Opera + Classical Music Features

Piotr Beczala: “I never planned to be a singer – it just happened” – Interview

In recent seasons, Piotr Beczala has appeared as the Italian Tenor in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier and as the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto, both to great acclaim. Now the Polish tenor is back to open the new opera season by playing the title role of Faust in David McVicar’s production, a role in which he excelled during the opera’s last revival back in 2004.

I catch up with him the day after the dress rehearsal for the opera, the climax of an exhausting couple of weeks of preparation for Faust and performances of Don Giovanni at the Salzburg Festival.

In the face of his fatigue, and despite apologising for his spoken English, Beczala turns out to be highly articulate and gives thorough answers to my questions. For starters I ask him what insights he hopes to bring to his second run of Faust performances.

“It feels more comfortable because it’s not my debut, like two years ago. Then I had to find something for this new role in a new house. But now I can work a bit more with the role. David [McVicar, the director of the production] was here for one week, two weeks ago, and I had the chance to work with him a little bit on fine tuning details, and that was very interesting.”

What does he think of the production? “I love it. It’s my first and, to date, only Faust. For me, Faust is this production. It’s very clear and very easy. I’m a lucky man because it’s a great production and to have this one as my first Faust – I’ll probably play the role for the next twenty years – is a very good start for the role.’

The character of Faust is of course one of literature’s most famous and multifaceted creations. What does Beczala think of him? ‘He’s very complicated. Goethe’s Faust is a little bit different from this opera. It’s a little bit easier because the story’s a bit clearer and the whole story’s a bit different. The relationships between Faust, Marguerite and Mephisto are not so one-to-one in the book. It’s actually the story of Marguerite and Faust in the opera. This production makes it very clear: it starts in the Prologue with the old Faust, changing to young, then the miracle of youth and the pure Marguerite: the story’s very compact. It has a start, an accumulation and an end. In the book, you can get lost with the story: here it’s really really easy to understand what it’s about.”

Gounod, the composer of Faust, is the first French composer in a Royal Opera season that focuses heavily on the French repertoire. Does Beczala enjoy this music, I ask? “For a tenor it’s the best music. You have everything! In fact, you have more than everything, because in a normal role like Rodolfo or Alfredo, it’s the same man all the way through. Here, in the Prologue you have to show with the voice the difference between the old and young man. It’s very interesting to try to find it without pushing too much. My teacher said that old Faust is very difficult to sing because you don’t have to sound beautiful – it’s more recitative and about expression and acting with the voice. Then you have to put this together with the young man: it’s a challenge!”

“I love it. It’s my first and, to date, only Faust. For me, Faust is this production.”
– On the Royal Opera’s staging of Gounod’s Faust.

As in the 2004 first revival, the conductor for these performances is Maurizio Benini. ‘He’s great. Many conductors try to make the opera one thing or another. They either make this opera like bel canto with portamento and fermati and everything and don’t care about the precise rhythms, or they go for a secco approach – “do it just like this, and no more”. But Maurizio puts the two things together. You have places where you have to be very precise and others where you need long phrases and rubati. He brings us both.”

The role of Marguerite, Faust’s beloved, is being played by two sopranos: international opera star Angela Gheorghiu takes the opening performances, and American ex-Royal Opera Young Artist Katie Van Kooten plays her on 25 and 29 September. What is it like playing the same opera opposite two different singers? “It’s a very personal thing. Everybody has their own personality and creates something different every time they do the opera. We try and bring something special to it every night. It’s live music – you go on the stage and you have a new idea.”

The role of the Devil was to have been played by American bass John Relyea, but he has withdrawn due to ill health. Bulgarian bass Orlin Anastassov has stepped into the breech – has this caused any problems? “Orlin is really great – he really is Mephistopheles! He’s a cool guy and it’s not the first time he’s done this production – he was in it in Monte Carlo [in January 2005]. I was very happy because they called me in Salzburg and said that John is ill and I thought, ‘Oh my God! All this work is forgotten and we’ll have to start again.’ There are so many small, important things that would be impossible to do in three days. But there’s been no problem, because he’s done it before.”

Beczala made his Royal Opera debut back in April 2004, singing the Italian Tenor’s single aria in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. It’s amazing, I suggest to him, that he had such a high impact in so small a role. “You know, it’s a special role. It’s always been sung by somebody special – Gedda, Pavarotti, Domingo, Fritz Wunderlich. It’s a clich that when a tenor comes to rehearse Rigoletto or something, they also make five performances or so of Rosenkavalier during rehearsal time – it’s just fun! The first time I did it was with Antonio Pappano in Brussels five or six years ago. Now I’m doing it with Zurich Opera, because we’re going to Japan with Traviata and we’re doing Rosenkavalier in between.”

