Tenor Andrea Carè conquers the complex Don Carlo

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Young, fast-rising opera singer Andrea Carè has come to the monumental roles of Giuseppe Verdi with help from one of the greatest tenors of all time.

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Yes, Luciano Pavarotti taught the Italian-born Carè—who appears with Vancouver Opera in its first, massive mounting of Verdi’s Don Carlo in 40 years—but not because his young student had scads of money to pay for his sessions.

“He gave me my lessons for free. He was helping only students he really believed in,” says the tenor, who ended up being one of Pavarotti’s last protégés before he died in 2007. Sitting in Vancouver Opera’s East Van offices, he adds: “He believed that most great artists are born in poverty. My family gave me all they could but when I started I didn’t have chances—I heard of some other students paying 500 euros per hour to be taught.

“It was a great chance to study with him,” the affable, articulate artist continues in a musical accent not unlike his mentor’s. “I learned so much, not just about technique on-stage but how to live as a man. He was really such a simple man and full of passion for what he was doing.”

Pavarotti’s ear for talent appears to have been spot on. Carè is heavily booked around the world, singing some of opera’s most demanding roles—and last year he even shared the stage with that other famed tenor Plácido Domingo, in Nabucco.

Chalk it up to natural ability and high-quality tutelage (he also studied with famed Romanian soprano Raina Kabaivanska—for free), but Carè says there’s another factor at play in his success.

“A Verdi voice is a gift; there are some kinds of voices that are better for Verdi,” he notes. “But I think also, as a way to express yourself, there’s a long way to learn how to sing Verdi. It’s something you can’t learn at school. You have to study on-stage.”

Carè says the constant stage performances are essential to sense what it’s like to work with a large orchestra—in the case of this production, 61 strong, along with a cast of 80 singers—and to follow different stage direction, as well as all the other pressures that go along with real, live performance. “I know a lot of tenors who say, ‘I don’t feel ready for Verdi’ or they say that I am young to do it,” he says. “But we are never ready for these kinds of roles. You need the situation and stress to really prove yourself.”

Don Carlo, whom Carè has performed on great stages elsewhere in the world, is a particularly taxing part, in both the singing and character-development departments. The opera takes place in the 16th century, when a French princess, Elizabeth, is given to Spain’s King Philip to ensure peace. But driven by his own feelings for the princess and a desire to protect the kingdom’s people, the king’s son ends up provoking not only his father’s wrath, but that of the Spanish Inquisition—a triple whammy of monarchical, familial, and religious fury.

Andrea Carè trained under the legendary Luciano Pavarotti.

According to Carè, Carlo is far from being a typical opera hero. “It’s a really complicated character. I like it so much!” says Carè, who has gone back to the source material, especially Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller’s Don Carlos. “I can still feel the fragility of the character [from that work] and I don’t know exactly, but I think Verdi also wanted to show that. There are moments where he’s full of passion and romance but others where he’s yelling and like a pot ready to explode. There’s a duality and really being a little bit unstable. He doesn’t know what he wants for real.”

Watch the character, he says, and you will see his ambivalence about taking his father on and fighting to protect his people from oppression. “I did the role in Moscow and they said, ‘You sang it so well but the character was so weak,’ and I said ‘I like it that way!’”

It’s heady stuff, complicated in a way that Carè adores—and he likes how it contrasts the fast entertainment, like movies, of today. Especially now that he is so immersed in the world of opera, it never ceases to amaze him how much work the whole art form is. And it goes beyond him memorizing the complicated role in a three-hour opera. “I think the audience sometimes doesn’t realize, even the crazy ones who love opera and follow it so much, how precious the work is on-stage—not only for singers but for orchestra and for directors and all the workers helping on-stage,” he says. “No one sees what is happening behind the scenes: it’s full of people handing you your sword—they are following the score too.”

And that tells you a lot of what you need to know about this humble young divo: he feels as indebted to the backstage crew as to opera’s biggest stars.

Vancouver Opera’s Don Carlo is at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday (May 3) and next Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday (May 8, 10, and 11).

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