By Bruce Duffie

Even if you don’t recognize the name at first, you’ve probably seen tenor Vasile Moldoveanu on the television – as Don Carlo in the “Live from the Met” series, as well as other parts.  [Center in Hirschfeld caricature below]


Born in Romania, he sang for seven years at the National Opera in Bucharest, but is now based in Monte Carlo.  Engagements take him all over the world, including to Chicago, where I met him between performances.  He’d not been originally scheduled, but when Luciano Pavarotti canceled Luisa Miller, the tenor scheduled for Madama Butterfly (Giuliano Ciannella) happened to know this particular Verdi role, and it was easier for management to find another tenor who knew the Puccini opera.

It was an unexpected pleasure to meet Mr. Moldoveanu, and I began by asking him about combining singing with traveling…

Vasile Moldoveanu:    I have to be very sincere and say that it’s a very tiring life, especially in situations like this where I was back home for a couple of days and then got the call to substitute in Chicago.  You cannot just jump into doing a role.  Thank goodness I had just finished a Puccini role (Cavaradossi) before having to come here for Butterfly.  They are in the same vocal category.  Then from here I do Bohème at the Met, so again it’s the same kind role.  You cannot jump from one style to another right away.  That is not good for the voice.  If I had to do a Verdi role next, I would want at least a week to change the voice and be prepared vocally.  Even though you know a role, you need time to get the voice used to it again.  

Bruce Duffie:    Do you find yourself singing too much?

VM:    I am not one of those tenors who does that.  I say “no” a lot of times, but it is very difficult, especially when it’s a new theater because they might not ask you a second time.

BD:    How does the size of the different theaters affect your vocal production?

VM:    This is an issue which is talked about very much.  We tend to sing the same way most of the time, but in the very large houses
like the Met, Chicago, San Francisco, La Scalaone tends to give a little bit more.  When I’ve been on tour with the Met, I’ve sung in very large places – such as Boston or Cleveland where we use microphones because they are so enormous.  We’re talking capacities of 14,000 people!

BD:    From a strictly artistic point of view, how are the voices in Bucharest?

VM:    The voices are very beautiful.  The maestri and the musicians were raised in the strict Italian tradition.  It’s been 12 years since I left Romania so I’m not up on current trends, but the life is very hard there.  Everyone is paid so little and life is so difficult that there is little one can say.  In my particular case, it was especially hard because I often couldn’t get visas to honor contracts in the West.  And because I wasn’t part of the political majority, I wasn’t given very much to sing in Romania.  I’m trying to forget about that part of my life.  The best luck I had was to leave there and come here.

BD:    You gained national fame by singing Verdi’s Don Carlo.  Tell me a bit about that role.

VM:    I would like to retire Don Carlo, but I can’t because people keep asking me for it.  It’s a very big part, especially since I always do the five-act version.  It’s a hard part to sing, and he doesn’t get a big aria like the other characters do.  It’s a most beautiful opera and I like it very much, but I did 43 performances in three years, so I think I’ve done it enough.  It is very long; even in Germany where the people are used to the long Wagner operas, people tend to go away before the last duet.  Perhaps it could be done over two evenings, or, as I prefer, make some cuts.

BD:    Do you believe in cuts in general?

VM:    This is a very thorny question.  I have done operas with cuts for which there was no justification, and others where the cuts were quite acceptable.  I remember one performance where the number of cuts wasn’t bad, but their placement was weird.  To re-open cuts can become a long and laborious procedure, and the orchestra often will protest.

BD:    You’ve done Don Carlo on the television.  Do you feel the opera works well on the tube?

VM:    I’ve heard that everyone was very happy about the Don Carlo and said it was one of the best TV broadcasts they had.  Some even said the set and production looked better on the TV than it did in the theater.  The same things were also said about the Tabarro I was in.  [Left in Hirschfeld caricature below]  Not everything works well on the television; however, it’s important from the point of view of gaining audiences and showing opera to people.  Nothing beats it for publicity.  I’ve been singing for twenty years and no one ever knew me.  Now after these two TV things, everyone recognizes me.


BD:    Do you work harder when you know it’s being broadcast?

VM:    When you’re on TV, it’s important that very good singers also be very good actors, and that is a difficult thing to find.  If it’s not being relayed live, you can do one “take” and then another, so it’s not as hard on you.  But if the broadcast is going out as you’re doing it, the concentration has to be immense, and you have to work a lot ahead of time.  We had very long and extensive musical rehearsals before going on TV.

BD:    Can a production get over-rehearsed?

VM:    These days it is hard to rehearse too much.  There most you get is two or three weeks for a new production, which is just enough.  I saw many of the Felsenstein productions which were beautifully rehearsed, but there was too much emphasis on the acting all the time.  The singing suffered because they were so exhausted after the long rehearsal period that they had no voice left over for the performances!  He demanded that they sing out full-voice all the time.  He didn’t let them “mark” at all.  In my opinion, some voices were destroyed in the process of working with him.