Last time he was here, Beczala caused ripples of excitement in the audience for his portrayal of the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s Rigoletto. ‘That was another great production from David [McVicar]. The character of the Duke was a bit different…less sympathetic. You can’t make him this dark all the time, but it was a very interesting and useful experience for me – it’s another view of the role. It would be very boring if you did the same thing all the time.”

On asking him about the Covent Garden experience, Beczala tells me, “The Royal Opera House is one of the best opera houses in the world – what more could you want? Also for me, thinking back to the beginning of the twentieth century the Polish brothers Edouard and Jean de Reszke, it was a dream for me to read books about these singers – Jean de Reske was the tenor of the century before Caruso – and fifteen years later, I’m here and it feels crazy!”

“Look at our Faust. It’s modern, it’s different, and it’s modern enough. It makes sense.”
– On modern opera production.

“We’re so lucky with the audience here in London. When I did Rigoletto, it was on the big screen. It is a great idea to bring the opera to people that I know cannot afford the tickets to see it. And it’s not just a short version or something – it’s the same thing that the audience sees inside the opera house.”

He returns as Lensky in a future revival of Eugene Onegin, “and we’re thinking about other productions. Sometimes they invite me for things that aren’t in my repertoire, but we have good plans!”

Piotr Beczala was born in Southern Poland and studied in Kattowice at first. “But I never planned to be a singer – it just happened. Not everybody can be a singer, and when you’re young, you don’t know if you have the voice or if you have the talent. It was all a surprise for me. I was with a small choir for maybe seven months, then the conductor said I should go to music academy. But I had no music background, no education, and it took a lot of work to catch up – solfeggio and notes and harmony, which other people had already learnt and I had to do it very quickly… Music was not in my family background, and I was going to study engineering. The exam to get into music school was one month before the engineering exam, and when they accepted me I said, OK, I’ll go there.”

“Patience is very important in this business,” he tells me, when we come to the question of his future roles. ‘I started with a lot of Mozart, now I’m singing more of the lyric repertoire but still some Mozart. In a couple of years I’m doing Un ballo in maschera. You have to sing each role enough in order to change to the next step. Also in the French repertoire, I’m now doing Faust and Werther and then I’m going to do my first Hoffmann. Maybe in six or seven years I’ll do Don Jos, but not before.”

Does he enjoy concert performances compared to opera? “The big difference is that in opera, you are not playing yourself: I’m not Beczala, I’m Faust. In a concert, you are yourself. When you sing songs in a Liederabend you are not masked by a role. You have to really think about this when you’re singing because so many singers are private on the stage.’

Beczala appears in a number of widely-available DVDs, and I ask him about his attitude towards recordings in a time when classical music is in decline in the studio. “All these DVDs have come about because of my lucky situation in Zurich – the market for CDs is really done. We’re very happy in Zurich because our boss has connections and makes DVDs of almost every production…Rigoletto is coming in November and we hope to make Arabella next year. Of the CD recordings, we just did Traviata from live performances in Munich with Zubin Mehta. But there aren’t the same opportunities at the moment.”

Is he sad about that? “Not really – that’s life! You have to be a part of the industry if you want to make a serious recording. Now I’m doing a CD next June for Orfeo in Munich. It will be mainly Italian and French Romantic repertoire and we hope it will be the start of something for the future – we have plans.’

Talking of the industry – is he confident about its future? “Yes, yes. Every few years the critics say, ‘OK, it’s the end of opera’. And I know why: it’s because the time of the stage director’s opera is over. It’s a progression: we’re now so deep that we’re in hell, and the public has had enough of the modern concepts. For instance, Rigoletto in Munich is like a monkey world – Planet of the Apes. It’s crazy! Nobody likes it, nobody wants to go to see this production. It makes us uncomfortable as singers. They have asked me so many times to do it, and I always say ‘No, thank you very much’.”

“Look at our Faust. It’s modern, it’s different, and it’s modern enough. It makes sense. But when other directors push themselves over the composer and the librettist and say ‘I have an idea: let’s set this in Hyde Park in the 25th century and have everybody wearing silver costumes’ – that’s stupid! Every good director can explain himself, tell you why the character is like he is. But the crazy directors need 50 pages in the programme to explain what his production is about: then it’s over for me.’

Before we part, I ask him one last question: what would he like to be remembered for? “Good question, good question. I think that as a tenor, I would like people to think I didn’t make mistakes: the right roles, the right productions, that I took responsibility for this. It would be nice if in 70 years’ time people said, ‘I saw Beczala and he was wonderful’.” He whistles. “That would be the tops for me!”

Piotr Beczala plays the title role in Gounod’s Faust at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 15, 18, 22, 25, 27 and 29 September 2006.

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Piotr Beczala: “I never planned to be a singer – it just happened” – Interview
Faust @ Royal Opera, London