A Musical Family Adds to This Baritone’s Performance

Andrè Schuen, a fast-rising young Italian baritone, brings innate musicality to his performances. Born in La Val, a small village in Südtirol, the mountainous region at the border with Austria, Schuen grew up speaking three languages: Ladin, Italian and German.

This summer, Schuen, 38, stars as Count Almaviva in the Salzburg Festival’s new production of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro,” running from July 27 to Aug. 28. With rehearsals underway in late June, he spoke in a video call about his background and upcoming performance. The following conversation, translated from German, has been edited and condensed.

You hail from a remote region and are part of a cultural-linguistic minority, the Ladin people. How did this background influence your musical formation?

From childhood onward, music was always the most important thing. That was also the case with my father, who got his love of music from his father.

You need to remember that 100 years ago people were very poor where I come from. Before tourism, they were all farmers who lived off their fields and cows.

My grandfather acquired a small collection of instruments, which my father passed on to us. That means that we grew up with music, including many folk songs, with my father playing accordion and clarinet, my two sisters on violin, and me on cello.

We also made music together as a family and put together a program connected to our Ladin national saga, about the legend of the Kingdom of Fanes. Later, I was in a band and did covers of everything, including punk songs.

You weren’t listening to Schubert alone in your room.

Not at all! Quite the opposite. For instance, when I was 13, soccer meant everything to me. I was on a team. It’s not like my parents forced me in a musical direction. If I had said I wanted to be a carpenter, then I would have become a carpenter.

When did you start playing cello?

When I was about 7. I studied cello for 12 years. I knew that I liked to sing, but singing classically would have never occurred to me. One of my sisters told me, “You sing well. Why don’t you give it a shot?”

So I auditioned for voice at the Mozarteum [University] in Salzburg. And that’s how it happened. Without ever thinking about it too much, everything pretty much came together harmoniously.

What does singing give you that playing the cello doesn’t?

I think it has a bit to do with the fact that you are the instrument yourself, that you don’t have to take something in your hand and practice on it. And of course, there’s the added element of text. I think being an opera singer has more parameters. It’s not just about singing.

This summer you’ll be appearing as the Count in “Figaro.” You’ve also sung the title character many times. What’s it like being both upstairs and downstairs in this opera?

Personally, I prefer singing the Count. He’s not exactly a positive character, but that’s exactly what makes him interesting. He has more layers than Figaro. He has a soft, seductive side, but he’s also aggressive or irascible and you need to switch quickly between emotions.

Most recently, you sang the Count in Barrie Kosky’s acclaimed, comically astute Vienna production of “Figaro.” Is Martin Kusej, the director in Salzburg, going to show us a different side of “Figaro”?

Definitely. [Kusej] doesn’t want to reproduce the piece the way it was intended in [Mozart’s] time. He’s trying to bring out something relevant that still touches or concerns us nowadays. But I don’t think he’s looking for that through the comedy.

You recently sang your first Wolfram in “Tannhäuser.” How was it singing such a meaty Wagner role?

I was emotionally transported. As for other Wagner roles, we’ll see where else my voice leads me. But Mozart will probably remain a key part of my repertoire until the end. The Count is not a part I want to retire, because it’s a role you can still sing when you’re 60.

A.J. Goldmann is the German drama critic for The Times. He also writes about culture throughout Europe. He lives between Berlin and Munich. More about A.J. Goldmann

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