Thursday, April 19, 2012

Meet Our Singers: BRETT POLEGATO, Sharpless

Today we check in with baritone Brett Polegato, who sings the role of Sharpless in Madama Butterfly. He first sang at Seattle Opera in Heggie's The End of the Affair in 2005 and returned for Iphigénie en Tauride in 2007. Brett talks about what Sharpless is doing in Japan, the role of Dandini in Rossini's Cinderella, which he'll sing for us next season, and being a Twitter-savvy singer.

The last time we heard you in Seattle was in the fall of 2007, for Oreste in Iphigénie en Tauride. Have you been keeping busy since then?
It’s hard to believe Iphigénie was five years ago. I've done a lot of different things in that time. Basically I’ve been moving into more dramatic repertoire. I did my first Eugene Onegin and my second and third, all in the same year. Two years ago I was in Russia at the Bolshoi doing Wozzeck. I just came from Calgary, from a production of Moby Dick, Jake Heggie's wonderful new opera. It’s an incredibly sympathetic role, the role of Starbuck. He is the first mate on the Pequod, answering only to Captain Ahab, and is caught in a very difficult position because he needs to represent his men and follow his instincts, but also obey Captain Ahab. Starbuck is really torn between his need to reason with Ahab—he sees that destruction is imminent, given Ahab’s obsession—but also needs to be obedient. Of all the characters in the show, he’s probably the most sympathetic because of that conflict. I’ve done a number of Don Giovannis since then...standard productions, but also a quite modern production. I also did the two operas I’ll be doing here—Butterfly now and Cinderella next season. Both were in Toronto, and strangely enough the same sets we're using here. My Sharpless costume still has my name in it—and it still fits! The show was three years ago, so I’m very happy about that.

William Burden as Pylades (left) and Brett Polegato as Orestes (right) in Iphigénie en Tauride.
Photo by Bill Mohn

Tell us about Sharpless. We don't find out all that much about him in the opera...
You know, I love characters that don’t have any back story. So often with pieces that are based on literature, people recommend that you read the book to find out more. And I do, but I also like to look at the piece and not try to impose things that aren't in the score. Onegin is a good example because there was a book and then a play, Moby Dick the same, and while I often go back to the source after I’ve created a character, it’s kind of nice to fill in the details yourself. With Sharpless, what intrigues me about him is that here’s this American man, in the early part of the century, who has come over to Japan. Why did he decide to leave America to go to a country that’s very private? The customs and the deportment of the people are very private. He’s single. I don’t think he’s that old, maybe mid-40s. I think there’s something in his past or in his being that is very private, and he feels drawn to the Japanese culture of privacy as opposed to the more open American culture. I'm also intrigued by the position Sharpless is placed in in this drama. He's obviously Pinkerton’s representative, he has to fulfill Pinkerton's orders, and with very few exceptions he never speaks his mind. In the first act he tries, very kindly, to warn Pinkerton of the results of his actions, of his frivolity, and in the third act for about 30 seconds he lets loose and says, “I told you this was going to happen.” But it’s fascinating for an Italian opera that he never really expresses what he feels about the whole situation. It’s not because he doesn’t have an opinion. I think that’s his character.

So what is his opinion?
As someone who has lived in Japan for a while, he understands the ramifications of certain actions, he understands the protocol. In Act 1, he guides Pinkerton through the wedding ritual; he’s obviously told Pinkerton, "These are the people you need to pay off, this is how you need to entertain the family once the ceremony has taken place, this is the kind of house you need to have," all those superficial things. But he also knows the culture, the social expectations, and I think he’s trying to translate that for Pinkerton, who does not have the cultural awareness that Sharpless has. On top of that Pinkerton has a very carefree attitude. He says, “a traveling American should go and enjoy the fruits of every country he visits.” So not only are their cultures very different, but Pinkerton’s interpretation of the American culture is quite extreme.

Brett Polegato in rehearsal for Madama Butterfly
Photo by Alan Alabastro

Does Sharpless know that this is going to end the way it does?
Well, when Sharpless says, “Let’s drink to your family back home,” Pinkerton responds, “Yes, and to the day when I will have a real wedding with a real American bride.” That’s pretty much the last thing that they say to each other. Up until then I think Sharpless worries that Pinkerton didn't know what he’s getting into, but after that comment, I think Sharpless realizes for sure that this is not going to end well. Now I don’t for a minute think he realizes just how badly it’s going to end...but he knows there’s going to be some damage control in the future.

