He is sixty-six and looks fit, for an aging tenor - as one might expect of a man who, but for a broken finger, might have represented Spain as a gymnast in the 1960 Olympics. He is about five-foot-ten, and his hair is gray and thinning a bit. But what you notice most when you meet Giacomo Aragall is the wary eyes behind the warm smile. He is very friendly but seems very shy. The first trait explains why you will have to search long and hard to find a colleague who will speak ill of him. The second suggests why his long career - which now stretches to forty-three years - has not brought him the renown that his talent merited.
I asked three people who worked often with Aragall whether they would put him in the front rank of the tenors of the last few decades. "Definitely. No question," responded Joan Sutherland. "It was a thrilling sound to work with. It really gave me goose bumps." "The very front rank," says Richard Bonynge. Renata Scotto makes it unanimous: "For the beauty of the voice, absolutely."
For the past ten years, Aragall has avoided performing staged operas, concentrating instead on solo recitals or dual concerts with friends such as Juan Pons. His reason for doing so says a great deal about him. "I left opera too early. It's true, and I understand it. [But] I was tired of being in a foreign city for twenty or twenty-five days rehearsing an opera I had sung two hundred times. It makes you feel like a worker going to a factory. I was bored with rehearsing, so I said I don't want to sing any more staged performances. If it had been possible for me to arrive two days before, as happened in Vienna, and sing in operas, there would have been five, six or seven years more - I don't know. But there wasn't opera only in Vienna. There was Covent Garden and other houses. And if there are colleagues who are rehearsing twenty days, it's not possible for me to arrive two days before. I wouldn't like that. I don't consider myself a privileged character."
The outline of Aragall's career is fairly typical, except, perhaps, for the precocity of his success. Early membership in a church choir was followed by vocal studies in Barcelona, starting at age nineteen, with Jaime Francisco Puig, who would later also teach José Carreras. After a few performances in minor roles at the Liceu, he won a scholarship in Milan and a first-place finish in the Voci Verdiani contest in Busseto. He made his major-role debut on September 24, 1963, in Verdi's Gerusalemme, at Venice's La Fenice, and arrived at La Scala shortly thereafter in the title role of Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz. Already, the young tenor found rehearsing a bit of a trial, and his account of those days contains a suggestion that he felt a bit awed amid the starry company. "There were thirty days of rehearsals [for Gerusalemme]," he recalls. "Since I was making my debut, I had to take what came. Gavazzeni was the conductor - a great maestro and a great person. And there I was with legends of the opera world - Giangiacomo Guelfi, Leyla Gencer. Even the little parts were [sung by artists] from La Scala. In Barcelona, I made my debut at the age of twenty-two as Arturo in Lucia with Joan Sutherland." By the time he stopped singing staged performances, Aragall's repertoire comprised some thirty-five roles in three languages. His discography is not so large as his standing among his peers suggests it ought to be, but he sings Alfredo in a La Traviata conducted by Lorin Maazel and Gennaro in a Lucrezia Borgia led by Richard Bonynge that are generally available and give a good idea of the voice in its prime.
By the late 1960s, Aragall was singing pretty much everywhere - Vienna, La Scala, Covent Garden, San Francisco and the Met, where he made his debut as the Duke in Rigoletto in 1968. "On the whole, he seems like a valuable acquisition," was Raymond Ericson's laconic appraisal of his first performance in the house. By then Aragall had starred as Romeo (a role originally written for a mezzo) in an adaptation of Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi at La Scala. His Giulietta was Renata Scotto, and Luciano Pavarotti played Tebaldo (Tybalt). "Abbado made some changes in the part, and he gave it to me, probably because of physique," he recalls. "There is a duet between Tybalt and Romeo, and Luciano and I got a lot of bravos." The production traveled to Montreal's Expo in 1967, where Aragall's performance was reviewed by The New York Times's Harold C. Schonberg: "Mr. Aragall is a Spanish tenor who is beginning to get a sizable reputation in Europe. His is a lyric verging on spinto, and is the kind of voice that will grow stronger as it ages. He is young, around thirty, and has a smoothly produced voice of good range (nice, clear high Bs, which is as high as the role of Romeo runs). Right now, his singing is a little tentative and lacking in personality, and the same could be said of his acting. But he definitely is a potentially important tenor."
