Friday, August 14, 2020

Stilwell, Part 2: In Perilous Times, Music is a Savior

James Scholz

INTERVIEW: Richard Stilwell 

Chicago Lyric Opera

EM: Besides the Argento and Pasatieri premieres, you also debuted Lidholm’s A Dream Play. Do you find performing new operas especially challenging, or enjoy singing something new

RS: Yes, challenging and exciting. A lot of repertoire you do over and over, while finding new things within those pieces, but something totally new is interesting. Certain contemporary operas are more challenging than others. Pasatieri’s Seagull and Lidholm’s Dream Play were quite tonal and great fun. I also did Pasatieri’s Ines de Castro with Baltimore Opera. I was a good friend of Tom’s and it was special having a piece written for you. He’d say, “Would you like a high ‘G’ here?” And I’d say, “Yeah, that’d be great.” [Laughs]

EM: Nothing like knowing the composer.

RS: Argento’s works, however, do present challenges. In addition to The Aspern Papers, which is more tonal, I also did his Voyage of Edgar Allen Poe at Chicago Lyric. That was a beast. Tough, quite atonal, but powerful, wonderful once learned. In that realm is the music of Unsuk Chin, a South Korean who’s mostly lived in Europe, Germany. She wrote an Alice in Wonderland, which I learned for Geneva Opera late in my career. She had been a student of Ligeti, which may give you a clue as to her style. Very atonal, spiky, difficult. But once learned it was an exciting production. The style worked for this bizarre “mind trip” of this familiar tale. I was the King of Hearts [Laughs]. But I loved working with Argento, a wonderful man. I visited him several times in his home in Minneapolis. Great guy.

EM: You’ve also done recordings. The Met Bohème, for example.

RS: Magic in the air. The cast all loved working with Franco Zeffirelli. We knew it would be recorded and telecast “Live via Satellite.” I adored working with Teresa Stratas, especially our 3rd act scene together. Such a terrific singer-actress. I remember seeing her in Mahagonny. I loved it. You really had to up your game when onstage with her. I think we fed off each other’s characters very well. I also loved Carreras, who had done Bohème with me at NYCO in 1972 when he first came to the States. We got to know each other then. Being a part of that longest continually running production in the Met’s history, that’s pretty special.

EM: I was in the orchestra when Zeffirelli created it. People will always come to see it.

RS: Then singing on the soundtrack of the Oscar-winning Amadeus, another wonderful memory.

EM: Did you do Don Giovanni?

RS: Yes, and the Count in Figaro. [Sings] “Contessa, perdono.” The director, Miloš Forman, wanted me to actually be in the movie. But I would have had to cancel an important Met contract. I asked him through my agent how much time was involved. He said, “We really have no idea.” [Laughs] They ended up spending many months there in Prague. That was one regret that I couldn’t be in it, but it still was amazing to have been part of that soundtrack. The Falstaff film with Götz Friedrich was probably the hardest project I’d ever undertaken. We recorded the soundtrack first with the Vienna Phil under Solti, then moved to these vast film studios in West Berlin to record the video. The singers had to lip sync to the soundtrack while creating the visual. It was tough coordinating, tedious work shooting from different camera angles several times a shot, 12 to 14 hours every day 7 days a week for 5 weeks. The final product turned out very well, We were all totally exhausted by the finish. But it was memorable. Gabriel Bacquier did Falstaff, another one of my vocal heroes.

EM: And Leppard’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse?

Guy Gravett
RS: That was special. The cast had just done 10 performances at Glyndebourne, then we took the train to London to record. Dear Flicka was Penelope. I was one lucky baritone regarding this opera, one of my favorites. In ’73 I had made my debut at Glyndebourne singing Ulysses opposite Dame Janet Baker. From Baker to von Stade was a dream come true. Working with Peter Hall directing was just phenomenal. Music theatre at its best. I was even able to use my archery skills from when I was younger. There’s a scene where Ulysses kills off the suitors. I had archery practice a couple of times a week. The production won all sorts of awards in England. The recording was nominated for a best opera recording Grammy in 1981. Pretty special.

EM: You’ve done quite a long stint at Chicago Lyric Opera.

