Dimitri Platanias made a late start to his singing career but has quickly established himself as a Verdi baritone much in demand. He’s currently singing the title role in Rigoletto, one of his favourites, at the Royal Opera. The richness of his voice was immediately apparent the first time I heard him in the role, in a concert performance with the LSO under Gianandrea Noseda in 2013. Since then, Platanias has been adding new roles to his repertoire. We caught up for a chat just before Christmas.

Dimitri Platanias

You had an unusual route into singing, I believe.

I was a classical guitar teacher! I started playing when I was 6 or 7 but went on to take my degree and then taught English in Athens. I’d always had a good voice in church choirs and my dad was into opera. I was this big guy with a big voice and during my years teaching the guitar, one of the teachers, who was a singing teacher, agreed to hear me and to take me on as a student at the age of 29... very late for a beginner! I certainly wasn’t thinking about it as a career back then.

At what point did you think you could do it as a career?

I got a scholarship from the Megaron in Athens and then it kicked off very quickly. I went to Italy for further studies with Masako Tanaka Protti, Aldo Protti’s second wife, then came back and took small parts in Athens. I mostly learned the business of being an opera singer on the stage!

Dimitri Platanias (Nabucco) at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
© Michele Borzoni | TerraProject

Who were your role models?

I love the great American baritones and tenors, people like Leonard Warren, Lawrence Tibbett, Richard Tucker – big, masculine voices. Then I listened a lot to the great Italian singers: Titta Ruffo, Ettore Bastianini, Aldo Protti, Mario del Monaco, Franco Corelli, Piero Cappuccilli. There is a danger in imitating singers, but I learnt a lot about legato singing and breath control from these guys, who had perfect techniques.

When was your big break?

Alfio in Cavalleria rusticana was my first big role in Greece. I sang some Mozart at the beginning – Figaro – but I soon understood that my voice and my mentality was more towards the bigger Italian repertoire of Verdi and verismo. I wish I had sung more Mozart and early bel canto but it didn’t happen. Verdi is the maestro, a god for us baritones.

Dimitri Platanias (Rigoletto)
© ROH | Mark Douet

What does being a Verdi baritone actually mean?

Apart from having a sonorous voice, you don’t need to sing forte all the time or have a huge voice. The most important thing is absolute breath control and smooth legato. The vocal challenge for us is that we usually sing our most lyrical and beautiful parts in a high tessitura – this is the one you really have to sustain. To be able to sing not only forte, but piano and elegantly and dolce in the top notes – that’s the real challenge. All the most beautiful lines you have to sing softly, in duets with your daughter or your lover (well, never your lover because the tenor always gets the girl!) all these beautiful, taxing moments are the ones you have to sing in your highest register. In Rigoletto, “Cortigiani” is the greatest challenge, but so are the duets – the first one with Gilda is very long and it lies very high and you have to sing very softly. Rigoletto is describing his dead wife and then he’s imploring Giovanna to take care of his beautiful flower of a daughter… you cannot shout this.

Even in Nabucco, the Prayer comes towards the end of the opera so you have to be very resistant. Verdi warms up your voice slowly over the evening; from a very gentle start, he dictates a long path and you have to make it to the very end. You cannot run out of breath or power or energy; resistance and controlled singing are the key. You need concentration and good health to sing Verdi. Singing Rigoletto is like running a marathon with 200 kilos on your back!

Dimitri Platanias (Rigoletto)
© ROH | Mark Douet

And how is it, returning to this staging at Covent Garden?

If done with energy, David McVicar’s production here is great. Rigoletto is a very cinematic opera and with the stage revolve the scenes blend very easily, with few pauses. It’s the best Rigoletto production I’ve done, even if it’s physically very taxing. Updated productions can work – I've played him as a clown in Robert Carsen's staging at La Monnaie – but I don’t know that they always help that much. I have been in productions, especially in smaller German houses, where I haven’t understood the justification for some of them. If a director persuades me that it's for the best of the drama, then I can do anything. I’m not against modern opera productions as long as they have a train of thought that is coherent and goes to the end. I’ve done things that go completely against the text and there’s no reason to do that.

Which are your favourite roles?

Rigoletto has become second nature. The character has a double life, which happens in other Verdi operas as well, such as Simon Boccanegra, which is my new favourite Verdi role – from pirate and young hero to statesman to father, everything revolves around him. Without underestimating the Conte di Luna (Il trovatore) or Nabucco, I love Verdi's more complicated characters.

Dimitri Platanias (Simon Boccanegra), Serena Farnocchia (Amelia Grimaldi) at Bayerische Staatsoper
© Wilfried Hösl

Germont in La traviata is interesting. He can be played in different ways. I’ve done a couple of productions where Germont is a frozen man who wants to do what he wants to do. He seems very cynical, and only feels compassion for Violetta in the final scene. In other more traditional productions, he changes during the duet – he has to melt. Germont throws all his cards onto the table but she doesn’t take a single one. Violetta’s only goal at this point is her love for Alfredo. Just before the duet “Dite alla giovine”, that’s the moment when he understands just how deeply she loves his son. Then he starts to think of her as his son’s true love and not just a beautiful courtesan that Alfredo fell for.

Is Germont an attractive sing?

“Di Provenza” is a very easy aria but nothing special. I usually sing the cabaletta; it’s underestimated because it’s not often given enough importance. There are many Verdi baritone arias – probably tenor arias as well – that if you take a guitar and sing them with a light, head voice, then they could be very nice, beautiful songs – almost like a Neapolitan song – a love song maybe. When you put the nobility into the voice, that’s when the colour comes and that’s why Verdi is so difficult to sing because it can easily be turned into light singing. Germont’s cabaletta is very light – he’s trying to brush off what’s just happened when he’s just tried to slap Alfredo. The voice really sings when the writing is well placed – this is Verdi’s magic.

Dimitri Platanias (Germont) and Joyce El-Khoury (Violetta) in La traviata at Glyndebourne
© Robbie Jack

Baritone roles are often the most interesting in Verdi as they’re such conflicted characters. You’ve sung Iago?

It’s bliss. I feel so much at home with him. It’s a tricky sing because it’s all mellifluous apart from the Credo. When Iago is in the presence of others, he should not be heard any louder than anyone else. The only time he really sings out is when he curses himself and everybody else in the Credo; for the rest of the role, he is a fake, telling a shadowy story. They asked Aldo Protti ‘Why do you sing “Era la notte” in the big duet with the tenor so softly?’ and he replied that Iago is a snake. You never realise the serpent is there until he’s at your neck and then it bites you. You never hear it coming. That’s how Iago should be. He should always be present but never really noticed. That’s the beauty and the challenge of Iago. Herbert von Karajan called for Protti every time. Vocally he had a huge voice – he could be a bit monochrome, but the sound was so compelling.

Gianandrea Noseda, Dimitri Platanias and Antonio Pappano

You’re staying away from German repertoire for now, but are there any new Italian roles on the way?

New roles include singing Montfort in French for the first time in Les Vêpres siciliennes. I took on Stankar in Stiffelio recently. That role is very underestimated and a difficult one to sing with another high line for the baritone, whereas it’s not so challenging for the tenor.  

And finally, if you woke up as a tenor one day, which role would you sing?

Without any hesitation, Otello. It’s the most glorious tenor part in all Verdi. The only time I’m jealous of tenors – in any role – is when I’m singing Iago. If it was written slightly lower, I could sing it.

Ramón Vinay was a baritone who switched to tenor!

He was a one off! Maybe if they transpose it a third down…