Stars in the Making 1: Luis Gomes (tenor) interviewed by Margarida Mota Bull
The Jette Parker Young Artists Programme of the Royal Opera House is designed to support the artistic development of young professional singers, conductors, directors and répétiteurs, as per information kindly provided by the Administrator. The Young Artists are salaried company members, who work at the opera house on a full-time basis over a two-year period. Each artist is given the opportunity to work on productions for The Royal Opera. They also receive coaching in all opera disciplines, including music, languages, movement and acting from a wide range of freelance coaches, as well as guidance in related issues and career development. Portuguese tenor Luis Gomes and Brazilian baritone Michel de Souza are two of the artists currently in the programme. I went to meet them last Friday, ahead of their Summer Performance on 20th July, and interviewed them separately at the Royal Opera House.
My interest in these particular two artists has to do not only with the fact that I am Portuguese and so speak their language but also because I am aware that neither Portugal nor Brazil are countries with a great operatic tradition. So I was curious to find out why and how they came to opera. Portugal’s Luis Gomes did not even have a musical background as such, in his own words: “…the first time that opera came into my home, it was me who brought it in. My love for opera was a development. What I mean is that it developed through the years.” As for Brazil’s Michel de Souza, he said that it was his education and then explained: “I went to a Catholic school, which had a boys’ choir and so my passion for music started there.”
Luis and Michel are very different personalities but they also have a lot in common: They share the same language; similar backgrounds, in terms of countries that are not really interested in opera; and a genuinely real passion for music and for what they do. Talking to them was a rare treat from my perspective. Discovering their approach to singing and to the different roles and composers was for me totally fascinating, as they still possess the freshness of the young artist at the beginning of a career and all the youthful enthusiasm, the wonder of discovering a world that they knew existed but were not sure that they could one day be a part of. It was marvellous to hear Luis speak about his time in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and what it meant for him to sing alongside the celebrated Jonas Kaufmann, one of his idols. And I delighted in Michel’s vivid description of the first time he saw Sir Simon Rattle in front of him when he turned up for the first rehearsal of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites where he had a small role.
Luis is going to sing Fernand in Donizetti’s La Favorite in the JPYA Summer Performance at the Royal Opera House. It is a bel canto role for which he has been preparing intensively, as he explains: “Fernand is a big sing and it requires a lot of stamina and that is why I started to work on it a long time ago, as soon as I knew that I was going to do it. I think it’s heading in a good direction but it’s a real challenge.” Michel will be singing Guglielmo in Mozart’s Così fan tutte and it will be his last performance with the Jette Parker Young Artists, as he finishes his two years at the end of July. His approach to the role of Guglielmo is fascinating and it was a complicated process, as he so vividly explains: “I must confess that ‘Così fan tutte’ is not my favourite Mozart opera. I always had a blockage regarding Così because I think the story is stupid…but the music is absolutely brilliant…” and “…So my first step to prepare for Guglielmo was musically; to listen to the music without thinking about the text” but still he resisted it and kept telling himself: “I don’t believe it! What a ridiculous scene!” It was Kasper Holten (Director of Opera at the ROH) who helped him and taught him to see a different side to the character, a slightly darker side, which made Michel appreciate it more because, as he mentions: “I like to play the ‘not so nice’ characters”.
Both Luis and Michel recognise the extreme hard work that it takes to become a successful professional and a great opera singer, and both are determined to achieve it. They appear genuinely grateful for the opportunities and support that they have been receiving as part of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme and intend to make full use of it. Luis has another season ahead of him and Michel already has a few projects, including a one-year contract with the Grand Théâtre de Genève in Switzerland, where he will start immediately after the Summer Performance.
Luis Gomes and Michel de Souza have everything it takes to become outstanding opera singers: determination, a will to work hard, beautiful voices, attractive presences, excellent techniques, acting skills and pleasant, unassuming personalities. The Jette Parker Programme is giving Luis, and has already given Michel, the confidence to go out there and succeed.
I was very impressed with Portuguese tenor Luis Gomes and Brazilian baritone Michel de Souza both on a professional and a human level. I believe that they are stars in the making and very soon, like their idols before them, will be conquering audiences across the greatest opera houses of the world.
To fully enjoy their personalities and appreciate their dedication to their art form, you will need to read the full interviews, presented below in the order in which I interview them. I have no doubt that you will delight in the reading as much as I did in my conversations with them both.
Interview with Luis Gomes
MMB: First of all, Luis, since we are both from Portugal, would you prefer to do the interview in Portuguese?
