Thursday, October 4, 2012

Meet Our Singers: ARTHUR WOODLEY, Rocco

In dozens of wonderful performances here over the 15 years since his 1997 debut, Arthur Woodley has given Seattle Opera beautiful singing and memorable characters in an astonishingly wide repertory, from a wicked Achilla in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, to a memorable Varlaam in Boris Godunov, to a heart-breaking Crespel in The Tales of Hoffmann. He even did a turn as Hunding in Die Walküre. He has much to do at Seattle Opera this season, appearing first as Rocco, the head jailer in Fidelio; then as Alidoro, the all-powerful tutor to Prince Ramiro in La Cenerentola; and finally he’ll weep for his coat as Colline in La bohème. I talked to him the other day about how a good man slowly erodes to become a person like Rocco—and about why basses have all the fun.

Arthur, Fidelio is the first of three operas you’re singing for us in a row. Which is your favorite one?
That’s difficult. You know, I always think that if I were in the theater I would be a character actor. The great thing about being a bass is you get a chance to explore all these different characters, all these parts of yourself—things maybe you didn’t know you had within you. And you’re able to express them. I will say, I really like playing bad guys.

Arthur Woodley sang the vengeful Dr. Bartolo in Seattle Opera's 2009 Le nozze di Figaro, with Joyce Castle as Marcellina
Rozarii Lynch, photo

In this opera, as Rocco in Fidelio, you’re not exactly a bad guy...
Right. He’s a conflicted character.

Tell us more about him. He seems like such a nice guy—but he has this job, he works for Signor Psychopath, as it were...
We could say it’s economics. He came upon this job, and he has this daughter. There’s no mother involved, but he has to take care of his daughter. So what do you do? You take the job that’s available. I think that's originally what Rocco did. He’s a man of principles; he’s always saying, “This is my duty, this is my job description, and I will do the very best I can.”

He’s proud of being good at his job.
He’s very proud. I think it’s important to him, and to show his daughter: I care about you, I will do what is necessary to keep you in clothes and money, whatever we need to survive. If you’re in a place like a jail, you have to be a survivor. And I think what has happened to Rocco, after all these years, is it is weighing heavily upon him. He’s seen the torture, he’s seen the mistreatment of these people, and he is basically a good man. He believes in the dignity of man. And he has slowly, slowly been eroded, into this man who is afraid of himself dying, of himself being taken away from his daughter, from his livelihood. He’s afraid of all of that. He’s very much afraid of Pizarro.

Greer Grimsley (Pizarro) and Arthur Woodley (Rocco) rehearse a scene from Fidelio
Alan Alabastro, photo

I love your expression there, “This man has been slowly eroded.” How long has Rocco been working at this jail?
Many years. I think his daughter Marzelline, maybe, has been there her entire life.

She doesn’t know that there’s any other way to live.
Exactly. This is all she’s ever seen her father do. And remember, Marzelline realizes how much her father is being beaten down by this. She doesn’t know everything; dad tries to keep these things away from her. But she surmises that this man is suffering mightily. Perhaps he talks in his sleep. Rocco has these physical ailments, and she tries to help him.

They’re a manifestation of what he’s been through...
I believe that when you are put upon by the forces around you, you’re going to suffer psychologically and also physically.

Because Stage Director Chris Alexander isn’t asking you to play him as an old man, physically.
No. It’s the weight of all this...

...that has you falling apart.
Yes, internally. This thing is working its way out, and he can’t take much more. He wishes there was a way out, because of what he’s seen.

Arthur Woodley as Ferrando in Seattle Opera's 2010 Il trovatore
Rozarii Lynch, photo

How long has Pizarro been at this prison?
Pizarro probably came in after.

You were already there, and suddenly you have this new boss: “Oh, here’s the new guy in charge, I guess I’ll try and work with him...”
Yes, Pizarro is ambitious, he knows if does a good job at this prison then the higher-ups are gonna say, “Hey, you’re on your way upward.” He really doesn’t care about me. He’s about his ambition and what he wants.

The libretto is quite specific that Florestan has been in prison here two years. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, compared to how long you’ve been there, slowly...dessicating, as you say.
Yes.

