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Basic Instinct

Tenor Roberto Alagna, who sings in the Met's new production of Samson et Dalila, knows what is best for his career and for his voice.
By Jennifer Melick
Photographed by Ball & Albanese 

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Photographed in Greenwich Village at Haar & Co.
Grooming by Affan Graber Malik
Photographed by Ball & Albanese
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With barber Michael Haar at Haar & Co.
Grooming by Affan Graber Malik
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As Canio in Pagliacci at the Met, 2018
© Beatriz Schiller

HOW ON EARTH DOES ROBERTO ALAGNA DO IT? He has been singing professionally since he was fifteen, his schedule is jam-packed, and wherever he goes he is still the center of a crazy whirlwind. Last season at the Metropolitan Opera, he sang both tenor parts in the double bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. After one of the performances, a security guard moderated the long stream of visitors headed backstage—friends, fellow singers, family members, a Sony Classical rep wanting five minutes to chat about a new recording. Down the corridor, an agitated woman pleaded with stage-door staff to persuade Alagna to come out to the street—where French fans reportedly were on the sidewalk in the cold, waiting for autographs—and was nearly ejected from the premises. Alagna’s wife, soprano Aleksandra Kurzak, who sang Nedda to his Canio in Pagliacci that day, joined him for numerous selfies and photo requests from visitors, then collected flowers and chatted on the phone with friends in Brooklyn, where the couple’s four-year-old daughter, Malèna, was staying. Conductor, composer and onetime Met children’s chorister Anton Coppola, then one hundred years old, popped by and was patiently waiting his turn to see Alagna; Coppola was with his wife, Almerinda, there to hand-deliver the music to a serenade he had written to Almerinda. Alagna hummed through a few bars of the piece and spent several minutes catching up on old times with the Coppolas. Alagna’s dressing room could not hold all the guests; when one person left, another would squeeze in. Alagna looked genuinely happy to see each visitor, speaking with each for at least a few minutes. It took a long time. There was a slight air of unreality about it all, like landing in the middle of a taping of the Roberto Alagna Show. 

That day, Alagna was beaming, after a performance he called “fantastic. Very, very, very good—a miracle when you have all the ingredients in the same night.” Alagna says he’s “very surprised” that people still frequently approach him on the street in New York. “In France, sure, everybody knows me,” he says. “I made a lot of television there. But Aleksandra, she is all the time surprised when people recognize me in New York. But I sang a lot here.” He has sung a lot here. And after being so over-hyped during the early years of his career, it would be easy to imagine his having burned out completely by now.

The amazing thing about Alagna’s career is not just its longevity but how healthy his voice sounds, at fifty-five. Several times recently at the Met, he has substituted at the last minute for younger tenors who arrived on the scene well after he did. He is, as Zachary Woolfe wrote in The New York Times in January, “that paradox, an underrated star.” He’s still got the meaty, powerful middle voice, the metallic, ringing high notes and a tendency to push hard in moments of intensity. Critics have found fault with that last quality, and it can sometimes yank the pitch up too high, but audiences latch onto it, forgiving a mishap here or there for a certain authenticity that he offers. His Italian vowels are beautiful. Likewise, in operas such as Werther and Pêcheurs de Perles, in his native French, his diction is superb. As for that authenticity: it may come from his Sicilian heritage—uncles, cousins and other relatives who were singers and performers, a direct lineage to some of the operas and songs he performs. An Alagna performance often feels like conversation. That famous sobbing effect in “Vesti la giubba” is raw and real. His performances almost always have rough edges, but their lack of a studied quality gives them urgency. And you can’t take your eyes off him. “Every time I am onstage, I am very sincere, very honest,” he says. “I give all the time everything I have in my soul, without calculation. I don’t like [calculation].”

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As Cyrano de Bergerac at the Met, 2017, with Atalla Ayan as Christian
© Johan Elbers

ALAGNA DOESN'T JUST stick to roles in which he is already well known—Rodolfo, Canio, Turiddu, Don José, Nemorino, Cavaradossi. He’s adding new ones. In 2016, the Met hired him as a last-minute replacement for des Grieux in Manon Lescaut, a role he had to learn specially for the engagement. “I remember I was studying for maybe twelve hours a day,” he says. “It was crazy!” In 2017 at the Met, he got some of the best reviews of his career in the title role in Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac, in which his athletic, confident, often brash interpretation was perfect. He’s been taking on more Verdi parts, most recently Otello at the Vienna Staatsoper, where this past spring he also sang his first staged Samson et Dalila. In June and July, he was in Paris for Manrico 

in Il Trovatore. This month it’s back to the Met to open the 2018–19 season as Samson, opposite the Dalila of Elīna Garanča. He returns to the Met in January as Don José in Carmen, with Clémentine Margaine in the title role. Alagna didn’t schedule any vacation for 2018—par for the course. “For twenty years, I have no holidays,” he says with a shrug. But even his high energy level and love of performing have their limits, it seems. He canceled his first Lohengrins, planned for Bayreuth in July, at the last minute, due to work overload and not enough time to learn the role. Eventually, he hopes to take a bit more time off, “because of my new daughter and my new family.” That may happen in a year or two, when Malèna starts school, at home in Poland.

