Polenzani ready for the challenge of “Hoffmann” at the Lyric Opera

September 29, 2011
By Wynne Delacoma

Matthew Polenzani

Tenor Matthew Polenzani was looking at two important debuts in Chicago last week.

The first was one that local music lovers have been anticipating for months, the vibrant lyric tenor’s first outing in the role of the tortured title character in Offenbach’s often dark, often effervescent opera, The Tales of Hoffmann. He stars — along with three leading ladies, Anna Christy, Erin Wall and Alyson Cambridge — in the production that opens Lyric’s 57th season Saturday night.

Chicago opera lovers have had their eye on Polenzani since 1995-1997 when he was a standout member of Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center (then known as the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists). His career has risen steadily since then, and he is a regular headliner at the Metropolitan Opera and frequent guest at major opera houses throughout the world. Most recently local audiences have enjoyed his portrayals of Romeo in Lyric’s production of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette in late 2006 and Belmonte in Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio in March 2009.

But during an interview backstage between rehearsals of Hoffmann last week, Polenzani was also excited about another local debut, one that would take place a few miles southeast of the Civic Opera House.  He was scheduled to sing the National Anthem before the Chicago Bears-Green Bay Packers game at Soldier Field. A native of Evanston whose parents have lived in Wilmette for the past 20 years, he was, to put it mildly, pumped.

Wearing an Old Navy sweatshirt, jeans and well-worn white running shoes, Polenzani twirled a pair of sunglasses as he chatted happily about the prospect of singing in the stadium where he had spent many a Sunday rooting for the Bears.

“I asked if I could wear my Urlacher jersey,” he said with mischievous smile, “but they said no.” Rather than offering a tip of the jersey to Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, Polenzani wore business casual for his appearance at a soggy Soldier Field where the Packers swamped the Bears 27-17.

The outcome is likely to be much more pleasant for all concerned during the October run of The Tales of Hoffmann. This may be Polenzani’s debut in the role, but Emmanuel Villaume, who will conduct Lyric’s performances, has been impressed with the young tenor’s work.

“It’s really remarkable to see someone tackle such a difficult and demanding role the way he is doing it,” said Villaume. “He’s extremely well-prepared, and he’s marking the role with his personality. He’s creating an interpretation that is totally his own.”

Villaume praised the “incredible flexibility” of Polenzani’s voice, and his ability to shift smoothly between moments of high drama and more subtle simplicity.

“The opera is extremely long,’’ said Villaume who has conducted at least eight productions of Hoffmann in Europe and the U. S. “Throughout the piece you go through a rainbow of emotions that are extremely intense. It’s very exhausting.”

Since he finished Lyric’s training program in 1997, Polenzani’s career has hit some lofty heights. Winner of the prestigious Richard Tucker Award in 2004, he has sung more than 250 performances at the Met in roles including Tamino in director Julie Taymor’s family-friendly production of The Magic Flute. His roles stretch from Mozart to Wagner, and his symphony orchestra appearances include concerts led by James Conlon, Pierre Boulez and Riccardo Muti.

But slow and steady has been Polenzani’s modus operandi. Some young tenors burn brightly for a few opera seasons, garner quick fame, a bit of fortune, flame out and disappear. Now in his early 40s, Polenzani seems to be building a career that will last. Not surprising, perhaps, from a down-to-earth soul whose goal in college was to become a high school chorus director.

Matthew Polenzani with Erin Wall in the Lyric Opera's 2009 production of Mozart's "The Abduction from the Seraglio." Photo: Dan Rest

Friendly and talkative with an easy smile and mild eyes, Polenzani grew up around music. His sister, Rose Polenzani, is a professional singer-songwriter.

“My family is musical in the sense that they love music,’’ he said. “My parents were barbershop [quartet singers]. My grandfather too. His quartet took third internationally, I think.”

(Chicagoans know Polenzani’s grandfather, Lynn Hauldren, for more than his competitive quartet singing. For more than 20 years until his death in April, he was the Empire Carpet Man, starring in the local carpet firm’s commercials with their unforgettable singsong jingle: “Five-eight-eight,two-three-hundred—Em-pire!”)

Polenzani studied piano for a few years and sang in elementary school music programs. At New Trier High School in Wilmette, he sang occasionally with a pick-up rock group named the Empty Pockets. He studied singing at Eastern Illinois University in Decatur fully intending to become a choral director.

During college, he sang in a group called the Decatur Park Singers, and in the summer between his junior and senior years, respected operatic bass-baritone Alan Held gave a master class at Eastern. A graduate of Millikin University in Decatur, Held also sang with the Decatur Park Singers during his college years.

“I sang for Alan,” Polenzani recalled, “and after the class he pulled me aside and said, ‘Matt, you should go to Yale and study. They’re always looking for tenors.’ “ Held’s primary teacher, Richard Cross, is based at Yale.

“I was planning to be a teacher,” Polenzani said. “I didn’t think I was going to perform. I enjoyed it, but I actually enjoyed the student teaching I did. I was kind of psyched to become a high school choral conductor. It can be really rewarding.”

But Polenzani auditioned for Yale and was accepted. Immediately after graduation, he made the cut for Lyric’s American Artists training program. Roger Pines, Lyric’s dramaturg, remembers him well.

“His innate musicality struck me immediately,” Pines wrote in an e-mail. “He delivered any text as if he were a native speaker. Already the voice was consistently beautiful and effortlessly produced.”

Polenzani credits the Metropolitan Opera, and music director James Levine in particular, for carefully nurturing his career.

“I’d say it was by design, partly, on the Met’s part,’’ said Polenzani. “There were other tenors at the time that they pushed quicker—or their agents pushed quicker. I didn’t mind. I was still singing leading roles in other places—Seattle, San Francisco, in Italy and France.

“One of the best things in terms of my career development,” he said. “is that every once in a while I got to check in with Jimmy [Levine]. He asked for me a lot. That’s one of the best compliments you can get when somebody like him or Muti or Tony Pappano [Antonio Pappano, music director of London’s Royal Opera House at Covent Garden] asks for you. The world is certainly full of opera singers. There are many more people not working than there are working.”

Polenzani’s home base is just outside New York City where he lives with his wife, mezzo-soprano Rosa Maria Pascarella, and their three boys aged 5, 3 and 11 months. In an inexplicable tragedy, their first child — Alessandra, 16 months — died in 2005 of a condition similar to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. A support group of other parents and doctors has helped them work through the loss, said Polenzani, but Pascarella has put her career on hold.

“She’s not singing any more,” said Polenzani. “Her career was progressing, but after our daughter died, that pretty much ended it. She realized she didn’t want anybody else putting her children to bed, being responsible for their upbringing.”

Singers often draw on their own experiences to convey the emotional life of the characters they portray. But Lyric’s production of The Tales of Hoffmann, originally  directed by Nicholas Joel and being staged at Lyric by Stephane Roche, casts Hoffmann’s doomed quest for the ideal woman as a series of dreams. Reality definitely takes a back seat to fantasy, which is probably just as well, according to Polenzani.

“I never dated a doll, and I’ve never been with a courtesan,” he said with a sly smile, “So I’m 0 for 2 in terms of life experience.  But if you try to put yourself in his shoes, it’s not too hard to imagine him falling down into those depths.”

Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann opens Saturday night at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and runs through Oct. 29. lyricopera.org. 312-332-2244

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