The Dallas Opera opens the new season on Friday with one of the best known of the Italian tragedies. Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti is based on the 19th century novel by Sir Walter Scott. Set in Scotland in the time of Queen Anne (1702-1714), the novel concerns a true story about the betrothal of Janet Dalrymple (Lucia in the opera) to David Dunbar (Lord Arturo Bucklaw in the opera). He was a nobleman with sizable lands and a royal title. She, of course, loved another. Forced to marry anyway, she supposedly stabbed her unfortunate bridegroom on her wedding night and was found raving mad and bloodied. She was institutionalized but died a short time later. Such is the stuff of operas and Donizetti played it to the hilt, so to speak, only changing the names to protect the guilty.
For the Dallas Opera’s production, Romanian soprano Elena Mosuc is making her Dallas Opera debut in the title role. If the rave reviews from all over Europe are to be believed, we should be in for a magnificent performance. The American tenor Bryan Hymel, also making his company debut, has impressed in the 3D film version of Bizet’s Carmen that the Royal Opera, Covent Garden broadcast around the world. But, the most eagerly awaited Dallas Opera (and Amerrican) debut is that of baritone Luca Grassi. TheaterJones had the chance to sit down and talk with him recently.
TheaterJones: Welcome to Dallas. Have you been here before?
Luca Grassi: No, this is my first time to be here.
Have you been able to see some of the town or are they keeping you busy with rehearsals?
Actually, I have some free time now, so I have been able to look around. I was able to see the place where they shot Kennedy. It was very impressive. Of course, I wasn't born yet when that happened but I have seen the event on television. When you are standing there, however, it is such a small place. Somehow, I thought it would be bigger. But it was certainly a big event.
What do you think about the Winspear Opera House?
I haven't been able to sing in it yet [when this interview was conducted] but it is beautiful and the facilities are very nice.
You are appearing as Lord Enrico Ashton, one of the great lyric baritone roles. When was the last time you sang it?
In Switzerland in 2008. It is not easy, sometimes it is risky because in the first scene you have to sing in a more spinto manner. You can risk being vocally tired in the end. It is even more dangerous in this production because the duet in the tower scene, which is more often cut, is opened here. So, you have to save you voice for that addition.
Have you sung this music that is usually cut before?
Yes, I sang a production that used Donizetti's very first score for the opera. It is very different in some spots and, of course, includes this tower duet.
We forget that composers would rewrite after a first performance and a new edition would be published.
True. Composers used to make changes for second editions after hearing different singers in the roles. Sometimes it is interesting to find these original scores from early productions. You will find that something that was written in the margins during rehearsals were later incorporated.
With all these slightly different versions in your head, do you ever get confused about which edition you are singing?
Sometimes, when it is just the words that are changed. I forget which words I am singing this time and get some words confused. Never the music, however.
Have you sung this role in different languages other than Italian?
No, always in Italian. But I also sing in French.
Historically, the German houses sang everything in German. You never learned Lucia in German?
Fortunately, in Germany, they now sing everything in the original. They like to hear Italian singers singing the Italian repertoire in Italian. It is a good thing too, because I am not fluent in German. Subtitles have helped keep productions the original languages around the world.
Which brings up another point. When you travel around to opera houses, are rehearsals ever in other languages?
Usually, we use English almost everywhere, even in Germany. But, I can sort of get along with a German rehearsal. Even though I don't really speak German, I can catch enough words to know what they are saying to me. In English, you can communicate with more of the singers and directors in rehearsals.
You mentioned that you sing in French. Which roles?
I do Escamillo in Camen and recently sang Zurga in The Pearl Fishers at La Fenice in Venezia. What a beautiful score! I also sang Gound's opera La reine de Saba, which is not done all that much. I recorded it a while ago. Of Massenet, I sang Werther (in the opera of the same name), but in the baritone version rather than the original tenor.
You sound somewhat like a tenor in your speaking voice, did you ever sing in that range?
No, I am a lyric baritone and have always stayed where I am comfortable. I try to speak a little lighter to take care of the voice. I also try to speak in the same vocal placement as where I sing. It is less wearing that way.
Are there some roles you would like to sing in the future?
I would like to sing all of the Verdi baritones at some time in the future. This past summer, I sang Iago (in Verdi's Otello) for the first time at Dorset Opera Festival and enjoyed it very much. I sang it in my own way rather than trying to sound like a heavier baritone that I really am. I look forward to singing it again.
How about the in-between—baritenor—roles like Debussy's Pelléas?
Honestly, I never thought about it.
Are you comfortable with the roles that require fast virtuoso passage work?
I am more comfortable with the runs of fast notes than the early roles that require all of the fast words (like Rossini). But I really prefer to sing in the bel canto lyric lines.
Have there been roles that you have turned down?
They don't offer me roles that they know I can't sing [laughs]. Perhaps I could sing a role like Scarpia in Tosca if they let me sing it in my own way. It would also depend on the conductor and who are the others in the cast. Some singers are just screaming in these roles.
So, how is this cast for Lucia?
Excellent. Everyone is so nice. I immediately found so much respect for everyone. From the beginning, you can tell that the Dallas Opera really cares about the singers.
What about the tempi in this production? I know that this is something that can change from production to production.
The conductor is fine and the best part is that we can talk about it. We always have to find the way to approach the opera together.
You sing all these villains, what do you think drives them?
Sometimes we feel envy. Like Iago, thinks "why Othello...why him, why not me?" For years, there is always someone else promoted instead of him. Now, here comes Cassio instead of him. "Why him?" he thinks. "Why is it Cassio who is promoted?" It can grow in you. Other times they are mistaken. Like Germont [in Verdi's Traviata]. He thinks he is doing the best for his son. Only too late does her realize his error.
So, what is next after Dallas?
I will sing Renato in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera; Ezio in Attila, also by Verdi, in St. Gallen; and La traviata (Verdi again) in Leipzig, Florence and Montreal; and a production of Carmen in Las Palmas.