Passionate with Joe Garcia

There are only so many ways to live for art and love: This opera singer has finessed them

Joe Garcia

A mezmerizing voice without a face: Part of the artist’s allure is his respect for discretion.

Joe Garcia, operatic bass, has lived for a dozen years in this town, but his bio isn’t exactly a tale from the Vienna woods. He is far from any of the usual opera stereotype; a hard worker, but Vienna has grown on him. “The living here is easy,” he maintained when I asked him why he’s stayed so long. “You always get the long story in Europe.” Born in 1957 in New York City’s Harlem, Joe grew up on 146th Street and Lenox Ave., where his mother ran a block association and community centre.

He was a dance prodigy at 14, with stints at Alvin Ailey and the Joffrey. “Dance was something secondary that became something primary. But that way, I’ve experienced the human body in its most powerful form. They would sneak me out of class to go lift the City Ballet ballerinas,” he recalled. “There, the best at everything was the oldest dancer. When you dance, your body can withstand bullets. Singing is easy compared to that.”

He first realized he had a voice at 13, at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx – or, as he puts it, realized most other people don’t: “Singers are born singing. I’ve even seen dogs like that, too. I sang something at school when I was 13, and I was surprised people applauded. I thought everyone could do this. I still don’t believe in marking, and I don’t believe in pushing – what stops us is the need to impress.” At Juilliard and under his private voice teacher Arman Boyajian, one thing led quickly to another. His debut was a scribe in Turandot at the New York City Opera.

From his later position as house bass at the Frankfurt Opera, he was called down to sing the Grand Inquisitor in Verdi’s Don Carlo in Bologna after Ruggiero Raimondi, the Philip, had sent two basses already cast in the role packing. In a performance of Un Ballo in Maschera with Pavarotti, “He couldn’t remember his lines and put his hand over his mouth for 30 seconds, looking at me from a foot away. One of the scariest moments onstage – I was sure he was trying to put the blame on me.”

With other New Yorkers, Joe shares a sophistication not overly burdened by self-consciousness. And, like New York natives who appreciate the big bad city, Joe is amenable to getting side-tracked. If he had not been intercepted in a Wienerwald restaurant one fateful night, you might perhaps be seeing him on the stage of the Staatsoper today. However, he was approached by a perfectly friendly couple who introduced him to a perfectly friendly old gent.

In a Ringstrasse hotel a week later, said gent handed him 5,000 Schillings and invited him to an apartment in the 19th District. Ushered into the bedroom, Joe was presented with a fait waiting to be accomplied – “a huge bed with a woman in it” – and for the next two years he was a sexual (not musical) performer for one of Austria’s most wealthy and powerful businessman, since deceased. “It was prostitution, but then so is opera – and that’s good, not bad,” he muses. Detachment is indispensable to brilliance. “It might be better to date opera than to live with it.”

What about the public? “The first performance you sing for you – only at the third or fourth is it about communication. When Pavarotti was rehearsing, he was bored, and it was more brilliant. It’s like a science experiment. The audience should trip, not you,” he observed, then became reflective. “I don’t know why people associate the weaker parts of our character with music.”

But what brought him to Vienna? “A role in Bregenz and a certain woman’s posterior.” And, of course, easy living. Since coming here in 1999, Joe has performed for the burgeoning alternative opera scene, in a landmark Christoph Schlingensief production, Mea Culpa, where he sang Klingsor in Wagner’s Parsifal, and has even done voice-overs for Red Bull commercials.

Despite his bankable good looks, Joe doesn’t want his picture taken. “I am my own witness protection program,” he jokes. “When everything seems crazy, and I don’t know if the cops might be coming,” and then turns suddenly serious, “I practice.”

For free spirits, opera is both a discipline and a powerful inspiration.

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