Russian tenor takes a less-traveled path to Puccini

Thu Sep 24, 2009 at 2:24 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Vladimir Galouzine sings the role of Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca at Lyric Opera. Photo: Dan Rest

Chicago opera lovers caught their first glimpse of Russian tenor Vladimir Galouzine nine years ago on a balmy September night at the Petrillo Music Shell.

It was a free concert Sept. 9, 2000, sponsored by Lyric Opera of Chicago, the first of what would become the annual concerts offered each fall on the city’s lakefront with luxurious samplings of opera’s greatest hits.

Much buzz attended the Chicago debut of Galouzine, a favorite of Valery Gergiev, the director of the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia. Galouzine, who had already made his Metropolitan Opera debut, was an unprepossessing figure as he strode onstage, with the stereotypical operatic tenor’s short, hefty stature.

But when he launched into Nessun dorma from Puccini’s Turandot, the audience began to stir. Here, with his warm, open voice, was an artist with the real goods. A few weeks later, when Galouzine made his Lyric stage debut as the tortured Gherman in a new production of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, audiences were equally excited.

It would be the start of a beautiful friendship between Lyric Opera and the gifted Galouzine. He returned in 2005 as Des Grieux in a new production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut opposite Karita Mattila, in 2006 as Calaf for a revival of the David Hockney production of Turandot, and last season as Canio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci.

Galouzine is back in Chicago to open another Lyric season. This Saturday he sings Cavaradossi in a revival of Tosca starring Deborah Voigt in the title role and American baritone James Morris as Scarpia.

That the 53-year-old Galouzine ended up as one of the world’s leading operatic tenors is something of a miracle. Growing up in a small Russian town 300 miles from Novosibirsk, site of the nearest opera house, he dreamed of becoming a pop singer. He was in the army before he saw his first live opera, Boris Godunov. Smitten, he learned several of Russian opera’s major bass roles. When he began studying seriously, his teachers thought he would be a baritone.

“Even to this day, I don’t know the true character or type of my voice and I don’t really worry about it,” Galouzine said with a smile and a shrug during an interview in his dressing room at Lyric a few days before the season opener. Looking vaguely hip in black pants and black-and-red sweater, his long, graying hair drawn back in a pony tail, he speaks little English. But working easily with translator Derek Matson of Lyric’s rehearsal staff, his conversation was lively and punctuated with frequent smiles and chuckles.

The interview had been squeezed in between rehearsals, and when Galouzine and other principals were released early, I found myself in a cab racing to catch him. Waiting around for an interview can sour any star’s mood, but he was gracious and unfazed by the delay.

Galouzine may not have grown up in an opera-saturated home, but he always knew he wanted to be onstage.   “As a child, I loved theater and performance,” he said. “We used to put on homemade productions that we’d perform on a little stage with costumes. Of course, I had no connection to opera at that point. But it all made me feel from a very early age that I was an artist.  I can honestly say I’ve very much wanted that life since I was seven years old.”

The few glimpses of opera he caught on TV or radio at home didn’t impress the young boy.    “You have all these overweight people bellowing onstage, pretending to be all beautiful,” said Galouzine. “I wasn’t exactly thrilled. I had no understanding of the conventions of opera.”

All of that changed when he and his fellow soldiers heard Boris Godunov at the opera house in Novosibirsk, Russia’s third largest city after Moscow and St. Petersburg.  “We went on what’s called in Russian a ‘cultural outing,’ “said Galouzine. “Happily, the first production I saw was of Boris Godunov at the Novosibirsk Opera Theater—an absolutely enormous theater with wonderful acoustics and amazing singers. . . . The show was magnificent, and I was just really struck by the scope. I wound up falling in love with opera.”

Galouzine, here with Katarina Dalayman, made his Lyric debut in 2000 as Gherman in Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades”

The path to the Maryinsky, the Met and Lyric was not exactly straight, however. There was the effort to find his true voice type and eight years spent doing operetta and musicals at the Novosibirsk Musical Comedy Theater. 

It was at that unlikely venue where Galouzine obtained his true dramatic training.  “That is where I got the training of a real actor because the director there had a spoken theater background,” he explained. “That was where I learned one of the most valuable skills any singer can have, which is improvisation.  I learned that there are ways of thinking on your feet and in the moment on a stage. It was a tremendous education for me.  It laid the foundation that I draw on in my work to this very day.”

Eventually Galouzine moved to St. Petersburg, a city he had always “adored.” During a year at a small chamber opera theater there, he caught the ear of Gergiev. After a few leading roles at the Maryinsky, he sang the title role of Verdi’s Otello under Gergiev’s baton. At age 34, his career began to take off.

Today home base for Galouzine, who is married and has four children, is Provence, France. He is staying in Evanston through the fall performances of Tosca,  and has made friends in the city over the years and values the city’s  “peace and quiet and fresh air.”

Musing about Cavaradossi, he offers some interesting thoughts about the artist’s struggle to survive in an often harsh world.   “Cavaradossi and I have a lot in common because he’s an artist,” said Galouzine. “He’s very passionate and sincere, someone who’s searching for new ideas and seeking revolutionary changes. Like every artist, he’s an emotional being who’s incapable of controlling the circumstances of his situation. As a result he winds up being vulnerable. He doesn’t know how to live in a pragmatic way.

“At the end, he’s pitiable, really. We see how at first he provoked Scarpia, only to realize too late that he’s never thirsted for life as much as he does in that moment, but that he must die all the same.”

Galouzine sees parallels between the Soviet Union’s purges under Stalin in the 1930s and Cavaradossi’s eventual betrayal, under torture, of his revolutionary friend.

“I know—not from personal experience—but I know people who were apprehended by the KGB and the NKVD during the Stalinist period,” said Galouzine. “They told their torturers whatever they wanted to hear. The torture methods they came up with effectively forced people to talk, no matter how strong they might have been. I realize it sounds a bit melodramatic, but it’s true.”

Winding up as a tenor, for the Army veteran turned opera singer was a matter of fate,  said Galouzine.  “I became a tenor out of necessity, really, because I love beautiful music, and the most beautiful music is written for tenors,” said Galouzine. “The repertoire is so rich, so beautiful, so extreme in many ways—Otello, Gherman in Queen of Spades, my current role of Cavaradossi.  Their music is insanely beautiful, insanely emotional, insanely dramatic. Everything that’s wild and extraordinary belongs to the tenor, which was why I wanted to become one.  And so I did.”

The Lyric Opera of Chicago opens its 55th season Saturday night with Puccini’s Tosca starring Deborah Voigt, Vladimir Galouzine and James Morris.; 312-332-2244.

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