An ex-pat Englishman and a Tony-Award winning Brazilian opera singer walk into a Manhattan bar, and what do they talk about? The coffee of course.

“It’s not the same here,” exclaims Paulo Szot, settling into an armchair in a quiet corner of the Empire Hotel. It’s July 2018 and he’s in town for his seventh annual cabaret appearance at New York’s 54 Below, but we are hear to chat about the anticipated pleasures of his imminent visit to Australia. “As a Brazilian we’re used to good coffee, we drink it all day. When I arrived in Melbourne and had my first coffee I was like, ‘What is this? This is amazing! The flavour, the weight…’ Then I had the next one, the next one and the next one and they were all incredibly good.”

Paulo Szot at 54 Below. Photo © Maryann Lopinto

Szot, the tall, dark and strikingly handsome operatic baritone who won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical as Emile De Becque in Broadway’s 2008 revival of South Pacific is reminiscing about his previous visit down under when he played the title role in Kasper Holten’s Eugene Onegin for Opera Australia. “I had the best time in Melbourne,” he tells me, his enthusiasm palpably genuine. “The whole city, the company, the people were so incredible. The food. Nicole Car – who wouldn’t die to work with her. I was blown away.”

Szot’s return to Oz happened soon after this interview in August 2018, his mission, to play Juan Perón in Hal Prince’s iconic staging of Evita. By all events it – and he – was a great success. “Paulo Szot… brings a magisterial baritone to Juan Perón. He’s a powerful vocal presence as the army general turned President but brings genuine emotion to numbers like She is a Diamond and more intimate scenes,” wrote Angus McPherson in his Limelight review.

Not bad for the son of music loving Polish immigrants. Young Paulo grew up in Brazil wanting to be a dancer, but his early dreams were shattered by a knee injury at the age of 18. “I loved soccer and I really wanted to play,” he explains, “and then one day the coach came to my mum, and he said, ‘you know your son is not good at soccer,’ and I was so sad, so sad. So, my mum said let’s try something else at the school: dance – and I really loved it!”

“I wanted to be a professional and I got a scholarship to study dance in Poland, but when I started to work, I had an injury to my knee and the doctor said, ‘it’s really bad, you should stop dancing right now.’ I didn’t want to talk to my parents about it because they would want me to return right away and I wanted to stay. So, at the same university they had this chorus, and I went to audition. The conductor said, ‘you have a very good voice, did you know about it?’ And I said no, but I’ll take it! Since then I started to take singing lessons and my teachers were very positive.”

For Szot it was opera that grabbed him right from the start and he soon wound up a soloist with a state chorus by the name of Śląsk. Then, a few years later on a visit to his parents in Brazil, he had one of those lucky breaks. “It was December of ’94 and my mum read in the paper that Pavarotti was coming to Brazil for a concert and that he was going to listen to some singers for his voice competition in Philadelphia,” Szot recalls. “My mum said I should go, so I started to fill in all the papers, sent a recording and got a letter back from them saying that Pavarotti would listen to me.”

Not only that, the great tenor fast-tracked Szot to the finals the following year in Philadelphia, the perfect excuse for a change of country and a new career chapter. In the end, the competition didn’t work out so well, but the experience of being among singers from all over the world was seminal, not to mention the chance to be up close and personal with Pavarotti. “He was just the way he appears on TV, you know?” Szot says. “He was a superstar but very nice to everybody and he gave all us notes. To be so close to someone so famous that I had admired for so many years, it was scary, but at the same time, I thought, from now on I have sung for Pavarotti so I don’t need to be nervous in front of other people.”

With Nicole Car in OA’s Eugene Onegin. Photo © Jeff Busby

A return to Brazil – and a switch from tenor to baritone – saw him winning his first important role in 1998 as Figaro in The Barber of Seville. The next decade saw him singing more roles at home as well as visits to mid-scale European houses, but always opera, never a thought for musical theatre. Then, one day when he was performing in Così Fan Tutte in Nice, someone called him about “this musical South Pacific that was written for an opera singer, Ezio Pinza.” They were looking for a baritone for a production in New York, and was he interested? “I didn’t know the musical itself,” he recalls, “but then I started to listen to things and I thought this is really good. I like this part, I like these songs, I like this story. I’m going to be in Boston for Marriage of Figaro, so why not? I’ll give it a try.”

