The following interview was conducted in the administrative offices of the San Diego Opera, whose facilitation of this interview is deeply appreciated.
[Below: Lyric tenor Giuseppe Filianoti; edited image, based on an Arielle Doneson portrait photograph, courtesy of giuseppefiianoti.com.]
Wm: What were your earliest memories of music?
GF: I believe I was born with music being inside of me. Just as I see myself in my son of nine year old, and know he was born that way, so I know music was part of me.
When you are happy, you have to sing a happy song or, if your mood is sad, you sing a sad song – whatever your on your mood. Singing is a way to express yourself. I was born with something inside myself that needed to express myself through singing.
Many people ask me about how they should prepare to be a singer. I say it’s within you.
Wm: Then your earliest memories of singing are the songs you sang yourself to match your mood?
GF: Yes, I remember at age four or five that I always had a melody going through my head.
My family lived in a house on the seventh floor, with steps leading up to the top that would echo all the way up. I would sing to hear the echo in the upstairs staircase.
I went to a Catholic school where the sisters told the students that we had to pray and sing every morning. The sisters chose me to be the soloist in a chorus with my schoolmates at age five.
It was clear that I was a singer, although that didn’t mean I wanted to sing opera. I would listen to pop music and thought that I could be a pop singer.
[Below: Nemorino (Giuseppe Filianoti, right) believes that Adina (Nino Machaidze, left) will soon feel the effects of the elixir of love, in the 2008 Bayerische Staasoper production of Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore”; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of giuseppefilianoti.com.]
Wm: How did you get to know opera?
GF: It was from watching The Three Tenors, Pavarotti, Carreras and Domingo on TV. When I started imitating them, my family said that I should pursue the study of singing.
I came to realize that opera is a way to express the passion that exists in the music. The problem that opera has today is that it is not well known to the public. I had not heard it in the theater, so it was very good for me that I first learned about opera from The Three Tenors concerts.
At that time, I knew I loved classical music, but I couldn’t read it. With my family encouraging me, I agreed to enter Reggio Calabria’s music conservatory in town and to stay there for a year and maybe after that year come back to pop music.
Wm: It was at the Francesco Cilea Music Conservatory in Reggio Calabria that your career goals changed from pop to opera?
GF: The conservatory faculty listened to my voice and took me into their class. In just a week, I had fallen in love with the music. I was not thinking of opera as a job, but as a passion.
I also love literature and so was pursuing the idea of being a writer at the university, even while I was studying music at the conservatory. But, as I began looking at the repertory of all of opera, I knew that this, and not literature, would be the center of my life.
I studied at the conservatory for four or five years, learning to play the piano, to read music, to learn harmony, composition and music history, and also how to move on stage.
However, I also obtained a degree in literature at the University of Messina in Sicily, because I had decided that I wanted to go to Milano to become a journalist.
[Below: Mephistopheles (Tigran Martirossian, left) has transformed Faust (Giuseppe Filianoti, right) into a young man in the 2011 Hamburg Staatsoper production of Gounod’s “Faust”; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of giuseppefilianoti.com]
Wm: In Milano, instead of becoming a journalist, you pursued operatic studies at the Teatro alla Scala. How did this happen?
GF: At that time, La Scala was publicizing upcoming auditions for the Accademia della Scala with conductor Riccardo Muti and soprano Leyla Gencer. I tried out and caught Muti’s attention. I have to say that it was Muti who “discovered” me.
Wm: And how did that happen?
GF: I sang in the audition. Muti listened to me. He took aside and asked if I wanted to sing the final scene in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”, which, of course, I would. Then he said to me. You are from Calabria, we are both terrone (a derisive term that Milanese and Northern Italians use for countrymen living in the South of Italy).
He then said to Gencer and the other judges. “Do whatever you want with the others, but take him.” And they did.
Wm: What were your impressions of Gencer as a teacher?
GF: To have learned opera from her and Muti made me feel connected to the times of Maria Callas. She was my connection to one the best times to be part of the opera.
Muti and Gencer had known how Callas, and tenor Giuseppe di Stefano and conductor Victor De Sabata prepared themselves for performance. They each had a deep understanding of how to phrase and how to interpret the opera’s text.
[Below: Nemorino (Giuseppe Filianoti, front, left) secretly talks about the properties of the elixir offered him by Doctor Dulcamara (Kevin Burdette, center right) in a 2014 performance of Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” by the San Diego Opera; resized image of a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
Wm: What did you learn in the La Scala academy?
