All the right notes

‘World’s leading baritone’ Paolo Gavanelli shines in S.F. Opera’s ‘Rigoletto’

For a singer whom opera critics refer to as “the world’s leading baritone,” Paolo Gavanelli is very humble.

During his break between performances of “Rigoletto,” Gavanelli is re-connecting with his family in Italy. He has just called his wife to tell her about last night’s show, which marked his 164th appearance as the tragic hunch-backed court jester in Verdi’s classic tragedy.

Gavanelli seems to be a family man at heart, as he talks about his 14-year-old son, Ricardo, and 10-year-old daughter, Julia, who “both play the piano.”

“My dream is to be able to perform as Rigoletto one day, with Julia as Gilda, and my son conducting,” Gavanelli says about his kids, who live 40 miles outside of Venice.

But Gavenelli, 46, did not start out as an opera singer. Although this was always his first passion, he first studied law and took voice lessons on the side.

“You must study and study,” he advises young singers. “Today I look at the singers who have studied for just two or three years, and they go onto these big stages. I tell them to be patient,” adds the baritone who now has 63 principal roles in his repertoire. “It takes 40 years for a baritone to build his career."

“I studied for 11 years after my first debut,” he says, referring to his 1985 role as Leporello in “Don Giovanni.”

Gavanelli has certainly built his. Last year, he was awarded the title of “Kammersanger,” (Chamber Singer) — an honor bestowed upon singers by state-sponsored houses — by the Munich Ministry of Culture.

Asked how he feels about being a star, Gavanelli says that he’s touched by how people who remember what they felt during a particular scene.

“When they go to theater, they want to experience ‘a black out’ from life for three or four hours,” he says. “You are out of your reality, so you cry and laugh. And years later, when you remember years the emotion you felt, it’s amazing.”

Gavanelli says that every time he performs in “Rigoletto,” he learns something new.

“It’s like any masterpiece in art,” Gavenelli, who last appeared in his role as the jester at the S.F. Opera in 1997, says. “The first time you look at the painting, you might observe five details, but if you look at it ten more times, you’ll discover more. Every time I sing Rigoletto, I discover something new.”

When the San Francisco run of “Rigoletto” ends on Oct. 29, Gavanelli will be crossing the Atlantic to woo the crowds at the Vienna State Opera in the same role.

He stays with his family just a few months out of the year, as he bounces between the major opera houses of the world, including the Covent Garden, The Met, and the Bavarian State Opera.

Tonight, opera fans will have a chance tosee Gavanelli al fresco — and free — during the 8 p.m. performance of “Rigoletto” outdoors at San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza and Stanford University’s Frost Amphitheater in a public simulcast shown as it happens on the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House stage.

Gavanelli gives a thumbs-up to these free public broadcasts, which have taken place during his European performances, too.

“There were 20,000 people watching Rigoletto in Munich,” he says, “and afterwards, I came out and saw them. It was a very good experience.”

Opera Preview

Rigoletto

When: Today at 8 p.m.

Where: Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco and Frost Amphitheater at Stanford University.

Price: Free

Info: Visit www.sfopera.com/simulcast or http://rigoletto.stanford.edu.

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