Argentine tenor Marcelo Álvarez was a relative newcomer to opera when he began performing in the late 1990s. An accountant until the age of 30, Álvarez began serious professional training rather late in life, and his career only took flight after a move to Italy. Critics have since hailed him as one of the next generation of star tenors, a likely heir to Plácido Domingo and José Carreras. "Every morning I wake up," Álvarez admitted to Rupert Christiansen of London's Daily Telegraph, "and I still can't believe any of this is happening to me."
Álvarez was born in 1963 in Córdoba, an Argentinian city some 400 miles from Buenos Aires. His family had a lumber business in the area, which eventually grew to include a furniture factory. Though Álvarez is often described in the press as a newcomer to performing, he did study music for twelve years at the Escuela de Niños Cantores de Córdoba beginning at age five. The school's curriculum was designed to produce professional musicians, with regular schoolwork in the morning and intense vocal training in afternoon. Álvarez's interests, however, lay elsewhere. He especially dreaded singing in the school choir. "Whenever they would ask me to audition, I feigned having a sore throat in order to avoid the afternoon chorus practice! I was very enthusiastic about sports," he told Opera News writer Pablo Zinger, adding that he was particularly fond of handball and squash. "I felt singing was a waste of time."
At the age of 17, Álvarez graduated from the escuela with a degree that would have let him work as music teacher or choral director. Instead he went on to study economics at the university level, and after earning a business degree, he worked as an accountant at his family's furniture business in Córdoba. Around the time of his thirtieth birthday he spent a summer holiday with some old friends from the escuela. Each by then had his own musical act—a rock, a tango, and a folk ensemble—and they urged him to join them onstage. His wife suggested that he try opera, even though he had never seen one performed, and used her family connections to arrange an audition for him with Liborio Simonella, a well-known conductor. Simonella was encouraging, and suggested Álvarez begin professional voice lessons. He also went to see his first opera—Verdi's La Traviata —at the age of 30.
Told to Give Up
For the first few years Álvarez took a 12-hour bus ride to Buenos Aires each weekend to meet with his teacher. He tried three times to win a place at the city's renowned Teatro Colón opera house and school, but was rebuffed and told to return to accounting. "They could not accept that people from the interior could sing better than those trained by them," he told Zinger in the Opera News interview. "I participated in three competitions and failed in all, because there were vested interests behind others, who went on to have no careers whatsoever…. I requested to audit a class, and I was rejected even for that."
Álvarez's break came when the lead tenor in a Córdoba production of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) dropped out, and he had to learn the part in just two weeks. He performed well and made contacts with European singers who were on tour in Argentina. Famed Italian tenor Giuseppe di Stefano, then in his seventies, suggested that Álvarez leave the country altogether and train in Europe; Spanish tenor Ismael Pons was also encouraging. Álvarez and his wife decided to sell all their belongings and move to Milan. They arrived with just $6,000 in the summer of 1995; at the time Álvarez did not speak Italian. "My family thought I must be totally crazy—and I guess I was," he recalled in the Daily Telegraph article by Christiansen. "I had met an Italian in Argentina who told me he knew lots of people who could help, and that he would look after us when we came over. Of course, when we arrived in Milan, this guy was nowhere."
A Sensational Start
Álvarez's wife found work teaching gymnastics, and he quickly found a voice teacher. Within his first month of arrival, he had won a vocal competition and the director of La Fenice, Venice's opera house, had signed him for a production of Bellini's La Sonnambula. His much-heralded debut was followed by performances in Genoa, Verona, and Hamburg. In 1998 he appeared for the first time at Milan's famed La Scala in a production of Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix. The same year he also debuted at Paris's Opera Bastille in La Traviata, a role he reprised in November for his first appearance at New York's Metropolitan Opera. In 1999 Álvarez appeared in the lead role of Massenet's Manon in Genoa. Stephen Hastings of Opera News saw the performance and commented that "has a well-equalized, burnished timbre, fine legato and unusual ease of dynamic modulation in the upper register," adding that "he employed his voice with thrilling generosity and emotional abandon."
As the critics hailed Álvarez, he became opera's newest sensation. "The special quality of the Alvarez tenor is that it combines power and energy with eloquence and taste," noted Sunday Telegraph critic Michael White. "It's not a heavy voice. In fact it leans toward what commentators call tenore di grazia : a light stylishness." Christiansen, writing for the Daily Telegraph, noted that Álvarez was also one of a new breed of South American tenors who were becoming popular in the world of opera, such as Ramon Vargas, Juan Diego Florez, and Rolando Villazon. "What these singers certainly share is a technical strength and heart-on-sleeve quality that their European counterparts signally lack," Christiansen asserted. Zinger, in Opera News, described him as "a tenor to be watched—vocally gifted, theatrically intense, handsome, Latin, opinionated, ambitious and business-oriented to boot."
