An interview by Nicole Kuchta for Opera Wire.
Earlier this season, Spanish tenor Airam Hernández took on the role of legendary tenor Enrico Caruso in the world premiere of Dutch composer Micha Hamel’s new opera “Caruso a Cuba.” Following his success in Amsterdam, the tenor will make his highly anticipated U.S. debut and role debut with the Dallas Opera as Fenton in Lee Blakely’s production of Verdi’s beloved comedy “Falstaff.”
Hernández recently spoke with OperaWire about his experience creating the role of Caruso, and about his debut in Dallas.
OperaWire: You recently starred as Enrico Caruso in the world premiere of Micha Hamel’s “Caruso a Cuba.” How did you prepare for the role? What was your approach to portraying the legendary tenor?
Airam Hernández: When they asked me to perform the role of Caruso what I felt particularly was the huge responsibility to do a good job, mainly out of respect for the great singer. At first all I had was a draft of the score, but it seemed to me to be an exciting challenge. One of the things that I have enjoyed most about this experience is that I have been able to be part of the creative process of the opera, in both creating the score and in the staging. After hearing me sing the draft version, Micha Hamel adapted the score to suit my particular vocal qualities, so the music is tailor-made for my voice. With regard to the staging, I worked actively on the creation of the character with Johannes Erath as well as on the surrealist world which surrounds it, bringing my personal vision and ideas to this unusual and fantastic adventure. I have read a lot about Enrico Caruso and his importance to the birth of the music industry as we know it today. As the vinyl record was invented in his era, Caruso ended up being the first world famous musical star. Although this opera is not a biographical portrait, I have tried to incorporate identifiable clues, both of his character and from his life. It has been an intense process, but enormously gratifying and constructive.
OW: What challenges, if any, did you face in this new opera?
AH: I have had to work very meticulously on the music to find a balance between the purely lyrical moments and the specific vocal demands which the passages of electronic music require. With regard to the acting, it has been very intense work, as I have to be on stage almost the entire time of the two hours that the opera lasts. Johannes Erath uses Mayra Montero’s novel “Como un mensajero tuyo” (“As your messenger”) as his inspiration for reinterpreting the libretto, making the whole story part of Caruso’s dream. This means that every movement, every scene change and every small detail in any one of my co-singers has to be incorporated into my own global vision, as in the end, everything is a part of Caruso’s psyche.
OW: In what way(s) is “Caruso a Cuba” relevant? What do you feel your audience was able to gain from experiencing this opera?
AH: As I mentioned earlier, “Caruso a Cuba” is not a biographical opera, but it is based on a real event that took place in 1920. Caruso was singing “Aida” at the Teatro de La Habana when a bomb was dropped on the theater. He went out on to the street dressed as Radamès and was arrested by the police who accused him of causing a scandal by cross-dressing in public. It is a curious story which few people know about his life. It is this particular incident, and the hours in which Caruso was missing, that inspired the writer Mayra Montero to write her novel, which in turn inspired Micha Hamel to write his opera. The result is a crazy story of love, of falling out of love, the Italian Mafia and Cuban rituals. This opera is musically unusual as it includes passages of great lyricism like those that can be found in Verdi or Puccini scores, and it mixes these with Italian song and passages with a contemporary feeling, to which the composer adds electronic music. One thing that is particularly special in this production is the staging. Johannes Erath took a risk by placing the story within Caruso’s dream. Because of this, all the elements in the libretto appear reflected in a surrealistic world, and time frames disappear. Reality is distorted in such a way that it is possible to introduce real life elements into a fictitious story, which materialize through poetic language. Thus we see how Caruso, the famous singer acclaimed by the masses, lets us glimpse his most vulnerable part, his most private secrets, and the relationship the artist had with the media. “Caruso a Cuba,” through Erath’s vision, is a moving opera in which the audience can see themselves reflected as it explores fears, the way in which people show their best side in order to become famous, while they sabotage themselves when they cannot face their reality.
OW: Your next engagement will be your U.S debut and role debut as Fenton in Verdi’s “Falstaff.” What excites you most about making your U.S. debut with the Dallas Opera?
