As part of our coverage for our partners Opera Carolina's performance of Puccini's Tosca opening in Charlotte on October 13, we have interviewed baritone Todd Thomas [Opera Lively interview # 59], who will be playing the role of Scarpia. Click on Read More for the full interview, and see our Tosca section [here] for other articles on the opera, the full announcement and ticket information, and an interview with Maestro Meena.
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Todd Thomas' artistic biography
American baritone Todd Thomas is recognized with operatic companies and critics as a true Verdi baritone.Recently, as Macbeth, Opera News depicted his performance as “warm and centered in his tone with subtle phrasing that emphasized the introspective, almost poetic quality of the tormented king.” Of a recent Falstaff performance, Opera News said, “Thomas’s forthright vocalism (featuring wonderful top notes)….give him a leg up in this part, but he also captured the generous, earthy spirit of Shakespeare’s creation, giving the evening its comic and emotional fulcrum…it’s hard to imagine there are many better Falstaff’s working on North American stages today.”
In the current 2012-2013 season and beyond, engagements include, Scarpia in Tosca at Opera Carolina in Charlotte, Sharpless in Madama Butterfly with Opera Birmingham, the title role in Rigoletto, for Opera Manitoba, and a return to Lyric Opera of Chicago to perform Monterone and cover the title role in Rigoletto. In the summer or 2013 he will add the role of Balastrode in Britten’s Peter Grimes to his repertoire for the Des Moines Metro Opera.
Over the past few seasons, Mr. Thomas’ noted engagements include his Metropolitan Opera debut as Dr. Metivier in War and Peace and Capulet cover in Romeo et Juliette; Renato in Un Ballo in Maschera and Macbeth covers at Lyric Opera of Chicago; Iago in Otello and Alfio/Tonio in Cav/Pag at Arizona Opera; Count di Luna in Il Trovatore and Falstaff with the Seattle Opera; title role of Rigoletto at Palm Beach Opera, Austin Lyric Opera and Michigan Opera Theatre; Scarpia in Tosca at New York City Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre and Florentine Opera of Milwaukee; Count di Luna in Il Trovatore at the Manitoba Opera and Indianapolis Opera; Amonasro in Aida and with the Opera Carolina; Also for Opera Carolina and Opera Omaha the baritone sang Sharpless in the critically acclaimed Jun Kaneko production of Madama Butterfly. His Tonio in I Pagliacci was heard in productions with Opera Omaha, Augusta Opera and Nashville Opera.
Mr. Thomas remains a favorite artist for several American opera companies. For Chautauqua Opera he has been heard as Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor, Miller in Luisa Miller, Count di Luna, Scarpia, Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to name but a few. For Nashville he has bowed in two productions of I Pagliacci as Tonio, as Amonasro in Aida, as Rigoletto, Amahl and the Night Visitors and L’Enfant et les Sortileges, and The Lighthouse (Davies).
Mr. Thomas has appeared in more than 50 performances with the Sarasota Opera including Jack Rance in La Fanciulla del West, Ezio in Attilla, Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor, Scarpia in Tosca, and the title characters of Falstaff, Nabucco and Macbeth. A house favorite with the Des Moines Metro Opera, his performances have included Rigoletto, Macbeth, Renato in Un Ballo in Maschera, and Iago in Otello.
In concert, Mr. Thomas’ recent triumphs include Leoni’s L’Oracolo and Montemezzi’s L’Incantessimo with Teatro Grattacielo at Avery Fisher Hall. His Carnegie Hall debut in Durufle’s Requiem and Mark Hayes’ Te Deum and Spirit Suite, was followed by Handel’s Messiah and Mozart’s Coronation Mass. He enjoyed great success in the World Premieres and subsequent performances as the baritone soloist in Bob Aldridge’s’ Parables with the Topeka Symphony. He sang Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Evansville Philharmonic and numerous pops concerts with the Ocean City Pops Orchestra. Recital dates have included appearances on various concert series’ of Elmira College, Grand Rapids Art Museum, Wednesday Music Club Series of Harrisburg PA, and the Glenridge Series of Sarasota.
In the early 90s, he was a member of the MusikTheater Ensemble for Stadttheater Giessen. During his years in Europe he was a guest artist in Basel, Switzerland, and Heidelberg, Germany. He made his debut with Macedonia Opera as Amonasro in Aida. Later, Mr. Thomas added Hong Kong to his international credits singing Germont in La Traviata and performances of Tonio in I Pagliacci on tour in Fiesole, Pisa, Cagnes-sur-Mer, Sarlat, Luzerne, and Utrecht, under the auspices of Stichting Pagliacci of Utrecht.
Mr. Thomas can be heard on the Naxos recording of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. In 1992 Mr. Thomas recorded a solo disc, Crown Him Lord of All, with Jon Spong, organist.