The La Scala Academy was a good school for me. It taught me to do everything needed to create an elegant style, especially the Italian repertory – to learn what the composer wanted, to know how the character I am singing should sound.
[Below: the Duke of Mantua (Giuseppe Filianoti, right), disguised as a student called Gualtier Malde, having been invited into her bedroom, attempts to seduce Gilda (Albina Shagimuratova, left); edited image, based on a 2013 Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto”; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of giuseppefilianoti.com.]
Wm: Not only did you get to know Muti and Gencer, but the great Spanish lyric tenor Alfredo Kraus, as well.
GF: I did. Kraus was performing the Donizetti opera roles, which he always sang them with such elegant phrasing. He was wonderful as Gennaro with Montserrat Caballe.
Wm: In the 1960s, both Kraus and Luciano Pavarotti sang the lyric tenor roles of Donizetti. Kraus stayed in that repertory, while Pavarottti went on to the spinto and dramatic Italian tenor roles.
GF: Kraus did not have the big voice that Pavarotti had, and so chose to stay in the lyric repertory. But I think there was a control, even a “shyness” in Kraus’ voice, that made him the perfect artist for the lyric repertory.
Wm: Do you see yourself staying in the lyric repertory as Kraus did or moving into heavier repertory like Pavarotti?
GF: Every one’s voice has a certain character and evolves in a certain way. It is impossible for us to sing in later years exactly the way you sang at age 20. You have to have the courage to change in the way that your body does.
Pavarotti’s voice grew in a way that led him eventually to sing the title role in Verdi’s “Otello”. He was always good, and was always able to sing in a big house. Kraus’ character was more controlled.
I appreciate both, but I expect to stay in the kind of repertory that Alfredo Kraus sang.
Wm: Which direction do you see your voice evolving? Which roles do you wish to add to your repertory?
GF: Two roles that interest me are the title roles of Donizetti’s “Poliuto” and “Belisario”. These are truly operas for the lyric tenor, as are Donizetti’s “Dom Sebastien” and “Roberto Devereux”, both of which I do sing.
Wm: At age 24 (1998) you performed the title role of Donizetti’s “Dom Sebastien” in that composer’s home town, Bergamo. Then at age 25, you sang Argirio in Rossini’s “Tancredi” in Pesaro, Rossini’s home town.
But the composer who is truly a terrone is the Sicilian Vincenzo Bellini. How do you relate to his works, as opposed to those of the Northern Italians, Rossini, Donizetti and Verdi?
GF: When you are young, the opera companies ask you to sing Rossini and Donizetti. This gives you time to adjust your voice.
I find that the role of Arturo in Bellini’s “I Puritani” is too high for me, and the role of Pollione in “Norma” lies too low for me. I’m asked to do these roles, but turn down the offers.
The lyric tenor roles are difficult, but the works of Rossini and Donizetti suit my nature and my voice. I believe that early Verdi contains a lot of Donizetti. I like the role of Jacopo in Verdi’s “I Due Foscari”. I also sang the role of Edoardo in Verdi’s “Un Giorno di Regno”, that is written in Donizetti’s style.
I personally believe its important that you like your character and the music he sings. A role like Gennaro in “Lucrezia Borgia” not only requires strength in the upper register but a committed interpretation. You must put your heart into making the character into a living person.
If I am performing a character like the title role in Verdi’s “Don Carlos”, I want my voice to be the instrument that gives that character a personality.
Wm: You not only sing the major Italian lyric roles but many in French as well.
GF: I find that such French repertory roles as Des Grieux in Massenet’s “Manon” and the title role of Massenet’s “Werther” are particularly suited to my voice. A role that is very difficult for me, but that I love very much, is Pelleas in Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melissande”.
I’ve also performed roles outside of the French and Italian repertories, including Flamand in Richard Strauss’ “Capriccio” and Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress”.
Wm: Having known and having been mentored by such great singers of the past generation as Leyla Gencer and Alfredo Kraus, do you believe that opera performance has changed fundamentally?
GF: So many people say that there are no more singers like the ones form the past. Perhaps this is because opera houses, conductors and stage directors are asking so much more of singers than in the past.
When their composers were alive, the operas were transformed to accommodate the voices of the singers.
Now they expect artists to be prepared to sing the opera as written. It is like we are in a museum. The conductor says, the composer indicates pianissimo, so here you must sing the pianissimo.
[Below: Giuseppe Filianoti as the Emperor Titus in the Metropolitan Opera production of Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of giuseppefilianoti.com.]
