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Cheryl North Interviews Rolando Villazon

ANG Newspapers Classical Music Column - September 10, 2004

Rolando Villazon, the young tenor slated to sing the role of Alfredo in the San Francisco Opera's upcoming production of Verdi's La Traviata, has lived a life full of "Eureka!" moments.

He was born and raised in Mexico City. Neither his father, his mother, nor his sister were musical. But, since his father worked at the Sony Record Company in the city, he occasionally brought home records. Classical music played no particular part in the family's life, so the classical records were boxed up and put away.

But when Rolando was about eight years old, he decided to open some of the now dusty boxes and check out their contents. The first of the records he played happened to be Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto.

He was stunned. He still remembers the exact "Eureka" moment.

"I had never heard anything so wonderful in my entire life," he said during an interview at the San Francisco Opera house last week.

"It was a new world for me. I was just blown away!"

He didn't discover opera until about four years later when he bought the recording "Perhaps Love," featuring John Denver and Placido Domingo. He nearly wore out the record memorizing all the words and singing along. Thoroughly smitten with Domingo's voice, he then bought as many of great Mexican tenor's records as he afford. Domingo became his idol.

When he was about 17 years old, Rolando was asked to sing in a program put on at the La Salle High School in Mexico City. He chose "Impossible Dream," "Yesterday," and "Granada," and tried to imitate Domingo's voice.

Right after the program, Arturo Nieto, a prominent baritone, rushed up to meet Rolando. He became Rolando's teacher and his musical journey was launched.

But music didn't consume ALL of Rolando's passion. There was also the beautiful Lucia.

"Lucia means light," Rolando explained. "And Lucia has truly been the light of my life." The two have been in love since he was 16 and she was 15. She was his only girl friend and is now his wife and the mother of their two sons, Dario, 21 months old, and Mateo, four months old. Although they make their home in Paris, they all with him -- at least until the children are in school.

Clearly lapsing into one of his favorite subjects, Villazon, continued his Lucia story, his black eyes sparkling and his hands gesturing expansively. "I wouldn't be an opera singer if it were not for her. When we were in my car, driving to the place where we were going to get married, I told her that I had been thinking about becoming a history professor. I liked teaching, and thought that such a life would be more secure and quiet for us," he said.

With stage worthy gestures and drama, he continued. "Lucia suddenly told me to stop the car! She said she had agreed to marry an opera singer. If I changed to be something else, the marriage was off. She told me that I had made her fall in love, not only with me, but with my dream as well. She said that she was willing to do whatever she could to help 'our' dream come true. So, we got married."

For the next few years, Lucia, a psychologist, worked hard, sometimes from 6 am. to 10 p.m., while Rolando studied and practiced. As they agreed, how that his career is launched, he supports her.

In 1998, Rolando was accepted into San Francisco Opera's Merola program, during which he sang Alfredo in the Merola's La Traviata at Villa Montalvo. After Merola, he moved on to the Pittsburgh Opera's training program.

Through all these years, Placido Domingo had remained his idol. He had long ago told the director of the Mexico City Opera that he hoped to one day meet Domingo. While he was in Pittsburgh, he received a call from the director with the news that Domingo was making a weekend trip to sing there the next Sunday. Would Rolando be able to come? According to the director, there was no guarantee that Domingo would have time to hear him sing, but perhaps Rolando could at least meet him.

With nary a second thought, Rolando replied, "I will come. Whether I sing for him or not, I will come."

After the big concert, the Mexican director motioned for the nervous Rolando and Lucia to follow him to Domingo's dressing room. When they arrived and were introduced, the gallant Domingo took Lucia's hand, kissed it, and then motioned for Rolando to sing.

It was another Eureka! moment. "In that instant, my dream life met my real life!" Rolando said, his face breaking into a radiant smile.

Since that time, Domingo has remained one of the Villazon's most important mentors. Back in 1999, when he was pacing his dressing room floor just eight minutes before he was to go onstage for his professional operatic debut at the Genoa Opera House, his phone rang.

"It was Domingo," Villazon announced with appropriate drama! "He said he realized I was about to go onstage, but that he just wanted to wish me all the best and to let me know he was thinking about me."

A bottle of champagne from Domingo was in Rolando's dressing room prior to both his Met and Covent Garden debuts.

Villazon and Domingo seem to share a number of commonalities. While Villazon is not as tall as Domingo, both share darkly handsome, "heroic" good looks, and Villazon, like the young Domingo, is slim and athletic-looking. Both their voices have strong, penetrating baritone timbres and tenor ranges, and each seems to have the uncanny ability to become consumed with whatever role he is playing at the moment.

But Villazon shares another formidable talent, not with Domingo, but Enrico Caruso, the great tenor of the early 20th century. Like Caruso, Villazon is a splendid caricaturist and draughtsman. He spends the day before the opening of each opera drawing witty cartoons characterizing the pre-opera rehearsals. He then gives copies as gifts to each of the cast members during the post performance party. You can see some of his drawings on his excellent website at

When I asked him which operatic role was his favorite, he replied, "Like Domingo, I am completely in love with whichever one I am currently singing."

Although Villazon has already sung more than 80 performances of Verdi's "Traviata" in 15 previous productions at such world-class venues throughout the world, he will sing his first professional San Francisco "La Traviata" at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the War Memorial Opera House. Subsequent performances will be at 8 p.m. Sept. 18, 24 and Oct. 8; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 21, 27, 30, and Oct. 5; and 2 p.m. Oct. 3. His co-stars will be Ruth Ann Swenson and Mary Dunleavy alternating in the role of Violetta; Dmitri Hvorovstovsky and Zeljko Lucic in the role of Germont; Catherine Cook; Katherine Rohrer; Thomas Glenn; Ricardo Herrera; Joshua Bloom; and Stephen Bryant. Patrick Summers and Robert Wood will share conducting duties, while John Copley serves as stage director.

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