Malcolm MacKenzie Dishes about Opera, Voice Acting and Benedict Cumberbatch
By Erica Miner
San Diego Opera audiences will be delighted once again to see dramatic baritone Malcolm MacKenzie on stage for this season’s opener, Puccini’s ever-popular La Bohème. With over ten years of experience performing with the company, MacKenzie is a familiar presence to SDO fans. Excited to be participating in the first production of the company’s new season as “Opera Renewed” and also their Fiftieth Anniversary season, he shared some of his past experiences with the company, his exhilaration at returning to his role, and the perks of Bohème as “an opera for everyone.”
EM: Tell me about your history with San Diego Opera.
MM: I first came to San Diego Opera as a part of a shared production of Rigoletto from LA Opera where I had been a Resident Artist. I then was contracted to sing Escamillo in SDO’s Carmen in a subsequent season and have performed with them almost every year for the past ten years.
EM: What do you most look forward to about returning to SDO?
MM: San Diego Opera is one of my favorite companies. Its productions are always of the highest caliber. And rarely have I worked with a more dedicated, giving and professional staff.
EM: You actually have a degree in physiology. It must be great as a singer to have that knowledge about the voice and vocal chords.
MM: It’s been very useful. I teach now, so the physiology background helps. It also introduced me to my wife - we were in classes together. She’s a physical therapist. That’s the best thing about my degree. [Laughs] I find it very interesting, especially with acoustical singers, what we can do with our voices. It’s nutty, the kind of sound we can make. I love actors and the way they use their voices, and I’m very vocal about it. If everybody studied voice acting like Benedict Cumberbatch we’d have so much better voice actors. [Laughs] One of the things that makes him great is the way he uses his voice. That’s because he was trained for stage in the old fashioned way.
EM: No one has acting background like the Brits do, between Shakespeare and everything since.
MM: An enormous stage tradition where they still use stage voice as opposed to being amplified, which is the way it’s often done here.
EM: You’re doing some new roles this season?
MM: I have a new part, which I’m very excited about, the role of Roger Chillingworth in the world premiere of Scarlet Letter, by Lori Laitman (http://artsongs.com/scarlet-letter/). She’s a fantastic composer.
EM: Where and when is the premiere?
MM: Opera Colorado, May of 2016. I’m very much looking forward to it.
EM: Rightfully so. Last season you did Simon Boccanegra. That must have been a huge challenge.
MM: It’s one of my favorite pieces ever. I sing a lot of Verdi now. I haven’t sung all the roles yet, but that was one I had always loved. I never thought I’d get a chance to sing the title role. it came totally out of the blue. They said, “Would Malcolm be interested in singing Boccanegra?” I was like, “Are you kidding me?”
EM: A lot of singers wait until they’re far more mature for that role.
MM: I’m not as young as perhaps you think I am. I’m proud to say I’m forty-seven. A lot of singers sing roles too soon now, especially since people are very much in love with the visual, how you look on stage. The appropriateness of roles has sometimes taken a back seat. I’ve avoided certain roles, I’ve not sung Rigoletto yet - I would like to, but it’s one of those that frighten me a bit, because it’s quite difficult.
EM: And heavier than Boccanegra in some ways.
MM: I think it is. Boccanegra was more “lyric” than I expected it to be, though interestingly I found the lyric sections most challenging. But in this case, I was not going to say no. I was very happy to be with Kentucky Opera, I’d never sung with them before. I said, “I’ve got to do it because I’m never going to get a chance to do this again.”
EM: You felt it was a good fit for you at that point?
MM: I was a little shocked at how appropriate it felt. There were difficult sections, the duet with the soprano I find incredibly difficult because of the emotional gravitas. Then you have to sing very sotto voce after you’ve been yelling in the first act. But I really enjoyed it.
EM: Also recently was your first Jack Rance in Puccini’s Fanciulla Del West.
MM: Fanciulla is fantastic. There’s so much jazz in it. So many blue notes.
EM: And very American.
MM: The way he wrote it, it’s an homage to the history of Italy, the old way of doing things, yet it’s such an American piece. You can totally hear that Puccini was listening to Copland, going to jazz clubs. It’s amazing. People flew in from all over the country to see this opera at Nashville Opera. It’s so infrequently performed.
EM: Did you find it as challenging as Boccanegra?
MM: Puccini has different requirements of the singer. When one sings Puccini one is part of the orchestra. In Verdi the orchestra is accompanying you. Being heard, fitting into a large orchestration in Puccini can be a challenge, especially as a baritone or bass, because it’s easy to get lost. A soprano can soar above everyone and still be hearable. Puccini is always thinking about the voice, especially in these climactic emotional moments, which nobody did like he did. Verdi, especially early Verdi, is very Donizetti-like. [Sings] All about the voice. When you start singing, things drop out in the orchestra. Nobody doubles your part. People think of Verdi as being so big. It’s actually much lighter in its feel. You literally don’t have to produce as much sound from a singing standpoint. Whereas in Puccini you’re on all the time. It’s taxing in a different way.
EM: What roles haven’t you done that you’d like to do? MM: I’d love to sing Papageno. I’m a huge Mozart fan and never get to sing it. I got to do that “happy guy” for Elixir
(http://www.laopus.com/2014/02/best-date-night-ever-san-diego-operas.html) last year. Now I’m largely seen as a bad guy, Verdi-esque, completely fine. Two others I really like are Di Luna (Verdi’s Il Trovatore) - it’s a hoot to sing - and Renato, in Ballo in Maschera. I love that piece.
EM: As we’ve all seen, everybody in this town adores this opera company and has helped it survive. We’re going to open with an opera everyone knows and loves. What are your thoughts about starting SDO’s season with Bohème, how you feel about being here for this first performance?
MM: Every time I visit Bohème it’s like coming home. It was one of my first productions. It’s the quintessential first opera. Being the opening of the SDO season, it’s doubly appropriate. It’s described as a warhorse but it’s a modern opera, about young people. If you’re trying to bring a friend to their first opera, this is the way to do it. It’s of movie length for today’s audience, it’s got tearjerker movie music, and there’s no dead space. No one can come to it and go away unmoved. For even your foot-draggingest friend it’s no more time investment than going to a movie. It’s the “toe in the water” opera that appeals to young people, the perfect piece for SDO to come back with. People new to opera will go, “Oh, it’s about young people. Sure, why not, I’ll go see it.” And it’ll be so rewarding for them.
EM: And you get to bring your experience and expertise to an opera and role you dearly love.
MM: It’s like putting an old shoe on. Or an “old coat.” [Laughs] That old shoe that I love and now I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to wear much longer. It’s pretty worn out. [Laughs] And this cast is really great. You look into the cast members’ eyes and they look into yours and we’re thinking, “Oh, yeah, let’s do this.”
EM: Why do you think people should support the opera and see La Bohème?
MM: First of all, they’ll have a great time! La Bohème plays like a modern musical, with a fast moving, emotionally engaging plot, and has one of the best scores in all of opera. The music is easily accessible and moving. People will leave the theater humming its tunes!
Tickets for San Diego Opera’s Fiftieth Anniversary Season can be purchased at: http://www.sdopera.com/tickets/onsalenext
Photo credit: San Diego Opera