Friday, August 28, 2015

GORDON HAWKINS Shares Seattle Memories

For Gordon Hawkins, Nabucco was only the latest in a series of great Verdi baritone roles he has sung at Seattle Opera. Gordon took the time to sit down with me last week and look at a series of production photos from the many shows—Verdi and beyond—which he has done for us. His memories of the singers, directors, and productions are required reading for the die-hard opera fans of Seattle.
Gordon Hawkins as Nabucco
Philip Newton, photo

1992 AIDA
Photos: Gary Smith and Matthew McVay
This was the very first thing I did here. I remember singing for Speight [Jenkins, then General Director of Seattle Opera] in New York, and talking to him afterwards, it was clear that he was going to bring me out. So I sprinted back to my agent: “He said he was going to hire me—don’t screw it up!”

People were so upset by this production! They were expecting this big Triumphal March, and instead the Egyptians brought out these little statuettes. But François Rochaix, the director, had done the RING here, and they loved that. At least, I loved it, I love how François works. The audience should have been expecting something out of the box. If you’re going to take a chance and re-imagine something, you want to do it with a piece that everyone already knows.
Here I am singing Amonasro. Those costumes are extraordinary, aren’t they? Armen Boyajian was my voice teacher...he taught Sam Ramey, Paul Plishka, Ray Aceto, people like that. I’m looking at this photo, looking at my mouth, and wondering: “Is this the vocal posture of an Armin Boyagin technique singer?”

Photo: Gary Smith
Yes, that’s the auto-da-fé from that Don Carlos. But what I remember most about that production is Gabor Andrasy as the Grand Inquistor. Gabor sang the Grand Inquisitor to Paul Plishka’s Philippe, but on the other nights Gabor sang Philippe to the Grand Inquisitor of Kevin Bell. I remember Gabor going up to Kevin and saying, “I want you to chew my face off!”

I’ve done 2 or 3 productions of Don Carlo since, but this was the only time I did it in French. With Vinson Cole as our Carlos, it was perfect to do it in French.

Photo: Gary Smith
Here I am singing the Herald, and Greer [Grimsley], singing Telramund, has his back to me. And I had hair! This is a typical Stephen Wadsworth image. Stephen never gives you a solitary figure emoting, he likes to juxtapose that with something else in contrast.

Emma [Grimsley, Greer’s daughter] was then about 2 years old. And what I remember is that Greer would sing his scenes—it’s a monster part, it’s the role most heldenbaritones would rather NOT sing— and then he’d come offstage, and take Emma over into a corner and do Three Stooges impressions for her and she’d laugh like a riot. And then he’d go back onstage and make this wild Wagnerian roar. I thought: “This guy is grounded and quite normal!”

Photos: Gary Smith
I remember studying Rigoletto with Armen Boyajian, and he made me run around his apartment, on the Upper West Side. He said, “You have to get used to this, because as Rigoletto you’re not going to be standing still.” Literally, he made me run to the window and to the kitchen, then run back, and sing; he wanted me to know what it felt like to quickly center myself.

Speight had his costume department build one of my shoes two inches higher than the other, so I’d look deformed. It actually caused a sciatica. I remember, he called me beforehand: “We’re building the costume; which side do you want your hump on?” I wanted to say: “Just let me act it—I’m a good actor, I can pull it off!” What I do nowadays is only play the hunch in the court scene. You exaggerate it there, because it’s your job. But it’s not who you are. At home, you don’t have to be grotesque.
There’s Harolyn Blackwell, dying as Gilda. That might have been the first time I sang an A-flat in public. It was a huge deal, all my family came over from the east coast. And it turned out that Harolyn and I are sort of distantly related. Harolyn’s father drove the school bus for my older sister and brother, and Harolyn’s mother taught my older sister. This was in Prince George’s County, Maryland. My family came backstage after the show, and I’m expecting them to tell me, “Hey, you were great!” but instead they went straight to Harolyn’s dressing room, because they saw her name and wanted to reconnect.

