[Opera Lively interviews # 93, 94, and 95] The excellent Opera Carolina has presented Bizet's beautiful opera Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers)
in Charlotte, NC at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center (Belk Theater; 130 North Tryon Street), on April 13 at 8 PM, 18 at 7:30 PM, and 21 at 2 PM, 2013.
This interesting traditional production but with modern visual effects (projections) was directed for the stage by a French director (Bernard Uzan), and conducted by a French conductor (Emmanuel Joel-Hornak), making for stylistic accuracy.
Opera Lively has provided in-depth analysis of the opera (circumstances of composition, musical structure, synopsis, famous singers with video clips, etc.) [here
We also participated in the pre-opera events, with a table set-up (on opening night only), to sell and sign our book "Opera Lively - The Interviews" which features not only international opera luminaries such as Anna Netrebko and Joyce Didonato, but also Opera Carolina artists such as Maestro James Meena, and singers who participated in the company's productions of last season. The book author, Luiz Gazzola, has also delivered a pre-opera mini-lecture on what to listen for in The Pearl Fishers
, at 7:30 PM before the opening night show.
Here is the text for the full pre-opera talk (only about half of this was delivered live at the theater):
[click here for the pre-opera talk
Now, the present article contains interviews with the three principal singers, soprano Janinah Burnett in the role of Leila, tenor Chad Johnson who will be singing Nadir, and baritone Mark Walters who is the production's Zurga (their photos below are in this same order). Questions by Luiz Gazzola.
© Opera Lively - Disclaimer: these exclusive interviews below are copyrighted by Opera Lively with all rights reserved, and are not to be reproduced without express authorization. Brief excerpts can be used after consultation (use the Contact Us form) as long as proper credit and a link to the full interview on Opera Lively are provided. Links to the interviews can be posted without authorization.
We tried to keep about the same style for all three interviews - some common questions about the production and the roles to start with (it will be interesting to contrast how the three artists replied to these similar questions), then some more singer-specific questions.
THE EXCLUSIVE OPERA LIVELY INTERVIEW WITH JANINAH BURNETT
Opera Lively - What are your expectations for this production of The Pearl Fishers by Opera Carolina?
Janinah Burnett - I expect it to be a wonderful production, entertaining, with great music, and fun! We’ve been in rehearsal every day since I got here. It’s coming along well. What is really cool is that the staging has some video projections as part of the visual effects of the opera, and that is going to be nice!
OL - Let’s talk about the role of Leila. It’s a role for a lyric soprano, with pure and limpid vocality. Does it sit well for you? Your main cavatina ends in a rather high zone. Do you see special challenges in singing this role?
JB - Yes, it does sit well for my voice, I love it. The special challenge is actually to keep the voice high and florid, especially in the first aria which is nothing like the rest of the role [laughs]! It is as if the role goes from lighter coloratura to lyric, and then to full lyric. It is almost as if there are three voices in one, the latter being what is most closely related to a full lyric soprano role.
OL - Famous singers sometimes have avoided this role, afraid that it took second place to the male roles in this opera. Still, there were compelling versions by, among others, Pierrette Alarie, Liliane Berton, Annick Massis, and Mirella Freni. Have any of these, or someone else, functioned as inspiration for you? Do you typically listen to others when you prepare for a role?
JB - The recording that I have is with Ileana Cotrubas, however that was only to just hear the instrumentation and what not. Once I began to sing it with my voice, it was my voice that informed me of how I would sing it, if that makes sense. I didn’t really listen to Mirella Freni or any of the other singers that you mentioned. I prefer to have my own take.
OL - The boys get the two big musical moments with the “Au fond du temple saint” duet, and “Je crois entendre encore.” The public however sometimes forgets that Leila also has a great musical moment, the cavatina “Comme autrefois, dans la nuit sombre.”
JB - Yes, it is very beautiful.
OL - What plans do you have to make of this show and your interpretation of Leila, a compelling one?
JB - Just to sing it as beautifully as I can, to be as committed to allow my voice to be an extension of the emotion of the character as possible. I feel that that is what is going to inform what comes out of my mouth: the commitment to the emotion.