LG: Actually, I’d prefer it in English [he smiles]. I find it easier to speak about music and opera in English.
MMB: All right, English it is. So to my first question: As I think we both know, Portugal is not a country with a great operatic tradition.
LG: That’s true. Unfortunately!
MMB: Portuguese opera singers with international careers are few and far between and many in the country are forced to sing other musical genres in order to survive. So what brought you to opera and why? Are there any influences in your life from family or friends that led you to singing?
LG: Well…The easy way to start is to say that I haven’t any musical background in my family and the first time that opera came into my home, it was me who brought it in. My love for opera was a development. What I mean is that it developed through the years. I started as a child singing in school and in church. Then my father decided that I probably should be having singing lessons because several people were advising him to do so. It was my first singing teacher who began directing me to opera by showing me things…by making me sing some arie antiche, for example. So I started enjoying the singing and, as I got into the Conservatoire in Lisbon when I was around eighteen, I began developing confidence in my singing and the way things were going and so I thought: why not? Because more than singing, I also enjoy everything else in the opera world: acting, interacting with other people…Actually, I was always passionate about singing for people. It was something that I always wanted to do. I didn’t know what…or better, how to get there but I knew I wanted it. It started as I’ve just described it. And then I just went straight to opera with a few problems along the way [he smiles], which didn’t deviate me from my path. My first singing teacher always told me – this is related to what you said about the situation in Portugal, which sadly is true – he always said that if I wanted a career as an opera singer, I should leave the country. I’ve been hearing this since I was eleven so that, in the end, it was sort of a natural thing to come to London and study at the Guildhall. That was it, really.
MMB: What about any singers who are an example to you? Singers that perhaps you look up to?
LG: Well, singers…Hum! Pavarotti for the voice; Plácido [Domingo] for the whole artistry and a lovely person as well and nowadays, Kaufmann who for me is just extraordinary. I had the opportunity of working with him in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and it was just fantastic.
MMB: I’m aware of that and I actually have a question related to that as well.
LG: Ah! Well, then I’ll wait to talk about it when you get to that question [he smiles].
MMB: All right! So before getting to Manon Lescaut and Jonas Kaufmann, I’d like to talk about a couple of other things [he nods]. You seem to have quite a varied repertoire at the moment. Is it because you are still testing your voice or because you do not wish to specialise?
LG: Going back to my past and my first singing teacher, he always said: “I want you to sing everything!” Of course, that’s not how it should be and the thing with being a young artist in a programme like this [JPYA programme] is that you get to sing a lot of things but they’re smaller parts, which means that, normally, they’re not too strenuous for the voice in terms of diversity of technique. What I mean is that you can sing them in your own voice. At the moment, I’m trying to specialise in the bel canto repertoire, meaning the Donizetti and the early Verdi roles but I’m still stretching myself and trying new things. I think I know where I’m going but, as I said, during this time in the programme you do a lot of different things, which should not necessarily mean that you have to change your way of singing.
MMB: Related to what you said about bel canto. At the JPYA Summer Performance, which I will be reviewing, you will be singing Fernand in Donizetti’s La Favorite and, I believe in October, you are also going to sing in Rossini’s La scala di seta?
LG: Yes, exactly.
MMB: So these are…
LG: These are quite different roles…yes, I know [he smiles].
MMB: Yes. So what challenges did you face with these two roles?
LG: At the moment, with Fernand…Well, Fernand is a big sing and it requires a lot of stamina, which is why I started to work on it a long time ago, as soon as I knew that I was going to do it. I think it’s heading in a good direction but it’s a challenge. It requires a lot of stamina; it’s also knowing how to pace yourself through the whole act because by the middle of it, you have the feeling that you’ve sung a whole opera and you still have one and a half acts to go if you’re doing the whole piece. Of course, I won’t be doing the whole thing. But for me, this is the main challenge: How to pace myself through the whole act and the stamina required. With the Rossini, it’s part of a repertoire that I’ve been challenged to do in order to get some agility in my voice and I’m going to try and do the best I can to achieve it but it’s going to be a complete stretch from what my voice normally does. So we’ll see how it goes. To summarise, the main challenges are the agility for Rossini and the stamina for Fernand in the Donizetti piece.
MMB: Yes because of course bel canto of the first half of the 19th Century requires great agility, dexterity, superb legato technique, so it’s a lot of things and it must be very demanding.
LG: Exactly. Exactly. And it’s very difficult. We were just in rehearsals the other day and I was asked to do things that I actually find really hard to do, you know, and you realise that you’re still young and still have so much to learn but, you know, it’s going to be something to look forward to and to work hard towards.
