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New star tenor is on the rise

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When Rolando Villazon sang at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art last year in what was reportedly his first solo recital, reviewers for The New York Times and the Financial Times formed uncommonly similar impressions. Both proclaimed the Mexican tenor "the real thing," an assessment earlier voiced by the Sunday Times of London when he sang Hoffmann at Covent Garden: "Villazon is the real thing, a tenor with star potential and striking individuality." And these views predate his remarkable performance as Alfredo in the Salzburg Festival's memorable "La Traviata" in August. Among the pretenders to the mantle of Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo, Villazon has a legitimate claim. He has returned to the Paris Opera as Rodolfo in "La Boheme" and will sing in seven more performances through Oct. 29. If the rise to stardom has boosted his ego, it was not apparent when we spoke in Salzburg, where he was gracious in attributing the production's success to his colleagues, the soprano Anna Netrebko and the director, Willy Decker. "I first heard Netrebko when I had an audition in Washington and she was singing Gilda. Right away I knew that I must sing with this soprano," he said on the terrace of the festival's press office overlooking the city. Almost by chance, they were paired for a single "Traviata" in Munich, and earlier this year they starred in Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette" in Los Angeles. It says much about Villazon's appeal that while the gorgeous and highly talented Netrebko was undoubtedly the main reason "Traviata" tickets were such hot items, reviews uniformly hailed the two as opera's "dream couple." On his first solo recording, a collection of Italian arias for EMI's Virgin Classics, reviewers praised his "messa di voce" singing, a term that describes the process of singing a long note softly, then increasing the volume, and finally tapering off in a mirror image of how it began. A second disc of French arias proved to be even better.

A well-executed messa di voce demonstrates a singer's musicianship and sense of style, but Villazon's voice itself is one of great beauty, with its burnished richness, liquid resonance and striking ring. He is the latest of an impressive crop of tenors from Latin America that includes Ramon Vargas, Juan Diego Florez and Marcelo lvarez. "There must be something in the tequila!" he joked. "There were always great voices from Latin America. Now it is a cycle." Asked to name a tenor he especially admires, he quickly says: "Placido Domingo!" adding, almost pro forma, "of course, there is also Pavarotti, Bjoerling, Corelli, Carreras, Bergonzi." But Domingo, who grew up and trained in Mexico, heads the list as a kind of mentor. "Just spending time with him is a lesson in itself, and he has been very generous to me."

And just as Domingo was associated more with lyric than dramatic roles at the outset of his career, so too Villazon started with lighter repertoire but has had little difficulty proving himself in heavier roles.

"The trick is to judge characters not vocally but dramatically, then conceive how the voice can suit the dramatic idea so that it serves the role. We tend to classify roles Alfredo is good for a young singer, but it can be a very hard role. Don Carlo is heavier, with very dramatic phrases. But it also has lovely moments of mezza voce [half voice]. Like the character, the music is schizophrenic from one bar to the next." And he is fascinated by the Duke in "Rigoletto." "He gets away with everything he does, but at the end you don't hate the guy; you feel sorry for Rigoletto and Gilda. I am more interested in portraying complex or troubled human beings than heroes. Hoffmann is the perfect antihero, a defeated human being." Villazon was born in Mexico City in 1972 and began studying music, acting and dance at the age of 11. His father worked for Columbia Records, and the discovery of a Domingo record around the house proved to be a life-altering experience, even though young Rolando then had little use for opera. He chose his first voice teacher because he was a friend of Domingo's and later studied with the baritone Gabriel Mijares, who developed his basic technique. Now Villazon is his own teacher. "If you are young or have problems, of course go to a teacher. But you are the only person who has the instrument you have, and no one can know it as well as you." His wife, Lucia, whom he met when they were teenagers, has also shaped his career. She urged him to give up the idea of becoming a priest, as did the priest who was his mentor after hearing the young tenor sing. Later, when Villazon considered making his day job as a history teacher permanent, Lucia threatened not to marry him if he gave up his dream of being an opera singer. He entered the San Francisco Opera's Merola Program in 1998, later participating in the young artists program of the Pittsburgh Opera.

"I was pushed to make a career outside my country," he said. "It is hard for politicians to see the importance of opera when there are so many other problems. But cutting culture creates other problems, because culture is a society's soul." He sang Rodolfo at his New York City Opera debut in 2001, repeating the role that summer in Bregenz, Austria. His Metropolitan Opera debut occurred two years later, when he followed Vargas in a celebrated "La Traviata" with Renee Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. He and his wife have two children and make their home in Paris.

Covent Garden will hear Villazon's first Russian role in March: Lensky in "Eugene Onegin." Werther also ranks high among future priorities. "Some day I would like to sing Idomeneo," he said, while acknowledging that Mozart generally is not for him. In 2009 at the Los Angeles Opera he will sing in "Il Postino," a new opera by the Mexican composer Daniel Catan, based on the novel by Antonio Skarmeta and Michael Radford's later film. Villazon will be Mario, the personal mailman of the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, to whom Mario develops a deep devotion. Domingo will sing Neruda. "That's a performance I am really looking forward to," Villazon said.

(C) 2005 International Herald Tribune. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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