When Gioachino Rossini’s Armida was premiered at Naples’ Teatro di San Carlo on 11 November 1817, the roles of Goffredo and Carlo were sung by Giuseppe Ciccimarra, a singer appreciated throughout Italy for his extensive range and bravura technique who also originated for Rossini the tremendously difficult roles of Iago in Otello and Pilade in Ermione. Exasperatingly, it is impossible for modern musicologists and music lovers to know precisely how a voice such as Ciccimarra’s sounded: the basic flexibility and tessitura of the voice can be more or less ascertained by studying the music composed for the voice (though composers were as likely then as now to entrust singers with music that was beyond their capacities), but a legitimate aural sense of the timbre and presence of the voice is elusive. What is certain is that these tenor voices of the early Nineteenth Century were remarkable, whether in beauty of tone, expansiveness of range, power, or combinations thereof: within the space of the quarter-century extending from Die Zauberflöte to Il Barbiere di Siviglia, tenors seized from castrati the roles of operatic heroes and romantic lovers, initiating a change in the vocal alignment of opera that persists into the Twenty-First Century. In performances of the few bel canto scores that remained in the international repertory in the last decades of the Nineteenth Century and first decades of the Twentieth, much of this grace and vocal splendor that transformed tenors from bumbling villains, fathers, and servants into leading men had to be taken on faith. Except for the gifted Ivan Kozlovsky, little known outside of the Soviet Union until the fall of the Iron Curtain, the art of bel canto tenor singing as it must have been during the careers of singers such as Ciccimarra, Giovanni David, and Andrea Nozzari was dormant until the emergence of Luigi Alva, Ugo Benelli, and a few other Rossini-specialist tenors in the 1960’s, a tradition that has persisted through the work of Rockwell Blake, Bruce Ford, Raúl Giménez, Chris Merritt, and Ramón Vargas to the current class of bel canto tenors that includes Barry Banks, Lawrence Brownlee, Juan Diego Flórez, and Colin Lee. Poised to take his place among those fine singers as one of the best contemporary bel canto tenors is Bogdan Mihai.
Born in Romania, Bogdan Mihai’s earliest experiences with opera were under the tutelage of some of his homeland’s most accomplished singers. ‘My story, it’s simple and [at] the same time, let’s say, complicated,’ he recollects. ‘I initially started studying the violin in high school, and at the end [of my high school studies] I took voice lessons as a lyric baritone.’ It was as a baritone that Mr. Mihai began his studies at the Conservatory in Bucharest, where he studied with the celebrated baritone Nicolae Constantinescu. ‘In that period, I was very interested [in] the vocal technique,’ Mr. Mihai reflects. He pursued that interest through masterclasses with Rolando Panerai, Sylvia Gestzy, Ileana Cotrubas, Virginia Zeani, and Mariana Nicolesco. The last of these was particularly influential on Mr. Mihai’s development as a young artist. ‘She helped me a lot with many things,’ he says of Nicolesco. ‘I attended three masterclasses with her and also two years at the Transylvania University in Braşov, where under her guidance I received my Master’s Degree in bel canto. It was a joy because Mariana Nicolesco was one of the most important bel canto sopranos, and she told me many secrets about this style.’ Still, if there has been a single artist whose influence has been definitive in Mr. Mihai’s career, he names Mirella Freni. ‘I attended a masterclass in Italy with Mirella Freni in 2006, and I had a revelation about my voice. She told me that I am a tenor and, if I want to do the masterclass and be one of her students in the Accademia at Centro Universale del Bel Canto, I must start to practice as a tenor. Thanks to her, I had a year and a half at the Accademia after receiving the Nicolai Ghiaurov Scholarship, and that changed my life forever.’
The art of singing bel canto is a field in which there are among singers past and present as many examples that are cautionary as those that are beneficial. Among singers known for their work in bel canto repertory, Mr. Mihai cites as particular inspirations to his own work Alfredo Kraus, Gregory Kunde, Bruce Ford, Nicolai Gedda, Rockwell Blake, Maria Callas, Dame Joan Sutherland, and Edita Gruberová. He also mentions as artists important to his appreciation of singing Leontyne Price and Renata Tebaldi. ‘They all bring a message, they all have strong personalities, different techniques, styles, and expressions,’ Mr. Mihai says. ‘I am sure that I’ve learned a lot [from] listening to their art. It is very important to listen because you have examples of how things should or should not be done.’ He is also aware, however, of the great importance of approaching music from an individual perspective, especially in bel canto. ‘Many times I [have] had to learn new roles alone—which is not very bad, I have to say—because in this life there are moments when you are alone, and you have to take care about your voice, technique, and everything without being supervised.’ Collaboration is nonetheless an equally important aspect of the artist’s life, and in this regard Mr. Mihai feels especially fortunate. ‘I have to be honest and say that a lot of important projects [in my career to date] were possible thanks to my agency in Vienna, Opera4u. I have there three great supporters in Kurt-Walter Schober, Michael Gruber, and Erich Seitter, and I thank them a lot for understanding my art and my voice without pushing me [into] things that I’m not prepared for at the moment and also for accepting all my requests. It’s very important for an agent, opera director, and conductor to understand the singers and also to love their voices. Without this, art becomes a business, which in my opinion is only an offense!’
