From furniture store to stage

Marcelo Álvarez, one of the world's hottest tenors, started life as an accountant.

More than a decade ago, tenor Marcelo Álvarez was more worried about the bottom line than hitting the "high Cs."

In his previous life, Álvarez worked as an accountant in a prosperous Argentine furniture factory. Although financially secure, he was getting tired of the 9 to 5 routine. So one day, his wife, Patricia, suggested that he try his first love, singing opera.

Álvarez's eyes lit up. He didn't know a note of opera, but through family connections, his wife arranged for him to sing for a famous Argentine tenor. He belted out the only song he knew – Argentina's patriotic aria. After the tenor offered encouragement, he began studying opera and took it seriously – more seriously than anyone could have imagined.

Álvarez and his wife eventually sold the business and moved from their hometown of Córdoba to Milan with only $6,000. Álvarez's wife said at the time, "We're jumping off a cliff, but at least we're jumping off together." As a means of income, his wife worked as a gymnastics instructor, and friends helped out. But his parents and brothers were, understandably, concerned.

"At first, they weren't convinced, but now that it's gone so well, now they're happy," says Mr. Álvarez laughing, speaking through a translator.

The risky jump has led to a thriving opera career. Álvarez just wrapped up a string of June performances in Paris as Edgardo in "Lucia di Lammermoor" and is scheduled to perform the opera in French at the Met in November. Earlier this year, Sony Classical released his recording of French arias. It includes such standard repertory as Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette" and "Faust," and a handful of rarities, like Donizetti's "Dom Sebastien."

Parlez-vous français? 'No'

The distinguished tenor's story is even more incredible after learning he doesn't speak a word of French. But he sings it – masterfully.

"French is a very difficult language to sing in, even for French singers because all singers have a tendency to put the voice in the nose, which is a mistake," says Álvarez. "If you want to sing a pure French vowel, it could actually be very ugly."

Álvarez's Cinderella-like story sounds too good to be true. After living in Italy for only a week, he won $3,000 in a singing competition featuring Donizetti arias. He later became an understudy to a famed Spanish tenor in "La Traviata," and was asked to perform on opening night of the production. This put him over the top.

Since then, he has performed in the most prestigious halls in the world, including Milan's La Scala, the Bastille Opera in Paris, and London's Royal Opera House.

But, as with most fairy tales, there were a few bumps along the way.

"In my own country, they told me that I should immediately change professions," says Álvarez. "I did three auditions at the prestigious Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, and they didn't even offer me a job as the doorman!" he says, bursting with laughter.

"It's one of the quickest careers that I've seen in my 25 years in the business," says Bruce Zemsky, Álvarez's manager of five years. "He's only been singing in the major places for the past six years, so his career is fairly new."

But it's not as if Álvarez had never sung a note in his life. He did attend a special music school in Argentina from age 5 to 17.

Friends and family were thinking tango, folk, or rock. But Álvarez knew his calling: "It was very clear that my voice type pointed in the direction of opera."

Maturity keeps him grounded

Despite his late start, Álvarez's maturity works to his advantage. "Having had another career, being a little older, being a little more mature, it kept my head on my shoulders and my feet on the ground. I could be very objective and not think, 'I'm so great.' "

Now living in the small town of Tortona, between Milan and Genoa, Álvarez says his wife and 4-year-old son, Lautáro, are constantly at his side. When he performs at the Met, they lease an apartment across the street from New York's Lincoln Center.

Lautáro will soon begin school, and Álvarez will try to stick closer to home. "I think he likes [opera], because many times my son will ask: 'Are we going to the theater tonight?' with a very good attitude. But I don't want my son to ever feel forced to like opera."

When Álvarez is not performing, he emphatically says that he loves "to live!" He enjoys staying home on a night off and watching a great movie.

But Álvarez isn't able to do that too often. He is booked through 2004 – making his debut with the Chicago Lyric Opera and performing Puccini's "La Bohème" at La Scala next year.

"I'm really very happy on stage. I am giving everything of myself, everything that I've studied, and it's very rewarding."

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