watch (Silvia Luraghi, November 2005)
Blue Spacer 814 “Road Show” What makes Santa Fe one of Pisaroni’s favorite places (Eric Myers, March 2013)
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As Mozart’s Figaro, at Covent Garden, 2013
© Nigel Norrington/ArenaPAL 2015
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As Argante in Rinaldo at Glyndebourne, 2011
© Nigel Norrington/ArenaPAL 2015

“This art form is in my DNA,” says Luca Pisaroni. If there were a biological basis for his claim, it would explain a lot: the forty-year-old Italian bass-baritone seems to have been born to perform opera. Consider his Leporello in the DVD of Jonathan Kent’s 2010 Glyndebourne production of Don Giovanni.  Pisaroni sings beautifully, with a burnished-teak sound, and articulates the text in such a liquid fashion that the words themselves have texture and dimension. But the performance demands that you focus on the character, not the voice. This Leporello is both thoroughly likable — sometimes goofily funny — and morally ambiguous, a willing conspirator in his master’s cruel schemes. He is bound to Gerald Finley’s Don in a relationship that’s almost startlingly intimate but still immutably governed by the power inequity between master and servant. Pisaroni achieves this characterization with an integration of music and movement so complete that you’re hardly aware that he is singing — or acting, for that matter. You’re aware only of the dramatic moment. (Met audiences first saw Pisaroni’s Leporello in 2011, in Michael Grandage’s new production; he reprises the role in this month’s revival, with Peter Mattei as the Don.) 

“If I want to choose the way I’ll be remembered,” Pisaroni says, “I want people to say, ‘He was a great singing actor’ more than ‘Oh my God, he was a such a great voice.’ The voice is the voice. The other requires my work. I want people to see that I’m a human being, with my fears and weaknesses and difficult moments, and I’m able to laugh and cry like everyone else.

“It’s what my father-in-law says,” says Pisaroni, who is married to Thomas Hampson’s stepdaughter Catherine. “‘Nobody wants a voice lesson — they want a dramatic experience.’”

In person, having lunch at a Lincoln Center-area bistro, Pisaroni projects the energy and engagement that characterize his performance style. He is dressed casually (jeans and a checked button-down shirt) but nattily, with true Italian attention to making la bella figura. The nerd chic of his black-framed glasses accentuates his lanky good looks. If there’s a professorial tinge to his self-presentation, that’s entirely appropriate: Pisaroni brings a scholar’s passion to his work. 

He has been obsessed with opera ever since he was a boy, growing up in Verdi’s hometown of Busseto. (He was born to Italian parents in Venezuela, but the family moved back to Italy when he was four.) When I ask him how he caught the opera bug, he says, “I don’t know — I don’t think I’m very sane! But something about the human body producing that sound always fascinated me. I was very unpopular as a kid, because nobody liked opera — and I loved opera.” He got hooked on the Met’s Saturday radio broadcasts. “Every Saturday at 7:30, all my friends would go out to drink or to the disco, and I would stay home listening to Pavarotti singing L’Elisir d’Amore.

After he got his driver’s license, Pisaroni would regularly make the trip to La Scala and La Fenice to feed his opera mania. “I would take the car, see a Muti performance, come back at 1:00 and get up at 5:30,” he says. “I’d go to school and be fresh as a rose, because I was energized by this.” As a seventeen-year-old, he went backstage after a Muti-led La Scala Don Carlo to meet Samuel Ramey, one of his idols; years later, he asked Ramey for advice when he took on the title role of Maometto II for Santa Fe Opera. 

Another early influence was Carlo Bergonzi, who ran his Accademia Verdiana in Busseto. The young Pisaroni would audit his classes, soaking up the great tenor’s wisdom. “I never had to work on language, and I owe it to Bergonzi,” he says. “He was obsessed with the diction being clear and using the words as a means to express something.” 

Pisaroni began his formal musical training at the Milan Conservatory, where he soon found himself in vocal trouble. “I had no top, no high notes whatsoever,” he says. “I was struggling with the two pages of recitative before ‘Madamina,’ and I thought, ‘If this is a struggle, how am I going to sing the aria?’” Help came in the form of a year of study in Buenos Aires with tenor Renato Sassola, who helped him build his top “half a tone by half a tone.”