That production turned out to be Bartlett Sher’s acclaimed staging for Lincoln Center – a production that was picked up by John Frost and Opera Australia and has toured Australia in recent years. Szot found himself one of 200 singers up for the role, but as he considered his real career to be opera he felt relaxed – if it didn’t work out, it wasn’t going to matter. “They were very nice and started to work with me on the dialogue, asking me for different things, different intentions,” he says. “And then they said can you come back another day? I was like why? Because in opera you don’t have call-backs at all. I said I’m in Boston, sorry. I didn’t understand. And then they called my agent and said we really want him to come back because they wanted to show the Rodgers and Hammerstein Association. So I came two more times until they said you’re going to do it. I remember I had to cancel a few important concerts, but I talked to my agent and said this is a once in a lifetime experience so why not.”

A long rehearsal period was the first eye-opener, but Szot found the whole approach exhilarating. “When you do Don Giovanni you come with your Giovanni ready to go,” he explains. “When I came in, the director said, ‘yeah, okay, but let’s try not to do all that. Let’s try to find these little truths. Let’s build layers.’ I was fascinated because they really took the time to do it little by little, day by day. And then at the end of the week, throwing all of that away and starting again from a new point of view. But of course, you never throw away, you just know that maybe that’s not the best option, but you keep them all in mind.”

And then there was the book. “I was very insecure because it was the first time I was doing spoken text, dialogue, without music. I was terrified because it was new. But little by little with the help of my colleagues and Bart I felt protected so I could try. I saw my colleagues, really fantastic actors, struggling too, so I thought okay, that’s normal. As opera singers you don’t show that you don’t know anything in rehearsals, but in the theatre I see these wonderful actors allowing themselves to not know and being given the time to find the right track.”

Paulo Szot and Laura Osnes in South Pacific

Even though the show was a hit, Szot never imagined he would end up winning the Tony. “I remember the Drama Desk Awards came and I met Patti LuPone,” he recalls, still a little starry-eyed. “She was like ‘oh my God, I want to see your show but I can’t’ and I said, ‘I want to see your show but I can’t.’ She was in Gypsy and I was in South Pacific and we were together for all these awards. I remember someone had to explain to me that the Tonys and the other awards are important for showbiz because it’s different than in opera. On Broadway you need the show to sell, otherwise it closes.”

Then the nominations for the Tonys came around. “I really didn’t think this could happen to me, first time on Broadway and being a foreigner and all these things,” he recalls. “But then the night of the show Liza Minelli calls my name! I was like, oh my God. It was incredible. I didn’t quite realise for several months because the next day you go back to the show – it’s eight shows a week so you don’t have the time to celebrate – but after a few months, on one weekend, I realised that this had really happened, it wasn’t a dream.”

The win changed Szot’s career for good, not just in terms of job offers, but ironically it added extra stress over the rest of the run – “because people are paying tickets to see a Tony-winner,” he says. The first door to open was the Metropolitan Opera. Judging by the number of Broadway directors on its current books, Peter Gelb, the Met’s General Manager, clearly has a weakness for Tony-winners and soon signed Szot to play the lead in William Kentridge’s production of Shostakovich’s The Nose. “Before that I worked at the Met two times as a cover,” Szot remarks somewhat ruefully, “but South Pacific opened the doors, and after the Met, other houses like La Scala and Paris Opera.”

Paulo Szot in Evita. Photo © Jeff Busby

In some ways Szot was a natural to play Perón in Australia. Growing up in Brazil, the military regime next door was a part of his childhood. “We learned about the Peróns in school and that helped me in creating the character. I was aware of how politics worked in my country and the way of thinking of these people. I think that helps me to find the colour for that role, and of course I’ve made lots of research and read lots of books about Evita mainly – because that’s what it’s about after all, and a little bit of story of Perón.”

Here in New York, Szot still attracts a loyal following from a fan club which fell in love with him during his South Pacific days. Sitting in at 54 Below the night after our interview I can see why. It’s a Rolls Royce instrument, plush and dark, but what is most impressive is his ability to get under the skin of a lyric – his Being Alive from Sondheim’s Company rates among the best I’ve ever heard. Good spot, Pavarotti.

Opera Australia, John Frost and David Ian present Evita at Arts Centre Melbourne, December 5 – 30