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The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Victor Ryan Robertson

December 26, 2013

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    December 26, 2013
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    Opera Carolina News

The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Victor Ryan Robertson

Opera Lively is starting our coverage of the event, and the first piece is an exclusive interview with the excellent tenor Victor Ryan Robertson, who is well known to the Charlotte public from two previous production, and to our community from our first interview with him on the occasion of his performance in The Barber of Seville for Piedmont Opera.

Our coverage will continue; soon we'll be presenting an interview with Jill Gardner who will be singing Sister Angelica, and other artists will follow. After the opening night which we will attend in person, a review will be published.

Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively - Puccini had great trouble keeping his Il Trittico together, since public and critics have always liked Gianni Schicchi more than its companions, and starting with his own publisher Ricordi, people such as opera house managers have been tempted to separate the three components. Gianni Schicchi, for example, has been given with The Miserly Knight, an opera that is thematically similar. Something can be said, though, for Puccini's initial intention of presenting several facets of the human experience in the same evening. The composer himself did not hesitate in calling the idea of separating his operas "a real betrayal." What is your opinion on the advantages of performing all three operas together?

Victor Ryan Robertson - I'm not sure if there is any clear advantage, but I like all three. Puccini personally loved Suor Angelica as his favorite opera that he had written. Companies and the public have Schicchi as their favorite. With the Met doing their 2007 production and moving all the dates forward and making them all contemporary, it helps. Suor and Tabarro are relatively solemn as compared to Schicchi, and that's why Schicchi gets all the praise, but musically speaking it's a toss-up; I find them all gorgeous.

OL - Puccini seems to have put together an arc about human emotions - jealousy, desire versus duty, greed and scheming.

VRR - Exactly, that's right. I just saw a production of Tabarro in Saint Louis. It was paired with Pagliacci and it worked. Individually all of these can stand on their own, but I love them when they are paired with other shorter operas. They are all very powerful.

OL - What is your opinion of Suor Angelica?

VRR - A lot of people say they don't like Suor Angelica. I don't understand that.

OL - Maybe part of the reason is that Suor Angelica is an opera for the female voices only. Some people might find there is less contrast.

VRR - Yes, there's probably some of that, but I think it's more a question of how the public relate to these pieces. Suor Angelica is an opera that opens showing typical scenes of aspects of life in a convent. All the sisters sing hymns. The nuns discuss their desires. It's a theme that people aren't so in touch with, therefore there is a distance. I'm not in this one.

Other than Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi, I am doing a small part in Il Tabarro, the role of Tinka - it's a drunken scene with dancing. We drink ourselves away, we work from 9 to 5, we are slaving for the upper class. People can relate to it. Then Schicchi is all about class warfare and greed. That, people can definitely relate to. But given that I'm not in Suor Angelica, I'm not as emotionally fully invested in it to speak clearly about it.

OL - The score of Il Tabarro is very cinematic and modern.

VRR - I know! You can look at John Williams work in film scores and think "Hm.., I wonder where he got all of his themes from." [laughs] Il Tabarro is very cinematic. The production I just saw captured that. It was a meager set with very stark lighting, but the music itself is so vivid! It is directly about jealousy and lust. It is a powerful piece.

OL - Two of the opera's characters, Schicchi himself and Buoso Donati, were historical characters, since Dante's verses that inspired the libretto are based on an actual incident that took place in 13th century Florence. Dante's wife, Gemma, was actually a member of the Donati family. Dante himself was a man who harbored class prejudice and despised members of the peasant class such as Schicchi. Last time we talked, you said you like to explore the historical sources for the opera you are performing. Did you do it this time? Now, centuries later, what is your take on the social layers in the opera?

VRR - Yes, I did, actually. And it remains so relevant! Class welfare is alive in today's world. I just came back from France where I was for an extended period of time, and upon coming back to America I was thinking how we are firmly moving in this direction, or we're already there. Puccini seems to side with Schicchi and Rinuccio; that's where he is trying to make his point. There are several references in Rinuccio's aria ‘Avete torto' to what makes a city, a city; what makes it vibrant with all this variety in shapes and colors. The immigrants, the several generation families, the artists and the bankers.

