Brett, you’re a hard singer to pin down. You’re here now, singing Rossini comedy; but just a few months previous you were singing Wagner (Kurwenal in Tristan in Dublin), and earlier last year that stately verismo baritone role for us of Sharpless, not to mention Starbuck in Heggie’s new opera on Moby Dick (in Calgary). Exactly what kind of baritone are you?
Well, I’ve done a lot of high roles, Pélleas, for example, and maybe it’s just that I’m getting older now...but I really feel like I’ve been using more of my whole voice recently. In Moby Dick, Starbuck is a big sing, it’s much like Balstrode in Peter Grimes, both in the idea of the character and the weight required to sing it. And as for Kurwenal, the first time I was asked to do that I thought it was crazy. But it’s been a huge success, I’ve done it twice this year, I’ve got another one coming up, it feels great to sing, it fits me like a glove. In fact, it’s made it a little difficult to come back to Dandini. I love La Cenerentola, I think it’s so gorgeous, I love the music; but it’s a style of singing that’s so specialized. If you’re a great Rossini singer, it’s hard to be great at anything else. Same thing with Wagner, actually.
Now, you sang the Moby Dick in Calgary, but it’s the same production they’ve played in Texas and California, with all the projections and flying...
Yes, Starbuck has to slide down a wall and climb scaffolding and so forth. But not nearly as much as Greenhorn, who spends most of the opera suspended. It was great to be part of a piece like that, a grand opera that’s brand new.
And then you did this historic Tristan und Isolde in Ireland. And you haven’t found that role a challenge, in terms of the volume required simply to get through the orchestra?
Act 3 is fine, although there is a tough passage in Act 1. The first time I did it was with the City of Birmingham symphony, in concert, they were right there behind us onstage, and I wasn’t trying to be loud—I was just thinking about never stopping singing, singing all the time. You can’t come off your voice.
Did you find the role of Kurwenal role consistent, psychologically, with the kind of “tenor’s sidekick” lighter baritone role that you’ve done so much, these parts of Dandini, Figaro, Papageno?
Kurwenal is basically offstage all through Act 2; you really only come into your own in Act 3. He’s a very sympathetic character; he’s there to support Tristan, and he dies for Tristan, and while it’s frustrating to perform because you spend most of the evening waiting for Act 3, it really is a great Act 3. The things he sings about Tristan are so touching and beautiful.
This Cenerentola will be your first comedy for at Seattle Opera. We’ve heard you do 18th century stuff, new music, Puccini, now bel canto...is there anything you can’t do?
[Laughs] What a question!
Or, put it differently, is there anything you don’t like doing?
It’s not that I don’t like doing it, I’ve done a lot of comedy. But I’m always shocked when people think I’m funny, because I don’t think of myself as funny. I don’t go onstage thinking, “I’m going to be funny here.” I have colleagues who go onstage and they have shtick that they do. But I don’t...there isn’t a bag of tricks that I use.
Bill Mohn, photo
So do you like doing comedies?
My nature tends to the more serious side. But if I start out at a company doing comic roles, they think, “Oh, that’s what he does, he does comedy.” I’m thankful that here in Seattle it’s been the reverse. The same thing happened in Toronto, I had done Don Giovanni and Onegin and Valentin and Sharpless, before doing Dandini...
...in this production...
...right, and then I did Dandini, and it was odd, because I live in Toronto, so people would come up to me and say, “I didn’t know you could be funny!” They’d never seen me do comedy. As a young baritone, so much of what you do is comedy: Papagenos and Barbers and Dandinis.
Even Giovanni, he can be funny.
Yes, I think he should be funny sometimes. You have to find a way to be likeable, in these roles. Like with Papageno...which can be a challenge. He can come across as vulgar or cloying.
It’s interesting that Papageno, and Figaro in Barbiere, both come onstage and announce themselves in this grandiose way: “Hi! This is me, this is who I am! This is my job, I’m a bird-catcher, I’m a barber! Love me, please love me!” It can be so egotistical, a desperate cry for the audience’s affection. You spoof that, as Dandini. He comes onstage, and the first thing out of his mouth he sings this ridiculous aria, “Come un ape,” a parody of what those guys are doing.
That’s the challenge of Dandini. You have to be over the top in some ways, because it is a parody...and yet the show is not called Dandini. Some of these characters can get to the point where the audience says, “Enough already!” I’ve always worked with really fabulous Ramiros; but La Cenerentola can pose a challenge in that Ramiro is on the sidelines for most of the show. He only becomes the prince in the last ten minutes or so. And he should be the star, along with Cenerentola. I think what makes the piece work, what achieves the right balance, is when you have people who are willing to work together and create an ensemble. No matter how funny you are, you have to share that with other people. What I’ve always done, whether it’s Barber or Cenerentola, I always try to create a real friendship between me and the tenor. So if the audience likes me, it will rub off on him, too.