OL - How do you describe the psychology of your character, torn between this impossible choice between love and religious duty? How relevant it is for a contemporary woman? What emotional impact does he have on you, as an artist and as a person?
JB - Yes, we are working with some new concepts that I hadn’t even thought about when I did the role before. We had dialogues about the character and about this aspect of the religious duty with regard to Leila. I feel like her commitment to love supersedes everything in this situation. This is connected to me because I feel the same way. Love is so important; love is an amazing, beautiful gift. I definitely relate to my character and with her choices. Things that happened to her in her life before the opera have informed the decisions that she’s made. It is not like she is just thinking “oh, duty, this is my calling, I’m a priestess.” No, she made her decisions because of love. We discovered that Zurga said to her, “if you feel that you cannot fulfill this assignment that you are taking on, you can walk away and not do it.” So, it’s not like she has to do it. She chooses to do it because Nadir is there and she chooses to be close to him. This is familiar to me and I definitely identify with her choice.
OL - Now let’s talk about your career. You have just recently been a part of a celebrated new production of Parsifal at the Met, with maestro Gatti. This production had excellent reviews. Can you tell us a bit about it, and how was your experience in singing Wagner?
JB - Yes! Oh, I enjoyed it so much, I had a great time! It was a great challenge, it was the first time I sung Wagner. The music was quite challenging. But it was so wonderful to see how my colleagues who have done Wagner, how they approach it and how they sing such difficult music, how they commit themselves to the text! It was wonderful to do something that was so stylized as well! It was a great challenge to be in a production that had physicality and movement with the music. It was a great, great experience. Because the vocal part was so difficult, the conductor advised us to do our best to stay with him; that was a big part of it, [laughs] to just stay connected with him, and to be quick. As far as the language went, we needed to stay true to the vowels as well, that was a big thing.
OL - Especially interesting was your participation in the La Bohème directed by Baz Luhrmann that had 82 consecutive sold-out performances in LA, and also in Broadway, and San Francisco. Would you please tell us about the challenges of singing in these theaters usually suited for musicals, as an opera singer?
JB - It was actually the opera, in spite of it being done in theaters that are usually used for musicals. We sang the opera La Bohème
on Broadway. It was nothing different, the score was not changed, the only thing that was different was some of the instrumentation, to accommodate the smaller orchestra pit.
OL – Was it miked?
JB - It was miked, yes.
OL – Was it very different for you, to sing with a microphone?
JB - Not at all, I sang it exactly the same way that I would sing it elsewhere. We didn’t even notice that the mikes were there. It wasn’t much of an adjustment.
OL – But so many performances in a row were quite a tour-de-force; how did you manage to keep it fresh?
JB - Yes. But what we did was that we had rotating casts. We had three main casts and a cover. I wouldn’t necessarily sing back to back all the time. It was fine. And it ended up being a very good way to learn how to sing, because it was really early in my career, it was my first job out of graduate school. So, it was cool, because it wasn’t necessarily all the pressure of the opera world. It was a more relaxed setting, in that it was Broadway, they weren’t as stringent on certain things, so, it was relaxed, although different for me considering my rigorous opera training. We knew the music, and we performed the music as it was written. It was a very good experience.
OL - You have performed with Ray Charles. How was that? Do you have an interest in crossover or in jazz?
JB - I do sing jazz music, it was the first thing that I sang and studied at school. I enjoy singing all sorts of music, but especially opera and jazz, those are the two that I really sing most frequently. My interaction with Ray Charles was great. He was very animated and serious about his music, and that it was correctly done. It was a good experience! I did it while I was in college, it was fun. It was a good thing to watch him interact with his band and his music directors.
OL - Please tell us about your experience with the group Three Mo’ Divas.
Yes! I say that it was a great challenge, because I had to sing in so many different styles! When I was growing up, I always thought that I wanted to be the kind of singer who could sing anything. I didn’t want there to be any style that I wasn’t able to be proficient in. Three Mo’ Divas gave me the opportunity to do that, to practice that, and to fully put that into practice. I enjoyed working with my colleagues, who were all multi-talented as well. It was one of the greatest experiences in my career.
