By Erica Miner
He has great analytical skills, approaches his roles with remarkable intelligence, and even accompanies himself at the piano. Baritone Stephen Powell, who sings his first Tonio in San Diego Opera’s opening production of Pagliacci this season, embodies the phrase, “multi-talented.” True to form, the affable performer enters the room singing.
SP: I hadn’t thought of that (laughs).
EM: Where are you from originally?
SP: I’m from Pennsylvania, born and raised in West Chester.
EM: You started out as a pianist?
SP: I was a piano major at Northwestern. But I quickly found out I wasn’t cut out for eight hours a day of practicing piano by myself. And everybody’s really good when you get to that level. But I loved music, so I started to do a lot of accompanying, which I still love, and play for a lot of violinists and singers. That’s how I began to learn opera repertoire.
EM: Were you singing yet at that point?
SP: I’d always sung for fun. In high school I was in musicals, a rock band - which was a lot of fun - and sang in the choir. For the ensemble requirement, I sang in the University chorale and the vocal jazz ensemble. I dabbled in a lot of things to try and figure out what I wanted to do. I loved everything I was doing but needed to center on something, to focus on a vocation, as so many people do in college. But I always knew it had to be music. I was in a work study program doing recitals, practice sessions, rehearsals and recordings and started playing for many studios, in particular for Norman Gulbrandsen, who eventually became my voice teacher. He had heard that I sang, too, and he said, “I’d love to hear you sing someday.” And I said, “Ah… no, I’m fine.” But eventually I sang for him and he encouraged me to take lessons. At the end of the day he would do a half hour lesson with me, run scales and such. He was very generous with his time.
EM: And did you enjoy that more than you imagined?
SP: I did. I didn’t think of it as a focused vocational avenue yet, but I realized there was something there worth pursuing. By my junior year I had switched from being a piano major to a theory and composition major.
EM: Where did that come from?
SP: Composition was also an interest of mine. I really wanted to be Billy Joel growing up. I wrote a lot of songs on my own with my brother, who was also a voice major in college. But composition at that time was very modern electronic music, Milton Babbitt sort of thing. I didn’t love writing it, but it allowed me to take other courses outside my piano major, and freed me up to do other things and still get my degree. By that time I was studying fairly regularly with Mr. Gulbrandsen, still playing a lot of piano. So I graduated with a theory and composition degree, which was worth pretty much nothing.
EM: Except that you know how to analyze a score.
SP: I do, and sometimes it helps. After that I spent four years working in music, teaching piano and accompanying recitals and auditions in Chicago, taking lessons and doing anything I could to make a living. I sang with Chicago Symphony Chorus. Looking back now, I realize some of the best musical experiences I had were in that chorus, with Georg Solti conducting. He was one of the greatest musical minds of all time.
EM: What a fantastic opportunity.
SP: Fabulous. In ’89 we did a tour of London and Salzburg, Berlioz’ Damnation of Faust. So I got to travel. But my voice teacher was encouraging me to pursue singing, and I thought, “Oh my God, opera, the stories are so silly.”
EM: But you did get the exposure.
SP: I did. I sang in the chorus for Don Giovanni and had a lot of fun, but I didn’t think of it as a vocation. I loved playing opera and enjoyed the music, but I was also a gigging musician, freelancing in a wedding band playing piano and singing pop music till three a.m. with a guitar blaring in my ear. Getting by. I was twenty-five when Mr. Gulbrandsen, who had moved from Northwestern to De Paul, said, “I want you to come get your Master’s degree in voice.” I said, “What, really?” They were doing Figaro, and my voice teacher said, “You need to audition.” After talking with friends and family I decided to get my Master’s, paying my way by playing for opera workshops, vocal classes and auditions. I auditioned and got the role of Figaro - I had worked on the arias and played the role for many singers - and I thought, “What am I getting myself into?”
EM: Not just any role, either.
