Matthew Polenzani – 25 Years at the Met: “From Four Words to Don Carlos and Tosca

Internationally acclaimed American tenor Matthew Polenzani has just completed a run of Tosca performances at the Metropolitan Opera and is soon headed to Fort Worth, Texas to reprise his successful “Three American Tenors” concert on May 13. An intense calendar of performances follows, from Les contes d’Hoffmann with Staatsoper Hamburg and a concert version of Hérodiade with Deutsche Oper Berlin to The Magic Flute at the Ravinia Festival and La clemenza di Tito at the Vienna State Opera, to name a few. I am grateful that he took the time from his busy schedule to speak with me about his extraordinary career and more. For additional information about Matthew Polenzani, please click on the link at the end of this interview.


Liudmyla Monastyrska as Tosca, Matthew Polenzani as Mario Cavaradossi, and Zeljko Lucic as Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca, The Metropolitan Opera, 2023 (Photo: Ken Howard)

You just sang Mario Cavaradossi in “Tosca” at the Met. I noticed that you brought the legato beauty of sound and attention to subtle details of dynamics into the role while also accessing the Verismo rawness, the unfettered visceral emotions. How did you negotiate that balance between this kind of bel canto beauty and the ravaging sounds that you may need for “Tosca”?

I always approach everything from the bel canto side; that’s how I learned my craft. Mozart has also been especially important for me. The amount of noise that my voice makes now compared to ten years ago or even five years ago is different. Now I have the quality and the quantity of sound required for a role like Mario Cavaradossi or some other bigger roles. If you notice the arc of my career, I have always tried to stay close to Mozart, but also always had one foot a little bit outside of my core repertoire. And when I started taking on parts that were heavier, I always came back to Mozart. 

When you go back to Mozart, how does it feel after you have ventured into heavier repertoire?

Most of the time it always felt great. I did notice after singing Hoffmann for the first time that “Dalla sua pace” was a little harder and it took me a little while to get back to that place, but I can get myself back there. Of course, these days it’s hard for me to get hired to sing in Così fan tutte or Don Giovanni, although I am going to sing The Magic Flute this year, which I’m so happy about. I mean, the younger singers have to take these parts the same way I did. I benefited from those roles when I was in my 30s, even though if somebody asked me to sing Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni today, I would say, absolutely, I would love to! But I still have Tito and Idomeneo which are right for my voice, and I like them. This year is a great year: the whole summer is all Mozart. After I finish Hérodiade in Berlin, I come home and have a few weeks free, and then I have The Magic Flute in Ravinia with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Idomeneo at the Aspen Music Festival, where they cast their young singers around experienced singers, which is a brilliant idea. Right after that, I have Tito in Vienna. 

You sang Don Carlos last year for the first time…

In French and in Italian which was probably not the smartest thing!

Matthew Polenzani in the title role of Verdi’s Don Carlos, The Metropolitan Opera, 2022 (Photo: Ken Howard)

Amazing! I saw you when the Met did it in French for the first time ever. I truly appreciated the layers that you added to the character; yours was much more nuanced than other interpretations. I thought the French suited you in this role, because it makes for a more restrained, subtler character, still very emotional but in a somewhat elegant way. Can you tell me about your approach to Don Carlos? 

I think that, in French, the sensibility of the language made it easier for me to show his vulnerability, his instability, and his trouble just relating to the world. I noticed when singing in Italian that he felt more heroic and stronger; it has something to do with the quality of the language, the hardness of the Italian vowels, and you don’t get the “je” kind of sounds… Something about the French lent itself to reflect his vulnerability. I still was able to find those things in Italian, but I think I found them more musically than anything else. I sang it in Italian in November in a new production in Naples. One thing I do like better in Italian is the duet for the tenor and baritone, there’s something about those words “Dio che nell’alma infondere”… but I think it’s also because I’ve been listening to it for so long. For both directors, Sir David McVicar in New York and Claus Guth in Naples, it was important to show Don Carlos as not having a tight grip on reality, and not just because in the second duet with Elisabeth he has some sort of hallucination, it’s more than that. It has to do with how he relates to people and how tightly he holds on to Rodrigue/Rodrigo, who is his one tether to reality.

