Metropolitan Opera tenor Matthew Polenzani to perform March 17 at Assumption College in Worcester

Richard Duckett


I think it’s important to introduce this art form to children when they are young so they can start to appreciate it - Matthew Polenzani

The tenor of what operatic bass-baritone Alan Held was saying to Matthew Polenzani was one of great encouragement.

However, the words were not something Polenzani had given much thought to. “Have you considered opera?” Held asked Polenzani after he had sung for him at a master class Held was giving. Recognition of Polenzani’s gifts as an operatic tenor have come relatively swiftly, but Polenzani’s own realization and response was not an overnight matter.

Polenzani said he told Held, “Not really.”

But Held was able to persuade Polenzani to audition to be a graduate student at Yale School of Music. Now after more than 300 performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and leading roles there and with other prestigious opera companies worldwide, Polenzani’s performances are renowned for “ardor, richness and power,” as described by The New York Times.

Polenzani will be back in the U.S. this week after performing in Donizetti’s “La Favorite” in Munich and is coming to Worcester for a special recital at 7:30 p.m. March 17 in the Jeanne Y. Curtis Performance Hall at Assumption College. Polenzani will sing some arias and popular songs. The Assumption College Chorale and student soloists will also perform.

Speaking on the phone from Munich during a recent interview, Polenzani said he knows Worcester. There are family ties via his sister-in-law, who is married to Francesco Cesareo, the president of Assumption College, Polenzani said. Polenzani’s wife, Rosa Maria Pascarella, is a mezzo-soprano opera singer he met while at Yale. On a related note, his sister, Rose Polenzani, is a folk singer who has appeared in the area at venues such as the Bull Run Restaurant in Shirley. However, Matthew Polenzani has not been seen performing live locally, discounting screenings at area cinemas of “The Met: Live in HD.”

Richard Monroe, guest director of the Assumption College Chorale and an Assumption alum, said, “Mr. Polenzani’s visit is a tremendous opportunity for members of the community who would not otherwise be able to experience his talents.”

Proceeds from the concert will benefit the purchase and ongoing maintenance of a Steinway concert grand piano that will be used for future engagements in the Jeanne Y. Curtis Performance Hall.

Polenzani said he likes visiting colleges and interacting with students. “I enjoy working with the kids. Even though I’m so much older than they are, I still feel like it’s that age (for me).”

Born in 1968 and raised in Evanston, Illinois, Polenzani comes from a musical family. As an undergraduate at Eastern Illinois University, he said, he was studying with the intention of becoming a choral high school conductor. In the summer before Polenzani’s senior year, Held gave a master class at Eastern that Polenzani attended. Afterward, impressed with Polenzani’s lyric tenor voice, Held took him to one side.

“At that age I had learned to at least appreciate it (opera),” Polenzani said. Held told him he ought to consider studying voice at Yale, concentrating on opera.

“I had an audition and got in,” Polenzani said. “I thought, ‘I’ll go. If I like it, great. If not, I’ll go and teach.’ ”

Once there, “I started getting more serious about opera. I was 24, 25, and started thinking about opera as a career rather than a lovely theatrical experience.” Polenzani paused and jokingly exclaimed, ” ‘Jeez, Alan — it’s only because you said something to me.’ ”

From Yale, Polenzani went directly into the Young Artist Program at Lyric Opera Chicago, and from there straight to the Met.

His debut at the Met in 1997 in Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” was not a major role. “I sang parts that were bigger in Chicago,” he said. Indeed, as Boyar Khrushchov in “Boris Godunov” he only sang four words. “But the good thing about it, I got to be on stage. I was able to appreciate what was happening to me. I was able to be in the moment and not think about the singing so much. I felt very lucky.”

Later, “at La Scala (Opera House in Milan), Covent Garden (in London), a lot of these places I came to them after I had already been doing big parts. I wasn’t able to appreciate my debut.”

Among his many lead roles at the Met have been Nemorino (“L’elisir d’Amore”), Alfredo Germont (“La Traviata”), Tamino (“The Magic Flute”) and Il Duca (“Rigoletto”). He made his Royal Opera House debut in 2007 as Ferrando (“Così fan Tutte”).

Last year Polenzani was the recipient of a 2017 Opera News Award, with Opera News’ Associate Editor Maria Mazzaro stating: “The silky, sweetly spun lyricism of Matthew Polenzani’s tenor conveys all the emotion, passion and beauty possible in the music he sings, whatever the language or style. He is a master of the classicism of Mozart, the passion of bel canto and the romanticism of French repertoire.”

In Munich he was starring as Fernand in “La Favorite” at the Bayerische Staatsoper.

“It’s very cold,” he said, as Europe was in the grips of the “Beast From the East” storm.

The cultural climate for opera back home could also be warmer, with opera companies struggling and sometimes closing.

“Yes, it would be totally fair to say that the arts in general are suffering in America,” Polenzani said. On the internet you can find “any sort of video, video of opera productions … Frankly, the opera art form is a bit of a museum piece rooted in music 200 years ago. But the things we’re thinking about — love, birth, death — these are the themes of opera that are relevant today. You have to be exposed to it. You have to come to it.” He acknowledged, “I didn’t. My first year at Yale I had barely fallen in love with it, and I was a student.”

The arts are competing for attention, Polenzani said, “not to mention attention span. To spend two-and-a-half hours (at a performance), that’s a long time to be sitting in a space. It depends on how the piece holds. You have to hope (the performance is good).”

For his part, “I’m bringing my children to the opera. They’ve all had fun, especially to watch their dad being funny on stage,” Polenzani said. “I think it’s important to introduce this art form to children when they are young so they can start to appreciate it.”

In Europe, some opera theaters are also having difficulties, he said, and some are doing very well. Munich has frequent sellouts. In April he will appear in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” at Operhnaus Zurich in Switzerland, and June and July will see him as Rodolfo in Puccini’s “La Boheme” at the Royal Opera House.

Then in January 2019, he’ll be back at the Met taking on a new role as Count Vaudemont in Tchaikovsky’s “Iolanta”

“I have not missed a season,” Polenzani said. “I just passed my 20th anniversary.”

He said he’s hoping for at least three or four more consecutive seasons. He’s given some thought to it.

“I’d love to be able to say I’ll be there for my 30th season.”