Here is what Mr. Thomas had to say to Opera Lively about his role:
Opera Lively - Let’s talk about Scarpia. But to fully understand the character, we need to look for clues in the acting, in the orchestra, in the way Puccini uses his voice more in recitatives and parlando-like than in veritable arias. This is an ideal role for an actor-singer, even more than for a singer-actor. Puccini himself said that, beyond having a solid center, the best choice to perform Scarpia was 'a good actor'. What are your comments on this?
Todd Thomas – Oh yes, it’s absolutely true. This is such a fabulous fleshed out character, and extremely engaging! It is one of the most engaging characters, in my opinion, of the repertoire that I sing. The indicators of who this man is are specifically in the orchestra. His choice of dimensions relies on the voice. It’s all in the text as well, to a great deal, what motivates this man.
For opera in general to be a successful art form the acting must be very passionate and viable, very much a believable component. Now in the 2000’s the audience demands really viable staged performances of opera. We need to have some quality of credibility, some substance.
He is a wonderful character to play. In Tosca people are much more centered on how Scarpia reacts to the situation between this libertarian Cavaradossi and the sexual chemistry with Tosca. It hits all the senses.
OL - Please tell us about how you read the psychology of your character. Is he entirely evil, or does he have somewhere inside him, a true soft spot for Tosca?
TT – At some point along my training I was taught that you never play evil for evil sake. The exception is perhaps Iago. Even in the libretto of Tosca, Scarpia compares himself to Iago, with the line that he Iago has the handkerchief while he has the fan to get to the end of his means. Iago I think is pure evil. But even when you play Iago in terms of human psychology, there’s got to be a component where it is not necessarily all evil. Scarpia is driven by his station where he finds himself politically by being the chief of police; he lives in a corrupt society; he is also a man of great opportunity. The takes up any opportunity that he has to rise politically in the system of Rome, but also in the sexual opportunities that he has. If he sees that he can get a good chase, a way to have his desires satisfied, he’ll go for it. He says in the second act that it is not so much having won a woman or having won a race, it’s running the race; it’s really going after the untouchable. The race is more important than the victory for him. He really enjoys the process. This is very true for this opera. He really enjoys the interrogation of Cavaradossi. He enjoys tightening the screws both figuratively and literally around his head. He enjoys the seduction of Tosca and the eventual rape that he is planning.
Puccini writes in the score extremely wonderful legato lines over a lot of the stuff that he has to say of Tosca in the church – “Tosca divina,” etcetera. He is very seductive; very very sexy, very Don Juanesque in a way. Every woman in the audience has to rise to this. There is something very creepy about him but also very appealing. He is extremely sexual and sensual, the way I think about him.
OL – Rehearsals haven’t started yet, right?
TT – The artists arrive on Friday the 28th, then we have an open singing rehearsal on Saturday afternoon and we begin staging on Sunday.
OL – So, you probably don’t know yet how the stage director will want this to be played, but we often see in Tosca stagings that sometimes she reacts to Scarpia by being tempted by his sensuous side while in other stagings she is more disgusted. Do you have an idea of what approach will be taken by Jay Lesenger, the stage director?
TT – Jay Lesenger is a very dear, close friend of mine. We haven’t done Tosca together. I sang this role in this same production in upstate New York in Chautauqua but he didn’t direct that. With Jay specifically, everything that he directed me in I felt that I had good acting directions and my appreciation for him grew tremendously. One of the things he really insists from all his actors is that when you have a partner in a duet you have to be singing but also listening actively. This perhaps goes without saying, but most acting is actually reacting, right?
Jay has great respect for these masterpieces, and I’m sure it will be very much of a traditional setting and traditional treatment of these characters. It will be very engaging and highly interesting, but he isn’t going to reinvent the wheel, I don’t think.
And Jill Gardner I’ve heard in my entire career and I’m very excited to sing with and against her (laughs). And Raúl Melo, my tenor colleague, I did this opera with him at New York City Opera four or five years. It’s a wonderful cast.
OL - Are there great Scarpias that you look up to? What do you think of the ones from the more remote past like Antonio Scotti, Apollo Granforte, Titto Gobbi, Eugenio Giraldone who was a great actor…Giuseppe Taddei who was more a singer than an actor?
TT – My favorite among those you’ve mentioned is the one that was the most recorded in terms of video, it’s Gobbi. Those old black-and-white video clips of him and Callas are really remarkable. And Gobbi is such a fabulous artist! The colors that he can get in all of his singing, any role that he has! My God, that artist was so colorful! And the words! Essentially for Gobbi it was “prima le parole.” How he sang, was directed by the text. He was singing in the golden age of opera, of course. If it’s not a dramatic experience for all of the art form, what’s the point? In the golden age, it was a theatrical experience, just listening. Some of those recordings have survived and I still listen to them today. It was really acting through vocal expression. He acted with his voice and it was exquisite.
OL - What about the more recent ones; Sherril Milnes, Leo Nucci, Ruggero Raimondi, Bryn Terfel…? And who is singing good Scarpias these days?
