Baritone Sebastian Catana: Living the Dream

One of the leading operatic baritones of our times, Sebastian Catana has been praised worldwide for his musically beautiful and nuanced interpretations of Verdi and verismo roles. Born in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, he currently makes his home in Pittsburgh, and travels all over the world, enchanting audiences with his exceptional singing and artistry. The scientific world may have lost a great chemical engineer—which was Catana’s initial career choice—but audiences have gained a brilliant artist. In 2019, I had the opportunity to see Sebastian Catana as Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca at Teatro La Fenice, and he offered, by far, the most multidimensional interpretation of Scarpia I had ever experienced. I am very grateful that he took the time to do this Zoom interview from Italy. For more information about Sebastian Catana and his upcoming schedule, please click on the link at the end of this interview.

You grew up around singing and saw your first opera at the age of four. Please tell us how it all began.

Both my parents were opera singers. My father was a baritone and my mother a soprano. The first performance I saw was an operetta, Der Zigeunerbaron by Johann Strauss. My mother and father were also singing in Tosca, but they didn’t want that to be the first opera that I see. I actually have a vivid memory from when my mother made her debut in Tosca: it was on the evening of the big, very tragic earthquake that took place in Romania, the 4th of March 1977. I had someone babysit me at home, but I remember people coming and taking me to safety. In my hometown in Cluj, it wasn’t as bad as it was in Bucharest where a lot of people died. In the opera house, the big chandelier started to sway left and right, and they stopped the performance during the second act, right when Spoletta comes in towards the end of the act. 

But yes, I grew up in an environment of singing and I was always listening to opera. If you remember, those years in Romania we didn’t have much interesting television… 

Sebastian Catana in the title role of Verdi’s Nabucco with Ewa Plonka as Abigaille at Arena di Verona, June-Sept. 2022 – Ennevi Foto

Just a little “Tom and Jerry” and “The Flintstones” for us kids…

Only on the weekends. In the evenings you had, from eight to ten, communist propaganda and maybe a movie. It wasn’t like today with Netflix and Amazon Prime. Our Netflix was going to the theatre, the opera, the Philharmonic, which was all a great education. I remember so many performances and concerts. Naturally, I started to sing. I had some neighbors making fun of me because I was about 14-15, when the male voice transitions from a child to a mature voice, and I made some funny sounds. But I just loved to sing, and I would sing in school. 

Did you ever study singing formally in Romania before you immigrated to the U.S?

In 1989, right after my father died unexpectedly,  I started taking some voice lessons with a very dear teacher, Livia Suciu. She was my mother’s teacher, and my father had also worked with her for a few years. So, from Monday to Saturday when I would come out of school, I would go directly to her home in the center of Cluj and work with her for an hour or two. I loved it. We worked like this from the summer of ‘89 until the beginning of April 1990 when I left Romania. I did this in secret because my mother wasn’t very happy that I was pursuing a music career. She didn’t encourage me, and she was very upset after my father passed away; we were also about to leave Romania, so I thought, I’m just going to tell her that I’m staying later at school to play soccer. But instead, I was going to this voice teacher’s apartment to sing. Those months were very special to me. Shortly after we left Romania, this teacher passed away. I have a memory of her confirming to me that I could have a career in singing, which for a seventeen-year-old was unbelievable! She also gave me the opportunity to sing Ezio’s Aria from Verdi’s Attila, a role which, years later, was one of my biggest successes when I sang it in 2010 in the Parma Verdi Festival—there’s even a DVD of that performance.

Sebastian Catana – Photo: Alessandro Lodola; courtesy of Artantide –  Arte Etica

But your mother must have found out at some point that you took these voice lessons in secret…

Yes, after we moved to America, she did, and she realized that this was what I loved. Then I actually started studying voice with her. 

Do you think that she had discouraged you at first because she was worried for you, given that an operatic career is so difficult?

Yes, and she also had some unfortunate things happen in Romania. She was persecuted by communist authorities there, and she didn’t feel happy about a music career. It took her a long time to come to terms with it. But I hope I made her proud.

How was the culture shock for you when you came to the United States?

