Interview with Zaza Zaalishvili - Franco Tenelli


About the author,

Mr. Patrick C. Byrne

Mr. Byrne studied voice with Professor Thompson at U.C.K.C, as well as Madame Lenora Lamar-Moss, and Linda Rossi, a protégée of Richard Tucker.

His interest in opera has led to the development of a record label, OMBRA. 

He is a graduate of Rockhurst in Kansas city.

Mr. Byrne has completed a co-authorship of a book on Maria Callas, with celebrity author Taylor Pero.



© Photo

© Photo



     Listen (and view) some examples of Mr. Franco Tenelli's voice while reading this interview:

Vesti la Giubba (I Pagliacci)
Ingemisco (Requiem)
Di Quella Pira (Il Trovatore)
Lord's Prayer (John Paul II Gala)

[PB] Let me open this interview with a portrait of your voice as expressed by a review of one of your performances.

“A poised artist. His expressive range is exciting and daring. With his huge ringing sonority he is a singer who takes enormous risks, singing at the very edges of his emotive and dynamic range.”

I must confess these were my impressions the first time I heard you sing. Manrico I believe was my first exposure to your voice. You have a quality that I describe as “vibrating” the voice, for lack of a more technical description. Vibrato seems to be a “bad” word among singers today, and voice teachers in particular. I was weaned on this sound, at least among the singers I admired, Callas, Corelli, Olivero, Kraus, Scotto, and today Marcello Alvarez, at least earlier in his career. I know you can explain this better than I.

[ZZ] Every style suggests a particular vibrato suitable for the character.

Baroque operas used less vibrato and sometimes no vibrato at all and later styles including operas of Donizetti,Verdi and Puccini use significantly more.

We should not mix good vibrato with a wobble(slow) or caprino(tremolation) which occurs out of wrong repertoire, bad technique, old age or doubtful taste.

In belcanto operas, vibrato is mostly even throughout the phrases; but in more dramatic operas like Verdi’s Otello’s character, vibrato can be very versatile, serving the dramatic purpose of the role. When doubtful Otello questions Desdemona, for example, he can use no vibrato in certain phrases, to sound more cynical, cold hearted.


[PB] Tell me about the differences in singing Donizetti, Bizet, and Verdi.

[ZZ] I never sang complete operas of Donizetti opposite to Verdi, Bizet, Puccini etc…

But knowing his style I can say that Donizetti is more vocal, more belcanish, as for Bizet is more dramatic, I mean Carmen of course.

As for Verdi, that’s where real drama in music works. Verdian voices are powerful and expressive, even ugly from the stand point of Belcanto. That’s not my words. That comes from Verdi himself when surprisingly, after writing his “MacBeth” he did not hire his favorite soprano for the role, and explained to her that he needed an ugly voice. I guess, dramatic voices, back then, were not considered to be as beautiful as belcanto ones.


[PB] I just watched a video a friend sent me of Corelli and Tebaldi from their farewell tour in 1973, the same time as Callas and diStefano were touring the world. I must say I was struck by how much of Corelli’s voice was still intact, even at this late date in his career. Tebaldi sang in a manner I never recall her using earlier on. Their physical approach to singing was markedly different. Corelli did not seem to struggle, opening his mouth with a relaxed jaw and excellent breath support. Tebaldi lowered her chin and barely opened her mouth on the high notes, producing a very thin thread of sound, nothing like the big open sound we all remember. Both she and Callas seemed to run into severe vocal problems later in their respective careers, Renata with a short and flat top, and Maria with what appeared to be obvious physical exertion on vocal climaxes.

[ZZ] Corelli is not only one of my favorite tenors, but also a great technician.

He used open throat and appoggio breathing. He never pushed in the throat and he was improving himself vocally even when he was already an accomplished singer.

Tebaldi had, to my money, a gorgeous voice and phrasing, though she always kind of struggled with her top notes because she did not have very strong support suitable for open throat production (that’s why she started to overcover her voice).

As for Callas, I think, at the beginning, when she sang Wagnerian roles, she was perfect.

Her challenge was belcanto for 2 reasons: she had a heavy voice for that repertoire plus she approached roles too versatile for her natural abilities and yet, she is my favorite dramatic soprano, because I still have goosebumps when I hear her.

Di Stefano, the great Peppe, on the contrary, changed his repertoire from a lyric one where he was a true king, to dramatic when he did not use correct breathing suitable for it. That’s a very common mistake among lyric tenors who move down to heavier category without technical upgrade.


[PB] I have heard wildly divergent descriptions of the art of bel canto. Is there a defined description of this term? I always thought it was a school of singing based on prescribed technique.

[ZZ] Sure, there are basically 2 understandings of Belcanto:
1. Belcanto as a style
2. Belcanto as a beautiful singing regardless to the style.

Belcanto as a style is more instrumental, paying less attention to diction.

Typical belcanto tenor aria is “Una furtive lagrima” of Donizetti or “dalla sua pace” of Mozart.

Audience and singer don’t pay great attention to the words (words don’t even make sense sometimes, like in Nemorino’s aria, since they are happy, while music suggests deep sadness) but rather to the beauty of the sound, musicality and phrasing.

The melody of that aria can be successfully played by a violinist or hoboe player and still touch us very deeply.

Very successful belcanto singer like Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballe were never famous for her great diction, though her singing perfectly served the purpose of the style.

Opposite to Belcanto style, was style of Giuseppe Verdi where words have great significance especially in recitatives.


[PB] How do you feel about early Verdi? It seems to have enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in the last few years.

