Name: Rolando Villazón Mauleón
DOB: 22 February 1972
Place of birth: Ciudad Satélite, Naucalpan de Juárez, Mexico
Occupation: Opera singer, stage director
Mr. Villazón, is it true that you were discovered as a singer when a friend of your neighbor’s heard you singing in your apartment?
That is true! (Laughs) But I was not discovered as an opera singer. I was young, just 12 years old, so I was probably singing something like Baloo’s “The Bear Necessities” from The Jungle Book, which I still love and still sing today! The friend of my neighbor was actually the head of Academy of Performing Arts in Mexico. He knocked at the door invited me to do auditions the very next week, and I attended his Academy for one year to study ballet and theater and music.
What do you think he heard in your voice that day?
You know what? I don't think it was the voice; I think it was the interpretation, you know, I was scat singing and having fun. It was the entertainer, the performer that they heard more than my voice. I didn’t have a voice for opera, I didn’t even have any awareness of it, and I didn’t study classical music at the Academy of Performing Arts when I eventually attended.
So when did you fall in love with opera?
The first thing about opera that I fell in love with was the voice of Placido Domingo — but through his love songs, the crossover albums that he recorded, not his opera albums. I became such fan of his voice. It wasn’t until much later when I was 18 that a baritone, the father of one of my classmates, asked me about opera. And I said, “What's that?” (Laughs) He started introducing me to everything: you like Domingo? Let me show you. The first thing he showed me was Domingo’s “E Lucevan le Stelle” from Tosca, and I thought it was so amazing.
That moment was over 30 years ago. What kind of evolutions have you been through as a performer since then?
Well, when you have been in this world for this long, at some point you enter the “next stage” of your life. In the beginning, there is a professional ambition, you want to go as far as possible. You're an artist, and you're looking for the artistic possibilities that you can develop. But at this point in my career now, 30 years later and after everything that I have experienced, I find myself in a moment where I feel quite free as an artist. There's this famous phrase from the writer Nikos Kazantzakis that says, “I fear nothing, I hope for nothing, I am free.” It's not exactly my case, I still fear and hope for things but I'm closer to such a phrase today than I was when I was a young performer. I don't feel that I have to prove anything. It’s a liberating feeling. I can go in any directions, I can explore and embrace whatever I want.
Like what, for example?
Oh, just exploring the things that I’ve always wanted to explore. I performed as Loge for the first time, and that’s a character I wanted to perform for many, many years since seeing Das Rheingold for the first time. Right now, I’m immersed in the world of Monteverdi. I do recitals, I do concerts, I do contemporary music, I'm enjoying doing new pieces, commissioning new works, there is the possibility of a musical out there in couple of years. I’ve entered the world of Mozart, I’m have recorded six of his last seven operas, the final one will follow. I’m following my own path now, in this later stage in my career.
You’ve also been working as a stage director, and the director of Mozartwoche. Does that also give you an opportunity to push your own boundaries?
Sure, with Mozartwoche, it is always my goal to respect the traditions on the one hand, but to be very ludic with things like our approach to the programming. I'm looking to do some cool things with Mozart and other composers and combining them with the subjects of our time. At the same time, I don't need to make something totally crazy. I think creative minds are often forced to think like this; “How do I make something different so that I go above and beyond?” For me, the approach there is simply how do I bring Mozart, in all its different colors, to light? Because he was a genius, of course, but he was also a clown, a philosopher, a great interpreter. The goal is going beyond the beautiful music and getting to know this composer. His music can change your life. With stage direction, I’m asking myself similar questions: what does the art form need? How does it need to be presented?
How was it your first time directing? Were you nervous, or did all your time on stage prepare you for this new position?
Oh, there was a lot of question marks, for sure. I was nervous. I remember, particularly one day where I came in and I already knew what to do in every act. So I was staging it, and it was a mess! The singers were crossing each other, nothing was working, the idea was not good. I didn’t know what to do! But I finished the day and said, “Okay, good, see you tomorrow!” After the rehearsal, I sat down with my assistant, who is an assistant for many great stage directors, and I said, “That was horrible, it did not work at all.” And he said, “Oh thank God you thought so, too!” (Laughs) We ended up changing it completely. It was a fulfilling experience, it was great. And now I’ve done 14 stagings. In two years, I’ll be at the Metropolitan. Opera is in crisis, so I hope that as a stage director I’m able to bring more light to this amazing, unbelievable art form.
What do you mean when you say opera is in crisis?
Just that these days, we need to fight for audiences. And the pandemic didn’t help either. I’m part of a generation where people would sleep on the sidewalk to be first in line to buy tickets to a show, and every show was sold out. That doesn’t happen anymore. So now we're trying to figure out what to do. Do we go back to completely traditional productions? Do we remain with rigid theater? Do we combine them both? I mean, for some people opera is not in crisis, but rather it is slowly dying. I refuse to think that, but I am also not blind. The figure of the star is not what it used to be. The hook is not that clear, there’s no more sentiment of wanting to see this person in this production. Bringing young people to the theater, that has been lost. Their algorithms on social media don’t let them see it, it’s not on TV, so how can we show them that classical music is meaningful?
Is that something you were thinking about, even earlier on in your career?
I don’t think I was conscious of this, because in the beginning, it was just about being on stage, not about thinking outside of yourself. Opera singers are narcissistic beings, they have to be! You're constantly thinking, how's the voice? How do I look? Am I moving well? How is my latest press appearance? It's your center, because the focus on you is so strong, it’s hard to take a distance and see things from a different perspective. So, earlier when you asked me what evolutions I’ve been through, this is another one. I’m thinking much more about this and how I can help. There’s a lot of new explorations right now, so I hope we can come together to create a new moment for opera.
Is it difficult for you having that kind of weight on your shoulders as a performer and a director?
As TS Eliot would say: “Because I cannot hope to turn again, consequently I rejoice, having to construct something upon which to rejoice.” I rejoice in having to construct all these new things that bring me joy.