Verdi and Verismo: An Interview with Baritone George Gagnidze

The following interview took place at the War Memorial Opera House, in conjunction with a rehearsal of Francesca Zambello’s new production of Verdi’s “Aida”, with the much-appreciated facilitation of the San Francisco Opera.


[Below: Georgian baritone George Gagnidze; edited image of a Maik Reishaus photograph, courtesy of George Gagnidze.]


Wm: What are your earliest memories of music?

GG: When I was three years old my mother took me to a photographer in order to take a family photo portrait.  For the photo set-up the photographer gave me a small accordion that I didn’t want to let go after the photo shoot, so my mother had to buy it from the him.

Wm: When did you for become aware of opera, and when how you become interested in being an opera performer? Who influenced or encouraged your pursuing vocal studies.

GG: I was 15 years old and I saw Luciano Pavarotti in TV. That was my first encounter with Opera, his voice was so beautiful and unique! After hearing him I wanted to try reproducing the same sound the very next day.

[Below: George Gagnidze as the Boyar Shaklovity in a 2012 New York Metropolitan Opera performance of Mussorgsky’s “Khovanschina”; edited image of a Ken Howard photograph for the Metropolitan Opera.]


Wm: Many of us have associated the Republic of Georgia with the ancient lands of Colchis and Iberia, in which Medea, Jason and the Argonauts were supposed to have lived; in recent decades, Georgia, whose total population is less that half that of Los Angeles County, has produced a remarkable number of international opera singers. Are there aspects of the Georgian culture that you feel encourages operatic careers?

GG: Yes, Georgia is a country with a great cultural tradition. Folklore music and dance is very important. When I was a kid, I played the guitar and sang with my sister. On the radio and TV I always listened to Georgian folk music.

[Below: Baritone George Gagnidze and Soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, both artists from the Republic of Georgia, backstage at La Scala at a performance of Verdi’s “Aida”; edited image, based on a photograph from Facebook/Anita Rachvelishvili.]


Wm: Since your opera debut 20 years ago, you have become an established international opera star. What do you regard as the major mileposts of your career?

GG: I made my debut in 1996 at the Tbilisi National Opera with Verdi’s “Un ballo in maschera”. I was very young back then. I think the most important thing is the passion for music which should be at the first place in your life, then you can do everything.

[Below: George Gagnidze (front, left) is Rigoletto in a 2013 performance of Verdi’s “Aida” at the New York Metropolitan Opera, with Lisette Oropesa (front, right) as Gilda, Vittorio Grigolo (back, left) as the Duke of Mantua and Nancy Fabiola Herrera (back, right) as Maddalena; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph for the Metropolitan Opera.]


Wm: Your repertory is concentrated in Verdi’s heroic baritone roles and you’ve assumed as well dramatic roles from the verismo repertory. Which are your favorite roles? 

GG: I do sing dramatic baritone roles, but I love Verdi. I consider myself a “Verdi baritone” and Rigoletto or Simon Boccanegra are some of my favourite roles. In addition to from Carlo Gérard in the Verismo repertoire I also sing Scarpia, for example.

[Below: George Gagnidze as the Baron Scarpia in Puccini’s “Tosca” at the Vienna Staatsoper; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of George Gagnidze.]


Wm: You have been a faculty member of the I.S.A.R.-Rheinau vocal academy near Strasbourg, France. What advice do you give young singers who study with you? What do you like best about teaching voice?

GG: It was a great experience and a lot of fun to be able to share my experience with young singers. The most important thing for me is to work on the breathing technique, text and phrasing.

[Below: George Gagnidze as Carlo Gérard in the 2016 San Francisco Opera production of Giordano’s “Andrea Chénier”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Wm: Prior to your San Francisco Opera debut in September 2016, there have been only 23 performances in history of “Andrea Chénier” in the War Memorial Opera House, but the role of Gérard has been sung in these performances by some of the greatest baritone voices of the 20th century, including Richard Bonelli, Carlo Tagliabue, Robert Weede, Leonard Warren, Ettore Bastianini, Cornell MacNeil and Paolo Gavanelli. 

What are your thoughts as you prepare your role debut as Carlo Gérard in this historic operatic venue?

GG: I’m very happy of course, it was a very good debut and the reviews are fantastic. The San Francisco War Memorial House has a great tradition, some of the greatest baritones and at the same time some of my favorite singers such as Ettore Bastianini or Leonard Warren have sung here.

Wm: You have just begun rehearsals for Francesca Zambello’s new production of Verdi’s “Aida” in which you will sing Amonasro. What are your thoughts about the role of Amonasro and on working with Zambello?

GG: I like working on new productions, because it gives me an opportunity to dig into the character and drama. I also enjoy working in traditional productions as well, because I have the opportunity to create a character in a pre-existing concept. Francesca Zambello’s approach is very fresh. She is faithful to the story, while incorporating contemporary ideas.

Amonasro is not a long role in “Aida”, but it’s psychologically very important. Amonasro changes the direction of the opera’s story, from his first entrance. From the time of his duet with Aida in the Nile Scene, his fate and that of Aida and Radames all have changed.

I think about Amonasro and his people’s relationship to the great power, Egypt, and my own homeland, Georgia, which also is located near a great power. I find the story of the opera very interesting, with Amonasro’s emotional attachment to his daughter and his love for his country.

Wm: Thank you for spending this hour with me. I enjoyed our conversation.

GG: I did also. Thank you very much.