Andrey Nemzer, acclaimed Metropolitan Opera countertenor, returns to Pittsburgh Festival Opera in the title role of Xerxes. A native of Russia, Andrey is known for the adventurous repertoire associated with that rare voice part.
Andrey has appeared in every Pittsburgh Festival Opera summer season. His previous works include Monostatos in The Magic Flute, the Old Woman in Candide, Ramiro in The Secret Gardener (La Finta Giardiniera) and Salieri in A Little Nightmare Music. In 2014 and 2015, Andrey presented recitals to full houses.
Honored in multiple international voice competitions, Andrey was the first winner of Pittsburgh Festival Opera's Mildred Miller International Voice Competition in 2001. Most recently, Andrey took first place in three major competitions. He was 3rd Prize Winner of Placido Domingo’s Operalia 2014 and The Winner of the 2012 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.
You have recently won a few competitions! What was that experience like?
This experience has been incredible. Those victories were greatly appreciated and it is kind of my own personal record to win 3 competitions in one month.
What kind of research goes into a historical role like Xerxes?
To be honest, I did a very light research, just some historical aspects of his life. There are couple similarities in Xerxes' personality description in both opera and historical documents, but the libretto was not based on Xerxes' biography so I did my own analysis of this character, trying to understand his nature and his intentions.
What do you consider to be Xerxes’ strengths? Weaknesses?
Xerxes is very childish in some ways wanting his toy, which sometimes it is impossible to have. Another weakness (or strength) is his emotionality. Xerxes is very bipolar and switches between moods sometimes within seconds. In general, Xerxes is a very nice guy, we can see this in his first aria and in some recitatives, especially where Xerxes shows mercy to his brother after banishment. However, Xerxes’ high emotionality causes him to be angry in an instant, which we see in his aria to Romilda, "You are spiteful, perverse, and insulting".
Do you have any funny memories of Xerxes rehearsals that you would like to share?
Well, every rehearsal is a lot of fun, but I would say the funniest scenes so far are a dialogue between Xerxes and Atalanta, played by Bonnie Frauenthal, when she passes Arsamene's letter to Xerxes saying that Arsamene is in love with Atalanta instead of Romilda. Other funny moments have been to just look in my brother Arsamene's eyes for a couple seconds. The wonderful Daniel Moody is playing my Brother and it is funny to look in his eyes for a while and try not to laugh, especially if something funny just happened before.
Last season you sang the title role in Julius Caesar with the Festival and now you’re returning to sing another Handel title role in Xerxes. How is this one different?
The characters are completely different because of different circumstances of the opera. Caesar is constantly fighting in battle and his beloved is awaiting for him, wanting him. In Xerxes it is a peaceful time, but the plot is rooted in the emotions and circumstances of the characters. In some ways it feels like a sequel. After the war, everyone comes to a vacation for a fun time and pleasure which leads also to some romantic development.
You have sung in every summer season of Pittsburgh Festival Opera. Now, what are you most looking forward to this year?
I'm again looking forward to being a part of a great family here at Pittsburgh Festival Opera, to share the exciting moments of staging process with my colleagues and friends, to enjoy looking at how from the little pieces of rehearsal process, we create a masterpiece of opera.
What was the most bizarre thing you’ve ever had to do for a role?
The most bizarre (in a very good way) experience was my first... let's say "skirt" role with Duquesne University Opera Workshop where I played Zita in Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. The problem was that I have hairy legs and arms and I had a not that long skirt and sleeves on my jacket so I had to shave my legs and arms (and my face, of course). It took about two hours total and 10 cuts on my legs. We saying in Russian, "The real art needs victims." It was a great experience and I'm not sure that I'll have it again since "skirt" roles are not that common on the worldwide operatic stage. I repeated the same experience once again in the Festival’s first summer season when I played Old Lady in Bernstein's Candide here in 2012. Fortunately I shaved only my face for that role!
What was your first opera experience was like?
My first opera experience was very unexpected and difficult. The role I was doing as a tenor (before I became a countertenor) was Alwa from Alban Berg's opera Lulu. First of all, I got the audition for this role very unexpectedly from Helicon Opera Theater in Moscow. I got a call from my teacher and I looked through the music and said I could do it. At some point I was sorry about the decision because music was really difficult and it took a while to learn and memorize it in both Russian and German. But I made it! And for two seasons I was the only one who has done that role not only in Moscow, but also in Spain and China. I'm very happy now that it has happened with me because that was a great school of acting and singing on the stage, of what is to be a part of troupe in the theater. It was a very interesting time and I'm very nostalgic about it.
At what moment did you realize that you wanted to be an opera singer
I realized that I wanted to be an opera singer since I started my first steps with my first voice teacher in Russia, Vera Alexandrova. She trained me as a tenor and ever since then I’ve dreamed of singing on the big stage in front of a big audience. Now I surely can tell that my dream is true now and I'm very happy. Special thanks to my long-time teacher Claudia Pinza for helping me make this dream a reality.
How did you discover you were a countertenor?
It happened accidentally. I just tried my voice one day to sound as lady and some of my friends heard it. They were amazed by how it sounded and told me that it seems this is a career path I should take. I listened to them and followed it, and I'm so happy that I did!
The main challenge is that the repertoire of countertenor is pretty specific in understanding of many listeners and opera professionals. It can appear that countertenors’ repertoire is limited to only Renaissance, Baroque and early Classicism. However in my understanding if a countertenor has the right appearance and voice, the singer can do a pants roles from later operas and cross dress roles. Why not? Also besides operatic repertoire, there is a huge cantata/oratorio and art songs repertoire that is pretty much suitable for a countertenor voice. I'm very happy that nowadays the interest in countertenor singing is back, and more and more modern composers express interest in creating a new music and roles in the opera for this unique voice type.
What was it like working for the Metropolitan Opera?
My official Met debut happened in November 2013. As the first cover of Prince Orlofsky in J. Strauss' Die Fledermaus, I had the privilege of stepping in for Susan Graham. One performance Ms. Graham unfortunately got sick and I had a chance to go on the Met stage, which was an amazing experience, Maestro James Levine was conducting the opera. In 2013-2014 I returned to the Met with another cover and debut, singing a small role of The Guardian in R. Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten.
Do you have any dream roles?
Ratmir from Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmila, an amazing Russian opera has been rarely performed even in Russia, because it is long (goes about 4 and a half hours), has 5 acts and requires a big group of artists. I hope to someday sing this role from which I sometimes include a wonderful aria in my recitals. I also look forward to more traditional Baroque roles for countertenor.
Next I'm traveling to Europe for some auditions, gigs and competitions. I don't want to disclose all the details yet because some if these performances are still under negotiation but I will keep everyone posted if you follow me on facebook, Instagram or my website.
More about Andrey
In Russia, Andrey studied under Victor Popov during his time as a member of the Russian Boys Choir. His Russian performances include Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio, Moscow Soloists Chamber Orchestra, The Pocket Symphony, Moscow Synod Choir, Intrada Vocal Ensemble, The Vocal Male Capella Blagovest, and The Moscow Sacred Music Ensemble. In the US, Andrey is an active soloist and recitalist and has appeared with companies including The Pittsburgh Symphony, The Mendelssohn Choir, Resonance Works, Microscopic Opera, and Quantum Theater.