Ahead of Madama Butterfly, the Mexican-born tenor shares why he’s happy to be working here with Opera Australia.
When and why did you start singing?
In Mexico where I was born we have a huge musical background – from when we are two or three years old we are absorbing all that music – but I’m the first one in my whole family to study it. When I was in primary school, the music teacher heard me and asked to talk with my parents. He said it looked like I had potential to develop, and he offered to give me my first singing lessons. I was around seven or eight years old, and I had my first vocal training until the voice was broken. After that I continued my regular life with high school, but just before entering university I went to the music school in Mexico and later I got the chance to go to the Young Artists’ Programme in Los Angeles. It’s from there that I started to grow.
Diego Torre as Canio in Opera Australia’s Pagliacci. Photo © Keith Saunders
So who were your favourite tenors?
I remember after my third year of music training I heard an Italian singer, Giuseppe Giacomini. I was so taken aback by his voice – he’s maybe the real last dramatic tenor of our age with a really big voice, so dark and well projected. It’s because of him that I realised I wanted to take this seriously. I could mention a lot of other singers, like Giuseppe Di Stefano when he was young, Jussi Björling, Beniamino Gigli, even Caruso (who I don’t really like much, but because of the things we can learn from him). I used to fall in love with the big voices, like Mario Del Monaco. But I think the first ones that I started to listen to very carefully were Beniamino Gigli and then Carlo Bergonzi, who for me is one of the best singers of that era. The elegance that he has, it’s just wonderful. But always it was clear in my mind that I had to sing with my own voice. I always try to avoid copying singers, but I really analyse recordings and try to make a judgement, to think about which things are good and bad, and what I should avoid or try to work on in my own voice.
You have a powerful voice, but did you always have that when you started out?
It was even bigger and louder, but with less control! The more you train your voice, the more control you have. Sometimes you lose that wildness that comes at the beginning, but I’m OK with that.
So what roles did you start by studying?
That’s funny for me, because my first opera was Pagliacci, and it was during my years at the school. I have to say it went very, very badly. I wasn’t ready to sing that role, that kind of repertoire. It’s heavy and not easy. If you are not really mature – and I am saying in a biological way – that can cause real struggles. You can start tensing some muscles and it becomes really hard to sing.
Did you have anything that you would consider to be a big break?
I think it happened here in Australia. Because of the qualities of my voice, I’ve always had problems with vocal instructors or coaches, because they have tried to box me into certain repertoire – which is not wrong, but it shouldn’t be the only thing for a voice. It should have training and development. When I was in Los Angeles, the first production I saw there was La Bohème and I said, “I think this is the kind of role I should explore before going to the heavier repertoire that everybody wants me to do.” I went to the head of the programme and said I’d like to learn the tenor role and have some coaching to do it. “No, no, no, you are crazy,” he said. “Why do you want to sing this, it’s not for your voice. It’s too heavy. Rodolfo cannot be deeper than Marcello. And if you’re going to be Rodolfo, who is going to be your Mimì – Birgit Nilsson?”
Maija Kovalevska as Mimì and Diego Torre as Rodolfo in Opera Australia’s La Bohème, 2014. Photo © Branco Gaica
So how was Australia different for you?
I met Lyndon Terracini. I did an audition and sang Che gelida manina and he invited me to come here. La Bohème was the first opera that I sang in 2011. With these performances, I got a lot of stamina, a lot of flexibility, and got to know my voice better, and started to really develop the qualities I have now. It’s ironic that for a long time people used to tell me La Bohème is not your opera, and I think that now it’s the one I have sung most.
What came after that and how did that relationship develop?
It was fantastic, the way I could speak with Lyndon. It was clear to us what kind of voice I had and the repertoire I should be singing when I was mature. But we agreed that I wasn’t really ready, so I needed a process to help me to approach that moment. With Lyndon we have always been talking about what’s the next step. After La Bohème, I sang Tosca and Madama Butterfly, then Un Ballo in Maschera – that was a break in my career because it’s a tricky opera. It’s really good for the tenor, but you need to work a lot in that role. We’ve been doing this step by step, never singing something that would go against my voice. That’s why I’m really grateful and happy to be here.
You’re an Australian citizen now. What made you decide to do that?
I arrived with my wife, and now we’ve got two kids, one daughter, one son. Since the first day, everybody has treated us in the best way possible. The company received us with open arms and embraced us, and I really appreciate that. We fell in love [with Australia] so when the opportunity came to become a citizen, I took it.
José Carbó (Rodrigo, Count of Posa) and Diego Torre (Don Carlos) in Opera Australia’s Don Carlos, 2015. Photo © Jamie Williams
In terms of vocal roles, what’s been your greatest challenge?
Vocally speaking, so far it would be Don Carlo. It uses a lot of notes that don’t belong to the head voice or chest voice, so it’s really uncomfortable. When a role is written in those notes, it becomes hell for the tenor.
What about greatest dramatic challenges?
That can depend on the stage director. An opera can be complex even if it’s a regular role. That happened to me in Norway for example, when I sang La Bohème. What the director proposed was so tricky that we had a lot of problems – not just me but all my colleagues. The idea was that Mimì was already dead from the beginning and Rodolfo was in the hospital. She had died from a terminal illness and he had developed a paranoia. People loved it or hated it. From a medical point of view everything made sense, but for pure lovers of opera it wasn’t so good.
What kind of roles are you looking at over the next few years?
I think we are ready to start approaching the spinto roles. I’m heading toward Aida and Il Trovatore. I still think I have to remain in Verdi, as the more I sing, the better I think it’s going to be for me. Next year, I’m going to be in Pagliacci in Geneva – I’m looking forward to that – and there’s Siberia by Giordano in Torino, which is not so well known.
Are there any clichés or stereotypes that people have about opera that annoy you?
There are a lot of things! We should start by saying that singing opera, it’s an expression of art. Because it’s an art, we shouldn’t be drawn by stereotypes, because art doesn’t work like that. We are living now in a period of marketing, in a period where people hear with their eyes, not with their ears. We have some companies who have a rule to choose the good looking, the good physique, and sometimes for them, it doesn’t matter if the singer sings really well or not. If he looks fine, it’s okay. For me, that’s an issue of course because of my physique, but I also have seen singers start singing, and just because of the way that they sing, the audience forgets everything and accepts this as art.
Diego Torre sings Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly at the Capitol Theatre, Sydney from October 24 – November 4.