SP: Yes. I got hooked. After all this searching, finally being on stage, being able to act, with the language, the text, the character, the music all combined, it made sense. I found my niche. I pursued it with vehemence and got my two year degree in one year, then right out of De Paul I auditioned for the Lyric Opera apprenticeship program and got in. I was there from ’93-’95. Then I went to New York and started singing. I joined New York City Opera in the fall of ’95.
EM: What was your first role at City Opera?
SP: I was on a weekly contract, so I had five or six operas that year. Papageno in Magic Flute, plus Mikado, Rosenkavalier, and the musical Cinderella, with Jean Stapleton and Jane Powell, which was a thrill. Then my agent called and asked if I wanted to cover William Stone in Hindemith’s Mathis Der Maler. I didn’t think it was a big deal, but when I looked at the score I realized I should have thought about it a little. Meanwhile I was learning two other roles. Then Bill blew out a vocal chord and suddenly I was “on” for the Opening Night of the season, singing from the pit while Bill walked the part on stage. That was my debut! I remember thinking, if I could get through that, nothing’s going to bother me from here on. That’s turned out to be true, but I learned to be careful what I say yes to.
EM: And your first stage role at city opera was Papageno?
SP: Yes. That’s where I met my wife (soprano Barbara Shirvis). She sang in Mathis, and Pamina in Flute, and we sang together in Mikado and Rosenkavalier. We pretty much couldn’t get away from each other. We’ve been together ever since. My Met debut the fall of ’96 was Marullo in Rigoletto. Now I’ve moved from lyric, like Figaro and Ford in Falstaff, to more dramatic roles.
EM: Now that you’re able to get into the heavier ones, which roles do you enjoy the most, or feel most comfortable with?
SP: It was a slow progression from the lyric repertoire to the lower tier Verdi like Germont and Ford. Now I’d say Rigoletto is my favorite role. I just did Iago for the first time last year and Falstaff at Virginia Opera, and those were fantastic. They’re actually best suited for me now. This summer I did Rodrigo (Don Carlo) for the first time.
EM: Of Rodrigo, Falstaff and Rigoletto, which was the most challenging, and why?
SP: Falstaff because of the character, the range, and especially the amount of text. Also Iago. I’d like to keep doing it where I feel as comfortable with it as I am with Rigoletto. But with Falstaff I felt like I’d worked pretty hard. The physical aspect, wearing a fat suit - it’s not heavy, but hot and cumbersome - the running around and sheer amount of movement, plus the text and the singing and comic timing, it was tough but it engaged my mind, which is what I need. It involves me the most and makes me the happiest. That’s why I found opera to be so good for me, because there’s so much going on. I always have something to think about.
EM: The role of Tonio in Pagliacci at San Diego Opera is brand new for you. Are you happy to do something different?
SP: I am. Especially because I got it so late, the fact that the role itself is not enormous gives me a chance to learn it quickly. Of course I’ve know the Prologue aria for years. I haven’t really sung it but I’ve played it and heard other people sing it. There’s some pretty physical stuff - the duet with Nedda where she whips me and there’s a struggle and I have to run around a lot, that’s a real workout. We’re about to stage Act Two today, the play within the play, so I’m interested to see what we’re going to do with that. I’m enjoying it. It’s right in with the other things I’m singing, stylistically and sort of my fach.
EM: And you get to open the show. All the attention on you. That’s got to be fun.
SP: Yes, I like that. It’s a great opening. Fantastic.
EM: Have you worked with Andrew Sinclair before?
SP: We did Pearl Fishers at City Opera a while ago, maybe 2005 or ’06. He’s a great guy. He’s got lots to say, is always very prepared. Really a pleasure to work with. I’m looking forward to being able to focus just on Pagliacci for one evening.
EM: It must be a great luxury.
SP: It’s nice to learn it that way, too. Especially for the first time.
EM: What else have you sung here?