OL - You’re taking the Porgy and Bess Suite to Lisbon, and you’ve done the opera itself several times in various European countries. How does the European public receive this quintessentially American piece?
JB - Oh, they love it. They love that more than anything I’ve done in Europe. They specifically love the music of the African-American community, the African Diaspora. They love it because there is nothing like it anywhere else. It’s indigenous to America. We got standing ovations everywhere.
OL - What are your plans and goals for the future of your career?
JB - Oh my Goodness. Well, in addition to singing in all of the major opera houses around the world, I intend to have a presence in film and television, and I intend to do as much as I can to aid young people, knowing and understanding that they can do so much more than they can ever imagine, so much more than what is presented to them.
OL – Interesting. Do you already have some activity in this kind of outreach?
JB - At the moment, in New York, I am present in working with different community organizations. There are companies there like Opera Noire and Opera Ebony that have good outreach opportunities for me. I used to teach at the Harlem School of the Arts but my schedule got so hectic that I wasn’t able to continue my teaching there, but any chance that I get to help the kids when I’m home, I do. In fact, last night I sang at the Delta Sigma Theta Cotillion for High School women in Charlotte, and I was so glad that the head of the Opera Board asked me to do so! It was a pleasure.
OL – I’ve interviewed a few weeks ago Lawrence Brownlee, and we were talking about the beautiful African-American classical music repertoire that is unfortunately poorly know. He has just released a CD with spirituals. Do you have any plans to diffuse this repertoire?
JB – Yes, In fact I perform spirituals regularly and do have plans to do some recordings, I do.
OL - How did you become an opera singer? How did classical music came into your life?
JB - I went to an HBCU [Editor’s note: Historically Black Colleges and Universities] called Spelman College, and it was there that I got into classical music, because my colleagues sang it and I knew about it, but it just hadn’t crossed my path in such a way that I was ready to study it. So, I got into it in my sophomore year, and I was full on into classical singing. By the time I graduated I knew that I wanted to continue with my study of the classical music idiom.
OL - How are you as a person? Would you describe a bit your personality, likes and dislikes, and interests outside of opera?
JB - I guess my interests outside of opera are pretty varied. I enjoy dancing, yoga, listening to different styles of music, going to hear different styles of music, I just enjoy many things that will expand my horizons all involved with the arts somehow, or yoga [laughs]. But I’m a pretty reserved person, not so outgoing all of the time.
OL – Thank you so much, I’ll be there Saturday rooting for you and hoping that it will be a fabulous show; I’m sure it will.
JB - Yes, it will. It will be wonderful, thank you.
THE EXCLUSIVE OPERA LIVELY INTERVIEW WITH CHAD JOHNSON
OL - What are your expectations for this production of The Pearl Fishers by Opera Carolina?
CJ - We have staged the whole thing with the director in rehearsal. It’s going be a very straightforward true telling of the story, which is really great. It’s a beautiful production with a beautiful set and beautiful costumes. Because Bernard is French, he really understands the text, so I think it will be a very clear and concise and beautiful production.
OL – I see. I just talked to your colleague Ms. Burnett, and she said you’ve been working on some new concepts that the stage director is bringing to this production. She had done the role before but had never thought of it in this new way. I actually forgot to follow up on this; so, maybe you can tell me what new concepts are these.
CJ – Sure. The thing that he is focusing on is that there is really just the trio. The situation just involves Nadir, Zurga, and Leila. None of the other characters in the opera really know what is happening in our relationship. The friendship between me and Zurga, they know of; but they do not know that I’m in love with Leila and they do not know that Zurga has feelings for her either. He is really making a point to keep everyone else in the dark. Because normally the way it’s played, Nourabad kind of knows about the relationship between Nadir and Leila, but in the text, in the libretto, there is no indication that Nourabad knows about it. So, that’s a different take on it, because usually Nourabad just comes in and yells all the time and says, “Oh, we have to kill Nadir because of this,” but he really doesn’t know about the affair that we are having.
OL – What do you think of your peers, the maestro, and the company?
