Monday, April 12, 2021

Meet the Artist: Randall Scotting

Countertenor Randall Scotting returns to Seattle Opera as The Refugee in Flight following his debut in Semele ('15). Later this year, he performs the title role in Cavalli’s Eliogabalo with San Francisco’s West Edge Opera, and then he records a solo album of castrato arias with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in London. The Colorado native studied vocal performance at the Juilliard Opera Center and the University of Colorado. He was also awarded a PhD from London’s Royal College of Music for his thesis on 18th century Italian opera.

We last saw you here for your role as Athamas in Semele (‘15) with Stephanie Blythe, Brenda Rae, and Alek Shrader among others. This was also your SO debut. What was that experience like?
It was great! I love that piece, and what an amazing production and colleagues. My role in Semele was much smaller; by contrast, I get to sing quite a bit in Flight. It’s wonderful to be back in Seattle.

Randall Scotting (Athamas) in Semele, 2015. Elise Bakketun photo 

Tell me about your character the Refugee. How does your high countertenor voice lend itself to the storytelling and exploration of what it means to be “the other”?
The Refugee is based on a real man, Mehran Karimi Nasseri, who lived in the Charles de Gaulle airport for 18 years! The opera explores this idea of someone who is trapped and has no home. He’s just...there. As the characters are stalled at the airport for a day, the Refugee gets to connect with people a bit more than he usually would. In reality, Nasseri was up every morning at 5 a.m. to shave in the bathrooms before the airport was bustling. He loved eating McDonald’s fries.

The Refugee doesn't quite fit in, and the countertenor voice lends itself to that type of character. The quality of the voice is something a little bit different, both the vocal quality and range of this high, male singing. Immediately, the audience understands that this character is different, and he’s not going to be singing about the same things as the others.

The Refugee is someone you could easily overlook. He’s trying to take care of his basic needs. You might not realize at first glance that he’s been through a traumatic experience. I think there’s a real moral for us in his story: We encounter people in our daily lives, but we have no idea what their stories are. There could be something profound, painful or important happening to the stranger you meet on the street.

Randall Scotting (Refugee). Philip Newton photo

Why does the story of Flight resonate for right now?
The opera premiered in 1998—so, over 20 years ago. There was a mainstream consciousness of refugees being separated. Now in 2021, of course, this is still happening but the landscape is different. In researching this role, I learned more about family separation at the border in Mexico. There are also many refugees in Europe, fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Refugees are often treated like “the other,” just because they are trying to find a new life, to have what other people have, and this is what my character sings about.

The story of living at the airport may seem rare and isolated, but as recently as January 2021, it was discovered that there was a man who had been living at O’Hare Airport for several months, because he was afraid to go home due to COVID-19. He was not a refugee, but he was taking refuge at the airport.

What do you love most about being a countertenor?
I first discovered that I had this high upper extension to my voice by singing along with the sopranos in my college choir, just for fun. My voice teacher heard something special and I was also drawn to the intriguing history of countertenors. I sang baritone during my first two years of undergrad, then made the switch to countertenor. That evolved into exploring virtuosic repertoire composed for the castrati, the music of Handel, and all the amazing music from that period. Since the 1950s, there’s been a reemergence of the countertenor voice, and many new contemporary roles have been written. The immediacy of contemporary music spoke to me early on—being able to play a character like the Refugee, or sing other pieces that expressed very modern psychological concepts in an usual world of sound was a draw. I loved seeing how the voice could reflect the drama in these stories.

When I switched to countertenor, there was a natural connection that felt right for me. If I had continued to sing baritone, I think I would have been OK as a singer, but there was a special quality to my voice as a countertenor that just wasn’t there in the lower voice.

I often sing heroic roles as a countertenor in Baroque music, so it’s always great in modern operas to perform more idiosyncratic roles, and the Refugee in Flight embodies sort of an anti-hero while still being quite a big sing. This role does make some countertenors nervous, because of its high range. Fortunately, it’s a lot of luscious singing, which I love, and I find it exciting to perform roles that are challenging in different ways.

Randall Scotting during the filming for Flight. 

As someone who loves to fully embody your character, do you think of yourself as an actor, as well as a singer?
I think you have to strive to excel at both. First and foremost, I am a musician. But of course it’s important to always be communicating as an artist. On the acting side, I will flesh out what’s dramatically motivating my character, and how I am representing those choices vocally. I work hard to find a range of ways for the music to represent the story I’m trying to tell. Filming Flight has been so different, as it’s more like being on a movie set —and the acting choices are more intimate than what you may do on stage. It takes so much time to prepare a scene; with makeup and continuity it can take half an hour to prepare for two minutes of video. It’s definitely been a different way of working. As opera singers, we have to rethink the energy we bring to our performances for the close-up.

What excites you most about this production?
The pandemic has caused us to think about how opera can exist, who our audience is, and how we can reach them. I really appreciate how Seattle Opera chose to present Flight. As the General Director, Christina Scheppelmann, said, it wasn’t even an option to not do opera. I have such respect for that. Seattle Opera is one example of what it means to shift from what we regularly do so well when we prepare our roles, work to create a production, and then mount it for the stage. All of that has shifted this past year and for this production, the company is essentially functioning like a film production company. It’s kept everyone on their toes.

I’m excited to see the result. Everyone has done such an amazing job. When I’ve had the opportunity to see the rough film captures of my colleagues, I’ve been blown away. I can’t wait to see how it all comes together.

Randall Scotting during the recording of Flight at Benaryoa Hall. 

What have you been reflecting on during the pandemic? What will you take with you from this time?

It’s interesting. In the beginning, I thought that the pandemic would only last for a few months. I guess we all thought that. Now, more than a year on, I’ve mostly been thinking about how grateful I am that my friends and family are still safe and healthy, and also so thankful for the help many of us artists have received when it seemed our livelihoods were just paused indefinitely. I’ve been thinking about the industry, and how I fit into it. Some have pivoted to doing online productions and recitals from home. I completely understand the desire to be relevant and be seen, but with all the projects I’ve done during the pandemic I really want them to have the artistic quality that will stand the test of time. Flight definitely feels like it will.

This past summer, I was supposed to be traveling to the UK to do a major recording in London that evolved out of my PhD studies at London’s Royal College of Music. It focused on unexplored 18th-century Italian operas and it was thrilling to be given the opportunity to create this album. When the pandemic shut the project down, I definitely felt a sense of huge loss. (Thankfully, it’s being rescheduled!) But during the pandemic I still wanted to create something of that caliber, so in autumn of 2020 I recorded a song-album in Los Angeles with Grammy® Award winning lutenist Stephen Stubbs. All the usual 17th-century composers are there, and a few newbies: Purcell, Dowland, Lawes, Blow, Cesti, and a couple of French composers. It was an intense couple of days in the studio, and I felt hopeful putting my heart into making music again after so many months.

Returning to Seattle Opera this past month has definitely been a real high point artistically as the pandemic continues, and it’s been great to once again be singing with other amazing artists and creating something new for people to experience and enjoy.

Flight premieres on Seattle Opera’s website at 7 p.m. on Friday, April 23 and can be viewed until 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, April 25. Tickets are available online at or by calling 206.389.7676 or 800.426.1619. For questions about streaming, view our Streaming FAQs. This opera is rated PG-13 for sexual violence. Read content advisories.

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