Pisaroni launched his career in 2001, and only a year later, at the age of twenty-seven, he made his Salzburg Festival opera debut, as Masetto in a new production of Don Giovanni, directed by Martin Kušej and conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, with an all-star cast led by Hampson. “I thought, ‘Ach, it is not such a difficult role,’” he says. “Then I got there and saw Hampson, Netrebko, Schade, D’Arcangelo — and you realize that the level of performing is so high that even as Masetto you have to step up your game and be as good as you can. That’s why I went to every rehearsal. That’s why I was listening to everything everybody had to say. It really changed the way I looked at music and performing onstage.”

He sought Hampson’s guidance as soon as they began working together. “If I’m the singer I am today,” Pisaroni says, “it’s because I met him when I was twenty-six. He opened up this universe for me, saying, ‘The voice is an instrument for your thoughts — it allows your thoughts to be visible.’ And this, for me, was new.” The relationship suffered a temporary strain when Hampson found out that Pisaroni was dating his daughter. (“I said, ‘If you break her heart, I’ll kill you!’” Hampson remembers.) But the two singers have long been cozily familial and collaborate together as often as possible. “I could not be happier that he is in my family,” Hampson says. “We share everything in our lives.”

Mozart has been central to Pisaroni’s career ever since that Salzburg Don Giovanni: he has sung Guglielmo in Così and both the leading male roles in LeNozze di Figaro, along with Publio in La Clemenza di Tito, which served as his 2005 Met debut. “I always loved Mozart, because I could grow in it, and I could learn as much as I could without damaging my instrument,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about projection, because the orchestra doesn’t produce the sound that, for example, you get in Verdi. Also, it fits my kind of voice. 

“There’s a tradition in Italy that if you sing Mozart, it’s not really singing — it’s not the real deal if you don’t sing bel canto and Verdi and Puccini,” Pisaroni says. “But to sing Mozart well — it’s not easy. I hope to keep it at the core of my repertoire for a very long time. It keeps you disciplined. It keeps your voice in check.” 

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As Leporello in Don Giovanni at the Met, 2011
© Beatriz Schiller 2015

In three years, Pisaroni will take on his first Don Giovanni. (He declines to specify the circumstances.) It’s an assignment he has been reluctant to assume, partly because of his affection for the role of Leporello. “I really wanted to sing Leporello as often as I could,” he says. “And I know, because of my kind of voice and my physicality, that the moment I start singing Don Giovanni nobody will ever offer me Leporello again. Leporello is such a funny, complex character, and it’s such a blast to be onstage and be Leporello. 

“When you’re Don Giovanni, everybody in the opera has better music than you — everybody!” he says. “Leporello has better music, Anna has better music, Elvira has better music. But Don Giovanni is dramatically so profound and difficult that I have to sing it. The role doesn’t really have arias, so you need to live in the recitativi, and in your relationship with every character. This guy has a different way of relating to every woman in the piece — at every turn he’s adjusting to the situation. He’s a chameleon — and that’s what makes him so fascinating.” Only in his scenes with Leporello, Pisaroni notes, can the Don present his true nature. “The relationship between them is the core of the piece,” he says. “If it’s not well-articulated dramatically, the piece doesn’t make any sense.” 

In recent years, Pisaroni has embarked on a series of recital tours, concentrating on German lieder — a rare choice for an Italian singer. “We don’t have a song culture, and the few that we have, the song helps showcase the voice,” he says. “The thing that fascinates me about the lieder repertoire is the dialogue between the voice and the piano. That’s the thing I love about the collaboration [with his pianist, Wolfram Rieger]. I have a phrase and give it to him, then he completes it and hands it back. To learn a recital program is the most difficult task ever, but it’s the most rewarding thing I do. There is nothing that gives you pleasure more than ending a song and feeling the audience has not taken a breath. It feels like time is standing still. There is no opera in the world that gives you that feeling.”

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Caliban in The Enchanted Island at the Met
© Johan Elbers 2015

Pisaroni is also a notable Rossinian, and he has made the Baroque repertory a sub-specialty. His Caliban was one of the highlights of the Met’s pastiche The Enchanted Island; in 2013, at Carnegie Hall, he was a smashing Tiridate in an English Concert performance of Handel’s Radimisto;and a 2009 DVD of Cavalli’s Ercole Amante from Amsterdam captures his performance in the title role, wearing a wacky action-figure-like body suit in David Alden’s production. But he is insistent on performing Baroque repertoire with the same technique he brings to Mozart. “I never sing a straight note,” he says. “If they say, ‘Can you do without vibrato?’ I say, ‘No, I’m sorry, I really need it.’” 

