During the 25 years that I was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, it was my great pleasure to interview many of the musicians who visited the Windy City. Besides being heard on the radio station, I have been able to place quite a few in various publications. My regular series in The Opera Journal, which began back in 1985, has featured almost exclusively Americans who are involved in this grandest of art forms.
This issue is devoted to Giuseppe Verdi, and while there are, of course, vast numbers of Americans who would fit nicely, I wanted to share with you the chat that I had about a year ago with Alexandru Agache [pronounced uh-GAH-keh]. This baritone from Romania has been making an outstanding career for himself all over the world, and is noted for his portrayal of characters by Verdi.
His live performances in major opera houses all over the world have endeared him to audiences, and while his recordings are few, they include two of the greatest operas where Verdi gives the title of the work to the baritone - Simon Boccanegra (on video with Kiri Te Kanawa, conducted by Sir Georg Solti), and Rigoletto (on Teldec with Leontina Vaduva, Richard Leech and Carlo Rizzi). Agache has also recorded Lucia di Lammermoor (with Edita Gruberova and Richard Bonynge) and Faust (with Jerry Hadley and Samuel Ramey) also on Teldec, plus a pair of operas by his fellow countryman Nicolae Bretan, on the Nimbus label.
When we talked, he was making his fourth appearance at Lyric Opera of Chicago, having given us Germont in La Traviata, plus three title characters - Simon Boccanegra, Nabucco, and Rigoletto. In a city noted for Verdi portrayals by Tito Gobbi, Sherrill Milnes, Piero Cappuccilli and others, this is quite an accomplishment. He was quiet and serious during most of our meeting, and though a translator was standing by, she was only needed for one or two words. He considered his responses carefully, but allowed his ideas and reflections to flow very smoothly.
Here is that conversation . . . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: You are a ‘Verdi Baritone.' Tell me the secret of singing Verdi.
Alexandru Agache: I was not always a ‘Verdi Baritone.' I also sang Donizetti and Rossini and Mozart. Just in the last few years that I've specialized and started to sing more Verdi operas than others.
BD: Does it please you that you've moved into this repertoire?
AA: Yes I like it very much because I think my voice and my soul is very appropriate to a lot of big characters that you find in Verdi operas - like Simon Boccanegra, Nabucco, Luisa Miller, Rigoletto. I like paternal roles that have to do with sentiments of a daughter or family.
BD: You have family of your own?
AA: Yes, of course. I have two children, but I am closer to these parts than other ones. I enjoy Amonasro, for instance, which is a more dramatic part. I like doing experiments.
BD: How far can you experiment?
AA: I don't know. (Laughter) I try, I try.
BD: From the roles that your voice can sing, how do you decide which to tackle?
AA: As I said, at the beginning, I sang other parts and other composers, but step by step I decided to sing more Verdi because it's better for my tessitura, for my timbre, and for every sentiment and expression that I can show. Verdi operas can show dramatic connections on the stage. They are not conventional like other operas. You can believe the stories, and they are written very well musically. They are conceived well and the music makes a connection with the drama. For instance, Rigoletto is a very complex character and has a lot of different facets. It's easier for a singer when there is a lot to show. It's more difficult to sing Germont because he's not so well-defined. It's beautiful to sing with beautiful arias, but it's not strong enough and clear enough like Rigoletto or Nabucco.
BD: Does the balance between the music and the drama shift in various operas?
AA: Yes, I think so, more than in works by other composers. You can find this connection between the music and the drama in Verdi.
BD: Are there any of your parts which are perhaps too close to the real Alexandru?
AA: I think so, yes. Rigoletto inspired me very much because he has lot of sarcasm. He's a cynical man, a person without scruples. But he also has love which is very strange because it's a very deep personality. He's also paranoid and schizophrenic. I found him very interesting and I have a lot of this part in me.
BD: Well, we know you have love in your heart, but are you also unscrupulous and paranoid???
AA: No, no. I don't want to say that, but it's fun for an artist to bring these ideas across on the stage. Not in real life, but we can imagine these traits and it's fun to try everything.
BD: You don't have any latent desires to win the girl in the end - like the tenor often does?
AA: I don't sing those kinds of roles.
BD: Would you rather?
AA: I don't think so. They're not for me. I sang Don Giovanni earlier in my career, but I wasn't the lover. I brought out other sides of his character. He doesn't have anything to do with real love.
BD: He's the one who's unscrupulous!
AA: Yes. What I don't like to sing are the lover-parts. I prefer the paternal roles. They're more my style.
BD: When you're onstage, would you rather kill or be killed?
AA: It depends on the part. When I sing Iago, I have the desire to destroy Otello. I don't want to kill him, but I want to see him killed and destroyed. It's totally different, but I enjoy it because it's a huge part.