You wanted to be a high school music teacher at first, and it was an encounter during a summer program with bass-baritone Alan Held that made you consider singing opera. Tell us about the moment that shifted your thinking.

It was interesting. I think I got to sing The Pearl Fishers duet with Alan in the final concert of the program. Then he told me that there are never enough tenors in the opera world and recommended I do a graduate program. At the time, I wasn’t even considering going into a graduate program, I just wanted to get my teacher’s certificate and start working. But I thought, I can get a master’s degree in vocal performance and if I don’t like it, I come back home and well, every graduate degree would up my pay scale in teaching. Alan’s teacher is married to Doris Yarick-Cross, who was the head of the Yale Opera program, so he suggested to them that they hear me. I went there and they took me into the program. I stayed at Yale three years, and then I went straight into the young artist program at Chicago Lyric Opera, the Ryan Opera Center. In the interim I began studying with Margaret Harshaw, and the technique that I sing with today is hers. She passed away in 1997, but I started studying with a student of hers, Laura Brooks Rice, in 1998, and I’ve been studying with her ever since.

Matthew Polenzani as Jason in Cherubini’s Medea, The Metropolitan Opera, 2022 (Photo: Marty Sohl)

What was so special about how Margaret Harshaw taught you?

For her, it was about construction of the voice, about the physical things that need to happen in order to cause the voice to work technically correctly. As she listened to my sound, she watched my physicality. I was fortunate that I got four years with her, which was just barely enough, I wish I’d had 15 years with her! But I’ve been lucky because I continued studying with Laura Brooks Rice who teaches completely differently but her ears are trained the same way. As far as I’m concerned, good vocal technique is exactly the same for everybody. The physicality of what causes a voice to work correctly is similar for me or you or any of my colleagues, but how you arrive at it mentally is very individual. A teacher’s hardest job is to be able to express the exact same thing 50 ways or 100 ways before there is finally some image you start to understand, and you begin to feel the openness of the throat and the column of sound and the “squillo” of your voice. The more you feel, the more you understand how it works. But these are my own sensations, just as you have your sensations or any of my colleagues have theirs. We’re all experiencing them differently. So, that’s the key of a great teacher…

To help you unlock your own distinct code of sensations… 

Right, exactly!

Matthew Polenzani as Nadir and Diana Damrau as Leila in Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles, The Metropolitan Opera, 2015-2016 (Photo: Ken Howard)

How did the young artist program at the Lyric Opera of Chicago shape your artistic development?

By being able to work alongside these great artists, like Ben Heppner, Catherine Malfitano, Kiri Te Kanawa, Robert Lloyd, Frank Lopardo, Olaf Bär, Kim Begley, Jean-Philippe Lafont, there are so many… all the big stars came through there. I was there in the ’95-’96 and ’96-‘97 seasons and being next to these artists, watching them, and seeing their process and what physicality they lent to characters, was huge for me. Of course, there was a lot of training too, like exercises for movement of body, and we did Alexander Technique. They paid for my voice lessons. I was lucky because Ms. Harshaw was living in Chicago then, so I studied with her through my whole time there. It was a very formative and interesting experience. 

Jonathan Friend, who was the artistic administrator at the Metropolitan Opera at the time, came there to hear a soprano singing in The Magic Flute. He heard me too, and he immediately asked if I would audition for him the next day. I did and I was invited to do a stage audition at the Met and sing for James Levine and Sarah Billinghurst. When I did that, I also sang for New York City Opera—in those days, it was still an important opera company and I hate what’s happened to it, because New York City should be able to support two first-rate opera companies. So, in August 1997, my wife and I left Chicago and moved to New York and have lived here ever since.

Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann and Natalie Dessay as Antonia in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, San Francisco Opera, 2013 (Photo: Cory Weaver)

You made your debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1997 and you sang over 400 performances of over 40 roles there. How do you feel about your relationship with this great opera house?

For me it’s absolutely an artistic home. I have 25 seasons there now. I feel unbelievably lucky to have had such a great relationship with a company like this. As artistic institutions go, it’s as good as you can find in the level of the orchestra, the chorus, the productions, the directors, the singers, it’s all top, top! One thing I’m especially proud of is the fact that the Met has thought to hire me every single season since I started there. Sometimes, it might only be for one production, sometimes for two or three, it depends. This year I also stepped in for somebody, like in this particular case—I wasn’t supposed to sing this Tosca. Next year I have the Verdi Requiem, Madama Butterfly, and La bohème. So, I will be in New York from September until the end of October, I’m gone in November, but then I come back in December, and I’ll be here from the end of December through March. I’ve got a good chunk of time at home, and I feel lucky about that, and my family does too. I’m hoping I’ll make 30 seasons at the Met, which would be in 2027 when I’ll be 59. What I also hope is that I can make it to 61 years of age in this career. That’s when my youngest goes to college, and I’d like to still be working by that time. Hopefully, we’ll have settled whatever we have to figure out financially to pay for all my kids’ schools, the cost of which is getting crazy these days.

Let’s go back to the idea of voice categories. While this system can be helpful in keeping singers from damaging their voices if they go too far beyond their category, these categories can also be stifling or limiting in someone’s artistic potential. Have you ever encountered naysayers when you ventured into other operatic territory supposedly outside your Fach [voice category] and how did you deal with it?  

Absolutely. But I’ve been lucky because my personal circle of those I ask whether or not I should be doing something is tiny: my wife, my teacher, my agent, one coach… So, there are not so many opinions floating around about what I should be doing. I’ve also been careful. When it came to what I wanted to do, I was always aware of this track that my voice has been on for my whole life, and I knew where I was headed vocally. For example, I sang in Il turco in Italia in Pesaro in 2002 and I’d been singing Almaviva in The Barber of Seville for a few years. When I got to Pesaro, I was aware that I didn’t have Larry Brownlee’s or Juan Diego Flórez’s facility in coloratura. I could do it, but that was never a part of my vocal makeup. When I heard some of these guys in Pesaro, like Raúl Giménez and Roberto Scandiuzzi, and Patrizia Ciofi, sing coloratura, I thought, oh OK, this is what it really sounds like! But I already knew that my Rossini time was going to be limited and I sang my last Barber in the ’05-‘06 season. I knew I was always better at the longer line rather than the florid line. And I’ve always had a good idea that, as long as I continued on this path where I would step outside of my core rep, step back, and again step outside and back, I would hopefully arrive in my 50s or 60s in a healthy place, which I have. For singers who got trapped in one Fach or one kind of repertory, it’s harder to break out. As a 54-year-old guy, I can say that there are three roles in my repertory that I’ve sung more than 100 performances of: Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, Alfredo in La traviata, and Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore. The Duke in Rigoletto might be up there and Almaviva is probably not that far away. But the rest is just really 20 or 30 or 40 performances of each role, and that’s because I’ve done a lot of things and have gone in a lot of different directions vocally. My repertory has been very varied and wide. For me, that means I’ve remained flexible and interested in learning new music. Right now, I’m learning extra music for Hoffmann; this production I have coming up in Hamburg will be a longer version.

