"I don't know numbers. I don't count how often I sing. I just know that it's a lot. Once, in Japan, I sang Otello three times in three nights -- general rehearsal, opening night, second night."
There are no such exigencies at the Metropolitan Opera on this brisk October morning, with the dress rehearsal of Aida filtering in over the P.A. system in the spartan press lounge, far from the light of day. The Russian tenor Vladimir Galouzine, born in Rubzovsk (south of Novosibirsk) in 1957, is enduring, gracefully, an interview -- a sort of ordeal to which he does not often submit. The subject of Otello arises because it is his next Met assignment, on a conventional Met schedule: six performances, two a week, over a three-week period in March, under the baton (if he is using one) of Galouzine's longtime advocate, Valery Gergiev. The debut is sure to receive close scrutiny. According to David DiChiera, general director of Michigan Opera Theatre, where Galouzine sang his first American Otellos last April, the man is definitely ready for prime time, though he may also start some arguments.
"Galouzine is a throwback to the real dramatic tenors, tenors like Mario Del Monaco and Ramón Vinay, who didn't have that warm, Mediterranean sound we've become used to in this opera," DiChiera says. "The voice is like a laser, very strong and dark. Not to discount what others have brought to the role, I think this is the kind of sound Verdi heard in Francesco Tamagno, the first Otello. Verdi was counting on that sound to create the character. Galouzine's voice may not have a lot of different colors in it, but it does have the specific color that makes him ideal for the role. Apart from that, he's a very serious actor. One of our sopranos told me that his intensity in the fourth act terrified her. His expression was so focused." Another endorsement of Galouzine comes from none other than Plácido Domingo. "I'm so impressed with him that I would like to conduct him in Otello myself. If he paces himself wisely in accepting engagements of this challenging role, he will be the Otello for many years to come."
Galouzine speaks through an interpreter. (The French transliteration notwithstanding, the name is pronounced ga-LOO-zin.) Beyond his native tongue and the requirements of the likes of Verdi and Puccini, his skills as a linguist are undeveloped. His Belgian wife, Catherine, speaks Russian, which she learned from him, and is happy to help out when she can. Right now, however, she is back home in Provence, with the couple's two young daughters. (From a previous marriage, Galouzine also has two other daughters, now grown.) In her absence, his mouthpiece is Marina Tichter, a Met interpreter with whom he enjoys sparring, occasionally jumping in with an imperious correction, though mostly he lets her do her job. The company retains her, he says puckishly, "just for me."
A touch of tenorial hubris. You will not detect many. High spirits, yes. Strong opinions, yes. Bluster, some -- especially when he gets going on the inanities of librettos and the dimwits it is the tenor's usual lot to play. But self-importance? Pomposity? None.
Though Galouzine may not count performances, others do. The evening before our interview, he aced his eighth of ten outings as Calàf, the unknown conqueror from afar, in the Met's colossal production of Puccini's Turandot. He cut a handsome figure of fine determination. The instrument was that of a true tenore di forza, with plentiful reserves of somber power, wielded in phrases like the strokes of a broadsword, yet with sudden stabs of brilliance at the crest of a line, where it counts. Calàf may be a cardboard character, but Galouzine brought him to life as a man with shoulders fit to bear the weight of destiny. Should we have been surprised? In the Russian repertoire, he has played a fairy-tale hero of quite equal resolve but opposite temperament: the minstrel Sadko in Rimsky-Korsakov's opera of that name, whose songs ensnare the heart of Neptune's daughter. Once available on a video from the Mariinsky Theatre (but even better live on that stage), it was an exhilarating star turn, lustily sung and played with zest.
But like Calàf, Galouzine remains, from an American perspective, rather a dark horse. His name has been on Gergiev's lips ever since the Mariinsky's great expansion westward from St. Petersburg (and also eastward, to Japan and China) began, just over a decade ago. At the time, Galouzine was one of the front-runners in the first wave of Gergiev's campaign, toe to toe with Galina Gorchakova, Olga Borodina, Gegam Grigorian, Nikolai Putilin and Vladimir Ognovenko. With the sole exception of Borodina's, no one's light has shone more steadily or brightly than Galouzine's, yet in some ways, he remains a stranger.