When Kraus would arrive at an opera house, he would say “these are my cuts”. Now, a lead tenor must sing whole operas without cuts. When Callas was engaged to sing Cherubini’s “Medea”, no conductor would have thought of asking her to sing a performance uncut.
You sing everything Donizetti wrote in an opera, including the repeats of cabalettas. I can understand repeating certain of the cabalettas, such as those in “La Traviata”, when there is something new introduced into the repeat that has a dramatic purpose.
Even the orchestra is tuned to a higher pitch than the original artists sang, but you are expected to sing those notes at the higher pitch.
This is a bad time for singers. In the old days, Rossini, Donizetti and Verdi would tailor the role to an individual artist.
The role of Nemorino in Donizetti’s score of “L’Elisir d’Amore” was written for a specific tenor. It is what suited that tenor’s voice.
Wm: I would argue that most of the great Nemorinos or our day (such as yourself) sing the role better than the original Nemorino (who did not impress Donizetti).
GF: Many things are good about contemporary opera performances and the creative vision of the productions.
Wm: You participated in one of Placido Domingo’s Operalia competition.
GF: That was a wonderful experience. I was there with Rolando Villazon and Joseph Calleja. We called ourselves “The Three Young Tenors”.
Wm: At age 29 you made your Metropolitan Opera debut as Edgardo in “Lucia di Lammermoor”.
GF: That was a wonderful day for me. I remember my taxi ride from the Airport to Lincoln Center. I felt so small surrounded by those buildings.
[Below: Giuseppe Filianoti as Hoffmann in the Opera National de Paris production of Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann”; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of giuseppefilianoti.com.]
Wm: Soon after that debut, you were diagnosed with thyroid cancer and had to have surgery on your throat. This would be a nightmare for anyone, but particularly a vocal artist.
GF: You can never know what things might happen, that will stop what you are doing in your life. You understand that you have a special gift, but you may or may not lose everything that is important in your career.
Wm: This adversity that required great courage to overcome. How did you cope with the surgery?
GF: I decided that I would trust in my ability to reconstruct my voice after the surgery and then go on with my career.
That is what I did. I did it step by step. This is the reality of my life.
Everything puts you on a road. You go one way or the other. You have to find yourself. You have to convince yourself that nothing is really bad, it’s just a way of changing. If I thought about the future without my voice, it would have been a disaster for my mind.
Wm: How did the experience change you as a person?
GF: It changed my way of thinking about the world in which we live. I knew from the beginning my life would be different from then on. Now I live my life one day after another.
We are unfortunately living in this society that expects an artist to perform in a certain way. You are expected to think about money and building a successful career in which you are considered the first and not the second. The public wants you to be what you may not be.
I understood what I needed to do. I had to stop and consider that nothing in life is just given to you. I knew there was something about this experience that was meant to make me understand that I needed to change.
First, I came to understand that my career was not my life. Whether or not I recovered my career, I had not lost my vision of life.
We are not machines to be discarded, if we don’t work correctly. I understood that we are human beings, born to connect with each other, to understand each other, to give and receive.
Wm: Your recovery was sufficiently complete to allow you to return to the operatic stage without a long break.
GF: Opera singers have contracts for years in advance. I canceled my engagements stopped for five or six months after the surgery, allowing the scar to heal. Slowly my voice was coming back.
When I felt able to start again, I decided to sing Hoffmann in a new production of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” at the Hamburg Staatsoper in December 2007. Even if my voice was not yet perfect, I felt I could adjust my voice. I knew some would accept my performance and others would not. As it turned out, my Hoffmann was a great success.
Wm: I reported on your Edgardo in San Francisco in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and your Nemorino in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” in Los Angeles, in Summer and Fall of 2008. Even noting some evidence of vocal discomfort in both performances, your voice had clearly returned.
Now that you are in the seventh year of recovery from the cancer surgery, what are your future career plans?
GF: I remember the advice of Alfredo Kraus, who said to me, that his career took place during the time that contemporary tenors with such monstrous voices as Giuseppe di Stefano and Luciano Pavarotti were singing. Unlike them, he Kraus, was still singing at age 70. He said to wait, wait, on taking heavier roles, so as to maintain one’s voice.
It’s difficult these days to wait. Companies want you to take on heavier roles, which I know would be a mistake. I’m waiting, waiting, maintaining, maintaining.
Wm: Thank you, Giuseppe.
GF: My pleasure!
See William’s recent review of a Filianoti performance at: Giuseppe Filianoti Leads Strong Cast for “The Elixir of Love” – San Diego Opera, February 15, 2014.