Interview: Bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni ready to stand alongside Michael Schade at Roy Thomson Hall

Luca Pisaroni as Leporello at the Met last fall (Metropolitan Opera photo)

When Canadian tenor Michael Schade lost his singing partner for a series of art song recitals this season, he turned the bad news into an opportunity to introduce audiences to a promising new voice.

German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff was originally supposed to join Schade on stage at Roy Thomson Hall on Friday night. But nagging health problems prompted Quasthoff, one of the most respected singers of his generation, to say auf wiedersehen to concert life earlier this year.

Instead, Schade’s companion in a programme of German art song and Viennese whipped-cream will be 30-something Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, whose North American profile exploded the moment he set foot on the Metropolitan Opera stage as servant Leporello in a production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni last fall.

The tall Italian who grew up in opera composer Giuseppe Verdi’s hometown of Busseto is everything a fine Leporello should be, possessing a golden voice and a fine sense of comic timing. He also happens to be easy on the eyes.

I caught up with Pisaroni, Schade and their accompanist, Justus Zeyen, in rehearsal, just before the trio took their recital programme to Alice Tully Hall in New York City last Sunday, as a tryout for Pisaroni’s big Roy Thomson Hall début.

Here is what The New York Times‘ Steve Smith wrote about Sunday’s encounter, which included a bit of on-stage banter:

“Most young, virile baritones, especially Italian ones, don’t really want to have too much to do with the lied, because they’re probably scared,” Mr. Schade said jokingly. “But not him.”

Mr. Pisaroni emphatically mouthed from the sidelines, “I am, I am,” eyes wide in feigned terror.

The exchange suggested an easy camaraderie between these two fine singers, who also appeared together in Mozart’s “Clemenza di Tito” as conducted by Mr. Harnoncourt at Salzburg in 2003, an encounter preserved on DVD. That bond extended to their work in this recital, which included a generous sampling of blithe duets by Mendelssohn and a clutch of headier selections by Schumann.

Some accounts of previous recitals by Mr. Pisaroni mentioned a stiff reserve in his bearing, a condition largely vanquished here. Though his gaze understandably was fixed on his music stand in the duets, he still asserted a buddy-movie physical proximity with Mr. Schade. Alone Mr. Pisaroni seemed easeful, performing four selections from Schubert’s “Schwanengesang” and three intense Liszt songs, with assurance, refinement and keen dramatic instincts.

For Mr. Schade this was a superlative outing. If his heady sound and stagey gesticulations verged on precious in a set of four Mozart songs, which ended with a magically subtle “Abendempfindung” (“Evening Thoughts”), that impression was dispelled entirely by the penetrating insight and lucidity he brought to four emotionally volatile Schumann songs from 1849.

The pianist Justus Zeyen was a splendid accompanist throughout the recital, in every instance providing precisely the necessary support and atmosphere. The recital ended with a cheery medley of sentimental Viennese songs, after which each singer offered Schubert as an encore: Mr. Pisaroni, a bluff “Il modo di prender moglie”; Mr. Schade, a luminous “Nacht und Träume.”

As Smith hints, Pisaroni is no newcomer to the song recital, despite being primarily an opera singer. A look at his schedule reveals that he tries to book a concert or recital around every opera production.

“My nightmare would be to just have an opera career, going from one production to the next,” says a relaxed Pisaroni at Schade’s kitchen table. “You miss such a huge portion of repertoire, and that would be very sad.”

The singer admits that it’s a lot more work to learn a recital programme in German than to learn a role in one of George Frideric Handel’s Italian operas, “but it is a good challenge.”

“What you learn in a recital, you can apply to an opera, and vice versa,” Pisaroni declares. “It’s good to mix things up and grow as a musician.”

Pisaroni fell in love with opera at an early age, thanks to a grandfather’s record collection.

When he was 8, the boy sat through a recording of Verdi opera duets, “and decided to become a singer by 11,” he recalls. “The first thing I ever heard was Boris Christoff singing “Ella giammai m’amo,” [an aria from Verdi’s Don Carlo] and I thought, man, that’s it. That’s what I want to do.”

He adds: “I wasn’t born in Iowa or Idaho. I was in Busseto, so I was privileged by the fact that opera is normal there.”

The bass-baritone says he knows several Verdi operas by heart, even though he has yet to sing in one. It’s all a question of time.

“I find Verdi is not a composer you start with, but you arrive at,” Pisaroni says. “You need to pace yourself. I know what my voice can do now, and I know there is a development, and I have to do the right thing in order to be able to sing Verdi later, when I’ll be able to do a good job.”

Like every singer, Pisaroni has a valued coach and sounding board he consults regularly. He also has the benefit of having a one of the finest baritones in the business, Thomas Hampson, as father-in-law.

I ask if this is intimidating.

“Yes, well, hello!” Pisaroni replies, laughing.

“I’m intimidated, but it’s a good stimulus,” he says, in all seriousness. “It doesn’t freeze me; it pushes me to try something more and better.”

Friday evening should be a good chance to see how he’s doing.

For full concert details and tickets, click here.

Here is Christoff’s performance, followed by Pisaroni singing Leporello’s Catalogue Aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and a brilliant turn singing “Sibilar gli angui d’Aletto” from Handel’s Rinaldo at the BBC Proms last summer:

John Terauds


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