Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot has made musical variety the hallmark of his career. He has performed with Liza Minnelli and Marvin Hamlisch and appeared in prestigious New York cabaret rooms like the Café Carlyle and 54 Below. Most notably, in his Broadway debut, he won a 2008 Tony Award for his portrayal of Emile de Becque in a revival of “South Pacific.” “I was never a closed-genre person,” Szot said. “I was always open to everything.”
His uncommon versatility will be on view at Ravinia when he returns for a kind of mini-residency this summer of four very different programs. All are part of the festival’s extended celebration of Leonard Bernstein, with Marin Alsop continuing in her role as artistic curator and chief conductor.
On July 20, Szot will reprise the central role of the Celebrant in the encore presentation of Bernstein’s Mass with Alsop and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Children’s Choir and Highland Park High School Marching Band. Last summer’s performance of the sweeping cross-genre work was named one of last year’s best classical-music offerings by the Chicago Tribune.
“The reaction of the audience was just amazing,” Szot said. “Most people have never seen that before, and you get absorbed and shocked with so many elements that Bernstein introduces to us, along with this huge cast of musicians, actors and singers. It’s just massive. It gets you in a way that is hard to experience these days onstage.”
Although he has achieved considerable international success as a singer, the pursuit of music was not on Szot’s mind while growing up in Ribeirão Pires, Brazil, as the son of Polish immigrant parents. He began piano lessons at age 5 and later added violin, but his main interest was dance. When he was 17, he won a dance scholarship to the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. But once there, he injured his knee. “I was scared,” he said. “I was 17 in a foreign country. I didn’t even tell my parents because my mom would have liked me to return, and I didn’t want to return. I wanted to stay there.”
For the next few weeks, he could hardly walk, let alone dance. While sidelined, he saw a notice for chorus auditions and decided to give it a try. The ensemble’s leader told him that he had a good voice and should pursue singing. “That to me was the light at the end of the tunnel, because I didn’t know what my future as a dancer could be,” he said. “Of course, probably everything would be OK after a few months. But at that time, when you are 17, you want things to be [fixed] right away. I thought maybe this was a possibility, too — I love music.”
He switched to vocal studies and never looked back. His first teacher suggested that the operatic stage might be a possibility. “I liked the way my voice was reacting to it, and she was positive and motivating me toward that kind of expression, and I just followed. It was working for me.”
During a visit back to Brazil, he attended a concert by superstar tenor Luciano Pavarotti in Rio de Janeiro. Pavarotti was then conducting auditions for an international opera competition he organized with what is now called Opera Philadelphia, and Szot signed up. Pavarotti ultimately selected him to be a finalist and travel to the United States. Szot did not win the competition, but he still sees it as his first up-close exposure to the international opera world.
With the help of his brother, Jan, who sings in the opera chorus at the Theatro Municipal de São Paulo, he started pursuing operatic engagements in earnest. In 1997, he made his debut in the showy role of Figaro in The Barber of Seville with his brother’s company. In 2010, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut in an acclaimed production of Shostakovich’s The Nose and has returned multiple times since.
Another important step came in 2014 when he appeared with Alsop and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra in Bernstein’s operetta Candide. Szot was delighted to meet Alsop, a protégée of the 20th-century musical dynamo. Alsop was taken with Szot as well. “Paulo is one of my favorite artists,” she said in an email. “He is honest, authentic, hard-working, modest, open-minded and collaborative. It is the combination of all these qualities, plus his beautiful voice, that makes him so special.”
Alsop asked Szot if he would be willing to sing the role of the Celebrant in Bernstein’s Mass, which takes audiences on a communal journey to a reimagined world of renewed peace and spirituality. He took a look at the score and was wowed by the enormity of the part. “I thought, ‘This is going to be a great challenge, because it united so many elements that I love doing as an artist.’ ”
This summer at Ravinia, Szot and Alsop will reunite for two other Bernstein tributes, starting July 26 with Symphony No. 8 (Symphony of a Thousand) by Gustav Mahler, whom Bernstein championed. It also will feature the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Chicago Children’s Choir, Milwaukee Symphony Chorus and seven other soloists. The following day, he will join the CSO in a concert titled “Leonard Bernstein: Man for All Music,” a program of excerpts from Candide, West Side Story and selections from Bernstein’s symphonic fare.
Then Szot returns Aug. 22 for two performances of Trouble in Tahiti, Bernstein’s 1951 one-act opera about a couple in a troubled marriage. “It’s the opposite of Mass,” he said. “This is a very small and intimate piece.” He will join soprano Patricia Racette, with whom he appeared in Kurt Weill’s Street Scene at the Teatro Real last year, and the Chicago Philharmonic.
During his first visit to Ravinia last year, Szot fell in love with virtually every aspect of the festival, especially the atmosphere and audience. He was impressed with how focused the entire Ravinia crowd was. “It was beautiful to see,” he said. “It was beautiful to be part of it. I’m absolutely looking forward to coming back and spending more time this year.”
Kyle MacMillan, classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.
This is an excerpt from an article published in the Ravinia magazine. To read the complete version, click here.