I went directly into the last year of high school in the fall of 1990, and then, in 1991, I started college. It was a pretty big culture shock! At that time, I didn’t speak English well, especially the American English because, as you know, in Romania we would study the British English. So, when teachers would speak to me, it was hard at first. I would study a lot and try to translate. At the beginning I didn’t have many friends but then I managed to make a few and that made a difference. When I went to college, I lived on campus, and slowly I got used to American culture. 

You were noticed for your special talent for mathematics, and you actually pursued chemical engineering before embarking fully on an operatic career…

Yes. I felt that this was the easiest path for me. Not having a good handle on the language, I could not even think about going into another field where you need to read a lot, like in law school or medical school, whereas in engineering, it was more a language of symbols. Of course, there are formulas and processes, but all that came naturally to me. I also love physics. I had very good physics teachers in Romania, and so that was an easy choice. It was a practical choice too, because, at that time, singing was more of a hobby.

When you were studying chemical engineering, did you ever think that singing would become a career?

I did. I was always dreaming about that! When I started in college at the University of Michigan, I would often go to the music library. So, I would do my engineering homework and projects, and then check out a CD of a symphony or an opera, and I made friends in the music school. The desire was always there. But it wasn’t until I was about 23-24 years old that I said, well, time might be running out if I don’t give it a real shot now.

 Sebastian Catana in the title role of Verdi’s Rigoletto at Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège, March 2022 – Photo: J. Berger / ORW

From ancient times, many have explored the correlation between mathematics and music. Did you find that your talent in math helped in any way with your music studies?

It definitely helps with your learning of the music. When you study music and go through the first processes of learning a piece, it’s like math. You learn values. Of course, after that you have to put your soul and your interpretation into them, but just to build that piece to the point where you could interpret it and give it a meaning, you can use your math mind to be precise, so that’s where I find that it helps me a lot. 

We know that Romania offers and has always offered the world many amazing opera singers. What is very special is that they’re all individual, unique artists, they’re not “factory made.” You can see that happen sometimes in conservatories where singers can become good technically and musically, but they tend to sound the same. Why do you think that the Romanian singing school is able to foster the individuality of artists?

Well, I think Romanians have a great advantage because, let’s face it, we are the only Latin country in that part of Europe and the language is very helpful for us, especially when we sing the Italian and French repertoire, and not just that. And I think our naturalness comes also from our folk songs, from our popular music as we call it… I remember my father talk about his father singing in the village, what an impressive natural voice he had!  So, we have that from the people: it’s the combination of the language and the pure inborn talent which helps maintain a certain uniqueness. Romania is a very special place, a beautiful country, and I love it with all my heart. And we have so many incredible artists coming from there.

I think it also has to do with the teachers because they don’t stifle individuality.

Yeah, I mean look at the last few generations of singers after 1990 that have been on the world stages, it’s so impressive! 

Sebastian Catana in the title role of Verdi’s Macbeth at Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, 2019 – Photo: courtesy of Sebastian Catana

In the U.S. you participated in two young artists programs, with Seattle Opera and Baltimore Opera. How do you think those programs helped you in your artistic development?

I also studied at the Duquesne University in Pittsburgh for a couple of years before I got into these young artists programs. The young artists programs helped a lot with stagecraft and repertoire and learning how to perform. I did my first operas in these safe environments: Bohème in Seattle and Don Giovanni in Baltimore. These programs are not easy because you have to perform a lot: you do concerts and operas, you travel; they’re quite demanding so you have to be ready for that vocally. In terms of musicality, you work with some very special people. I remember masterclasses with some great conductors who would conduct on the main stage of the companies. That’s where I got my start. Somebody from the Metropolitan Opera heard me and a year after that, I debuted at the Met.

So, you made your debut at the Met in 2003…

Yes, as Schaunard in La bohème.

How did that feel?

