Thursday, 2 October 2014

Interview: Ludovic Tézier

[From OPERA, October 2014, pp. 1212-20]

Among the oft-repeated refrains of operatic doom-mongers, the lament regarding today’s dearth of baritones with the wherewithal—in terms of technique, stylistic sense and basic vocal apparatus—to tackle Verdi’s great roles is one of the most common. But if this is heard more regularly in Britain then elsewhere, it might well be due to the fact that Ludovic Tézier has sung here so rarely in recent years. In 1997 and ’98—‘when I was young, thin and charming’, the French baritone remembers with a laugh—he donned Raimbaud’s habit in Glyndebourne’s Le Comte Ory.

But his only appearances at Covent Garden have been in 2009’s concert performances of Linda di Chamounix (subsequently released on Opera Rara), as Massenet’s Albert in 2004, and as Belcore in the Laurent Pelly L’elisir d’amore when it was new in 2007. The reactions in these pages to those two staged performances neatly sum up Tézier’s primary virtues: Max Loppert, reviewing the Werther, hailed ‘the best lyric baritone to have emerged from France in many years and aristocratically handsome to boot’; in the Donizetti, ‘Tézier sang his music cleanly and strongly’, wrote Richard Fairman.

Britain’s loss has been the rest of the operatic world’s gain. But when we speak, it’s clear that Tézier is a remarkably relaxed customer, for whom the health of the voice is more important than any ambitions to conquer the great stages. Nevertheless, the big Verdian engagements are there: Posa, in both French and Italian, is a signature role, and has been in his repertoire for nearly a decade; his performances as Don Carlo to Jonas Kaufmann’s Don Alvaro in Munich’s La forza del destino last autumn and again this summer were universally praised; April saw him sing Verdi’s other baritone Don Carlo in Monte-Carlo’s new Ernani; he was Germont père in Paris’s new Traviata in June; Renato has long been in his repertoire.

This summer also saw him sing Alphonse XI opposite Juan Diego Flórez and Elīna Garanča in concert performances of Donizetti’s La Favorite in Salzburg. But his schedule is still punctuated with performances of roles one might have assumed he’d have left behind: next year he sings Albert (Werther) in Vienna, and he was still stepping out as Marcello in Paris last season, where he expands his Puccini repertoire this month, taking on Scarpia for the first time.

It’s no surprise that the music of French composers features heavily in Tézier’s repertoire: Massenet’s baritone version of Werther has proved something of a calling card for him (often jumping in for indisposed tenors), as has, more predictably, Escamillo, with which he made his Met debut a decade ago. French works by Italian composers (not only La Favorite and Don Carlos, but also, opposite Alagna and Dessay, Lucie de Lammermoor in Lyon and on disc) inevitably play to the virtues that have also made Tézier a valuable champion of rarer French repertoire.

His performance in the title role on Naïve’s release of Bizet’s Ivan IV, for example, led Rodney Milnes to describe him as ‘a classic French baritone with warmly focused tone and a real sense of musical line who sings off the words like his great predecessors’. Those predecessors were a formative influence, but only once he had been forced to abandon an early dream of tenor stardom and once his teacher, the former soprano Claudine Duprat, had given him discs of Michel Dens, Ernest Blanc and Robert Massard. ‘I was not trying to copy their vocalism: they were mature when they made those recordings, and I was not. I had no way to imitate the colour, but I did try to imitate the style, to find the way to breathe and sustain the phrase.’

Asked when he decided to become a singer, he turns the question on its head. ‘I never decided to be a singer. If once you take a heroin shot, that doesn’t necessarily mean you decide to be a junkie. No, you try it, and then it’s in your blood. For me it was opera!’ Of his time growing up in Marseille he says, ‘We lived very simply, and I had parents who saved nothing for themselves: everything they earned was for me and my sister.

‘I had the fortune at the time of getting into the paradis at the Opéra de Marseille for nearly nothing. I was 13 or 14 and I saw Parsifal. My father thought I was mad, but he said, “If you want to go, I’ll buy you the best place that I can”. If he had been able to come with me, he would have, but we couldn’t afford two seats. So I went to the theatre alone to attend this performance, and this first “shot” was just like a dream.’