CJ – Oh, they are wonderful. Bernard, I’ve worked with him, probably ten years ago when we did a Roméo et Juliette in Miami. Janinah is a wonderful singer and she is a great colleague. It’s my first time singing with her. She has a beautiful voice and is a great actress. Mark Walters the baritone and I have worked together many, many times in the past, so it’s great to see him again. John who is Nourabad is brand new and he is doing a great job too. The conductor is also French. It’s so nice! He has such a sense of French style, both musically and in the language. It’s going to be a very authentic Pearl Fishers, because it’s all French-produced, basically.
OL - Let’s talk about the role of Nadir. He is a lyrical tenor role that in my opinion is rather delicate, with the important feature being in some moments an expressive delivery rather than a heroic one, but then, the role changes. Do you see special challenges in singing this role?
CJ – Precisely. Absolutely, Nadir’s aria, so very famous, is extremely high. It’s so exposed, and so serene; you have to be on your game for that moment to really play the way you want it to play. But then, the duet with Zurga is actually quite heroic singing, and especially the trio at the end contains some very big singing as well, so you need to be able to make the required amount of noise that you need for the heroic stuff, then you need to scale back for Nadir’s aria. So, it’s a particularly challenging role in that way.
OL - Famous singers who have tackled this role have included some of the greatest ever, such as Caruso, Alfredo Kraus, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, and Nicolai Gedda. I particularly like Léopold Simeaneau with his elegant, native-speaker French.
CJ – Hm, hm, oh, he is wonderful!
OL - Have any of these, or someone else, functioned as inspiration for you?
CJ – I also love Alain Vanzo, a very good French tenor. And of course Nicolai Gedda and Alfredo Krauss are the absolute staples for this.
OL - Do you typically listen to others when you prepare for a role?
CJ – Sure, initially I go through them. I am a big opera fan, just in life, anyway. Whenever I have something coming up, I always listen to great interpreters of it in the past. Especially with things like Mozart, you can learn a lot, and say “oh, that’s an ornamentation I never thought of.” And if they are working with a great maestro like Colin Davis, stylistically you see what is appropriate and then you can borrow from people who’ve done it in the past, in ways that you never thought to do.
OL - Is it a bit intimidating to sing “Je crois entendre encore” after all those luminaries?
CJ – You always just do it with your own interpretation, with your own voice, and you hope to do Bizet justice and make him proud. That’s all you can do; you can’t ever compare yourself with someone else.
OL – So what are your plans to make of this role, your own, or to make it compelling or special in some way?
CJ – My own interpretation is to be in this dreamy moment and make of it a theatrical event, because the rest is so dramatic before it! With Nadir’s aria, my goal is to just transport people, to make them listen to that serene moment on the beach by himself when he is just dreaming of Leila, and to kind of take everybody along in that journey.
OL – Yes, isn’t that one of the most beautiful moments in all of opera?
CJ – I agree!
OL - How do you describe the psychology of your character, torn between fraternal friendship, and his love for Leila?
CJ – Well, I think he is a complicated character to play because he really does not honor his friend very well. He comes and sings that duet, and they say “we are brothers, our love for each other is greater than the love for a woman,” but basically in the same breath Leila arrives on the boat, and he goes against everything that he just said. [laughs] You know, he really is not a very good friend [laughs] to Zurga, and kind of just goes for the girl from the very beginning. So, it’s complicated to play because he is not a bad guy, he’s just a lovesick tenor. But Zurga definitely gets the short end of the stick. There is no real way to play it differently than that.
OL - Now let’s talk about your career. You were an apprentice in a number of interesting institutions – the Opera Studio in Graz, Austria, and the Young Artists Program of some of our nice regional opera companies such as the Chicago Opera Theater, Santa Fe Opera, Glimmerglass, and Florida Grand Opera. Would you please compare and contrast these experiences and tell us what you got out of them? Was there anything particular about any of these?