Puccini compares these wonderful differences to the many roots that are spreading far and wide to make a beautiful tree, and again its branches that spread out even farther provide shade and beauty. Dante himself was an elitist. Puccini on the other hand tries to make his point there, and that's why he separates his character Rinuccio from the greedy family, and softens his character a bit.

OL - Gianni Schicchi relies strongly on stock characters from Commedia dell'Arte - Schicchi would be Harlequin, Lauretta would be a Columbina, Simone matches Pantaloon, and so forth. Is it important, to perform the opera well, to look into this tradition as an inspiration for the acting part?

VRR - Yes, this is important when you do your research. Rinuccio's character corresponds to the stock character of Flavio - he represents a young, beautiful lover. Usually he is a son who is the pride of the family. This character loves to be in love. He knows that everyone is watching him and he is the adored center of that family. So, he has these over-the-top laments about not being able to marry Loretta in the first of May. He is very aware that they are watching him.

When he sings ‘Avete torto' he catches everyone's attention with great images of Florence. He keeps them all engaged with an old Napoleonic folk song. He brings them back to the many things that make Florence great. He compares Schicchi to the city. At the same time he tells them that they are being prejudiced and ridiculous in their generalizations. He tells them why Schicchi is perfect for this particular job that the family needs him for.

Then he goes on why a person like Scicchi could even exist in Florence and how he flourishes there. Then he ends it by saying ‘we need to stop with this pettiness, we need to allow him to enter our house and help us figure this out' - it's an analogy to how Florence has allowed many immigrants into the city.

OL - Very interesting and nice answer! Is this your first Rinuccio?

VRR - Yes, it's my role debut. It's hard to believe, because I feel it is in my voice, perfectly. It's one of those pieces that as soon as I started practicing it, it was already in my voice. I've done this aria in auditions and recitals and I always get this question - ‘Why haven't you done this role yet?' Vocally it works really well for me.

OL - Each time I remember that Il Triticco had its world premiere in America, precisely at the Metropolitan Opera House on December 14, 1918, I think that it is important for American companies to continue to carry it on. How do you feel about this Opera Carolina production?

VRR - I'm pretty sure they are doing a more modern take on it, but I don't know a lot about this production yet. Singers don't usually get told in advance how the production will be unless it's a world premiere or a country premiere. In these cases usually the director will call you and give you references to what you need to be looking into to ground your character, but when it's an older piece we often only learn about it when we arrive for rehearsals.

OL - Tell us about your colleagues in this production, please - Chen-Ye Yuan as Gianni Schicchi, Donald Hartmann as Simone…

VRR - I haven't worked with them before. This is the first time in four years that I don't know any of my colleagues. Opera is an international art form and there are so many opera companies around the world, yet I always sing with somebody I know. I just did a production of Candide in France and I knew four people in it. It's lovely when it happens, and it pretty much happens every time but coincidentally, for this particular production it hasn't.

OL - Have you been to Opera Carolina before?

VRR - Yes. In 2007 I sang Ottavio in Don Giovanni, and in 2009 I was Almaviva for the Barber.

OL - I love that company. They are really good; very professional and organized.

VRR - Very, very. I love it, and I love Charlotte, so that's good.

OL - Let's talk about the music in Gianni Schicchi. It is quite innovative, said to be decisively 20th century, and with a dissonant modernity. The opera has dissonant passages with two chords clashing against each other in a bi-tonal way, and then also diatonic passages with traditional melodies that serve as a point of respite and romantic punctuation. How does the music for your character get inserted in this scheme? Your main numbers are the arioso ‘Avete Torto,' leading to ‘Firenze è come un albero fiorito'; and later you have the duet with Lauretta, which is ‘Lauretta mia, staremo sempre qui!' Would you please comment on these pieces?

VRR - That's a really good question. ‘Avete torto' is based on stornellos, which are a type of traditional song from the Tuscan region. You can go on YouTube and hear different stornellos online. You can hear tunes that are into my aria, and some lyrics there. Puccini did this in purpose. This folk connection immediately gives ground to the aria, and a sense of energy and forward momentum. It combines imagery and text and establishes a love for Florence that becomes central to the plot of the opera. It's layered, and it's amazing. The aria shows that the land and the trees and the people - the city itself - is built upon a foundation. Let me find a good one for you. If you YouTube Alvaro Amici Stornelli Maliziosi, that's the best example.