Elise Bakketun, photo
It’s about the relationship, that’s more important than either one of you being a star.
Yes. I’ve been in shows where someone, either subconsciously or not, has said, “I’m going to be the star of this show,” and they don’t play ball with you at all, and it’s impossible. In Barber, if you have a Rosina who says, “This is going to be MY show,” there’s really not a lot that Figaro does in the second act. So if Rosina doesn’t allow Figaro to be part of it, you can stand around with egg on your face a lot of the time. With Papageno and Dandini, if you don’t include the tenor, if they’re just standing around being the fall guy, it’s not enjoyable for them and it ends up being not enjoyable for the audience.
One of the things that’s so much fun for us, in the audience at La Cenerentola, is watching the two of you check in with each other. “How am I doing?” “Tone it back, would you?”
Yes, and Magnifico is such a buffoon in this opera. He’s quite different than Bartolo, in Barber. You never feel that Magnifico is a real threat. He’s so busy kissing butt. In Barber, we’re all trying to thwart Bartolo and his plan, but that’s not really going on here. So since he has to be a clown all night long, this opera can become two clowns trying to outdo one another, Dandini and Magnifico.
Alan Alabastro, photo
Which one can be sillier, you mean.
Yes. Now, I don’t believe that Dandini really is a true buffo role. There’s too much elegance in the singing. With Dandini you have to find a way to be elegant-funny, and let Magnifico be silly-funny.
Tell us a little about Dandini’s relationships with the other characters. As you say, he’s chummy with the prince...does he like the prince?
Yes, I think so.
He doesn’t object to being a servant?
No. But he takes advantage of the situation here, when he swaps identities with the prince. It’s like a child, who knows that when they’re out in public, their parents probably aren’t going to chastise them then and there, so they dare to do things that they probably wouldn’t do at home, knowing full well they’ll get punished later. But Dandini has been a servant all his life...so how much worse can things get, really? So he thinks, “I’ll just have fun today.”
He’s also the only character who talks directly to the audience.
Three times. In the first act finale, I say that since I’m the prince today I’m going to eat enough for four. And twice I check in about Magnifico’s fall from grace: in the aside in my entrance aria, I anticipate their tragedy, and in the sextet in Act 2 I return to that idea: “See? Told you this would happen.”
And what’s his attitude to that, really? Does he want to see Magnifico and the girls suffer? You could play those asides with complete sadism.
That’s why you don’t TRY to be funny with Dandini. He has the biggest joke of the entire evening. No matter what happens, he’s got the trump card on Magnifico. Dandini’s joke is a three-hour joke. That’s why he puts up with everything Magnifico does to him. Magnifico can’t really do anything: Dandini’s fate is written. Nothing can happen over the course of this opera that will change Dandini’s situation.
You’re not going to get fired over this.
Right. So there are no stakes in today. Cenerentola’s life will change, Ramiro will find the woman he’s going to spend the rest of his life with, Magnifico will marry off his daughter, the sisters are fighting for the chance to wed the prince. But as for Dandini, he just enjoys a stress-free day. I don’t think he particularly cares who the prince chooses, and not because he doesn’t like the prince, he just knows that it has nothing to do with him.
Is Dandini on spring break week, then? Nothing you do here could possibly matter...feel free to get as drunk as possible and make a complete fool of yourself, because you have this freedom?
That’s possible, although I don’t think of it that way. This is not a day about him. He can flirt with the sisters knowing that the person who’s going to have to clean up the mess is Ramiro.
Because normally he would not be able to flirt with these ladies.
Right. I love it that he gets to be this outrageous prince, but he also gets to be himself. We see his reactions...like Papageno, he’s an audience onstage. You’ll see Dandini get annoyed, when Magnifico treats Cenerentola badly, or roll his eyes when the sisters do something stupid. Dandini is a member of the audience who’s onstage, I think that’s why the audience likes him. Especially in this production. I bob my head when Ramiro is singing his aria, which is what the audience wants to do. And I applaud him at the end, when he rides off in his carriage.
You’re enjoying the opera along with all of us.
Exactly, it’s like someone has let loose an audience member inside the story. And I get to play with and tease the other characters. Like in the garden, when the sisters are fighting over me, and I say “I can only marry one of you.” Well, what’s going to happen to the other? they ask. And on the spur of the moment, I think, Dandini improvises: “Oh, the other one...I’ll give her to my servant!” That’s his way of having some fun with Ramiro, telling him, “You deal with this now!”
