International tenor Polenzani making Southwest debut in Tucson

Cathalena E. Burch

World renowned tenor Matthew Polenzani has never been to Tucson or the Southwest.

In fact, he’s only been to the region once before, when he was fitted for golf clubs in Scottsdale a few years ago.

He’ll leave those clubs behind when he makes his official Tucson and Southwest concert debut in a sold-out Tucson Desert Song Festival recital Friday, Jan. 31, at the University of Arizona’s Holsclaw Hall. Arizona Opera is hosting the performance, which features pianist Christopher Cano.

“I’ve never sung anywhere in the Southwest so I’m excited about this,” Polenzani said in a phone call from home in New York early this month.

Polenzani has long been on the wish list for Song Festival co-founder Jack Forsythe. But snagging one of the top tenors in the country or, arguably, in the world takes patience and timing.

“We just kept trying to work out dates because my calendar is full,” Polenzani explained. “It worked out perfect. I have a little free time now.”

And who wouldn’t want to spend a few days in Tucson in late January, when the weather should be sunny and 70 degrees?

“I have occasionally taken jobs for climatological — is that a word? — reasons. It doesn’t get to happen that often … but it happened to work out this time,” said Polenzani, who just finished a run of “Carmen” in Munich. “For me it’s an opportunity to go out and do music that I don’t get to sing all the time.”

Friday’s concert opens with Schubert songs, segues to a little Beethoven in honor of the composer’s 250th birthday, then dips into arias and songs that have defined his 25-year career that has included more than 300 performances in over 20 roles with the New York Metropolitan Opera.

“I love doing both (recitals and operas). The recital is, frankly, a lot harder — it’s just you and a pianist and a whole bunch of words,” Polenzani said. “The pianist I have worked with most of my career … will tell you that I often will say to him right before we go on stage, ‘What was I thinking? How am I going to get all these words?’ ”

And there’s always that outside chance, even for an international star of Polenzani’s stature, to flub a verse or forget his place in a song.

“Sometimes it works that not all the words come out,” the father of three said with a chuckle. “The raw reality is that live theater is live theater and occasionally it goes wrong. … (But) it brings you a little closer to your audience.”

Polenzani’s Southwest debut will be brief with little time to play tourist, or hit the links. Which is why he’s leaving his clubs, the ones he got in Scottsdale, back home in New York.

“I need at least two rounds worth to haul my bag,” he said, adding that using loaner clubs is out of the question.

“I feel like I’ve never played well when I’ve used other peoples’ equipment,” said Polenzani, who boasts a 9 handicap.