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Dramatic Territory

Star tenor Piotr Beczała, Maurizio in the Met’s new Adriana Lecouvreur, is moving into new repertory.
By Fred Cohn
Photographs by Pete Thompson 

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Photographs by Pete Thompson
Fashion Styling by Keith T. Pollick
Grooming by Affan Graber Malik
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Beczała in Vienna, as Don José to Margarita Gritskova’s Carmen, 2018
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH/Michael Pöhn
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At the Met, as Rodolfo to Sonya Yoncheva’s Luisa Miller, 2018
© Beth Bergman

PIOTR BECZAŁA'S PERFORMANCE  of “Quando le sere al placido” in Luisa Miller at the Met last season was one of those moments that explain what opera is all about. His delivery made the forlorn Rodolfo’s passion palpable in a way that only opera—and great singing—can. The rising phrases seemed like breaking waves, with the tenor riding their crests; his singing was so thoroughly fused with Verdi’s musical impulse that you focused not on his tour de force rendition but on the gorgeous aria itself, ideally performed. The thunderous ovation that followed felt so inevitable that you realized it was exactly what Verdi intended.

“Singing brings you to a higher level of excitement—if you aren’t nervous, something is wrong,” Beczała tells me. “Singing is not like walking. Singing is like running—a higher energetical level of moving your body. You see a horse running, he always has only one foot on the ground. He’s actually flying! If you’re relaxed onstage, and maybe you start to warm up in the middle of the second act, it’s completely wrong. You have to be, from the first moment on the stage, a hundred percent there. Of course the nerves are high. But my job is to control that—to deliver the performance on the highest possible level.”

THE MET RODOLFO was the Polish tenor’s role debut, part of a pattern that is carrying him, at age fifty-one, into new dramatic territory. Last season in Vienna, he sang his first Don José and his first Maurizio in Adriana Lecouvreur, in David McVicar’s production, opposite Anna Netrebko. (Met audiences will encounter the Beczała–Netrebko Adriana pairing when the McVicar production has its local premiere at the Met on New Year’s Eve.) In February, Beczała returns to the Vienna Staatsoper to introduce his Cavaradossi in Tosca. You could hear the evolution in Beczała’s voice and style in the Luisa Miller. The aria’s opening recitative had a force and thrust surprising to hear from a man who has made his career in the lyric tenor repertory. The newfound muscle in the voice continued through “Quando le sere,” but at its core, Beczała’s voice retained the crystalline lyricism that marked his 2009 Met Lenski in Eugene Onegin. This was clearly the same Beczała as in seasons past, but somehow writ larger—the tenor in full flower.

Beczała’s new fach represents a significant personal odyssey for a man who started his career, in the early 1990s at the Landestheater Linz, as a Mozart tenor. “I’ve sung 136 Taminos—it’s enough,” he says. “Mozart is fantastic for younger singers. But I need fun—I need excitement. Tamino is great, a wonderful piece of music. But fun you get with Rigoletto or Traviata—with putting emotions through the voice.” 

We are having lunch on a chilly early-spring day during the Luisa Miller run at a restaurant near the Met. Beczała projects considerable bonhomie—the waitress’s question “Any allergies?” gets the winking reply “Only to bad conductors”—but he is serious when he talks about the complicated business of singing opera. He makes clear that the current expansion of his repertory is the result of years of careful planning. When I ask him if he could have foreseen, during his early Mozart years, that one day he’d be singing Don José, he says, “I was hoping. But look how long it took to get to this role—twenty-five years! And now it’s a piece of cake, vocally. I could sing it every day.” 

Early in his career, he took part in master classes with the great Bosnian–Austrian soprano Sena Jurinac, who became a decisive voice in steering him toward lyric repertory. “She helped me a lot to make the right decisions—to step back from Cavaradossi and sing Mozart,” he says. “And Mozart was a lot more difficult for me.

“You can’t stop developing. If a twenty-three-year-old tenor is singing Alvaro in Forza del Destino, what will he sing when he’s forty? If you start with Forza, then in a couple of years Otello, then in five years, Tristan—it’s the end. [Vladimir] Atlantov started out singing Lenski. It wasn’t immediately Gherman [in Queen of Spades] and Otello. And that’s the fascination of Caruso. It’s not that his voice was like that—it’s why his voice was like that. His ability to move muscles and make space for the voice was amazing. He worked on that.”

Among Beczała’s new roles, Lohengrin stands in a category of its own. He sang the Swan Knight successfully in Dresden in 2016, with Netrebko as Elsa and Christian Thielemann on the podium, in a run that has been captured on DVD, and he repeated the role last summer for his Bayreuth debut, again under Thielemann—a last-minute assignment that garnered international headlines.

