Rolando Villazón – opera singer with jester vibes and a dinosaur mask

Rolando Villazón song recital, Müpa, 01.10.2019, 8 pm

In case you saw Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love, you can remember the endless possibilities of ‘average guy sings so well under the shower that he eventually gets to the opera stage’. Believe it or not, it actually happened to a real person. Rolando Villazón was drying after a shower when someone rang his doorbell. It was a stranger who introduced himself as Arturo Nieto, baritone singer. As it turned out, the singer was visiting his friend, Villazón’s next-door neighbour, and he liked what he heard through the wall. So much that he even invited Villazón to the music school where he was teaching. After leaving the shower cabin, Villazón started to develop his voice – and fell in love with the genre of opera forever.

At first he sang in his homeland Mexico. In 1999, he won Plácido Domingo’s singing competition Operalia, which brought him to international acknowledgement and, all of a sudden, a lot of European requests. He debuted there as Chevalier Des Grieux (Massenet: Manon) in Genova, Italy. Then, in the Opéra de Paris, he played Afredo from La Traviata, and in the Berlin State Opera, he played Macduff in Macbeth – Nowadays both of these institutions are his second homes. He settled down in France and became a French citizen, but he has close ties to Germany, and lately also to Great Britain. It doesn’t mean, though, that he forgot his roots. We can hear him singing in Spanish a lot, he appreciates Mexican music and cultural heritage a lot, and he is happy to take it to all parts of the world. In the beginning of October, for instance, he will bring a bunch of Spanish and Latin American songs to Budapest.

But do you think his career continued in an average way after the shower incident? Wrong! He himself is everything but average. A journalist from Guardian recorded that Villazón arrived for their scheduled interview appointment in a dinosaur mask with horrifying growls and munching on a teddy bear. After poor old journalist pulled himself together, Villazón told him this was the new concept of the director, ‘Don Carlos in the Jurassic Park’. Just kidding: in fact he wears the mask in the street because otherwise he would be stopped by fans all the time, and this way he can go unnoticed. All right, he was kidding again: he had just bought the mask in a toy shop before his rehearsals to take it home to his little son.

It’s no surprise that Villazón is such a jester. Since he first entered the stage, people keep saying he looked exactly like Mr Bean. (He does!) Good question how he feels about this constant comparison, but it seems if he can’t change his appearance, then he simply takes the best of it. Instead of being the hundredth handsome tenor singer, he is the one and only, the characteristic face, the notorious stretcher of boundaries.

In German and French TV, he has a talent show called Stars von morgen (Stars of tomorrow), and in the British one he has Popstar to Operastar. He was criticized a lot, especially for the latter one, for bringing the genre of opera to an allegedly derogative format. His fans, however, stand on his side, calling him “POPerastar” (and he is indeed as popular as many pop musicians), and they even follow his non-musical artistic side. Villazón sometimes writes novels, sometimes draws comics, and sometimes joins the crew of the Rote Nasen (Red Noses) clown doctor group in Germany and Austria to play a character called Dr Rollo…

But as much as he keeps trying to make people smile, we have to remember that phase of his life when it was a huge question whether he himself will ever smile again. From 2007 on, he started to cancel performances due to health problems. Two years later he confessed to his worried fans that he had a cyst on one of his vocal cords and therefore can’t sing properly. He had to undergo surgery, although it had the risk that he would eventually lose his beautiful voice. After a few months of recovery, he returned to stage in the Viennese Staatsoper. It was L’elisir d’amore, Villazón sang Nemorino’s role. At the end, the curtain fell, he bowed…

…and received twenty minutes of constant applause.