OPERA NEWS - The Man You Love to Hate
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The Man You Love to Hate

Baritone George Gagnidze thrives on singing opera’s darkest characters.
By Jennifer Melick 

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IN PUBLICITY PHOTOS, his eyes pop out menacingly, his mouth curled in a sneer; onstage he is a supremely vengeful Tonio, a nuanced, affecting Rigoletto and a multilayered, terrifyingly evil Scarpia. Baritone George Gagnidze has been taking on more roles at the Metropolitan Opera, many of them villains. Ten years ago, he sang Rigoletto there for the first time, and in April and May he returns to sing it again. His hundredth performance at the house came this past fall, during the run of his first Michele in Puccini’s Tabarro. He’s also sung the murderous Verdi Macbeth and the cuckolded Alfio in Cavalleria Rusticana, among others. Elsewhere, his roles include the mastermind Iago in Verdi’s Otello, the Inquisition spy Barnaba in La Gioconda and the jealous, flip-flopping French revolutionary Carlo Gérard in Andrea Chénier

The onstage bad-guy, now forty-eight, is, in fact, a gentle bear of a man. He comes from Tbilisi, capital of the tiny country of Georgia. He splits his time between homes in Tbilisi, where he, his wife and two children live, and Berlin, where he is based while working. In Georgia, he explains at our meeting in a Met rehearsal room last fall, “We grow up singing seven-part a cappella choral music, close harmony. We are very proud of this tradition,” he says, whipping out his cell phone and pulling up a YouTube video featuring the renowned singer Hamlet Gonashvili (1928–85), known as “the voice of Georgia.” It’s startlingly ornate, haunting, beautiful. “This is complicated music, and it’s good training for the ear to learn it. Many Georgians do that, or dance, starting as small children, and we also grow up listening to it on the radio and on TV. The tradition of singing is really embedded.”

Gagnidze wasn’t much interested in opera early on. “But when I was about fifteen, I saw Luciano Pavarotti on television in L’Elisir d’Amore with Kathleen Battle,” he says. “When I heard Pavarotti sing ‘Una furtiva lagrima,’ I immediately decided that’s what’s going to be for me. I asked my father if I could study singing. ‘Of course you can study singing,’ he said. ‘There’s nothing strange about that—all Georgians are good singers!’” Gagnidze bursts out laughing. (Gagnidze’s wife, a medical doctor, studied music, and their teenage daughter is studying singing, too.) But his family insisted he also consider a backup career. “So I studied engineering,” he says, “and at the same time I was privately studying singing.”

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At the Met, as Tonio to Roberto Alagna’s Canio, 2018
© Beatriz Schiller

When Gagnidze turned twenty-one, he enrolled full-time at the conservatory in Tbilisi. But the timing was tricky. Georgia had just become an independent country after breaking off from the Soviet Union. “There was a civil war in Georgia in 1991, 1992, 1993, with two factions,” he says. “The conservatory is very close to the President’s Palace. It was very dangerous then for students. For a while, I studied at my singing professor’s home. It was a very difficult time for the whole younger generation. But it gave me strength going forward, after the war.” While still a twenty-four-year-old student, he was invited to audition to sing in the opera house in Tbilisi. The music director there, Jansug Kakhidze, was so impressed that he began assigning the young baritone lyric roles—Renato in Ballo, Giorgio Germont, Yeletsky, Onegin—as well as some comprimario roles, to give him more stage experience. He began winning competitions, and conductor Lorin Maazel hired him, first as Paolo in Simon Boccanegra in Valencia, Spain (2006), then as Germont in La Traviata at La Scala (2007) and, for his first U.S. performance, Scarpia with the New York Philharmonic in 2008.

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As Scarpia to Patricia Racette’s Tosca, 2013
© Beatriz Schiller

But where does the onstage evil come from? One source, he says, was Luc Bondy, who directed him in that first Met Scarpia in 2009. Bondy suggested he listen to tapes of Mussolini speaking Italian. “Bondy came from the theater, and he helped me create the evil character of Scarpia,” Gagnidze says. “The voice should be a mixture of beautiful but also steel, which brings together the opposite-sides character of Scarpia. Scarpia is clever—he is covering his evil and can even be seductive. There are many parts to him.” He says he also was deeply affected by recorded performances of Tito Gobbi’s Scarpia in London, with Maria Callas as Tosca. “There was so much intensity. That is the key to the drama—keeping that continual tension throughout the performance.” Something about the way Gagnidze appears to hold back, the voice and eyes and posture always hinting at the threat of violence but stopping short of it, makes him uniquely menacing. It’s not related so much to the timbre of his voice or its volume as to how he modulates it. In the #MeToo era, perhaps some of the operas he sings are landing differently for people in the audience. “Violence—there are many, many countries where that happens, including here!” he says. “And men in particular who have power, it’s everywhere in the world. We have so many Toscas.” In conversation, he pointedly steers clear of politics, but onstage, he says, “You’re kind of protected, because you’re an interpreter. Politics is just playing roles. So there’s a freedom there. It’s very democratic to be able to do that. Libertà!” 

Gagnidze says he is happy with where he is—“but not totally. When you’re totally happy, you’re going to drop. You’ve always got to want more. I need to learn something new always, and if I stopped, that would be.…” He trails off. “I need it!” spacer 

Jennifer Melick  is managing editor of Symphony. 

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