An Interview with American Bass-Baritone Patrick Carfizzi
by Rich Arenschieldt
American bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi stars in the title role of Houston Grand Opera’s upcoming production of Mozart’s comic masterpiece, The Marriage of Figaro. Carfizzi heads an international cast that tackles some of Mozart’s most complex vocal and dramatic hijinks.
Working with such a varied troupe can be challenging for any artist, but Carfizzi is at ease with this group. Having performed Figaro more than 150 times, rehearsals with fellow cast members allow him to find newness in each production.
“It’s wonderful having so many colleagues from different parts of the world—each of them brings a variety of cultural influences that imbue a performance. Dramatic interpretations are especially interesting—everyone brings subtle nuances to the stage. If you are actively watching and listening to what is happening, you can pick up so much from your colleagues, especially at this level of artistry.
“Figaro is filled with some splendid ensemble singing, especially in the finales of acts two, three, and four,” Carfizzi says. “Act two closes with the musical and dramatic catalyst that propels the plot forward for the entire piece. Also, in the last act you have a combination of resolution and, as is common in Mozart, a bit of a moral message. The entire opera doesn’t really move without the impetus of the ensemble work within it.
“The beauty of the rehearsal process is that we get the chance to know our colleagues, musically and, to some degree, emotionally. This promotes chemistry within the ensemble—one of the most important components for me in singing any opera, and one that’s especially crucial in a work like Figaro. Mozart is such a craftsman with regard to his ensemble composition; 200 years later we still find it amazing.”
Ensemble singing is how Carfizzi came to music. “It’s what I grew up doing. Many singers, like me, had their first musical experiences through participation in a choral group, something that I started when I was 14. Soon after that I was accepted into an excellent community chorus, which was a turning point for me.
“When I was 15, I went to the Metropolitan Opera for the first time and saw a performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute. There and then I fell in love with opera. At that point my voice teacher and I began to explore whether or not I had the skills necessary to perform operatically, and away we went.”
Carfizzi’s artistic awakenings coincided with those of a more intimate nature. “Artistically and personally, things were definitely running on the same track,” Carfizzi says. “This discovery process was about me finding myself—my passion, finding what I loved. Naturally, when you go through this journey you realize all sorts of things—not the least of which was that one of the things I loved was men.” Carfizzi laughs at his prepubescent fascinations with things masculine. “I probably went through what every gay teen experienced at a similar age.
“Looking back, it was interesting to see all the parallels occurring in my adolescent world. I fall in love with singing, then I fall in love with opera, I discovered that I loved being on stage, and I simultaneously realized that I was attracted to one of my closest friends.”
Carfizzi’s self-assured and easy adult demeanor masks a pair of earlier trials that profoundly influenced his younger years. He experienced two life-threatening events before age 25.
“As a teenager I contracted Lyme Disease, which required me to be hospitalized to receive antibiotic treatment for six months. This had an amazing effect on me. Being separated from my family for such a long time was a life-changing event, for them and for me.”
The second event was even more serious. When Carfizzi was 23, he was walking across the street and was hit by a drunk driver going 55 miles per hour. He had 17 broken bones in his legs, and luckily he recovered fully. “With everything else that was going on in my life, this was a huge transition for me,” Carfizzi says. Additionally, a month before the accident, Carfizzi “came out” to his parents in a somewhat unorthodox manner.
“By this time, I had been to Yale and done the typical explorations that most gay men do at that age. I had a very close friend, whom I had known for years, and met up with him when I was back at home. We had gone out for the evening and were sitting in the car in my parent’s driveway. As is typical, things progressed and, as sometimes happens, we ended up making out—in the car, in the driveway. Unbeknownst to Carfizzi, his father was watching these events unfold from an upstairs window. “I walk in the front door and my father says, ‘Patrick, we have to talk.’ At that time I was home for three weeks and we had never really discussed it.”
In a wise move, Carfizzi finally confronted his parents. “I told them, ‘It took me six years to get to the point where I’m comfortable with who I am. I’ll give both of you the same amount of time to become comfortable with having a gay son.’” Fortunately, his parents accomplished it in five.
Carfizzi’s parents were very supportive of him, but they weren’t without some cultural baggage. Growing up in an Italian/Irish home where his father spoke Italian about 30 percent of the time, there was some conflict between a much older father and his son. “We did have a challenging relationship at times, but we were always close. Fortunately my coming out didn’t change that, and in some ways we became closer because of it. My father died eight years ago, but before he died he told my mother, ‘Don’t worry about Patrick, he’ll be fine.’ For someone of that generation, that is as close to an admission of support as I will ever need.”
