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Both Sides Now
Paulo Szot

by Olivia Giovetti

Szot as Escamillo in San Francisco
Opera’s production of Carmen, 2011.
Photo by Cory Weaver
For some singers, the secret to a long and fruitful career is a one-track mind. It’s no surprise that more than a few stars—including Mary Costa and Joan Sutherland—have famously used the metaphor of being a horse with blinders on as a way of describing their forward drive and singular goals.

But the last half century has brought with it a staggering number of changes, particularly in how we receive and consume culture. The idea of being a singer who embraces duality between genres is perhaps not revolutionary—while Sutherland was taking the world by storm as Lucia and Norma, mezzo Risë Stevens was holding court both at the Met and on the Ed Sullivan Show—but the ability to embrace such a dichotomy has become much easier and fluid in the new millennium.

Exhibit A in that equation is baritone Paulo Szot, a singer who had gained momentum in the opera world starting with his professional debut in 1997 as Rossini’s Figaro in his native Brazil. It took a Tony-Award-winning Broadway debut in 2008 as Emile De Becque in South Pacific, however, to catapult Szot into the upper echelon of operatic stars. For Szot, such balance is just part of the game.

Born in São Paulo and raised in Ribeirão Pires, Szot was the son of two musically inclined Polish émigrés who settled in Brazil following World War II—an unlikely combination that the baritone nevertheless describes as “a very interesting mixture with many things in common . . . very interesting between the polonaises and Chopin and then bossa nova and Jobim.” Like his siblings, Szot was quickly indoctrinated into the music world, beginning his studies at age four on the piano, moving on to violin at eight, and never recalling a time in his childhood that wasn’t underscored by an LP or cassette tape of Polish folk music or Tchaikovsky.

“I think I was used to listening to everything without thinking that one thing was better than another, I just remember liking things and not liking things, doesn’t matter what kind of music it was,” Szot says of his musical upbringing. It’s an egalitarian sense that has stayed with Szot to this day—our conversation takes place in Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel, where Szot has just wrapped up his third consecutive year of singing an hour-long cabaret program at the hotel’s famed, eponymous café. (“His fiery singing conjured images of a smoldering Rudolph Valentino carrying a swooning maiden to his lair,” wrote Stephen Holden of the concert for the New York Times.)

By his teens, Szot was also singing in local choruses and adding more influences to his palate. He recalls listening to Brazilian singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso with his friends and, at the same time, discovering Maria Callas and being knocked out by her expressivity and ability to communicate—despite his not speaking a word of Italian. After 18 years in Brazil, Szot returned to the land of his parents, traveling by cargo ship as the cost of airfare was too high, to study dance at Kraków’s Jagiellonian University.

Within a few years, a knee injury had derailed the young artist’s career, but he rebounded quickly (hearing a concert by the Three Tenors didn’t hurt, either). “I just wanted to be onstage; I wanted to share what I had to share,” he explains. “So when I was not able to be onstage as a dancer, I was searching for something else.”

That “something else” came in the form of vocal training. He joined the university chorus and was picked out quickly by his teacher for his potential. Szot quickly took up with a private teacher and made his professional singing debut at 21 with the Śląsk Song and Dance Ensemble, a Polish folk outfit based in Koszęcin that worked with such compatriot classical composers as Wojciech Kilar. By 1997, however, Szot was back in South America. “It was time,” he said. “I spent eight years [in Poland], and I missed my country.”

The country was also turning into a lucrative market for burgeoning opera singers thanks to three major and well respected opera houses. Szot’s brother, a fellow opera-tchik, was the one who convinced him to come back because of the audition opportunities. Perhaps it was also because Brazil is not Europe or New York that going home was in part so alluring to Szot. Returning to the Southern Hemisphere and continuing to learn there meant working in a safer haven that provided a wealth of practical stage experience and room to experiment.

“I attempted many things in Brazil and I learned many things there,” Szot explains. “You’ve just got to learn while working. You just learn by doing it and by making mistakes and watching other people doing it. You only get this chance when you’re onstage, live.”

Though his star seemingly ascended overnight with South Pacific, Szot was a steadily working singer in the U.S. and Europe before his showtune ship came in. His international debut came at New York City Opera, a prominent breeding ground for future stars, singing Escamillo in Carmen after first singing the role in Rio de Janeiro. Of the performance, Allan Kozinn wrote for the New York Times that Szot’s performance against Carl Tanner’s Don José “suggested that there is a solid, smooth-toned voice in there.” He returned to NYCO the next year as Count Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro.