BD: Is there any redeeming quality about Iago? Anything good in him?
AA: There's nothing very good in him.. I used to try to play him as a normal person who tries to hide the malicious part of his personality. There's nothing very good in him.
BD: Are there any of your characters that are mostly or totally good?
AA: Simon Boccanegra. He's the most pure and I like to play that part very much. But when you have to show the same kinds of emotions all the time for three hours, it becomes a little difficult. When you play Nabucco, there's violence and negativity, but at the end he becomes very religious. It's very interesting to make such an experience and show the transformation of the character during the course of the performance.
BD: When you walk out onstage, are you portraying the character, or do you become that character?
AA: I think sometimes I become him - especially when I'm totally with the character and it's in me. When I'm a bit uncertain in myself about the personality, then I try to copy ideas, but I'm an intuitive person, so I try every time to participate in the feelings of each character.
BD: Are you conscious of the audience each night?
AA: Yes, of course. I'm not thinking about them. I'm thinking about what I'm doing there and what I'm feeling. Everything comes from inside. I try to remember what the director said to me and I must concentrate on special moments when I have to do something. But when I'm doing a character, it's 90% the same each time, no matter what the production. So there is a generality of what I do with each character.
BD: And you have developed those ideas yourself?
AA: Yes, I think so. But I've worked with a lot of stage directors and inside me I have a lot of these ideas. I remember them and develop them automatically. In each production I have new experiences and they become part of me. I cannot control them even if it's three years or five years before the next production.
BD: So it's layer upon layer upon layer...
AA: I think so, yes.
BD: Are there any times you want to clear out all of that and get back to the core of the character?
AA: Yes, when I'm offered the chance to make him new and fresh. It depends on the approach of the production. Here in Chicago, this Rigoletto was a very positive experience. Christopher Alden has utilized more theatrical movements. I've tried very much to change and adapt to his ideas which I've never done before. I've done several modern productions of this opera, but this one is very complex and I like it very much. It was an experiment for me and I congratulate from my heart Mr. Alden. What he did on the stage was a big theatrical experiment and I was very happy to see how many ways he developed characters that are not so important. For instance, Giovanna. She became a fantastic character and it was a joy to see a real theatrical experiment on the stage. There are cases where the director is not sure what he wants to do, so it's very hard for the singer to do something that is not well-thought-out. But in this case, Mr. Alden knew from the beginning what he wanted to do every moment. It was fantastic for me. I've had a lot of bad experiences. I won't say where, but once I was so angry with myself over what I was forced to do on the stage that I couldn't accept the applause at the end. I was so ashamed.
BD: Does this mean that if you're offered another contract with that director, you'd turn it down?
AA: No, I don't think so. Most of what I was forced to do with the character was not right, but he has worked with symbols and he had a more general vision about the piece which was not so far off the mark.
BD: Without mentioning specifics, are there times when the directors asks you to go too far?
AA: Oh yes. I've had some very interesting experiences in this matter.
BD: Do you go along with them, or do you walk out?
AA: It's very hard. I know that when a theater takes a production, there is approval from the management. I need to be convinced of what I'm doing even if it's far from traditional. I must feel what I'm doing is true. I will speak with the producer or director, and if he can persuade me that it's right, I will do it. In opera, the time to just raise your hand and sing is gone. It's good to hear the fine singing, but with the new movies, especially those from Hollywood, audiences are expecting more from the stage, even in opera. It's image.
BD: Is the live theater competing with film?
AA: I think there's a big effort in the theater to make a convincing style in the productions. Even if the stories are 200 years old, we have experienced history, and stage techniques have developed a lot since the death of the composers. We have an obligation to present the more modern view for the more modern people. Opera must attract people who use computers and the internet in this shrinking world.
BD: Are the operas that you sing for everyone?
(As Nabucco in Berlin)
AA: Yes, I think so. That's the genius of the composers, especially Verdi and Puccini, and those who had more dramatic conviction. Verdi understood the human character very well and I think he understood very well what theatrical pieces could do and must show to the people. He was a precursor of the film director of today because he had everything in his mind. He was the first to have this fantastic vision of the theater.
BD: Does he ever ask too much?
AA: Oh yes. It's difficult to sing Verdi, and I have had some problems at times, but I enjoy singing his works because for me it's so real. I like Mozart and others, also, but Verdi is like a competition. It's hard, it's long, it's high. He's asking everything - piano, mezza-voce, forte, vendetta, everything. It's not just ‘stand there and sing.' It's a lot of participation.
BD: You say it's a competition. Do you always win?
AA: No. I'm very conscious of that. It's so close to the limits of what we can do. Now I'm speaking just of the baritone parts, but in each of his operas, the roles are so different. Nabucco is very different from Rigoletto, and Simon Boccanegra is different from Amonasro. I try every time to find a color for the part, but it's very difficult.
