René Barbera © Anna Barbera
René Barbera
© Anna Barbera
René Barbera is well known to our reviewers in the United States. The Texan tenor has performed from the West Coast to The Met, drawing praise for "his easy delivery and fine legato" and his "perfect timbre" for Rossini's Count Almaviva. Barbera has made a number of significant debuts at European houses in recent years and, with some more debuts scheduled in Europe this season, he has relocated to Berlin and took time to answer some questions about the challenges ahead. 

You’ve recently relocated to Germany. How does life in Europe compare with the US opera scene?

There are far more opportunities to perform in Europe than in the US! The close proximity of many major opera companies makes it more feasible to obtain last-minute work. I had two last minute jump-in productions in December of last year and had another opportunity in March to do the same but was unable to accept as I was in the middle of making my Bayerische Staatsoper debut and thought it unwise to make a run-out in the middle of rehearsals.

Often rehearsal periods are shorter in Europe, sometimes as short as a few days from arrival to opening. At first this was a daunting task but I’ve grown to appreciate the efficiency of working this way.

What have been your operatic experiences in Europe thus far?

My experiences have been extremely positive and a big part of why I moved there the first chance I had. I find that, in general, the arts are respected and appreciated by a large percentage of the population in Europe. As such, the public is often very well informed and appreciative of what we do on stage. 

This season you are making a number of important house debuts, from the Wiener Staatsoper to Dutch National Opera to La Scala. What pressures are there in making a house debut? 

Making a debut anywhere is always filled with pressure, but there’s nothing quite like making a house debut. It’s exhilarating to go out and face a new public and see how they receive you. It’s nerve-wracking, adrenaline pumping, and terrifying at times, but when it’s over, the satisfaction is wonderful.

What are the challenges of singing bel canto? Is there any one role which is harder than the others?

René Barbera in Milan © Anna Barbera
René Barbera in Milan
© Anna Barbera
Bel canto is challenging to sing often because the singer is left so exposed with minimal support from the orchestra (often nothing more than some boom-chuck-chucks!). There are, of course, varying degrees of difficulty in the repertoire. So far, the most difficult role was Arturo in I puritani when it is sung without cuts and including all the inserts. When compared to something like, say, Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor (which is still a very challenging piece), it becomes clear just how difficult Arturo really is. The biggest challenge, by far, is the third act: Arturo goes on stage and does not leave until the end of the show, singing nearly nonstop. It is incredibly physically demanding and at the end each performance in Stuttgart I was drenched in sweat.

Who are your bel canto tenor heroes?

Alfredo Kraus and Luciano Pavarotti. I listen to Kraus for accuracy and artistry when learning a role, and I listen to Pavarotti for how far I can push that artistry. Pavarotti often took more liberties with the rhythms or length of notes in performance.

You sing Ernesto at the Wiener Staatsoper, the role you sang in your La Scala debut. What’s your view of this character? 

He’s sort of a peculiar character to play to be honest. I enjoy the role very much vocally and I love the opera, but Ernesto is pretty oblivious as to what’s going on around him. While so much of the story involves him on some level, he’s really not doing much himself, to further the plot. That being said, he has some great emotional moments going on within his own world that are wonderful to play with and observe... not the least of which is discovering that his closest friend has betrayed him (or so he thinks), or that he’s been disowned and he’s lost the love of his life as a result of all of the above (again: or so he thinks).

You sang opposite the Don Pasquale of Ambrogio Maestri (who also joins you in Vienna). Is the characters’ treatment of him justified? It often seems a cruel opera.

Ambrogio Maestri (Don Pasquale) and René Barbera (Ernesto) at La Scala © Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Ambrogio Maestri (Don Pasquale) and René Barbera (Ernesto) at La Scala
© Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
It’s a difficult question. He isn’t exactly the kindest man, considering he’s decided to disown, disinherit, and throw out his nephew because Ernesto doesn’t want to marry the woman Pasquale has chosen for him and, instead would like to marry Norina. He even goes as far as to plan to get married himself in order to spite Ernesto. Unbeknownst to Ernesto, and to Don Pasquale, his bride is actually Ernesto’s beloved Norina in disguise.  

Does Pasquale deserve to be tricked? Perhaps not to the extent he was mistreated but... honestly, what other option was there for two youths who are madly in love and unable to marry?! 

Next season, you return to La Scala as Nemorino. Why is this opera house so special to singers? Is the Scala audience a tough crowd to please? 

I think to answer that question we first have to answer: why is Italy so important to opera singers? It’s the birthplace of opera, of course! And the Teatro alla Scala is the most important opera house in all of Italy and, depending on who you’re talking to, in the world. To be accepted into an opera house as historic as La Scala in the most important country for opera is quite an honor for which I am grateful to enjoy.   