OL - Is singing ‘Avete torto' difficult?

VRR - Funny that you ask. I put that aria on my audition list. I have six other arias on there that are very difficult. Usually they pick ‘Avete torto' because most people think it is a very high and difficult aria. It is very high in the register and it stays there. But for my voice it is not difficult at all. So I have no problem singing it; it's just perfect for my voice.

The aria usually receives no applause because Puccini never gives it a chance - the orchestra continues to play and Gianni Schicchi takes over that scene and you pretty much forget that aria. I think it's done in purpose by Puccini, to layer the tone and distance Rinnucio from the other characters that up to that point look like vultures. Puccini wants you to fall in love with his character being in love with Lauretta throughout all this chaos - I mean, no one would give a damn about them if that aria didn't happen. It's a link between him and Lauretta. It's fun, and it prevents the action from being one-dimensional greed.

OL - Do you know who your Lauretta is?

VRR - I do not, and that's how I do it. I never ever try to find out who I'm singing with. All my friends really get on me about this. I walk in and I just say ‘Hi!' It used to be because I was insecure and I didn't want to think ‘oh my God, I'm singing with this person' and it would kind of get in my head. Now I'm not like this any longer, but I continue to do it out of superstition, I guess. [laughs]

OL - That's pretty funny.

VRR - Yes, I walk in, and say, ‘Oh my God, it's you; we just did this production together' and she says ‘You didn't know???' Then I have to go through why I didn't know… It's just funny. [laughs]

OL - Some very famous tenors have recorded this role of Rinuccio, such as Giuseppe di Stefano, Peter Seiffert, Nicolai Gedda, Plácido Domingo, and more modernly Roberto Alagna and Vittorio Grigolo in video, among others. Have you listened to or watched some of your predecessors, for inspiration?

VRR - I do listen. In my process to learn a role, first I get with the pianist and learn it note by note, obviously. You start memorizing the role, then there is a certain point when you want to listen to the best who have done it. You don't want to start out listening to someone who has done it, because then you start imitating too much and it becomes your only reference.

My personal favorite is Nicolai Gedda. His version is really divine. His articulation of the text is pristine, elegant, and yet useful. It's exactly what you want out of Rinuccio. I love looking at the Viennese 2000 production with Juan Diego Flórez. His voice is not my favorite Rinuccio but that production itself is stunning. That's why YouTube is so great. If you think ‘I wonder how Glyndebourne did the 2004 version of Falstaff' - boom, there it is on YouTube! We never had that kind of access, before.

OL - Yes, it's a brave new world; it's great for us fans as well. Now, let's move away from this upcoming production and talk about you and your career a little bit. We heard of your 2010 near fatal motorcycle accident, and we are glad that you are still around! Have you made a full recovery?

VRR - Thank you for asking. I'm as fully recovered as possible. My tennis game is back and is better than when I was in college, and I had a full tennis scholarship. Physically I'm feeling very well right now.

OL - You've had the opportunity of singing Rodolfo in London, at the Royal Albert Hall, in a Francesca Zambello production of La Bohème. We love Francesca, who was one of Opera Lively's interviewees. That must have been such an experience! Would you describe it for us?

VRR - That was a very interesting production. The Royal Albert Hall is a rather large theater, and it is round, but you still get a feel of intimacy with it, especially the way Francesca did it. The first scene, we come to the stage from an underground subway station evoking a Parisian station, through a spiral staircase in the middle of the hall. There was nothing like it. I was walking behind Marcello, because I was singing Rodolfo, and when we got in, it was packed with 4,000 people all around you. The Queen was there.

And then, Puccini's music kicks in, and you just feel everyone's interest in the opera. It was fantastic. She used rollerblades in act II, for the waiters and waitresses, and they were professional rollerbladers. No matter where I was walking in act II, they were dancing around me in rollerskates, in the middle of menus and glasses and wine… I don't know how the did it; it was pure chaos, but controlled chaos. It was special.

OL - How was for you the off-Broadway show 3 Mo' Tenors? How do you compare this kind of experience with that of singing opera?

