Alek Shrader: Genuine Star Quality!
An interview by Margarida Mota-Bull – 20.7.2013
Alek Shrader (31) is possibly one of the most exciting young tenors on the planet at present. Owner of a golden voice, movie star good looks and boy-next-door charm, he personifies everything one can wish for in a modern opera singer. Shrader was raised in Alva, a little town in Oklahoma, USA. His parents were both opera singers and, as he says himself: “I grew up with it [opera] in the household and it made me not want to sing opera”. So, he founded his own rock band and went to university, intending to become a music teacher. Luckily for all of us opera lovers, after singing in a competition at university, he “sort of fell into it”, as he puts it, and finally started a career as an opera singer. After graduating at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, he went on to study at Oberlin College and Conservatoire where somebody recognised his talent and had the good sense to suggest that he should try for the prestigious annual Metropolitan Opera Competition. He went for it and reached the finals, which he won alongside five other young singers that year.
It so happened that Susan Froemke decided at the time to make a documentary film centred on the Met competition and its concert finals. This was The Audition, which made Alek Shrader an instant success and a household name, far beyond his expectations. One of the arias that he sang in the competition was nothing less than Ah! Mes amis…pour mon âme, the famous aria with the nine consecutive high Cs from Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, which some people say is the Everest for tenors! It is no wonder then that, after he fired up his last high C, one of his fellow tenors, also competing, told him (jokingly) that he just wanted to throw his shoe at him! I asked Shrader why he chose this aria and he, with all his boyish charm and million dollar smile, said simply that he felt there was nothing thrilling in his list at the time. It was all very safe repertoire. In the end, as he says himself: “…it came down to: Here I am on the stage of the Met and I might never be back and given this opportunity again, I really want to sing ‘Ah! Mes amis’ because it might be the only chance I get, so I went for it, I jumped off the ledge and really, I had nothing to lose”. And indeed, he did not! Of course, as he points out, the fame brought him by The Audition had a downside, as he suddenly received tons of requests from strangers on his personal Facebook page, wanting to be friends with him, which naturally made him feel uncomfortable, as he told me during our conversation that you can read in full below.
Alek Shrader possesses a beautiful tenor sound, with a crystal clear tone, impressive coloratura, refined phrasing and perfect diction. His high C is solid and he manages to go slightly higher. He told me that he has sung a high D a few times. So, it is no surprise that, with his success in The Audition also came many offers and Shrader could have easily gone down the path of many young promising tenors, making the mistake of singing too much, too heavy and the wrong repertoire, which might have ruined his voice. But he demonstrated a maturity far beyond his years. Realising that he was not ready to take on everything that was being thrown at him, he decided: “I needed time to grow and to continue studying before I was able to not hurt myself by accepting some of these wonderful offers that I just wasn’t ready for”. So, he went to the Julliard Opera Centre where he studied for a year and came under the influence of director Stephen Wadsworth who had a big impact on his way of thinking and preparing for a character.
Shrader has since then sung many different roles that range from bel canto of the first half of the 19th Century: Rossini and Donizetti, for example, which at the moment suit his voice exceptionally well, to Mozart and 20th Century as well as modern day composers: He has sung the title role in Britten’s Albert Herring, the difficult role of Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress and also Ferdinand in Thomas Adès’s The Tempest, conducted by the composer himself. Shrader says that he likes to go for obscure repertoire, meaning pieces that people do not know so well and, as he puts it, “are either new or forgotten”. His genuine enthusiasm and energy for his work and his joy in living, in having fun with what he does are simply contagious and it is impossible not to like him or not to wish him well.
Currently, he is here in the UK, singing the role of Ernesto in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale at the Glyndebourne Festival, alongside such names as Danielle de Niese and Alessandro Corbelli. Sadly, Shrader was unable to sing on opening night, Thursday, 18th July, due to a sinus and throat infection but he is intending to sing the remaining performances, as he stated that he was on the mend and feeling much better. He spoke about his approach to the character of Ernesto whom he sees as just a young man in love, therefore allowing for a broader interpretation. Ernesto is actually not his Glyndebourne Festival debut. He was here in 2012 and sang the poet Gonzalve in Ravel’s L’heure espagnole to great acclaim.