Historically, the public at La Scala is said to be difficult to please as many are bordering on religious in their love of opera and they are quite knowledgeable! They love the art form, they love the music, and they know their singers!   

I’m thrilled to go back next year to sing Nemorino! This is a character I absolutely love to play and sing! There’s so much for him to do on stage and so much growth can occur in his character in just a few short hours. He’s lovable because I think most people can identify with being the underdog, so to speak, and that feeling of unrequited love. L'elisir d'amore is the original Rom-Com! What’s not to love?

Rossini is a must sing role for any bel canto tenor. You sing Almaviva in your Dutch National debut in a new production by Lotte de Beer, then Ramiro (Cenerentola) later in Rome. 

René Barbera (Lindoro) and Ildar Abdrazakov (Mustafà) in <i>L'italiana in Algeri</i> © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
René Barbera (Lindoro) and Ildar Abdrazakov (Mustafà) in L'italiana in Algeri
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Rossini can be some of the most challenging of music to sing, at least from my point of view. The breath support, abdominal strength, and stamina it takes to execute some of those runs requires a high amount of endurance and discipline in training. When I am building endurance for a role, I gradually repeat the longer passages of coloratura when I practice to build abdominal stamina.

Some of the Rossini arias are full of runs, like "Cessa di più resistere". It’s high flying, fast, and rigorous work, but in the case of Almaviva, it can be an enormous amount of fun. Barbiere itself can be an absolute blast! 

 

Why did you choose to relocate to Germany? 

The majority of my work last season and this season is in Europe. I’m a native Texan, and I miss being there, but it’s hard to justify having a home in America when I am abroad for the majority of the year.

Life in Germany is quite calm. Berlin is known for being quite an active city, but the neighborhood I have chosen is very quiet and relaxing! I love how there’s green everywhere with tree-lined streets, parks nearby, and a forest within 20 minutes by bus from my front door. The Germans adhere strictly to quiet hours, which I really appreciate. I enjoy knowing that after a certain time I won’t be hearing any loud obnoxious noise (except for a few select holidays and soccer game nights). I was raised in San Antonio where cars are a necessity, so I love that Berlin is so walkable. There’s also great shopping, great food, and great bars to enjoy. Without fail, every time I’m home in Berlin an old friend or colleague happens to be in town and I am able to see people I haven’t seen in years.

Just a few months ago I saw that fellow tenor and San Antonio native David Portillo was in town working at the Deutsche Oper. We met for a coffee and a cocktail and who did we run into?  Baritone Michael Todd Simpson who happened to be going to the same bar at the same time!  What are the odds?

René Barbera © Anna Barbera
René Barbera
© Anna Barbera
Most of your operatic roles are in Italian. So how is your German shaping up?

I can pronounce German pretty well, given a little time and patience! Speaking is challenging because even though I’ve spent some time in German class, I end up mostly speaking Italian at work and English at home. In Berlin one can easily live life without needing to become an expert in German as most people speak a fair amount of English. As for German roles, none at the moment though I’m not opposed to the idea!

What is your daily routine?

It really varies. During production, I’m often in rehearsal six hours per day with a break for lunch. If I have new music to learn I often spend 30 minutes or so studying before I lack any more brain power after a long day! I seldom do intense vocal practice unless there is a particular piece or passage that is giving me trouble. I try to have voice lessons as often as possible which, sadly, is only usually once or twice per year due to scheduling. This summer my voice teacher, Dr Marilyn Taylor, was kind enough to visit Berlin and work with me for a week, a great chance to tune up my voice and check in with one of my most trusted advisors.

When I learn new roles I have a tried-and-true method that has worked consistently for me. First, I read a synopsis of the plot and repeat this step as often as necessary to make sure I always remember it. It helps with character analysis and learning the motivations and drives of each character. Then I carefully go through the score to highlight and place tabs where I sing, as well as translate all of the text. I will then focus on memorizing recitatives since the text can be fast-moving and often extremely important in moving a plot forward. Next, I will learn the arias and ensemble pieces before starting to work with a coach. If there are recordings available, I will listen to them to hear how the opera sounds in its entirety. Then I will work with a coach until the role is memorized and sits well in my voice. It’s a process, but I think being diligent with role preparation helps get rid of some nerves on stage.

When you’re away from the opera studio, how do you relax?

My wife, Anna, and I will often settle down and watch Netflix. We enjoy Ozark, Brooklyn 99, or Better Call Saul. I may play a few hours of video games to unwind; I love Rocket League and Overwatch ... though that depends heavily on how stressed out I am.  The more stress I have, the more hours I play!  

We also like to go on walks and explore whatever city we are in and just enjoy being with one another. What good is this vagabond life without stopping to share it with the person you love?

Click here to see René Barbera's upcoming performances. 

 

Interview sponsored by SJPR