By Kelly Maxwell
Italian baritone Marco Nisticò isn’t at all like his character in Verdi’s Falstaff. Watch him on stage as the jealous and controlling Ford and you might think that he’d be just as gruff and severe as his character. But nothing could be further from the truth! Off the opera stage, he is warm, accommodating, and patient. I sat down with Nisticò to discuss his unconventional career trajectory, vocal pedagogy and character development, and how one need not be a bad guy to play a bad guy.
Verdi’s Falstaff opens tomorrow, Saturday, May 5, and runs through May 13. Don’t miss your opportunity to see Nisticò and the rest of the world-class talent perform Verdi’s final, comic opera at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House.
As a fellow Italian, what is your relationship with Verdi?
That’s a very good question. It’s mostly a relationship of love. I’ve been fortunate enough to sing quite a few Verdi roles. The first one was in 2008, and the beginning of this incredibly interesting relationship with Verdi. He was able to create a direct connection to basic human emotions in music. In just a few pages, he describes new love or a big frustration—never in a cheesy or easy way, but always in a very direct and sophisticated way. His work is very Italian, on the other hand, because it’s very typical Italian music based on Italian poetry. The meter of it, the prose of it—all of his music comes from that. He was this very austere man from the countryside, but he was able to create this sublime music for so many varied characters. For me, it has always been a mystery and a great joy to see that a single human being was able to give so much and speak about humans so well. So, I love him.
Opera Colorado hasn’t done Falstaff in a few decades, so many in our audience may be completely new to this work. What about Falstaff stands out to you?
Falstaff is Verdi’s last opera and only his second comedy. He wrote one other comedy, I think it was his second opera or something like that, and it didn’t work out that well. After that, he wrote only about very serious stuff. But I think a man of that age, after all those years of experience in life and as an artist, could finally reconnect with a lighter spirit. So, it’s an outlook on life that is of a lighter spirit and generosity. Essentially, we’re all flawed; that’s what the opera says. Nobody’s right and nobody’s wrong, none of us. I think Verdi realizes that, with the message of generosity, in this very human comedy. Everybody is human. As a result, these are some of the most interesting and complex characters in Verdi. Falstaff is this incredible outlook on humanity.
Can you tell us a little bit about your character of Ford?
First of all, he’s a very financially successful man. He knows that he’s successful, so he feels powerful and a little untouchable. The one thing he cares about is his honor as a married man. He’s very jealous and he sees his wife as property. One of the lines I sing at the very beginning of the opera is, “Okay, I will make sure to protect my wife and my property.” He puts her in the same sentence as property. It is really quite a statement. If you want to moralize about it, we see it as wrong today. He’s blinded by jealousy and he thinks that he can easily take revenge. Plus, he thinks he can control everyone else, including his wife and his daughter. (He wants his daughter to marry the person that he likes.) And in the end, of course, like everyone else, he’s tricked into doing something else.
When I play characters, I try not to—even when I play the bad guy—play them as evil or bad. You have to play them as people because people never think that they are hateful, bad, or evil; they think that they’re right. You may do something that may be wrong but, unless you’re a cartoon, you don’t wake up in the morning and think, “I’m going to do something really bad today.” You wake up and think that somebody else is doing something wrong to you and you react to that. So Ford is just a human being, who thinks he’s been wronged. He’s reacting to that in the only way he knows.
Sounds like he’s got a lot on his plate.
He does, but I also think he controls things—or at least he thinks he is always in command of the situation… Everybody looks up to him because he’s powerful and rich. And people need stuff from rich people.
Since this isn’t your first time with Opera Colorado, I was wondering if you could speak about what it’s been like for you to come back.
I love coming here. It’s great. I love Denver and I love the opera here. This a wonderful company that actually makes you feel treated really well. It values your artistry and it values you, not only as a performer, but also a person. I was here for a gala concert, then Aida, and now this Falstaff. I always felt there is a very relaxed and yet focused atmosphere when we work here. Outside, we socialize. Opera Colorado Music Director and Falstaff conductor Ari Pelto happens to be one of my closest friends. So, I’m particularly happy to be here because I get to hang out with him. I don’t see him enough, so I’m happy to be with him as much as I can. He’s also a wonderful musician.
Looking back, how did you decide to become an opera singer?
My father is a voice teacher and a singer. For a long time, I didn’t want to do that, but then I kind of just fell into it at some point. I couldn’t avoid it. So I studied with him and I never went to music school. I went to school in Paris for theatre. I grew up with music and singing and all that, but I never went to conservatory. Then relatively late in my life, I decided that I was going to give it a try and see what would happen. And it happened! I had to learn a lot of it on the job, but it’s been over 20 years now, and I do this professionally. It’s not a common trajectory. I didn’t do all those classic things, like undergraduate, then graduate, then young artist; I didn’t do any of those. I went directly into some kind of professional thing, and then it went on from there.
When you’re not in an opera house, what do you do with the rest of your time?
I’m based in New York. I study for my next thing and I teach and coach younger singers. I’ve been doing that much more in the past few years and I really, really love it. I have a lot of that coming up this summer and I’ll be mostly teaching. Now I’m starting to, believe it or not, direct. So I also have something coming up as a stage director, which is something I’m very excited about. I’ll be directing Puccini’s Tosca in New Mexico. I’m a little terrified, but mostly very happy to be in this wonderful art form and involved in this business. I’ve been working with directors every year, working from a different point of view, so it’s an interesting new development. I want to keep singing, but I’ll try to see if I can balance both things at some point. For now, it’s not a career, it’s just something coming up.