What explains this curious state of affairs? The Russian roles in which he has made his mark in this country -- Mussorgsky's Andrei Khovansky (Khovanshchina) and Grigori (Boris Godunov), Rimsky-Korsakov's Grishka (The Invisible City of Kitezh), Prokofiev's Alexei (The Gambler), Shostakovich's Sergei, bursting with assurance and testosterone (Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk), and above all Tchaikovsky's Gherman (The Queen of Spades) -- may demand star wattage, but they do not, in a sense, reward it. The dense dramatic tapestries allow little room for self-display. (Sadko was the exception, but Sadko came and went.) Galouzine's Italian repertoire includes the heroes of Aida, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Manon Lescaut, who have lots of hit-parade arias to sing, but the operas are named for their prima donnas, for good reason. Perhaps equally to the point, Galouzine usually performs the standard repertoire in bread-and-butter revivals rather than scandalous or otherwise high-profile new productions.
In any case, Galouzine does not spend much time fretting about his image. "I'm not terribly interested in my popularity," he says. "I know there are some people who travel to hear me, sometimes even across the ocean. Not many. If they need to know about me, they can look me up on the Internet. I'm not that popular, which is actually rather comforting. There's less risk of taking a bad fall. My career is smooth and horizontal."
Fate or chance -- what guides him? It's hard to tell. Ask Galouzine about his future in opera, and he gently but swiftly straightens you out: "The future never depends on the singer. It depends on the interest on the part of an opera house." At that, he reserves his veto power and has raised saying no to a fine art. At the suggestion that the punishing tenor part of Das Lied von der Erde might suit him to perfection, he demurs. "I try not to have a large, diverse repertoire. To sing Mahler, you need to know his style very well. It would take a great deal of rehearsal and concentration. Given my schedule, I wouldn't have the time."
That said, he lists three roles he does have in mind: Canio, Andrea Chénier and the young Siegfried, in Wagner's Ring. The Siegfried Siegfried, but not the Götterdämmerung Siegfried? "That's right. It's always my way to start with what is most difficult." Gergiev is forging a Ring in St. Petersburg even now. Does Galouzine's interest dovetail with that project at all? "I haven't discussed Siegfried with anyone yet," he answers. "I need to wait to find out how my kind of singing will fit with Wagner."
A graduate of the Novosibirsk Conservatory, Galouzine started out with Novosibirsk Opera in 1981, playing musical comedy. A disquisition on the characteristics of Russian operetta leaves a listener little the wiser. The big name, it seems, is Isaak Iosifovich Dunayevsky (1900-55), who, in the words of the New Grove Dictionary of Opera, renewed Russian musical theater "by freeing it from Viennese operetta stereotypes," with songs that "invoke the vigorous, optimistic and enthusiastic spirit of the 1930s." (The opening phrase of one of them became the call sign of Moscow radio.) As Galouzine tells it, music plays a far smaller part in this genre than it did in Vienna. He should know, since his non-native roles included Alfred in Die Fledermaus and Camille in The Merry Widow.
"But don't call Russian musical theater 'light'!" Galouzine insists. "The acting skills it requires are much more complicated than the skills I need in opera. Musically, they don't compare, but the acting was very difficult. For every show, we would work out our roles around a table, really studying the full text, the full plan. That's what we did. Sometimes you even had to dance. I'm no dancer. Thank God I don't have to do that any more. But for eight years in Novosibirsk, that was what I did.
"Let me explain why I began in musical comedy," he volunteers. "After I graduated from the conservatory, no one else would hire me. I was studying and working at the same time. I was singing badly. And so I stayed in Novosibirsk for eight years, dreaming of singing in opera." His last year in Novosibirsk, the dream came true, with assignments as Puccini's Rinuccio (in Gianni Schicchi) and Pinkerton, as well as Carmen's love slave Don José and Andrei Khovansky. All in Russian? "Konyechno." Of course.
