Conte: Maestro, you have never hidden the fact that you had a difficult childhood, and that you have had to suffer a great deal for the success that you now enjoy. Can you tell us something about your youth?
Bruson: It’s true, I had to struggle very hard to reach the top of my profession. When I was a child, I did not have the means to develop my passion for music or for singing. I believe I inherited my love of music from my mother, who died when I was just eight years old. It was she who encouraged me to join the parish choir, where my passion for music matured.
When, many years later, I decided to audition for the conservatory in Padua, I did not know how I would pay my way through my studies. But my audacity paid off: a few months after the audition, I was called by the then director of the conservatory, Arrigo Pedrollo, and by Mrs. Elena Fava Ceriati, who would later become my teacher. I had been awarded a scholarship which meant that I could attend the courses. Thanks to this opportunity, I was able to begin my musical studies, but it didn’t resolve the problems with my family members who continued to consider me a good-for-nothing. They thought that I only wanted to study music because I had no desire to work. At that time, the general feeling where I lived was that if someone worked, they had a future, whereas those who studied, especially if they studied music, were considered failures who would never find their path in life.
So music somehow divided you from your family?
No. I continued my studies with the help of the administration of the conservatory, but I still lived with my family. It was only when I returned from military service that my father, under pressure from my stepmother who was very tight-fisted, told me that he could no longer support me and advised me to find a job. My father was a very kind-hearted man, but unfortunately, he was completely under my stepmother’s thumb.
But on this occasion, once again, other people came to my aid. At the conservatory, I had made friends with a member of the Berto family, a very important family in Este, a small town near Padua. I told him of my problem, and he spoke of it to his mother and his brothers (his father was already dead). A short while later, they decided that they would like to welcome me into their family, as one of them. From that moment on, that was my family: I found that maternal affection, which I had not received from the age of eight, in Mrs. Berto, who treated me as though I were one of her own.
You are an example of what one might define as a ‘self-made man’, someone who has built a brilliant career in spite of many difficulties. To what do you attribute your single-mindedness?
My determination was certainly honed by the difficulties experienced as a child. Then, there are my own inborn characteristics, such as a certain stubborn streak which pushes me, even today, to continue studying in order to improve my technique not only as a singer, but also as an actor, since delivery, too, is extremely important when singing opera.
On 7 December, you starred in Verdi’s Macbeth, at the inauguration of the opera season at La Scala, one of the most prestigious opera houses in the world. What meaning do you give to this event, at this stage in your career?
For me, it represents a threshold, as well as a personal record. Before that, no other opera singer had ever inaugurated a season at La Scala at sixty two years of age in a production as important as Macbeth, or indeed in any other starring role. Even if I stopped singing right now, I could say that I had ended my career on a very high note!
You have played the part of Macbeth some four hundred times now. Can you explain why you seem to enjoy playing this tormented Shakespearean tragic hero so much?
It wasn’t actually a choice I made. The opera-houses themselves frequently asked me to play this character. I have played many other parts on numerous occasions: Rigoletto, Don Carlos, Simon Boccanegra, in the operas of the same name... My career began with parts in Donizetti’s operas, then it was Verdi’s turn. You might say that Donizetti helped me to pass over to the language of Verdi.
Many opera critics have dubbed you ‘the undisputed king of the baritones’. What is the role of a baritone in the context of bel canto? What sort of parts are generally offered to baritones?
The majority of the baritone key is used to symbolise the father or the betrayed husband. Eighty percent of Verdi’s production is in any case dedicated to the voice of the father. It is a very intense key, one to which Verdi was particularly attracted, perhaps because, as is often suggested, he himself was a baritone. This great Italian composer wrote some of the most beautiful and touching pieces ever composed for the baritone voice.
If you had to advise a young person who wants to undertake a career as an opera singer, what advice would you give?
Above all, it takes a strong dose of humility. Then, one needs to be armed with a great deal of patience, because it takes a long time to construct a career. I have been singing for thirty seven years, but I continue to study and to try to improve. If people wish to achieve something important in this life, they must always be patient, and be ready to face up to continual sacrifices. They must also be able to put up with many disappointments and hardships because, as in every profession, there is no lack of envious people who will try to make things difficult for them.
What do you think of the recent criticism directed at certain orchestra conductors who have been accused of ‘wanting to steal the limelight’?
The orchestra conductor, and also the producer of the opera, have today become the stars of the theatre. They decide everything. I don’t think this is right, because artists must also be able to express themselves, and put something of their own interpretation into their part. But today, the artist must submit to the will of the opera producer and the orchestra conductor. Take a look at any playbill; the actor’s names are written in small letters, those of the producer and the conductor are so huge they can hardly fit on the page.
What is faith, in your opinion, and what part does it play in your life?
I think faith is very important. People without faith tend to be spiritually impoverished. I am not an assiduous church-goer, mainly because my work commitments do not leave me much free time. But whatever part of the world I am in, if I pass a church and I have a few minutes free, I am always very pleased to go in. My faith has always been a great help and comfort to me.
It is not easy to define God, but for you, who is God?
I can answer in a few words only; God is He who gave me my voice.
On February 18 this year, you performed in a concert at the Basilica of Saint Anthony in Padua. What did this event mean to you?
For me, it was a very unusual experience. When the proposal was first put to me, I even thought it somewhat improper. Of course, I had visited the Basilica many times, but always as a simple devotee to Saint Anthony. In the end, it was a most beautiful and moving experience to sing in this great shrine which is known around the globe.
Do you have any personal memories concerning Saint Anthony?
I have always been a devotee of the Saint. I grew up in the Paduan countryside, where he has a great following. I remember when, as a child, I was taken to celebrate the Saint’s feast day. The whole village took part, and even those who did not usually go to Mass came to take part in the liturgy. Even today, now that I have to travel a lot for my work, I realise how well known and loved Saint Anthony is around the world. Whenever I tell people I am from Padua, they immediately associate the name of the city with the person of the Saint.
This year, as you know, the Messenger of Saint Anthony is celebrating its centenary year. What personal message would you like to give us?
I wish you every success in the continuation of your mission. I hope the magazine continues to thrive for many centuries to come. May you also continue to look to the future – a magazine, too, must know how to read the ‘signs of the times’. Lastly, I hope with all my heart that your circulation continues to increase, and that one day, you will be able to bring Saint Anthony’s message of peace and love, gospel and charity into every household in the world.