That voice continued to come out, and Escamillo is a role that Szot continues to explore—most recently at the Met and San Francisco, both last year. For a time it seemed that he would be one of those lucky singers who always had a job in operatic hotbeds like France, Belgium, Toronto, Brazil and Boston. He made a triumphant return to NYCO in 2006 as Belcore in Jonathan Miller’s Midwest staging of L’elisir d’amore. “Even Belcore gets our sympathy thanks to a slyly understated turn by Paulo Szot, whose flexible baritone sounds very much at ease articulating Italian patter,” wrote Peter G. Davis for New York magazine.

And then Bali Ha’i called.

“It was hugely controversial when I accepted South Pacific,” Szot admits. “They said, ‘This is going to ruin your career because you’re going to sing eight shows a week and you’re going to be so tired.’” When Ezio Pinza originated the role on Broadway in 1949, the famed Italian bass had already hung up his opera shoes and was ready for a new challenge (the role gave him a considerable second career as a matinee idol), though recordings made four years later of arias showed that his voice was no longer cut out for the demanding genre.

Going the opposite way, as a young opera singer still on the brink of a major career, was a huge gamble for Szot. “I said, I’ll try, because this is something that I want to try as an artist,” the singer says of the risk. The risk paid off handsomely—among those in attendance at South Pacific’s original run was Met impresario Peter Gelb, who immediately cast Szot as the leading de-nasaled major Kovalyov in The Nose.

The transition wasn’t easy, though Szot notes that it’s not entirely because of the vocalities. “We opera singers, we think we can act, but it’s so different,” he sighs. “The fundamental truth of an actor is different from the fundamental truth of an opera singer.” After all, how many actors with subpar pipes have struck gold on Broadway—and, vice versa, how many opera singers unable to act their way out of a paper bag were nevertheless legendary?

“Opera is all about the beauty of the sound. The expression of what you want to say is in the music. And you have to learn as an opera singer how to express that through your voice. The voice is the vehicle of communication,” he explains. “And then the musical is the word. Of course, there are songs too, but everything relies on the meaning of each word. You cannot waste a word. And in the opera, it’s about the phrasing, it’s about beautiful sounds, it’s about trying to create all of the emotions in the voice. The voice is the first thing, absolutely.”

Szot adds, however, that once he was able to accept that push-pull between words and music, Broadway and the opera house, the work became easier and performing under director Bartlett Sher, who also has a list of operas on his résumé, was instrumental in developing his skills as an actor. It’s an experience that helped to net Szot the 2008 Tony Award. Even the notoriously catty Times theater critic Ben Brantley couldn’t find anything ill to say of Szot, writing that “when he delivers ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ or ‘This Nearly Was Mine,’ it’s not as a swoon-making blockbuster (though of course it is), but as a measured and honest consideration of love.” It’s also an experience—honesty and all—that he has since brought back to the world of opera and its meaty characters.

Take, for instance, Don Giovanni—a role that fits the baritone like a bespoke suit and a role that he has performed pre- and post-Pacific (and, in the case of Detroit, even in the same city). Szot describes the approach as a constant: finding the truth and being flexible. “You cannot put yourself in a cage and think, ‘Don Giovanni is like this,’” he says. In a recent run of the production in Dallas, Szot said of his interpretation that “Giovanni was a man who was very in love with his girls in the moment he was with them. He was tender. He was honest. Because that moment was really a true, magical moment. Of course, it ends in 10 seconds, but . . . .”

The nonstop questioning of motives and characterizations is something that acting students and Tony winners are used to, but it’s a more foreign concept to conservatory singers who are concerned with phrasing and tone above all. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but Szot is also quick to note that “the more information you have makes you a better artist. I think that’s the main goal; there’s no reason for being an artist if you have nothing to say that hasn’t already been said.”

Roles like Emile De Becque and Don Giovanni are standards in their respective repertories and, as Szot points out, we live in a golden age for studying from every possible recording that’s available on iTunes, Netflix, Amazon, or YouTube. It’s a blessing, but it’s also a curse as it provides plenty of opportunities to mimic without saying something original—an anathema to Szot, who counters such a pratfall by constantly questioning.

“I think these questions have to be made all the time, all the time, all the time,” he says vehemently. “And you have to answer by being present. That’s what makes it fresh. We’ve heard all the Pinzas, all the Siepis singing these roles that we basses and baritones do, and these voices were some of the most gorgeous voices that ever existed. So what’s the point to just compete vocally? They’re our masters; we studied from them.”

