Monday, February 18, 2013

Meet Our Singers: ARTHUR WOODLEY, Colline

Arthur Woodley doesn’t really need any introduction at this point to Seattle Opera’s audience—the American bass (raised in the West Indies) has been here all season, starring as the beleagured jailer Rocco in this fall’s Fidelio and the benevolent, cunning wizard Alidoro in La Cenerentola last month. But I’d never pass up an opportunity to check in with a singer I’ve admired since his 1997 Seattle Opera debut (Dr. Bartolo in The Marriage of Figaro), so I grabbed him after rehearsal the other day to compare the operas we’ve done this year, find out what he thinks about La Bohème, and admire his beard, which is returning after a long absence for the ever-hirsute Colline!

Looking back on the three roles you’ve played here this season, which has been the most challenging?
Rocco is the most challenging of all three, definitely.

Which has been the most fun?
Oh...it’s Colline.

Oh, sure, because it must be a blast to be up there, horsing around with the Bohemians. Plus, the sad stuff in La Bohème mostly involves the other characters.
Yes, and with Alidoro, you’re sitting there saying, “I got this 18-page aria coming up, that has high Fs and stuff, the top of the bass range, so...yeah!”

Arthur Woodley sings Alidoro's aria "La nel ciel" in Seattle Opera's recent La Cenerentola
Alan Alabastro, photo

And Rocco, the longest role, the most complicated character...
Exactly. And it has all that dialogue, as well.

Is that challenging, to memorize all of that?
It’s difficult, to get it so that it sounds good, from the point of view of the German language. And the rhythm of getting out of the singing and into the spoken lines and then back into the singing again, that’s hard. It’s also more of a challenge because there’s that much more ‘deep’ acting. He’s a real character, and he’s hardly ever offstage, from the beginning of the opera to the end, so that’s a tough role. But I love it.

Arthur Woodley as Rocco in Fidelio last fall
Elise Bakketun, photo

Do you find the acting more a challenge in the dialogue, or in the concerted numbers? Beethoven wrote these fabulous pieces of music for that opera, but in terms of the text and the action, you end up repeating yourself a lot...
That’s the thing. And you have to work against that, you have to make it exciting and reel the audience in. Which, if you can do it, it’s a heck of a piece.

So, La Bohème. Why do you think this opera become what it is—this cultural monument? Why is it so beloved, so popular?
You really understand why, as a performer, when you get to that fourth act. But even before that—it’s about young love. I don’t care how old you are, you remember. That first time you fell in love, that first person you saw. The first time you held hands, you remember all that. So you have this beautiful story unfolding about two lovers; you got Puccini’s music over that—oh, man! It’s hot! And then at the end, after they meet and break up, and now she’s back, she’s in his room—but she’s dying. And Puccini writes, once again, the most gorgeous music. To me, the great thing about what Puccini does is, he expresses what the heart wants. And what the ear wants. I think that’s why this piece has lasted forever. To hear the expiration of this young love, the death of this woman, accompanied by heart-rending music, it’s a hit forever and ever. Amen.

What’s your favorite moment in La Bohème?
The moment that really gets me is her death...that whole 10-15 minute scene, whatever it is. You really see how all these characters are held together by their love for each other, how their experiences have brought them together...and how they’re there for each other at that point, at this death of this young, young woman. I think Colline has probably seen it before; he’s older. But for most of them, it’s probably the first time they’ve had to deal with death. And to see somebody this young die, it’s unbelievable, it’s horrible. And it’s the same thing for the audience—they experience the same thing, through their ears.

Arthur Woodley sings the "Coat Aria"

The last thing we hear in this opera is your little cadence—the end of your Coat Aria, [hums last five notes of La Bohème]. Why?
Puccini is expressing this sense of loss, which all these characters are feeling. It has accumulated. It’s given to Colline first, he’s the oldest one, to express it; but everyone at the end is feeling this death, this loss.

What about hope? The tenor makes a big deal about hope in his first aria, when he sings his great high C on the word ‘hope,’ “la speranza!” Is the Coat Aria what kills that hope?
Well, he’s talking about a coat. But he’s saying: “You’re going on to higher things,” and he’s also talking about Mimì. Schaunard has just told me, “In a half hour, she’ll be dead,” and I accept it, I say, “You’re right, she is going to die, let’s see what I can do to help, to find money for medicine or a muff or whatever,” but I think “Vecchia zimarra” is really saying goodbye to Mimì. It’s expressed through me, but it’s what everyone is feeling.

Because Colline loves her too. You think she’s hot, you say as much, making lewd jokes in Latin when Rodolfo first introduces her to you at Café Momus.
[Laughs] “Come on in!” Yeah, of course I love her—I love her through the love I have for Rodolfo, who’s my good pal. All of us, you know, are living these wretched lives, eating next to nothing, stealing from the landlord, and doing it together. I’m happy about the love of Rodolfo and Mimì. I tease them, of course, as any big brother would his younger brother, but I love all these guys. My boys.

Arthur Woodley (Colline) and Andrew Garland (Schaunard) rehearse a scene from La Bohème
Alan Alabastro, photo

You mentioned, in our recent Speight’s Corner video, that you think Colline has been bruised, and perhaps this explains his cynicism about romance.
I think so...I think he’s had his romances as well, in years past, and I think he enjoys looking at these younger guys go through the same thing. It’s like the older brother who teases you but he’s also watching over you, he wants to make sure you’re going to be okay. He relives this young love through Rodolfo...but he doesn’t want any part of it anymore. He’s happy with his books, his philosophy...

He has this monk-like thing going on...
Yes, you know, I’ll grow my beard out, and to heck with all of that. “I’ll live romance vicariously through you guys.”

Colline (Arthur Woodley) wonders if he should get a shave at a rehearsal of La Bohème
Alan Alabastro, photo

I notice you’ve been growing your beard back...we haven’t seen that in a while. That’s for your great line—
Exactly, when we’re rich and are going out on the town, “I’m going to meet my first barber.”

Are you going to have a great big shaggy beard that then comes off?
We haven’t decided yet. Joyce [Degenfelder, Hair and Makeup Designer] was talking about a goatee. I figured, might as well grow the whole thing out, so she has more to play with!

The hallmark of a good performer—give your director, or in this case designer, all the options you can! Arthur, I feel I should thank you for all you’ve given us at Seattle Opera this season. You’re part of our family, we love having you here and hearing you sing, and I hope you continue lighting up our stage for years to come.


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