The following year, another wish came true when Galouzine moved to St. Petersburg, a city he had come to love on two visits as a tourist. His first job there was with what he calls "the third theater," or Chamber Opera of St. Petersburg. The transition to the Mariinsky, however, was quick and smooth. "St. Petersburg is like a large village," Galouzine notes. "Someone hears you, someone tells someone something about you -- that's the way things happen. And almost immediately, they threw me into ice and fire." His third role under Gergiev (after Andrei Khovansky and a second, lesser Russian role) was Otello.
"I didn't refuse," Galouzine says, "but maybe I should have. God helped me prevail. I was just thirty-four, which was a bit early. Fortunately, I was not broken by the experience. And two years later, I got my favorite role, Gherman, in The Queen of Spades."
In the last decade, in a development largely traceable to Gergiev, the position of The Queen of Spades in the international core repertoire has advanced considerably. Leading Western tenors -- Domingo and Ben Heppner prime among them -- have taken up the challenge of Gherman, with major success. Yet with all due respect, Galouzine's Gherman remains unmatched. Compassionate yet clinical, terrifying yet possessed of a mysterious dignity, the portrayal may be beyond analysis, the richness of musical expression so entangled with the complexity of dramatic thought that the elements are impossible to tease apart. Taking the journey with Galouzine, one awakens at the final curtain as from a dream, shaken and at a loss. Pity and terror have done their worst.
In Galouzine's mind, the drama of the operatic Queen of Spades far surpasses that of the source material. "There is so much more in the libretto than in the original story by Pushkin," he offers. "Pushkin has Gherman pursue Lisa as a means of getting to the Countess, whose secret will make him rich. But at the beginning of the opera, Gherman is truly in love with Lisa. It's because he loves her that he needs money. And because he needs money, he becomes obsessed with the Countess. For an actor, the part is inexhaustible. It has no boundaries. I've sung Gherman often, yet in every performance, I find another little door. But so much depends on your partners. You need a great Lisa, a great Tomsky, a great Countess. With partners who are very sensitive, you can improvise. Something will touch you in a new way and provoke you to change.... But in the big opera houses, too often there is no conversation between the singers at all."
A scathing appraisal, delivered with a shrug of the shoulder rather than righteous indignation. But once on the subject of dramatic credibility, his conversation soon ignites. Madama Butterfly? A ludicrous story, in Galouzine's view, in which an Italian housewife masquerades as a geisha. (This is a distillation of five minutes of contemptuous rant that, alas, left his interpreter in the dust.) Turandot? Stop where Puccini did, with the death of Liù! "Turandot is a girl, really, young and fragile. She shouldn't be another Brünnhilde or Lady Macbeth. Who is going to fall in love with this aggressive monster? We should see that she has been terribly injured. She has the vulnerability and decisiveness of a girl. But no one speaks of her this way.
"Liù is the one Puccini cares about. For Turandot and Calàf to sing a love duet right after her suicide, it's nonsense. I think Puccini didn't finish Turandot not because he died too soon but because he had reached an impasse. He never would have finished it." Has Galouzine investigated the new ending by Luciano Berio? No, and he has no intention of doing so.
The tenor's critique of the dramatic merits of Otello is equally unsparing. Though unable to read Shakespeare in the original, he has studied the available Russian translations with the sort of attention that seems to be customary in Novosibirsk, catching hints of motives and countermotives ignored in the opera. Galouzine regards the libretto as something of a travesty, reducing psychological intricacies and enigmas to formulaic operatic claptrap. Like many others before him, he regards Desdemona as preternaturally obtuse. And then there is the villain.
"Iago must be so soulful, so sincere," he says. "If he behaves like a second Otello or another Mephistopheles, the story becomes completely incredible. The action in the opera hangs on a very thin thread."
Given these reservations, might he consider doing Shakespeare straight? "That," he says, "would be very complicated. As singers, we exploit the musical phrases of a composer. As an actor, you must be your own composer. I couldn't see doing that at this point. Shakespeare was such a genius. I'd need a lot more experience."