Alan Alabastro, photo
You don’t say that to test the girls; you’re really just trying to give Ramiro a hard time.
Or the moment at the end of Act 1 when I say to Magnifico, “Oh, how talented you are, you obviously know all your wines.” I think Dandini then gets this clever idea: “If you can stay sober after 30 wine tastings, then I’m going to promote you to wine steward! I can do that, because I’m the prince!” I can say all that, with the prince there, and watch him fume, and smile at him.
It’s interesting, in a way you’re the prince’s court jester. Holding the mirror up to royalty, saying, “Guess what? This is how ridiculous we common people think all of you wealthy people are.”
I do think that Dandini, with Cenerentola, is probably the most human character in this show. You see him putting this on this farce. Whereas with Magnifico, you think, “Oh, my God, that farce is really him!”
He can’t take it off.
Right. With Dandini, you know right from the start that he is pretending.
Sure, in his first aria, which is a spoof: “Come un ape,” like “Come scoglio,” imitating that 18th century opera seria metaphor kind of aria. “Look at me! I’m a glorious Metastasian noble heroic personage!”
Yes, how you think a tenor ought to sound.
And the coloratura he sings, throughout the show! Of course there’s wild coloratura in that entrance aria, but I’d forgotten about all the coloratura you sing in the second act sextet.
Crazy. I don’t even know why Rossini wrote that. Dandini sings this little coloratura duet inside that sextet with Cenerentola. Plus the passage in the Act 1 finale, when I’m welcoming the mysterious lady to the ball. Dandini sings more coloratura than Ramiro does.
Does this role stress your range? You seem to have an unusually wide range...
Compare it to Barber, Barber sits high. But there are more high notes in Dandini, all these runs that go up to F and down to low A.
Dandini never sings ‘money’ high notes, when you hit a big high note at the end of a passage and hold it, to make people applaud.
We’re putting one in at the end of the duet with Magnifico. But no, it’s not like Barber, where there’s a lot of those.
Alan Alabastro, photo
I’m curious to see how our audience will respond to a joke in this show which may resonate differently now that same-sex marriage is legal in Washington. Before your big duet with Magnifico in Act 2, he’s bugging you about who you want to marry, and you make a big deal to him about revealing some important and unusual secret. You creep him out a bit, he gets nervous, and then he says, in the recit, in early nineteenth century Italian, “What is it? Does he want to marry ME instead of my daughter?” How do you think that will play here now?
I usually play that moment up, you know, put my hand on his knee. The audience loves to see people made uncomfortable. In that scene, you know, I’m dejected and downcast at the beginning, because I’m no longer the prince. Magnifico comes on and starts pestering me, and I tell him, “The decision has been made.” And as far as I’m concerned, that’s it, but he goes on and on, and—although I had no intention of engaging him—since he’s being a nuisance, I think, “Ok, let’s have some fun now.” It will cheer me up, now that I’m no longer the prince.
One last question. What role did fairy-tales play in your life as a kid?
Interesting, I just finished reading a book by Graham Joyce, Some Kind of Fairy Tale, about a woman who shows up, after 20 years, on Christmas Day, and her family doesn’t know where she’s been. She tells a story about having been abducted and taken to this land, where she thought six months had passed, but it’s been 20 years. So they take her to a therapist and try to figure out what happened, and each chapter starts with a different quote, and several are by Albert Einstein, and I’m paraphrasing but he says, basically, if you want your children to grow up to be scientists, read them fairy-tales. Einstein was big on fairy-tales. There’s something quite artistic in the belief that anything could happen. That fear, that creativity...I remember when I was a child, my mom’s book of Grimm’s Fairy-Tales, with this old gnarly tree on the cover and a gnome’s head coming out of a knot on the tree...as a child, even in the daylight, there was something about that that really bothered me. There’s so much to be taken from fairy-tales, even for adults. La Cenerentola is all about people changing.
What’s the change for Dandini?
He gets to be the prince. He really gets to see what it’s like on the other side. So many of us think, “Oh, if only I were richer...” but there’s so much more to your fate than simply changing your reality. People think, “Oh, if only I could lose 20 pounds, then I’d be popular.” Well, realize that losing weight, getting more money, being taller...those things may contribute to who you are, but they don’t in and of themselves change you into the person you want to be. Cenerentola is a great person, so when she becomes a princess, she’s got what it takes to rule kindly. Whereas if he had chosen one of the sisters, even that would not have made them princess-material.