Photo: Gary Smith
I love this one, too; I feel like I’m about to see an episode of Sherlock Holmes. There I am as Donner, with Joyce Castle as Fricka on one side and on the other, Peter Kazaras as Loge.

Julian Patrick’s performance that summer gave me permission to look at the role of Alberich. I watched everything Julian did. When Francesca Zambello asked me to do it in 2006, I called Julian to ask if he would coach me, and came out here to work with him. Richard Paul Fink, who sings the role in Seattle, has a different approach. He takes a lot of chances; physical risks, vocal risks, and it works for him. Julian was a completely different type of person. I have much more in common with him. His approach is that essentially Alberich is a bully; he was more engaging than antagonistic. He liked the idea of getting close to you and imposing his will.

Photo: Gary Smith
That summer was also my first Gunther...and there’s Gabor, looking like Sean Connery as Hagen. Gabor didn’t act. When he stepped out onstage, he WAS those characters. That was early in my career, and to be onstage with someone like Gabor, or Archie Drake, or Julian Patrick, or Ben Heppner taught me what it meant to do your best. There was a very high standard here. Ego speaking: you don’t want to be the weak link. ‘Cause you know Gabor isn’t going to be weak.

Photo: Jeffree Luke
Here I am, singing La traviata with Lauren Flanigan. It was not the happiest Traviata I have ever done. Gerry Schwarz, conducting it, was a lovely, sweet guy. But I never really connected with the director. I want a director to be a fierce advocate for a work’s integrity, but that wasn’t the case with this guy. Lauren compensated by basically taking him into a corner and telling him how she wanted him to direct each scene, which put me in an awkward position. Finally I put my foot down, and said, “If Lauren is going to direct it, then I’ll talk to her. And if you’re not going to direct it...then why are you here?” The tenor had the same experience. Very strange.

Photos: Gary Smith
Look at all this hair! It’s almost like one of those vampire movies with Kate Beckinsale. I’ve done this role a lot, but my goodness...those singers were all very much at the top of their game. Gegam Grigorian was Manrico...I remember thinking, “This is a baritone-tenor. This is that rich, rich, rich baritone timbre with a top.” It was the voice I always wanted to hear in this role. And I was there onstage with him, and Carol Vaness, and Florence Quivar! Speight must have had a lot of respect for me, to put me up there with those amazing singers. It was a big responsibility. It’s a very high, very difficult role to sing. There’s only one role higher, and that’s Macbeth.
Carol Vaness and I were supposed to do a Tosca in Germany, and somehow she got a videotape, and she called me and said: “Gordon, I’m not going.” So I said: “What, did I do something wrong?” And she said, “No, just look at this video...Eurotrash to the nth degree. I can’t do it,” she said. But I couldn’t pull out. The set designer didn’t realize there was a third act, so he didn’t build one. So we played the third act in the second act set. Catherine Malfitano as Tosca stabbed me, and I fell face first into a bowl of tomato soup. And then I stayed there, all the way through the third act. They asked me to sing the jailor, too. So I picked my head out of the tomato soup and go: “Mario Cavaradossi? A voi...” And later, when the tenor and soprano sing that pretty little duet, I was supposed to lift my head out of the soup again, pick up a glass of wine, and toast them.

Photo: Chris Bennion
There’s Harolyn, singing her first Lucia. I had done it several times. She kept asking for “more blood, more blood!” She was staying down near Pike Place Market, I remember and she had post-its all over her apartment, with vocal notes, dramatic ideas, posted everywhere. She’s a very detail-oriented person.

Photo: Gary Smith
Here I am in Ballo, about to kill my wife, Carol, who I think has betrayed me with Vinson. Michael Hampe directed this. He was very specific; he wanted certain moves on certain notes. He would do the moves and tell us, “Now do exactly what I did!” But that’s like putting an artist in a straightjacket, because people feel things differently. We don’t have the same body type, we don’t have the same thought process, we don’t have the same ANYTHING. I took his impulses, but I didn’t take his moves. By contrast, a director like François Rochaix just gives you the impulses and lets you work out how to do it.

