Lando Bartolini, Tenor

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State of the arts prompts Italian tenor to sing out

by Tim Smith (Sun Sentinel, South Florida, 11 April 1999)

Lando Bartolini bounds into the lobby of a modest West Palm Beach hotel looking like he has something on his mind. The tenor doesn´t wait for his interviewer to ask a question, but rather tosses one himself: “So, do you like opera?”

He doesn´t wait for a response, either. Nearly two hours later, he finishes an animated discourse on the state of the operatic art today and worrisome signs for its future. Penetrating gray eyes, which match the gray vest he´s wearing over a sport shirt, and ever-expressive hands give emphasis to each point he raises.

Although he should be saving his voice for a dress rehearsal that night for Palm Beach Opera´s production of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, he seems to relish the opportunity to get some things off his chest.

“Little by little, opera goes down,” Bartolini says, giving the thumbs-down signs with both hands. “Life is too easy for singers today. More and more microphones are coming into the opera house.”

Worse, he says, singers who don´t have credentials, are getting into opera.

“Last year, while I was in Catania (in Sicily) for Cavalleria in one of the most beautiful opera houses in the world, I hear one day that Michael Bolton is coming to town to do a concert in that theater.

“They left the Cavalleria scenery onstage for him and he sang arias - with microphone, of course. I couldn´t believe it. I asked someone why such a theater would permit this. The answer was money, money. More and more people are willing to sacrifice the art for the money.”

And Bartolini is just warming up.

The singer, who was born in Florence, paid his dues the old-fashioned way. He won a competition named for Mario Lanza and studied voice on a scholarship at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia with Nicola Moscona, the noted bass. During his five years at the school, Bartolini met Anton Guadagno, who would later donduct many of the tenor´s performances around the world, and who engaged him for the Cav-Pag double bill being performed through Tuesday.

When Bartolini´s formal studies were done, he soon caught the ear of opera companies. He sang frequently with the New York City Opera starting in 1976, made his La Scala debut in 1982 and a few years later reached the Met where he sang for several seasons.

Just before La Scala, he made his debut at the Palm Beach Opera on short notice, learning La forza del destino in a few days; he came back for a Lucia di Lammermoor production a few seasons later.

In quick succession, Verona, Buenos Aires, Vienna and other important opera centers were added to his resume.

Never the subtlest of tenors, Bartolini is more in the tradition of such beefy-toned, mega-watt singers as Richard Tucker and Mario del Monaco, who can ride a climactic phrase for all it´s worth.

Such fortitude and reliability are always in demand in the opera world, especially for such works as Turandot, which contains the unofficial anthem of tenordom these days, Calaf´s aria Nessun dorma. It takes mighty vocal cords to milk that aria effectively, something Bartolini could probably do in his sleep.

“At the beginning of my career, I used to sing Nessun dorma at auditions, but it wasn´t considered too important then. Now, thanks to Pavarotti, a tenor is expected to do it at every concert. To tell the truth, I am tired of it.”

Nonetheless, the tenor, now in his mid-50s, continues to sing it so well that he was conductor Zubin Mehta´s choice for a recent Turandot production in Florence that last year was taken over to Beijing - the actual locale of the opera´s plot. The massive outdoor project did not turn out exactly as Bartolini expected.

“I was the only Calaf in Florence and I had a success with it, but they took three casts to Beijing, something they didn´t tell me in advance. I sang the first three performances, but when it came to doing the video, they decided to take someone else. I was disappointed. I tried to find out why, and the artistic director of the Florence Opera just told me, `My hands are tied.´ It was all politics.”

To Bartolini, this sort of thing is typical of what he calls “the injustice that goes on in this business.” Other seasoned singers have been known to make similar dissatisfaction as marketing of fresh faces, recordings and videos have come to drive the opera world as firmly as they drive the rest of the entertainment field.

“I realized this too late,” Bartolini says. “I would have auditioned for record companies, not just opera companies, if I had known what was going to happen. Today, the record companies don´t care who can sing and who cannot; they just make a singer well-known before he can demonstrate what he can really do.

“And imprtant opera houses will take young singers who aren´t really ready, and they don´t care if they last one year or two. Managers just want their 10 percent. And if a singer starts having trouble, they just go out and find another one. My teacher made me take eveything step by step.”

Like some other seasoned singers, Bartolini has reservations about the latest tenor crazes, such as José Cura and, of course, Andrea Bocelli. But Bartolini is the first to admit that he can´t be sure about their future.

In 1970, he had a small part in an opera starring Placido Domingo. After the performance, he went up and spoke to him and was surprised to hear how worn Domingo´s voice sounded in conversations, as if the effort of singing hat taken a severe toll.

“I said to myself that in two years, we wouldnever hear anymore about him,” Bartolini says with a laugh.

The Italian tenor knows well how much an opera can take out of a singer, and how the popular Cav-Pag double bill, which relatively few tenors brave, can take even more.

“They are both difficult to do well. Some tenors try to sing them without sacrificing the voice, holding back to save themselves for the high notes. I don´t do that. But you can kill yourself singing Cavalleria, which is written very high in the voice, and then have to turn around and sing Pagliacci. That´s not easy, either, but it is more in the mid-range of the voice. I keep on doing these two; it´s good to keep challenging myself.”

Bartolini has been embracing challenges since the early `60s, when unfortunate circumstances led to his decision to pursue the difficult path as an opera singer. He came to the United States on his honeymoon, at the urging of an uncle who had long lived here. “I wanted to discover America, but my fiancée didn´t,” Bartolini says. “I told her I would go without her. She came.”

He had planned on being an electrical engineer. There already was a singer in the family, an older brother, a pop performer in Italy with a promising career. But the brother was killed in a auto accident on his way to make a recording.

“The week before getting ghe news of his deaths, my wife and I were with a friend of my uncle. We sang a little song about Florence, just for fun, and he said to me, `You should study voice.´ When I got the news about my brother, it changed my life. I think that it was destiny. He had been a singer, and so I would follow him.”

Eventually, Bartolini became an American citizen. He and his wife, who have two daughters, still have ahome in New Jersey, as well as one in Tuscany. He wouldn´t mind spending more time in both. But his career doesn´t show signs of slowing down any time soon; he´s already been back and forth to Europe three times since December, for performances and has a good deal on  his plate in the months ahead.

“But to tell the truth, I have no problem financially now, so I don´t have to accept engagements if I don´t want to. The years have passed so quickly, I didn´t take enough time to relax. I´d like to take in tennis or see movies, the only movies I see now are on planes. I hope I have a few years left to enjoy myself.

“And I hope I don´t do what some old singers have done - use their name to keep working when the voice is not there. Right now, my voice is still there. And I enjoy singing. When I don´t, I will stop. And I won´t be sorry.”

Copyright: B. Kok, 2003