Channeling Gandhi

WENDY WEISMAN visits with tenor Richard Croft, star of the Met's new Satyagraha.

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Photographed by Pete Lacker at UNT's Murchison Performing Arts Center, Dallas, Texas
© Pete Lacker 2008
opera news
© Pete Lacker 2008
Twenty years into his career, Richard Croft is still giving performances that feed the illusion that he has come out of nowhere, startling unfamiliar audiences with a sound that is memorable for its unforced purity and elegance. While Croft has become a regular face at Salzburg and the Met, his younger brother and frequent costar, baritone Dwayne Croft, remains a bigger name to the public. The brothers jointly avoid casting any shadows in the limelight of each other's careers, though, according to Dwayne, they are one another's biggest fans. Now, Richard's presence as Gandhi in the Met's new production of Philip Glass's Satyagraha may give his profile a boost.

"What is unique about Richard's voice is that it has an extremely warm medium register, which sounds like a baritone," says conductor Marc Minkowski, one of Croft's most frequent collaborators. "But then he can suddenly go up, not making a lot of business with falsetto or the passaggio. So few tenors can do this." Croft possesses a broad palette of expressive colors and the ability to float his plangent voice and glide through florid passages without losing any of his bright, crisp articulation.

This flexibility has permitted Croft to seize upon an eclectic repertoire. Although he modestly refers to himself as a novice in the Baroque field, Croft's roster of Handel roles keeps expanding, and his resumé also includes Rameau, Scarlatti and Gluck. Mozart has been a constant throughout his career, with a Met debut as Belmonte in 1991. Numerous Don Ottavios followed, and he has now portrayed Ferrando more than a dozen times at the Met and in Houston and Washington, D.C.

"I love those parts," muses Croft. "But now I'm more suitable for the tortured king roles rather than the romantic roles," he notes half-jokingly, referring to the King of Pontus in the seldom-performed Mitridate and to Idomeneo, a role he will resume in 2009 in Aix-en-Provence. Croft has taken on more contemporary work as well, including Pelléas, Tom Rakewell and the harp-strumming troubadour in Elliot Goldenthal's Grendel, a role that elicited critical plaudits despite brief stage time.

It should come as no surprise that Croft, on the voice faculty at the University of North Texas, advises his students to accommodate a variety of styles. While promising talent is often offered the mantra "You have a brand, and this is what you do," Croft encourages singers to maintain "elasticity in their technique." Satyagraha will most certainly give Croft yet another chance to turn his advice into action. The role of Gandhi requires fiendishly difficult rhythmic shifts and the steady repetition of incantation-like phrases, including one E-minor scale that recurs more than thirty times in a row. The opera is the second of two high-profile Glass operas this season, the first of which was the brand-new Appomattox (coincidentally starring Dwayne Croft as Robert E. Lee). But in performing an opera written more than twenty-five years ago, during the heyday of Glass's minimalist exploration, Richard faces a very different set of demands. Chief among his priorities is mastering patterns of rhythm, but that is not all.

"How do you convey a character without communicating his own words?" he initially wondered, referring to the Sanskrit libretto, adapted by Glass from the Bhagavad Gita. He discovered that the key lies in the influence of that sacred text on Gandhi's personal evolution. "If he was reading it and taking strength from it every day, then aren't we all peering in on his daily meditation?" he wonders. Reciting one prescient verse in translation, "'The Lord said ... For whenever the law of righteousness withers away and lawlessness arises, then do I generate myself on earth … setting virtue on her seat again,'" Croft is visibly moved by the fact that "although things didn't go as planned, Gandhi knew there would be another to pick up the mantle."

Croft, whose early career in opera has been shaped by serendipity, understands that the most important career developments often come unplanned. The third of four children, he long suspected that singing was his greatest strength while growing up in Cooperstown, New York, the soon-to-be home of the Glimmerglass Opera Festival. However, by the time the festival took off, attracting the interest of teenaged Dwayne, Richard was already in college.

