Exclusive Interview with Riccardo Zanellato

Riccardo Zanellato begins his vocal training in 2000 with Maestro Bonaldo Giaiotti. This collaboration will be fundamental for the journey of his career. In fact, with the Maestro he prepares one of the most complex characters for a bass: Zaccaria del Nabucco. He made his debut in 2001 in the Villa Pallavicino in Busseto and from that moment many productions have seen him performing in the role, making him an absolute point of reference today. His extended and soft vocality leads him to be an interpreter of Verdi’s repertoire as well as that of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini. Among the most important works we can remember: AttilaRigolettoOtelloSimon BoccanegraNabuccoAidaTrovatoreMacbethLuisa MillerMaria StuardaAnna BolenaLucia di LammermoorNorma, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, I Puritani. During his career, an important point is certainly represented by the meeting with Maestro Riccardo Muti who chooses him for Iphigenié en AulideNabuccoMoïse et PharaonMacbethSimon Boccanegra. One of Riccardo’s favourite works is Verdi’s Requiem and one of his dreams comes true when he sings this piece conducted by the great Maestro. The beginning of 2020 celebrates his meeting with Maestro Riccardo Muti, this time in Vienna, for Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem, alongside with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In February, he returns to the Teatro Regio di Torino for Nabucco and in early March, in Bamberg, for Verdi’s Requiem, followed by a Vocal Technique and Interpretation Masterclass in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, organized by OPERA Charm Magazine with the help of our friends from AteLiDra – Lyric-Dramatic Studio.

First of all, I want to thank you again for the honour of having this interview for OPERA Charm Magazine! I will start our conversation remembering a very important moment, the 2019 Edition of the George Enescu Festival, the moment of your first visit to Romania, but also the moment that created the opportunity for your return here. Being one of the biggest classical music festivals in this part of Europe, the Enescu Festival brings in Romania the most important artists, among who we were lucky to have you performing the Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem alongside with the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Choir and Orchestra. For us, an amazing concert! How did you perceive the experience of George Enescu Festival?

Unfortunately, the time was limited, everything happened very quickly and, therefore, I didn’t have the opportunity to appreciate and enjoy the Enescu Festival in its depth and as fully as I would have liked, and for this I am very sorry. However, I was pleasantly impressed by what I managed to admire there, which is the concentrations of arts in a short period. It is certainly an experience that I would like to repeat with more tranquillity, in order to appreciate at the fullest, seeing the wonderfulness of this initiative.

The public’s reaction was very touching during the performance. We try to give emotions, but, at the same time, we need to receive them from the audience. When we’re talking about such an important composition from the emotional point of view as the Requiem by Giuseppe Verdi, this exchange that is born between those who perform and those who listens it’s extraordinary. 

It was a great pleasure, after this concert, to receive from you the invitation of having a Masterclass in Romania. You were exactly the example of the emotive exchange about which I was talking earlier… one of the persons who received and gave emotion. 

Anticipating my next question, you mentioned the Masterclass that will take place in Cluj in March this year. Thank you again for the kindness of accepting my invitation to do this Masterclass! We are all very grateful to have you with us for a few days and to have the opportunity to learn from such a great artist, the winner of last year’s Oscars della Lirica for the best bass. How do you feel about all this, the invitation, the Masterclass and your next visit to Romania, and what do you expect to find among the young Romanian singers?

During the masterclass in Cluj I will try to transmit all what I have learned and I am still learning throughout my career to young Romanian singers, who start or want to start the same artistic path. This thing flatters me a lot and I hope to be able to fully honour the trust that was given to me.

I know that in Romania there are some great and beautiful voices. I know some colleagues with whom I collaborated and I found a very good quality both from a vocal and interpretative point of view. For this reason, I am convinced there is a very good singing school and this makes me assume that I will meet special talents among the participants. I expect to find both exceptional vocal qualities, but above all, the desire to know, assimilate and understand.

You have said many times that between you and the opera, there was no love at first sight. You studied guitar at the Adria Conservatory and your passion for singing was discovered during military service. Having said that, there are two questions of great interest to those for whom you represent a model, which certainly are not few. Do you think your career path would have gone differently if the chance had made you discover your vocation before?