BD: So each part asks different challenges of you!
AA: I think so. It's very complex. It's not just the things you learn singing an aria. The color of voice is very important to the characterization.
BD: Do you also sing concerts as well as opera?
AA: Not so much. I did earlier, and I did a lot of modern music, but now I get mostly offers for Verdi because my voice is so adaptable for them - moreso than other parts. But I'm very happy for it.
BD: Do you like singing these roles over and over again?
AA: Yes, I like it. Earlier, when I had some problems having enough voice to ride the large orchestra in the big theaters, I found a good way to not lose the voice. It's a big effort to sing Verdi, and one needs to find a way to do them without danger for the voice and without too much stress. The stage imposes lots of stress anyway, and I must cope - not with the colleagues, but with myself. So, I've found ways to do it without danger, so I'm happy. I'm singing very well and I enjoy it, so it's a pleasure.
BD: Do you change your technique for the size of the house?
AA: That's a danger. I sang Nabucco this summer in the arena in Verona, and had a very big success. When I sing in little theaters, I have more problems than in big ones. But the voice does respond differently from house to house because of the acoustics. I need time to get used to it because I'm not as technical a singer as others may be. When I finished my studies in Romania, I did not have a good technique, and I needed lots of time to discover what my voice could really do.
BD: Are you still discovering?
AA: Yes. I hope someday to be perfect, but it's not yet. I'm more pleased now than I was earlier in my career, but I hope to have enough time to discover the real voice.
BD: Tell me a bit about the Romanian composer Breton.
AA: Ah, Nicolai Breton. I've had the pleasure of singing 2 of his operas, which have a lot of musical inspiration not only from Romania, but also Hungary and Germany. It was a very interesting experience for me to make these recordings. My first disc was Arald and that is the name I gave my son. The other one is Golem.
BD: Should those operas be done in America as well as in Romania?
AA: I don't know. There was a production of Golem in Switzerland, and I know that there are hopes of a production in the U.S.
BD: Perhaps now, with the use of supertitles, it could bridge the gap.
AA: I hope so. There is a Breton Foundation in Virginia, and they organize a lot of concerts, but opera is more difficult, and these works have large casts.
BD: Do you sing differently for recordings than you do in the theater?
AA: No, no. It's another thing, of course. I sing without rushing and without pushing.
BD: Are you pleased with your records?
AA: Not always. The Golem was very good, but I was much younger. It depends. As I mentioned, I'm an intuitive person, so I'm happy, but I'm suffering a lot, also.
BD: Are you optimistic about the future of opera?
AA: I think I am. I see the audiences all over the world, and it's a special public that exists for opera. They are very passionate about it. I think it has a long future. I have no doubt about its possibilities.
BD: Do you still sing new works?
AA: Not any more. When I finished the Academy of Music in Cluj in Romania, there were a lot of composers who wanted me to sing their works. I had a lot of fun with it, but now it would have to be a very special proposal. I did a small part in the Cantata Profana of Bartók with Solti.
BD: Let me ask a real easy question – what's the purpose of music?
AA: The purpose? To enjoy and to make more happiness and to make us think. What the human being cannot say, there is the music which can explain or give hope to the people. [Note: at this point, Mr. Agache got quite choked up and began speaking more softly.] When I was younger and living in Romania under dictatorship, the music was the only hope sometimes for me and for other people.
BD: Are you proud that you were part of that hope?
AA: Yes, of course.
BD: Do you have any advice for younger singers coming along?
AA: Advice is very difficult. They must be very careful with the repertoire they sing and not to rush and push the voice. Don't sing parts that are too long. But they must work and love music. If that exists, then everything can come.
BD: Do you leave enough time between engagements for yourself?
AA: Well, not too much time. A lot of time, I'm alone. My wife was here for three weeks and I enjoyed that. She just left yesterday, so it's difficult especially with children. We live in Germany, so when I sing there it's easier to go home for a couple days and enjoy the fun. But it's my profession and I love it very much.
BD: Are you the point in your career you want to be right now?
AA: I don't make plans, but I'm very pleased, of course. Maybe when I was younger I dreamed more, but now I'm more realistic and very pleased. It's more positive than negative, so that's very good. Otherwise, one can lose one's way.
BD: Thank you for coming again to Chicago!
AA: I love Chicago very much. It's a beautiful
and a beautiful public. I congratulate the staff which is so
and full of attention. This is the fourth time I've been here,
I consider it like my home. And I thank you for the interview.
Next time in these pages, a chat with tenor George Shirley.
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Photos as Rigoletto at Lyric Opera of Chicago (except
Published in The Opera Journal December, 2001
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