He found his calling while pursuing a general science degree at SUNY Oneonta. Passing geology labs proved to be an obstacle because Croft, who is color-blind, "couldn't tell one rock from another." Fortunately, by then he had begun taking voice lessons and bought his first classical album, Puccini's Greatest Hits. "My brother and I would listen to that for hours," he notes fondly, "and try to sing the La Bohème duet together."

After college, Croft headed for New York, where he sought out vocal coach Ellen Repp, with whom he studied for sixteen years. Throughout his twenties, he took on a variety of odd jobs to pay the bills, ranging from slicing bologna in a deli - a stint that lasted only three weeks - to construction, which he did for a year and a half. "If you look at the Belvedere Castle in Central Park," he reminisces, "I mixed most of the cement that's mixed between those stones."

Throughout it all, he remained steadfastly disciplined, coming home every day during rush hour to practice vocal exercises. But despite jobs such as a tour with Minnesota Opera, he began to doubt the legitimacy of calling himself a singer. Rather than linger on the question, however, Croft decided to test his mettle in the Metropolitan Opera auditions and found himself a winner, at age twenty-nine. He began making a name for himself in the bel canto roles of Rossini, but soon developed an appetite for a new approach.

A 1987 Opéra de Nice production of Don Giovanni, under the baton of conductor Arnold Östman, proved to be a revelation. Inspired by Östman's emphasis on "the declamation of text" above all, Croft began listening to Baroque tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson and sought out opportunities for historically-informed performance. He credits Östman, William Christie, René Jacobs and Minkowski for introducing him to a new world of stylistic choices. While working with Minkowski for the first time, in a 1994 production of Agrippina, Croft feared he was entering a slump and told the maestro that he was losing his coloratura. Encouraged to experiment with his sound, Croft surprised them both in rehearsal, revealing an agility that turned out to be the perfect fit for Handel's vocal demands. "It was like a switch has been flipped," states Croft, who subsequently took every chance he could to tackle Handel as well as pursue a more self-directed path towards repertoire, subsequently landing roles in Theodora, Hercules, Ariodante and Semele.

In explaining why the declamation of text is so important in these productions, Croft uses the dichotomy of "vocalization versus communication. When someone sings at you, it's not so interesting. But when a singer shares something with you, when they dare to become emotionally naked, then it's more rewarding."

It may be hard to equate "emotional nakedness" with a character who waves around firearms while wearing bright-orange riot gear, yet this was precisely Croft's experience in the 1996 Glyndebourne production of Theodora, conducted by William Christie. The tenor lauds director Peter Sellars for helping to make the production a personal artistic breakthrough, marrying complex theatrical subtext with the score. Playing the soldier Septimius, Croft tossed off cascading runs while hunched on his knees, the agony of his tortured conscience conveyed on his face and within the sumptuous vocal line.

Croft is widely known as a performer who holds himself to rigidly high standards. When he began to look at Mitridate in advance of his 2005 Salzburg run, he almost refused the role "because of one note," remembers Minkowski. Croft ultimately decided to go forward, despite his reservations about an aria that pushes the singer's range in both high and low registers. (In the event, he nailed the high C in question.)

Croft, who began teaching in 2004, seems to take his own lessons to heart. He advises young singers who want to adapt to different vocal styles, "You have to have a good understanding of how your voice works. Vibrating on every note is fine in bel canto, but if you use that same approach in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century music, you negate the natural swing of the music."

Croft's faculty position also allows him more time at home in Texas, where he shares a house with violinist Lisamarie Vana and Lucy, his eighteen-year-old daughter. But Croft's primary motivation for his current track was Yehudi Menuhin, who once declared that "he didn't want to spend his life chasing a career and leave nothing behind." Croft explains, "I didn't want to wait to teach until my voice was gone - I wanted to still have the ability to express myself vocally."

WENDY WEISMAN is a New York-based arts journalist and a former Affiliated Writer for American Theatre Magazine.

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