MMB: It’s very interesting because a few years ago I interviewed two of the greatest exponents in bel canto at the moment: Juan Diego Flórez and Joyce DiDonato. Flórez said exactly the same thing as you did and Joyce said that it was very difficult but she also said that she believed Rossini and also Handel made her a better singer. What do you think?
LG: Well, I suppose that only Joyce knew exactly what she meant [he smiles] but yes, I think that singing Rossini helps you; it can make you better because you work on the agility and the legato of your voice and some of the lighter passages of your sound. However, I don’t think that it’s the composer who can change the way you sing or who will make you learn how to sing. I think it’s the things you’ve done to achieve what the composer wanted that are important and also the fact that you have to fight against challenges and difficulties, which will make you grow as a singer.
MMB: So is bel canto the direction you wish to go? Something you would like to specialise in or is it just a part of what you’re doing now?
LG: No…well, I’m not sure that I would go for the Rossini repertoire but bel canto…you know, all the Donizetti, yes…and maybe Bellini or may be not…we’ll see but it’s…the best school for singing…I mean that if you sing that you’ll sing anything!
MMB: Yes and I think that’s what Joyce meant.
LG: Yes, exactly.
MMB: You have performed both in Mozart’s Requiem and Verdi’s Requiem? What are the challenges you faced with each composer?
LG: It’s…it’s actually quite similar though the Mozart one requires a bit more of ensemble work. Even though in the Verdi you have to do that too, the Mozart is less of a soloist piece, especially for the tenor. Additionally, in Mozart, to get that ethereal, light sound and all the pianos can be hard but, again, you have some of that in the Verdi too. The stamina in the Verdi Requiem is something really interesting because it’s not what you’d imagine! I’ve just done it again last week and someone who was watching said to me: “Thank you for showing me that you can also sing quietly in the Verdi Requiem.” [He laughs good-humouredly]. And it’s true. You can do it in that way and you can use your technique and do it in the bel canto way and of course the style changes. But, yes, the ensemble work and the ethereal sounds in Mozart’s Requiem and the stamina in Verdi’s were my main challenges.
MMG: What about Wagner roles? I know you sang the fourth Esquire in Parsifal. Will Wagner be part of your repertoire in the future?
LG: I don’t think so [he smiles, shaking his head]. I don’t think so. You know there are small roles you can do and they’re not dangerous for your voice but it’s difficult – especially for a young singer – to abuse your mid-range [he laughs] and shouting in the middle of it, which is what normally happens with Wagner [he laughs again]. Of course there are roles that I can do and roles that will be nice to do but no, Wagner will not be something that I think would be part of my mainstream repertoire.
MMB: What did it mean to you to enter the JPYA programme and what do you think it will do for your career?
LG: I think that first of all, it is giving me the opportunity to show my work to the people who are at the top of the opera world; then to show what I can do to the people in this opera house and the conductors who come here… [He smiles]. It’s basically an audition every day. And you know, I prefer that kind of audition – the auditions of every day – to the ones which are two minutes or so. I think that’s the main thing about the JPYA programme and of course all of the coaching we get here with the best people in the field and all the help they give us in all sorts of things. Then there’s also the opportunity of singing on a big stage. Your voice changes. If you keep singing in a small room, your voice is not going to go anywhere [he shrugs and laughs].
MMB: As you mentioned before, you worked alongside Jonas Kaufmann in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. What did it mean to you to work with one of the most celebrated tenors of our time?
LG: Oh! Hum…hum…hum… [He laughs, visibly pleased], you know, all of these people are so nice and so humble; so down to earth that you forget who they are sometimes. I’m not very good at dealing with it. Jonathan [Kent, the director of the production] gave me an extra job for that performance, as a cameraman in the end of Act III. It was something really special because I was able to watch Jonas [Kaufmann] sing so close and actually, to be able to look at him while he was singing that amazing music and perceive how he deals with problems as well and how he gives everything…it was…it was just fantastic. For me, he’s the best singer in the world at the moment.
MMB: I think I would agree with you. I interviewed him a couple of years ago too and he is quite down to earth and really an extraordinary person.
LG: He is. He is really extraordinary.
MMB: Did you know that he almost became a Maths teacher rather than an opera singer?
LG: Oh! [He smiles] thank God that it didn’t happen. We would all have missed so much.
MMB: Indeed. Anyway, moving on to my next question. You performed the premiere of Raymond Yiu’s My Fatal Plurality at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and then later, at the Wigmore Hall. What did it mean to you to premiere a work?