His father—‘quite a guy, something very special’—was an autodidact who devoured second-hand books, started working in a Marseille bakery aged 13 and ended up running the ticket-machine systems in the city’s Métro. ‘I once did a chess competition when I was very young,’ Tézier recalls; ‘my father looked at it and said, “oh, that’s interesting”. Two months later he was beating me! With such a Commendatore at home, it was not easy for a young man, but fortunately he couldn’t sing very well, so that was my way to exist.’

And those first attempts at singing were made at home, alone, in a house where music was all around. ‘I never got “interested” in music, because I was born in it. No one at home played an instrument. We were just listeners. From Jacques Brel, passing through Beethoven and then the Beatles—at home, there was only good or bad music, no “classical”. I hardly dare say what I’m listening to now. My father-in-law is a fan of heavy metal so we have Black Sabbath in common—tremendous musicians and tremendous workers. And I’m a desperate fan of the violin.’

The ‘beautiful voices on scratchy records’ he heard at home are to this day like the ‘madeleine de Proust’ for Tézier. It just so happened, however, that many of those were tenors: ‘Corelli (not the worst), André D’Arkor (a wonderful Belgian tenor, so beautiful), and Georges Thill, of course. And naturally I was tempted to sing the same arias, because I was listening to them all day long, and trying to sing the same music. And it was not without any trouble—now we know why!—but I used to sing along to records, never in front of my parents. They had absolutely no idea.

‘The voice was really high then, and I could actually reach the tenor tessitura—in my way, which I thought was the right way. And then I met my first teacher—who to this day is the only person who I see regularly—and she said to me straight away, “You’re not a tenor. But you could probably be a good baritone.” I was really disappointed, to tell you the truth. Then I learned that once you’re born a baritone, you have to get along with it. This is something physical, you cannot change it.’

Then came a first competition, which Tézier won. ‘I said to my parents, “You know, I want to be a singer.” And that was when I was about 18.’ He was surprised by his father’s attitude to this decision: ‘I was expecting a kind of fury, that he’d tell me I had to go and find a “real” job. But absolutely not. He asked what this school of singing was, and I explained, and he said to me—I remember precisely—“But do you really want to do that?”. I said, “I’m young, I want to try it, I don’t know”. Because you don’t know.’

Tézier hedged his bets early on, studying economics while also taking singing classes in the Centre National d’Artistes Lyriques, in the same Marseille quartier as his university. But the singing soon took over, and he went to the Atelier Lyrique at the Opéra de Paris. ‘That should have involved doing roles, but at the time, the link to the Opéra was near to nothing. We were studying in the building but we had no opportunity to sing on stage. So I was studying every day in a small studio with professors.’

Among these professors was Michel Sénéchal, the veteran French tenor who was director of the Atelier at the time, and whom Tézier describes as ‘part of our history, more than clever, a very special man with a tremendous heart. He’s not part of the theatre; he is the theatre. He knows e-v-e-r-y trick, and this is very important for a young singer. And if he tells you how to do something, you have to pay attention. And we would spend hours speaking about the job and how to do it. Today I still use some of those small tricks, and, 25 years later, they still make me smile.’

A further key event came when Tézier had a chance to sing for Christa Ludwig, who organized an audition for him with an agent in Zurich, which then led to the baritone, at the age of 22, joining the ensemble of Oper Luzern. She must have seen a special talent, I suggest. ‘Maybe. I was a very good singer when she was in the room. But when she left the room, I was not good any more! There are very few people like that. She improves you. Just her presence is kind of magnetic, and you’re happy to sing for her.

‘And then you try it again at home and it’s terrible! And I wouldn’t say that I was already an opera singer,’ says Tézier of himself at the time he joined the Swiss company, ‘but I had some weapons.’ His first major Lucerne role, Don Giovanni in 1992, earned a complimentary review in these pages: ‘The title role was sung by a polished young French baritone, Ludovic Tézier,’ wrote Andrew Clark, ‘who gave all the notes full value, impressively so in the Champagne Aria.’

Other roles in Lucerne included a rare excursion into English repertoire as Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as Marcello, Escamillo, Sharpless and Count Almaviva. But Tézier was increasingly expected to tackle larger and larger roles, for which he didn’t feel ready. He returned to France when Jean-Pierre Brossmann invited him to sing the Figaro Count at the Opéra de Lyon in 1995.