RS: I performed in more productions with Lyric than any other house, like 15 seasons. Some all-time favorites like Gluck’s Orfeo, a gorgeous production choreographed by the great George Balanchine. He actually choreographed me moving between the dancers—not dancing, mind you, that wouldn’t work—but rhythmic walking, very special. I did the Hal Prince Butterfly production. He was wonderful to work with. He didn’t do that many operas, but he created a wonderful production. I think it was shown on PBS’s Great Performances. A Faust with the superstar cast of Mirella Freni, Nicolai Ghiaurov, and Alfredo Kraus, also televised. The Argento Edgar Allen Poe was a highlight, as was Sir David McVicar’s Billy Budd, in which I sang Mr. Redburn. I did Ponnelle’s Don Giovanni. I’ve always loved Chicago, Kerry’s hometown. The teaching job at Chicago College of Performing Arts came from a phone call from my dear friend Judy Haddon, who still is teaching there. My singing career was slowly winding down. I decided to accept that part-time job, commuting between D.C. and Chicago. My in-laws lived nearby in Evanston. I stayed with them and assisted with their needs over the years. Payback for the generosity they had shown Kerry and me. Kerry’s mother Barbara was one of my favorite people in the world. I adored her enough to write an extended epic poem about her, “Ode to Barbara.” I recited it at her funeral. I was able to teach and be a family caregiver for 18 years. My colleagues were like family. David Holloway, Michael Best. Our Dean used to call the 4 of us his “Met Quartet.” Through the years were many other teaching colleagues: Cynthia Clarey, Alan Glassman.

EM: Small world, opera. Are there any roles you haven’t performed that you wish you had?

RS: Not many, in a career spanning almost 45 years, plus 18 years teaching. I was very fortunate. My other love is Broadway musicals. I did manage to squeeze in productions of South Pacific, Man of la Mancha, Kiss Me, Kate, Kismet.

EM: Is that all?

RS: [Laughs] I would have loved doing Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, the role of Fredrik. That would have been a lot of fun. I missed out singing Wolfram in Tannhäuser, the only Wagnerian role I might have, or should have, done. I was contracted for a Peter Sellars production at Brooklyn Academy of Music. The funding was lost for some reason and the project was canceled. I’ve sung that aria many times. I missed out performing Papageno at historic Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. At that time, 1973, when I had my contract, Perón regained power in Argentina and nationalized the theatre. I received notice just weeks before my departure for South America that my contract was void and invalid because it was signed under the old regime. Perhaps it was just as well. People were being killed every day on the streets. Not such a good time to be there. There was political stuff going in Milano when I was there. The Communists were marching one day, the Fascists the next. The early 70s were really—we think about today, but looking back, lots going on.

EM: Overall, though, it sounds like you’ve gotten to do dream work.

RS: I’ve been really fortunate. No regrets.

EM: We’ve been lucky to see and hear you.

RS: Thank you, I appreciate it.

EM: On a somewhat sobering note, could you talk about the effect that Covid-19 has had on you personally?

RS: Since I’ve been retired from the music world for a few years, Covid has not affected me musically. I’ve been quarantined with my wife, rarely venturing out. However, we have been frustrated in not being able to visit with our new 4 ½-month-old grandson, our one and only grandchild, who lives near San Francisco, to hold or cuddle him. Thankfully we can visit via FaceTime. That keeps us from going insane. 

EM: And its effects on the music world in general?

RS: I get very emotional hearing sad stories of many colleagues who have lost jobs, forced to pick up and move or downsize just to pay rent and mortgage. Everyone is frightened and suffering, especially as the virus remains unchecked in much of the country. Very few are working at all. Those few who’ve gotten European contracts are being locked out because America has failed with protocol procedures. It’s very grim, not only for opera but for all the arts. I do think things will turn around, but very slowly. We can only hope the damage will not be irreparable. We’ve suffered as a country the last 20 years but always rebounding. I used to do “Food for Thought” lectures and talked about the economic meltdown of 2009 and 9-11, about the importance of the arts at such times. What I said then applies to today’s pandemic. 

EM: Could you share that with us?

RS: It’s this: “The world is in a perilous state with war, famine, flood and disease. It seems we’re facing calamities of a Biblical nature. Our country is in crisis, which forces me once again to question the intrinsic worth of our simple endeavors to communicate a convincing message. What does it really matter how we relate a song and touch a heart? I honestly believe there is great worth in our efforts, even more so in perilous times…We strive to be artists creating pictures with our voices the way painters highlight and make shadows with their brushes. We strive to be poets with the text of a song, delivering a message which will touch the depths of the soul or create laughter, relieving tension brought on by such woes. We strive to be fine actors, creating space and time of another era. In that sense we become historical educators. Ultimately we render music to an audience of racial, cultural and ethnic differences, knowing the message we impart has none of these boundaries. In that sense we become ambassadors of the arts to all people.” So if we have to do it virtually for a while, so be it. We must improvise and perform in any way possible while still remaining safe.

EM: We’ve all had some bad moments, but personally it’s been music that’s saved me.