When I think of it now, it still feels incredible because, with the young artists programs and my studies, I only had about four years of study behind me. I mean, I finished my master’s degree in chemical engineering at Carnegie Mellon in October 1999, and in October 2003 I was making my debut on the stage of the Met! So, it was very quick; it was kind of crazy. Now thinking back… I mean, I did everything that I could do right, and I was very lucky, but my goodness, it was frightening to be on that stage! I didn’t have a lot of experience: besides the young artists programs performances, I had done one other fully staged production: I sang Morales in Carmen in Milwaukee in 2002 and that was it. And then the next performance, I’m in front of a packed house at the Metropolitan Opera! It was great, it was unbelievable, it was a dream come true! It was also a stepping stone for things to come for me. I sang alongside so many great singers at the Met. Seeing how people work and being there full time for over four years showed me what it takes to go sing these leading parts on the big stages and it was very inspiring. I met extraordinary people there, among them some coaches with whom I still keep in touch. One of my best friends and coaches is Steven Eldredge with whom I worked at the Met. He guided me to take my first steps into singing the Verdi repertoire and helped me a lot musically. 

Sebastian Catana as Scarpia with Svetlana Kasyan in the title role of Puccini’s Tosca at Teatro dell’ Opera di Roma, 2019 – Photo: Yasuko Kageyama

You are known for your great interpretations of Verdi roles. When you sing them, you manage to maintain core elements of bel canto, beautiful singing, that liquid honeyed legato beauty of bel canto. Could you talk a little bit about your faithfulness to bel canto principles? 

Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say.  I’m actually very happy and that really made my day because that’s exactly what I’m trying to do!  I didn’t really have possibilities to sing a lot of the bel canto roles, but I studied bel canto with my teachers. I would coach it, I would always go and sing arias from that repertoire, by Donizetti and Bellini, in auditions or at competitions.  For many years my audition aria was “Ah, per sempre io ti perdei” from Bellini’s I Puritani. Or Donizetti’s Poliuto, his entrance aria “Di tua beltade immagine.” I would make an impression with this bel canto repertoire, and that’s the basis of my singing. Still today when I’m singing heavier repertoire like Scarpia in Tosca or Tonio in Pagliacci or Falstaff,  I always think that even in these roles there have to be the roots of bel canto. When you listen to the great Italian baritones like Mattia Battistini or Riccardo Stracciari or Ettore Bastianini, Giuseppe Taddei, Piero Cappuccilli, Giorgio Zancanaro, Renato Bruson, you always hear that they have that core of beautiful legato singing in any repertoire. Now, there could be some declamatory passages where you have to be a bit more forceful, but that still has to be on the legato, on the flow of air which gives it the integrity of sound that I always look for. And that allows your natural colors to come out unforced and in the most direct way to the public, through the legato. That’s what I’m always trying to do; I’m always thinking about bel canto. Even though I didn’t get a chance to sing a lot of it, it’s the foundation of my singing.

You also have a certain kind of sunshine in the upper range of your voice; it’s like it opens up and blossoms in sparkles. It has that brilliance, the Italian “squillo.”

Yes. I like that. I worked a lot on that. As a baritone you can have a more covered, darker sound or a brighter sound. I try to be as technically correct as I can without hindering the natural qualities of my voice, and that’s why I was inspired to listen to some baritones from the past. Mattia Battistini who didn’t have a very covered dark voice, but he sang a lot of Verdi and bel canto. What was remarkable was the beauty with which he sang. It wasn’t about size and darkness, but it was about the beauty of the sound. 

And you have it all: the volume and the darkness with the sparkling brilliance…

There was a period when I was naturally singing bright. Then, after studying and doing a lot, the sound became darker, but now I think I found  the happy medium between these aspects. 

Sebastian Catana as Giorgio Germont in Verdi’s La traviata with Francesca Dotto as Violetta at Teatro dell’ Opera di Roma – Photo: Yasuko Kageyama, 2017 

You bring the bel canto principles even to Scarpia which I saw you perform in Venice. You don’t often hear “beautiful singing” in this role: many tend to bring a harsher or more biting sound to Scarpia to transmit his evil, brutal characteristics. But the attention to legato adds a more seductive quality to him.

Yes, I think that’s a dimension that can unfortunately be lost in Scarpia, a dimension that makes him even more dangerous. In a role like Scarpia, which I call linear because, from the moment he walks on stage until he dies, he doesn’t change, you have to find different colors in singing him to make him more interesting. Through this bel canto technique, singing beautifully when Puccini gives you those opportunities, it’s good to take advantage of them. Scarpia has some great phrases. He is easily associated with screaming and being nasty, but there are a lot of other things that you can put into the role, into his solos, and especially in the second act with Tosca; it’s very passionate music. 