BD:    Going back to the idea of filming over several days – does this not become a fraud?

moldoveanuVM:    It is a fraud in a sense because they modify things that are bad so they become good.  I can remember specific instances where things went pretty badly, but after the editing, the end result was really quite nice.  The problem is compounded in audio recordings because they can repeat a note twenty or thirty times until it comes out just right, but the public is getting a different product than it originally was.  In the old recordings, one could hear where a change was made, but now the technique is so perfect that they can do anything they want and change everything.  I myself buy very few opera recordings unless they were done in performance.

BD:    Are the critics – and the public – expecting too much when they go to the theater?

VM:    Perhaps it’s the fault of the recordings that the public comes and expects to hear the same perfection they experience at home.  The human voice doesn’t work that way.  On the other hand, the public in the large theaters in the big cities is always wonderful.  Recordings are so cold, but in the live performance it’s whatever happens.

BD:    Are you glad that some of your performances are preserved via broadcasts?

VM:    Oh sure, just as I’m glad to have tapes of performances by Bjoerling and Tucker and the other great tenors.

BD:    Do you like being a Verdi tenor?

VM:    I also sing a lot of Puccini, and the roles that have been most successful for me and that I like the best are Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut and Cavaradossi in Tosca.  But I am glad to be both a Puccini tenor and a Verdi tenor because they both wrote so wonderfully.  Sometimes, it is hard to sing some of what Verdi wrote, but on the whole his operas are great for the voice.  Puccini also knew the voice very well, but his orchestration is so loud and so big that it is hard to go over it.  I would never advise a young tenor to start with a Puccini role.  Even the role in Butterfly, which is essentially just the one act, has to fight the orchestra which is very loud when the tenor is singing.  You really have to work very hard.  There is a fashion today to start tenors with Bohème, and that is a very hard role.  It is really a spinto role, and I feel one should have a certain vocal maturity to approach Puccini.

BD:    OK, where should a young tenor start?

VM:    I can only speak from my own experience, and I began with Belmonte and Don Ottavio.  I always had a big voice, and soon did Traviata.  I never had a light “tenorino” sound.  I did some performances of Don Pasquale and Elisir d’Amore, but the only Donizetti I still sing is Lucia.

BD:    Is there a competition amongst tenors?

VM:    I always read about it in the press, but there are so few tenors that there is room for everyone to make a good living.

BD:    Does that mean there is too much opera being given?

VM:    That depends.  It Germany, the theaters which do only modern things don’t have any public any more, whereas there are places that only do conservative repertoire, and that is not right, either.  Theaters should mix things up like they do elsewhere.

moldoveanuBD:    Do you have any advice for the composers writing operas today?

VM:    I think the biggest problem is that they don’t have any regard for the human voice.

BD:    What’s the role of the critic?

VM:    I have many years to sing yet, so I have nothing to say about them!  Everyone can welcome and appreciate criticism of a constructive kind.  One doesn’t always need praise, but the critics should be a bit more fair than they are.  The notion that they have to say something bad about everyone is getting out of hand.

BD:    Do the prose writings and letters of composers have an influence on your performances?

VM:    Yes, very much.  Sometimes, a conductor will point out something which the composer wrote, and that will have any impact on how I do the role.  It can be very useful.

BD:    Tell me about your current role – Pinkerton.

VM:    People tend to complicate Pinkerton’s character way too much.  He was very young and he loved women, but he did have heart and sensitivity.  He liked Butterfly a lot and wanted her, and did what was expected at the time.

BD:    Many of your characters wind up dead.  Do you enjoy getting killed onstage?

VM:    To play it onstage, I don’t mind it.  Sometimes it doesn’t go quite right.  I remember the Ballo in San Francisco, and at the end the baritone couldn’t get the gun to fire.  After a while, I simply fell down because I couldn’t wait any longer to die!  Most of the characters I play are positive ones.  My tendency is to sweeten them all because that is my nature, but I have to control the natural desire to make everyone sweet and good.  From a dramatic point of view I could do so many things, but the voice just will not sing certain parts, so I don’t do them.  Some of the roles I do require a strong voice, but the tessitura must be right before I can sing them. 

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

VM:    I am very happy about the situation of opera today, especially when I go to see the student performances.  The new generation going to the theater is wonderful.  It is good to present to the youngsters operas like Madama Butterfly that are easy to understand.  If you’d invite them to see something like Tristan, you’d ruin them for life!  They have to develop a taste for opera, and should be exposed to more accessible music first.  You should give them things that are very lively, with singers who are good actors.  Operas like Don Pasquale or Mozart cannot fail to please everyone.

BD:    Can Mozart please someone who adores rock n’ roll?

VM:    Definitely.  I think they would become interested in opera even though they like the rock n’ roll.  It’s important for them to see opera and to hear it, and perhaps something will come out of the experience.  The theater has a very special atmosphere that children understand, and they might want to repeat such an experience.

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My thanks to Marina Vecci of Lyric Opera for translating during this conversation.

Bruce Duffie is an Announcer/Producer with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago.  In the next issue of this journal, a conversation with Max Rudolf on the occasion of his 85th birthday.

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© 1982 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in a dressing room backstage at the Civic Opera House in Chicago on December 15, 1982.  It was published in The Opera Journal in March, 1987, and posted on this website in 2012.  Photos have been added for this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.