CJ – They were hugely instrumental in my training. In fact I didn’t finish college. I dropped out of college and went right into the Young Artists Program of the Chicago Opera Theater. From there I got into Santa Fe. I was very young for all of this; I was twenty-two, twenty-three years old. They kind of recognized potential in me, so… I wasn’t doing big roles; it was literally just me having coaching and understudying, and being in the chorus. Which was great, because I was already in the mix, in the professional opera world, and people knew who I was at an early age. Then I auditioned for Florida Grand while I was in Santa Fe, and they accepted me there. That was in 2004. They had already begun the kind of downfall in in their budget. All the companies have lost so much money in the last several years! The day I got there, literally my contract doubled, and I did roles in almost every show; I was on stage all the time when I was there. I was doing recitals, and I was having just constant performance experiences which was invaluable.
I also met my voice teacher there; her name is Virginia Zeani. She is very famous; she trained at La Scala; she was basically the foremost Violetta of all time; she had more than 640 performances of Violetta with every major tenor and opera company in the world. She really taught me the basics of singing technique there. I was there for several years and went to Glimmerglass in the summers. Glimmerglass gave me my first big break. At the last minute they needed someone for a performance of Pirates of Penzance. I had been there for the last two seasons as an apprentice, and they gave me the role of Frederic. I got my first New York Times review, and I got my agent from that. So, this took my career from being an apprentice to a full time managed singer.
So, they were all instrumental, they were all a stepping stone to prepare me for a full time career which I’m having now.
OL – What about Austria, when did you go there?
CJ – Austria, I did when I was very, very young. I was probably nineteen when I went there, maybe twenty. That was wonderful too, but I was so young! I was still a student, but it was a great summer. We studied with Everett McCorvey who is a teacher at the University of Kentucky and we did make some great progress under her guidance – but I was a baby! [laughs]
OL - Especially interesting was the fact that you were in a production directed by Renata Scotto. I didn’t know that she had directed opera. Can you tell us about it, and also, tell us if there was something special or different in being directed for the stage by such a famous singer? Did she have a bigger advantage over other directors, for knowing so well what singing is like?
CJ – Actually her directing style is quite similar to most directors’. I did La Traviata with her at Florida Grand Opera but I was just Gastone. But she really knew exactly how to make the role of Violetta really play. All three roles, even; Violetta, Alfredo, and Papa Germont, she really knew how to make the connections between these roles. She put the soprano on stage in positions to really make her shine, and to have the easiest of vocal productions. That would have been her advantage, from having done or interacted with all these roles, now, directing, she knows where the pitfalls are, and how to avoid them, from the singer’s standpoint.
OL - Your career has focused mostly on the Italian and French repertories. What are some of your goals for the near and distant future, in terms of career planning?
CJ – I really do enjoy singing the French repertoire, I’m trying to expand my French roles because they lend themselves to my voice quite well. They sit a little bit higher and there are some fairly dramatic parts, but you can also, like in Nadir’s aria, scale back and do voix mixte singing , with different colors. I really enjoy the challenges of that, and also because so much of the French operas are so text-driven, and with texts that are really interesting. You can’t just go there and make a whole bunch of noise; you have to really be immersed in the French style and language. I am very much looking forward to do Roméo, and Werther, and to adding more French roles into my repertoire.
OL - How did you become an opera singer? How did classical music came into your life?
CJ – I’ve always loved classical music. I remember seeing Marilyn Horne on TV when I was just a boy, back when she still had black hair, that’s how long ago it was. [laughs] Opera, I don’t know why, but I remember being interested in it since I was maybe five or six years old. It was always something in the back of my mind. I wanted to be an actor, first; then I started taking voice lessons when I was seventeen, in high school. Then I got a scholarship to college. I did my first opera in college. I had been going to the operas. I’m from the Western part of the State of Michigan, and we had an opera company there called Opera Grand Rapids which is not far from my hometown, and I’d go to the free-for-students final dress rehearsal in almost every opera that they produced, while I was there. So I really always appreciated the art form, and I went by and started singing it. I found this unique challenge to learn vocal technique, and the languages, and the styles, and it was fascinating; there was never a dull moment. So that’s kind of how I got into it.
OL – Was your family into it as well? Did they have a musical background?
CJ – No, I was the first professional musician in my family, but now my brother is a professional musician and my sister is a musician as well. So, there is some hidden gene… [laughs], just waiting to come out.