RS: Absolutely. I’m listening to music more now than in many years, rediscovering things that I’d forgotten. There are some upsides to this craziness. Music is a savior.

EM: When this is all over, think how glorious it will feel to see our wonderful artists get up onstage and share their talents in the noble cause of music, having been deprived of it for who knows how long.

RS: I’m tearing up, thinking about it. This world is made better by music and the people who make music. It will come back.

EM: We have to have hope. And on that note, thank you, Richard, for so generously sharing your experiences and philosophies with us.

RS: Thank you so much, Erica. 


Photo credits: James Scholz, Guy Gravett, Szabo
Erica can be reached at: [email protected] 

Richard Stilwell: From Rock n' Roll to the Met

Jack Mitchell
Jack Mitchell

INTERVIEW: Richard Stilwell 

Metropolitan Opera, New York

Baritone Richard Stilwell is surely one of Saint Louis’s favorite sons. From his childhood growing up in the iconic midwestern city to his stint in the U.S. Army chorus and ultimately to the stages of the most prestigious opera houses on the planet, the exquisite voice, dramatic stage presence and winning personality of this Grammy-nominated artist have garnered kudos throughout the opera world and beyond. His singing, in a word: ravishing. 

Now retired, mention of the renowned singer’s name still evokes impressive respect and genuine admiration. I was fortunate enough to capture his attention for the following interview—and to be regaled with some of his singing.

Erica Miner: How would you describe your journey to the opera stage?

Richard Stilwell: Unlikely, considering my young years. I loved singing from a very early age, in church and high school. I had never been exposed to the world of opera, nor classical music, before late high school years. I grew up with Pop, Rock n’ Roll, Gospel and Country Music— everything but classical. My first taste of opera was hearing Mario Lanza on an LP from the soundtrack of the movie The Great Caruso in a record shop in St. Louis when I was about 17. I stood enthralled for a long time before asking the salesman what kind of music that was. I’d never heard anything like it. He said, “Italian opera,” and explained a little about it. I bought the LP, played it over and over, totally mesmerized by the power and passion of Lanza’s voice singing those arias. The door to opera had been opened and would never close again.

EM: What happened next?

RS: I attended a Liberal Arts college and had my first voice lessons—a total revelation. But this school was not my cup of tea. I dropped out, worked a year in a shoe warehouse and through a family friend learned of the St. Louis Opera Guild. I was getting the music bug, so I sang for the director, Dorothy Ziegler, and was hired to sing Silvio in Pagliacci and one of the Gypsies in Carmen. Dorothy set up a recital to introduce me to Mozart and others, and took me under her wing, like a mentor. When she accepted a position at Indiana University in Bloomington for the following school year, she suggested I audition for the Music School. I was accepted as a music major, was cast in several operas in the next 2 years, entered the Met National Council auditions and advanced to the finals (1965). Rudolph Bing’s assistant John Gutman, a judge in St. Louis, had advanced me to the finals. He gave me some great advice as to what rep I should sing. My studies were interrupted, though, by the Vietnam War and the “dreaded draft,” as we called it. My student deferment had run out and I was reclassified as “1A”, which meant I was about to be drafted! Time to push the Panic Button [Laughs]. Fortunately I had heard of the US Army chorus at Ft. Myers in Arlington, Va. I auditioned, was accepted and spent 3 years serving my country in this esteemed ensemble of top-notch voices. I was lucky to get in. Otherwise I would have been sent to Vietnam and probably ended up with my name on the Memorial Wall in Washington.

EM: Perish the thought!

RS: After that, in 1969, I moved to New York City and connected with Matthew Epstein at Columbia Artists Management. The next year I made my New York City Opera debut in their Pelléas. By luck, my lyric baritone was well suited to the role. I was with them until 1975, when I made my Met debut. That was how the journey unfolded.

Beth Bergman
EM: Right time, place, people.

RS: Oh yes.

EM: How important have Santa Fe Opera and Glyndebourne been in your career?

RS: Extremely important for my operatic growth. For several years I was hired by one or the other of these two summer festivals. Santa Fe Opera introduced me to Frederica von Stade, whom you know well [Laughs]. We did Pelléas and Mélisande in 1972, then collaborated on several concerts and productions. Other wonderful Santa Fe productions were Offenbach’s La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein, Magic Flute, Butterfly, Fledermaus, Capriccio, Dialogues of the Carmelites, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Eugene Onegin. During the “auspicious summer” of 1980, I met my wife-to-be there, Kerry McCarthy, an apprentice artist with the company. We were married 3 years later. Just last summer our younger son was married there on the opera grounds, right where I had first met Kerry. We obviously have fond memories of Santa Fe, one of my favorite places on earth. Glyndebourne was important for the quality of casting, musical preparation, and beauty of the location. They drew from the top tier of worldwide talent. It was magical, very special. I performed with Dame Janet Baker, Elisabeth Söderstrom, Flicka, and many other wonderful artists.

