Stage

The Royal Opera's Vittorio Grigolo is on a mission to bring opera to the masses

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

Forget its reputation as art for the culturally elite. If Italian superstar tenor Vittorio Grigolo has his way, modern opera will soon take its place as pure entertainment for the masses.

Audiences in Tokyo can share his passion this autumn as the very best from London’s Royal Opera House take the stage. Fans can choose between two universal tales: A deal with the devil or facing down a jealous double-crosser.

For The Royal Opera’s 2019 Japan tour, Grigolo will appear in Tokyo on Sept. 12 in the title role of Charles-Francois Gounod’s “Faust,” based on the play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and reworked by David McVicar with cinematic devilry within a gorgeously imagined 19th-century Paris. Acclaimed young American soprano Rachel Willis-Sorensen makes her debut opposite Grigolo as Marguerite — also Willis-Sorensen’s first performance ever in Japan — and Italian veteran Ildebrando D’Arcangelo stars as Mephistopheles.

It’s a production not to be missed, especially as Grigolo hinted in a recent interview with The Japan Times that it may be his last ever performance as Faust due to upcoming changes in his repertoire.

Equally tempting is another colossal of literature in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera of William Shakespeare’s “Othello.” Keith Warner delivers a provocative and intense production of the Bard’s timeless tragedy of jealousy and manipulation. The award-winning production starts in Yokohama on Sept. 14 before moving to Tokyo on Sept. 21.

Led by American star Gregory Kunde in his signature role, it’s a rare chance for Japanese audiences to see the only tenor in opera history who has performed both popular versions of “Otello” — Verdi’s and Rossini’s — in a single season. Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, acclaimed for his dramatic characterizations, stars as Iago, and Armenian soprano Hrachuhi Bassenz debuts in Japan as Desdemona.

For every performance, the maestro will be in the house, as both productions will be conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano, the longest-running musical director with The Royal Opera, who has also been credited with making opera more accessible and contemporary for modern audiences.

Ahead of the shows, Grigolo credited Pappano with his own success.

“My ascent into the top of the opera world started with The Royal Opera and with Antonio Pappano,” he says. “In 2010, I performed in ‘Manon’ with Antonio and that role for me was the beginning of an ascension, a straight climb into the stratosphere of stardom for opera. Even though I was already performing all over the world, the fame, the success; it all really came out of the performances of ‘Manon’ in London with Antonio.”

Grigolo welcomed the opportunity to perform in “Faust” again under Pappano, especially with the story’s widespread appeal.

“I like ‘Faust’ because it is so close to us, to humanity,” he says. “We’re talking about feelings, about a man facing his aging and wanting everything, all of his youth, to come back. Everybody in life has something that is missing … when you’re young, you don’t understand that. But that’s why ‘Faust’ is such a great drama, it’s so actual to human experience. It’s universal, the need of this man, a man thinking through his memories, of all that he has missed, of what he did not do in his pursuit of knowledge and success. But what is the point of reading all those books when you’ve missed the world outside?

“I decided to close ‘Faust’ in a grand way, in Japan with Antonio Pappano. For me, it has been an important role. It’s a very difficult role, but so rewarding.”

Commenting on everything from the musical challenges to the quick changes backstage, Grigolo says he also used typical acting techniques to prepare for the role, watching elderly people from a public park bench to gain a sense of the natural movements he could use onstage.

It’s another reason Grigolo believes more mainstream fans should give opera a chance.

“Modern opera is no longer simply singing,” he says. “You must be a great actor, a great singer. You must be a complete musician. Your own physique matters now, too. Thirty, 40 years ago, the singer’s physique did not matter as long as their voice was beautiful, but now with opera being filmed and broadcast all over the world, it is also important to have a good appearance.”

Luckily, Grigolo satisfies on all accounts, and his passionate energy for spreading his art has also made him popular far beyond the stage.

Grigolo has become famous as a pioneer for pushing opera into the 21st century, singing at train stations and airports, performing with rock bands or recording popular musicals, like “West Side Story,” all towards making a wider audience aware of the great entertainment value in opera.

“I want to communicate love and my passion for opera with our Japanese audience,” he says of the tour. “This passion has moved me since I was 4 years old.”

“If Mozart or Verdi could have used an electric guitar, they would have,” says Grigolo. “Opera is popular music, it’s a part of history and we can not cancel history as it is a part of our cultural lives. So whether you love it or not, you must know it. Like my mother always said with a new pasta or vegetable, you cannot say you don’t like it until you try it.”

Grigolo admits that opera, like any art, must continue to adjust to the times.

“Music is direct, it’s about today, about catching the time and moment in space,” he says. “What is the key change of the past 100 years? It is the pace, the movement, faster and faster, in travel, in relationships and communication. And in the musical language, we must also react to these times.

“For opera, don’t take yourself too seriously, get out of the classical music box, try to use the music of opera to speak the language of the time. Use the body to reinvent opera, to be modern to the times in how we communicate. Contemporary is to understand what is around now and to adapt to that now. And opera must be contemporary.”

It’s Grigolo’s fourth time performing in Japan, and he concludes the interview by praising the culture here ahead of the tour.

“I was just in Japan in December, and opera and classical music … (is) well-appreciated as the audience is very well-prepared,” he says. “Japan really understands the culture and the time needed to appreciate opera. They don’t rush in their feelings. Whatever brings good feelings and energy, they can be patient and take their own space and time to enjoy it.

“Of course, if you look at Shibuya and the famous pedestrian crossing, it’s a little ridiculous to say the Japanese don’t rush, so business is different. But as an audience, as for respecting culture, they embrace other traditions. And that’s why opera is so appreciated here.”

Perhaps Grigolo’s passion will inspire a wider audience to slow down and give opera a chance.

“Faust” will be performed by The Royal Opera at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan on Sept. 12, 15 and 18, and at Kanagawa Kenmin Hall on Sept. 22. “Otello” will be performed at Kanagawa Kenmin Hall on Sept. 14 and 16, and at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan on Sept. 21 and 23. For more information, visit www.nbs.or.jp/english/stages/2019/roh.