Songs of a wayfarer

With the exception of those in the travel industry, few know more about being “on the road” than opera singers. That’s because opera companies tend to book their casts several years in advance.

So if it’s Tuesday, this must be the San Francisco Opera and Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann.”

Or so it is for Matthew Polenzani, who was given the honor of opening The Metropolitan Opera’s past season with soprano Anna Netrebko in a new production of Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore.”

The tenor – who made his Met debut in a 1997 production of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” – is one of the nicest guys around. And one of the busiest.

“If I didn’t take on any more work in the next four years, I’d still have enough,” he says during a break at his Pelham Manor home before heading out to the West Coast to rehearse “Hoffmann,” which bows June 5.

No doubt, though, he’ll be taking on a few more gigs. That’s because “concert presenters don’t plan that far in advance. And if you like to sing concerts – which I do – you have to leave some spaces open.”

There are other more important reasons, however, why Matthew likes to have some downtime – wife Rosa and sons Gianluca, 6, Nicola, 4, and Giovanni, 2.

Recently, after two weeks in Vienna, Matthew – who’s on the road five or six months of the year – headed back to Pelham Manor for six days.

“It was just long enough to come home,” he says. Then he heard that the Deutsche Oper Berlin was in need of a tenor for one of its productions due to an illness. Matthew decided not to lend the company his.

“I would’ve had to leave the next day. I said no. You need time. You need life time. Singing is a big part of my life but I hope… my real legacies are my kids and how they’re being raised.”

Family guy

As if on operatic cue, the two youngest arrive with mom, who’s dropping them off with dad before heading out for a parent-teacher conference. Rosa is the former mezzo-soprano Rosa Maria Pascarella, a vibrant woman who met her husband at the Yale School of Music. (Matthew, who hails from Evanston, Ill., is also the product of Eastern Illinois University and the professional artist-development program at Lyric Opera of Chicago.)

Rosa’s friendly, outgoing nature is in tune with her husband’s, a sensibility that the two older boys apparently share as well. Chubby-cheeked Giovanni is more of a shy guy.

Not Nicola. When one of his visitors requests a song, he obliges with a brief Top 40 rendition. Though it may come as a surprise to some, opera singers don’t spend their downtime with classical music. Matthew likes pop, classic rock and Christian-contemporary, and when asked to name a great nonoperatic singer doesn’t hesitate to compliment Christina Aguilera and the late Whitney Houston.

He doesn’t sing with Rosa, because she gave up her career to focus on motherhood. But it turns out to be more complex than that.

“After our daughter died, I didn’t have the passion (for music),” Rosa says, nodding fondly toward the photograph of oldest child, Alessandra, which hangs in the hall with those of the brothers she never knew. Alessandra died of a brain aneurysm on Christmas Eve 2005 at just 16 months of age. Spending time at the Polenzanis’ handsome 1917 home, you get the sense that a close family has been knit more tightly by great loss.

So when Nicola runs into the living room with a tiny action figure and a request to straighten out whatever it’s holding, Matthew doesn’t miss a beat, concentrating on the task at hand while chatting. And soon Nicola is off, lofting the figure with slow wrist circles into that rarefied world where little boys and action figures go.

Ah, yes, we were talking about travel.

Have clubs will travel

Some opera singers are notoriously germaphobic, swathing their throats in big scarves even in the dead of summer. (Thanks, air conditioning.) Matthew’s concerns are more for son Gianluca, whose peanut allergy is such that even coming in contact with the nut’s oil on an airline flight can set off a reaction. That happened recently on the trip home from the family’s first visit to Walt Disney World. Though everything turned out fine, the incident offered some anxious moments at 35,000 feet.

For himself, Matthew “tries not to think about” getting sick while traveling. If he feels something coming on, he may use Airborne, First Defense Nasal Screens or Zicam. If traveling Business Class, which is rare, he tries to get some shuteye. In Economy, he knows that’s going to be unlikely.

As a veteran traveler, Matthew has packing down to a science – eight or nine outfits equal 50 pounds exactly. He can always do laundry. If he’s able to, he stays in an apartment rather than a hotel so he can cook for himself.

“I’m not a great cook, but I can boil water,” he says with his easy laugh.

Though he may not travel with a spatula, two things he’s rarely without are his Kindle and his set of golf clubs. He stuffs his musical scores in his golf bag.

No doubt that golf bag will be seeing a lot more of the globe as Matthew is one of the premier tenors of our time, justly acclaimed by critics and opera buffs alike for a voice of exceptional beauty and purity and an engaging, impassioned stage presence. Just call up his performance of “Danny Boy” on YouTube, sure to bring a smile to the lips, a lump to the throat and tears to the eyes. And before you wonder what a tenor named Polenzani is doing with the ultimate Irish chestnut, Matthew is mostly of Irish descent.

This past season was a gala one, beginning with opening night at The Met Sept. 24 and culminating in the April 30 New Rochelle Opera gala, at which Matthew was honored. His mantel contains the framed proclamation of May 1 as Matthew Polenzani Day in New Rochelle. All were special, albeit in different ways.

He calls The Met opener “an awesome experience,” particularly with a bunch of friends in the cast, including Russian superstar Netrebko, who once whipped up a batch of blinis for him when he visited her Vienna home.

Next season Met audiences will find him as Ferrando, a man torn between two sisters, in Mozart’s sexually complex, morally ambivalent “Così Fan Tutte,” part of the opera house’s “Live in HD” simulcasts into movie theaters and other venues worldwide. He’ll also play the womanizing Duke of Mantua as a Sinatra-style Vegas crooner in The Met’s update of Giussepe Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” It’s a production that has its share of detractors. But then, Matthew is no stranger to the passion of opera’s audiences and critics. He once appeared in a Robert Wilson production of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” that was so roundly booed, he took a step back onstage.

Boos or bravos, Matthew has learned to take it all in stride.

“Here’s the thing about opera,” he says. “In the end, you’re hoping to make someone go ‘wow’.”

For more, visit matthewpolenzani.com and metoperafamily.org.

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