Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I’ve been singing since I was 2. When I was 6 or 7, my mum decided to make me take piano lessons, and I hated it. I had a phase from ages 9 to 14 where I was like, “I don’t want to play the piano, I don’t want to study music – I just want to sing for fun”.
I hadn’t thought about having a musical career until my final year at high school. My class went to a careers exposition. They talked about music education, and I thought, “oh, I would like to do this!” – I don’t know why! I went home and told my parents, “I want to do music”. My mum was so confused – “until yesterday, you hated music!”.
When I went to university, I started singing lessons as part of the choir programme (I was not a soloist at this point!) and then I decided to do a master’s in singing. I wanted to improve my technique even more, but it was not yet good enough, so I did a second bachelor’s degree. Already at the start of that, I started to get more invitations to perform professionally – small roles at the time, of course – and then I fell in love with the stage.
I was 23 years old when I saw my first opera. I wasn’t inspired by anyone in particular – I just started my career and the acting and singing became very intuitive, but I think it was like a seed. Someone planted a seed and it just grew. I’ve only taken professional lessons for the last 10 years, which is nothing compared to many other singers who have 10 years of lessons before they even start their careers. My professional career started immediately when I started to sing – the doors opened straight away. I feel very lucky.
I never really had big expectations for my voice or my career; I just wanted to sing as well as I could. When you don’t have huge expectations, everything that comes to you is a surprise. And I still have this inside flame burning with such excitement. Now, I am more conscious about what I can do and where I can do it, and I have more experience, but I still have that sense of innocence and excitement. Perhaps it’s naïve but I think it’s a good thing.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
The biggest challenge is the singing, actually. When you are a man who lives in a fairly conservative country with a very patriarchal society, singing like a woman is a challenge in itself. I get told things like, “sing like a man”, “why do you sing like that?” So this is my challenge – to prove that people that I can sing. I also have to prove that I’m able to sing this or that repertoire. People say, “ah you’re a man, so you sing countertenor?”; “no, I’m not a countertenor, I’m a soprano”. It blows people’s minds! “You have all of these Baroque possibilities”, they say. Yes, but not just those. It’s a challenge to constantly prove what you can sing and where you can sing.
The other challenge that I had was in 2017 when I was about to move to Europe, as I had a place at Trinity-Laban in London. I couldn’t finish the process: two weeks before the start of the course, I didn’t have enough money to travel and I couldn’t get a visa. I was under so much stress (I was doing two operas at the same time in Brazil) and then I developed a sore throat, an ear infection, and an inflammation in the bone inside my ear, which compressed my facial nerve. Half of my face stopped moving, I couldn’t even blink. It was so painful, and for 40 days, I had no movement on the left side of my face. A few weeks later, I had a vocal problem as a result. My immune system just gave up. When I went to the doctor, he said there was a chance I would recover all of the movement in my face, but it could have taken one week or one month. I was left with this uncertainty and thought, what can I do now? I’d lost my master’s place, and it felt like everything had exploded at the same time.
The third challenge was trying to make a career in Europe. I didn’t have a European background or passport. Unfortunately, there was a lot of racism – “did you study in Brazil? Are there even good teachers in Brazil?”. You realise that it’s racist and aggressive quite late on, but I would simply say, “yes, there are’” I lived in Switzerland for three years and had to learn a completely new language. I don’t come from a very rich family so they couldn’t support me financially. So it was challenging but good – I learned a lot about how to focus on myself, how to teach, and how to take every opportunity I could.
Which performances are you most proud of?
I’m proud of everything I do, even the small things. I don’t care if it’s a big role or a small role – if I’m singing one aria in a concert with others, or doing the whole recital. It’s about passion, deliverance, and the moment, and in every one of these moments I’m going to get something from the audience and I’m going to deliver something. So I can’t pick just one concert, because everything is very special.
My video singing ‘Romeo’ was from a concert that I did in Brazil, where I sang just one aria. And then it was hugely successful online. There were 2000 people there, and they went crazy. I’ve never heard such a huge ovation when I’ve finished singing. And the nicest thing is that when I looked to the side, I saw my parents and my brother. It’s not about the numbers or the venue, but about the people who are there.
Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?
There are some composers that I immediately connect with. I can’t explain it, but some composers I know I will enjoy no matter what. I love Mozart. I even asked my manager to make sure that I do one Mozart production per season, for my soul! I love Bellini, also. I learned to enjoy others like Handel and Vinci – I have my first full opera by Vinci coming up – but definitely Mozart and Bellini.
What do you do off-stage that provides inspiration on stage?
It depends on what I’m feeling in the moment. When I’m very, very tired, I do nothing – I scroll on Instagram for hours like a zombie, or put things on Netflix. I watch everything – movies, series, cartoons – especially when I’m travelling.
I also love to cook for friends. And I tend to stay more at home when I’m in Brazil, but when I’m away, I try to enjoy the location I’m in. I’m in Athens right now – yesterday I was on the beach and saw the sunset. Sunsets for me are a heavenly moment – I think it’s something very spiritual. I’m not the type of nature guy to go for a hike! But I do feel inspired by looking at the beauty of nature around me – I like to observe.
I also go to church – I go religiously every Sunday. I go to a young Christian church, so we dance and go crazy, as well as have our quiet moments with God.
