Shudders ran through opera-land last April when top tenor Rolando Villazón announced that he was putting his schedule on hold while he underwent throat surgery. It wasn’t clear how serious the problem might be. Many feared a premature end to his brilliant career.
Happily, the new year finds the Mexican star bouncing back with a new CD in February, followed by a string of opera and concert performances which kick off in March. But, before all that, the rejuvenated Villazón is taking the daring lateral step of appearing on prime-time television in ITV1’s new reality-music series Popstar to Operastar, joining Katherine Jenkins in mentoring eight pop singers as they try to sing operatic arias.
“I am not a singing teacher, but I can give advice from the perspective of an opera singer who has 10 years of experience,” Villazón explains. “I will work on the interpretation, and if I see a problem I will try to fix it.”
One possibly unintended irony of the show is that Villazón and Jenkins between them pack vastly more star quality than the contestants, most of whom are unlikely to bring traffic screeching to a halt. They include Darius Campbell (perhaps better known as Danesh), Vanessa White from the Saturdays, Bernie Nolan from the Nolan Sisters, Danny Jones from McFly, and “Little” Jimmy Osmond. Maybe ITV will have a phone-in contest where viewers have to guess how on earth Blur’s bass player, Alex James, became a contestant in an opera-singing contest.
Serious students of opera won’t know whether to laugh or cry. Well, actually they will, especially when they learn that the show is co-hosted by wrinkly horticulturist Alan Titchmarsh and reality TV’s test-tube babe Myleene Klass. But Villazón, thrumming with an infectious confidence fuelled by seeing his career spring back to life, is immune to negative thoughts.
"It has been the way I expected it to be – fun!” he declares, with a gust of room-filling laughter. “I’m an opera singer, but I’m a performer, too, and the human contact is fantastic. I’m enjoying it very much. I’m learning from the pop artists, the way they feel the music and the way they transform it. Their enthusiasm for this music, and their amazement at discovering it, is fantastic.”
Is this another stunt under the tattered banner of “making opera accessible to the masses”, or is it simply an entertainment show?
“Yes, it is entertainment,” says Villazón, who quite understands that trying to sing one aria bears no relation to being engaged in the full-scale dramatic experience of a complete opera. “I’m sure it will bring some people in, but that is not the objective. I’m not here because I’m the ambassador for opera. I’m here because they invited me, it sounded like fun, and I said yes. Besides, the opera houses are full already. It’s hard enough to get a ticket.”
An unusually well-read singer apt to veer off into digressions about Sartre, Heidegger or Walt Whitman, Villazón has already written his own previews of what the opera critics will say. “When they see me on TV they will probably say, 'Why would a serious opera singer get into this?’ But, for me, the question is, 'Why not?’ I’m not harming the art form".
“Critics will say, 'It will make people confused about what opera is’, but those who know opera won’t get confused. Those who are confused but are interested in the music will not be confused if they immerse themselves in opera. There really is no harm in this.”
Popstar to Operastar looks like a handy publicity splurge to advertise Villazón’s performing comeback, but he insists there is no such masterplan.
“The way you ask that makes it sound as if it was prepared, but it was just the way things happen in life,” he says. “I received a phone call about the show, and my heart said this sounds great, let’s follow this one. The timing happened to be perfect, because if it had been in a year’s time I wouldn’t have had the time to do it.
“And, anyway, where am I back from? I just had to stop singing because I had to have an operation. I didn’t retire – it wasn’t like Frank Sinatra, retiring and then saying, 'Guess what, I haven’t retired after all.’ I always knew my career was going to continue.”
He also points out that throat problems affect a huge proportion of opera singers, but most of them are terrified of discussing it publicly. “If you say you’ve had an operation, it’s as if you are cursed,” he says. “I would say to singers of the world, 'Get out of the closet and announce it! Me too – I had an operation!’ It’s like being a sportsman, where you use one part of your body to the extreme."
Meanwhile, there must be a distinct possibility that the TV programme could propel Villazón’s career off in different directions, because his fizzing energy and attractive personality might easily make him a natural TV star.
He’s fortunate, too, in being such an established opera-house favourite that he can consider excursions into different musical areas. His forthcoming album, Tenor, is a mix of popular arias such as Verdi’s Brindisi and Puccini’s O soave fanciulla with a trio of musical theatre pieces – Maria from West Side Story, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Music of the Night, and The Impossible Dream from Man of La Mancha.
A cynic might detect an attempt by his record label, Deutsche Grammophon, to exploit the “poperatic” commercial windfall of Popstar to Operastar, though Villazón’s infatuation with music theatre dates back to his childhood.
“I love musicals. When I was 12 I used to sing the soundtrack of Man of La Mancha, with Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren. I used to play Don Quixote.”
Oblivious of the fact that we’re sitting in a hotel lobby, he launches into a full-scale re-enactment, as if he’s reaching out to the back row of the London Palladium: “ 'You spoke of a dream and about a quest!’ 'A quest? What did I say about it?’ 'To dream…the impossible dream!’ ”
Laughing, he comes back down to earth. “That song is like a theme for my life. To dream the impossible dream, to be a Mexican and become an opera singer and go to Europe. In my family, there was never any hint of me being able to do that. Life is a journey, and you should live it to the maximum with all your heart.”