Conquering Attila

Bass-baritone John Relyea, who this month sings the title character in Seattle Opera's new production of Attila, chats with F. PAUL DRISCOLL about the challenges behind taking on Verdi's Hun king.

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Bass-baritone Relyea in a composite production photograph of Seattle Opera's new staging of Attila
Foreground: © Rozarii Lynch; Background: Israeli Opera's Attila, Yossi Zwecker
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© Dario Acosta 2012
Conquering Attila production SM 112
Relyea in a staging rehearsal for Attila
© Alan Alabastro 2012

Bass-baritone John Relyea is at Seattle Opera this month, singing the title character in a new production of Verdi's Attila. In late November, shortly after finishing a run as the four Hoffmann villains at Bayerische Staatsoper, Relyea spoke to F. PAUL DRISCOLL about the challenges of singing Verdi — and the pleasures of returning to Seattle.  

OPERA NEWS: You've done quite a bit of work in Seattle, and debuted several roles in your repertory at Seattle Opera. How do you make that decision?

JOHN RELYEA: [Seattle Opera general director] Speight Jenkins has made Seattle Opera a great place to try out new roles. When you're in a place like this company, there's a little less pressure. There's a very good ensemble feeling in Seattle — it's a smaller group, and the company has a very focused production period.  Speight takes wonderful care of all his artists, and I've always had a great relationship with him.  We've often sat down and talked about what sort of roles I'd like to do in the future. 

So I got my first Bluebeard in Bluebeard's Castle here [in 2009], very much in the context of one of those conversations. And also I did my first villains in Hoffmann here in 2005. And the Don Quichotte that we did last season is, of course, another piece that is so seldom done. It is just an absolute gem. I had a great time with that as well. So, when you get the chance to sing roles that are less performed than the standard rep, and are ones that you've really dreamed about doing, it's a fairly easy decision to make — especially when you know you are going to be working in a great company like Seattle, with Speight at the head.

ON: Whose idea was it to do Attila this season?

JR: Mine, actually. It's been a couple of years since we had the conversation, but we were brainstorming and kind of stumbled on it, pretty much in unison.  We were trying to think of what kind of Verdi would a younger bass or bass-baritone move into. The prevailing question for me, specifically, is this — what roles can I find in this repertoire that aren't so age-specific? How much older is the character than me — or is he? And Attila is one of those characters who can be the age of the singer.  I can be my age at this point.

I don't know if this works the same way with a lot of other singers, but, if I am singing an older role, I — perhaps even subconsciously — might try to color my voice a little darker. Now I prefer to approach things in a sane way, a way in which I'm not really coloring my voice to find an older sound or an age in the character. So, a character like Attila is ideal that way, because you can be very straightforward and use the voice you have — use all the colors that are there naturally.  If you do things that way, it's easier to serve the musical line. 

ON: You obviously know that score better than I do, but what are the particular places you're looking at, as a bass-baritone, that might be trickier than if you were a quote-unquote "real bass"?

JR: Well, Attila is kind of ideal for me in that respect — the tessitura is middle to high. The big aria ["No, non e sogno"] and cabaletta are very much written in the midrange of the voice a lot of the way through the melody. It's not that I don't like to go down low or this or that — it's just that the amount of time you spend in various parts of your vocal range very much dictates your vocal disposition for the entire performance. And this one really fits me well — it's a basso cantante sort of role. I'm not sure what other Verdi roles you could compare Attila to in that way.  Perhaps Zaccaria in Nabucco is close — but even that is probably rangier in terms of the low-to-high stretches. But this one, Attila, sits in a very good place for me.

ON: What about him as a character? He's obviously a historical personage who exists in this opera — and in the popular mind-set — as a symbol of savagery, for lack of a better word.

JR: Yeah. You have to look at the opera itself in terms of where it falls in Verdi's life — the opera reflects all of his nationalistic ideals at that time. Atttila is very much about Italy — you could say that Nabucco is as well. Verdi was so political, such a political figure — the idea of pushing out invaders was something that occupied him a great deal.  The political implications of this story were obviously part of what attracted Verdi to it.

We have to look beyond identifying Atttila as a tyrant.  All  — or at least many of — the leaders of that time could be called tyrants because of the way in which they built and maintained empires.  They were empire builders.  Considered with a twentieth- or twenty-first-century mentality, we look at that sort of character — Attila's sort of character — in a much less favorable light. The idea of invading countries — of conquering a people — is now not looked on as something that leaders do, of course.

Attila is a very strong character, vocally and physically, which I like. He exists on a heroic scale. The music reflects that very strongly — it's really big, big stuff. The orchestration is pretty dense, too.  But I like to sing this way — in a very sort of stentorian kind of way.

But Attilais not at all one-dimensional, as it might seem at first glance.  There's a conflict within him.  There's also a prophecy of doom present, much as it is for the character of Macbeth in Verdi's opera. You would think that a figure like Attila was pretty much fearless, and very self-assured, but the aria immediately shows that something has occurred and that there's a real conflict going on inside of him.

Conquering Attila Don Quichotte LG 112
As Massenet's Don Quichotte at Seattle Opera
© Rozarii Lynch 2012

ON: You sang this in concert in Washington in the fall. 

JR: Yes. Yes, I did.

ON: Were there any surprises when you had your voice around it for the first time?

JR: Yeah, there's a lot of pacing you need to do, leading up to the aria ["No, non e sogno"] in Act II and following it. The aria is very much kind of the centerpiece. But following it are two very large finales, big orchestration. And before the aria occurs, you have quite a dramatic duet with the baritone. And it's one of those places where you know that you have to really keep things in reserve and be sensible about how much weight you're putting into your voice during the first act.  Perhaps — at the time in his career — Verdi hadn't really looked at the broader scope of this role that way. He made it pretty heavy in terms of what he was putting around the aria. 