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As Samson in Alexandra Liedtke’s staging of Samson et Dalila in Vienna, 2018
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH/Michael Pöhn

THE TENOR SAYS he is critical of his own performances. Alagna is largely self-taught, and for him there’s only one way to know if he is happy with his voice: record everything and listen to it later. “You have to be a self-critic, because otherwise it’s impossible to make yourself better,” he says. He notes that he always covers the passaggio—E, F, G—though he can “open a little bit more” if he sings lightly. “But I cover even down, I cover everything. Not only those three notes. Every sound. You don’t hear your voice like the audience does,” he says, adding that, when he was younger, “I always had a sound in my mind, a beautiful sound. Maybe it’s the sound of perfection. But it’s impossible to reach that. When I heard CDs of my voice, I was very far from this sound! And it’s terrible. Five years later, I would listen again and say, ‘It was not bad!’ But my first instinct was to destroy.” This is the closest he will get to acknowledging some of the professional criticism he has received throughout his career. His outlook is determined, positive: he hears mistakes, tries to fix them and apparently doesn’t dwell on them.

Alagna also doesn’t rely on outside opinions. As for master classes, “What a cinema!” he says. “Sure, you must have a coach to push you, to give you good energy and everything. But to understand how to use your instrument, you must understand alone. Otherwise you are an imitator. To do a long career, you must understand your instrument. The great di Stefano said something fantastic—‘Don’t give me advice, because I can make mistakes myself.’ It’s very clever. It’s like a program on your computer—it can put a bug, this advice. When I was young, I remember Mirella Freni told me she had a teacher who told her, ‘Wow, what a beautiful sound—this is the correct sound.’ But she felt the pain in the throat. It’s very dangerous. You can kill somebody with just one advice.”

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Photograph by Ball & Albanese

IN 2014, Alagna made a solo recording called My Life Is an Opera. And his life so far really does read like one. This is the guy whose career took off like wildfire, who was promoted by his record label in the 1990s as “the fourth tenor.” His first wife died young, leaving him and his parents to take care of his young daughter, Ornella; his second marriage, to Angela Gheorghiu, was officiated by the mayor of New York and announced from the Met stage the next evening, only to fizzle out very publicly in the press seventeen years later. He famously left the La Scala stage in 2006 during an Aida performance after mad booing from the loggionisti. Without apparent irony, he has referred to his difficult personal and professional period in the mid 2000s as the “time of troubles.” Usually, he bounces back quickly, and he has had some lucky timing. He performed with Anna Netrebko in an early Met HD broadcast of Roméo et Juliette in 2007, as a last-minute substitution for Rolando Villazón. Some years ago, he had a health scare—a potentially career-threatening sinus tumor. The surgery to remove it was successful. 

“A lot of singers from my generation are not here anymore—it’s sad,” he says. He has had a long career and looks happy, younger than his years. And given his third chance at marriage and a young family, he says he wants “to share the most possible moments with them, because I sacrifice a lot of my time for my profession.” He engineers his life so that he is surrounded by his extended family, as well. His sister Marinella is his agent. He performs songs and operas by his brothers David and Frédérico, who have also served as his stage directors and set designers. Alagna and Kurzak arrange their schedules to sing together as much as possible. And then there’s little Malèna, who also travels with them. In that 2018 Met Cavalleria Rusticana, Alagna says, “She was with me when I sang the offstage Siciliana to Lola with the harp. She was looking right at me,” he adds with a glint in his eye. “It’s a serenade, but at the same time a serenade of provocation. I am saying, ‘I will come to your door, and even if it is full of blood there, I will come to you. And even if somebody will kill me, I will go to paradise, and if I don’t find you there, I will not enter.’

“My first Pagliacci, I was thirty-three years old,” Alagna says. “Today, it’s not the same Pagliacci. But it was special—it was good, too! The experience of life gives you something. My last Bohème was in Covent Garden, I think four or five years ago. It was not the same Rodolfo I sang twenty years before, you know? But it was there. All the time I try to keep something fresh. I am not the same guy like when I was twenty-five. We change. But when I listen, for example, to Caruso from the beginning of the career, it is beautiful, but I prefer the Caruso at the end. It’s another voice, but the emotions are more human.

“I started singing cabaret when I was fifteen,” he says. “And I started to sing opera when I was twenty—I sang five operas in one week. It’s quite my entire life. I can’t remember one month without singing. I never stopped. When I was young, I told my mother I want to sing just five years—five years is enough to know what it is. And I remember in the beginning, I wanted to be in the choir, that’s all! But I was very lucky, because I received more than I expected. When I first sang Elisir d’Amore,I said, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s too difficult for me, I will never be able to sing this opera.’ And it was the same all the time, and I sang many many things! I am happy today. I have had everything. And I am still here.” The tough thing about being a tenor, he says, is “It’s very easy to be bad. But to be good is very difficult.” spacer 

Jennifer Melick is managing editor of Symphony. 

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