Interview with Rolando Villazón from the Sunday Süddeutsche Zeitung with Anne Ameri-Siemens. The translation, of course, is my own.
How long will he sing this high note? Rolando Villazón speaks about exhaustion, male display behavior and the soul of the music.
Paris shows off a little today: The sun radiates as if spring had already completely broken out here. Rolando Villazón wears black jeans and a lilac-colored T-shirt, which harmonizes merrily with the brocade carpet of the Hotel suite. Firm handshake, friendly smile. One sits down, one moment long it is quiet, - then however it starts: To be in conversation with Rolando Villazón is as if someone would have shaken a crate of Flummis [rubber balls?] and would have called: "Catch!" Villazón jumps, gestures, sings. Only with questions to his time-out period he becomes calmer.
SZ: Mr. Villazón, I would like to speak with you about the soul.
Rolando Villazón: The soul, I understand. My soul?
SZ: What else! You must have much say about it - four times per week you speak with your psychoanalyst in Mexico.
Villazón: And for fourteen years. My God!
SZ: Which. ….
Villazón: one second: What is the difference between a psychoanalyst and a vampire?
SZ: No idea?
Villazón: The vampire eventually lets go!
SZ: Since you decided on this form of therapy, you had obviously no desire to be released as rapidly as possible.
Villazón: No. Because then I would probably have done a behaviorist therapy, which is solution oriented and happens accordingly faster. But I like to play chess, I like to read books, I love it to sing operas, I like psychoanalysis. I like things which need time. One must accept that this long way is actually an adventure. Otherwise one also never pulls from it what I get straight from it.
SZ: … that not everyone undertakes. What brought you to analysis?
Villazón: My wife.
SZ: Did she find that it was necessary?
Villazón: As I said: Let us marry! she answered: Yes! But you go to the analyst. Then we were seven years together. She was 15, I was 16, when we fell in love.
SZ: And why exactly should you go to the analyst?
Villazón: My wife found me chaotic. "Bring all this energy, which streams out from you, together," she said, "make something from it, do not let it simply fizzle out."
SZ: And you agreed immediately?
Villazón: What? No! I protested: I have no problems! What are you talking about? No, really, I do not do that! She did not react at all to it. I appeared eventually at the analyst. And it actually changed my life.
SZ: You said once, your voice is your soul. What exactly did you mean by this?
Villazón: I can explain it only in such a way: I can do much that my soul plans, understand, if I hear myself. [invent a meaning]
SZ: You are proclaimed for years as one of the best tenors of the world, by the public as from the press were celebrated. Then, in the year 2007, your voice suddenly went badly. What communicated at that time your soul to you?
Villazón: That I was exhausted.
SZ: Too little sleep? Too many concerns? Burn out at 35 years?
Villazón: Up to then everything flew by, in a marvelous, innocent way. But I reacted ever more than I acted. Like a child, who is asked: Hey, can you catch this ball many times? And he dribbles and then quickly throws it back, because then the next already comes? The child gives everything, with whole energy, but at the end of the day he feels suddenly an impact: Now I cannot do it anymore! Thus I was after a ten year career. So I granted myself a time-out.
SZ: You said good-bye with the words: "I will withdraw myself for some months, in order to regain the whole vitality, to which the public and also I am used to from me." Did you feel in this time a lot of concern?
Villazón: No, I always knew that I was a great distance away from never being able to sing again. Sometimes afterward I ask myself whether I was at that time too open to admit my exhaustion. Since then above all critics are quick to ask the question: Oje, is it now past?
SZ: And what do you answer to those?
Villazón: For me this phase is closed, and I would like to look forward.
SZ: You said once, your time-out had been great. How did you spend it exactly?
Villazón: Probably much less spectacularly than some think. I enjoyed the time with my family, my wife and my two sons.
SZ: However, after your return, again doubts arose whether you would have your whole strength back again. Last at the beginning of 2009, when you sang at the New York Met beside Anna Netrebko in "Lucia di Lammermoor.”
Villazón: I had a cold.
SZ: "With covered voice and failed high notes he fought himself more badly than quite through," at that time a critic wrote. Rightfully?
Villazón: In retrospect it would have been perhaps better, if I would have canceled my appearance. But on the evening I decided: I do this in spite of everything! At first I sang without problems. Then gradually due to my cold my voice went away. It happened in a scene without music. There were thus these eight seconds of silence. … - by the way probably one of the greatest moments of my career.
SZ: Was that calculated?
Villazón: I felt the energy of hundreds of spectators. Positive energy! I had never before felt such a signal from the public, if on the stage something went wrong.
SZ: What signals do people send you otherwise?
Villazón: The majority of the spectators do not wait for one to make errors. They are at the opera for other reasons. To them it concerns the emotional experience, to be pulled into another world by the things happening on the stage. Briefly said, they are there for art. It is crucial that one puts ones whole heart into his performance and thereby grasps the people.
SZ: And why does the remaining part of the public go into the opera?
Villazón: Because of the achievement of the sport. These people worry particularly about questions like: How long will he sing this high note? But I am not on the stage in order to drive achievement sport. I make art.
SZ: Do you keep the criticisms of your voice not much under pressure?
Villazón: One must free oneself from it, even if it is not always easy. Thus is, I believe, everything said to it.