Vocally, however, there is still the demand for a rock-solid technique. In fact, working in a crossover setting requires an even more solid technique, particularly on Broadway with an unforgiving schedule of eight shows a week (typically two on Wednesdays and Saturdays, with Mondays off) that accounts for what Szot described as a sleep-eat-perform lifestyle. “Opera vocally is no doubt more demanding,” he says, “that’s why you need to rest. It would be impossible to sing every day—you’d just die.” But he also acknowledges that there is a lot of technique at play in singing on a nightly basis, tempered with respect for the instrument and a healthy lifestyle.

“In a musical, because you have to speak, you have to find different colors sometimes. The voice goes in different ways. And it’s tricky, it’s very difficult to keep it healthy for the long term,” he adds. “I would say that opera’s more—in this kind of thinking—the direction is more simple. You have to stick to your technique and you have to vocalize, you have to be strong, you have to be healthy, all in just one shape of voice. And it’s better for the voice—it’s healthier to keep just one shape because your body understands how the sound’s going to be pronounced and your throat is in the same position. While [when] you change from speaking to shouting, it’s quite messy.”

What has kept the mess in check for Szot is a nonstop work ethic. As Szot points out, the voice is a unique instrument—one that changes, grows, and develops with each passing year. He admits to thinking in his 20s and 30s that his technique was what it was, a constant, set in stone. And then 40 hit. “All of a sudden you don’t realize what’s going on,” he says of his approach to middle age. “It’s your body, your muscles. You’re getting old and you have to deal with it and you have to find a way to work against aging.” He likens his approach to fine-tuning—and at times overhauling—his technique to that of an athlete’s, creating an endurance and stamina that keeps some Olympians returning every four years and continually performing at the top of their game.

He also raises as an example Plácido Domingo, a singer who embraced the natural shift and darkening of his clarion tenor. Szot doesn’t find that the timbre and color of his voice is deepening in the same way as Domingo’s—or, in the baritone’s own fach, Thomas Hampson’s. The internal shifts in his former-dancer body, however, are just as challenging. “If I reach 60 [as a performer], I’m very happy,” he says in contrast to the septuagenarian Domingo’s long and continuing career.

Chances are high that Szot will succeed on this front just as surely as he has triumphed in keeping one foot in the musical/cabaret world and another in the opera camp. He returns to the Met on March 26 for a run as Lescaut in Massenet’s Manon, starring opposite soprano Anna Netrebko and tenor Piotr Beczala. It will be a significantly different mood than the bloodless, sarcastic part he played in The Nose, but it’s also a good chance to see Szot embrace a more musical theatre side of opera.

“Although people have this tendency to think [Lescaut] is horrible for wanting to sell his cousin, he has a great sense of humor. And I always like to play him like this, as I like to play the Count in Le nozze di Figaro—very light, not so dark,” says Szot of his character. “I think the drama is already there and it’s not for Lescaut to be dramatic. He’s a really simple guy and that’s the great thing; there are no complications in his head.

“I haven’t played a guy with a sense of humor for a long time,” Szot adds. “And I think Lescaut’s this guy.”

And after Manon, the pendulum continues to swing in opera’s favor as Szot returns to the roles of Count Almaviva and Don Giovanni in Aix-en-Provence in July and Washington, D.C. in November, respectively (there’s also some more Mahler on the horizon and a La Scala debut in a contemporary Russian work that reunites Szot with his Nose maestro, Valery Gergiev).

But that’s the sort of balancing game that he’s adept at playing. He’s also looking to record a solo album reflecting his songbook shows. And last fall he returned to the role of Emile in South Pacific’s London run, telling the Guardian that “my life led me to opera, but musicals were always my secret lover.” In our interview he confides, “My background is very solid as an opera singer. But of course, South Pacific had the spotlight, and so many good things happened because of it.”

In discussing his future plans, Szot calls to mind Alex Ross’ radical article in which he voices his hatred for the term “classical music” and calls for audiences to simply refer to the mercurial genre as “awesome music.” Likewise, Szot believes in pursuing the roles that interest him and the music that he wants to sing, and leaves fretting over the nomenclature to others. The approach one has to a bossa nova song versus a symphonic lieder cycle aside, good music is, to Szot, good music.

“We always know what’s right, what’s wrong, and you just have to listen to yourself. I had many people saying that it was a horrible thing to do to my career to do South Pacific, and it turned out to be the best thing that happened,” Szot points out. “That’s my goal as a singer. When I started to sing, I wanted to sing songs that I like. And for that I’m feeling very lucky.”

Olivia Giovetti has written and hosted for WQXR and its sister station, Q2 Music. In addition to Classical Singer, she also contributes frequently to Time Out New York, Gramophone, Playbill, and more.

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