The laughing tenor – Rupert Christiansen – September 2001
Not long ago, Marcelo Alvarez was an accountant with a fondness for Freddie Mercury; now he’s being spoken of as the heir to Domingo and Carreras. No wonder he looks so happy.
‘IS it true that tenors all hate each other?” I ask Marcelo Alvarez, a prominent member of that breed. In response to this potentially provocative question, he peals with laughter and rocks back in his chair – a process that he repeats throughout our conversation – and mirthfully denies it.
Alvarez quit his accountancy job in Argentina and headed for Milan in 1994. ‘My family thought I must be crazy,’ he says
“I hear that Jose Cura is saying something nasty about me. Then I read that I have said something nasty about Cura. Then we meet and neither of us have said anything nasty about the other, so we have dinner, and soon we are big friends. No, tenors get on fine. But the baritones!” He shakes his hand to indicate the horror of their mutual dealings. “And the sopranos!” – a thought at which he squeals with laughter.
Still, “nice” and “fun” are not adjectives usually associated with the noun “tenor”, and it was therefore a pleasant surprise to find this good-looking 38-year-old Argentinian to be so ebullient and likeable. In fact, everyone backstage at the Royal Opera House seems positively to adore him, which is just as well, since following his superb performance in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann last October, he has been booked for Lucia di Lammermoor, Un Ballo in Maschera, Luisa Miller, and Werther. Has Covent Garden found a heart-throb to succeed the previous tenors-regnant, Domingo and Carreras?
This week will provide a test, when Alvarez plays the Duke of Mantua in David McVicar’s new production of Verdi’s Rigoletto. The staging, he tactfully explains, is “a new interpretation, strong, aggressive, very agile”, and it presents the Duke as “a despot, a monster”. One senses that beneath his professed admiration for McVicar’s directorial skills, an innocent little streak of tenorial vanity hankers after a softer and more endearing characterisation. “But McVicar is good. He knows where I am coming from, and we make a compromise.”
It’s a difficult role, he says, with tricky things to phrase in problematic areas of the voice. Then there’s the aria La donna e mobile, one of opera’s greatest hits, intended in the context of the drama to be “very banal, the sort of song a gondolier whistles for tourists. It’s my least favourite part of the score, but the audience is all waiting for it.”
Marcelo (pronounced Marselo) Alvarez is one of a rash of hot new tenorial discoveries of the last few years – Ramon Vargas, Juan Diego Florez and Rolando Villazon are others among them – all emanating from South America. Quite why this should have come about, nobody knows, though Alvarez thinks it may have something to do with the wealth of teachers who migrated from Italy and Germany after the war, some tainted by Fascism. What these singers certainly share is a technical strength and heart-on-sleeve quality that their European counterparts signally lack.
Alvarez’s background is not musical at all. He was born in Cordoba, a town some 400 miles from Buenos Aires, in 1963. As a teenager, he enjoyed a wide range of music – “especially Freddie Mercury” – and had some training as a chorus master. But opera meant nothing to him (“It was something on another planet”), and he eventually read business studies at university and duly returned to his family’s furniture factory as an accountant. The music bug didn’t quite leave him, however, and in his late twenties he realised that he was developing a singing voice good enough to train.
Every weekend for three years he took a 12-hour bus ride to study with a teacher, and in 1994 he decided to throw in the accountancy towel and make for the operatic mecca of Milan, accompanied by his future wife and £4,000 of savings.
“My family thought I must be totally crazy – and I guess I was. I had met an Italian in Argentina who told me he knew lots of people who could help, and that he would look after us when we came over. Of course, when we arrived in Milan, this guy was nowhere. But I did find a singing teacher who helped me to enter a competition, which I won, and after a month I had my first contract.”
His first patron was the veteran Gianandrea Gavazzeni, who had conducted many of Callas’s finest hours at La Scala. “He offered me four roles, including Rodolfo in La Boheme, and I turned them all down. He got quite angry, but I said, maestro, I am the owner of my voice, please let me decide what is right for it.” He went on to make his professional debut in 1995 with the bel canto role of Elvino in Bellini’s La Sonnambula 1995 in Venice, and has gone on to carve himself an idiosyncratic repertory.
“It is not so much what you sing as how you sing it,” he insists, when I confront him with the usual warnings about the dangers of taking on heavy roles too soon. “But it’s like going to the gym: lifting 20 kilos gets easy, so you try 25.” Yet he has still not ventured into Boheme, doesn’t aspire to Otello or Tosca, and prefers to make a speciality of the more lyrical French repertory.
To hear just how good he can be in this neck of the operatic woods, listen to the first track, Pourquoi me reveiller from Massenet’s Werther, on his new recital disc, shortly to be released on the Sony Classics label. Almost every other tenor belts out this aria from the first bars, but Alvarez has the art and the courage to start piano, keeping the tone and the line beautifully steady and properly withholding his big guns for a climax prepared with tasteful musicality. It’s marvellous stuff, which makes his current rivals sound coarse and obvious.
The industry, however, wouldn’t mind if he sunk to something a little more vulgar. Several impresarios would dearly like to market Alvarez alongside fellow Argentinian Jose Cura and the Corsican Roberto Alagna for a reprise of the Three Tenors’ jamboree, but despite the ringing cash registers, Alvarez isn’t interested at the moment. “I am full up as an opera singer,” he says firmly. “That sort of thing can wait.”
What is on the cards is an album with Cura entitled Alma Argentina (Argentine Soul), a follow-up to his album of tangos by Carlos Gardel, so he’s clearly not averse to a little crossover.
He has yet to sing opera in his native country. “It is a bit of a mess,” he says ruefully. Aside from an annual trip to New Yorkto sing at the Met, he focuses his career on Europe, so that he can spend reasonable amounts of time with his wife and son at their home near Milan. Meanwhile, he has no complaints about life: opera singers are a neurotic bunch, but Alvarez is bursting with joie de vivre.
“Every morning I wake up,” he says, with another of his squawking guffaws, “and I still can’t believe any of this is happening to me.”
Interview by Rupert Christiansen