SZ: You have recently released an album with arias by George Friedrich Händel.
Villazón: And immediately a critic said to me: "But you have nevertheless no baroque voice!"
SZ: Ah, already again such a critic. Did that annoy you very much?
Villazón: I found it rather amazing and answered: Wow, you have heard a baroque voice from that time? Earnestly: Do we know for which voices Händel wrote? We orient ourselves with our idea of baroque voices in the first recordings of the 20th Century. At nothing else.
SZ: Why did you seek out Händel?
Villazón: In the year 2000 I heard a Vivaldi album with Cecilia Bartoli and was enthusiastic. Thus I came to the baroque music. I thought, it must require such an energy to sing this music, it has such a special joyfulness. My soul jumped up and down! At that time I believed however that I would never sing such repertoire.
SZ: Why not?
Villazón: If one is a baroque tenor, one leaves the fingers of Verdi, as it’s called. And if one, such as I, originally is at home in the repertoire of the 19th and 20th centuries, actually one leaves the fingers off of the baroque.
SZ: And what made you change your mind?
Villazón: 2006 the pianist Emmanuelle Haïm convinced me to take it up with her Monteverdi’s "Combattimento." “If Monteverdi or Händel lived today, they would write for you,” she said. I sang thus Monteverdi, and it was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. Afterward I wanted more. Thus I came to Händel’s arias.
SZ: A composer who obviously didn’t worry about the life of the soul of his artists…
Villazón How do you mean that?
SZ: He threatened once to throw the Soprano Francesca Cuzzoni from the window because she didn’t want to sing the opening aria in “Ottone.".
Villazón: Oh, genius has often difficulties with seeing the needs and boundaries of others.
SZ: Sounds nevertheless rather rabid for a representative of the beautiful arts.
Villazón: For Händel it probably only counted: What he heard in his head, as if heaven would play. I can imagine the composer who says: I have written these notes for you, which I took from heaven, for your voice. They must be exactly like this! So don’t mess around and sing!
SZ: What was the most drastic method with which a stage director tried ever to induce you to act?
Villazón: For my second singing teacher I sang an air from "Lucia di Lammermoor". I was technically very well prepared, accordingly proud of myself. When I was finished, he packed me by the collar, shook me and cried: "I felt nothing! You let your voice sound beautiful, but only sang notes. Put your heart into the aria!" Another time he even boxed my ears.
SZ: Ask which? And you did not feel your honor offended?
Villazón: On the contrary! Encouraged. Okay, naturally I was also a little injured, but he was right. I only thus began to feel the pieces. And therefore it goes.
SZ: It seems to happen more often in your circles.
Villazón: To what do you allude?
SZ: To another Händel anecdote: In his opera "Alessandro" he wrote for two Primadonnas equal large roles. The ladies competed on the stage first only with their voices, then became plain. How do you feel beside other strong voices?
Villazón: There are colleagues, who feel best, if they are surrounded by less good singers, so that their own voice stands out. That is not my model. It leads only to the fact that the power of the whole thing is missing. The better the others are, the better is the entire performance, I think.
SZ: Placido Domingo, boss of the opera houses in Washington DC and Los Angeles, is considered one of the best and most versatile tenors of our time. He has been showered with praise and honors - and you have been compared with him….
Villazón: I would never compare me with him. Domingo is now already, in his lifetime, a legend.
SZ: To sing with him….
Villazón: … was inspiring. Not one second of competition! He is like an artistic father for me. Really, Domingo stands over all.
SZ: Which opera changed your soul?
Villazón: "Tosca". It was the first opera, which I saw on the stage. And "Pagliacci" of Ruggiero Leoncavallo - even with Placido Domingo at the New York Met. I was overwhelmed by the intensity with which he played. Afterward I knew: To lead people so perfectly into another world and cause them to experience what I had felt directly - I wanted exactly that also.
SZ: Have you ever tried to win the heart of a woman by singing?
Villazón: Naturally, that of my wife! As 16 year old I emerged in the morning at three o'clock before her window and sang - with a Mexican Mariachi ensemble in the back!
SZ: Seriously? In your homeland is this the usual way of impressing women?
Villazón: It was my way! And it worked. Here in Paris today I still sing for her.
SZ: Did you have already a few embarrassing moments on the stage?
Villazón: There were some. Once I tore my trousers during "Les Contes d'Hoffmann". Under them I wore red boxer shorts with a sample of small robots. Charming in combination with the historical costume! Another time, I don’t know any more in which opera it was, anyhow there was this scene, in which my opponent had to stop me. We fell thereby inadvertently to the floor. The public laughed there already. We got back up, I tried, to pull my sword….
SZ: It was probably a dramatic scene?
Villazón: It should actually be one! But the sword had become bent somehow, and I did not get it from the covering. I pulled and pulled. Finally I went without sword at my opponent. The sword meanwhile had curved in such a way that it stood high behind my back. With my coat, which hung over it, I looked like an amusing animal with a long tail. The others on the stage could hardly fight from laughter. The public held also its belly.
SZ: And you?
Villazón: I was the last to notice what was happening.
SZ: Last question: Does your wife find you today, after 14 years of analysis, actually less chaotic?
Villazón: She would probably say that I am as chaotic as on the first day - however that I can deal much better with it.