He is gradually moving into heavier territory. “As you change as a person, your body changes, and your voice changes,” Pisaroni says. “Guglielmo, for instance, is a role that fits a young singer — it’s not very interesting to sing when you’re forty-five.” This spring, he will play Henry VIII to Netrebko’s Anna Bolena in Zurich and Vienna. In 2016, he will take on Gounod’s Méphistophélès for Houston Grand Opera, and he is studying the role with José van Dam — another bass-baritone Méphistophélès of a lyrical cast. In their first coaching session, Pisaroni recalls, he started darkening and puffing out his voice, and van Dam stopped him immediately. “He said to me, ‘Sing every role with your own voice.’” 

In 2013, Pisaroni made his initial foray into Verdi, singing Paolo in Simon Boccanegra to Hampson’s Doge. “Paolo is a wonderful role for him,” Hampson says. “He’s got the wonderful length to his voice — the whole lower empire.” Decca recorded concert performances with the Vienna Symphony; the discs reveal a Paolo whose villainy is made all the more vivid by the courtier-like suavity of the singing. Pisaroni has no definite plans yet to sing Filippo in Don Carlo, but the role lurks on the horizon. “There’s still time,” he says. “When you do Filippo Secondo, where do you go after that? That for me is the summit. I can sing it when I’m fifty and still sing it for another fifteen years. There’s an Italian saying, ‘Ogni frutto ha la sua stagione.’ It means there is a right season for every kind of fruit.”

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Portrait by Dario Acosta
Jacket: Lanvin / Shirt and tie: Gino Venturini, Vienna
© Dario Acosta 2015

Pisaroni’s career has played out almost entirely on the top stages of Europe and the U.S. Oddly enough, one place he hardly ever appears is Italy; in fact, he hasn’t sung there in more than ten years. “I didn’t grow up musically in Italy,” he says. “I’m more used to a Mittel-European approach than to an Italian approach, and I always want to go where I work well. Also, in Italy, for political reasons and economic reasons, they book much later. Obviously, if the Met asks me to do something four years from now, I don’t say, ‘No, because I may get a gig in Italy.’

“I am angry at the fact of how Italy is treating opera,” he adds, citing the recent defection of Riccardo Muti from Rome Opera and Gianandrea Noseda’s uphill struggle in Turin. “Noseda is a phenomenal conductor who has international prestige and brings stars to the place. Muti decides to go to Rome — and they force him to resign. It’s offensive. If you look around the world, everybody is miles ahead of Italy. We are not doing enough to protect and promote the art form.” 

That lacuna in his territory is of small concern for a singer who counts the Met, San Francisco Opera, Vienna State Opera, Bavarian State Opera, Paris Opera and Covent Garden among his steady employers. Home base for Pisaroni is Vienna, where his wife grew up, but in fact he seldom finds himself in one place for long. He and his wife have structured their lives around his peripatetic schedule. As a web designer, Catherine can perform her job remotely — a circumstance that allows her to accompany her husband on his travels. Their constant companions are their two dogs — Lenny, a golden retriever (named after Leonard Bernstein), and a dachshund named Tristan. (“He started barking so much that we said he was like a tenor — a Wagnerian tenor!”) 

“I do a job where it helps to keep things in perspective,” Pisaroni says. “Sometimes I get negative. Then the dogs look at you with that happy face, and you think, ‘Okay, could be much worse.’ I’m very much like a golden retriever — I hate being alone. It can be a very lonely profession. There is nothing more depressing than performing and going back home by yourself. [My wife and I] decided that we are doing this together. Otherwise, for me, it made no sense.”

If there’s one element clouding the sunny realm of Pisaroni’s life and career, it’s a slight disappointment over the fach that nature has chosen for him. As a boy, he wanted to be a tenor, but (as he puts it), “Unfortunately, my voice changed.” Until recently, he admits, he’d look at singers both higher and lower along the vocal spectrum with a tinge of jealousy. “I’ve always thought, ‘Damn, I’m not a baritone!’ or ‘Damn, I’m not a bass!’” he says. “I made peace with it several years ago when my wife said, ‘Look at it another way — you can sing the whole spectrum.’ I never really thought about it, but it’s true. And that’s what’s exciting.” spacer 

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