Sgura sings Scarpia: interview

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Published: 3rd November, 2014

Australian audiences recently had the pleasure of experiencing the vocal talents of Italian baritone Claudio Sgura singing the role of Iago in Verdi’s Otello. That was in Sydney. Now it is Melbourne’s turn to see this charismatic artist on stage in a new production of Tosca. Opening night at the State Theatre on November 12 will mark Sgura’s forty fifth performance as Baron Scarpia, a character he describes as “ imposing and elegant as he is vile and repugnant.”

Deborah Humble caught up with Claudio Sgura in Italy recently to ask him about the role of Scarpia and his impressions of Australia on his previous (first) visit.

Singing the perfidious Iago in Sydney was an amazing pleasure. Having the opportunity for the first time to set foot on this continent that is so fascinating and out of reach for so many people moved me profoundly.  I never would have thought that my work could make me experience such strong and deep feelings. 

 Australia has landscapes and colors that are incredible and gives you sensations that are absolutely unique in the world.  Meanwhile I had always admired the unique structure of the Sydney Opera House when I’d seen it in postcards or in the occasional magazine features or documentaries.  I couldn’t imagine then that singing there would be even more moving, thanks to the cordiality of the colleagues I found there and the entire staff, together with the warmth of the audience that completely won my heart. 

 I am truly happy to have the opportunity to contribute my experience to this new production.

Is there an exact moment in a career when one feels able to take on a role like Scarpia? How have you been able to develop this role over time and how do you keep the presentation fresh?

Certainly Scarpia is one of those roles that requires lengthy psychological work on the character before taking it on.  Just like Iago, for that matter.  Baron Scarpia is a man with no sense of humanity, who takes advantage of his position in order to humiliate and subjugate every person unfortunate enough to cross his path.  Naturally, the Scarpia I sing today is very different from my first.  That, of course, is normal. With experience and maturation every character begins to fit you like a glove.  And then if you have the good fortune to work with great conductors, great stage directors, and outstanding colleagues, then you keep improving more and more.

Scarpia is a rather nasty character. Is it difficult to portray such a character on stage?

Strange to say, but I feel quite at ease interpreting this type of character!  Of course I’m not like them in real life!  Somehow giving life to these characters makes me the happiest artist in the world.  I really enjoy acting the part of the bad guy, the perfidious Baron Scarpia most of all.  I like his sadism and sanctimoniousness but also his composure and self-control.  He has insinuating and mellifluous manners, yet is an unrestrained debauchee.  All these contradictory characteristics are exciting to me as a performer, and my job is to communicate them to the audience to the best of my abilities!!!

Who was or is your favourite performer of this role or whom do you look to for inspiration?

Certainly we have had many performers who have distinguished themselves in this role and who certainly are exceptional artists.  As far as my personal taste is concerned, Tito Gobbi is one of them in terms of both vocal excellence and dramatic interpretation.  Still, many other artists have given the right authoritative character to Scarpia, among them the great Ruggero Raimondi.  I was fortunate enough to sing in the second cast to him in a production in Italy.  It was truly exciting and thrilling to see him perform in this role. 

 My maxim is not to imitate my senior colleagues but to seize all their tricks of the trade.

 A lot of young Australian artists don’t have the opportunities to travel abroad and hear what is happening in Europe. Do you have any advice for the next generation of artists?

Without a doubt the most important piece of advice that I can give to any young person who girds himself or herself to take on this profession is to find competent teachers of vocal technique and good coaches for studying roles.  This is fundamental. 

 Vocal technique is like the foundation of a building.  Without it even the most vocally gifted and talented singer risks ruining his or her career.  The huge stress of the stage, plus the more or less dramatic temperament of the character one is interpreting – if these things aren’t truly supported by a valid, healthy musculature, then they run the risk of using up your vocal equipment. 

 I find that having experience abroad in order to confront oneself with other realities is likewise fundamental.  It’s precisely in comparison with others that you gain a realistic view of your technical and dramatic preparation.  Advice on the choice of repertoire is particularly delicate and must be given by people who are truly competent in their subject.  If you don’t follow the proclivities of your voice you run the risk of ruining yourself and even in the best case of never making the most of your potential.

 When I began my studies long ago in 1997 I sang for a world famous baritone whose name I can’t reveal!!  He didn’t even allow me to finish singing.  He shook my hand, saying, “Son, take my advice…don’t stop being a nurse!!  Keep helping your fellow man.”  In that moment I wanted to answer him back, but I had neither the courage nor the strength. 

 As far as I’m concerned, you have to give hope and courage to a young person who wants to undertake any profession and not discourage him from the first encounter.  It’s wrong and unprofessional.  Anyway, after many years we met again at a voice competition.  Not remembering me, he shook my hand and said, “Bravo, son, stay on this path!!”  On that occasion he was extremely kind to me, but if I hadn’t been determined and convinced of my talent, I wouldn’t have continued to follow my dream. C’est la vie!

 What are the pros and cons of your successful career as an opera singer?

Before taking on my career as an opera singer I worked as a nurse, a very difficult and involved profession that gave me a great deal of satisfaction on a human level.  In my small way I was able to help my fellow man. 

The life of an opera singer is completely different.  You’re constantly traveling and have the opportunity to see the world and encounter many people with their unique traditions and ways of life – it’s a profession that greatly expands the horizons of your knowledge, that makes you grow tremendously.  But, just as in the case of any magnificent medallion we might admire, there is also the famous “other side of the coin.” 

 If you truly perform this work with conscience and professionalism, then you make many sacrificies.  You always have to be careful not to get sick, to eat healthily and get enough sleep, just like any athlete.  You’re always away from your loved ones and your home, and you can never plan your vacations or time off as you’d like.  However when you walk onto the stage, the adrenaline and the need to externalize your art are so strong that all of the sacrifices you’ve had to make pass into the background.

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Editor’s note: Deborah Humble, Australian opera singer,spoke with Claudio Sgura in Europe before he left for Melbourne and Opera Australia’s current season. The interview was mainly conducted in Italian and later translated by Deborah with the aid of  Tim Weiler.

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