TT – These days, I’m hard pressed (laughs). I think my favorite in most recent memory really is Milnes. He is my favorite more recent baritone who sings these Verdi roles and Puccini roles. He is a fabulous singing actor. I think his Scarpia also, like Gobbi’s, is extremely colorful, especially with that kind of suaveness, that aristocrat feeling that he has in his voice when he is trying to seduce Tosca. He is masterful in that and can really sing a beautiful legato, a honeyed line like that.
OL – That sensuality, you need to use mezzavoce and sfumato to make it suave, right?
TT – Right, exactly. When Scarpia comes up to her at the very end and says that one line indicating that she is going to give in to his desires in order to save Cavaradossi, he says “E bene!” – you know, that one word, every woman in the audience feels that he is whispering it right in her own ear. He whispers out of the earshot of Spoletto – “E bene!” – it just gives you chills!
OL – And he says “Mia, mia!”
TT – Right! My goal in doing especially this part is hopefully, if we have a really committed trio of characters, is that every woman in the audience can put herself in Tosca’s shoes, and every man puts himself in Scarpia’s shoes for those moments. That’s the communication that the artist needs to have with his audience.
OL – Great! Let’s switch gears a bit. In the summer of 2013 you’ll be adding Peter Grimes to your repertory, in the centennial of Britten’s birth. Are you excited about it?
TT – Right. Yes, the thing is… (laughs)… I am excited about it, but I haven’t had to prepare a new role for several seasons so I’m not looking forward to all the hard work that has to go with learning a new part, to be quite frank with you! But, that being said, It’s very exciting to be involved in an event like this. In that theater where we are performing it in Des Moines, it’s a relatively small space, it’s very intimate theater. It is a wonderful company, actually, with a great orchestra. We have time to rehearse it; I think it will be very well done. I am looking forward to it but I’m still at this point overwhelmed by the time I have to put into it, just sitting at the piano and learning my part in a very technical way, in terms of finding my notes and rhythms, etcetera. But when that work is done I’m going to very much enjoy exploring this. It’s a great year to do this, since 2013 is the centennial of Benjamin Britten and also the bicentennial of both Wagner and Verdi.
Every season is so pre-planned at this point! If I were directing an opera company, it would be very easy to pick this 2013 season – just pick those three composers for the anniversary celebrations!
OL – Yes. And you’ve been very good at Verdi baritone roles. Regarding the Verdi bicentennial I feel that there isn’t much of a celebration of this event yet, unlike the Britten people who are programming thousands of events around the world. I’m a little surprised with the relative lack of attention to Verdi.
TT – I am too!
OL – Are you doing any Verdi in 2013?
TT – Yes, in February I am covering Rigoletto and singing Count Monterone at Chicago Lyric. It’s really interesting because of course as Monterone I get to curse Rigoletto every single night, so if one time I can just Rigoletto enough that he cancels a performance I get to sing Rigoletto! (laughs). I don’t wish anyone any curse, of course (laughs). I’m very thankful for the role of Monterone at Chicago Lyric.
I’ll do Puccini’s Butterfly in Birmingham before that. I’m not sure what else comes after this. There are still some things pending for the fall of 2013 which we haven’t finalized yet, so I can’t talk about them yet.
But I was surprised with that lack of Verdi too; even other companies have asked me to do a touch of Wagner. I had never had a great interest to look into that repertoire particularly, although I lived in Germany for five years and at that time I considered some Wagner parts, specifically the Dutchman and the baritone parts of The Valkyries, things like that, but it never really panned out, I never got a contract for those things. There is something pending in the fall for a company to do a Valkyries. Personally I just don’t have that interest in that repertoire. I was kind of anticipating a full season of Falstaffs and Rigolettos and Nabuccos and things like that, it would have been a great season for me!
OL – Right! Yes, I was actually trying to find out if there is something in Parma and Bussetto, his place of birth, and there wasn’t much. I think Italy is kind of letting go from culture, it’s a shame.
TT – Oh my God, of course it is, yes! It’s ridiculous!
OL – Back to Opera Carolina, it’s usually very good there. You’ve sang for them before. What was your experience like?
TT – Yes, I did Aïda a few years ago, and I was back last January for Butterfly in the Kaneko-designed production. I love Charlotte, I really love that community. Maestro Meena is just tops. He is a fabulous opera conductor. Oh my God, the fact that he memorizes everything is impressive. He does that and doesn’t miss a cue. In rehearsals if anything falls apart, he is able to fix it. His preparation is remarkable. It’s always a great process. When it’s time to rehearse you don’t feel like it’s put together in a few days. There is a lot of care that goes into it. The community is very supportive. I enjoy my time there a lot.
OL – They are very professional and organized. It’s incredible how well they do everything.
TT – Yes, it’s absolutely true. Working with James Meena is a pleasure. His artistic criteria are very high; everybody needs to bring their A game when they perform for Maestro Meena. It’s a great situation.
OL – OK, that's what I had to ask. Thank you so much!
TT – My pleasure! Thank you for your time!