A tenor's secrets to 'Lohengrin': Golf and a blunt spouse

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A tenor's secrets to 'Lohengrin': Golf and a blunt spouse
The tenor Piotr Beczala stars with Tamara Wilson, left, in Wagner’s “Lohengrin” at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York on Feb. 23, 2023. Beczala, a singer of Italian operas, is challenging notions about how a Wagner voice should sound. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Javier C. Hernández



NEW YORK, NY.- Piotr Beczala, tan from a recent trip to Mexico and hungry for a roast beef sandwich, walked offstage after the first act of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” at the Metropolitan Opera on Tuesday night and bounded for his dressing room.

It was intermission, and Beczala, the tenor in the title role, was preparing for one of the evening’s biggest challenges: maintaining his voice and energy during his character’s 90-minute break between the first and second acts.

“You have to keep the attitude; you have to keep the tension,” he said. “You have to do something, or else you will lose it all.”

Standing by a piano in his dressing room, he sang bits from other operas, including Puccini’s “Turandot,” which he will perform in Zurich this summer. He practiced passages from “Lohengrin,” working through some of its lowest notes. In between, he took time to clear his mind, playing golf on his iPad (a course in St. Andrews, Scotland) and showing off photos of the dinner he had cooked a few hours earlier (Parmesan-crusted chicken with a side of Russian salad).

On Saturday, “Lohengrin” will be broadcast to movie theaters around the world as part of the Met’s Live in HD series. Inside Beczala’s dressing room Tuesday, a makeup artist expressed concern that his tan would give him a reddish glow onscreen. Beczala replied that he planned to watch a recording of Tuesday’s performance with the former opera singer Katarzyna Bak-Beczala, his wife, to get feedback.

“Routine is deadly,” he said as he flipped through the “Lohengrin” score. “Each performance has to feel completely new.”

Beczala, 56, a charismatic singer from Poland with a boyish personality, has long been known for the Italian repertory, making his name in roles such as Rodolfo in “La Bohème” and Edgardo in “Lucia di Lammermoor.”

But in recent years, he has worked to establish himself as a skilled Wagnerian, too, starting with Lohengrin, an otherworldly knight who comes to the rescue of a virtuous duchess in medieval Brabant. With a lyrical voice trained in bel canto style, he is challenging notions of what a Wagner voice should sound like.

François Girard, who directs the Met’s production, said Beczala brought fresh energy to the role.

“I’ve seen singers in their dressing rooms after Wagner performances and you want to call the ambulance,” he said. “Piotr is fresh like a rose, and you feel he’s ready for a double.”

His Wagner performances have won accolades, so much so that his calendar is now packed with “Lohengrin” engagements. After his 10-show run at the Met, which concludes in early April, he will sing the role a dozen more times this year in Vienna and Paris.

There is already talk of bringing him back to the Met for a Wagnerian feat: performing “Parsifal,” the composer’s last opera, alongside “Lohengrin” (Girard has staged both works at the Met, treating his production of “Lohengrin” as a sequel to his “Parsifal”).

Beczala has mixed feelings, intrigued by the challenge of Wagner but also nervous about losing touch with favorites like “Il Trovatore” and “Aida.”

“I’m still fighting against the idea of singing more Wagner because it’s dangerous,” he said. “I worry I will sing only Wagner. And I want to sing other music as well. Balance is very important.”

Born in Czechowice-Dziedzice, Poland, about 70 miles west of Krakow, Beczala did not receive musical training as a child; he sang only in church. His father worked in the fabric industry, and his mother was a tailor. When he was a teenager, however, a teacher suggested that he take voice lessons.




While attending a music academy in Vienna, he worked shifts as a construction worker, digging holes and tearing down walls. One day, while he was laying floors at a discothèque, he saw a man singing on the street for money. Sensing an opportunity, he positioned himself on a corner near the Vienna State Opera and belted staples like “La donna è mobile,” from Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”

“I drank a beer, cleaned the dust from my throat and started singing,” he said. He used his earnings to buy standing-room tickets at the opera.

Beczala met his wife while singing in a chorus. She later gave up her career to focus on promoting and coaching him. She attends most of his performances, sitting in a variety of seats and taking detailed notes.

“I not only help Piotr from the musical side, but also provide psychological support,” she said in a 2020 interview with a Polish news outlet. “Artists are very sensitive people. I know that because I’m an artist, too.”

Earlier in his career, Beczala performed as a company member at the Zurich Opera, and won acclaim for performances as Alfredo in “La Traviata” and Tamino in “The Magic Flute.” His international career quickly took off, and in 2006, he made his Met debut as the Duke of Mantua in “Rigoletto.”

The idea of trying Wagner came in 2012, when conductor Christian Thielemann suggested he consider singing “Lohengrin.” They met the following year at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, where Thielemann was conducting, to see how Beczala sounded from the stage. Beczala then debuted the role in 2016, alongside Russian soprano Anna Netrebko and under Thielemann’s baton at the Semperoper Dresden, where he is the chief conductor.

The relationship between Beczala and Netrebko, once his friend and frequent collaborator, has become strained since Russia invaded Ukraine last year. Netrebko was originally set to star alongside Beczala in the Met’s “Lohengrin.” But she withdrew from the production and, since the war began, has been canceled at the Met and faced other professional setbacks because of her association with President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

Beczala, an early critic of the war who has canceled his Russian engagements, said he had not spoken with Netrebko since the invasion. He said that she did not do enough to oppose it and distance herself from Putin. “I like Anna really as an artist and a colleague,” he said, “but she made mistakes.”

Beczala has been in New York since December, when he opened a new production of Umberto Giordano’s “Fedora,” singing the role of the murderous Count Loris. He was a week late to rehearsals for “Lohengrin” because of “Fedora,” which closed in January, but his colleagues said he seemed at ease with the role.

“He came in, and it was just a breath of fresh air,” said soprano Tamara Wilson, who plays Elsa, the role originally planned for Netrebko. “He’s the most calm, relaxed person ever.”

Zachary Woolfe of The New York Times praised his “uncanny serenity and dignity,” writing, “Beczala performs the Wagner role — pure, precise and often treacherously exposed — with total security and elegance.”

Beczala said he has tried to emphasize the character’s identity as an outsider.

“Normally you think you can make this character more interesting by making him more human,” he said. “But it doesn’t help. You have to be, as Lohengrin, outside of this community. You have to be almost like a god, a strange being.”

After his long break Tuesday, Beczala was in the wings at the Met, preparing to go onstage. He jumped up and down, rubbed his palms together and cupped his hands over his mouth, and breathed in and out.

As the chorus sang, he smiled. “This is such great music,” he said.

Then, after adjusting the sleeves of his white shirt and the ring on his finger, he headed onstage.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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