Brief Encounter with... American tenor Charles Castronovo
We caught up with American tenor Charles Castronovo on the eve of his role debut as Ruggero in the Royal Opera's revival of Puccini's La Rondine
What truly made me want to perform in the first place was Led Zeppelin. I wanted to be a rock star. To play like Jimmy Page or sing like Robert Plant, that's what was really behind it all. After that it was just hearing the entrance Verdi's Otello that hooked me into opera. What made you want to pursue a career in opera? In high school I joined the choir and was also singing in the school musical. After the reaction I knew I wanted to sing! But it was the passion and beauty of opera that grabbed me from the beginning. Plus my voice was no good in Rock and Roll.
If you had to single out three career-defining moments what would they be and why?
Tough question because sometimes you do not realise a particular moment was career defining until later when the effects kick in. But for me one moment was my operatic debut in Berlin singing Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni. I was young and a bit green but I proved to myself that I could beat most of the nerve demons in my mind and actually enjoy singing! A second could be when I recorded my first album, an album of Neapolitan songs. I did it in three days and then did a mini tour in New York. It was my first passion project, and something different from opera. Third was jumping in to a Romeo et Juliette in Los Angeles at the very last minute. I was home on vacation in LA and got the call. I learned the staging in about two hours, had a quick musical rehearsal with the conductor, Placido Domingo, and then somehow sang very well! Singing is 40% voice and 60% mental abilities! It was a great day.
'Crossover artist' tends to have negative connotations, yet you've not only performed to great acclaim at the world's leading opera houses but enjoyed a huge success at the Hollywood Musical Prom - how do you reconcile the two 'strands' to your career?
For me my cross-over does not cross as far as others. But, I would never draw a red line that couldn't be stepped over. For me the rule is: if I can convince myself I could probably convince others. Hence why I never had a rock & roll career, but the Hollywood Show Prom was for me all about Mario Lanza, who was the first opera singer/cross over artist in Hollywood to make such an impression. And it was one of his songs that I had to perform.
You made headline news earlier this year singing Tamino at Covent Garden, then hot-footing it to Islington to the King's Head for a cabaret gig - how did that come about?
This gig all started from my album of Neapolitan songs Dolce Napoli. I put together a band of five musicians, guitar, mandolin, accordion, bass and percussion. I wanted to perform these songs in a more intimate way. After the recording of the album we did some gigs in New York at the cabaret club 54 Below. My producer knew the artistic director of The King's Head and thought the show would fit. It is a unique and intimate space at the King's Head so it is a great match for the Napoli show. We played 5 shows at the King's Head just this last April.
You're in London for a revival of Puccini's La Rondine - for those audiences familiar with La Boheme or Tosca, what can they expect from this less frequently performed of his operas?
La Rondine is like that extremely talented cousin who does not show up to family dinners often because she is travelling! But really this opera is perhaps even more jam packed with beautiful melodies then even La Boheme. It was written in let's say a style that is operetta-like. By the end of act one you can hum at least seven tunes, and waltz to them as well! It is simply one of his most straight forward gorgeous operas.
You've sung many of the lyrical tenor roles - what's next on the horizon?
For me now it is about opening slowly to some more fully lyric roles. I always had patience, even when it was frustrating, about taking it step by step with new repertoire. I still sing all of my leading roles I started with, with the exception of two or three, and that includes all my Mozart roles. But this ‘Rondine' is a first for me. Still lyric, but with those moments of fuller passion that Puccini provides. Next is my first Des Grieux in Massenet's 'Manon'. I feel the most comfortable in the French lyric repertoire but always continue roles in Mozart and bel canto.
What advice would you give to any budding singers who want to follow an operatic path?
My main advice is this: A singing career is only about 40% voice and 60% mentality. What I mean is that there is and have always been many talented singers with great voices around. You always hear about 'the next… whoever', and sadly many times they disappear after a few years. This career requires a lot of fighting against your own demons. Our voices are our instrument that we carry with us always. When someone criticizes us, it's like they said your face is ugly, so you must be mentally and emotionally strong. And then there's all the other things; hard work, tons of memorisation, constantly taking care of the voice (sometimes very boring), being a great colleague, being positive in general, being away from family, being away from your loves, wives, husbands, children etc. You have to accept all of that and still be emotionally in a decent place. Otherwise it can be pretty brutal at times. But if you must sing, ask yourself if you MUST sing at the greatest places in the world? Or will you be happy singing in smaller theatres and venues - because this can make a huge difference in life style. The main point is if you need to express yourself through singing, then you must do it.
You're stranded on a desert island but are allowed one musical score - which would you take with you and why?
Hard question!!! This week I will say Romeo et Juliette by Gounod. No wait... maybe... Ugh!
The Royal Opera's revival of La Rondine opens tonight (5 July)