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New Directions

American tenor William Burden, whose repertory includes bel canto, Gluck, Britten, Berg and Stravinsky, relishes the challenges of singing new works. F. PAUL DRISCOLL talks to the tenor, who sings in this month's world premiere of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene at San Francisco Opera — and follows it up next month with the world premiere of Oscar at Santa Fe Opera.

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Burden in Heart of a Soldier at San Francisco
© Cory Weaver 2013
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As the King of Naples in The Tempest at the Met, 2012
© Johan Elbers 2013
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Silent Night at Minnesota Opera
© Michal Daniel 2013

William Burden began to make his mark in the opera world in the early 1990s, as a handsome young exponent of the lyric tenor repertoire. In the past few seasons, he's been gaining attention as a persuasive singing actor in a wide range of new works. OPERA NEWS talked to Burden in early winter, as he was about to begin rehearsals for Kevin Puts's Silent Night at Opera Philadelphia.

OPERA NEWS: You are singing so many new pieces now. You have two world premieres this summer — The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, by Mark Adamo, in San Francisco, and Theodore Morrison's Oscar in Santa Fe — and within the past eighteen months, you were in the Met premiere of The Tempest and the world premiere of Kevin Puts's Silent Night. Was moving in that direction a deliberate career choice?

WILLIAM BURDEN: I'd like to say that it was, but frankly, it's just the way circumstances developed. Like most people in this career, I take the work that's offered to me, and I have been really fortunate to have great opportunities to do new work. It started with [Gilbert in] An American Tragedy at the Met in 2005. Then I took part in Daron Hagen's Amelia at Seattle Opera and Christopher Theofanidis's Heart of a Soldier in San Francisco and Silent Night in Minnesota. I start rehearsals Monday for Silent Night'ssecond outing at Opera Philadelphia. It seemed to snowball. The economics of the business these days has made the presentation of new works something that companies are more able to do — there seems to be money available to do new pieces, and there is a lot of really exciting new work being written.

ON: What can you tell me about The Gospel of Mary Magdalene? You're Peter in that — as in St. Peter?

WB: I am Peter, yes. In the context of this story, it's set in the Common Era — so in that sense, Christianity is taken out of the picture. It really is an exploration of the forces that are pulling on the character of Jeshua, as Jesus is called in this story, to direct his powers either toward a political outcome by overthrowing Roman imperialism, as Peter would have wished, or to pursue his mission of love, which is what drew Mary Magdalene to Jeshua initially. It's really an exploration of the choices Jeshua has to make. Peter, in the opera, is very much a behind-the-scenes political figure who wants very much for Jeshua to take up the mantle of King of the Jews, in a sense, and to take on a political position. It's a very interesting triangle between the three forces — Jeshua, Peter and Mary. 

ON: How far in advance do you get the score to look at it and think about it?

WB: Well, with any new piece it's really just a question of when the composer actually gets it finished. But it's now January, and I have both Mary Magdalene and Oscar in what is considered currently to be their completed form. Of course, changes are made or things are added or things are cut as you get into the process, as you know.

ON: Can you talk to me a little bit about Oscar?

WB: I'm playing Frank Harris, who was a friend and confidant of Oscar Wilde's who tried to get Wilde to flee England. Frank had a friend who was going to let them use his yacht to escape to France, but Wilde decided to stand his ground and do what he had to do. There are wonderful scenes in the opera between Frank and Oscar and between Frank and Ada Leverson, who let Oscar stay in her home before the trial and before he actually went to prison. It's interesting to play a historical character, although he is obviously fictionalized to some degree in this story. But Frank was quite a larger-than-life guy in his own right. 

I'm going to see if I can wade through [Harris's four-volume memoir] My Life and Loves and some of his other writings, because I'm curious to get a sense of how Frank saw himself. At the risk of sounding somewhat lazy, I believe that our job is to play the score as it's given to us. If we try and imbue a score with a lot more than is actually there, it does a disservice to the audience and to the piece. There's absolutely no reason in these circumstances to not get some background, but you can't play what's not on the page.

ON: In 2011, at Minnesota Opera, you sang Nikolaus Sprink in the world premiere of Silent Night, which later won the Pulitzer Prize for music. Were you surprised by how successful Silent Night was?

