< News & Press

The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Mark Walters

March 31, 2013

  • date
    March 31, 2013
  • article type
  • category
    Opera Carolina News

The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Mark Walters

The excellent Opera Carolina will be presenting Bizet's beautiful opera Les Pecheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers.)... The show is performed in French, with English titles.

This interesting traditional production with modern visual effects (projections) is directed for the stage by a French director (Bernard Uzan), and conducted by a French conductor (Emmanuel Joel-Hornak), making for stylistic accuracy.

Opera Lively has provided in-depth analysis of the opera (circumstances of composition, musical structure, synopsis, famous singers with video clips, etc.) [here].

We will also participate in the pre-opera events, with a table set-up (on opening night only), to sell and sign our book "Opera Lively - The Interviews" which features not only international opera luminaries such as Anna Netrebko and Joyce Didonato, but also Opera Carolina artists such as Maestro James Meena, and singers who participated in the company's productions of last season. The book author, Luiz Gazzola, will also deliver a pre-opera mini-lecture on what to listen for in The Pearl Fishers, at 7:30 PM before the opening night show.

Now, the present article contains interviews with... baritone Mark Walters who is the production's Zurga .... Questions by Luiz Gazzola.

...We tried to keep about the same style for all three interviews - some common questions about the production and the roles to start with (it will be interesting to contrast how the three artists replied to these similar questions), then some more singer-specific questions.


Opera Lively - What are your expectations for this production of The Pearl Fishers by Opera Carolina?

Mark Walters - Well, it's my first time doing a Pearl Fishers production, and also my first time working with this French conductor, and I really enjoyed it so far, I think he is excellent, and very attuned to bringing forth and presenting the French style. So my expectation is that it is going to be a very polished and musically refined - as far as the French goes - and hopefully moving production, also.

OL - Any comments about the staging?

MW - It's going well. The chorus is doing a great job. I'm very curious to see the projections that Bernard has worked up for this production. I know that they will be a big part of the experience.

OL - Let's talk about the role of Zurga. He is rather high-pitched for a baritone. Do you see special challenges in singing this role?

MW - The last role that I just did was Jack Rance in La Fanciulla del West by Puccini, and it is significantly lower. So it's taken my voice a little bit of time to adjust back up to the height of this, and also it is a little bit of a challenge because it's a declamatory role, there's a lot of it. Zurga comes in often to interrupt what is going on [laughs] on stage, and he has to take over the stage with his voice, so in that way it is a challenge to come in and dominate the scene vocally so often. It's a good work out.

OL - Famous singers who have tackled this role have included, from the native French speaking side, Rene Bianco, Michel Dens, Gabriel Bacquier, and Ernest Blanc. The non natives have included Giuseppe Taddei, Sesto Bruscantini, and Vicente Sardinero, among others. Have any of these, or someone else, functioned as inspiration for you? Do you typically listen to others when you prepare for a role?

MW - I try to listen to native language singers whenever I'm working on a role, so the first three baritones that you named, I'm very familiar with. Rene Bianco was probably the main singer that I listened to in preparation for this. They were also the Verdi singers from their era in the French companies, you know, so they also sang Rigoletto and the big dramatic Italian roles, which doesn't necessarily happen in The Pearl Fishers any more, it's all cast with a heavy dark voice. I'm starting to sing the Verdi repertoire so it was one reason to listen to those types of voices, to see how they handled the tessitura and the language. But I always try to work with a native speaker when I'm working on a role. I have a French tenor friend who lives in Paris, and I tried to work this role with him. There's a French coach at the Met with whom I've worked my French roles in the past. I'm going to be meeting with the conductor tomorrow and do some more in-depth work on the language. Particularly in French, it's not the language that I work in the most, so it's the one I need the most outside help on it, so I try to use other resources to perfect my language skills.

OL - What is your take in terms of interpreting the role of Zurga, in terms of the acting, to make it more compelling?

MW - I always tend to fall in love a little bit with the soprano that I'm working with on stage. So, if I'm attracted to her as a person sometimes I tend to transfer that into the interpretation.

OL - How do you describe the psychology of your character, torn between jealousy and fraternal friendship, and ultimately altruistic? What emotional impact does he have on you, as an artist and as a person?

