It’s not every day you get to interview a man in tights, but as Polish tenor Piotr Beczala rushes past me on the way to his dressing room following one of the penultimate stage rehearsals for The Royal Opera’s forthcoming revival of their ultra-traditional staging of Gounod’s take on Romeo and Juliet, he apologies for keeping me waiting and tells me he’ll be out of those tights in a jiffy.
Within the twinkling of an eye he’s swapped them and the blouson for a pair of jeans and a jumper and as he tucks into his pasta salad is more than happy to tell me how’s he got to the position of being not only one of the most sought-after tenors of his generation, but one whose head is firmly screwed on to a sensible pair of shoulders. In a profession where flights of fancy often far outweigh a more grounded sensibility his candour and honesty come as a breath of fresh air.
When I ask him what made him pursue a career in singing he readily admits, “that I started pretty late, at the age of about nineteen and did my technical schooling first. It was very much an accident in a way and after a while I was singing in a semi-professional madrigal choir.” It was only after having been spotted by one of the conductors who suggested that Piotr audition for the music academy in Katowice that a professional singing career became a possibility. “During my years there I was lucky enough to take part in Pavel Lisitzian’s masterclasses in Weimar, Germany and also in the late 80s with the great Sena Jurinac who helped discover my ‘fach’ as in those days in Eastern Europe all the young singers started by singing way too heavy stuff such as the dramatic repertoire but she told me ‘no Puccini – just Mozart for you’, and I found this very helpful.”
On graduating in 1992 he signed his first contract with an opera company – in Linz, Austria. Although this was a big step for the young tenor he’s not afraid to admit that he felt that he couldn’t really sing properly, as his technique was lacking so he found himself a singing teacher and over the course of a couple of years began building the voice and developing his technique from scratch, and this process “revealed my voice – my natural voice.” His ‘galley’ years at Linz taught him the basic grounding that many singers these days are lacking, singing everything from Spoletta (Tosca) to Ferrando (Cosi fan Tutte) and encompassing all the lyrical Mozart roles along the way. “This grounding was very, very helpful for in my opinion a young singer has to learn something in the beginning and not just start a career. It’s a process, and it’s all about learning and you never stop learning. Too many singers embark on high profile careers without having a proper technique, sing repertoire that is too heavy for them and ultimately encounter difficulties. It’s a great shame.”
It’s not unusual for young singers to find themselves catapulted into the spotlight at short notice and Piotr was no exception as he received a call from the Zurich Opera to fly in and replace an ailing tenor who had to withdraw from the role of Rinuccio in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi . This was very much an 11th hour replacement as Piotr had been rehearsing Belmonte in the morning in Linz and had to be on stage in Zurich that evening, but as often happens in these situations, he went down a storm, so much so that he was offered a contract with the Zurich Opera. At the same time Ioan Holender (the then Intendant at the Vienna Staatsoper) also offered the young tenor a contract but Piotr turned down the offer from the more prestigious house, “Vienna is a very different type of opera house – it’s really just geared to a couple of opera stars, you rehearse for a couple of days then you’re on and for a young tenor you probably never get the chance to sing something really good, and rehearse so that’s why I signed with Zurich.”
He remained part of the Zurich ensemble for three years and admits that he’s been lucky to choose his roles rather than being pushed into singing parts which were too heavy for him by the people who run the opera houses. He’s very much been in charge of his career and has always been aware of what he’s capable of and what he’s not and interestingly enough cites turning down offers from La Scala Milan and the Met New York as two of the most important decisions in his career. “But of course I was waiting for the right role and the right time, and what both houses were offering me was wrong at that stage of my career.”
He has stuck to his guns which is why over the last few years he has been adding roles to his repertoire such as Faust, which he first sang at Covent Garden a few years ago, and now Roméo, to which his voice is ideally suited. He admits that Roméo is a big sing, and calls for plenty of lyricism and vocal heft but it’s a ‘must-sing’ for all lyric tenors - Bjorling, Gedda and Kraus have all sung it so it’s now a natural progression for Piotr. The steady addition of these roles shows how careful he has been at developing his career. He sings his first Hofmann in four years time and when I ask about heavier repertoire he laughs, “well maybe in five years time I will sing more verismo”, but whatever he decides to sing in the future, you can be sure that all the roles he takes on will be his decision – carefully thought out and given 100% commitment.
Piort Beczala sings Romeo in The Royal Opera’s revival of Romeo et Juliette from 26 October 2010. www.royalopera.org.uk