EM: Which operas did you perform?

RS: Return of Ulysses was my debut. Then Capriccio, directed by the wonderful John Cox, Figaro, and a wonderful production of Onegin, with directors like Peter Hall of the London Shakespeare Company. The owners of the manor house where the opera was located, Sir George and Lady Mary Christie, were superb hosts. We had become close friends. Top-notch conductors: Sir Andrew Davis, Raymond Leppard, Sir John Pritchard, Bernard Haitink. I remember many long walks in the fabulous English gardens. Nature at its finest. I was into bird photography and captured nesting mute swans with newly hatched cygnets. My Onegin director was Michael Hadgimischev, a Bulgarian whose father had been in the Russian court of Czar Nicholas. As a boy Michael been part of this royal milieu. Imagine!

EM: He must have had incredible stories.

RS: [Laughs] He spoke about 6 languages fluently and would go back and forth between German, Bulgarian, English, French, on a dime. He knew more about Pushkin’s Russia than just about anybody around at the time. What a connection to history and the arts, particularly this Tchaikovsky opera, something so well remembered from that festival.

Guy Gravett 
EM: How exciting was it to make your Met debut as Guglielmo in Mozart’s Così fan tutte? (1975)

RS: Very. As you can imagine from all your years in the Met Orchestra, a highlight of one’s career. One of Mozart’s most celebrated masterpieces on that stage was just mind-blowing for me, a dream come true. A long, long way from church solos and high school gigs.

EM: And Rock ‘n Roll?

RS: [Laughs] Yes.

EM: It must have been nerve-wracking.

RS: I wasn’t too nervous about it. I had spent 5 years at City Opera doing good work and felt I was up and rolling. Obviously a big deal, but more exciting than nervous making. My colleagues were all wonderful. Elizabeth Harwood, who unfortunately was taken from us much too soon, a beautiful lyric soprano. Anne Howells, mezzo, Ryland Davies, tenor from Yorkshire, Renato Capecchi, Colette Boky. Harwood, Howells and Davies I had known from Glyndebourne. We all made our Met debuts simultaneously. There was much to mutually celebrate—a family affair.

EM: Was that why you felt so comfortable, singing with people you felt close to?

RS: It was. An old, well-worn production. We had a good time with it.

EM: I’m sure that was a big contrast to Billy Budd. I was playing in the Met Orchestra when you sang the title role. That must have been a high-pressure premiere. (1978)

RS: For sure. [Laughs] A few years before, in 1971, near the beginning of my career, I’d actually made my debut at Hamburg Opera with this role, replacing another singer who had canceled because of a serious illness. I jumped in at the last moment and had a nice success. Back then such operas were done in German. I somehow learned it in 2 weeks, don’t ask how. When you’re young, such feats are possible. It certainly wouldn’t be possible today [Laughs]. That production was directed by John Dexter, who shortly after came to the Met as Production Director. He asked me to do the title role in a similar production. Having done it previously took some pressure off me. The Met’s use of hydraulic lifts to create those wonderful ship decks was new and exciting. Do you remember?

EM: Do I? I’d never seen such a gorgeous production.

RS: Nor have I. We were all on pins and needles, hoping these hydraulics always worked. Fortunately they did. I was in heaven with this cast and ensemble. Of course I got to perform with Sir Peter Pears as Captain Vere, creator of this role, a wonderful colleague. And Jim Morris as evil John Claggart, and the rest of the crew of the Indomitable. Preparing for this role I found a book on stuttering, Billy’s fatal flaw. I was fascinated how debilitating this could be in serious cases. I learned that some would almost experience a seizure trying to get words out, they would be so blocked. I tried to utilize this knowledge when breaking into Billy’s stammering. Raymond Leppard conducted wonderfully, as you no doubt remember.

EM: I do.

RS: I did finally have to learn the role in English, but with great joy. I’d also become a close friend of Theodore Uppman, the original Billy Budd with Benjamin Britten. We had a couple of sessions about the character, what Britten had told him in their work. That connection was wonderful.

EM: You brought something special to the role. You had this angelic aura around you. Such a striking figure. And your portrayal was so poignant. It made the whole opera.

RS: Thank you. I do appreciate that. I was excited to be on that stage. I loved clambering around those decks. I’m a ship aficionado, I always loved old sailing ships, even before Billy Budd, and collected a lot of ship memorabilia.

EM: So you were happy as a clam.