Not surprisingly for a young tenor whose career is based in bel canto repertory, the role of Conte Almaviva in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia is tremendously important for Mr. Mihai. ‘I love the part,’ he says. ‘I made my début on the operatic stage at the Bucharest National Opera in 2007 with this role and [have] sung it many times since then. I later sang it at the Staatsoper Stuttgart under David Parry. Now, I’ll be at the Dresden Semperoper doing this role under Alessandro de Marchi and Riccardo Frizza, in the Deutsche Oper Berlin with Guillermo García Calvo, and at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris under the stage direction of Emilio Sagi, with Jean-Christophe Spinosi conducting. It is a role that has opened the doors to [so many] important opera stages, and I’m very happy with that.’ Almost concurrently with the much-discussed Mary Zimmerman production of the opera at the Metropolitan Opera, Oxfordshire-based Garsington Opera presented the British premiere of Rossini’s Armida, providing Mr. Mihai with another opportunity to prove his value as a Rossini tenor of the first order. ‘Recently I sang the roles of Goffredo and Carlo in Rossini’s Armida in the UK under David Parry and the stage direction of Martin Duncan. It was an absolute premiere there with this opera, a sensational musical score and very difficult. But being on stage with great artists such as Jessica Pratt [who sang Armida], for example, it’s a pleasure and you just give 100 perfect—everything. I love to think that I’m doing this all the time because I respect the composer, the music, and the public.’ British critic Rupert Christiansen wrote in The Telegraph of being ‘impressed’ by Mr. Mihai’s performance in Armida, while David Nice wrote for The Arts Desk Ltd. that ‘perhaps the most authentic in his runs and his ring [in the voice, particularly the highest notes] was Romanian Bodgan Miahi, kicking off in flamboyant style as crusader-commander Goffredo.’
‘For me, bel canto is everything,’ Mr. Mihai states. ‘It’s a school in which you can learn and discover thousands of emotions and expressions. You learn how to keep this legato, which is extremely important. But to start in bel canto you need to go back to the old schools of the Baroque and Classical repertoires. If you know how to sing Baroque [music], then you can sing Mozart, in whose music the lines are more subtle and versatile. After this, you can enter into the supreme Italian bel canto, which will serve you well if you know how to approach it.’ Even at his young age, Mr. Mihai has encountered both good and less-congenial conditions under which to approach new roles and new music. ‘At the Hariclea Darclée International Voice Competition in my country in 2007, I was asked to assist with a concert dedicated to the ‘Three Queens’ of Donizetti (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux). The tenor that had to sing the parts in Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux got sick. It was a shock because the concert was to be held the next day! Mariana Nicolesco asked me if I could learn the scenes from these operas in order to save the performance. I went out for ten minutes and looked at the scene from Roberto Devereux. Then, they called me, and I had to go on stage and try it with the orchestra. I learned the parts that night. In the morning, I had a rehearsal with the pianist and in the evening the concert. I have to say that it was a great success for everyone. God was with us,’ he muses. ‘I know that was something completely crazy at that time,’ he says, contemplatively. ‘Now I remember that with pleasure, but I know that I will never do something like that again because it’s risky.’ Preparation is an extremely important aspect of Mr. Mihai’s approach to singing. ‘It’s important to continue to study even if you have great success because studying never finishes,’ he suggests. ‘In my opinion, the most important thing that everyone should learn is this: don’t forget the point from which you have started, even if you become a great opera star. You have to remember to be a normal person, gentle, and to act like that. Someone told me once that we need one life in which to learn and another one in which to sing.’ Especially in bel canto, respect for the music is paramount. ‘Mariana Nicolesco said that the image of bel canto is like a royal eagle flying sovereign across the sky. This is the impression that I must have when I’m singing bel canto. You always need discipline and strong preparation to be able to sing in the bel canto style.’