A stint with the Lyon ensemble followed, and then came the first invitations to Toulouse, an important house in Tézier’s career, whose audience he still counts as his ‘home crowd—in the way, I would say, that my father was: probably my greatest supporters, but also the ones who expect the most. And to tell you the truth, I also expect from myself to give something special here.’

Certainly the Théâtre du Capitole’s medium-sized, 1,300-seat auditorium has
provided a good testing ground. ‘This is where I’ve started with some of the most beautiful parts—and some of them perhaps not expected from a Frenchman.’ So, in 1998, the year in which Tézier and Garanča were awarded joint second place in Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition (behind Erwin Schrott), he sang Schaunard in Toulouse and made the jump to Zurga in Les Pêcheurs de perles.

He tackled another major French part—the lead in Thomas’s Hamlet—in 2000 (alternating with Thomas Hampson), and also his first and, as yet, only Wagner role, Wolfram. In 2003 came Yevgeny Onegin, the role also of the Tézier’s La Scala debut, in 2005. ‘I opened the score and started by learning “Ya … ochen … shchastliv”,’ he says of his first encounter with Onegin. ‘I had to be patient. It took a year, but I love it. Now I can speak a bit of the language; to meet a culture, you have to.’ Yeletsky is now also in his repertoire, as well as Gryaznoy in The Tsar’s Bride.

Nicolas Joel, then Toulouse’s boss, came close to persuading Tézier to tackle Jokanaan (at one stage also slated for performance at La Monnaie) and Mandryka. What happened, I ask? The answer is characteristically straightforward. ‘I trusted Nicolas—I was singing Schaunard when he asked me to do Zurga, and there’s a huge gap between those roles. Then he really wanted me as Mandryka. I checked the score and it looked good, but it was just too early. Not only because I want to have a 40-year career, but also because I wanted to survive the part on stage. Especially with Mandryka or Jokanaan, you can begin like a fireball and vanish in ten minutes. I wasn’t ready technically, and if I could have done this properly at the time, I would probably have begun what we call “la grande carrière” earlier. And I knew that when I refused it. But I’ve no regrets, because I’m here today.’

This sort of patience and care is perhaps what one might expect from a singer, prone to a certain amount of self-deprecation, who describes himself as ‘kind of a diesel’. He explains: ‘It takes a while to warm up. It’s good not to push. If a door opens, you have to go for it, but you have to wait your turn.’ He also characterizes himself as an artisan: ‘To be an artist, you have to work hard as an artisan, although I know this isn’t very modern today, where you’re expected to be a born artist. Even Mozart had to learn a bit!’

Taking his lead from the gender of ‘la voix’ in French, Tézier personifies his voice as ‘she’ and adopts a gentlemanly attitude towards ‘her’. ‘We’re not getting younger,’ he explains, ‘so you have to follow your voice—to help her, to be very cautious and very nice with her, to seduce her.’ And the relationship with the voice trumps everything else: ‘If the voice is healthy and good, I’m healthy and good. If the voice is lazy or tired, I’m sad and totally depressed.’

That relationship is clearly going well, even if Tézier seems as reluctant to offer details of long-term plans as he is to talk about the nitty-gritty of his technique. He adopts a philosophical attitude: he will tackle new roles if he’s offered them at the right time. Scarpia is one significant addition, as will be Rigoletto, a role he has sung so far only in special performances in the small town of Besançon, east of Dijon. His Gilda on that occasion was his wife, the soprano Cassandre Berthon—‘a great singer, and I’d say that even if she wasn’t my wife!’.

The conductor was Jean-François Verdier. ‘For my taste, he is one of the best French conductors. He’s in charge of a small but good orchestra in a small structure there, and we wanted to do something with him. We decided to do Rigoletto together, to build our own project. So we did a new production in ten days, with only beginners on the stage. It was quite an event in Besançon. I was just back from the Met, but there was a very special energy, and this Rigoletto, still today, gives me goose bumps. To sing with the woman you love in your arms at the end, though, was tough. She was so good at that moment, so I had to think about rugby or whatever during “Gilda! Mia Gilda!”—I wouldn’t have been able to sing otherwise!’