Matthew Polenzani (Photo: Fay Fox)

And before that, you have the “Three American Tenors” concert in Fort Worth Texas on May 13…

This was the brainchild of my agent, to bring together three American tenors: myself, Michael Fabiano, and Bryan Hymel. We did it in Dallas in 2019 and it was a good success, and we had a great time. But Bryan was in a car accident not so long ago and he’s not ready to come back yet, so the tenor who’s joining us now is Evan LeRoy Johnson. We’re each doing three arias and a couple of medleys together of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Mario Lanza favorites. I’m excited also because Fort Worth is right near Dallas where my sister lives, so it’ll be good to see her. 

Did you ever dream you would have such an incredible operatic career?

Not really. I knew I was going to sing as well as I could. Even from the beginning, I didn’t think that I was a purely Mozartian or purely Rossinian kind of tenor. But you don’t really know where you’ll go and how you’ll get there. Did I imagine this career? I mean, I probably hoped for it. You know, if for every ten auditions you get one job, you’re doing well. If you get two jobs, you’ve had an exceptionally good run of auditioning, and getting three jobs is an incredible success! I just kept going from job to job and, as I continued to grow as a singer and actor, the jobs got better. Certainly, what really broke the door open for me at the Met was doing L’italiana in Algeri. I was supposed to cover the first six performances. But when the tenor singing it arrived in New York, he was sick, and he never really got over it. So, I sang the opening night with Sam Ramey and Jennifer Larmore and Alessandro Corbelli, a really good cast, with Bruno Campanella conducting. Then the originally cast tenor canceled the whole rest of the run and I sang all the shows. It was right after this that they offered me the new production of The Magic Flute directed by Julie Taymor in the fall of 2004. Then, they’ve been adding to my productions each year. I mean, my first role at the Met was only four words long in Boris Godunov. I’ve traveled from four words to Don Carlos and Tosca

One of the other things I’m really proud about in my career is that practically everywhere I worked, I got invited back. If I didn’t go back, they asked me what else I was interested in. I’ve been to so many theaters of the world multiple times over my career. So, if you’re getting invited back to important theaters for important projects with regularity, that means you must be good at what you do. It’s hard for me to believe that, because I never think anything I do is good. For me that’s a way of saying that I have to keep figuring out how to improve. I have to continue to think about getting better, being more proficient as a singer, and being a better actor and a better communicator. So, it’s more of a defense mechanism than anything else to say that I never like anything I did, because I just want to continue to grow, and I never want to think that I’ve got it all down. 

Any special message for your fans in New York City?

I have been extraordinarily blessed in my life to have a feeling of acceptance and love, particularly here in this city. I also have a long history in other places, and audiences know me in Munich, in Paris, in other cities, even without me having a big recording career. I want to say thank you! Please continue to appreciate and support what I do, what all of us are doing, because we’re in a delicate place right now with the arts. These feelings from fans and the people who love opera, all their appreciation and love are a blessing to our lives, and I feel very lucky for that and for all the opportunities I’ve had. 

Learn more about Matthew Polenzani

Top: Matthew Polenzani (Photo – Fay Fox)

About Maria-Cristina Necula (183 Articles)
Maria-Cristina Necula’s published work includes the books "The Don Carlos Enigma: Variations of Historical Fictions" and "Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo and Soul," two translations: "Europe à la carte" and Molière’s "The School for Wives," and the collection of poems "Evanescent." Her articles and interviews have been featured in "Classical Singer" Magazine, "Opera America," "Das Opernglas," "Studies in European Cinema," and "Opera News." As a classically trained singer she has performed in the New York City area at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, Florence Gould Hall, and the Westchester Broadway Theatre, and has presented on opera at The Graduate Center, Baruch, The City College of New York, and UCLA Southland. She speaks six languages, two of which she honed at the Sorbonne University in Paris and the University of Vienna, and she holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center, CUNY. In 2022, Maria-Cristina was awarded a New York Press Club Award in the Critical Arts Review category for her review of Matthew Aucoin's "Eurydice" at the Metropolitan Opera, published on Woman Around Town. She is a 2022-24 Fellow of The Writers' Institute at The Graduate Center.