Talking with singers: René BarberaInterview
“It’s kind of insane,” says tenor René Barbera of what it feels like to sing coloratura. “Although people tell me I do it justice, I don’t feel like I’m doing it justice, because I never feel like I’m doing it cleanly enough, or accurately enough, or with enough clarity or enough legato.” It’s a skill that he continuously works on, and with roles like Nemorino (L’elisir d’amore), Ernesto (Don Pasquale), and Count Almaviva (Il barbiere di Siviglia), Barbera has put it to good use.
This summer, he heads to Pesaro, Italy, to sing Narciso in Rossini’s Il turco in Italia with the Rossini Opera Festival. “[Rossini] was never something that I thought I was going to be doing as much of,” says Barbera. He never had any trouble singing high, the feeling of which he likens to a “war cry”. With many roles that employ high tenor singing, florid passages come as a package deal.
Humbly, Barbera admits that he doesn’t feel entirely adept at vocal fireworks like coloratura, and his singing of roles that demand it “just kind of happened. It was just one of those things that showed up on my doorstep and said, ‘here you go’.”
“I got my first gig in The Barber of Seville in Vancouver, and I went with it,” he remembers. “Then it was just, ‘Alright, well, you had one Barber this year, so let’s go ahead and have four more.‘”
When it comes to a specific style of singing, or proficiency in certain areas of vocal technique, how much of it comes from nature, and how much from nurture? “I think some of it has to be nature,” posits Barbera. “But I think the vast majority of it is nurture. I really had to work very hard to do [coloratura]. It’s somewhat coming naturally to me now, but it’s not as natural as for some other people.”
In October, Barbera will make his Metropolitan Opera debut as Lindoro in L’italiana in Algeri, opposite Elizabeth DeShong as Isabella. “I’m excited to sing on that stage again,” says Barbera. “I sang there in 2008 for the Met Competition, and I remember really loving the acoustic, and I remember the feeling of stepping out on that huge stage and looking out into the house, and it was really quite cool.” Excitement aside, he admits some nerves, “because how could I not be?”
Barbera says that he doesn’t often get nervous for a performance anymore, but he enjoys the heightened stakes that comes with a notable company debut. “When I do feel that anxiety, that nervousness, it’s like ‘Ah! I still do have this feeling!’” He calls the Met one of his “bucket list places,” and his October performances will be an exciting check off his career to-do list. “I’ve wanted to sing at the Met before I quit, whenever that is,” he laughs. “That one was at the top of the list.”
The nomadic life
“It gets to be a bit much,” confesses Barbera.“That’s the hardest thing about this career, no question, is being on the road all the time.” He’s away from home roughly 10 months out of a given year; this season, he moved into his apartment with his wife in late December, and by the second week of January, they were gone for five months, minus a 36-hour stop at home between contracts. Barbera spoke to us from his home in San Antonio, where he has had a luxurious month of suitcase-free life. He calls it “a wonderful thing”.
“My wife travels with me a lot, so that helps. It’s great to have her around, because I’d probably be losing my mind if she wasn’t with me.” Together, they try and pack items that help maintain a sense of home life and routine, like photos from their wedding, bicycles for easy city travel, pillows, board games, and a video game system, “so I can feel, sort of like I have a normal life.”
“We used to travel with an entire suitcase full of cooking stuff, pots and pans, knives even, because we wanted to have our own things there,” recalls Barbera. “But then it became cumbersome.”
Traveling with loved ones takes some of the edge off the inevitable homesickness that can come from a singer’s nomadic career. Yet even together, constant travel is what Barbera finds most difficult. “It’s such a hard life; even with my wife traveling with me, it’s just really difficult for everybody. It’s hard on her, it’s hard on me, it’s hard on my family, hard on my friendships.”
Making sense of the career
So, why does he do it? “It’s not particularly difficult for me,” says Barbera, in a refreshingly simple answer. “I always liked singing, I always loved to perform.” He started singing at a young age, joining choirs and pursuing lessons on the advice of his teachers and mentors. “I’m good at other things, but this is what I’m best at.”
“I didn’t really believe I was going to be able to make a career out of singing, but then everything kept telling me I could, and so I said, ‘why not?’”
Barbera recalls several attempts to quit singing professionally, decisions motivated by the desire to be around family and friends, and to have a family of his own. “There were a number of reasons why this type of lifestyle wasn’t my cup of tea,” he explains. “I still battle with that now.”
When a singer reaches the point where they’re presented with the option to sing professionally, the pressure of making a living can drastically change the role that their art plays in a singer’s life. It’s an aspect to the opera singer’s crisis that Barbera understands. “If I’m being completely candid, if I could afford to quit today, I would.” Honesty like his is inspiring in an oblique way, and for young singers, there’s invaluable advice within.
We love how Barbera sums it up: “I guess, I sing professionally because I have to, I sing because I love to. How’s that?”
René Barbera performs in Il turco in Italia August 9-18 at the Rossini Opera Festival. For details and ticket information, click here.