What's your favorite part of this opera to perform?
The letter scene, because it’s so exquisite, dramatically. It’s the easiest scene to act because it doesn’t require any acting. Just reading that letter, knowing what it contains, and seeing Butterfly next to you, is heartbreaking. And Puccini, being a genius, gives a hint of the Humming Chorus, and even though my character doesn't hear the music, and even if he did, he wouldn't know what it entails yet because it happens later, when that starts in the orchestra it always devastates me. It’s an incredibly well-written scene.

Brett Polegato (Sharpless) rehearses a scene with Patricia Racette (Butterfly)
Photo by Alan Alabastro

You're here now doing a serious role in a very dramatic tragedy. But next year, we'll see you as Dandini in Cinderella, Rossini's brilliant comedy. Which type of show is more congenial to you?
I think by nature I’m a much more dramatic, serious person. Yet during my career I’ve done a lot of comedic roles. In fact, there are companies that only hire me to do comedy because that’s all they’ve ever seen me do. I think part of the success I've had is that I don’t play comedy, I play it seriously. I usually play the sidekick, you know, people like Papageno and Dandini. And I tend to play them quite naively, which is funny. As someone once said to me years ago, “They have to be childlike, but not childish.” And I think that’s the difference. As soon as you start becoming childish on stage, it pushes the audience away. But when you are just innocent, that’s funny. Because you respond to situations in a way that a more experienced person wouldn’t, and so the audience, who is more experienced, sees those moments as charming.

Julianne Gearhart, who sang Amour in Orphée et Eurydice for us last month, said that comedy may be funny to the audience, but it's never funny to the characters. They're just living their lives.
Yes, and it’s also never exaggerated. I’m a very economic actor, meaning that I don’t move on stage unless there’s a reason to. I’m quite still, and I think that works well in comedy because comedy needs to be very precise. A gesture or a turn of the head or one specific move reads much stronger, in a comic moment, than a lot of semaphoring.

Do you have a favorite comedic role?
I love Dandini. I don’t know if he’s my favorite, but he’s so likeable. He’s like Papageno in that, but he’s not quite that innocent. He also has a lot more to do. Unlike Papageno, he gets the chance to be mean at times—he’s quite mean to Magnifico. He has nothing to lose; from the get-go, he knows he’s prince for a day. With all the other characters, the stakes are quite high. But with Dandini, regardless of what happens, he knows he’s going back to being a valet the next day, so he can do whatever he wants when he's portraying the prince, and no matter what he does the prince can’t get back at him. He probably knows he’s going to get it the next day. But he gets it every day!

Brett Polegato as Henry Miles in The End of the Affair
Photo by Bill Mohn

On another note, I've noticed you're an active tweeter.
When we were doing Cinderella in Toronto, a friend of mine said, "You really should get a Twitter account—four other singers in this cast have accounts." It’s a great way for people to learn a little more about you without having to seek you out. It's a nice way to stay connected with people. I would say I am a mild Twitter user. Yesterday I tweeted about the view from my apartment, and I tweet a lot about books because I’m an avid reader. I hope people will realize that while I adore singing, my entire life is not singing.

Do you ever receive tweets from fans?
Yeah, and it’s interesting to compare who follows me as a result of shows I’m doing. For instance, I was recently doing a Wagner concert in the UK and I got about 60 new followers, which is a lot for me. So even in Twitter, Wagner fans are legion and devoted. And I connect with authors through it, and with friends. Unlike Facebook, where it is really friends that connect with you, with Twitter I’m always surprised to find people I don’t know. You’ll log on and someone in Australia is following you. Was it a recording they heard? Were they at a show? Or…

You mention you're an avid reader. So, what are you currently reading?
I am reading a wonderful book called the Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey. It’s based on a Russian fairytale called the Snow Maiden, and I’m not finished yet but it’s about a couple who have recently lost their young child—the woman had a miscarriage—and they moved to Alaska in the early '20s to get away from the memory, and one night during the snowfall, they build a snowman—a snowgirl—and in the morning when they wake up, it’s gone. And then they see glimpses of this young girl. It’s the story of how this girl who lives in the woods comes into their lives, and she disappears every summer, so you’re never quite sure if it’s in their imaginations or whether this girl actually exists.

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