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Rolando Villazon: A Tenor Voice Lost and Found

At a certain point, I thought maybe this is the end of my career, you know, a fast career that just burned out.

Tenor Rolando Villazón had everything going for him. Just four years ago, the Mexican opera singer's career took off like the cork from a champagne bottle.

He was in demand everywhere, singing in the world's great opera houses, paired with the world's top stars. Critics raved about the voice: the "thrusting brightness on the top notes," the "dramatic power and raw intensity." He was even hailed as "the new Placido Domingo." In 2007, Villazón began a new contract with the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label and recorded an ambitious new CD.

And then, a singer's worst nightmare came true for Villazón. His golden voice began to fail. The first sign, Villazón says, was that he couldn't produce the notes in the same effortless way. Then, in Barcelona last July, high notes cracked during a performance of Massenet's Manon.

"It was a difficult personal moment," Villazón says. "At a certain point, I thought maybe this is the end of my career, you know, a fast career that just burned out." Villazón admits he was singing too much, too fast, flirting with the kind of burnout that has sidelined many singers before him.

Villazón's doctor prescribed vitamins and a five-week rest. Instead of five weeks, Villazón took five months. He says he had more time for his kids, went to museums and read more books.

"It was a moment of going inside myself," Villazón says, "and analyzing all the territory I have been through, in order to come back with a new map."

In January, 2008, Villazón reappeared on the opera stage, singing the title role in Massenet's Werther in Vienna. He said it was one of the most stressful nights of his life. Since then, his once overstuffed schedule looks remarkably slim, with a combination of concerts and a smattering of opera dates.

Deutsche Grammophon is celebrating Villazón's comeback with the release of Cielo e Mar (Sky and Sea), a CD recorded last year, a few months before Villazón's break, and waiting in the vaults for the green light.

At least one aria on the new disc, "Dai Campi," speaks directly to Villazón and his struggle to balance success and fame with life's deeper truths. It's from Mefistofele, Arrigo Boito's version of the Faust story.

"When you think about the character," Villazón says, "what comes with it is to be happy with what you have. The things that are gone are gone. Even if it were possible to have them back, there is a price to pay, and the price you pay is that nothing is the same."

Some operatic observers are wondering if Villazón's comeback will hold. Has the voice fully mended? Will he guard it carefully or be tempted, once back in the international spotlight, to return to the old ways?

Villazón, who has been remarkably open about his problems, opts for a good-humored, philosophical approach.

"Every great adventure comes with great adversity," Villazón says, "otherwise it would not be a great adventure. In fact, in a great adventure adversity is not only expected, it should be welcomed. That's what makes it interesting and exciting."

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