MW - Zurga has a very special relationship with Nadir, also. Their brotherhood is in his mind more important than the relationship with a woman, so it's a huge pull towards Nadir, to protect him and help taking care of him in Zurga's character, and I never really had that type of relationship on stage, before, where I really had that deep commitment to this brotherhood with another man on stage. So I think of my own relationship with some of my close friends that I had in my life, and what I've done for them and what I was willing to sacrifice for them, and how that can help translate on stage into my relationship with Nadir.

OL - Yes, that's right. In opera, usually the baritone and the tenor are adversaries. In this case, although there is a bit of that in the middle of the opera, the beginning is based on friendship and the ending is very about a very altruistic, fraternal relationship.

MW - Yes, yes. And I also try to remember if there was any instance in my life where a friend and I had both pursued the same woman, and my good friend in high school and I did date the same woman, not at the same time, so it wasn't quite the same antagonistic relationship. You know, I was searching for that type of relationship in my memory, also.

OL - Right. What about these shifts? Because there is a significant turmoil of emotions for Zurga, because he starts by saying "we'll be friends forever" and then at one point he needs to rule on condemning Nadir to death, but he recovers the altruism at the end. Do these shifts represent a particularly challenging problem in terms of the acting?

MW - He condemns Nadir to death once he realizes who the unknown woman was. But it is interesting that the creators added the one little element in it, that Leila had also saved Zurga earlier in her life, had helped hide him, and there is a necklace that reveals all that. That's the tipping factor that allows Zurga to forgive both of them and to ultimately sacrifice his life for them. I'm still kind of lining up the emotional path through the opera that way, to make sure that I haven't left anything unfigured out, so that it makes sense when I'm on stage and hopefully to the audience too. So I'm winding through that path, because it is kind of tricky.

OL - Is the stage director bringing up any particular take that he's got on this piece?

MW - The one thing he said to me that I hadn't thought about that made a big difference to me was that I am possibly expecting that the unknown priestess that is coming to serenade us, to protect us while we are fishing, while we are diving for the pearls, that I may be thinking that it could be Leila, already. And that I'm concerned that she does a good job and that I might get in the way of her protecting us. I had not thought of that before. It makes sense that she would possibly be the same woman that Nadir and I had seen earlier in our lives. And that was kind of tricky because it fell out of character for me, I was, "oh, OK, so, that idea of wondering - is she Leila? - at the very beginning when she arrives, it sorts of adds a different level for me as an actor."

OL - Very interesting, yes, that does give another dimension to those scenes, yes. But let's talk about your career, a little bit. You were featured several times in contemporary music and world premieres. Would you please tell us about your relationship with contemporary music and role creation?

MW - I've been fortunate to be in a number of world premieres, especially recently. What I find a sort of interesting part, is that at one point all operas were there. At one point Pearl Fishers was a brand new opera and no one had ever heard about it, it might or might not have succeeded. I think it is important. When I have the opportunity, I love to be involved with new productions. It is important to continue the cycle of bringing new works to light, whether or not they will last in the long run - they may or may not - but continuing the cycle of creativity, so that composers have a chance to hone their craft and work on their skill. That is as important as presenting the traditional standard repertoire, as far as keeping the art alive and moving forward.

OL - Correct! And what about the challenges of singing fragmented, atonal, often declamatory and non-melodious contemporary music? Do you find it very daunting?

MW - It requires a little more time to prepare, especially when you are doing a brand new score. I don't play the piano very well myself so I usually have to hire a pianist and have them record the score for me, so that I can absorb the tonality and prepare my part on top of that. What I do find enjoyable in world premieres is, because no one has done it before, it's really open to my inputs and thoughts about the interpretation. Of course, you want to work with the librettist and the composer, and try to find out… that's what is good about a world premiere also, is that you get a chance to work with the composer and the librettist. We can sort of imagine what it might have been to chat with Mozart about exactly what he might have in mind with a certain phrase. When you are actually working with a composer, you can say "what were you thinking here?" You can sing it for them in several different ways and see what they think is the best. And also, you're not, as a performer of a new work, being compared to anybody else who has done the piece before, and it gives you a lot of freedom to bring your own interpretation into the piece.

