Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Seattle Opera is Weston Hurt’s Home Away from Home

Weston Hurt, photo Gabriel Couret

INTERVIEW: Weston Hurt

Seattle Opera
McCaw Hall, Seattle

Texas-born Weston Hurt has a great following in Seattle. The multi-award winning baritone has made role debuts here as the title character in Verdi’s Nabucco, Ford in Falstaff, and as Talbot in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. Hurt returns to open the company’s first production of the new year, Verdi’s La Traviata, on Jan. 14, in one of his signature roles: the lead role of Germont, tenor Alfredo’s demanding but loving father. Hurt also appears in the upcoming special recital presentation of SO’s Wagner and More on Jan. 16. 

A veteran of other diverse leading roles such as the title role in Rigoletto, Scarpia in Tosca and Iago in Otello, Hurt is also an experienced concert and recital performer, and has given well-received master classes in his native Texas and across the country.

EM: Welcome back to Seattle, Weston! We’re so glad to have you back. 

WH: Thanks very much, I appreciate it. 

EM: How are rehearsals going? 

WH: Rehearsals have been going great. We had our first technical rehearsal in the theatre last night and we’re having an orchestra rehearsal this evening. 

EM: Are you excited for the opening this weekend? 

WH: I am, yes. I think it will be well received. 

EM: You sang your first Germont here in La Traviata in 2009. In fact, you wrote on your Facebook page that Seattle Opera has “become a second family.” Could you elaborate?

Photo, Alan Alabastro
WH: I do feel that way, absolutely. I’ve had the honor of being back a number of times here at Seattle Opera. I’ve also had the great pleasure of singing with the Seattle Symphony and Pacific Northwest Ballet. I feel like Seattle is a second home - it does feel like home when I come back to sing here. Certainly the people at Seattle Opera are like a second family, so welcoming. They’re great people. 

EM: They are indeed. 

WH: I also debuted as Ford here at Seattle Opera. Seattle Opera has been all debut roles for me except now, with my return of Germont. 

EM: That is amazing. No wonder you feel so comfortable here. What did you sing with PNB? 

WH: The summer of 2015, I was the baritone soloist in their Carmina Burana production. It was the first time I had done the piece with the ballet. I had sung it numerous times with various orchestras but I’d never done a stage production of it. Their version of Carmina Burana is very well known. The next month I came back to sing in Nabucco at the Opera. 

EM: I’m curious about your background. Where did you grow up, and how did you come to be an opera singer? 

WH: I grew up in Texas. My mom was a singer and a junior high school choir director, so I was constantly being badgered from her to be in music. But I was much more interested in sports. I grew up playing football. It wasn’t till high school that I was required to take an arts credit. I took choir and had a good time. That experience eventually combined with seeing my first opera my sophomore year at Houston Grand Opera. 

EM: Which opera was it? 

WH: Boito’s Mefistofele with Samuel Ramey. Which is a bizarre first opera. but I remember very vividly that production, which was built for him. It was very cool the way he ascended from hell on this big ladder through the orchestra pit, dressed as the Devil. I remember a big Garden of Eden scene, where all of the chorus members had to wear fake privates [Laughs], so especially to a 16-year-old boy it was like, “Wow, this is very, ah… visually interesting.” But the music was stunning, and of course his voice was amazing. That was sort of my beginning, along with high school choir and eventually being asked to sing solos. Then my competitive nature from being involved in football and La Crosse sort of bled over into singing. In Texas the All-State choir was a very big deal. I competed, ended up making All-State choir and from that experience I knew I wanted to study music in college. After attending Southwestern University at Georgetown, Texas, the fall semester of my freshman year I was cast as Figaro in The Marriage of Figaro. That experience solidified my knowing I wanted to be an opera singer as a career. 

EM: I played countless Figaros at the Met, including with Sam, who was one of the great Devils of all time. Figaro is one of the most wonderful roles ever. Not a bad way to start. 

WH: A very intimidating way to start. However, it was through that process that made me realize that was what I wanted to do. 

EM: I imagine once you get your feet wet with Figaro, you can pretty much progress into almost anything. 

WH: You’re absolutely right. Because it was the first opera I learned, it wasn’t something that later in life I had to learn how to sing secco recitative. It was something thrust upon me right from the beginning, a significant amount of it. Toward the beginning of my career it was more a lyrical fach, and I was able to graduate to singing the Count and a number of different operas with that sort of style - Rossini, Mozart, etc. 