In the 1941 film “Tosca,” which is an adaptation of Victorien Sardou’s play and the opera, Scarpia is much more charming. He and Tosca knew each other well and were even on friendly terms before the whole drama ensued. Which brings a different dimension to interpreting Scarpia, like your bel canto approach does.

Yes, I agree!

Did you ever imagine you would come so far and have such an amazing career?

Well, I had dreams. I think that all kids and all young people should have dreams, and I see that in my own kids. Dreams are beautiful. They inspire you to do something. You know, I miss my father every day. He was a great man and a great singer. He sang a series of performances in the 1970s with the Cluj-Napoca Opera in Italy, in Livorno. He would always speak about Italy and the success that he had there, and there are some recordings of him singing in Don CarloLa Traviata, and Rigoletto in Livorno before I was born, more than 50 years ago. So, it became this dream of mine that I would love to sing in Italy someday, but I never thought about where and in what theatre and how. I consider myself very blessed to live the dream now.

How do you find the current state of opera in Europe and in other parts of the world where you perform?

I’m very optimistic. Audiences are present and there’s a lot of enthusiasm. Also, I just finished a series of performances in Israel, in Tel Aviv. Their production of La traviata was supposed to take place in January-February and it got cancelled because of covid. We came back in July and aside from the scheduled performances, they added two more and still, I barely could have my family get tickets. I got everyone in for just one performance; the demand for tickets was huge! The Israeli Opera is fantastic; they have a wonderful, loyal audience. The same in Italy: the audiences have come back and they’re very interested, especially after these more than two years of isolation, everyone is eager to get that special energy from live performances. Opera in Europe is flourishing!

What’s coming up for you? Any plans to sing the U.S. soon?

Not yet. That’s one thing I wish I could have more of: to sing at home, because my home is in the U.S., my family is in Pittsburgh. But I’m happy with what I have because it’s not an easy career and I feel very grateful. Next, I go to Vilnius in Lithuania for performances of Rigoletto, a co-production with Arena di Verona and the Opera in Oman: it’s the last production of Rigoletto of the great Franco Zeffirelli. Then, I’m very excited because in October I’m going to Tokyo, debuting with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. I’m singing three concert performances of the title role of Falstaff with Maestro Myun-Whun Chung who is a fantastic conductor and incredible artist, so I look forward to that.

Are there any dream roles that you haven’t done yet and can’t wait to do?

I would say Michele in Puccini’s Il tabarro, and I actually just got offered to do this role at the Rome Opera next year. Then I’m returning in future seasons to do Iago in Verdi’s Otello that I’ve never done but I’ve recorded 15 years ago—that’s another dream role. Also, Gérard in Giordano’s Andrea Chenier which I haven’t had a chance to sing yet. Other than that, I’m very happy with what I am doing right now. All of these roles that I sing are just wonderful and I love this repertoire.  

You’ve lived in New York City when you were at the Met. How was that experience for you?

I lived in New York City between 2003 and 2007, and then I had another few months in 2009. Now I don’t come to New York as often because I travel a lot and sometimes I get there maybe once a year. But when I pass by Lincoln Center and the Met, I think about my debut which is now almost 20 years ago. I think about those years and the beginning of my career and all those dreams, all the excitement. I love that city! I love the Upper West Side where I lived with my wife. New York has this energy that almost no other city in the world has. You find people from everywhere… and food: we have the Romanian restaurants in Queens which I’m sure you’re familiar with; there’s the night life, the culture… It’s just a phenomenal city, one of my favorite cities in the world! I feel so happy to have lived there. New York gave me my first big break and I’ll be forever grateful for that.

Learn more about Sebastian Catana on Operabase

Top photo: Sebastian Catana as Tonio in Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci at Arena di Verona, June 2021 – Ennevi Foto 

About Maria-Cristina Necula (139 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 a new collection of poems, "Evanescent." Her articles and interviews have appeared 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. Maria-Cristina is the recipient of a 2022 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. Discover more at www.mariacristinanecula.com.