Warm Up: Roberto Alagna Gets Physical—and Spiritual

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Tenor Roberto Alagna has asserted himself as both a tenor of Italian soul and French pedigree (oh yes, there's some South American flair in there as well), making him a natural fit in the Metropolitan Opera's season calendar each year. On Monday night, he pinch-hits for Joesph Calleja as the title role of Faust after his own run in the show, and sticks around for the comparatively brief role of Cavaradossi in Tosca, opening tomorrow.

Yet for such variations, the theme remains the same when it comes to the day of the show. And for all of the pomp and circumstance that seems to inevitably follow in Alagna's wake, he's a surprisingly normal—and quirkily intellectual—guy when he's not playing philosophers, soldiers, royals or revolutionaries. Read on to see how he handles a recurring injury, juggles two languages regardless of his role and makes time for foreign cinema in this week's Warm Up.

Start on the Right Foot…
I try to awake late in the morning, around 11:00, and stay calm in my bed for one hour. I take breakfast and after that I have some pasta three hours before I have to go to the theater. I like to have a plate of pasta, very simple. I put sometimes some vegetables and that’s all. I prefer to be very light, because if I eat too much I won’t be comfortable in my costume. I have a good breakfast and that’s all after that.

…And Occasionally on the Wrong Foot
It depends if you feel well or not. For example now, I have a problem with my ankle and I must stay quiet at home, not to walk and not to put weight on my ankle. Yesterday I had a rehearsal for Tosca and tomorrow I have Faust. When it’s like this, you change everything in your routine to stay light. Seven years ago, I had a performance of Roméo et Juliette in the amphitheater in Orange in France, and I was [running to] René Pape, because he was Frère Laurent, and I switched my ankle and broke there on live television two ligaments. I continued the show until the end, but after that for five years I had problems with my ankle. I had to bring mobility in my ankle and made use of some exercises for the muscles. If I do an operation, I will lose the mobility of the foot and for that I don’t do this. When I have—like here—heavy rehearsals, these things reappear.

The Show Must Go On
When I was at home, I was in pain with my ankle and I was sure not to be able to finish the opera. But I went in and I sang with that, because you must be very strong inside with your nerves. You must try. For me, a lot of singers never try when they are ill or not well—they prefer to cancel. My particular belief is to try all the time, even when I’m not well.

Silence and Splendor
Usually when I feel not so bad, I stay home. I try to have a good time watching television or a movie or something like this because it’s better not to speak. Just now I saw The Artist, the French movie, and it was fantastic. I was there with my wife [soprano Angela Gheorghiu] and I was very happy to see this movie; it was a beautiful movie. After watching this movie you have more respect for the silent movie because in fact you understand it was the beginning of the beautiful adventure of cinema. Because of this kind of movie, we have today movies with special effects and beautiful dialogue. Last night, because I was in bed with my ankle, we saw The Borgias on television. Very, very different.

The Bilinguist
When I was in France at the beginning of my career, everybody thought I was an Italian tenor because of the name... And now everybody thinks of me as the typical French tenor. I always sing in both languages at the same time. For example, when I have to sing Faust, I warm up my voice in Italian in the dressing room. And when I sing something like Tosca, I warm up my voice in French. I don’t know why, but I need those two languages to warm my voice. Maybe it’s because the Italian language is higher in the position than French. But French obliges you not to be too large.

Method to the Madness
Don Carlos is in French and the position of the voice is one way. And when you sing it in Italian, the position is another. It’s the same music, but something is different in the position and the energy of the voice because of the language. Also, for example, some of the American singers have very good top notes because the American is very high in the nose. And maybe it helps to have high notes. Different languages give you a very different position of the voice.

Handle with Care
Two hundred years ago, the tenor didn’t exist. It wasn’t in nature. It’s like a mutation, an evolution of the voice. Because of that, it’s the only voice onstage who can never relax during the singing. All the time for the soprano and baritone, you have phrases where they can relax—but not for the tenor.  I remember a phrase Caruso said all the time, “During the season I am two nights in very good form, and those are the two nights I don’t sing.” It’s like this, because we never know. It’s so fragile, the exposure is so big for a tenor. Almost all the time, whenever someone breaks a note it’s the tenor. It’s very important also to have very good nerves.

First in the Door
I prefer to arrive early [at the theater] because I like not to be running and rushing to prepare myself. I like to walk a lot onstage and sometimes I go to the stage, I return to my dressing room, I go to see my colleagues and joke around with everybody. It’s my way to send away the stress. I like to have a very good atmosphere around me and I try to joke with everybody to feel like I’m in a family.

And a Moment of Piety
I don’t go every Sunday to church and everything, but I believe in something: I believe in God. And when you do this kind of profession, it’s like a prayer. Maybe for this I have every night the courage to go onstage. It’s something I will miss one day when I stop, and maybe all the time I have this pleasure to go even when I’m not feeling well. It’s a challenge, you must find the power inside of you, the courage inside of you, it’s like you have to prove something. It’s very, very spiritual for me to go onstage.