In classical music, the bass voice -- the lowest male range -- may be divided into several subcategories. The lowest is basso profundo, deep bass, reserved for serious old men roles. In the same vocal range is the basso buffo, comic bass, whose music is typically marked by fast "patter," lots of words and syllables crammed into a short space of time. The characters played by a basso buffo were derived from commedia dell'arte, Italian folk comedy in which an old man ludicrously chased a young woman and lost her to a young rival. There also is the basso cantante, whose music features lyrical melodies; and the bass-baritone, who may venture into higher musical territory. With individual singers, there's considerable overlapping among these categories.
Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) relished the bass voice, and his comic masterpiece, "The Barber of Seville," contains two juicy bass roles: the purely buffo Dr. Bartolo, who will be played by Pittsburgher Kevin Glavin; and the slightly serious, semi-cantante cleric and music teacher Don Basilio, to be enacted by Italian bass Paolo Pecchioli.
Mr. Glavin has performed manifold roles with the local company. Mr. Pecchioli made his Pittsburgh debut in 2009 as Mustafa in Rossini's "The Italian Girl in Algiers." It is not, strictly speaking, a buffo role, but this singer had the audience in stitches when he did cartwheels at his Act 2 entrance. In the upcoming Pittsburgh production of "Barber," Mr. Glavin, 50, and Mr. Pecchioli, 43, are the veteran artists in a mostly young cast, and they were happy to chat between rehearsal about their present roles and their blossoming careers.
How do you describe the distinctions among bass voices, in relation to your role in "The Barber," and to your own voice?
Mr. Glavin: I'm a basso buffo even though my voice is not a typical basso buffo voice. My voice is a little higher. I'm a real bass-baritone. As I get older, my high notes get better and better, but my personality and physical type are right for the buffo. I love comedy, and when I play [roles like Dr. Bartolo] I make the comedy come out of real life, not silly shtick. Bartolo is not a nasty evil guy. He's just curmudgeonly and greedy. He has a lot of aches and pains.
Mr. Pecchioli: I am a basso cantante, not a buffo. It has to do with the character, the writing and the music. Also the color of the voice. Basilio has cantabile music; Bartolo has the patter. Most of my roles are serious bel canto roles: Raimondo [in Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor"], Oroveso [in Bellini's "Norma"], some early Verdi. Rossini's writing is the same in his serious and his comic operas. It requires legato singing, accurate runs. I like to write my own variations and ornaments in this kind of music.
How did you find your niche in the operatic spectrum?
Mr. Glavin: I've thought of myself as a comic since I was young. I thought I would perform in Vegas! I never thought I'd sing opera, but when I did, the comic roles came naturally to me. I want to make people laugh, but I also want to make them feel comfortable and happy.
Mr. Pecchioli: When I started out, my voice was very round, but I looked very young. I was thin, not the type for the old man bass roles in opera. I thought that with my voice, if I'm able to sing Rossini and bel canto with the runs, people would find it interesting to hear a real full voice in that kind of music.
Who were your role models, and who do you admire today?
Mr. Glavin: Salvatore Baccaloni was the greatest basso buffo in the past. I never saw him live, but I've watched his movies, which are very funny, and listened to his recordings. He sang beautifully, and got all the notes and words into the patter, and was really funny. I also admire Renato Capecchi, whom I've worked with.
Mr. Pecchioli: I had no role model. My teachers included Magda Olivero and Renata Scotto, but I knew how to sing already when I went to coach with them. I listened to Ezio Pinza recordings. Cesare Siepi, who died this year, is my ideal, but my voice is closer to Pinza's. I look at Samuel Ramey for repertory, although our voices are not alike. He started with Rossini, then went to Verdi, and he's very precise.
What was the turning point in your career?
Mr. Glavin: I was a winner of the Pavarotti Competition in 1989. I got to sing with Luciano in [Donizetti's] "Elixir of Love." Then in 1990, [Canadian baritone] Claude Corbeil canceled an engagement to do Bartolo in Pittsburgh, and Tito Capobianco called me at the last minute in Sarasota. I had just nine days to learn the role!
Mr. Pecchioli: Singing in Franco Zeffirelli's production of "Aida" in Bussetto. It's a tiny theater and it was very special, on the 100th anniversary of Verdi's death in his own town. It was made available on DVD and became a famous performance.
What has been the high point so far?
Mr. Glavin: Singing "Barber" at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires was a great experience. They were all Italians and me, and I had a big success. Working at Spoleto with Menotti was also great, but maybe the best single moment was after a performance when Luciano [Pavarotti] introduced me by saying: "This is the greatest baritone I ever sang with in my life." Maybe he was exaggerating, but I'll take it where I can get it.
Mr. Pecchioli: Singing is always a high point for me. It's as important to me as eating. If I didn't sing I would die. But singing in regional theaters like Pittsburgh or Dallas is special. In bigger companies, it can get to be like a factory. I get bored. The smaller companies have a more personal atmosphere.
Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.