SP: This is my eighth or ninth time at SDO. The last was Sharpless (Madama Butterfly). My first year, ’97, I did three operas, small roles. Dancaïro in Carmen, Nuñez in the new opera Conquistador, Ping in Turandot. The next year I came back and did Guglielmo in Cosi Fan Tutte with my wife - she did Fiordiligi that year. And I did Slim in Of Mice and Men.
EM: How would you compare doing contemporary repertoire with traditional roles?
SP: I like them both for different reasons. With new repertoire it’s always interesting to hear what people are writing, musically how they’re setting dramas today. I admire guys who can come up with things that sound new or at least make sense and aren’t like something else. It’s pretty difficult to find your own language these days, after what Strauss and Stravinsky did. Jake Heggie’s doing pretty well, and of course John Adams. I did Klinghoffer once in The Death of Klinghoffer at Brooklyn Academy of Music. That was a lot of fun. I thought there was a lot of good music in that, and dramatically it made sense how he set the story and the text. That’s really what matters, ultimately. The musical style isn’t as important as balancing the characters with the music. They haven’t done Conquistador here again. It’s hard to get a new opera re-produced.
EM: You have to weigh and balance whether you can get audiences to come. Falstaff is one of the most brilliant operas ever written, yet for some reason it doesn’t sell.
SP: You shake your head, wondering why it doesn’t. It’s a masterpiece. I really loved it. I hope I can do it again.
EM: As do I. Getting back to your piano playing, I don’t think I’ve ever known a singer who was such an accomplished pianist. How does that work into your process as you approach a new role such as Pagliacci?
SP: One of the great things about having piano skills is not needing anyone to help me learn the music. I never thought of that thirty years ago, but it’s very helpful. First I highlight and translate and get a recording. Once I know what I’ve got, I’ll play it through myself, get the harmonies in my ear, figure out what I have to do with the other singers. When I know it well enough, I’ll listen to a recording for ten minutes, then go to the piano and play, then listen to someone else singing and go back to the parts I liked, see if it fits my voice to do the same thing. I also record the accompaniment on my iPhone so I can bring it with me wherever I go, sit with my score and listen. It’s great because you can go back ten or twenty seconds and just keep repeating it over and over. A fantastic tool for learning. Sometimes it helps to get another perspective.
EM: Technology does come in handy after all. A whole new approach to singing. Is there any role you haven’t done that you’re eager to sink your teeth into?
SP: In 2015 I’m doing Di Luna in Trovatore, which I’ve always wanted to do. I’d like to sing Renato in Ballo, too. But now I’m just starting to do those roles, so they’ll come. Boccanegra in the concert version, which I did in Poland, was interesting. And I’d like to do Macbeth.
EM: That’s one of the most beautiful Verdi operas but it must be difficult, since he started writing it early on and went back to it later. Do you find any problematic inconsistencies in that role?
SP: Definitely. But you can overcome them dramatically with textural choices, emphasis in different spots. Verdi sets the characters so well with his music, they’re so clear dramatically. That’s one of the reasons I’d like to do it, so I can figure that out. Scarpia is another favorite role I’ve started to do. It’s huge, difficult. Hard to sustain that tessitura. I sang that with my wife. She enjoyed that. She got out her aggressions on stage - with a rubber knife (laughs).
EM: What about Wagner?
SP: I’ve been approached a couple of times about doing Wotan. I’ve said no. I need time first for these roles I’m doing now before I approach the other. Wotan is huge, not only the type of singing but the length. It’s brutal. Even if you sing correctly all the time it can take a toll. I’ve heard guys wreck their voices. I’ve not wanted to do it as badly as I wanted to do Rigoletto. Verdi was always my ultimate goal. Now I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do, and I’m enjoying it. Take the next five years and sing them a lot.
EM: Maybe there is some Wagner in your future, but you are right where you want to be, so you should relish it.
SP: I do. I’m pretty happy doing this right now.
EM: You look happy, and I have no doubt you’re going to sound happy, too. I’m looking forward to Pagliacci.
SP: Thanks, I am too!
Erica Miner can be contacted at email@example.com