Monday, March 26, 2012

Meet Our Young Artists: MICHAEL ULOTH, Don Pasquale

Today we speak with Canadian bass Michael Uloth, who takes on the title role in our upcoming YAP production of Don Pasquale (opening Saturday, March 31, at University of Washington's Meany Hall). Michael, a man who likes his low notes, spoke about connecting with the offbeat characters basses always get to play, about singing Don Pasquale’s break-neck patter duet, and about where "bilingual" becomes a bad word.

Welcome to the spotlight, Michael! You’ve been here all year, but we didn’t get much of a chance to hear you last fall because your role in Werther was very small.
But I tried to pack so much into it!

Michael Uloth as the Bailiff in Werther
Photo by Bill Mohn

What can you tell us about your voice, what kind of bass are you?
Long ago you might have had your basso profundo, your schwarzer bass, like that, but nowadays people are mostly interested in whether you’re a bass or a bass-baritone. I’m a lyric bass.

What are your favorite roles to sing?
Sarastro and Sparafucile. If only I could do those all the time!

What’s your range? What’s the highest you sing?
F to F, or thereabouts. I once read that a good bass range was F to F, a bass-baritone F# to F#, and baritone G to G.

True, the difference between all these voices isn’t super dramatic, but it’s important...if you’re trying to sing Sarastro and your voice disappears before you reach get to the bottom F, it’s embarrassing.
We have “money notes,” but they aren’t the high ones. And there are people, too, who mistake color for range. I know someone, for example, who says their favorite bass is George London. Who wasn’t a bass at all.

He was a bass-baritone, right.
But he sounds SO dark. And other guys can comfortably sing down to F, but if they have a younger sound, people may think the notes are higher than they are.

George London, a fellow Canadian. Every year, Canadian applicants to our Young Artists Program are among the strongest.
I didn’t know that!

Yeah. So I’m wondering, from your perspective, if you think the training of young singers in Canada differs from that in the States.
I’m sure there’s some smart person who could do that analysis. But for example, at the Canadian Opera Company program, half the voice lessons we had were with American teachers. And half of the summer programs we apply to are American. When I came down here, I was impressed with how good all my American colleagues are.

Did you grow up bilingual?
I did not grow up bilingual. But it’s required to study French in school from grades 4-9, something like that. I was a Philistine about it—didn’t like it, didn’t care—so I dropped it as soon as I could. It doesn’t play a part in how I later ended up getting into singing.

I ask because sometimes it’s a hurdle for young American singers.
“Bilingual” and “foreign” are not bad words in Canada. Here, they can be applied as if there’s something wrong. Maybe because Canada is a younger country, with lots of immigrants from places where opera is very popular, maybe this plays a part? That it’s still more alive in the home? For instance, I grew up in a very German household, very musical. At family gatherings there would be singing, whoever played piano would do so, my grandpa would play violin.

What was your first musical instrument?

Michael Uloth rehearses a scene from Don Pasquale with Amanda Opuszynski (Norina) (Alan Alabastro, photo)

Let’s talk about acting. As a young bass, you don’t get much opportunity to play characters just like you—you’re always the king, or the devil, or (as with Don Pasquale) someone old and decrepit. What do you have in common with Don Pasquale?
Yes, there have been times when I’ve been a little lost for how to be someone who’s so unlike myself. He’s older, he’s heavy, and it’s starting to hurt when he walks, all things which I don’t yet know...unfortunately I’m sure I WILL know! Sometimes it will go straight to caricature and clowning, because I’m just taking a stab at it, and Peter [Kazaras, stage director] is always encouraging me to do less, or to do one thing at a time. Obviously everything makes sense to Don Pasquale—he doesn’t see himself as a clown.

Do you like Don Pasquale?
I do like him, because he’s harmless. He’s a lot of bluster and a lot of bark. His intentions are good, it’s just—he’s willing to go out and get married to prove his point to his young nephew: that he will only inherit if he marries the right kind of person. I.e., rich.

What do you have in common with Sparafucile?
The fun thing about Sparafucile is not having anything in common with him! Being someone who, the first thing he thinks about when he looks at someone is, what would it feel like to snap their neck? Oooh, so fun. But he doesn’t feel real.

What about Sarastro?
Sarastro is another character who is hard to make real. He’s so ideal. You want him to radiate all of the world’s good, safe feelings. For him, you think about what it’s like to be a leader, to be a parent...I’m not a parent, but that’s not impossible to imagine. To imagine having to take care of someone, to pass on experience.

Is it important to you to connect with the characters you play?
I don’t spend a lot of time trying to connect with who a character is as a whole. If you just go moment to moment, there’s plenty going on. Even for myself, in my life, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about who I am. You just go from moment to moment, you react to things the way you react to them, and someone else could probably describe you better than you could.

What’s the greatest challenge of singing and/or performing Don Pasquale?
Vocally and dramatically the challenge is not to be a clown. I’ve noticed in rehearsals, it slides in the direction of being funny. When people laugh, in rehearsal, you want to get that laugh again...there’s this temptation. “Do what I did last time, ‘cause that must have been funny. Maybe a little more.” And as it gets more and more and more, it stops being funny, it stops being real. That’s been the challenge—to take him seriously.

He certainly doesn’t hear the laughter! In fact, he’s quite gracious, in the end.
I think that the whole way through he has a very good opinion of himself. He isn’t harsh on himself; he certainly doesn’t feel he’s been an idiot. At the end he has a rush of relief that he’s out of that horrible marriage. Just glad it’s over.

Michael Uloth (Don Pasquale) strokes his cheek where it's been slapped by his abusive wife, Lindsay Russell (Norina) (Alan Alabastro, photo)

One last thing—there’s crazy fast patter singing in this opera! You called yourself a "lyric" bass...
Yes, I like long notes!

So is singing patter new for you?
It is new. But I’ve found it’s like anything—you learn it slowly and then click the metronome up and go faster and faster.

The famous explosion of patter here is the big duet with Malatesta, and you have to sing it with two different colleagues. Does that make it two very different duets?
No, not really, because we’re both so busy keeping up with the syllables that the duet doesn’t require a lot of invention. We both get on for the ride and hold on tight.

Who sets the tempo? You guys, or—
Maestro [Brian Garman, Music Director of Seattle Opera’s Young Artists Program.]

And he’s reasonable in what he’s asking of you?
He’s very reasonable. If there were a second, you might object, but that’s not how it works: you see the upbeat, and you just go. There’s lots of things that I can’t get them that fast when I’m practicing. But in the show it just works, somehow—there’s extra adrenaline, and there’s no choice, you sink or swim, so you swim!

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