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Photographs by Pete Thompson
Fashion Styling by Keith T. Pollick, Fashion assistant Troy Joseph
Grooming by Affan Graber Malik

THE DRESDEN LOHENGRIN  marked Beczała’s first Wagner role, save for a long-ago stint as Tannhäuser’s Walther von der Vogelweide in Linz. That experience had left him with an entrenched skepticism about the composer. “I’m not a Wagnerian,” Beczała says. “I understand more how to sing the French and Italian repertoire—and of course, Slavic. When I sang Vogelweide, the [tenor who sang] Tannhäuser had a lot of trouble. It was only about surviving, and for me that’s not good enough. When you do a role, you have to do it on an artistic level, not just deliver the sounds and the text and survive the four or five hours of singing.”

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Beczała as Lohengrin at Bayreuth, 2018
© Bayreuther Festspiele/enrico Nawrath

Lohengrin, he acknowledges, is “a special case” among Wagner’s tenor roles. Still, despite Thielemann’s ardent courtship, he was at first reluctant to take on the assignment, agreeing only after his wife, Kasia—a mezzo who performed under the name Katarzyna Bak before giving up her career to support her husband’s—talked him into it. “Thielemann said, ‘Look, we’ll do four fantastic performances,’” Beczała says. “‘Anna will sing, I will conduct. I will give you whatever freedom you want.’ Then my wife said, ‘Let’s do it.’ And it was a fantastic experience.”

Despite his considerable Dresden success, during our initial conversation he evinced ambivalence about the role and its composer. “When you sing German music, particularly Wagner, many times the music is constructed stiff,” he said. “The phrases don’t bloom at the top, like in Italian music. You have to give your diaphragm extra impulse to keep moving—not to be dying. And it happens through the consonants. Of course there are fantastic moments, like Walther von Stolzing.” (He illustrates with a phase of the prize song.) “But if you sing Tristan or Siegmund, there are explosions on the wrong part of the bar. It’s not logical, like in Italian.” (He sings “Celeste Aid-AH.”) “If you don’t give energy through the text, you get stuck, with an ‘uh’ sound—no vibration. Bad things happen to the voice.”

But when I talk to Beczała again after his Bayreuth summer, his attitude toward Lohengrin has brightened. It was a whirlwind experience: Roberto Alagna had been scheduled to sing the role in the new Yuval Sharon production, but he withdrew just weeks before the July 25 opening, citing insufficient preparation. Beczała already had a full summer schedule and insisted, when Bayreuth made the offer, that the festival help in negotiating him out of his previous engagements. “I’m a very honest singer,” he says. “I don’t cancel one contract for another contract.” With his management, Thielemann and Katharina Wagner all involved in the discussions, he ended up missing a couple of scheduled recitals, a Tanglewood Bohème and some recording sessions, although he did manage to squeeze in a concert at the Sopot Festival between the third and fourth Lohengrins. 

Beczała found the Bayreuth experience extraordinarily congenial. “It felt much easier than two years ago,” he tells me. “Before I came to Bayreuth, I did [Lehár’s] Land of Smiles in Zurich. It was good preparation for Lohengrin—singing operetta and Wagner is pretty similar. The same language. Of course I changed my approach a little from Dresden, because now I feel more comfortable with the role. I know it now, which means you can concentrate on different things than when you do a role for the first time.” 

His performance was a triumph; Jeffrey A. Leipsic, in OPERA NEWS, called it “a performance of astounding assurance and incomparable beauty.” Beczała will return to the production this summer, when he will be reunited on the Green Hill with Netrebko, his Dresden Elsa. 

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Photographs by Pete Thompson
Fashion Styling by Keith T. Pollick, Fashion assistant Troy Joseph
Grooming by Affan Graber Malik

IN THE MET LUISA MILLER Beczała shared the stage with Plácido Domingo, as Miller—this writer’s own first Rodolfo, forty years ago. The seventy-seven-year-old superstar’s move into baritone roles inevitably raises the question of Beczała’s own career plans, once his tenor days are over. “Plácido’s a miracle—the voice is still fresh,” says Beczała. “I’m very, very impressed. But I would never do this. I want to stay on the stage as long as possible, but within physical possibility. You can sing, I don’t know, Monostatos until your last breath. But I think my value as a singer will drop if I do this. 

“I’m twenty-five years on the stage,” he says. “The goal is thirty-five—ten years more of high-quality singing under pressure, the top roles in the top opera houses. Maybe five years—who knows? That’s fine with me. I don’t want to change. I don’t want to sing forever. Singing is like a sport, and there is a moment when you have to say, ‘I can’t hold the same level.’ Usain Bolt, the best sprinter ever, is now retired—not because he can’t run, but because he can’t run on the same level.

“I see my future as a teacher. I’ve been building my strategy on how to teach—how do you say in English?—my school.” In recent years, he has gotten a head start with the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, where he has served as an informal mentor to young tenors such as Atalla Ayan and Matthew Plenk. “Of course, I have no time to give ten lessons or something like that,” he says. “But it’s important when I come a year later and see how a singer is growing and help them make the right choices in repertory.

“They listen to me,” Beczała says, “because I know what I’m talking about.”  spacer 



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