Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I'd Like to Buy the World An Opera

I heart bass-baritones. (I don't think I'm alone in this.) How can you not love a voice that you can feel as well as hear? They get some of the dishiest parts, too - bass-baritones typically play priests, kings, grandfathers, villains, even the devil. So when I got the opportunity to interview David Cushing (bass-baritone who plays Nourabad in The Pearl Fishers), I certainly didn't object.

I began last Friday at the Costume Shop. I simply cannot express what a dream come true that place is. Racks and racks of costumes for principals, supers, chorus, dancers as well as shoes, masks, jewelry, leis, turbans and more – I wanted to take everything home!

So David arrives and goes into the fitting room for the draping and pinning. The goal of the fitting seemed to be to get the costume approximately the way it should look and then make alterations as needed. With rental productions like this one, there's typically only one costume sent over and it's usually pretty big so it can be taken in to fit multiple artists at multiple companies. Here's David in the full priest costumeand here's another pic as he contemplates the nuances of his character.

After the fitting, I drove David to Pete's Kitchen on Colfax for a quick snack and chat. (He had chili, I had chocolate bundt cake. Both were great.) In addition to being incredibly easy to talk to, David knows his stuff. He started singing in high school and, on a whim, auditioned for the voice department of the University of New Hampshire. He recalls the audition as a bit of a debacle, having picked songs more or less randomly. But the accompanist asked him to sing lower and lower still and, impressed with his range, the judges accepted him into the program. After his then-girlfriend turned him on to classical music, David began taking opera more seriously and went on to grad school and has since performed with Opera Colorado as well as Boston Lyric Opera, Opera Boston, Florentine Opera, Opera Columbus and more.

I asked David what he did to prepare for a role. "First I break out my score and do my own translation," he said. If it's a larger role, he'll read extra material like the play or novel the opera might be based on. "I think it's important to be flexible when you're preparing," David noted. "Every director is different. Some are really hands-on and have a firm idea of how they want the role to go. Others are a bit more loose and ask the artists to be a big part of how it's sung and staged. So you can't necessarily go in with all these ideas of how you think it should be, but you also can't be completely unprepared."

David admits that Nourabad is not the biggest role in the opera. "But they say there are no small roles, only small actors," he said with a smile. "Nourabad isn't unimportant. The characters in an opera are created for a reason – or they would be supers." After all, it's Nourabad who sets the whole ending in motion. David went on to mention that smaller roles can actually be harder to perform. The artist needs to pay close attention to where they fit in and balance their performance against the leads. Interestingly, there tends to be a lot of roles for bass-baritones, especially smaller roles, and there are even operas with several bass-baritone parts.

So, why does David think this is a great opera? It's all about the music. "It's beautiful music. There's not just soft, pretty parts, but quite a few stirring and dramatic pieces as well. My favorite scene is the duet with Zurga and Leila. The music begins softly – there's a lot of sublimation – and the intensity builds perfectly with the action." David also added that with only three main characters and a simple storyline, the opera itself is easy to follow – important if you're new to opera!

After David finishes his stint as Nourabad, he'll go on to play Sarastro in The Magic Flute with Florentine Opera of Milwaukee and then Banco in Macbeth in Granite State Opera in New Hampshire. He plans to continue singing for quite a few more years and then may go into teaching or directing.

Well, readers, I enjoyed talking with David, but I wondered if there were questions you would have asked had you been there. So if you have questions, post a comment and I'll see what I can do about getting them answered!

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