Gianni Schicchi in underwear

Extraordinary conversation with opera singer Péter Kálmán in Brussels

Hungarian bass-baritone Péter Kálmán has enjoyed success after success over an international career spanning almost 30 years. Most recently  we could have met him in Seattle, USA in Rossini’s  Cinderella, or we could have seen him at the Salzburg Festival (if Coved  had permitted it) where he would have delighted us as Don Pasquale. We could have also seen him as Mustafa in Rossini’s The Italian Girl in Algiers. Or we could have met him at home in the role of Alberich in Richard Wagner’s Nibelung Ring conducted by Adam Fischer at the Palace of Arts in Budapest.

We just happened to run into each other here in Brussels, where he was singing in two of Giacomo Puccini’s uneasy mixture of three one-act operas known as Il Trittico. These have never been amongst the most popular of Puccini’s works. Nothing to compare with say Madame Butterfly or Tosca which maintain a constant place in the repertoire of all the major Opera houses. But the first two works, Il Tabarrro and Suor Angelica, contain much agreeable writing for the principles and have melodies which fall easily on the ear while the third opera, Gianni Schicchi, is a comic masterpiece which is unique amongst Puccini’s largely melodramatic output.   I last saw the three one-acters seven years ago at home in Budapest at the Erkel Theatre. For those performances Peter Kalman also took the title role of Gianni Schicchi.

Our conversation took place in Péter Kálmán’s pleasant rented apartment in Brussels. Both of us were masked because of Covid.  The discussion ranged over numerous topics but the questions closest to his heart were naturally enough the issue of opera as theatre or drama and the importance of good teamwork between the musical and the technical departments of the opera house in Brussels.

PK – I apologize if I ask you to put on the mask while we talk, because they have tightened up the health checks. All the cast, the technical staff, everyone involved has to send in their test results to the Opera every morning. They are very vigilant, which is understandable, one illness and the whole play can fail. We’ve been rehearsing for two long months for these few performances, and it only takes a few to fail, all our effort and work is wasted.

EB – Two months of rehearsals for you, who hate long rehearsals, especially for this role you have already played in Budapest? I suppose you found it very tedious?

PK – It wasn’t easy. But the stage director is the big man these days.

PK – My father dragged me to the opera in the early fifties, where I had the privilege of seeing the great stars of that period such as Mihály Székely as Sarastro in the Magic Flute, and Mátyás Mária and a dozen other wonderful singers. At that time the singer was the absolute master, everyone was looking for his favour, including the director and the conductor. What can I say, the situation today is quite different.

PK – Nowadays, the singer has almost no status whatsoever, and is now at the end of the line during a performance. Today the director is the most important actor. Most directors have already worked out the piece in their heads and uses rehearsals to adapt the singers to their vision. In foreign countries, the costumes are also made by the middle of the rehearsal process and the singer has no say, no matter if he or she feels self-conscious in a costume. I can’t imagine Pavarotti being sent on stage barefoot in a bathing suit. What I mean to say is that the singer is now just a pawn in a jigsaw puzzle.

EB – Yet I would say that you can’t complain in this respect, as your physique is almost predestined for the role of Gianni Schicchi!  And I mean that literally, because your physical stature in this sense is very important. The director, Tobias Kratezer, had the idea that in the play, set in a modern, contemporary milieu: Schicchi would press a remote control button and a Jacuzzi tub filled with bubbling water would rise from the sink, bathing all the singers on stage, including you. Admittedly, in the play Schicchi does ‘bathe’ the relatives who are clamouring for the legacy, but I wouldn’t have stripped those poor singers down to their underpants and swimsuits for the sake of this pun, and then put them in the tub to come out wet and toweled and shivering as they sing. I hate naturalism on stage, because the spectator falls out of the state of seeing a play and accepts that play as true, whereas naturalism throws him out of that state, because he is confronted with reality instead of the play. Plus, the unfortunate singers looked pretty weird. What can I say, the men were a far cry from Arnold Schwarzenegger, the ladies were just overweight enough, you were the only one with the athletic build. How do you keep yourself physically fit? Do you do any sport?

PK – You won’t believe it, I don’t do anything at all. I don’t eat meat, I eat vegetables and fish, that’s it. True, here I cycle to the theatre and back. But that’s not for sport, it’s because it’s impossible to drive in Brussels.

EB – I remember in this role in Erkel Theater in Budapest, you were one of those large bear characters in the huge bed, in a floor-length nightdress, surrounded by a huge teddy bear and stuffed animals. Anyway, the whole thing gave me a childish feeling. But here, as soon as you walked on stage, Telly Savalas jumped into my mind and wouldn’t leave me alone while you were on stage. I hope this comparison doesn’t offend you. I don’t know how you do it, but as soon as you appear on stage, you immediately win the sympathy of the audience and this role adds to that, everyone is rooting for you to fool the profiteers, while you are not a very good boy, because you have all the movables in your name with the notary. The role also has you sending your daughter into the audience seated at the back of the stage to sprinkle popcorn on singers’ head. This is just to give you a sense that long gone are the days when the singer sang his or her aria, took two or three steps, made a few theatrical faces and the “performance” was over.

PK – Yes, acting is important to me, it’s no accident that I’m trained as an actor. It’s important to shape the character.

EB – For someone who had to play a dying man, you formulate it quite moving.

PK – I would have liked to make it more moving and exciting, but the director’s idea was different. Okay, the dying man does have to be sung lying on his back, which is not the most comfortable position for a singer, but it didn’t feel good to have to sing my aria sitting on the footrest of a modern, electrically controlled armchair.

EB – You just couldn’t stand it, and while the notary is writing the will sitting on your bed, you just get up from your big dying spell and do a lap, then lie back down. But you also play with your voice, as a buffoon should. That thin, whimpering sound you make when you dictate your will made me tired. And not just me in the gallery, but the entire audience. When your thundering bass-baritone went into that voice, everyone really threw a fit.

PK – It really is true that acting is only authentic if you find the right playing voice to go with it. So you think, I’ve done it?

EB – Absolutely. Just as it worked for me with the take gag, when you’re now comfortably ensconced in your armchair in your own house, and with the push of a button you send the lovers, your daughter and her lover, cuddling in the Jacuzzi tub, into the sink, and then you start to feast. But by the time the applause sequence is over, all the bathrobe-clad actors have applauded themselves a thousand times, you come in in a jacket and underpants, bow to the audience in the audience and on stage, stand centre stage, hold hands, walk the cast, and disappear. Don’t like to celebrate yourself?

PK – I like success, because I am an artist, but I don’t like “basking” on stage. I do what the applause demands and I’m out of there.

EB – Perhaps to summarise, the voices in all three pieces were perfect without exception, I fell in love with the voice of Corinne Winters, who played Sister Angelica, and I heard from the reaction that the audience did too. Conductor Ouri Bronchti also did an excellent job, the orchestra was very cohesive, sounding more subtle, detail-rich and nuanced than the Opera House orchestra in Hungary. It was a really enjoyable afternoon/evening, in which you played a very important role. You are in Brussels this week, with two more performances to go. Where do you go from here?

PK – I’m off to England, to the Glyndebourne Opera Festival, where I’ll be singing the role of Bartolo in Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro in June and July.

EB – Good luck with that. Thank you for the performance and the conversation.

Endre Barcs