OL - Right. What I want to ask about next is a little different because it wasn't a new work, but especially interesting was your participation in the 50th year anniversary production of Susannah, personally overseen by Carlisle Floyd. Do you have interesting memories to tell us about your interaction with the famous composer?

MW - I do. You are probably familiar with the phrase "a gentleman and a scholar" and that was sort of my first thought when I met him. A gentleman and a scholar, Carlisle Floyd is one. What I found most interesting with him, is that he kept referring to his own score; he thought that the tempo markings really determined how the character was presented, at least in Susannah. It was really interesting. If you took his piece at a quicker tempo, it really changed the dynamics of the character as opposed to a slower tempo. So that was a big part of what we worked on.

OL - Did he conduct the piece himself?

MW - He didn't conduct. I don't know if he does conduct. I know that sometimes he stage directs his own work. The conductor was the opera director at Florida State University where Carlisle Floyd wrote it. Originally they tried to use his home, where Carlisle was living, as a set piece, because it wasn't a very big house. It had been torn down not too long before the production and the opera company had tried to acquire the house so that they could actually use it on stage. At that point in time the conductor - Douglas Fisher - was also trying to write a book about Carlisle and was interviewing him about all of his works. The presenting of Susannah was part of that process. I'm not sure where his at with the book at this point.

OL - Wow, pretty neat. So, your career has focused mostly on the Italian repertory, with some incursions into French, and many into the English-language repertory. Are German, Russian, and Czech roles in the horizon? What are some of your goals for the near and distant future, in terms of career planning?

MW - You are correct, I haven't done too much German, actually. Papageno was the last role I did in German and it was twelve years ago. It seems that, for the moment, I've been speaking with my agent - actually Bernard is also with my agent - we are focusing on the Italian repertoire for the moment, and Verdi in particular, and we are holding off on the heavier German repertoire until I have another five or ten years of maturity in my voice, and then see where I might fit in the scheme of things at that point. But right now the Italian repertoire seems to fit well, it feels good, and I think I'm more inclined to the interpretations and the vocalisms of the Italian repertoire, at the moment. If my voice continues to grow, if it lowers a little bit more… I don't know if I would ever do a lot of Wotan, but there are German roles in the Wagner repertoire that might work well for my voice.

OL - How did you become an opera singer? How did classical music come into your life?

MW - My mother was an amateur pianist and she wanted me to join the public school band program in Iowa where I grew up. I started in fourth grade. First I wasn't interested, but then there was a girl that I knew, that I was interested in, and she joined the band later, and I decided that the band seemed much more attractive at that point [laughs] when she was involved. So that actually led me into the beginning of my formal training as a French horn player around fifth grade. I was ten years old. I had no idea that opera was going to be my career at that point. I sang in church all growing up and originally I went to school to be a music teacher. It was there that I first heard opera and some of my teachers encouraged me to work in that direction. But it wasn't something I really discovered until probably my early twenties.

OL - Do you recall your first experience singing live opera on stage?

MW - The first opera I ever saw was also the first one I was in. [laughs] It was Tosca. It was at my undergraduate school and I was the executioner, which is a non-singing role. The faculty were singing all the leads at that point. Actually the conductor of that show was Stephen Sulich and he ended up being a major influence in my understanding and development about opera. He was a coach out of New York who came to conduct this show in Iowa. I've known him for the last thirty years and continue to work with him, so a big connection was made at that point.

OL - How are you as a person? Would you describe a bit your personality, likes and interests outside of opera?

MW - Outside of opera I love the outdoors, I hike whenever possible especially when I am performing as part of my travel. I'm a novice golfer. My wife and I whenever we have a chance we go visit her home and family in Japan, she is Japanese. I'm probably a little bit introverted.

OL - Have you performed in Japan?

MW - I've done concerts. I did a concert version of Don Giovanni in Osaka.

OL - How was that experience?

MW - That was pretty great. I was the only non-Japanese singer. It was a beautiful hall and the chorus was excellent. It was a great experience.

OL - I hear that the audiences in Japan are very committed to the art form and performances there are often sold out.

MW - Yes, it was a full house and they seemed very enthusiastic.

OL - Right. Thank you so much.

MW - OK, I appreciate your time, thank you!

By: Opera Lively To read the original article, click here.