While initially reluctant to compare Aragall with his two great contemporaries, Scotto eventually took up the challenge: "Onstage, Pavarotti was like a lion - 'I am here, and you have to like me,'" she explains. "Domingo's knowledge and security [are apparent] in everything he does. He knows exactly what to do. That makes him charismatic. With Aragall, he was so handsome, but what made him appealing, particularly to women, was his vulnerability. You loved him for it. It gave him charisma. Plus, he had that great voice, and he was in character without knowing it, probably. By instinct, anything he did was believable." How was he as an actor? "I wouldn't say he is an actor. To be an actor, you have to know what you're doing, to be knowledgeable about the character, and to detach the singing from the character and then put them back together. Giacomo was more of a natural - you go onstage, and you cry when you have to cry, and you laugh when you have to laugh. I don't think it was studied. But I give him all possible credit for having this instinct, this great voice, and for being so handsome. He didn't have to pose. Never."
"I loved him. He was the most real of all the tenors," said Richard Bonynge. "There was nothing phony about his performances. Something always happened when he was onstage. You could believe in him utterly, apart from the fact that the voice itself was very, very beautiful. It had a quality that touched the heart, and you were never conscious of technique or anything. It was a very big lyric voice. But really lyric - very sort of silvery, but round, and affecting. It got to you." As for why the tenor didn't have the enormous career his voice merited, says Bonynge, "Well, probably, he didn't pay the P.R. people enough. That's what it's all about today, isn't it? Look at the major careers today. They're all P.R. careers. But perhaps there were just too many good tenors around. Bergonzi - another lovely singer - was always there."
Talking to Aragall evokes a way of life that seems largely to have disappeared. "The leading singers - tenors included - were in all the same theaters," he notes. "Everyone sang an opera - at the Met, in San Francisco, in Vienna, in Munich, at La Scala, Naples. In all the cities, you'd see on the billboard Aragall in Lucia, Luciano in Bohème, Kraus in whatever. And we all stayed in the same hotel. In New York, we'd have an apartment overlooking Central Park. Luciano loved to cook and be with people. Unfortunately, singers are almost always alone. We can't talk much, because there's a performance the next day, or a rehearsal. You're always searching for ways to avoid problems. But there comes a time when you need to see someone - some people. And for us, it was always in the same theater, same hotel - for years and years. We would play cards and gamble, and the one who had to sing the next day - it was up to him to call a halt and say 'stop,' even if he was winning."
When we meet, Aragall has just returned from judging a singing competition in St. Petersburg, where he and fellow juror Teresa Berganza talked about the loneliness that goes with an international singing career. "You are always making compromises. There is always a kind of special tension." Doesn't a singer need tension? "No. To be a good singer, you need a power to communicate with the public, a special instinct. Naturally, when you're in your career, you don't need a 'tension' but an 'attention' to yourself and your voice, because what you enjoy most is singing - it's your life. But bit by bit, things don't go so easily, because you're constantly changing hotels, beds, climates. A singer needs to sleep, to relax. And just when you get used to a bed, or a city, or an opera, you have to change the bed, the city and the opera. You have to fight the stress this causes, or it will conquer you."
How does a workaholic such as Domingo deal with this? "There is one reason - a very important one - why he can do this. He loves it. The second is that he's a very intelligent person, well educated, and he is a person who can change from one place to another. When he wants to sleep, he doesn't have a problem. For him, it's only important that it be dark as a tomb. We have traveled a lot together, and on one flight, we were sitting together. As I was taking off my jacket, he said, 'When they're passing the meal, wake me up,' and by the time I sat down, he was asleep. When we got to our destination, he was refreshed. He's a very calm person."
Aragall appears to have few illusions about what he might have done to make himself more famous. Characteristically, he states the issue obliquely. "Today," he says, "in addition to a voice, you need a commercial push. You have to do it. But this is a world that doesn't interest me, and it never did, this world of publicity. What I always worried about was being in good voice and serene and to do my work in the right way. I led my life to suit myself, and I didn't do things because they were going to lead to other things." How long will he continue to sing? "One day, when I don't feel like it, I won't sing any more. My voice is functioning well. It could be that one day it won't. So it depends on two things - my voice and my will to sing."
Very early in his career, according to Aragall, Joan Sutherland told him that he had the most beautiful voice she'd ever heard. Last December, I asked her whether, some four decades later, she stuck by her appraisal. "Well, I think I can agree to that. It was so virile. It just sort of soared for me." Not a bad plug - and not a P.R. man in sight.
RUDOLPH S. RAUCH, the author of this article, was editor of OPERA NEWS from 1998 to 2003.