RS: I was, I loved that set.

EM: The year after that, you recorded Pelléas et Mélisande with Karajan. What was it like to work with such a conducting icon? (1979)

RS: That was something else. Pelléas was probably the most important of all my repertoire. My professional career began singing it at City Opera, directed by Frank Corsaro. He’d become an important mentor to me, attending his opera classes in New York, I fondly remember. He taught me so much about performing. After my audition, Julius Rudel asked me if I thought I could sing the role in the upcoming production. I was not at all familiar with the opera. I was taken into a rehearsal room with head coach Thomas Martin and sang through some of the score, and determined within a few minutes that I could sing it. I was hired to cover, with a guarantee of 1 performance that season. As luck would have it, Winthrop Sargeant of The New Yorker and Harold Schonberg of The New York Times were in the audience that night. They both gave me rave reviews. The role is often too high for many baritones and too low for tenors. Fortunately it fit my voice perfectly. Shortly thereafter I sang it in Santa Fe, Chicago, La Fenice, La Scala, Royal Opera, Paris Opera and finally recorded it under von Karajan, with Flicka. She and I were nervous going into these sessions. He sometimes had a reputation as being difficult. But he was a great joy to work with—the softer, gentler Karajan. Pelléas had been on his to-do list for some time. He was in a great mood, and oh my God, the Berlin Philharmonic, so superb. José van Dam as Golaud, had always been one of my vocal heroes. With my dear friend Flicka, that made it that much more special. We all had a grand, exciting time. Definitely one of the highlights of my entire career.

Courtesy of the Artist

EM: Did Karajan choose you?

RS: He did. The strangest audition ever, in Berlin. I’d prepared part of the “Tower” scene, which is the closest thing to an aria in the opera. But he sat down at the piano and said, “I want you to do this.” I thought, “Now what?” [Laughs] From the last meeting between Pelléas and Mélisande, I sang these lines (sings) “Mélisande, est-ce toi, Mélisande?” Apprehensive, mezzo piano. He says, “No, no, no, no, it’s much too loud. Softer.” So I sing, “Mélisande, est-ce toi, Mélisande?” “No, no, still too loud. Softer, softer.” Insisting. So I go (whispers), “Mélisande, est-ce toi, Mélisande?” He said, “Yes! That’s it. When I record my Pelléas, you will be my Pelléas.” EM: Oh my God. RS: And I thought, “What? I’m not holding my breath on this one.” But lo and behold, a year or so later I got the contract. Couldn’t have been nicer.

EM: Sounds like the closest thing to heaven. 

RS: No kidding. I couldn’t believe the way it happened. Everyone loved working with him. The atmosphere was conducive to camaraderie. He was lord and master of the orchestra, of course. If there was any rustle of noise he would lower his head till there was complete silence. Then he would go [Laughs]. I’ll never forget that. He was something else. Pretty amazing.

EM: How have yours and Flicka’s musical lives intersected over the years?

RS: Do you have a couple of hours? You know how special she is. She has been a godsend to my life, for all the operatic community. One of the most talented, giving, warm, loving people on earth. I’m fortunate to be her close friend for over 50 years now. Matthew Epstein managed both of us for much of our careers. From the beginning Pelléas in Santa Fe he saw the remarkable chemistry between us onstage. Whenever possible he would try to cast us together. That led to Così fan tutte as Guglielmo and Dorabella with San Francisco Opera, Monteverdi’s Return of Ulysses at NYCO, Washington D.C. and Glyndebourne. Thomas Pasatieri’s The Seagull, world premiere in Houston, Dominic Argento’s The Aspern Papers world premiere in Dallas. Later again in San Francisco, Così but as Alfonso and Despina. We went full circle. We’ve done recitals and concerts together, I’ve spoken in tribute to her on several occasions, some with the Met Guild, and for 2 of her Farewell Concerts. But wait, there’s more. Serendipitously, Flicka’s daughter Jenny lives with her husband and 2 daughters about 5 minutes from my house in Virginia. It’s just one of those things. So before Covd-19, Flicka would often be in town visiting the family and Kerry and I would meet up with her and her family and we’d talk about the old days. I love being around her granddaughters—one of them got a crush on me, such fun. In our senior years this has been a true blessing, the “icing on the cake” of our relationship. Fantastic.

EM: The way certain people connect in a certain way is just meant to be.

RS: I think so. Certainly the case with Flicka and me.

EM: You’re both such special people and extraordinary artists. 

 [Next, Part 2: In Perilous Times, Music is a savior]


Photo credits: Jack Mitchell, Beth Bergman, Guy Gravett, Heffernan, Courtesy of the Artist
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]