Playing the devil, one presumes, can either be a daunting task or great fun. One gets the idea that Paata Burchuladze clearly pertains to the latter category. The Georgian bass opera singer has just started a 13-date run of Charles Gounod’s Faust at the Tel Aviv Opera House, ending February 26. The opera is in French, and Hebrew and English subtitles are displayed on a screen over the front of the stage.
“Playing Mephistopheles is one of the best roles for a bass singer in the whole of opera,” says Burchuladze. “This is a unique character. It is like, on the one hand he loves God and, on the other hand, he is doing everything against Him. He doesn’t force people to follow him and he must be played very sympathetically. I don’t like to play him as a powerful character because, otherwise, people will run away from him. Mephistopheles must be charming.”
Burchuladze doesn’t exactly come across as an unattractive character either. “I feel very comfortable in this role. Maybe that’s part of me too,” he confesses, adding he has also learned a lot from the part. “I realize we must also be very careful of such people. We must also think about how we make a living, and what we do to earn compliments. We must think of the price we pay for that.”
A couple of weeks prior to starting his string of Faust
performances, Burchuladze presented an evening of popular arias from operas by Verdi and romantic Russian songs. Despite his close to three decades of appearances on the world’s leading stages, the Georgian tries to keep things in sober perspective. “I think, I hope, the recital went well,” he says. “You know there’s a big difference between operas and recitals. It’s much more difficult to do recitals because you’re alone with the audience, without costume and without makeup, or colleagues or orchestra. It’s just one to one.” But it’s not only hard work. “That also makes it much more interesting, not just difficult,” Burchuladze continues. “You can make good contact with the public. When it works it is wonderful. Up to now, thankfully, it has worked well.”
Mind you, he isn’t entirely on his own, even when doing recitals. Pianist Ludmila Ivanova has been his accompanist for close to 30 years. “We started performing together in 1982 when we entered the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow,” recalls Burchuladze. “We won first prize and my career started then.”
Burchuladze, who turns 55 today, has been around a long time. “People who don’t know me personally think I am 100 years old, because I was very popular and very well known when I was very young,” he says, adding that there are definite advantages to moving up the chronological ladder too. “Fifty-five is a beautiful age. I think my voice listens to me more now because I know now much more than I knew thirty years ago. Back then there was volume and a big voice. Now there is a big voice but I can control it better.” Part of that is due to accrued life wisdom. “It’s like the song My Way
by Frank Sinatra. You can sing it very beautifully when you are 25, but you can sing it much better when you are 65, when you have lived more of your life. You have to feel what you sing and that comes with age. In opera, if your voice stays fresh, when you get older that’s exactly what you need.”
Two years after his success in the Tchaikovsky Competition Burchuladze’s career took an incremental leap, when he debuted at Covent Garden in London, with Zubin Mehta on the conductor’s dais, and on the same bill as a certain Luciano Pavarotti. “Pavarotti helped me a lot,” says the Georgian, “he really took me under his wing. He was my friend and took me with him to the United States in 1987, when no one from the Soviet Union was going to the States. I went to [Milan opera house] La Scala with him, and to Vienna.” Considering his short track record at the time that must have been quite a daunting experience, to appear on the same stage as the world renowned Italian tenor. “Actually, while I was on the stage with him I didn’t think about it. I was so young then. It was only later I realized how fortunate I was to perform with the great Pavarotti.”
The young bass singer also gained a generous helping hand from another, equally illustrious, professional. “[Legendary German conductor Herbert] von Karajan also helped me and praised me very highly,” says Burchuladze. “He called me ‘the second Chaliapin’,” referring to the great early twentieth-century Russian opera singer Feodor Ivanovich Chaliapin.
Considering that Burchuladze started his international career while the USSR was still very much up and running, he appears to have been granted a surprising degree of freedom by the Soviet authorities. “I was allowed to go abroad for 111 days a year. Normally it was 90 days. But I had to give 20 recitals each year before I was allowed to leave the Soviet Union,” he explains.
Burchuladze stresses that, despite the relative laissez faire treatment he got from the authorities, he never got involved in politics. “Look, I joined the Communist party – everyone did – and I am not proud of it, but that’s as far as it went.” In between globetrotting between the world’s opera houses, Burchuladze has put his apolitical ethos and celebratory status to good use by establishing and overseeing the Georgia-based Iavnana charity foundation which offers shelter to orphans and to children whose parents are incapable of caring for them.”We have given concerts and used the proceeds to buy apartments for orphans and for destitute families, and to take care of the children who are still in our homes.” This is very important work for me. In 2006, in acknowledgment of his charity activities, the UN made Burchuladze a Goodwill Ambassador.
Opera, today, isn’t anywhere near as popular as it was a hundred years ago, with a succession of genres taking on the mantle of so-called “music for the masses.” Jazz, rock and roll, pop and a dizzying succession of subgenres have claimed the public’s attention, and pockets, since then. So how does Burchuladze think opera can achieve and maintain a higher profile? One recalls, for instance the successful efforts of Norman Granz who gave jazz an elevated status when he initiated his Jazz the Philharmonic series in the 1940s. Views on the grandiose move, at the time, were divided. While Granz had given jazz musicians, many of whom came from socioeconomically and racially disadvantaged backgrounds, a prestigious stage on which to put their artistic word out. in so doing he took jazz out of its natural dance floor and club milieu.
Fast forward half a century and you get the opera world’s equivalent of
the Three Tenors series of concerts by stellar singers Placido Domingo,
Jose Carreras and Pavarotti. While the threesome certainly put opera
endeavor in the public eye, wasn’t there a degree of
over-commercialization of the genre? Burchuladze is somewhat ambivalent
about the idea of bringing the art form bang up to date. “This is what
marketing people do,” he observes. “They think they are doing something
new. I don’t think everything should be traditional, with trees on the
stage and all the other stuff that has always been used. I don’t think
that is the right way but I also don’t think it is right to make
everything modern. When people come to the opera they want to
experience a kind of fairytale, to hear this antique music and to
relax. When they see on the stage a nude woman and people having sex –
that has been used many times – I think they find this disturbing.
Directors like to make scandals, to be provocative, to become famous.
But I think we should respect the tradition of opera, even in a modern
production.”For further information about the forthcoming performances of ‘Faust,’ go to: www.israel-Opera.co.il