WB: No. I wasn't, because I find the stories in Silent Night so universal and so approachable. One of the problems with a lot of contemporary pieces is that they are remarkable to the people who are doing them and less remarkable to the audience. There's something about those spontaneous truces in 1914 that everyone understands. And yet we in 2013 don't have any concept of what these people were actually experiencing — the horror of it. The tiny hints of World War I in Downton Abbey, which people are aghast about, are nothing compared to what was actually going on in 1914. But those stories in Silent Night of this incredible humanity in a situation that was so completely inhumane are so relevant today — to me, there really was no question that the opera was going to strike a nerve with people. And I found Kevin's music very, very accessible and yet appropriately challenging to an audience.

ON: How is the rehearsal process different for a brand new piece than it would be for a revival of The Pearl Fishers or one of the Mozart pieces that you've done?

WB: What makes the process different in a new work is that the composer and the librettist are there in the room with us, which is an incredible luxury. We can't ask Mozart questions when we're doing another production of Giovanni, but we can actually turn to Daron Hagen, or Kevin Puts, or Theodore Morrison, or Mark Adamo, and say, "Hey, explain to me why you made this choice." Sometimes they may not even be completely aware why they made the choice, but it gives us all the opportunity to collaborate and to discover those incredible moments that make the storytelling clear. In the hands of a wonderful director like Cesca Zambello, or Stephen Wadsworth, or Kevin Newbury, those moments become clearer and clearer in rehearsal because of their incredible collaborative sense. They acknowledge that we as artists are bringing all of our individual strengths to the process. Our work together is to bring the story to the audience.

ON: Is there a composer whose music you like singing so much it feels like a vacation?

WB: These days I would say anything by Benjamin Britten. The five Britten roles I have had the opportunity to sing have just felt like putting on a very favorite pair of jeans. It just feels right for my voice. I covered the role of Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream at San Francisco Opera ages ago, but my first real Britten outing was at Glimmerglass, in 2001, in a wonderful Christopher Alden production of The Rape of Lucretia. It was Christine Goerke and I as the choruses, Nathan Gunn sang his first Tarquinius, and Michelle DeYoung was Lucretia. Earle Patriarco was in the cast, and Eric Owens — it was an amazing production. Glimmerglass also allowed me to sing Aschenbach in Death in Venice in 2005, which was an incredible experience. And since then, every opportunity I've had to sing Britten just feels so right. The operas are not terribly vocally demanding, but they're such emotional and dramatic pieces, and at this phase of my life, I just relish that aspect of my work.

ON: A lot of people were surprised when you took on roles such as Aschenbach or Captain Vere in Billy Budd, which you sang at Santa Fe in 2008. What was it that attracted you to them?

WB: They gave me something I had wanted from my performing life without realizing it. I had opportunities early on to sing a lot of Rossini, which is great music, but it never fed my soul in the way that the Britten pieces do — and that's a completely pompous thing to say, I know, but Rossini just didn't ever feel quite as fulfilling to me. Rossini felt so vocal. I wanted something more than this sense of feeling so under the microscope from a vocal standpoint. 

My first real experience of how incredible it could feel to do a piece that was vocally demanding but also dramatically interesting to me was the first time I sang Tom Rakewell in The Rake's Progress, in Genoa. That remains to this day pretty much my favorite piece of all, on so many levels. I can lose myself in a character like Tom — whereas when I was singing, say, Almaviva, I still felt like that sort of young American guy who had to produce vocally.

ON: Clearly when you've got the composer in the room, his or her voice is part of the musical conversation. But if you come back to Tom Rakewell or you come back to one of the Britten pieces, how do you frame the discussion with the conductor about what you need vocally?

WB: You know, Margaret Harshaw actually set the stage for me in that regard when I was a graduate student at Indiana University. She instilled in all of her students an understanding of the importance of flexibility. She wanted us to be willing to experience a piece in a new way every time we came back to it. That's not to say I won't make my feelings known, particularly when I'm singing Handel or Rossini, that there's a tempo that's right for my voice that's also right for the piece. But it's a collaborative process, obviously — you and the conductor have to decide together what is really important to you both. When I have found myself in working situations with colleagues who are completely unyielding, I find that that whole process becomes so much more difficult. If it's not collaborative the journey is much more difficult.

ON: It just requires that much more energy to be disagreeable, doesn't it?

WB: [Laughs] Absolutely. Absolutely. spacer

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