No, I don’t think so. Having a bass voice, a physiological maturation is needed. The only thing that perhaps I reproach myself is not having known the repertoire before. Not loving the opera as a child, I didn’t listen to it and, therefore, I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know singers, characters… I lacked a background that all my colleagues who were passionate about opera or have a passionate family, have. For me, it was all new.

The second questions: how important was the theoretical musical preparation that you had as an instrumentalist in your singing career? What is the balance between native vocal qualities – technique – musical knowledge that is decisive for a career at the highest levels?

Yes, definitely yes. The study of the instrument, of the guitar turn to be very useful and I advise all future singers to study an instrument in a profound way, to have a musical, harmonic, melodic understanding… It will also be useful for interpretation and phrasing. There is the gift that is given to you by the Eternal Father, for those who believe in it, or a gift that is given to you at birth, which is an important part, but not the most important. The most important thing is respect for the talent that is given to you, the ability and the pleasure to develop this gift. There is also the famous parable of the Gospel… So basic talent is important, but investment, even more. The investment means a musical preparation, a constant attention on the method and the desire, and also the ability to understand, which is a very, very difficult thing and many times we are not helped, because you need the help of your teacher, your agent, and the ability to make the right choices at the right time.

As far as you are concerned, we cannot speak of a gradual evolution of the repertoire. You made your debut in lead roles for the bass voice, such as Zaccaria 19 years ago, while most of the singers went through intermediate stages, which was definitely an advantage for you. Is this due to the physiological factor or to a certain approach to the study of the voice?

I have started at 26 years. I did all the small roles in important theatres and then I started to do some important role in the smaller theatres. When I debuted the Nabucco, Zaccaria, I was 31, but it was already coming from a path. It is not that from that moment all the big roles have started. I continued to sing non-small, but main, less important roles anyway. Until they grew up and slowly, slowly with psychological, mental, artistic and vocal maturity I came to do those others. Zaccaria, when they asked for it, I went and studied it for 6 months. My teacher said „it’s a terrible role”, because he was perhaps the greatest Zaccaria of all time, and when I started studying it, he said another important thing: „remember, firstly you have to sing it in your voice, because if it starts trying to imitate someone, you won’t get there. Then, forget, especially in the first part, that you are a bass. Think you are a baritone singing a tenor part”. The role is complicated and difficult, in a strange, high tessitura, asking you to go back to !!! If you try to sing you with the timbre, the colour of bassone, you get flooded and don’t do it. You really have to grow, mature, together with your starting baggage. It must be a gradual maturation, without taking too large steps. Do you know how many I saw suddenly getting there and disappearing with the same speed? This is something that we need to pay attention to. Many times there are agents or conditions in the theatres that, hearing a particularly interesting voice, offer demanding roles, you cannot say no, but you should… Many singers of the past have said that the career is done with „no”. So, it is important that you take the right steps. Otherwise… as you arrive, you disappear. And this world can be a world made of wonder, but also ruthless. You have to know how to do things intelligently.

However, despite approaching a difficult repertoire, without any doubt, you are one of the voices whose qualities, from the beauty of the timbre to the technical precision, have been preserved. What is the secret of vocal longevity?

Making the right choices and continuing to study. Because you tend to be automatic to say stop a little. And then we must always have kind of a fear of falling. For example, do not drown those who are afraid. A healthy fear, that does not become manic, because that is even worse. If, on the other hand, you are a braggart and you venture… I can swim, but I must be careful. The same also applies to the artistic path. You must be sure of the job you are doing, but you must not be a braggart and lose humility. Humility helps you to keep your feet on the ground and not take too large steps, to do things at the right time and recognize when every now and then the signals arrive, the messages from your body, from your voice… You get these messages every now and then and you have to be careful and try to work to resolve, to progress. The maturation is this: sometimes you are in a phase of displacement and you say „but what is going on?”. That’s when your mind… – it happened to me even with the guitar -, your brain matures, grows, but the hand is struggling because it has yet to catch up with it. So, it’s not that you’re worse than before. It seems to you that you are worse, because you are no longer on the same level. There is the brain that goes on and this is needed to drag the rest. But the moment you are no longer on the same length, there is a phase shift.

Speaking of a masterclass of interpretation and vocal technique. There is always a controversy between technique and interpretation. What do you think is the most important thing between these two?