EM: That’s a usual progression, as I’ve learned from other basses and baritones I’ve interviewed - starting with Figaro and Giovanni, moving on to Verdi. 

WH: One of the most amazing moments in my career was when I sang with Sam. He was my father in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore di tre re. To meet the man who initially had inspired me to become a singer and then sing with him was pretty amazing. Another huge moment for me was when I had the opportunity to make my debut at HGO, where I saw Sam sing Mefistofele - to finally make it full circle and debut as Scarpia in Tosca where I had seen my first opera. Every once in a while you feel there’s a “click” on the whole wheel of experience, like, “Oh, I’m not going to forget that.” 

EM: You’ve sung Germont in a number of houses and received high praise. Would you say this is one of your favorite or preferred roles? 

WH: Absolutely. For a number of reasons. I feel it suits my voice very well and it’s a role that over the years I have understood more and more with each production. Certainly now that I have a daughter of my own, these father-daughter roles mean a great deal more to me. Germont is absolutely one of my favorite roles to perform. With each new production I learn more about the role, the character, the relationships with the insight from each director. This one absolutely follows suit. 

EM: It’s a very complex role. Psychologically it must be fascinating to delve deeply into his psyche. 

WH: Yes. People tend to think Germont’s the bad guy who comes in and tries to tell the couple they can’t be together. But it’s deeper than that. I don’t think he initially steps out to ruin anyone’s life. He doesn’t really understand the impact his request is going to have on Violetta or his son, or more importantly himself. I think he has no idea the ride he’s about to go on emotionally. I think in the entire show his character has one of the largest arcs. He really does change. 

EM: He really does. Not only does he not know what he’s in for but he also doesn’t really have any choice at first. Maybe he hasn’t completely thought it through as to the impact he’s going to have, especially on Violetta. On the surface he only knows about her what most people know. 

WH: Right. 

EM: Once he realizes the depth of her character it causes him to get on this emotional roller coaster - as you said, quite the transformational arc. Not to mention that the vocal writing is so magnificent. It must be wonderful to explore this character vocally and dramatically. 

WH: It really is. This particular production is very interesting because we’ve stripped away all the typical things that actors, whether we intend to or not, hide behind. There really is no set to speak of. It’s a very bare production, with a series of curtains and one chair, which insists the audience focus on the relationships onstage between the characters. If the family were to know his son is involved with a courtesan it would never fly. We’ve gone a step further in that during the interaction between Germont and Violetta I bring my daughter onstage with me.

Photo, English National Opera
EM: That is definitely unique. 

WH: In that interaction between Germont and Violetta he has such a specific idea of how that is going to go, right from the beginning. It’s completely upended and thrown back in his face and that begins the frustration. At every turn, when he asks something of her she stands up for herself, which surprises him again - what a well-spoken and strong willed woman this is. He has one attempt after another of things to throw at her to convince her to do what he’s asking her to do, and her will and strength stands up for the most part. But it’s not going the way he planned. I think what we have is very believable but I think certain people will certainly be shocked when they see it. It’s a different take. 

EM: It sounds even more emotionally wrenching than usual. 

WH: Absolutely. I think Peter Konwitschny’s idea of this production is to really get at the heart of what the story is. It’ll be interesting to see what the public takes of this because it’s not your everyday Traviata

EM: Let’s talk about some of your other roles. Some that you’ve sung for the first time. Nabucco and Talbot in Maria Stuarda here in Seattle, Iago in Boston. Are those some of your favorites?

Photo, Jacob Lucas
WH: Yes. Recently I have added Nabucco, Scarpia, Iago to my resume. Maria Stuarda was a wonderful production. The cast here in Seattle all got along so well and the overall takeaway of that production was amazing, because we all had such a great time with each other. It is an interesting bel canto piece, but I would not put Talbot on the same level of interest of mine as a role like Nabucco or Scarpia or Iago [Laughs]. Those are a different beast. It was a pretty amazing past two years to have the opportunity to learn and perform these roles. 

EM: You’ve also done some unusual repertoire - Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt and even Schreker’s Der ferne Klang. What was it like to sing those roles? 

WH: It’s been wonderful. I’ve sung three different productions of Die Tote Stadt. Korngold’s writing is lush, beautiful, very Straussian. I just love the music. The first time I sang Die Tote Stadt was in the famous Frank Corsaro New York City Opera production, which used a great deal of projections. A really interesting production. 

EM: I remember. That’s where I first saw it. 

