Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Ferruccio "Ace of Bass" Furlanetto's Love Affair With San Diego

We here at the Aria Serious Tower are lucky. Blue skies, an excellent view of the bay, fine weather (I mean it is 85 degrees mid-November) and the fact that we can bank on Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto singing with us on a fairly regular basis. (That's him to the left at the driving range at Torrey Pines.)

We're one of the few companies in America where he sings these days. He sings with us. He sings at the Met. He has sung at Los Angeles Opera, once. And, well, that is about it.

If you've heard Ferruccio before you know why this is exciting. If you haven't, then I suggest joining us in February or at least checking out one of his recordings, preferably on DVD because the man can act as well as sing.

We sent local writer Pam Kragen to find out how we got so lucky and this is what she had to report:


When Ian Campbell arrived as San Diego Opera’s general and artistic director in 1983, he carried with him the memory of a particular Italian basso cantante.

While working on the artistic staff the year before at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Campbell heard Ferruccio Furlanetto perform in La Giaconda, and the singer’s large, lustrous voice and engaging personality made an indelible impression on him.

So when Campbell needed a lead for Verdi’s rarely staged Oberto in 1985, he dialed up Furlanetto, unaware if the internationally known singer would consider performing in San Diego or if Furlanetto had even sung the role before. He would, and he had. And a match made in opera heaven was born.

Twenty-three years later, Furlanetto has starred in eight San Diego Opera productions, has commitments here for upcoming seasons, is the most popular singer with local opera critics and audiences, and has become one of Campbell’s closest colleagues and friends.

“Everybody loves him,” Campbell said of his frequent golf partner. “He’s a gentleman through and through. He has a very straightforward, open personality. There’s nothing of a divo about him offstage, and he never creates trouble while always demanding the highest standards.”

Furlanetto is widely revered as the world’s leading Italian bass, regularly performing at Covent Garden, Vienna Staatsoper, La Scala and the Paris Opera House, among many others. But in the United States, Furlanetto chooses to sing regularly for only two opera houses ---- the Met (where he has appeared some 160 times in 28 years) and San Diego Opera.

Why San Diego? Furlanetto says it’s his loyalty to Campbell and the company, an appreciation for the area’s beauty (and golf courses) and his gratitude to local fans.

“San Diego is by far my favorite place in the States,” Furlanetto said in an interview conducted via e-mail from Paris. “I had a relationship with many other important and less important theaters around the States, but only with these two houses was there an impressive continuity.

“An artist establishes a very important relationship with an audience when he has the opportunity to perform his best repertoire with continuity. This has happened for me in only a few places that are my favorites ---- Vienna, Salzburg (in its old, good times), Buenos Aires and San Diego. When there is such a relationship between an artist and an audience, it could be called reciprocal love.”

Since his first appearance here in Oberto, Furlanetto has returned to San Diego seven times, playing Mozart’s Don Giovanni in 1993 and 2000, Massenet’s Mephistopheles (in Faust) in 1988 and 2001, Don Basilio in Rossini’s Barber of Seville in 2006, and two of his now signature roles: King Philip in Verdi’s Don Carlo in 2004 and the title role in Mussorgsky’s Boris Gudunov in 2007.

He returns next season to perform his favorite role, Massenet’s Don Quixote. He will perform his first-ever Baron Ochs in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier during the 2011 season.

Furlanetto turns 60 next May, but Campbell said he isn’t the least concerned about booking the singer many seasons out, nor is he worried about Furlanetto tackling the large and difficult German role of Ochs at this point in his career.

Ferruccio is at his peak,” Campbell said. “I have no worries about his longer term. In fact, I’ve never heard him sing better and he’s in great demand all over the world.”

San Diego’s charms are many, Furlanetto says. Besides his friendship with Campbell and company artistic associate Marianne Flettner, Furlanetto says he has many Italian friends who work at UC San Diego, Scripps and local biotech firms who keep him fed with traditional Italian cooking and rent him their beautiful La Jolla homes during his visits.

And then there’s San Diego’s more than 70 golf courses. Furlanetto calls golfing his one and only hobby ---- “it restores my spirit” ---- and he has a hard time picking a favorite local course, though he gives high marks to Torrey Pines, Steele Canyon in Jamul and The Bridges at Rancho Santa Fe.