OL – [laughs] That’s right! Interesting. So, the last question. How are you as a person? Would you describe a bit your personality, likes and dislikes, and interests outside of opera?
CJ – The great thing about this singing career is that it involves so much traveling and so much meeting new people, which is something that I just love, anyway. Being on the road and traveling and singing in places, is something that I always enjoyed. So now I’m paid to do it, mostly, which is great! [laughs].
I live in New York City and I have a great group of friends there; they are like a family to me. When I’m home, I enjoy what we call staycations, a time to just stay home in my apartment and see my friends. I’m usually studying for my next opportunity, my next engagement. But yes, that’s it, just catching up with friends and spending time with them – I’m a very social person. When I’m away from them on the road for a long time, I like to go back and reconnect.
OL – Thank you so much for your time.
CJ – Absolutely!
OL – I’ll be watching opening night and I wish you the best.
CJ – Fantastic, enjoy the show! Thank you so much! Take care!
THE EXCLUSIVE OPERA LIVELY INTERVIEW WITH MARK WALTERS
Opera Lively - What are your expectations for this production of The Pearl Fishers by Opera Carolina?
Mark Walters – Well, it’s my first time doing a Pearl Fishers production, and also my first time working with this French conductor, and I really enjoyed it so far, I think he is excellent, and very attuned to bringing forth and presenting the French style. So my expectation is that it is going to be a very polished and musically refined – as far as the French goes – and hopefully moving production, also.
OL – Any comments about the staging?
MW – It’s going well. The chorus is doing a great job. I’m very curious to see the projections that Bernard has worked up for this production. I know that they will be a big part of the experience.
OL - Let’s talk about the role of Zurga. He is rather high-pitched for a baritone. Do you see special challenges in singing this role?
MW – The last role that I just did was Jack Rance in La Fanciulla del West
by Puccini, and it is significantly lower. So it’s taken my voice a little bit of time to adjust back up to the height of this, and also it is a little bit of a challenge because it’s a declamatory role, there’s a lot of it. Zurga comes in often to interrupt what is going on [laughs] on stage, and he has to take over the stage with his voice, so in that way it is a challenge to come in and dominate the scene vocally so often. It’s a good work out.
OL - Famous singers who have tackled this role have included, from the native French speaking side, René Bianco, Michel Dens, Gabriel Bacquier, and Ernest Blanc. The non natives have included Giuseppe Taddei, Sesto Bruscantini, and Vicente Sardinero, among others. Have any of these, or someone else, functioned as inspiration for you? Do you typically listen to others when you prepare for a role?
MW – I try to listen to native language singers whenever I’m working on a role, so the first three baritones that you named, I’m very familiar with. René Bianco was probably the main singer that I listened to in preparation for this. They were also the Verdi singers from their era in the French companies, you know, so they also sang Rigoletto and the big dramatic Italian roles, which doesn’t necessarily happens in The Pearl Fishers any more, it’s all cast with a heavy dark voice. I’m starting to sing the Verdi repertoire so it was one reason to listen to those types of voices, to see how they handled the tessitura and the language. But I always try to work with a native speaker when I’m working on a role. I have a French tenor friend who lives in Paris, and I tried to work this role with him. There’s a French coach at the Met with whom I’ve worked my French roles in the past. I’m going to be meeting with the conductor tomorrow and do some more in-depth work on the language. Particularly in French, it’s not the language that I work in the most, so it’s the one I need the most outside help on it, so I try to use other resources to perfect my language skills.
OL - What is your take in terms of interpreting the role of Zurga, in terms of the acting, to make it more compelling?
MW – I always tend to fall in love a little bit with the soprano that I’m working with on stage. So, if I’m attracted to her as a person sometimes I tend to transfer that into the interpretation.
OL – How do you describe the psychology of your character, torn between jealousy and fraternal friendship, and ultimately altruistic? What emotional impact does he have on you, as an artist and as a person?
MW - Zurga has a very special relationship with Nadir, also. Their brotherhood is in his mind more important than the relationship with a woman, so it’s a huge pull towards Nadir, to protect him and help taking care of him in Zurga’s character, and I never really had that type of relationship on stage, before, where I really had that deep commitment to this brotherhood with another man on stage. So I think of my own relationship with some of my close friends that I had in my life, and what I’ve done for them and what I was willing to sacrifice for them, and how that can help translate on stage into my relationship with Nadir.
