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Lunatic Niche

BRIAN MULLIGAN specializes in playing characters on the edge. This summer, he is John Proctor in Francesca Zambello’s staging of Robert Ward’s opera The Crucible at the Glimmerglass Festival.
by William R. Braun. 

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As Sweeney Todd in San Francisco in 2015
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
"These days, I'm a little too emotionally available onstage."
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© Dario Acosta

WHEN BARITONE BRIAN MULLIGAN LAUGHS, the sound has the depth and unvarying resonance of a cathedral bell. It’s the sort of thing you would expect to hear if, after a hard day of initiation ceremonies at the brotherhood, one of the lesser priests told Sarastro a really good dirty joke.

Most often, the laugh comes when Mulligan has just said something with charming self-deprecation. During an interview last February, an early example came when he summed up one unexpected benefit of an opera career—the chance to work with great stage directors. His first was Ed Berkeley at Juilliard. “Ed sat me down and talked with me about being emotionally available, onstage and in rehearsal. He said to me if I were emotionally available to him and to other directors, and to my colleagues, that there was this whole being that could be tapped into. And he was right. Probably if anything now these days I’m a little too emotionally available onstage.” The laughter began to build. Mulligan describes David Alden’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor, which he has sung in several cities: “David’s take on Lucia is that the madness in the family is hereditary, and that it hit Enrico before it hit Lucia. David challenged me to be really out there, like out-of-my-mind crazy. It was a pivotal moment in my growth as an opera singer, becoming unhinged onstage. It opened up not only the character but my singing. And a lot of people have seen me sing in that production, and I think that’s what has gotten me into this little lunatic niche that I’ve found myself in.”

Mulligan is referring not only to Enrico but to Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which he sang at San Francisco Opera, and to Jack Torrance in Paul Moravec’s The Shining, the baritone’s first world-premiere opera, which opened at Minnesota Opera on May 7. Mulligan would never point out that he works very hard to find a point of personal contact with his characters, but it becomes clear as we talk. For Sweeney Todd, he developed a technique of screaming. “I felt this loyalty to Sweeney, to Benjamin Barker, where I really wanted to scream. It’s hard to be Sweeney Todd—it’s a very sad place to be.” He didn’t ask for any changes to his vocal lines in The Shining. (“I feel very strongly that the composer is an artist, and the librettist is an artist, the conductor is an artist, and I respect the fact that this is their vision.”) He learned the high-lying title role of Nixon in China with unflagging energy when he was still so green that he thought John Adams, sitting at an orchestral rehearsal, was a man who looked like John Adams. (“John later said to me, ‘I had no idea when I was writing this how high those notes are!’”) And when he speaks about John Proctor in The Crucible, coming this summer at Glimmerglass, he neatly sums up what the character represents to him: “It’s the notion of how important is your integrity? How much is it worth to you, what does it mean? The notion of integrity is timeless.”

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As Enrico to Anna Christy’s Lucia at COC in 2013
© Chris Hutcheson

There is probably only one other baritone who has performed both the Prospero of Thomas Adès and the Hamlet of Ambroise Thomas, but Mulligan doesn’t see any particular similarities between his voice and Simon Keenlyside’s. He’s not much for categories: he doesn’t even make a distinction between baritone and bass-baritone. In fact, if a recording session for a disc of two Dominick Argento song cycles last January is any indication, Mulligan’s voice may be unique among baritones in the way he manages both his lowest and highest registers. He repeated a high-lying passage in “Epilogue,” from The Andrée Expedition, obsessively, negotiating precisely where he would go from full voice to voix mixte to falsetto. But in between takes, he vocalized lower than any bass might, reaching nearly the bottom notes on the piano. He even does this offstage between scenes in a staged opera. “I have a lot of people knock on my dressing-room door and say, ‘What the hell are you doing singing all the way down there?’ or making fun of me singing falsetto—‘Well, what notes are those, Brian? When are you going to sing those?’” 

His path took perhaps its most extreme turn with the Argento project, for which Mulligan paired The Andrée Expedition, written for baritone Håkan Hagegård, with From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, written for Janet Baker and possibly never before sung by a man. “Especially now, when gender is such a topic on everyone’s mind, it just seems silly that something as simple as a man singing songs that are written for a woman could be groundbreaking. There’s nothing in them that is sexual or even romantic. They’re songs—you know what I mean?” spacer 

William R. Braun is a pianist and writer based in Connecticut. 

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