WH: Korngold was one of the German composers who escaped the Nazis and came to Hollywood and did a lot of film scoring. Another colleague of his in a similar situation was Walter Braunfels, who wrote the opera Die Vögel, which I had the opportunity to sing at the Spoleto USA Festival in Charleston ten years ago. I don’t know why they’re all German [Laughs], these “weird” operas I’ve sung. 

EM: That’s a whole other conversation. 

WH: [Laughs] Exactly. Die Vögel, Der Ferne Klang and Die Tote Stadt are beautiful music. The Franz Schreker I sang with the American Symphony and Leon Botstein doesn’t have much of the romantic qualities of Die Tote Stadt. Most of those were earlier in my career, and at the time you look at what’s being offered and you do the job. Sometimes there’s success that comes from that. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to get my foot into a variety of repertoire, certainly initially.

Photo, Karen Almond
EM: Do you enjoy both opera and singing on the concert stage equally? 

WH: I absolutely love all three of those genres - opera, concert and recital - equally. Each one presents its own challenges of course, but it’s something that always was focused on in my training. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to do all those things professionally. I’m looking forward to the Wagner and More Society presenting Joshua Dennis, Maya Lahyani and myself in a recital on January 16. It’s nice to have the opportunity to again get up on the recital stage. And I love singing oratorio. When I first started singing I was a lower voice bass in high school. As I developed my instrument I gained my range half step by half step while luckily maintaining a lot of the lower register. So I’ve been able to sing quite a bit of bass and bass-baritone oratorio repertoire while utilizing the baritone repertoire on the operatic stage. 

EM: That’s great that you can keep yourself active in all of those. 

WH: That’s my goal, if I were to have my way I would have a completely full schedule that would balance opera, oratorio and recital.

EM: Sounds like a great plan. 

WH: [Laughs.] 

EM: You also give master classes all across the US. 

WH: Education is something I’m very passionate about. Over the years I’ve dipped my pinkie toe in academia. I was always the student in my professor’s studios who had a knack for the technical aspects and could explain it to other singers. Therefore I’m wildly interested in teaching. I’ve tried to balance my performing career with teaching. My next engagement after Seattle is to perform at New Orleans Opera and do master classes at Loyola University. It’s great to be able to work with young singers and try to ease that gap between their academic experience and what’s actually going on in the real world of performing. I don’t consider myself to be old by any means [Laughs] but I still try to think that only yesterday I was sitting where they’re sitting. 

EM: It’s an important part of any artist’s life, to inspire and pass on your knowledge to the upcoming generation. 

WH: Any kind of encouragement or presence that I’m able to have on those young singers’ lives I try to make it a very positive and honest one for them. 

EM: An academic organization should consider themselves fortunate to have a performing artist come and provide inspiration for their students. 

WH: It’s tricky to try and create an academic program that is going to prepare students for a career as a professional musician. It’s not just performing opportunities or song literature classes or vocal pedagogy understanding. A lot of it has to do with real live situations. Taking classes out to the performing organizations in the community, bringing those performing organizations into the schools, having a well-rounded education for those students, is of utmost importance. The more real-life exposure those kids are able to have with the people who are actually doing it and to understand what it is that involved, the better. 

EM: After Loyola, what’s coming up next for you? 

WH: The next engagement after this Traviata is Faust with New Orleans Opera. That’s what I’m preparing right now as I’m in rehearsals for Traviata. While I’m there singing I’m also doing the master class at Loyola. After that I’m singing another Scarpia with Tobias Picker in Tulsa. He’s the new artistic director there. From an artistic viewpoint it seems like another regional company, but I think Tobias Picker is making a huge effort to rethink what Tulsa Opera is about. I'll be back here in Seattle in July-August to sing Sharpless in Madama Butterfly.

EM: I'll look forward to it. Any Wagner in your future? 

WH: At this point in time - I just turned 42 and have no immediate plans to push myself into the heavier fach. I’m thoroughly enjoying singing the Puccini and Verdi repertoire with the occasional sprinkling of interesting new stuff in my schedule for now. What the future holds, who knows. Certainly for right now I’ll leave the Wagner singing to the Wagnerians. I’ll take care of Mr. Puccini and Mr. Verdi [Laughs]. 

EM: There’s much to love about that. Thank you so much for spending this time with me. Toi, toi for all of your performances. 

WH: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure speaking with you. 

Seattle Opera’s La Traviata runs Jan. 14-28 at McCaw Hall.


Photo credits: Gabriel Couret, Alan Alabastro, English National Opera, Karen Almond

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