I met him in Lewes, where he is staying during the festival. Shrader is generous beyond belief – just read his story, contained in the transcript of the interview below, about the time when he was living in San Francisco and how he wanted to help neighbours whose cars were being broken in – but he is also unassuming. Whether on stage or in person, Alek Shrader possesses an appealing personality, with an almost boyish enthusiasm for doing things that are fun and bring joy to him and other people. He is friendly, kind and naturally accepts his considerable talents and achievements with elegant simplicity but without false modesty. He is always gracious in his attitude and his opinions of others and his appeal lies in the fact that he is genuine about everything he says and everything he does. A real star and a pleasure to interview.
Full Transcript of Interview with Alek Shrader
MMB: The first thing I would like to ask you is when and why did you become an opera singer? Who were your biggest influences?
AS: Well, my parents were both opera singers, opera performers. So I grew up with it in the household and it made me not want to sing opera. I wanted to do my own thing and not do their thing. So, it took me a long time to sort of give in to singing opera as a career. And it really didn’t happen until..…I must have been about twenty or twenty-one. I was already at university. I was going to be a music teacher. I also had a rock and roll band [he laughs]. One day, I sang in a competition at university and I did rather well, which sort of encouraged me to pursue a career as an opera singer and really that’s the way it’s been ever since: I do something and it leads to something else, which leads to something else. It has been a continuous path that I’ve been on without thinking of becoming an opera singer. If anything, I fell into it but it has also been a part of my life from the beginning.
MMB: You more or less answered my second question, which was: If there was ever a time when you did not really want to become an opera singer and pursued a different career.
AS: Yes, that’s right. I did sort of answer it…[He smiles warmly]
MMB: Therefore, let’s go to my next question. You studied at the Julliard Opera Centre, one of the most prestigious schools for singers. How important do you think it was your time there for your career?
AS: That came in my transition from university to young professional and I was only there for a year. I had one major competition at the Metropolitan Opera and so my career was bubbling. It hadn’t begun yet but there was a lot of interest in me. My time at Julliard, if anything, helped me take it slow and not move too fast into a career that I wasn’t ready to have. So, I spent that year really transitioning from student to professional. When I left Julliard I went to the San Francisco Opera Young Artist Programme, which was really the beginning of my professional experience, as a cover, as an apprentice but not really a student anymore; I was figuring out how to work rather than studying. One of the best things that happened to me at Julliard was working with a director called Stephen Wadsworth. He really refined my philosophy of acting. Without him, I don’t think that I would have spent time to understand it. It has always been a sort of a natural process to me, meaning I’m just playing; I’m just sort of inventing a character and it’s a game but because of him, my analysis of character, my sense of reality for these roles is really, really specific now and I owe him that.
MMB: In a brief article (Sound Bites) in the May 2009 issue of Opera News, you mentioned the importance that Count Almaviva’s cavatina of Act I of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, i.e. the beautiful Ecco ridente, had on your career. Can you please elaborate a little on it and tell me what happened and why was it important?
AS: Almaviva was my first professional leading role at Opera Theatre Saint Louis and this was even before I won the Met competition; before I attended Julliard; so, it happened very early in my career. It remains one of the best experiences I’ve ever had on stage. It was a fantastic cast, a fantastic conductor and a fantastic director! The company – Opera Theatre of Saint Louis – is so warm…I don’t know, so pleasant! Sometimes, you do a job and it really is work and it really is a business! And sometimes you do a job and you’re just having fun with the people around you! That was one of those moments! I think that I’m really fortunate that it happened to me so early because it really gave me the fire to keep going. Like I said, I wasn’t necessarily…I don’t know…dreaming about doing this, meaning, singing opera but when I really enjoy myself it’s the best thing that I would choose to do, you know? So this was one of those times and we just got along so well and the production was so much fun…[he pauses and smiles]. In a way, it was just too…too magical, too enjoyable to really define. It’s just an experience that is really dear to my heart.
MMB: Since then, I believe that you have sung Count Almaviva in Il Barbiere several times. Do you sing the full role, meaning do you perform the count’s showpiece in the final act, Cessa di più resistere?
AS: I have done it before and I will do it again. Most of the times that I did Almaviva I did not do it but it was usually not an original production. For example, I did Almaviva in Munich and I did it in Toulouse and they were revivals so when that happens you basically have to do what was done before and in both those times there was no Cessa in the production. However, upcoming, I will sing it and I…I mean, if it’s a new production and it was made for me I would like to do it. In fact I like that aria better than Ecco Ridente. I like the fact that it gives the Count something to say at the end of the piece, which used to be called Almaviva.
