Friday, August 14, 2020

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] 

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