Professionally, Carfizzi’s sexuality isn’t an issue. “To most people, it just doesn’t matter.” While many artists struggle with the “gay” conductor, singer, or actor label, Carfizzi is focused on “doing excellent work and performing to the best of my ability. My identity as a gay man is part of who I am and something that I am proud of. Having said that, it’s most important to be completely comfortable with yourself, in your own body. Then the work that you do doesn’t need to be characterized as ‘straight’ or ‘gay.’ I’m more interested in the work that we do, as a community.
“My parents instilled a tremendous work ethic in me,” Carfizzi says. “I’m a workaholic. I always want to know what’s around the next corner—musically, dramatically, personally—it’s always in the forefront of my mind. I love the process of things. Deconstructing and reconstructing ideas, roles—everything. For me, rehearsal is all about taking things apart and putting them back together again, and then letting everything settle.
“I do like to go on vacations, but I am usually working on something. I’m not the type of person to go and just sit somewhere. When I’m not preparing for a show, I’m busy doing musical outreach, volunteering, giving a class, or speaking with young musicians. To me, this is part of the job of being a singer and a professional musician.”
Carfizzi is heavily involved in nonprofit work, connecting with Houstonians specifically by donating his talents to Sing for Hope, which was founded in 1995 by Camille Zamora to benefit Bering Omega Community Services. Sing for Hope has now grown into a national “musical peace corps” that mobilizes more than 700 artists and musicians to volunteer in schools, hospitals, and various community settings. “They have asked me to participate in various concerts and hospital outreach through their Healing Arts Program,” Carfizzi says. “It’s incredibly inspirational to work with colleagues who care enough to donate their talent. If they ask me to help, and I’m available, I’m there. It’s an honor to be involved with them.”
Additionally, Carfizzi has begun a new charitable endeavor called ArtsLEAF, a nonprofit that provides mentoring for artists of all types. ArtsLEAF accomplishes this through two programs: one-on-one mentoring with professional artists, and group mentoring between professional artists in the classroom.
Carfizzi cofounded this organization with his partner, who has experience in marketing and arts management. “ArtsLEAF was the brainchild of a few close friends and colleagues. My partner and I were on vacation, sitting on a beach one day, and I said to him, ‘I want to do something to assist other performing artists. What do you think about establishing a mentoring organization?’ At that time we both knew it was going to be a lot of work, but when we proposed the idea to various performers around the country, their response was overwhelmingly positive.
“Our idea is not just to work with musicians, but to mentor anyone who has an interest in bringing an artistic product to life—onstage, offstage, backstage, or administratively.
“My inspiration for ArtsLEAF came from many of the amazing mentors that I had through the years. These individuals have come from a variety of backgrounds, many of which are not musical.” When asked which individuals had the most impact on him, Carfizzi doesn’t hesitate, “My father was a definite positive influence in my life.”
The program is in its infancy at this point, and has been tested on a small scale. “We have done a series of master classes with six artists from various disciplines who worked with three classes and a total of 170 students. From this, we can determine two things: how to model our programs so that they are effective, and the scope of funding that will be needed to implement the mission of the organization. Additionally, there has been specific interest among funders to help GLBT artists as well.”
Life is good for Carfizzi—he’s garnering lots of well-deserved reviews, performing with major companies, and three years ago he met the man with whom he shares his life. “I found my partner online, of all places. He’s European and, oddly enough, we connected while I was in Europe concertizing and he was in America about to begin a Fulbright Fellowship at Yale. Our first meeting was a bit like a movie—we met on the steps at Grand Central Station and it was quite a moment for both of us. At that time we were both in New York, and I was working frequently at the Metropolitan Opera, so establishing the relationship was easy.
“Things have changed since then. I’m traveling and he lives wherever he’s working at the time, so there have been many airline flights during the last three years. We really appreciate Skype—without that it would be very difficult. We know how much time apart our relationship can tolerate and that we must be together in the same place on a regular basis. With our respective careers, even within the context of our partnership, both of us know what we are meant to do in the world—we give each other the freedom to pursue those aspirations.”
For opera fans who would like to see Carfizzi offstage, a meet-and-greet with the singer is being hosted by HGO’s newly resurrected LGBT group, Out at The Opera, in the Wortham’s elegant Green Room after the Saturday, April 23, performance.
The Marriage of Figaro runs April 15–30 at the Wortham Center. Tickets are available at www.houstongrandopera.org. For additional information on HGO’s LGBT Out at the Opera, call 713/546-0289 or e-mail [email protected].
Rich Arenschieldt is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.