When I’m home, I try to be just an ordinary guy – not the stage guy. We are constantly surrounded by glamour – the theatre, the red carpet, the hotels, the chauffeurs – this is the nice side of opera. But at the same time, you’re always far from your family, you have to spend hours travelling and studying, and you have to make a lot of sacrifices.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?
I think we need to reconnect with young people. And we also need to adapt to the discussions we’re having in our society. We have so many discussions going on with race and gender, and I think that operas sometimes don’t adapt to these, which is a pity. Even if it’s a fantasy opera like The Magic Flute, everything the composers wrote was about emotions, and the way society understands those emotions have changed, and it’s the stage director’s role to bring something fresh. That’s the way to bring this discussion into the modern-day. However, trying to be super avant-garde can become grotesque. So there’s a very fine line between being new and keeping the tradition, which is very important. Combining all of these things and bringing something to the audience which is beautiful for the eyes and the ears is difficult, but sometimes I can feel opera is quite empty of meaning. It has to have something deeper.
We also need to try to bring opera to kids. I don’t know why we don’t often do opera for kids, but I think that any opera could be adapted. Sure, you might need to take out some inappropriate scenes, but you would have to stage a shorter version anyway to keep children engaged. It seems like it’s always the same titles adapted for children as well – Zauberflote, Peter and the Wolf – but there are more possibilities and if we think deeply we will be able to find some solutions.
It’s like an octopus with many different arms – we need to reach the younger people, the kids, and of course, our dedicated audiences too. It’s not necessarily the compositions or the music which needs to develop, but the way the operatic business actually works. We also need to be more inclusive of those singers we put on stage. Things might change in the future – the younger generation will bring freshness. But it takes so much time, and it feels like we’re always going to be late.
What’s next? Where would you like to be in 10 years?
As a musician, I have two different ways of thinking. My goal is to develop my technique, learn new repertoire, and explore my voice. It’s very qualitative, not quantitative. As you get older, you understand the real meaning behind some of these works, like Winterreise. You’ve experienced things in real life which are going to impact your artistic expression. So, I want to keep developing so I can use my art to bring different things to people. And I want to make sure that I keep singing things because I want to, not because people ask it of me.
I would like to one day be with my family, (hopefully my kids!), that’s what I think of as successful! If I become famous and get recognised on the street or whatever, it’s a plus, it’s funny, but I’m glad that the business is still quite small. It’s not like a pop star, where you can’t even walk on the street without being recognised – you would barely have a life. It’s about balance, you can be famous, but you can also keep your private life anonymous. When you have a goal in your career and you bring something to the next generation, you touch and transform people’s lives in ways you can’t imagine – that’s success. And of course, receiving payment for that is always nice!!
What can you tell us about the inspiration behind your new album, ‘Roma Travestita’?
It’s really tied to my own journey. As I said, I had the challenge to prove that I could sing. Being a man singing as a woman, people immediately wanted me to sing Baroque. My teacher is from the Romantic side of opera which I love, but I never got any kind of invitation for those roles as I didn’t belong to that world. I don’t want to be stuck in one period. I am a soprano, there is so much repertoire out there – but because I am a man I can’t sing them? Why?
I started to do male roles beyond the Baroque. When we were thinking about the recording, I told my manager – “I don’t want to do what people want me to record”. It’s easy to put people in boxes, and I don’t want that. I have proved that I can sing music beyond Baroque, and sing female roles.
In the meantime, Max Emanuel Cencic came to me saying, “Bruno, I have a project that I’ve been preparing for years. I’ve never found anyone to record it – but you are the guy who can do it”. He gave me the name, ‘Roma Travestita’, and the theme of female roles performed by castrati in that period. It was amazing, almost like using the rules to break them! I bring in some Baroque, but I go a bit further, up to Piccinni. Then, Yannis François did the musicological research, selecting the repertoire with me.
This album is about showing new possibilities, and breaking the rules, and showing how a man can sing these arias. When you think of opera initially, you think of music, theatre, drama, voice… but did I mention gender? Women performing male roles is totally acceptable, and things that bring you towards the male figure are acceptable – because it centres around the patriarchal image – but things that bring us towards femininity are less accepted. That’s more or less the idea of this CD – I don’t want to make this discussion the main focus of the project, it’s more about showing how I can switch between different characters. I sing about love, fear, anger, and all these other emotions.
What is your favourite track on the album, and why?
My favourite is the last track on the CD, which is by Piccinni, “Furie di donna irata”. It was the first track I learned for this project, and I listened to it, and just thought, ‘Woah’. I started singing it the next day, and the music is gorgeous. I love that song, it’s my favourite aria.
Roma Travestita is available now on the Erato label. More info https://www.warnerclassics.com/release/roma-travestita
Soprano Bruno de Sá is one of the leading new artists of our time. His powerful yet gentle voice, as well as his musicality, have been praised by press and public alike.
Bruno de Sá began his career in his native Brazil, where he has performed works by Weill, Scott Joplin, Bach, Mozart, Adams, Wagner und Bernstein. He made his German debut in 2016 with the Lübeck Choral Academy in Handel’s Messiah and Rossini’s Petite Messe solennelle. During the 2016/17 season he appeared in roles such as Gherardino (Gianni Schicchi), Cherubino (Le nozze di Figaro) and the First Lady (Die Zauberflöte) at the Teatro São Pedro in Porto Alegre and was critically acclaimed as Aci in Giovanni Bononcini’s Polifemo under Dorothee Oberlinger in Potsdam and Bayreuth.
Bruno’s Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/bruno_desanunes/?hl=en