VRR - This was an experiment that took off in 2002. It was based on opera. How many singers in the world can sing ‘À mes amis' with the high Cs, then sing Sondheim, then old negro spirituals, then a modern church song, then R&B, then come back to classical music in the end? Over the scope of nine different styles of music, it was the most difficult thing I've ever had to sing, and the most singing I've had to do on stage, other than doing L'Elisir d'amore - Nemorino stays on stage the whole time. Other than that opera, 3 Mo' Tenors had the most singing, the most high Cs, the most B flats, and that's what makes it so exciting.

There is a reason why over a ten-year period, there has only been a handful of guys in the world who can really sing it. I took that challenge on. We'll be doing a lot of shows at the Duke Ellington School next year, and we will be in Houston, LA, the Dominican Republic. It's going to be a fun time, and they are looking to do another PBS special.

OL - Is it dangerous for the voice, to overtax it like this?

VRR - It was dangerous, starting out eight or nine years ago. You just need to make sure that your technique is very, very solid. That was a work in progress for me at the time. Now I have no problem at all singing it. I never had a problem with it, but I had concerns. Now, I'd almost say, it's a walk in the park. I know what my limitations are. You should better know what they are, if you are going to do this show. I know what I excel in. As long as I'm not doing four or five shows every week like I was doing off-Broadway, I'm OK. If I'm doing a concert twice a month, then it's perfect.

OL - When you were doing these five-tiimes-a-week marathons, how would you rest your voice?

VRR - It's funny, because everybody asked me, when I was living in New York at the time, ‘did you see this Broadway show?' and I'd say, ‘are you kidding me? I'm off-Broadway, I don't have the time to see anything.' We were doing TV show appearances, we were doing the show… You just go straight home and rest. It's all you can do. You are physically tired, you are vocally tired, and mentally tired.

As a singer in my career I just missed one show in ten years, and it was one of the 3 Mo' Tenors shows. Coincidentally that day there was a blizzard in New York City and no one could make it to the show. [laughs] I cancelled that morning because I was as sick as a dog, but then no one could make it and the whole show got cancelled.

OL - We saw in your resumé the Mandela Trilogy from May through July of 2012, with Capetown Opera, ENO, the Welsh and Scottish National Operas, and Birmingham. With the great man's recent passing, we'd love to hear more about these performances. What are the memories you keep from these?

VRR - I have been singing for Capetown Opera now for six years and it is a very special place for me. The people are so warm and yet fiercely politically aware. There is a vast difference in black South Africans and white Afrikaners but both are very accommodating. I once had to pinch myself. Here I was at midnight dancing with the Africans in the middle of the largest township in South Africa (Khayelitsha) and just the previous day was partying at a vineyard in Stellenbosh with the Afrikaners; very diverse people.

Among my top five favorite books of all time is A Long Walk To Freedom. I read it eighteen years ago and it is the best journal on Mandela's journey. The Mandela Trilogy that I was in captures his adolescence in route to becoming a lawyer on through his politically active years and continues through his 27 years behind bars. It's a brutally honest score that unapologetically tells of his many women and the effect he had on putting each of them at a distant second, his first love being his fight for justice and keeping the promise that there would be freedom in his time. It was televised live on BBC from the Welsh National Opera House. It's very surreal to have been in two different productions (the Mandela Trilogy and Champion) and losing both Mandela and Emile Griffith within a year.

OL - Yes, you've created a double role in a world premiere, those of Benny Paret and Benny Paret Jr. in Terence Blanchard's Champion. Was it a very special and very different experience?

VRR - I feel like that role introduced me to the world. Benny "Kid" Paret actually grew up in the same neighborhood with the man who later killed him in the ring, Emile Griffith. They probably played basketball with each other in the Bronx. They were more or less the same age. I played Benny Paret and his son. They couldn't be more different. Benny Paret was a homophobic agitator, and his son was a very humble man whose central theme was forgiveness. He forgave Emile Griffith thirty years later.

Individually they weren't hard to play, but both together… One was a testosterone-driven, in-your-face, ripped World Champion boxer, and thirty minutes later I was playing his meager, smaller in stature, diminutive son, but with a more powerful message which is forgiveness. The physical demands of the show were very, very hard. I had to capture what was like to be a world class boxer, so I got into that shape.