Mr. Mihai describes his own technique as ‘natural and original,’ and these qualities are evident in his philosophy of singing. ‘The most gratifying element [of singing] is the connection that I have to create with the public, making them believe what they see, what they hear—it’s very important,’ he says. Conversely, he concedes that singing, especially in the Twenty-First Century, is not without challenges, some of them expansive and potentially damaging. ‘The greatest challenge for me is to realize which roles I have to approach and which I must not. As an opera singer, I always have to keep a straight line without trying to give more than my vocal possibilities and to maintain a young, natural voice without pushing. I intend to keep my voice in bel canto as much as I can without going into heavier repertory that can destroy me. I’m able to say no, and this is something important in a career, how and when to say no.’ This innate sense of what to sing and when to sing it, seemingly so instinctive to Mr. Mihai, eludes many young singers, especially in the formative years of their careers, when they are eager to prove themselves on the world’s greatest stages. Still, in Mr. Mihai’s aspirations for his career, the issue of sorting out which roles he should or should not sing is uncomplicated. With a comprehensive understanding of the abilities of his own voice at the core of his musical inquisitiveness, the foundations of his artistry are laid upon the most basic of starting blocks: music and text. ‘You can’t be a true artist without giving attention to the music and drama,’ he insists. ‘They are like sisters, and they can’t live one without the other. On stage, we all try to give our best as singers and actors. The text is very important because it gives you the right attitudes and expressions in singing and acting. You have to feel everything that was written in the musical score and the text and also, what is very important, what is behind them. To do this, you just have to listen to the music. Everything is written in the musical background (in the orchestra). Many times, you realize what you should do just by listening. We have to serve the music with respect all the time.’
In his service to music, especially that of the Italian bel canto, Mr. Mihai brings a voice that, at first hearing, is immediately arresting in its bright but rich timbre and uncommon flexibility. Ideal in the complex coloratura of Rossini’s leading tenor roles, Mr. Mihai’s voice also possesses the robust, ringing tone required for the less-florid but equally demanding music of Bellini and Donizetti. Though not a role characteristic of his repertory, the Italienischer Sänger in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier provides—with its elegant, neo-Classical aria, ‘Di rigori armato’ (click here to watch a performance of the aria by Mr. Mihai, from the Staatsoper Stuttgart)—an excellent vehicle for highlighting the particular qualities of Mr. Mihai’s voice. Smooth across a wide range, the upper register blossoms excitingly. Unlike many tenors whose repertories are centered in bel canto, Mr. Mihai’s voice is also well-projected even at low volume, enabling the beauty of the tone to carry through a large hall without forcing or pinching the tone in the upper octave. When employing the head resonance required to produce the extreme upper register demanded by the music of Rossini, Mr. Mihai also avoids the nasality that affects the singing of many tenors in this repertory. Perhaps even more rarely, his singing of complex coloratura passages is not marred by aspirates, elevating his vocal technique to the level of those possessed by Lawrence Brownlee and Juan Diego Flórez. In short, Mr. Mihai’s voice is of a quality that is worthy of comparison with the best bel canto tenors of the age.
Above all, it is the emotional connection—with the composer, the music, fellow artists, audiences, and with one’s own conceptions of art and humanity—that is at the heart of Mr. Mihai’s singing. ‘We sing the way we are as people,’ he suggests. ‘For example, on stage we are extremely transparent to the public, and they can observe the way we are. The energy, the joy, and the happiness of singing opera develops in my case because I love and respect my art, my public, and the sacred music.’ Normalcy, in Mr. Mihai’s view, is important to an artist’s ability to connect with an audience not merely on an artistic level but also on a personal one. ‘In normal life, I’m simply like everyone else. I enjoy staying with my family and my friends and everything beautiful in life.’ Singing, he feels, is a gift that is to be treasured and shared. ‘I thank God for every morning when I open my eyes and breathe life. I think that singing opera is a way of thanking Him for all the joy He brings in my life.’ This joy, so vital to his personal method of succeeding in his chosen life as an artist, is evident in his music-making. Even when he sings music expressing villainous treachery or despondent sorrow, joy is the unavoidable reaction to hearing the voice of Bogdan Mihai.
Heartfelt thanks are extended to Mr. Mihai for his great kindness and openness in responding to questions for this article, as well as for his patience as the author battled an extended illness.
All photographs are used courtesy of Mr. Mihai.
Mr. Mihai is represented by Opera4u.