Finnish baritone Juha Uusitalo is one of today’s greatest exponents of the roles of Wagner. He has sung the title role in The Flying Dutchman over ninety times in fourteen different productions, and is an acclaimed Wotan in The Ring. He’s about to make his London operatic debut at The Royal Opera, not in Wagner, but as Puccini’s evil chief of police, Baron Scarpia in Tosca. I caught up with him in his dressing room and found out that his operatic career started not on the stage but in the pit.
“When I was seven years old I started playing the piano, then two years later began learning the flute. The flute eventually became my main instrument, initially as a hobby, then later I began studying at the Sibelius Academie, where I got my diploma. It was 1995 and that’s when I started singing as well – it was the first time I opened my mouth and I began studying with Tom Nyman who advised me to take this business seriously.”
At this time Juha was playing the flute in the Finnish National Opera orchestra, but slowly but surely was assuming small roles on stage such as Angelotti, which was his first part in that house. Earlier he had been refused a place on the opera course at the University being advised ‘not to give up the flute playing’, “Now I can laugh but at the time people were saying ‘if you can’t get in, who can’ so I called the opera department and asked what I could do better in order to secure a place.” The professor then invited him back as he wanted to hear Juha again as he had ‘good material’. Surprising as it may seem, the first homework that Juha had to work on was Hans Sachs’ monologue from The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. Quite a baptism of fire.
He made his debut in a Martinu opera with the opera school and realised that performing in opera was something that he had to keep on doing, so reduced his flute playing in the pit band as more engagements started coming his way. 1998 was his last year as a flautist in the orchestra. “One day I was playing the flute, then the next day I would be singing Antonio in Figaro, then I’d be back in the pit, then the next day would be on stage as Angelotti. My colleagues in the pit would always applaud me and shout ‘Bravo!’, making the soprano who sang Tosca and the baritone who sang Scarpia very jealous – I suppose you could say I had my own ‘claque’ in the pit.”
Over the last thirteen years Juha has made many significant debuts in some of the world’s leading opera houses but he cites one of the most important turning points in his career was when he was still a student and assumed the title role in Verdi’s Falstaff. “We had a full orchestra and a professional stage director and conductor. Singing such a great role was advantageous for me at the point as the bush radio started to work overtime and I got noticed by some important people.”
As is often the case, he also happened to be in the right place at the right time when he was working with Gustav Kuhn at the conductor’s opera festival in the Tyrol. “I was covering the role of Wanderer in Siegfried and as the premiere came closer, the singer who was scheduled to sing the role suddenly became ill, so Gustav asked me to do the final dress and maybe the first night. I ended up doing both of those and the second dress as well. Internationally that was good for me, as it raised my profile considerably.”
The title role in The Flying Dutchman has very much become his ‘calling-card’ having sung it 92 times now in such acclaimed stagings as Martin Kusej’s from Amsterdam (which is available on DVD) and Peter Konwitschny’s in Munich.
We may have to wait to see him in Wagner in London, but his debut as Scarpia is eagerly anticipated and he seems equally excited at the prospect. “You know I have dreamt about working with Antonio Pappano and now the dream has come true. What he is doing with us is amazing. He is so committed and finally I am very happy to be performing the role of Scarpia with him as I’m learning more and more.”
Given that Juha has sung a lot of Wagner I’m interested to find out what adjustments, if any, he has to make when singing Puccini. “You know the music guides you always. You need to be open and ready to accept the language and the character. Everything is composed and the work is endless to find more and more there. Ultimately we should always respect the composer.”
When I ask about his future plans he tells me that he is looking forward to singing Iago in Otello in Munich. “I have only sung him once before so I have started studying the role afresh and of course I would love to sing Hans Sachs one day. Other than that I have plans to sing more Wagner – other ‘idiots’ or should I say ‘bad guys’ although Wotan is not necessarily a bad guy, his character is just flawed. Also I would like to sing Macbeth again which I have sung twice before.”
Although Juha no longer sings at the Finnish National Opera, both Vienna and Munich have become his ‘home’ houses, but he’s very keen to be invited back to The Royal Opera as he’s having such a good experience here. “I feel as though I’m in good hands, everyone is very professional and open. I would love to come back but first I have to do this very well.”
Juha Uusitalo sings the role of Scarpia in The Royal Opera’s revival of Tosca from 7 June, 2011. www.roh.org.uk.