LG: Well, that piece was a very special one because it was composed for me and another colleague of mine. It was part of a project – and it’s a very good project that the Guildhall has with the singers and the vocal courses – which is that composers and poets from one of their schools in London get together with us and are allocated some singers and then they compose for those singers. It was truly special for that reason. I really liked to work with Raymond [Yiu]. It was a very nice piece as well, though when I started I said: “Hum! Contemporary music is not really my thing!” The irony is that I did my debut at the Wigmore with contemporary music; then at the Barbican also with contemporary music [he smiles amused]. So it’s giving me some good opportunities. So yes, I really enjoyed that piece of music and the project. It was something very special.
MMB: Your website shows that you were involved at the Wigmore Hall on 8th June with the Rachmaninov Song Series. So I assume you sang some of Rachmaninov’s songs?
LG: Yes. It was a whole recital of Rachmaninov that I shared with a soprano and accompanied by Iain Burnside.
MMB: This is not something that is often performed.
MMB: So why did you choose to do it? What attracted you to it?
LG: [He laughs]. I didn’t choose to do it…that’s the thing but you see, my life in the past month and the weeks leading up to that performance were all quite mad! Because, I had two step-ins at the Wigmore. This one with the Rachmaninov songs – I had three weeks to learn Rachmaninov’s songs, which were all new to me – and I had a Rosenblatt recital step-in as well just two weeks before that and a step-in at the first night of the Carmelites here at the Royal Opera House [he laughs]. So, crazy times and I didn’t choose it but I enjoyed singing Rachmaninov even though Russian is not a language I speak or that I have a great knowledge of. On the other hand, it has similarities to Portuguese…in the sounds, for example…
MMB: Yes, a lot of people say that.
LG: Yes and it’s true. And also the way you phrase Russian. So it was special and I really liked doing it. It was a great pleasure.
MMB: Going from the Rachmaninov songs, do you also sing German Lieder or French chansons?
LG: I do. Not as much as I’d like to because they require time to prepare but I do a lot of Strauss’s songs. I’ve done some Schubert as well. I’ve done some Fauré and some Duparc and I really would like to go into Debussy but I haven’t done that yet.
MMB: What challenges do you face when you sing Lieder or chansons as opposed to opera?
LG: The difference is that opera shouldn’t be as big as one might think but…really with Lieder you get much better text, particularly if you like poetry. Then it’s good to immerse yourself in the text. You also need to have the composer’s idea in your head, meaning the environment he created for a poem; try and find out why he did that and then you do your own interpretation of this amazing piece of text. That is what I like most in song.
MMB: Jonas Kaufmann told me that when you’re preparing for Lieder you’re not just telling one story, as in opera, but twenty little stories instead.
LG: Oh! Yes. Yes, definitely. It’s totally true because you have to find a story for each of the songs you’re doing and that will imply that you impersonate so many different characters. So yes, it’s so much more complex but also more rewarding exactly for that reason.
MMB: As you are Portuguese, have you ever thought about singing some of the Coimbra fados?
LG: Well, that’s actually something interesting because Coimbra fado was supposed to be sung by opera singers; so I don’t rule it out. Maybe one day…yes.
MMB: And many of those songs are ideal for the tenor voice and not many people know them. There are some very beautiful pieces.
LG: Yes, it’s true. It’s true. I think as well that the best poetry in Portuguese music is in fado. So I think it would be a great pleasure to do it. I think it might be an option for the future and to bring some of it to the British. I might try some for my next recital at the Opera House.
MMB: You mentioned before Russian and obviously, as an opera singer, you have to sing in a variety of languages that are not your own and some of them, like Russian, you may not necessarily speak. How do you prepare for the various languages and which one is the most challenging for you?
LG: Well, at the moment the most challenging for me is Russian, of course. I think that the less you speak the language, the more difficult it is to sing it. The work I do, to start with, is to go through the text and its translation and I think about librettist’s or the poet’s reasons to say what they’re saying, which will bring you to how the character is, what people say about him and the reactions he has towards other people. You also get the phonetics and, usually, a coach for each language and you speak it then with intention. Russian is the most difficult for me. It took me three weeks to learn the Rachmaninov songs but during that period of time, I could have probably learned three or four different recital programmes in Italian or French. German is also very difficult because, like with Russian, I don’t speak it. So Russian and German are the most demanding languages for me.
MMB: Also French and Italian are like Portuguese, meaning directly derived from Latin, so there are similarities.
LG: Yes and additionally, while at school in Portugal, I studied much more French than English – because I went to school when that was still the way [he laughs]. My younger sister for example is no longer from that time! Anyway, the fact that I’ve done a lot of French and that I speak Italian makes it easier.