OL – Yes, that’s right. In opera, usually the baritone and the tenor are adversaries. In this case, although there is a bit of that in the middle of the opera, the beginning is based on friendship and the ending is very about a very altruistic, fraternal relationship.
MW – Yes, yes. And I also try to remember if there was any instance in my life where a friend and I had both pursued the same woman, and my good friend in high school and I did date the same woman, not at the same time, so it wasn’t quite the same antagonistic relationship. You know, I was searching for that type of relationship in my memory, also.
OL – Right. What about these shifts? Because there is a significant turmoil of emotions for Zurga, because he starts by saying “we’ll be friends forever” and then at one point he needs to rule on condemning Nadir to death, but he recovers the altruism at the end. Do these shifts represent a particularly challenging problem in terms of the acting?
MW – He condemns Nadir to death once he realizes who the unknown woman was. But it is interesting that the creators added the one little element in it, that Leila had also saved Zurga earlier in her life, had helped hide him, and there is a necklace that reveals all that. That’s the tipping factor that allows Zurga to forgive both of them and to ultimately sacrifice his life for them. I’m still kind of lining up the emotional path through the opera that way, to make sure that I haven’t left anything unfigured out, so that it makes sense when I’m on stage and hopefully to the audience too. So I’m winding through that path, because it is kind of tricky.
OL – Is the stage director bringing up any particular take that he’s got on this piece?
MW – The one thing he said to me that I hadn’t thought about that made a big difference to me was that I am possibly expecting that the unknown priestess that is coming to serenade us, to protect us while we are fishing, while we are diving for the pearls, that I may be thinking that it could be Leila, already. And that I’m concerned that she does a good job and that I might get in the way of her protecting us. I had not thought of that before. It makes sense that she would possibly be the same woman that Nadir and I had seen earlier in our lives. And that was kind of tricky because it fell out of character for me, I was, “oh, OK, so, that idea of wondering – is she Leila? – at the very beginning when she arrives, it sorts of adds a different level for me as an actor.”
OL – Very interesting, yes, that does give another dimension to those scenes, yes. But let’s talk about your career, a little bit. You were featured several times in contemporary music and world premieres. Would you please tell us about your relationship with contemporary music and role creation?
MW – I’ve been fortunate to be in a number of world premieres, especially recently. What I find a sort of interesting part, is that at one point all operas were there. At one point Pearl Fishers
was a brand new opera and no one had ever heard about it, it might or might not have succeeded. I think it is important. When I have the opportunity, I love to be involved with new productions. It is important to continue the cycle of bringing new works to light, whether or not they will last in the long run – they may or may not – but continuing the cycle of creativity, so that composers have a chance to hone their craft and work on their skill. That is as important as presenting the traditional standard repertoire, as far as keeping the art alive and moving forward.
OL – Correct! And what about the challenges of singing fragmented, atonal, often declamatory and non-melodious contemporary music? Do you find it very daunting?
MW – It requires a little more time to prepare, especially when you are doing a brand new score. I don’t play the piano very well myself so I usually have to hire a pianist and have them record the score for me, so that I can absorb the tonality and prepare my part on top of that. What I do find enjoyable in world premieres is, because no one has done it before, it’s really open to my inputs and thoughts about the interpretation. Of course, you want to work with the librettist and the composer, and try to find out… that’s what is good about a world premiere also, is that you get a chance to work with the composer and the librettist. We can sort of imagine what it might have been to chat with Mozart about exactly what he might have in mind with a certain phrase. When you are actually working with a composer, you can say “what were you thinking here?” You can sing it for them in several different ways and see what they think is the best. And also, you’re not, as a performer of a new work, being compared to anybody else who has done the piece before, and it gives you a lot of freedom to bring your own interpretation into the piece.
OL – Right. What I want to ask about next is a little different because it wasn’t a new work, but especially interesting was your participation in the 50th year anniversary production of Susannah, personally overseen by Carlisle Floyd. Do you have interesting memories to tell us about your interaction with the famous composer?