[ZZ]  I think, part of the reason, is that we don’t have anything significant written for traditional opera lovers for almost a century.

Of course, all Verdi wrote for opera, was significant and should be performed but I prefer later Verdi, especially his last works: Otello and Falstaff.


[PB] How do you approach a new role? Does the process vary according to what the particular opera is? Is it text initially that attracts you, no matter the musical values?

[ZZ] I think text is very important, but we should not separate text from the music in opera.

Libretto itself, in most of the cases, doesn’t have a separate value, exception is Boito’s libretto of Otello.

To my opinion, singer should learn by heart the text of the opera, especially dramatic one, and only after that, start singing it with the music, because, if a singer learns music with the text simultaneously, music takes completely over it, and he basically sings it instrumentally, without understanding the nuances of the text.


[PB] Have you ever been involved in a production when you felt the director’s concept or staging clashed with your own feelings about the opera? This seems to be a frequent topic among critics and audiences alike in today’s opera world.

[ZZ] Many times (laughs). But that doesn’t mean that director is always wrong.

Director is a creative person who wants to produce his own ideas into a particular production. Sometimes his ideas don’t work because opera is not just a drama, a written text. It deeply integrated in the music and those directors are successful who know the music and not just the text.

I’m deeply convinced that opera director is a totally different talent from drama or movie director and they are very rare. Many great directors tried their talent on opera stage unsuccessfully.

Director who stages Verdi’s Otello according to Shakespeare’s Othello, is missing the point because in spite of the similarities, these are two completely different genres.

Some directors just want to produce a shock and they are successful in doing that like in Un Ballo in Maschera production in Gran Teatre Liceu ; Director Calipso Bietul with people reading newspaper sitting on toilet seats, but the music and text don’t support that scenery, and whatever he was trying to achieve, is flashed to the toilet to my point. Besides great operas were successful mainly because of the great singing and not controversial staging. Unfortunately we are losing that tradition today.


[PB] How do you feel about the idea that most composers have given the singer the drama right there in the music, if the music is sung “come scritto”. In other words, is anything new really new said about the music or character by adding layers of stage business and novel settings that seem to have nothing to do with the time period of the story or the motivation of the characters in the text. I find it amusing that you often find several pages of explanation in an opera program that has to explain to those in the audience what the director is trying to say with his concept.

[ZZ] The true art is like a good joke, it make us laugh and explanation only ruins it.

When you see or hear a piece of art you should be impressed without any explanation.

As for “come scritto” the great interpretation is never “as it’s written”.

Of course, the score should be respected, but only great interpretation brings life to it.

Often musicians understand the score as mere printed text which is wrong and as Great Richard Strauss once said, that notes are not the most beautiful things in music, meaning that they are mere suggestions the greater ideas.


[PB] How did you come to opera as a career, and who were you initial inspirations?

[ZZ] My initial inspirations were vinyl records of Enrico Caruso which made me love singing when I was around 6 years old. My father was a prominent Georgian singer, a lyric tenor and my mother was a dramatic soprano, but I first graduated from Polytechnic University and was deeply involved in composition and jazz music.

I discovered my opera voice by accident when I was asked to participate in amateur music competition and sing in the opera style (I sang La donna e mobile (Rigoletto) in a low key) and I won a prize. 2 years later I entered the class of famous Maestro Nodar Andguladze (dramatic tenor himself).


[PB] On the one hand opera seems to be thriving on a regional level, and the other the major companies seem to be in trouble. The New York City Opera is a case in point. I know you were a principal tenor with that company. I have enjoyed many performances there and hate to hear of their financial dilemma.

[ZZ]  It’s a pity that such a great American company has financial problems and it’s hurting me as a singer who sang there, and also as a Georgian, since it was founded by Georgian ballet master George Balanchin (Balanchivadze) initially as a Ballet company.


[PB] How do you feel about the present state of vocal training in America. I hear so few voices today that make me set up in my seat and take notice. There seems to be so much “middle of the road” approach to singing, no more thrilling high wire approach to performing. I think this permeates music in general, not just opera.

[ZZ] My dear friend, and a great American Soprano Phyllis Curtin said it very well, in an interview with New York Times:
“Standard coaching is a number one killer in North America, it’s everywhere and it doesn’t permit young singers to find their own way”

As for voice training (technic) per se it’s unfortunately the matter of luck because everyone should find his (her) own teacher and be intelligent vocally.


[PB] Is there a guideline you’d like to give to aspiring singers, some words of warning and how to find the right foundation to build a career?

[ZZ] Not everyone is suitable for opera career; it requires many talents, not only great voice and training. No matter how good teacher young singer used to have, where he is there, on stage, he (she) is along in a jungle with many pitfalls including the choice of the right repertoire.

Of course, as Russians say, “Who doesn’t risk, doesn’t drink champaign” but singer should be intelligent enough to understand when he is in trouble.

Often it’s too late and then he has to take a break which can ruin his career.


Beware of greedy managers or ignorant conductors who push singers to sing roles not suitable for their age or voice.


[PB] I want to thank you for taking time in a busy career to speak to us at the Belgian Opera Guide.

[ZZ] Pleasure was entirely mine.

[PB] I’d like to thank you.



This interview was conducted in February 2014.


Dit interview werd geschreven door Patrick C. Byrne, een Amerikaans operaliefhebber, en ons toegezonden in februari 2014.
Meer informatie:

Callas Corner - Opera Singer Maria Callas, Callas CD's & Merchandise