I believe that the two are not separate, they are absolutely and consequential important to each other. To interpret, you need the technique. To understand the technique well, you need the idea of interpretation. They are two things that are linked. They have the same importance and both must be respected. No one of them more important than the other. Initially, it is right to have the technical bases to be able to start interpreting, but many times I have suggested to some who were struggling, „listen, but what does this sentence say? What does this idea suggest to you?”. An interpretative reasoning, if you think of it, could help your voice take you there naturally… however, you must start with a fairly solid technical base.

You consider yourself a Verdian voice. However, during your career you have approached, with great success, also the repertoire of Belcantistic and the Puccini repertoire. What are the vocal-interpretative differences between them and what makes you consider yourself a purely Verdian voice? Was the fact that you did not approach the German repertoire your choice or a conjunctural factor?

Verdian voice, which one is it? I believe that it tends to be more than a voice, it is more an interpretation, more a question of accents that make a voice to be considered verdian. I consider myself a cantabile bass and that’s why I love everything that is cantabile. And the fact that Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi have a lot of cantabile roles, this is my bread. Now I’m singing a lot of Verdi, but that doesn’t mean if I can, 

They label you, you become a reference voice for certain roles, but I would always do I Puritani with great pleasure, Lucia also, Faust by Gounod, I also do the French repertoire and I like it a lot. Obviously, lately I am specializing in this type of repertoire because I feel it mine, perhaps also because of the collaboration with Maestro Muti who is a stratospheric Verdian and Mozartian master. I did a lot of Verdi with him and thanks to him I learned and I hope to learn more and more to analyse this author and respect him as he should be respected, to be able to interpret these pieces as Verdi asks to be interpreted.

As for the German repertoire, let’s say that I little pushed in the direction in order to avoid it, because I don’t feel it mine. Not feeling it mine, it would become a forcing. It is true that I did not approached it. Because there are so many nice things to do from the repertoire that I feel mine, I offer those who are able to interpret the Germen repertoire well the opportunity to express themselves as I try to express myself in my repertoire.

Do you think that the study of an opera singer can reach a peak from where it is not necessary to evolve anymore or is a journey of a life time?

You never stop studying until you decide to stop singing and go fishing or bowling. Until then, and I believe that even after, it never stops, because there is a continuous evolution. Physically, we change and therefore there is a need to adapt to changes. It is a continuous and constant research.

What does being a complete artist mean to you? What is the duty of the opera singer for his voice, for music and for the public?

I believe an artist who is complete is the one, I consider, who is able to respect as much as possible what the composers write, being able to put its component within the will of the author. I perform Filippo II putting Riccardo into it. The fundamental part is to respect what Verdi wanted, but by adding something of mine. It’s what makes the difference, because otherwise we will all be the same. And, therefore, a complete artist is the one who manages, in respect of the author’s will, to add, to put that imprint of his own which is exclusively personal.

Meanwhile, our duty is what I said before: humility. You must be humble and face the composition, the gift that has been given to you with an extreme and infinite respect. This respect will also put you in a condition of respect for the public and will also give you the ability to recognize when you don’t have to or how much you have to do, give. Respect, humility are the basics, in my opinion. You have to respect the voice because you only have one. If you’re hurting it, it’s not like changing a guitar string. If you hurt yourself, it’s over. This is why you need technique, a preparation that allows you to overcome, face and respect.

As you know, this publication is dedicated mostly to young opera singers. What are your tips for them?

I believe that it was already expressed in everything I have said so far. The advice I give to those who are younger is to fine-tune respect, to put their heart, their head into it and respect their gift and the music. It takes discipline. But above all, you must enjoy music and to enjoy you must be able to dig. The superficiality will not make you understand anything. It’s like a cake that has only the sweet icing on top of it and then it sucks underneath. You must be able to really enjoy it. To face the study with respect, but also with a smile, with passion. Another thing: do not imitate other singers. Everyone must have his own imprint. You will be able to look above certain that you have a singer you love and you become a method, an idea, a path that is there. But you have to be yourself. When studying, when you start studying, do not go and listen and don’t learn by listening. You must study it first. First you learn and then you go to listen to the big singers and compare yourself and see if there is something beautiful, useful, interesting you take it. So, the advice I give to those who start is to start with great respect, with great passion and a lot of intelligence. And always remain humble.

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