AH: Making a debut in a theater is always a great event. This debut in particular is very special for me as it was here where such important Spanish singers as Plácido Domingo, Montserrat Caballé and Teresa Berganza made their American debuts. For them, it was the beginning of an intense relationship with North American theaters. I hope to be as lucky as them. Furthermore, the experience at Dallas Opera is turning out to be magnificent. I have found a marvelous and professional team of people, who have made me feel at home. What more could I ask?
OW: Are there any past interpretations of Fenton that you find particularly remarkable or interesting? How will you make the role your own?
AH: Fenton is a role that has been sung by different types of voices. I particularly like the versions by Juan Diego Flórez and Alfredo Kraus, because they give a lot of depth to the character by using mixtures of tone and technique. It has been easy for me to find the character through director Shawna Lucey’s indications, which have shown me a credible person. Through her directions I have been able to create a Fenton who falls in love easily, is mischievous but honest. Whenever I perform a role for the first time I tend to consult the conductor on many points. Thanks to the maestro Frizza I have been able to create a colorful and nuanced Fenton, with fluidity in the phrasing, which is subtle and intense. Flexibility is very important when it comes to singing this role, as the parts sung in the ensemble cannot be sung with the same dramatic intensity since they require total precision in their execution, as each singer has to work like a piece of clockwork that must work in unison. However, the love scenes with Nannetta and the aria require good phrasing and a great deal of play with different colors.
OW: In terms of music, what appeals to you about “Falstaff”?
AH: Falstaff is a masterpiece. From my point of view it may well be the best opera composed by Verdi. It is such a perfectly constructed opera, in which no note or intention is redundant. The libretto is rounded and although there are many characters, each of their psyches and their motivations are explored. The humoristic vision, which is so different from Verdi’s other operas, is always present. And as for the music, personally I really like the intimate passages between Fenton and Nannetta which occasionally remove us from the general context of madness of the opera and show us a beautiful story of true love between two young people, in contrast to Falstaff’s jaded vision of the art of love. In Fenton’s aria, Verdi transmits what to me is an ode to love full of hope and joviality, which is a breath of fresh air. And as for the ensembles! They are a work of great craftsmanship, in which each character adds their personality to the ensemble to achieve a magnificent result. There is no better example of this than the opera’s final fugue, where the composer seemed to be making a declaration of his intentions to the world by shouting “Tutto nel mondo è burla.”
OW: How has your experience with the Dallas Opera differed from your previous experience doing “Falstaff” with Opernhaus-Zürich, where you sang the role of Dr. Caius?
AH: In both cases I have had the immense luck to have worked with an enviable cast, with Bryn Terfel in Zürich and Mark Delavan in Dallas in the title role, and with the great conductors Fabio Luisi and Riccardo Frizza. Obviously, when it comes to the characters there has been a change in every way. I have changed from being the father’s choice for his daughter, an honorable gentleman but lacking the charisma and personality to actually care about his love’s emotions as long as she will marry him, to being the young man, full of life and excitement, with whom Nannetta is truly in love. Vocally, I feel much more comfortable singing Fenton because it suits my voice and I feel that my particular vocal qualities can shine much more. Doctor Caius is usually performed by character tenors, and there are some really good ones. The role requires a natural comic bent. A clear example of how this role should be performed can be found among our cast – our Dr. Caius is Robert Brubaker. Having said this, I have to say that it was a good decision to have previously sung Dr. Caius. It is thanks to this experience that I have been able to approach the role of Fenton from the perspective of knowing his antagonist well.
OW: What are some of your goals for the future? Are there any special roles that you’re hoping to tackle in the next few years?
AH: I hope to be able to continue to work in this amazing profession with the greatest respect and dedication, as I have been aiming to do so far. Work with good conductors, get to know new colleagues and meet old ones again, but in new projects. The upcoming season is going to be really interesting as I will be making my debut in lots of roles which I was really keen on singing. I will make my debut as Pollione in “Norma” in Toulouse and Fernando in “Doña Francisquita” in Barcelona. I will also make a debut appearance at La Fenice in Venice as Alfredo in “La Traviata,” and I will make my debut as Nemorino in “L’elisir d’amore” in Verona and Rodolfo in “La Bohème” in Menorca.