Photo: Rozarii Lynch
Stephen Wadsworth can be extraordinarily specific in his’s almost like choreography. I think only a madman/genius would be able to take this complicated space, and that large number of actors, and then choreograph an hour-long scene so the audience always knew where to look. If I tried to do that, I’d go nuts. But Stephen could do that, and for the entire RING. He’d watch a rehearsal, and just when you thought, “He couldn’t possibly have been looking at me,” he’d give you notes. And they’d be specific: “You’re late on this.” And I thought: “How many sets of eyes do you have? How can you be so focused on so many details for that length of time!” I remember once with Lohengrin, when we first met, he was in full-blown Wadsworth mode, giving notes, and I said, “Hey, Wadsworth. Blink!” He has this fantastic ability to be hyper-focused.

Photo: Rozarii Lynch
For all intents and purposes, this show solidified my career. I had just finished my first Alberich in Das Rheingold, at Washington, D.C. I got great reviews for that, and to follow that immediately with this production...OPERA America was having a conference here in Seattle, at the time, so everyone in the industry came. I did all the performances, because the other baritone got sick. Nicola Luisotti was conducting; he said (imitates Italian accent) : “Gordon, you can sing all of them, I know it! If they bring in someone else, I’d have to work with him. You and I, we just do it.” That guy is SO brilliant. He really likes to coach singers. Most singers are like: “Leave me alone, this is how I like to do it, you’re messin’ with me.” But I coached Macbeth with Nicky almost every day. He could sing the role himself; he has one of the most beautiful baritone voices you will ever hear.

But onstage, we never saw the blood dripping down the walls. That was the first thing people in the audience mentioned.

Photo: Rozarii Lynch
Bernard Uzan directed that Macbeth, which was a great success, and then he directed this, too, and it was the best Pagliacci I ever did. I loved crazy Antonello. And is there anyone in the world better than Nuccia? Bernard really understood how to do the show-within-a-show. When we’re performing for the town, usually we’re facing the audience and the townspeople are facing upstage, like in this picture from Act One. But for that Act Two scene, Bernard did it at an angle, so we could play both the performance and all the asides, all the lines between the actors themselves. The show-within-the-show audience doesn’t see any of that, until it all goes berserk at the end.

Bernard is a very, very good director. He asks the singing actor all the right questions: “Why are you doing this? Why do you choose to say this at this moment?” He challenges you to defend your choices...and if you can do it, great!

Photo: Rozarii Lynch
There’s Janice Baird as Brünnhilde. She’s likes riding horses, that’s her thing. She and her husband live near Seville—I visited once when we were doing the RING in Seville—and they like to ride Arabians. Dan Sumegi was Hagen that year. The Hagen we had in the previous RING was good, he was just so nervous! You can’t be nervous to the degree that you make everyone around you nervous. And it was all self-critiquing; he knew exactly what he wanted to do, but was really harsh on himself when he didn’t do it.

Photo: Rozarii Lynch

When we did Trovatore again, I was happy that my old costume for Di Luna still fit! Lisa Daltirus is a songbird. There are two people I have never heard mark [sing with only part of the voice, in rehearsal, to save energy]. Greer Grimsley, since he was 27, I have never heard him mark. And the other is Lisa Daltirus. Making sound, for her, is a validation of being alive. She finds it easier to sing than to do anything else.

Photo: Elise Bakketun
I don’t know if I’m cursed or not...but I had three opportunities to sing Iago, and they all fell through. I had lunch with Speight, a week or so ago, and he’s still upset that the production of Otello he was planning fell through.

The beautiful thing about all the Verdi roles I’ve done in Seattle is that Speight gave me plenty of time to prep them. It takes three or four months to learn each of those roles. And in Seattle there are plenty of performances. The first couple of nights you sing a role don’t really count, because you’re still figuring it out. I’d like to do La forza del destino and Ernani, two operas which people don’t do as much anymore. But I need someday to do Iago. And Falstaff.


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