“Our friendship grew when I learned he was as crazy a golf nut as I was,” Campbell said of Furlanetto. “When we first started playing together, he had a handicap of 22 and mine was the same. Now his is 7 and mine is still 22.”

Born in the riverside town of Sacile in Northeastern Italy, Furlanetto started out studying forestry but he turned to singing in his early 20s. His opera debut came in 1974 in Trieste, when he was subbed in as Colline in La boheme with just a few hours to learn the role. His big breakthrough came five years later at La Scala in Verdi’s Macbeth.

Furlanetto spent much of his early career singing Mozart, a decision that he told Opera magazine contributed to his career longevity, because the Mozartean technique is “pure medicine for the singer.”

Today, he’s most acclaimed as a Verdi bass, and critics often praise his acting ability as much as his singing. Furlanetto says he enjoys both disciplines equally.

“Balance is the key” between singing and acting, he said. “Of course some stagings and directors can greatly help, but the secret is to live the character under your own skin through words and music. Only by living the character in this way can you reach the optimum.”

So it’s no coincidence that Furlanetto’s three top roles ---- the betrayed Philip and the dying Boris and Don Quixote ---- are acting showcases.

“In theater, to represent on stage a dying character gives you an infinite possibility of interpretations of emotional involvement. And when it comes to Boris and Don Quixote, all this is lifted to the ninth power,” he said.

That openness to new interpretations is one of Furlanetto’s most endearing qualities, said Campbell, who will direct Furlanetto for the first time next year in Don Quixote.

“He will discuss anything with a director, whether he’s done the role a million times or not,” Campbell said. “Ferruccio knows you can’t go in with a formula. Some stars say ‘My Rigoletto is like this.’ Ferruccio says ‘what will our Don Quixote be?’ ”

Furlanetto says he’s looking forward to playing Quixote in San Diego. It will be his first U.S. performance of the role and his first return to the part since a production four years ago in Nice.

“Musically, everything about this role is very touching and beautiful,” he said. “The character is a universe of humanity and when it is presented well on stage it can reach moments of absolute poetry. Of course, when I approach this role next season it will be a different staging, different colleagues and I’ll be a different age. But that’s what’s fascinating about this profession. Every time we have the possibility to live a brand new experience.”

Speaking of brand new experiences, Furlanetto says he’s thrilled to finally explore the character of Baron Ochs, a part he has hoped to play for more than 30 years.

“I always loved this character since my very third opera,” he said. “It was in Trieste and I was singing the Commissioner (in Der Rosenkavalier) and Ochs was being played by the wonderful Austrian bass Manfred Jungwirth. I was totally fascinated by his portrait of the funny baron and I told myself one day I must do it.”

That dream became a reality when Campbell read an interview Furlanetto gave the Los Angeles Times a few years ago in which he was quoted saying the only new role he still wanted to play was Ochs. Campbell called and offered him the role on the spot.

Furlanetto’s home base is Vienna, but he says preparing what he calls “such a very specific Austrian role” is daunting. He plans to tackle it with the same gusto and focus he gave to Boris Gudunov. (An indication of his success with that role, Furlanetto is the only Italian ever invited to sing the beloved Russian role at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre).

“The role is enormous, the text must be German, obviously, but with a great oberosterreich (upper Austrian) influence. And musically it’s very difficult and demanding. I’m already deeply involved in studying, because I knew that even if learning Boris took a good four months, for this task three years will be barely enough.”

Baron Ochs also gives Furlanetto a chance to show off his comedy skills. Though he plays mostly serious roles, Furlanetto said he loves playing the occasional comic role, like Basilio and (another personal favorite) Mustafa in The Italian Girl in Algiers.

Campbell said most people don’t realize how funny Furlanetto can be, both onstage and off.

“He’s got a wonderful sense of humor,” Campbell said. “He’s a great golfer and he gets to play so much more than I do, which he knows annoys me to no end. I was in Brussels on business recently and my phone rang. I heard this deep voice on the other end of line who I instantly recognized as Ferruccio. All he said was: ‘I just played the golf course at Augusta and I’m about to do it again.’ Then he hung up.”

- Pam Kragen is a San Diego-based arts writer.

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