And in Act One, when Pizarro tells you, “I want you to go kill this guy,” you refuse: “Morden? Das ist nicht meine Pflicht,” Murder is not my job. Is that the first time anybody’s ever asked you, so boldly, outright like that?
I think it is the first time anybody has asked me to kill a prisoner myself. I’ve seen it, I’ve witnessed it. That’s one of the causes of my degradation. You can’t get it out of your mind. I drink. Watch carefully, you’ll see me taking little sips from...I call it ‘the forgetfulness juice.’

Christiane Libor (Leonore/Fidelio) and Arthur Woodley (Rocco) rehearse a scene from Fidelio
Alan Alabastro, photo

It’s heavy on him, he is being crushed by this guilt. It’s partly my fault—I lead the prisoners to this place, I feed them, tend them, only for them to be killed. What good am I? I want to break out; I want to feel validated at some point, to say, “I was courageous.” I want my child to be happy: I’m hoping to marry her off to this wonderful guy who just came into our prison and is working with me as an Assistant Jailer. Maybe there will be some happiness, that’s my hope.

Arthur Woodley leads the Seattle Opera chorus in an ensemble from Lucia di Lammermoor

What’s your favorite thing in this opera to sing?
The trio in the first scene, “Gut, Söhnchen, gut,” that’s great. And the quartet, “Mir ist so wunderbar,” the music opens up and you see all the hopes and dreams of the people laid bare by Beethoven. Absolutely gorgeous. All my hopes for my daughter, and all she hopes for herself; you have inklings of what Fidelio wants, and you know what Jaquino wants. And then we sing “Gut, Söhnchen, gut,” you know: “My gosh, I think my child is gonna be ok.” And then of course the big ending, where the governor comes in says to Pizarro: “So this is what’s been going on here, huh?” And I can freely talk, and say, “Yeah! And he did this, and he did that, and everything else...” The burden is lifted.

Sounds like the parts you really enjoy are the better parts of Rocco’s life, his more positive experiences. I notice you haven’t listed the scene where they’re in the dungeon digging up the grave...
No. Beethoven writes that all [sings], dark and deep, and—I’m digging this guy’s grave! Pizarro is going to come in and shoot him in the head, and I’m going to have to cover him! What kind of a life is that?!

Have you sung Fidelio before?
Yes, this is perhaps the fourth time I’ve sung it.

And has it always been contemporary? Have you ever done it in Beethoven’s period, late 18th century?
The first one I ever did, in San Francisco, was not contemporary at all. I did this production [by Chris Alexander] maybe four years ago, in Portland.

What about other Beethoven? Have you sung Beethoven’s 9th?
Not a lot. For a singer, what you want is to do it in good places. I sang it in Carnegie Hall, in Mexico City, places like that.

Now, sopranos and tenors who have to sing the 9th, or Fidelio for that matter, will say, “This man had no idea how to write for the voice.” As a bass, do you find that Beethoven is really hard to sing?
No, I don’t. For the bass, he wrote well. It’s not extreme in any sense, for me. In fact, it’s right smack in the middle. There are some entrances where three of us are singing together, and I might wonder, am I going to be heard?

Well, if you’re up against Greer Grimsley and Clifton Forbis...
Yeah, little voices, in there! [gestures towards rehearsal studio] Am I going to get through, because he tends to write in the lower middle part of the voice, which is not where I’m going to be able to cut. But you deal with that; you just sing, and hopefully it will flow.

Arthur Woodley as Raimondo in Seattle Opera's 2010 Lucia di Lammermoor
Rozarii Lynch, photo

Where do you live? Are you heading back home for breaks between operas?
Yes, home is Montclair, New Jersey, and I’m going home for the long break between Fidelio and La Cenerentola. But between La Cenerentola and La bohème there’s only 2 or 3 days. I’ll go home in November to prepare for those two operas.

Those are both operas you’ve done before?
I did La Cenerentola at the beginning of my career, the first or second role I ever did, and I’ve not done it again. So that’s 25 years or so...

Gotta remember how to sing it!
I was pretty young then—can I handle it now? And the last time I did La bohème was maybe 8 years ago. When it’s been that long, it’s like doing something new. I try to approach everything as a character actor, so I am always looking forward to doing something new, trying something new. I’m all in.


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