The biggest challenge in singing Attila is pacing — and also realizing that there are a lot of vulnerable moments in the character.  You can bring those out vocally despite the fact that there' so much very big stentorian stuff going on. So, there are opportunities to find lots of different colors in the voice by tapping into the character's emotions.

ON: Is it exciting doing a great role by a great composer, knowing that most of the people in the audience will never have heard it before?

JR: Yes! The audience gets a real excitement out of that. You know, they think, "Wow, this is such a great piece. Why haven't I heard it more?" There are fantastic melodies in this piece, and the character of Attila is by no means the only strong character. Odabella is just an incredible character.

ON: Sure.

JR: Her first aria is a real tour de force. I would say it's technically, vocally, and aesthetically on par with Lady Macbeth. It's a very hard role to cast because of that.  There's only a handful of people on the planet who can do it. But it's got everything, really. The baritone part is very challenging as well. The melodies are fantastic, with a lot of big chorus numbers — it has got everything that you would want. 

It is exciting to present something to people that they haven't heard before — and that they haven't applied a certain paradigm to.  That gives you some freedom to kind of explore the opera — and the role — without having the pressures of tradition influencing your approach to the role. To me, Attila feels like a great role to be taking on now — in my early stages of looking into the Verdi repertoire. 

I look at the traditional ways people sang in a lot of the repertoire that I've studied and sung. From an interpretative standpoint, there's not much tradition to go on with a role like Attila. That's the freeing part of it.  But I'm really big on listening to a lot of early recordings and hearing what people did in the Verdi repertoire, because I believe a lot of the Verdi singing style is really dying out.  The way people sang in the generation of my teacher — I studied with Jerome Hines — their technique, their way of singing, is very hard to learn. It's very hard to find that out there — it's not being taught. Perhaps modern recording has changed how people hear voices.

You could almost generalize that people sang in a much darker way — with a much fuller, rounder sound — when they did Verdi in the '60s and '70s.  And that came from teachers who were active even earlier, of course. But that approach is now very endangered — the postwar teaching style didn't really get passed on very strongly after the '80s and '90s.  

ON: When you were working with Mr. Hines, did you ever discuss this role with him specifically?

JR: No, no. At that time, I would work some of the more standard rep arias with him. I don't even know if he ever sang Attila. [EDITOR'S NOTE:  Hines did sing Attila at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Teatro Colón and several other theaters.] I have never seen a commercial recording of him in it. Recordings of him in his prime are fairly limited, of course, because of the European basses he was up against in his generation. In any case, we never spoke specifically about Attila. But he was really great at just teaching me the line and the style for this sort of repertoire, because, his own voice just had so much richness and fullness to it. 

He had an interesting analogy or theory. He said the baritones of yesterday would have been considered basses today, you know. He believed that the technique was perhaps more open-throated and lower-larynxed — darker and fuller, as I said before.  And there's some truth to that, you know? I listen to the baritones of Hines' generation — Robert Merrill or George London — and that had a very, very dark sound for the repertoire they did. Especially London — Merrill lightened it up a bit more in some roles. But you wonder how people's tastes — people's ears — would have embraced that sound nowadays. It's interesting, you know?

ON: It's not only a matter of the sound, but of the dynamic choices that generation made onstage. Not that they were reckless, but they were, for whatever reason, trained to make really bold choices. And so many of them learned to do that in an opera house, as opposed to a classroom or a studio situation. Hines is the perfect example of someone who did small parts for years and was able to watch more experienced singers, and get up to their level really fast.

JR: That's true. There was definitely less caution in the way people approached the voice then, I suppose.

ON: Or less coddling.

JR: Yeah, yeah. [LAUGHS] You didn't just spend ten years in a little studio with a teacher. [LAUGHTER] You were sort of out there doing it, almost right away. Mr. Hines joked about it, you know? "Oh, if you weren't at the Met by the time you were thirty, you were washed out." [LAUGHS] 

ON: It's amazing how many of them lasted so long, starting so young.

JR: It really is. Hines, because of the very early maturity of his voice, learned a lot of major Verdi roles in his twenties. He even performed several of them. And gosh, he was doing Boris in his 30s. That's just unthinkable nowadays.

ON: He made his [Met] debut in a small role in Boris, didn't he?  When Pinza was still singing Boris, in the 1940s.

JR: Yeah, yeah. [LAUGHS] Hines had one — I'm sorry we're digressing so much, but he had one story, just quickly. When he was very young, he was in a studio coaching Mefistofele. He got about halfway through it, a half-hour into it, whatever, and then the door burst open. There was Pinza. He said, "Don't do that role. It's a voice killer." [LAUGHTER] "Don't do it!" 

He had some really funny stories. Hines was really close friends with Corelli, and he and Merrill went to the same voice teacher, Sam Margolis. That makes me understand where they were coming from in terms of how they both sang. They used a very set system of vocalises. When these people approached singing, they were very much trying to find their core, to give it everything they had, vocally at every performance — or maybe 90 percent of the time, on average. The approach and the sound had real integrity. Someplace in between the way they sang and the way people approach Verdi nowadays a compromise might exist — and which would lend itself to having more real Verdi singers out there. But the training needs to be there for that — and it's always so scary for teachers when they hear a voice that has that potential.  [LAUGHS] Yet it's exciting when you hear a voice that's got the signs of it. spacer 

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