Moved Ahead with Caution
In the 1999-2000 season Álvarez appeared in Verdi's Rigoletto at the Met and debuted in a production of Faust at Munich's Bayerische Staatsoper. He reprised the role for an acclaimed September of 2001 staging at London's Royal Opera House. In 2002 Álvarez appeared as Edgardo in productions of Lucia di Lammer-moor in Paris and New York.
Álvarez has worked especially hard to master dramatic technique as well, telling Zinger in Opera News that he believed acting was crucial to the success of any opera performer. "For me, today, opera needs to be credible as theater," Álvarez asserted. "People are sick and tired of a guy who stands and sings with arms outstretched. Today, TV and the movies show us truly real things. People want actors, and many of today's stars are good actors with a technique to boot."
For the Record . . .
Born in 1963 in Córdoba, Argentina; son of a furniture-factory owner; married; wife's name, Patricia; children: Lautaro. Education: Studied at the Escuela de Niños Cantores de Córdoba, c. 1968-80; studied voice in Buenos Aires, Argentina, early 1990s, and
in Milan, Italy, after 1995.
Worked as an accountant in his family's furniture factory, Córdoba, Argentina; moved to Italy, 1995; made professional debut at Venice's La Fenice opera house as
Elvino in La Sonnambula, 1995; debuted at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, 1998; signed with Sony Classics and released debut album, Bel Canto, 1998.
Awards: Second prize, Yapi Kredi International Leyla Gencer Voice Competition (Turkey), 1995.
Addresses: Record company— Sony Classical, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022, website: http://www.sonyclassical.com. Website— Marcelo Álvarez Official Website: http://www.marceloalvarez.com.
Around this time, Álvarez also began to take on grittier "verismo" roles, and debuted in one such part, Rodolfo in Verdi's Luisa Miller, at London's Royal Opera in early 2003. Later that year he gave a free concert in New York's Central Park with fellow tenor Salvatore Licitra. "At their best both have the potential to be fine singers," declared New York Times writer Anne Midgette of the July performance. "The highlight of the evening was their first encore, 'Torna a Sorriento' (a genuine piece of Italian song tradition), in which you could hear how good they can be: Mr. Álvarez with a slightly softer, warm timbre," and his costar "with a ringing, bell-like tone."
A few months later, Álvarez opened the Paris season with a production of La Bohème. He was slated to make his Chicago Lyric Opera debut in 2004, just one stop in a year of work that would take him to Munich, Barcelona, London, and New York. This peripatetic schedule would change, however, when his young son entered school full time. Álvarez and his family live in Tortona, a city between Milan and Genoa, and travel together as often as possible. Lautaro, his son, will sometimes ask, "'Are we going to the theater tonight?' with a very good attitude," Álvarez told Christian Science Monitor journalist Lisa Leigh Parney. "But I don't want my son to ever feel forced to like opera."
With his career at the ten-year mark, Álvarez has released only a handful of recordings to date. His first was Bel Canto in 1998, which featured arias from Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi. Though he was not yet fluent in French, he made French Arias with the Orchèstre Philharmonique de Nice for Sony Classical in 2002. He has also released a tango album, Marcelo Álvarez Sings Gardel, featuring the songs of early twentieth-century tango legend Carlos Gardel, and cut a record with Licitra, Duetto, released in 2003. Later that year Álvarez's first full-length opera Manon, was released. The recording process was less to his liking, he told Parney in the Christian Science Monitor, than live performing. "I'm really very happy on stage. I am giving everything of myself, everything that I've studied, and it's very rewarding."
Bel Canto, Sony Classical, 1998.
Marcelo Álvarez Sings Gardel, Sony Classical, 2000.
(With others) French Arias, Sony Classical, 2002.
(With Salvatore Licitra) Duetto, Sony Classical, 2003.
American Record Guide, March/April 1999, p. 296.
Christian Science Monitor, July 5, 2002, p. 20.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), September 17, 2001, p. 22.
New Statesman, October 8, 2001, p. 44.
New York Times, July 22, 2003, p. E3.
Opera News, December 1998, p. 85; July 1999, p. 65; September 2002, p. 52.
Sunday Telegraph (London, England), April 20, 2003.
Variety, December 21, 1998, p. 88.
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