Alan's Blog...It's all Gesamtkunstwerk to me!

Thoughts from nearly 40 years on the professional stage

October 2013

Age appropriate roles...growing through time

In any opera career, one always hopes to sing repertoire that is age appropriate. As a young singer, finding repertoire that is fitting for someone just starting out that is not too taxing, that the singer can relate to on an emotional level, and that allows one to identify with the character, can be a difficult prospect. We are constantly warned not to take on repertoire that is too heavy and that can damage the instrument before it’s had a chance to mature. Throwing a young singer into leading Wagner roles would be like throwing a junior high basketball player into the NBA. On the other hand, a singer has to find challenges that helps them to grow and develop as a singer. An artist should never simply coast.

In addition, it is very difficult to find roles that are “age appropriate”. As a young bass-baritone, I was constantly playing characters that were much older than I. It just came with the territory. I occasionally got to sing a role like Colline in “La Boheme” or Angelotti in “Tosca” which were closer to my own age. However, many of the roles required me to sing without the experience of life that might have been beneficial. I had to rely on acting skills and a lot of observation to pull them off.

I’ve noticed, in the past few years, that I’ve reached a wonderful stage in my career where the “appropriate age” has been reached. Wotan, The Flying Dutchman, Amfortas, Hans Sachs, and many other of my roles, are meeting me right where I live. A singer needs maturity, life experience (and vocal development) to be able to pull these roles off well. I pour a lot of myself into my roles in order to make them as human as possible.

I think I’ve thought about this even more as of late when singing Captain Balstrode in “Peter Grimes” here in Toronto. We had an incredible opening night this past Saturday. In my last journal entry, I reflected a bit on all the times I’ve sung this role. The first time I sang it, I was only in my mid-30s. I was, perhaps, a bit young chronologically to sing the role. I jumped into a run of the opera at The Metropolitan Opera for a singer who had become ill--a singer who was an opera hero of mine--and who was nearly twice my age. He was more the age of what one would expect out of a Captain Balstrode. One does not need to be all that old to sing the role and the role doesn’t need to be played as an “elderly” gentleman. However, now that I am a little more “seasoned”, I find how much more I can relate to this “old salt”. I can slip into his shoes a little more easily. They seem to fit very well.

In addition, vocally, the role fits me better than ever. And when that happens, a singer finds that he can invest more of himself dramatically into the role as well. I’ve absolutely felt that on my more recent performances of Wagner and Strauss. I’ll never regret taking on some of these roles early in life. But, I’m very happy (and fortunate) that they are still with me in my more stable days.

Finally, an artist has to realize that there comes a time to say good-bye to a few roles as well. I started doing just that a few years back. As much as I loved some of those roles, it became obvious that I couldn’t pull off the youthful swag and some of the other guys that visited my repertoire. Casting has changed (some of that is good---some of it is very bad). I found, with one of my most performed roles, a role that really is ageless, that I was in casts where most everyone in the cast was 10, 15, and even over 20 years younger than me. I certainly didn’t feel “threatened” by that and knew that I was still bringing a lot to the performance. However, something just didn’t “look right” and I had a lot of other roles that I thought I could bring more to. In order to be fully adhered to Wagner’s “Gesamtkunstwerk” (which I fully buy into), one has to be mindful of just what his experiences, talents, and abilities can bring to the table.

So, once again, I thank my roles for teaching me something. I think I’ve learned a lot from these characters---and, I think I’ve given a lot of myself to them.

Peter Grimes and Balstrode...and beautiful birds

I first sang the role of Balstrode, in “Peter Grimes”, in a 1994 production at The Metropolitan Opera. I wasn’t scheduled to sing this run at The Met. However, one of my opera heroes, Thomas Stewart, became ill and the Met scrambled to find anyone who knew the role to jump in. I was in the process of learning the role in order to sing it for the first time, in Vancouver, a few weeks later. With very short notice, I quickly crammed the role into my head and showed up at The Met for 2-3 rehearsals (that’s all!!!). I was then thrown into a wonderful production with a great cast. I hoped I wouldn’t drown--after all, it’s an opera with the sea as a main character. It turned out to be a great experience and a fine success.

A few weeks later, we began our rehearsals for the new production in Vancouver where I had a proper rehearsal period. Since then, I’ve gone on to sing the role in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. as well as at La Scala in Milan, Italy. The role served as my debut with this fabled company. What an experience it was to hear the La Scala Chorus sing “Old Joe has gone Fishing”.

I am THRILLED to be a part of the production that we will open on Saturday night, October 5, here in Toronto at The Canadian Opera Company. Over the last 18 months, this company has become sort of an opera “home” for me. The productions have been interesting and there is a strong collegial atmosphere in our work. This production is haunting, as Grimes should be---powerful, well sung, wonderfully acted, and mesmerizing. It has been directed incredibly well--and the conducting, well, it doesn’t get any better! The audiences are in for a treat. And wow, does the orchestra play well--and the chorus? Excellent! I am honored to be working with this cast in what has truly become one of my favorite operas.

Benjamin Britten, who was born 100 years ago (a huge Britten celebration continues around the world), was (is) one of my favorite composers. NOBODY has set the English language better in opera. I have sung several of his operas--in addition to “Grimes”, I’ve sung “The Rape of Lucretia”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and, for my Metropolitan Opera debut, “Billy Budd”. Britten sets text in a way that makes it possible to be understood even in large opera houses. He uses the orchestra to create great characters and set moods. He immerses the text and the music in a way that makes my job much easier. And, his characters are so real! I’ve loved playing each Britten character that has come my way.

But there is one thing about productions of “Grimes” that truly thrills me. The cast has to work together so closely and the soloists get to interact with the chorus so heavily. It truly is an ensemble opera. No, my role, although tricky, is not the hardest in my repertoire. But there isn’t a production of this opera that I haven’t been overjoyed to be in. I’ve never turned down singing this role--and I can’t imagine I ever would. It is a joy to come to each rehearsal and a LOT of fun. This is a very disturbing opera in some respects. However, the cast always finds a way to live through it--largely, because we share the experience together and feed off each other so well. This is certainly the case here in Toronto--just as it was in San Francisco, Washington, and Milan. And, concerts of this opera await for me in St. Louis and at Carnegie Hall this Fall with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. I’m looking forward to each moment with this incredible score.

It’s almost opening night and nearly time to hit the high seas here in Toronto. I wish all the best to my colleagues, cast, orchestra and chorus. We are doing something very special! Let’s enjoy it!

OH--and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that, once again, my Cardinals are in the post season playoffs. In fact, as I write this, they’ve taken a nice lead in their first game of the Divisional Series. Let’s go Redbirds!

And, that’s not a bad way to spend a week---with seagulls and cardinals.