Thursday, October 10, 2013

Meet Our Singers: ALEXANDER HAJEK, Sulpice

Making his Seattle Opera debut in our Daughter of the Regiment is Canadian baritone Alexander Hajek, who sings the gruff but loveable Sergeant Sulpice, father-among-fathers to Marie, the daughter of Sulpice’s regiment. Alex spoke with me the other day about his background, about his full-time job singing for Dresden Semperoper, and about the spectacular cast assembled in Seattle for this warm and witty opera.

Sarah Coburn and Alexander Hajek singing "Au bruit de la guerre"

Welcome to Seattle Opera! You’re new here, so please tell us a bit about your background and your training.
I’m Canadian, from Toronto, but I did my training in the United States—I attended the Juilliard School for my undergrad, grad, and post-grad.

When did you begin singing?
I first started singing in choirs when I was around 10. I went to St. Michael’s Choir School; there were about 150 of us, from grades 3 to 13.

Did they take you on tour with the school’s choirs?
I think I’ve been to pretty much every single state and province with those tours. We’d take two tours a year, one in the winter, for ten days, and then for two weeks in the spring. Sometimes we’d go someplace far afield, like Ireland or Italy or the Caribbean. We once took an island-hopper in the Caribbean, and stopped at every single island just so we could say we’d been there!

Alex Hajek with Director Emilio Sagi in Daughter of the Regiment rehearsal
Alan Alabastro, photo

Who are your mentors, your most important teachers?
The late William Perry was my teacher at the Royal Conservatory of Music, in Toronto; then I studied with Daniel Ferro and Cynthia Hoffmann at Juilliard; Two directors really stand out in my mind, Tom Diamond, whom I met at the Canadian Opera Company, and Stephen Wadsworth, who was my professor at Juilliard. And who’s done so much great work here in Seattle.

Speaking of Stephen, how did you end up being asked to sing in Seattle?
When Speight Jenkins was visiting New York City, Stephen Wadsworth asked him to come to Juilliard and hear some of his singers. Speight listened to me sing "Madamina" from Don Giovanni, and said, “Ah, nice. What do you think of Sulpice?” And I, having no idea what\who that was, said, “Is that a type of soup?” Stephen face-palmed himself, and Speight said, “Why don’t you run on up to the library and find a score of Daughter of the Regiment and take a look?” So I did....... (never having found a score so quickly in my life)....... reviewed it and seeing it was a good fit.....the job was mine!

You’ve just come from Dresden, where you are fest. Can you explain a bit about how that system works, and how it’s different from working in the US and Canada?
Yes, it’s a full-time job. You’re a salaried employee, twelve months a year.

It’s not like in the US, where usually you get paid per performance?
No. In Germany you do get a small performance-fee bonus. It’s really nice to have a stable salary, and health benefits—everyone should have health care! It’s wonderful NOT to worry about how much it might cost me if I were to get sick.

Alex Hajek with Joyce Castle (Marquise de Birkenfield) in Daughter of the Regiment rehearsal
Alan Alabastro, photo

What has been the most challenging thing you’ve done in Dresden so far?
Oh, Die Fledermaus, by far. We did the dialogue in Sächsisch, the local dialect in Saxony. For me it would be hard enough to do it all in Viennese German, the way it was written. But we tailored the show very much for our city, lots of political references...and I’ve never heard the audience roar with laughter the way they did with that show.

So did you end up with a good Sächsisch accent?
My colleagues in Dresden were very kind in setting me up for success...because no, with my pronunciation it’s easy to spot the Ausländer. I remember the famous bass-baritone Hans Joachim Ketelson, he was Eisenstein and I was Falke, and for our first dialogue, on opening night he goes off-script: “Oh, Dr. Falke! I see that you’ve spent ten years in Canada! Tell me, what was that like?”

[Laughs] And you had no idea he was going to do that!
No idea, so I had to think on my feet. But it was a good way to let the audience know: “Oh, this guy is Canadian!”

And in Germany, do they have the same stereotypes of Canadians that we have in the U.S.? That y’all say “Eh?” a lot, and that you’re extremely apologetic all the time?
Oh, yes. It’s a badge we proudly wear all over the world.

Alex Hajek with Sarah Coburn (Marie) in Daughter of the Regiment rehearsal
Alan Alabastro, photo

Returning to the business at hand, what is Daughter of the Regiment about?
It’s about family, reuniting long-lost family. There’s family you’re related to, whom you might not necessarily want to be related to; and there’s family you’re not related to, who can be closer to you than blood.

I’m guessing this opera isn’t really about war, or soldiers...

Is it possible for a girl raised among a bunch of rough and rowdy thugs to stay as sweet and innocent as young Marie?
No, this is suspension of disbelief at its finest! And I imagine in Donizetti’s day, the life of a soldier was even rougher than it would be today. The salty epithets...

That’s right, what are the expletives and curses you’re throwing out in this opera?
Oh, here it’s all pretty tame...“Morbleu!” and “Corbleu!” and “Sacre bleu!”, that kind of thing.

Awesome. Speaking of that, you’ve got a lot of French dialogue in this opera. As a Canadian, did you grow up speaking French?
It was required until about grade 10, and after that you had the option of continuing or not.....I chose not.

Does it help, as a performer, to have been brought up bilingual like that?
It does help, to get it in the ear; it sits in your mouth more easily. As a Canadian you do speak a tiny bit of French every day, even if you’re a real Anglophone.

Plus, you’re working with a French diction coach on this production, Marie-France Lefebvre.
Yes, who’s French-Canadian herself. She is fabulous: kind and warm and infinitely patient!

Alex Hajek with Sarah Coburn and Lawrence Brownlee in Daughter of the Regiment rehearsal
Alan Alabastro, photo

Why should people come to Daughter of the Regiment?
We have a really fantastic cast. I think it’s rare to get such a collection of up-and-coming and established singers. And it isn’t a warhorse opera, but it’s spectacular—I think you’ll recognize more of the music than you expect—and it had a huge influence on a great many operas that came after it.

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