By Kyle MacMillan
Some opera singers might dabble in jazz or record a one-off Broadway album, but Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot has made musical variety the hallmark of his career. He has performed with Liza Minnelli and Marvin Hamlisch and appeared in prestigious New York cabaret rooms like the Café Carlyle and 54 Below. Most notably, he won a 2008 Tony Award for his portrayal of Emile de Becque in a revival of South Pacific—his Broadway debut—and won another major award later in London for the same role. “I was never a closed-genre person,” Szot says. “I was always open to everything.”
The 50-year-old singer’s uncommon versatility will be on view this summer at Ravinia when he returns for a kind of mini-residency, appearing on four very different programs. All are part of the festival’s extended celebration of Leonard Bernstein, with internationally recognized conductor Marin Alsop continuing in her role as artistic curator and leading each of those concerts.
On July 20, Szot will reprise the central role of the Celebrant in the command encore presentation of Bernstein’s Mass with Alsop and the same participants as before, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Children’s Choir, and Highland Park High School Marching Band. Last summer’s performance of the sweeping cross-genre work, which premiered at the 1971 opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, was named one of the best classical offerings of 2018 by the Chicago Tribune.
“The reaction of the audience was just amazing.” Szot says. “Most people have never seen that before, and you get absorbed and shocked with so many elements that Bernstein introduces to us, along with this huge cast of musicians, actors, and singers. It’s just massive. It gets you in a way that is hard to experience these days on stage.”
Although he has achieved considerable international success as a singer, the pursuit was not on Szot’s mind growing up in Ribeirão Pires, Brazil, the son of Polish immigrant parents. He began piano lessons at age 5 and later added violin, but his main interest was dance. When he was 17, he got a scholarship to continue his studies in the form at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland, a country he had wanted to know better because of his parents’ ties. But once there, he injured his knee while executing a jump. “I was scared,” he says. “I was 17 in a foreign country. I didn’t even tell my parents because my mom would have liked me to return, and I didn’t want to return. I wanted to stay there.”
For the next couple of weeks, he could hardly walk, let alone dance. While sidelined, he saw a notice for auditions for a university chorus and decided to give it a try. The ensemble’s leader told him that he had a good voice and should pursue singing. “That to me was the light at the end of the tunnel,” Szot says, “because I didn’t know what my future as a dancer could be. Of course, probably everything would be okay after a few months. But at that time, when you are 17, you want things to be [fixed] right away. I thought maybe this was a possibility too—I love music. So it was a slight change of plans.”
He switched to vocal studies and never returned to dance. His first teacher suggested that the operatic stage might be a possibility for him, and she started him on some beginning repertory. “I liked the way my voice was reacting to it,” he says, “and she was positive and motivating me toward that kind of expression, and I just followed. It was working for me.” In 1989, he got his first job as a singer, performing five years in the Polish National Song and Dance Ensemble “Śląsk,” singing Polish folk and popular songs.
During a visit back to Brazil, he attended a concert by superstar tenor Luciano Pavarotti in Rio de Janeiro. As part of the visit, Pavarotti conducted open auditions for an international opera competition he organized in conjunction with what is now called Opera Philadelphia, and Szot signed up. The young singer presented two arias during the two-day process, and Pavarotti ultimately selected him to be a finalist and travel to the United States. He did not win the competition, but he still sees it as a wonderful opportunity, providing him, among other things, his first up-close exposure to the international opera world.
With the help of his brother, Jan, who sings in the opera chorus at the Theatro Municipal de São Paulo, he started pursuing operatic engagements in earnest. And in 1997, he made his debut in the showy role of Figaro in The Barber of Seville with his brother’s company. He has gone on to perform with such major companies as the Opéra National de Paris and at La Scala. In 2010, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut in an acclaimed production of Shostakovich’s The Nose and has returned there multiple times since.
His career took an unexpected turn when he got a call about the possibility of auditioning for a 2008 Broadway revival of the celebrated Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific in the role of Emile de Becque, which was originated by Italian opera singer Ezio Pinza. Szot listened to all kinds of music growing up and saw the movie versions of musicals like A Chorus Line, so he was open to such a diversion from opera. He beat out some 200 other singers for the part, staying in the production for two and a half years and then returning to the musical again for a few months in 2011 at London’s Barbican Centre. “I was very, very happy to try this new universe of musicals and to work with really great Broadway actors. It was a great opportunity that opened many doors,” he says.