At the time just before our opening, Jason Collins came out as the first NBA openly gay basketball player, so our theme was large and wide and talked about. Emile Griffith was gay and quiet about it. My character Benny "Kid" Paret called him out in public, and that's why Emile killed him in the ring. So, there were lots of coincidences going on. Opening night, Benny Paret Jr. was there, and he was very emotional. I don't know if this will ever happen in my life again, to play somebody in front of the real person like that. [laughs] So it was very emotional, and it went on to become the most reviewed world premiere in the history of American opera.

OL - Did you meet Mr. Paret Jr.?

VRR - I did. I met him, and he really didn't have much to say. He was visibly shaken. He wouldn't stay. He didn't stay long at all. He stayed for 15 minutes to take photos with me, then he left, immediately. It was odd. But it went on to become the most reviewed opera, and we are making a recording, to be released this March.

OL - Nice. It looks like your international career is going very well. You've just arrived from Lorraine, France, were you sang in the very interesting operetta Candide. Tell us about it.

VRR - Candide was very interesting to do in France, because of Voltaire's work. It is very close to every French person. They all know about it. For some reason, this took me by surprise. I thought that the younger people would not resonate with it, but they did. It was a very vivid production, with Candide being part of an Amish community. The set was mainly in the US. Where the opera is set in Venice, it turned into Venice Beach. It showcased the vastness of America, and combined with visually iconic images like Mount Rushmore, diners that everyone goes to, especially Western diners with cacti and tumble weed, and Candide was dressed like Elvis Presley.

At the end right before he sings his big aria when he sheds his illusions, he takes off his Elvis costume and says ‘Is this the meaning of my life, after all the adventures I had, to find you again, Cunégonde, and this what it was all about? Now look at you; you are selfish, old, but I forgive you because I love you, but nothing is what it seems.' That was fantastic; it was a fantastic opera.

OL - How did the French public received this Americanized Candide?

VRR - They loved it. We were worried about that, because it was the hardest production I've ever been a part of. When you have half the cast British, half the cast French, and there are two Americans… [laughs] I was one of the Americans. It was a battle in every level to get that opera done. Millions of dollars were put into it. The opera itself is complicated enough without adding all these things like the Amish community, Elvis, diners… it was stacked on top of an already complex thing. But it worked, and the Europeans loved, so that's great.

OL - Can we see it anywhere, like Medici TV or YouTube?

VRR - I might pop up on YouTube but I don't know, because of orchestral and union rights. It may, or it may not.

OL - Right. I'll be in the lookout for it. You'll be Boy Sam in David Lang's The Difficulty of Crossing a Field in three cities, a performance that will be televised. Are you excited about it?

VRR - I'm very excited about this new work. I don't know much about it other than my character. I've been dealing with Benny Paret, Candide, and Rinuccio for the past seven months. Within that period I was offered this role of Boy Sam, and accepted but I said to myself ‘I'm not going to take on this character right now' because with those other three characters my hands were full. So, ask me again in two months and I'll be able to give you an explication of who the character is and how the production will be coming around.

OL - Gianni Schicchi is a very funny opera, and you've done other comedies like La Cenerentola, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, La Fille du Regiment, and L'Elisir d'Amore. You've done tragic tenor roles as well - Ottavio in Don Giovanni, Alfredo in La Traviata, Edgardo in Lucia to name a few, as well as a role that requires good theatrical range because it goes a bit both ways, that of Hoffmann. What is your preference? Are you more comfortable with comedic or tragic roles? Would you please elaborate on the different skill sets they require?

VRR - I find that I have been more comfortable over the years doing light-hearted, fun-loving characters: the Nemorinos and Tonios of opera. I used to find it difficult being serious on stage. I didnt have access to those emotions as much. Doing the role of Hoffmann, where he was a drunk, a poet, and a dreamer, it blended a lot of emotions well, to the point that I didnt find it so hard. That could also be said of the role Sportin' Life in Porgy and Bess. They were written so well to seamlessly go in and out of polar opposite emotions quickly. Those two characters helped me improve my serious side as well as my accident in 2010. That was such a tough year emotionally but it has expanded my emotional capacity.

