Photo: Backstage at the Metropolitan Opera, the tenor Rolando Villazón prepares for the “Magic Flute” role of Papageno, which is usually sung by a lower voice. Credit: George Etheredge for The New York Times

It was deep into Julie Taymor’s playful production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” at the Metropolitan Opera. Darkness had fallen onstage; the hero, Prince Tamino, and Papageno, the cheeky bird catcher, were lost.

“Papageno,” Matthew Polenzani, who sings Tamino in the abridged, English-language, family-friendly “Flute” that opens the holiday season at the Met on Friday, called out at a recent rehearsal. “Are you still with me?”

As he rotated past on a set piece, the tenor Rolando Villazón, wearing Papageno’s lime-green long johns and backward baseball cap, answered in accented English, “I’m right here.”

Coming from Villazón, there was a note of defiance in saying that on the Met’s mighty stage. Though he was once one of the company’s brightest young stars, Friday marks his first performance there in eight years. Many — him included — assumed he would never appear at the Met again.

“We can call it a roller coaster,” Villazón, 49, said in an interview. “A very bumpy career.”

Plagued for much of the past 15 years by vocal problems and mental fears, Villazón lost his consistency and his nerve. “Everything fell apart for him,” said Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager. “At least at the Met. He had some vocal setbacks and disappeared from our radar.”

Villazón had reconciled himself to the end of his career, but during the pandemic he stumbled across a new approach to singing — and now believes he isn’t yet finished. Returning to the Met as Papageno, a role almost always sung by a lower voice, might still appear to be an admission of weakness: a tenor losing his high notes and scrambling to the safety of baritone territory.

Not so fast.

“I’m not a baritone,” Villazón said, noting that Mozart wrote the part for Emanuel Schikaneder, the “Flute” librettist, who was a famed actor and impresario but far from a traditional opera singer. “There are some low notes that aren’t really for a tenor, like B flat. But they’re mostly in the harmony. The lowest when he sings alone is a C, which is very central.”

It’s true, though: When Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Met’s music director, asked him to sing Papageno for a recording in 2018, Villazón at first demurred. “I mean, in terms of the character, I love the character,” he said, “But, of course, baritone role, ta ta ta. …”

In other words, people might take his casting as an admission that the voice that had brought him celebrity was in permanent retreat. It was a fear he soon got over.

“To be honest,” he said, “it’s been a long time since I am worried about what people think.”

This is still a course few would have predicted when he rose, in the early 2000s, as a lyric tenor, boyish and ardent in “La Bohème,” “Rigoletto,” “La Traviata” and “L’Elisir d’Amore” — even if there was always a duskiness to his tone, allowing him to be convincing in, for example, the heavier title role of Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann.” A 2005 profile in The New York Times observed that Villazón was being compared to Plácido Domingo, at whose Operalia competition Villazón got his big break in 1999.

“The voice, at this early stage,” the Times profile said, “weighs in on the light side but is tinged like Mr. Domingo’s with the dark shading of a baritone.”

That summer, Villazón and Anna Netrebko, also fast-rising at the time, created a sensation in Willy Decker’s spare, vivid staging of “La Traviata” at the Salzburg Festival in Austria, and were swiftly anointed opera’s next onstage power couple.

“He seemed,” Gelb said, “to be the most exciting tenor in 2005, ’06.” In 2007, Villazón and Netrebko were the stars of a gala celebration of the Met’s 40th anniversary at Lincoln Center.

But while Netrebko’s career continued to skyrocket, calamity struck Villazón: He began to crack on some high notes, a tenor’s lifeblood. Cancellations piled up, including a Live in HD broadcast of “Lucia di Lammermoor” from the Met alongside Netrebko.

A cyst was eventually discovered inside his vocal cords; after a delicate operation in 2009, he couldn’t speak for some time, let alone sing. He gingerly re-emerged on opera and concert stages, including a Met run of “Eugene Onegin” in 2013. (“Despite some initial cautiousness in the first act, in which he sometimes sounded underpowered,” the Times review said, “he sang with confidence and poise.”)

“It was for me very important to reestablish myself, to reposition as a tenor,” Villazón said. But the long period of uncertainty and tweaks to his technique had left their mark, and he began to lose confidence in himself and his instrument.

“Around 2015, 2016, that’s when I started to develop stage fright, because I was afraid of getting something else,” he said. “I was hitting nine out of 10 high notes. When you are in this business, and at this level, you hit 10 out of 10. They might not be all beautiful, but you hit all of them. If you’re not hitting one of those 10, you start thinking, Is this the one? And then you start hitting eight out of 10, and seven out of 10.”

He worked with sports coaches, and tried taking a small amount of anti-anxiety medication before performances. That helped with his fear, but took away the internal fire that he felt fueled his best work.

“How do I stop it being hell to go on and perform?” he recalled thinking. He re-embraced the Baroque repertory that he had done earlier in his career under the conductor Emmanuelle Haïm, moving away from the high notes that had turned perilously unreliable. Then he developed what he called “uncomfortable sensations,” even in the middle of his voice.

In 2017, 10 years after headlining the Met’s 40th-anniversary gala, Villazón dropped out a few days before his appearance at its 50th. He felt basically done: “I thought, Let me reach 50 and I can call it quits as a singer.”

It helped that singing wasn’t all he was doing by that point. He had some success as a television personality, was directing productions and had been named the artistic leader of the Mozartwoche festival in Salzburg. He had even started writing novels.

But he wasn’t yet ready to give up performing entirely, and discovered that acid reflux was causing his new round of problems. He had another operation, at the end of 2018, and slowly his vocal steadiness, though not his high notes, came back.

Then, practicing during the pandemic, he hit a note — an F — and immediately knew something had shifted in the way he produced sound. Working with coaches, he revised his approach to his voice; even some of his older, higher-flying roles felt possible again.

“The way it feels, I’m entering the greatest moment of my career,” he said. “I have no ambitions. I don’t need to achieve, professionally, anything else. It’s all artistic achievements.”

So his coming seasons will include Mozart’s Tito and Idomeneo; Edgardo in “Lucia”; even Loge, the trickster fire god in Wagner’s “Das Rheingold,” which Villazón was working on when he had his pandemic breakthrough.

“I certainly plan to sit with him and discuss other roles with him,” Gelb said. “I don’t want this to be a drive-by appearance. But it’s up to him, and what he feels comfortable with.”

Papageno, then, is hopefully not the beginning of the end for Villazón, but a delightful lark — a part for which he doesn’t feel the need to apologize, and on which he can lavish his fascination with the figure of the clown.

“They never lose, they never die, and they never quit,” he said. “The clown goes on.”

The New York Times