The stylistic versatility that he displayed with his foray into Broadway caught the eye of varied presenters, including the Café Carlyle, which offered him an engagement in 2010. “And I thought, why not?” Szot says. He has been presenting at least one show a year there ever since as well as appearing at 54 Below, performing Brazilian songs and selections from the Great American Songbook. In a similar vein, he has performed Lerner and Loewe classics with the New York Pops Orchestra and delivered a musical salute to Frank Sinatra and Antônio Carlos Jobim at the Teatro Real in Madrid.
Another important step in Szot’s career came in 2014 when he appeared with Alsop and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Bernstein’s operetta Candide. Alsop took over as principal conductor and music director of the orchestra in 2012, a post that she will leave this later year. Szot had long been an admirer of Bernstein’s music, and he was delighted to meet the important protégée of the 20th-century musical dynamo. Alsop was taken with the baritone as well. “Paulo is one of my favorite artists,” she said in an email. “He is honest, authentic, hard-working, modest, open-minded, and collaborative. It is the combination of all these qualities, plus his beautiful voice, that makes him so special.”
After collaborating elsewhere a few more times, Alsop asked Szot if he would be willing to sing the role of the Celebrant in Bernstein’s Mass, which takes audiences on a communal journey to a reimagined world of renewed peace and spirituality. He took a look at the score and was wowed by the enormity of the part. “I thought, ‘This is going to be a great challenge, because it united so many elements that I love doing as an artist,’ ” he says. “And I said to her, ‘I will give it a try.’ ”
They added a performance of Mass in London in the spring of 2018 before their long-anticipated grand presentation of it last summer at Ravinia, with Szot proving to be a natural in the role. Alsop praised the range, depth, and humanity of his performance. “He captures the spiritual and everyman qualities of the Celebrant and inspires everyone working with him to be the best they can be,” she said.
Because Mass fuses rock, jazz, and Broadway idioms with serialism and a host of other sacred and secular classical traditions, Szot has been able to draw on different aspects of his background in performing it. He is looking forward to the chance to do it again at Ravinia and relax a bit more in the role, now that he has his first outing at the festival under his belt. “It was definitely [a teaser] for me,” he said. “We did it twice in London, but only the one day at Ravinia.”
Szot and Alsop will quickly reunite for another two Bernstein tribute programs, starting July 26 with a performance of Symphony No. 8—the “Symphony of a Thousand”—by Gustav Mahler, a composer whom Bernstein famously championed. It will also feature the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Chicago Children’s Choir, Milwaukee Symphony Chorus, and seven other soloists. The following day, the baritone will join the CSO again in a concert titled “Leonard Bernstein: Man For All Music,” a program including excerpts from Candide, West Side Story, and other stagecraft alongside selections from Bernstein’s symphonic fare.
Then, after a short break, Szot returns August 22 to Ravinia for two performances of Trouble in Tahiti, Bernstein’s 1951 one-act opera about a couple in a troubled marriage. “It’s the opposite of Mass,” he says. “That’s a huge [opus], and this is a very small and intimate piece.” He will join esteemed soprano Patricia Racette, with whom he appeared in Kurt Weill’s Street Scene at the Teatro Real last year, and the Chicago Philharmonic. “She is just amazing,” the baritone says. “I’m sure we’re going to have a great time on this piece too.”
During his first visit to Ravinia last year, Szot fell in love with virtually every aspect of the festival, especially the atmosphere and audience. At some open-air venues, people are distracted and don’t pay much attention to what is happening onstage, but he was impressed with how focused the entire Ravinia audience was. “It was beautiful to see,” he says.” It was beautiful to be part of it. I’m absolutely looking forward to coming back and spending more time this year.” ▪
Kyle MacMillan served as classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He currently freelances in Chicago, writing for such publications and websites as the Chicago Sun-Times, Wall Street Journal, Opera News, and Classical Voice of North America.