OL - You've performed the role of Sportin' Life in Porgy and Bess numerous times, in venues as prestigious as Los Angeles Opera and Deutsche Oper Berlin, among others, and your next commitment is another tour of Australia singing Sportin' Life. We interviewed your colleague Lawrence Brownlee, and we were talking about the controversy regarding Porgy and Bess, which has afforded to African-American singers/actors an outlet in a time when unfortunately they weren't being given other roles, but is also seen by some members of the community as a piece that detrimentally and stereotypically depicts African-Americans. What is your opinion on this controversy, and on the piece itself (which, by the way, personally, I love)?

VRR - I didn't start singing the role of Sportin' Life in Porgy and Bess until well into my career and I never even considered it. I knew that first I must establish myself as a legitimate bel canto operatic tenor and to take on that role too soon might just pigeon-hole me. I also knew it was such a good character within a great show that when I did get the opportunity it would be awesome.

It's a masterpiece. Just like the movie Django Unchained which has recently received a lot of criticism for its content, Porgy takes on this fractured time in America with a love story. You cannot run away from this rich history. Sportin' Life was a street hustler, slick and deadly. He really existed and his voice should be heard too. I grew up in South Carolina and in the Low Country some people STILL speak that way. It's real. How else can you portray it? Washing it down, covering it up, cleaning it up only robs people of a history that had its time and was a pawn in the game of this great country. Now I LOVE singing that role. He's so smooth, and his music rivals "Summertime".

OL - We'd be curious to know how audiences abroad react to our very own Porgy and Bess. Do you have any memories to share about that production in Berlin, and how the public received it?

VRR - Doing Porgy and Bess in Berlin for the first time since its famous production with Leontine Price in 68 was special. The audience went crazy. The house was sold out in all twenty-five shows. There were standing ovations for fifteen minutes every night. I had never experienced anything like it at the time, or since. The irony was that it was a South African production!! Capetown Opera saw me do the Francesca Zambello's Los Angeles production and has hired me to do it all over the world. They easily turned Catfish Row into a Township and the transition was perfect. Oppression, poverty, racism, and love were all mirrored in the Township of Khayelitsha. To be a part of their history in the setting of Porgy and Bess was the most unique of experiences. They added Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana, and Afrikaans language in the text and the audience just ate it up. I've always wondered how an American audience would feel about their interpretation.

OL - Wow, very interesting! How did you get into classical music and operatic singing? Was it something that was in your background, family/school/church, etc.? Or did it come to you as a surprise?

VRR - I fell into classical music by accident. After dropping out of college on a full tennis scholarship I drifted into rock/R&B bands traveling through the countryside of the Carolinas and Georgia. I played late night in smoky bars for very little pay. I did this for a few years and then moved to Atlanta. After one of my shows the bass player for the Grammy award-winning group Arrested Development pulled me aside and asked if I wanted to start a band with him. We did and named it Kuntah.

At one of those shows a professor of music at Georgia State University (Mary Ann Hill) heard me sing and suggested I study with her. I slowly agreed but only to improve my vocal range as a singer. She had other intentions though, and from the start thought I should be singing opera. Once I got wind of this it was too late to say no and I was in love with the literature she kept having me practice (Italian 24 songs, Mozart). Somehow I was accepted into the prestigious Young Artists Program at Tri Cities Opera in NY where maestro Peyton Hibbitt took me under his wings and showed me how to pull apart and learn a score.

OL - Please tell us about your goals and aspirations.

VRR - So far it's been an honor to do something so challenging and rewarding for a living. My next goals are to take these roles to even higher levels. I've had a lot to overcome in this process. Opera exposes so much from a person's soul that one cannot hide. In order to reach new levels artistically I've had to look at myself and where I want to be, honestly. This profession is not for the faint of heart. You've got to really love it and I think it should be that way.

OL - OK, these were the questions we had for you today, thank you.

VRR - You ask the most amazing questions. We all talk about it. I usually don't care about interviews too much, but I love yours!

OL - That's a great compliment, thank you so much! I'm humbled. It's just that I love opera so much, so I put this love into it.

VRR - That is obvious! I'm looking at your site right now; it's great. I see your interview with Francesca, and wow, Jessica Pratt; I did Armida with her in London in 2010.

OL - Yes, these were good interviews. Thank you, and see you soon in Charlotte.

VRR - I look forward to it.

Opera Lively
Questions by Luiz Gazzola

To read the original interview, click here.