Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Meet our singers: WILLIAM BURDEN, Hoffmann

Seattle audiences know and love William Burden. This celebrated American tenor has earned fans for his sensitive work in Seattle singing many operas, including such French works as Orphée et Eurydice (Orphée), Les pêcheurs de perles (Nadir), and Iphigénie en Tauride (Pylade). And it’s no surprise—French is where Burden’s instrument and temperament both thrive. He’s sung Jacques Offenbach La belle Hélène in Paris and Santa Fe, but is thrilled to be making his role debut as the title character in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann) in Seattle.

This is a new role for you. What are you most looking forward to about singing Hoffmann?
All of it. I’ve wanted to sing this truly interesting character for a long time. This piece is an undisputed masterpiece, but it’s also great storytelling and really fun theater.

What do you love about French opera?
The language and the musical style—I find the music to be very emotional, dramatic and sensual, but without as much overt “operatic-ness,” as say, the Italian repertoire. French opera is wonderfully emotional, but it still allows the audience to use their imaginations and really interpret the performance.

What is The Tales of Hoffmann about?
The struggles of finding, keeping, expressing and experiencing love. What’s so interesting is that, through Hoffmann telling the story of these three different women in his life, is that they are actually all one person. Each woman is a different side of him. An interesting modern-day take on this theme is HBO’s Sex and the City. As a former New Yorker myself, I can tell you that each one of these women is sort of a stereotype of one aspect of a New York woman. None of those women were all that interesting to me as individuals, but collectively, they were unique and remarkable. On some level, it’s easier for us to break down components of one person into multiple characters. Thinking about all of those traits as a whole can be complicated.

In the show, we see Hoffmann at various stages of his life. What journey does the character take during the story for you?

Interestingly, I see him as a character who doesn’t change or grow a lot. For example, you find him drunk at both the beginning and end of the opera. While these women he’s involved with grow from their experiences, his loss and message is always the same: “I gave everything, and lost it all.” He doesn’t realize the part that he plays in his own downfall.

Kate Lindsey as Nicklausse and William Burden as Hoffmann in rehearsal for The Tales of Hoffmann. 
Alan Alabastro photo

How do you interpret the role of Nicklausse?Nicklausse is both Hoffmann’s confidante, as well as his conscience—sort of a Jiminy Cricket character. Nicklausse is probably Hoffmann’s better, more realistic and less self-indulgent self. I’m sure at some point, a director must have staged this whole thing as Hoffmann alone at the end of his life with all the characters as mental creations.

How do you approach a debut of role? Can you walk us through that process? I begin with the text: breaking it down, learning the notes and rhythms. I also work with a coach (granted, that part of the process is always the same, whether it’s a new role or not). The bulk of my work with a debut comes during the rehearsal process. The role becomes a living experience for me once it’s on its feet, that’s actually when I memorize it. The three weeks of staging is always where I find the most rewarding part of the entire process.

I’ve worked with [Hoffmann director Chris Alexander] before, and it’s been terrific getting a chance to work with him again. That kind of comfort with a director really allows you to find all the extremes of a character, which is what makes a show so exciting. I was really able to find that with José María Condemi in Orphée et Eurydice (’12); one of the hardest things to do in an opera is to just be still, and José María really helped me find stillness throughout the course of the show. The whole experience was remarkable. And I have had that with Chris as well.

William Burden as Orphée in Orphéee et Eurydice. Elise Bakketun photo

It’s funny that you talk about being still. Considering the larger-than-life nature of this show—the fact that it’s four different stories, with all these wacky characters—this show seems to be anything but still! 
Yes, it’s definitely a different kind of show. But Hoffmann is still the kind of character who can find those still moments as stuff happens around him (and to him). Some of that is the self-indulgent notion of “Why does everything bad happen to me?” and some of it is his own observation.

On another note, I have to say that life today in our society is all about sound bites and reality television; it’s all in-your-face; nothing lasts longer than 10 minutes. So these opportunities for an audience to sit back and really observe and experience something are so important. It’s what makes live theater so valuable.

How do you juggle the demands of an international career with your wife and kids?
It’s an ongoing process that takes a lot of patience and understanding on the part of my family. Things like Skype and FaceTime have definitely made it much more bearable than it was when I was first married. All we could do was talk on the phone—that was even before cell phones! But, to be completely honest, after nearly 25 years of being on the road, I’m starting to think of traveling a little less. I will say, however, that my family always loves coming to Seattle. We have wonderful friends that we see here, too. This will be my ninth production with Seattle Opera, so it’s really been a professional home.

Your children have taken to opera?Yes, to a degree. They certainly will come and see me, but opera is not particularly high on either of their lists. Claire is actually quite into musical theatre right now and Jackson is a pretty typical 10-year-old boy who is all about sports, super heroes and action movies.

Stephen Fish as Schlemil (left) and William Burden as Hoffmann (right) in rehearsal for The Tales of Hoffmann.  Alan Alabastro photo  
What’s it like working with Speight?
I’m not exaggerating when I say that Speight is singlehandedly the most influential and important opera impresario that I’ve known in my professional life. He’s been an unbelievable advocate and given me opportunities that others haven’t. There’s absolutely no question that I’ve never known an opera director who’s so involved in every aspect of the production. He makes my job so much easier. When you come to rehearsal, Speight is there with incredibly positive and supportive energy.

General Director Speight  Jenkins, Kate Lindsey and William Burden during a break in The Tales of Hoffmann rehearsals.
Alan Alabastro photo
Jacques Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann plays at McCaw Hall from May 3-17.
For tickets and more information, please go to   

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