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The OPERA NEWS Awards: José van Dam

He simply inhabits the music—he is the voice of truth.
by Brian Kellow. 

ON Awards Van Dam hdl 416
Photographed in the Opernhaus Zürich, 2015
Photographs by Nomi Baumgartl
WITHOUT EVER BURSTING THE ENVELOPE OF STYLE, VAN DAM REACHES US ON A DEEP LEVEL.
ON Awards Van Dam lg 416
Photographs by Nomi Baumgartl

WHAT ARE the qualities we prize in French singing? Most of us are drawn to French opera, oratorio and mélodie for their breathtaking sensuality, rendered with perfect economy of expression. We trust the great singers of French song to give us the right balance of light and shadow but always to be mindful of the uniquely concentrated quality that Debussy felt the best French composers possessed. Belgian-born bass-baritone José van Dam is a model interpreter of French music. Somehow, without ever bursting the envelope of style, he reaches us on a deep level, and often we may be baffled by exactly how he did it. But this element of cool mystery is part of what strikes us as quintessentially French.

Van Dam brings these qualities to his masterly portrayal of King Philip in Verdi’s Don Carlos, available on DVD in Luc Bondy’s magnificently pared-down staging of the work for the Théâtre du Chatelet. In Philip’s great Act IV soliloquy, van Dam shows us a monarch so mindful of the responsibilities weighing on him that he can’t come fully unraveled even in this most private moment. When he reaches the aria’s conclusion, he sings with aching hesitancy, as if incredulous that someone of his birthright could so irretrievably lose his emotional compass. 

Van Dam’s superbly trained voice is unquestionably lovely, but the real magic lies in what he does with it. In a 1980 OPERA NEWS interview with Stephen Wadsworth, van Dam expatiated on the technical foundation of his singing—solid breath support, lifting the soft palate and opening the mouth to a horizontal position, relaxed throat and shoulders, no undue pressure on the vocal cords. And like many other great singers, he was trained to think that when he was singing lower he was actually singing higher, keeping the palate in position to make his bottom notes fuller and richer. This healthy approach to singing has permitted him to keep the really hard work where it should be—on giving shape and meaning to the words. One role that van Dam recorded multiple times is Escamillo in Carmen. On the 1974 Erato disc conducted by Alain Lombard, with Régine Crespin, he is a revelation: while many Escamillos settle for a gust of testosterone, van Dam gives a playful, witty, almost delicate reading of “Votre toast”—and in so doing maximizes the toreador’s sex appeal. Rather than parading himself in front of Carmen, he makes her come to him. He never shows you anything; he simply inhabits the music.

Van Dam put his stamp on a remarkably wide range of works—from Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger to the title role in the world premiere of Olivier Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise in 1983. My most vivid memories of him are as Golaud in Pelléas et Mélisande; no other singer in my experience so fully captured the character’s self-loathing when he lifts up Yniold to spy on the lovers. His traversal of French song is consistently, impeccably right—the fleet-footed tenderness of Fauré’s “Clair de Lune”; the mournful ache of Ravel’s “Kaddisch”; the translucent pull of Duparc’s “L’invitation au voyage.” He is always the voice of truth.  —Brian Kellow 

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