MW – I do. You are probably familiar with the phrase “a gentleman and a scholar” and that was sort of my first thought when I met him. A gentleman and a scholar, Carlisle Floyd is one. What I found most interesting with him, is that he kept referring to his own score; he thought that the tempo markings really determined how the character was presented, at least in Susannah
. It was really interesting. If you took his piece at a quicker tempo, it really changed the dynamics of the character as opposed to a slower tempo. So that was a big part of what we worked on.
OL – Did he conduct the piece himself?
MW – He didn’t conduct. I don’t know if he does conduct. I know that sometimes he stage directs his own work. The conductor was the opera director at Florida State University where Carlisle Floyd wrote it. Originally they tried to use his home, where Carlisle was living, as a set piece, because it wasn’t a very big house. It had been torn down not too long before the production and the opera company had tried to acquire the house so that they could actually use it on stage. At that point in time the conductor – Douglas Fisher – was also trying to write a book about Carlisle and was interviewing him about all of his works. The presenting of Susannah
was part of that process. I’m not sure where his at with the book at this point.
OL – Wow, pretty neat. So, your career has focused mostly on the Italian repertory, with some incursions into French, and many into the English-language repertory. Are German, Russian, and Czech roles in the horizon? What are some of your goals for the near and distant future, in terms of career planning?
MW – You are correct, I haven’t done too much German, actually. Papageno was the last role I did in German and it was twelve years ago. It seems that, for the moment, I’ve been speaking with my agent – actually Bernard is also with my agent – we are focusing on the Italian repertoire for the moment, and Verdi in particular, and we are holding off on the heavier German repertoire until I have another five or ten years of maturity in my voice, and then see where I might fit in the scheme of things at that point. But right now the Italian repertoire seems to fit well, it feels good, and I think I’m more inclined to the interpretations and the vocalisms of the Italian repertoire, at the moment. If my voice continues to grow, if it lowers a little bit more… I don’t know if I would ever do a lot of Wotan, but there are German roles in the Wagner repertoire that might work well for my voice.
OL - How did you become an opera singer? How did classical music come into your life?
MW – My mother was an amateur pianist and she wanted me to join the public school band program in Iowa where I grew up. I started in fourth grade. First I wasn’t interested, but then there was a girl that I knew, that I was interested in, and she joined the band later, and I decided that the band seemed much more attractive at that point [laughs] when she was involved. So that actually led me into the beginning of my formal training as a French horn player around fifth grade. I was ten years old. I had no idea that opera was going to be my career at that point. I sang in church all growing up and originally I went to school to be a music teacher. It was there that I first heard opera and some of my teachers encouraged me to work in that direction. But it wasn’t something I really discovered until probably my early twenties.
OL – Do you recall your first experience singing live opera on stage?
MW – The first opera I ever saw was also the first one I was in. [laughs] It was Tosca
. It was at my undergraduate school and I was the executioner, which is a non-singing role. The faculty were singing all the leads at that point. Actually the conductor of that show was Stephen Sulich and he ended up being a major influence in my understanding and development about opera. He was a coach out of New York who came to conduct this show in Iowa. I’ve known him for the last thirty years and continue to work with him, so a big connection was made at that point.
OL - How are you as a person? Would you describe a bit your personality, likes and interests outside of opera?
MW – Outside of opera I love the outdoors, I hike whenever possible especially when I am performing as part of my travel. I’m a novice golfer. My wife and I whenever we have a chance we go visit her home and family in Japan, she is Japanese. I’m probably a little bit introverted.
OL – Have you performed in Japan?
MW – I’ve done concerts. I did a concert version of Don Giovanni
OL – How was that experience?
MW – That was pretty great. I was the only non-Japanese singer. It was a beautiful hall and the chorus was excellent. It was a great experience.
OL – I hear that the audiences in Japan are very committed to the art form and performances there are often sold out.
MW – Yes, it was a full house and they seemed very enthusiastic.
OL – Right. Thank you so much.
MW – OK, I appreciate your time, thank you!
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