Rigoletto is one of the three operas Tézier has said are his favourites, and he’s planning to tackle the title role in more conventional circumstances in Toulouse, although not until the 2015-16 season at the earliest. The other two are Otello and Parsifal. Are roles in those works in his sights too? The answer is characteristically non-committal, but, in the case of the Verdi, it sets Tézier off on some more personal history.

‘Shakespeare fascinated me as a child, because—believe it or not—on French TV in the late ’70s and early ’80s, there would be those beautiful Royal Shakespeare Company stagings—in English, with subtitles. At that time culture was open for everybody. Try to get that now, and you have to pay for it. Of course I was ten or 11 and I couldn’t understand a word. But I was already trying to follow with subtitles and already listening to the music, because this is pure music. People in France and Germany say the English never had a great musician, and I usually say, “They did: William Shakespeare”. Purcell is good. Shakespeare is better. Sorry about that!

‘Of course I have sung Thomas’s Hamlet on stage, a very nice piece and, until the Yorick scene, actually very close—or as close as possible in French—to the Shakespeare. And it’s a shame that he didn’t do the duel on stage: that would have been tremendous to sing. But I had the fortune to have the famous speech’—he begins to recite Hamlet’s best-known monologue in English—‘which is fascinating. And I could sing it!’ Next on the list, though, is Macbeth, with Iago to follow in good time after that. ‘This is how I will try to play Shakespeare. I will try to disappear on stage—in Donizetti, for example, you can’t, because it’s a bit show-off, it’s bel canto. But I remember watching the Hamlet with my four-year-old son, explaining to him that while you see this is Jacobi coming on stage, you forget it the next second. That’s the ideal. I’m not an actor, nor Derek Jacobi, but I try to think like that.’

On picking up his Strauss plans again, he is relaxed but enthusiastic: ‘I would still like to do them. If they refuse themselves to me—and I say that consciously—I will let them go.’ Amfortas, though, is closer to his heart. ‘I would definitely like to do that. I much prefer Wagner to Strauss—less creamy. In Wagner there is something a great deal more powerful, more grounded, nothing fake. And especially Parsifal. There’s no cream there, this is very real.’

And bigger Wagner, Wotan perhaps? ‘Like every singer and every human being, I’m looking to the moon,’ he answers enigmatically. ‘If you have the chance once and you have the voice—and an angel on your shoulder or the stars aligned in the sky—to be able to sing this music, then sing it! But I don’t want to compromise myself and do it for my own egotistical pleasure. I do it in the shower every day,’ he adds with a laugh, ‘and my soap likes it very much.’

In the meantime, at the other end of the vocal spectrum, he’s just as keen to keep singing Mozart. ‘I’m desperately trying to get my agent to find me some Count Almavivas, because I’m not getting any younger. Maybe also one or two Don Giovannis, which I’d definitely sing differently now from when I was slimmer!’ He goes on to explain his theory about Mozart’s great seducer: ‘You don’t have to be beautiful, you have to be fragile. This is no Casanova, and he’s much more than a seducer—he’s a charmer, in the old sense of the word. It’s about magic.’ His view might be wrong, he admits, but he hopes to be able to explore it on stage.

In the meantime, it looks like London and Covent Garden will have to wait for at least another season to see Tézier return, even though he says he loves both the city and the theatre, describing the Royal Opera as more like an ‘opera home than an ‘opera house’. This month, as well as unveiling his Scarpia, Tézier will reprise Marc-Antoine in Massenet’s Cléopâtre (in concert, as at the 2012 Salzburg Whitsun Festival), and then there’s more Verdi coming up, in the guise of Germont père, in New York in December and Baden-Baden in May.

And as our conversation comes to a close, Tézier reflects briefly on being a père himself, on his own family and home life. He concludes with a touching and, one can’t help feeling, very French metaphor. ‘To think of my wife and my three wonderful children makes me realize that they are my centre. I’m passionate about my job, but it is my mistress. My true love is my family. But my job is a nice mistress, and I love her very much.’


  1. Good. thank you. But you wrote "So, in 1998, the year in which Tézier and Garanča were awarded joint second place in Plácido Domingo’s Operalia"... She was Joyce di Donato I believe


  3. He's such a wonderful singer and a lovely human being. (And he's still very charming!)