MMB: Some people say that opera has no future and that it is an old-fashioned, irrelevant art form. What would you say to them?
LG: I don’t think the problem is in opera. I think that sometimes we’re too simplistic about things. Opera is not a problem; was never the problem and people have always loved opera and there are people still loving opera. The thing is – and I’m going to be slightly controversial about this – I think we work less for the audience. Nowadays, we are portraying what we think and our interpretation of things and we’re not thinking about the audience. It’s like we’re singing for the other people!
MMB: You mean singing for critics, intellectuals, scholars?
LG: I mean that opera is a bit like a painting meaning that the majority of people…your average person prefers classical painting to modern because they don’t understand modern paintings. I think that what has to happen is that we have to think about the people…And I’m not against modern productions at all – but the people pay and they are the ones who should be saying what they want or not want and we have to leave our egos behind a little. The same applies for singers. When I go for a bow at the end of a performance I’m giving people the right to judge me because they pay for it and when I bow they may applaud or they may boo because I may not have given them what they were expecting and they paid for it. Naturally, this applies to opera as well. Not so much in the UK because you have a lot of publicity for opera but, for example, in Portugal there are a lot of people who don’t know what opera is and they have never been introduced to opera. In this country they do a lot of good work with young people and with children as well but in Portugal there is no willingness to show that something is happening. For example, my parents went to see the cinema relay of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut – the production I was in and where Kaufmann sang the lead role – and apparently, it was them and four other people in the cinema. And even in the foyer there wasn’t a poster of the opera; there was a poster of another film being shown there another day. So it’s not a problem of the opera or of the people as such. They don’t have access to it so they cannot know whether they like it or not. The main media does not talk about it. You know, everyone knows who Cristiano Ronaldo is because the media talk about him and football every day and all day.
MMB: What are your plans for the future in terms of opera? Recitals? Recordings?
LG: Well, I have another season here [at the ROH with the JPYA programme] so that’s what there is for the moment. I’m also doing a recital with Iain Burnside later this month, on the 26th, at the Branscombe Festival in Devon. I’m still in the process of negotiating other things. At the moment, I have nothing yet after the JPYA programme but there’s still a long season to go here.
MMB: So the Jette Parker programme, in your personal case, is going to for what? Another year?
LG: Another season, until July 2015.
MMB: Are there any composers that you feel a special affinity with? And why?
LG: I love Puccini; that’s my thing. I can’t really say why…well, it’s the music I love and it touches me like no other composer does. It’s the only reason I can find: I love all kinds of composers but Puccini touches me like no-one else.
MMB: Some people don’t like recording but enjoy and thrive in stage performances. What about you?
LG: I don’t mind. I really don’t. I have been used to recording ever since I was a kid so it’s not strenuous to me but I much prefer live performances of course.
LG: Because you get to the people and I’m repeating myself! But, the truth is that I work for them. If I do something and the public is taken away from me; then it’s not the same. It’s not exciting or rewarding in the same way.
MMB: So in view of what you just said, do you think that recordings are important as well?
LG: Yes, they are. They are important because they are the register of what is being done. If Callas hadn’t recorded, we would have lost her. I wouldn’t know how she sounded like otherwise and many other singers of course. So I think they must be done for future generations to listen to amazing artists, like Kaufmann, in a hundred years [he smiles]…and it would be a real shame if they didn’t listen to him.
MMB: Indeed. What about recitals? Why do you think recitals are important?
LG: Recitals are good and important because they represent a much closer relationship with the audience and I think it’s that intimate relationship that is also quite interesting for the public. They enjoy having that contact with the singers that they like. It’s a completely different environment and you can bring a lot to the music and the text as an individual, which sometimes you can’t do with an opera role.
MMB: And finally – this and the next question are the last ones – how do you relax?
LG: How do I relax? Hum! [He smiles]. I see friends. I spend time with them and my family whenever I can. I like to think about nothing [he laughs] and just lie down and forget about it…forget about all of the singing and so on, which is sometimes really difficult! I like going to the beach when I have an opportunity to have a holiday, listen to the sea, get some sun, read, watch really bad TV [He laughs good-humouredly].
MMB: It’s quite relaxing.
LG: Yes, exactly [he laughs again].
MMB: And, however silly it may sound, it’s a question that one must ask a tenor, do you sing in the shower?
LG: A lot!
MMB: Well, Luis, that’s it. It was a real pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much for agreeing to the interview.
LG: No, no problem. Thank you for interviewing me.
Margarida Mota Bull