MMB: Yes, exactly. I was leading to that as well because a few years ago, back in 2005, I interviewed Juan Diego Flórez…
MMB: Yes, it was very interesting. Anyway, I’m mentioning it because he told me that he feels very strongly about Cessa di più resistere and he thinks that it is important for the tenor to sing it, mainly because it is part of the opera; it’s not an alternative aria and like you said, the opera used to be called Almaviva. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense to sing it. Do you actually agree with that?
AS: I absolutely agree with that and I feel strongly about all of those things but again for me, it’s also one of the most fun Rossini arias for tenor that he ever wrote, I mean if you can sing Lindoro/Almaviva or you enjoy coloratura there’s no reason why you wouldn’t want to sing Cessa. It’s a fantastic piece of music and Rossini knew it; that’s why he recycled it in Cenerentola, you know what I mean? It also comes in…one of his masses…
MMB: A cantata. It comes in a cantata…I can’t remember the name right now!
AS: Me neither [he laughs].
MMB: But yes, in a cantata for a mezzo-soprano [I found out later that the cantata is entitled Le nozze di Teti e di Peleo], then in La Cenerentola and of course it’s the showpiece for the tenor in Il Barbiere.
AS: That’s right and it’s really fun music and if you like Rossini and you like that style why wouldn’t you want to sing it?
MMB: Indeed. Fantastic! Anyway, I read several things about you while preparing for the interview. Some critics have said that one can imagine you in a variety of Rossini and other bel canto roles. Do you see yourself as a Rossini and/or a bel canto tenor?
AS: Yes, I think I do. You know, I’m now thirty-one and I found that sort of overnight… [he laughs], not literally! But something changed in my voice when I turned thirty, so I have had this sort of new feelings for about a year…I don’t know if it’s dark or full…which is something that I was warned about. Many of my early advisers would tell me that my middle voice is really strong for a Rossini tenor. So, they would say: While you can do it, do it. Sing Rossini while you have the high notes, sing it for as long as you can but eventually, you might have to shift down into a little bit lower, a little bit broader repertoire, which is not necessarily outside bel canto but it’s something that might lead me to Lucia or some other slightly bigger Donizetti roles and also certainly, to the Bellini repertoire. It’s just that within bel canto, there’s a sort of a pyramid, if you like and Rossini tenors are often on the top of that pyramid because they can sing high and for me, I think I’m starting to slide down a little bit to something just broader, not quite so high; not leaving high repertoire but it will possibly lead me to some light Verdi as my heaviest repertoire. But for the time being…I love Rossini’s music and so, I’m happy to sing it as long as I do it justice.
MMB: I’m sure you must be asked about my next question all the time and are tired of answering it! However…
AS: [He smiles]. I’m sure it’s fine.
MMB: Susan Froemke’s documentary film The Audition. You won the Met competition, which is of course what The Audition is about, and I have a few questions about it. First, did it have a big impact on your career?
AS: Yes, yes. It had a huge impact on my career so that I purposefully…I wouldn’t say I did avoid the attention but I controlled the attention by going to Julliard. That’s what happened. I got a lot of phone calls, I got a lot of offers and I was flattered and yet, I knew that it wasn’t quite right. You know, it’s a classic tenor mistake to sing too much, to sing too heavy or to do things that are inappropriate and so, for me, I needed time to grow and to continue studying before I was able to not hurt myself by accepting some of these wonderful offers that I just wasn’t ready for.
MMB: Still related to the same thing but on a slightly different note. Did it have an impact on your private life, as it must have made you a household name all of a sudden?
AS: Yes…In fact, I was on Facebook and after I won, I had so many people trying to find me, trying to be friends on Facebook that I got very shy. I didn’t know these people. I was grateful and happy that they had an interest in me, you know, flattered and humbled but I didn’t feel that I was ready to share that private side of my life. So, I created a fan page, which is basically a website and that’s how I communicated with these people, who had an interest in me, rather than allowing them access to my personal profile.
MMB: Understandable! You didn’t know them, so…
AS: Exactly and like I say I’m flattered that they singled me out but I’m sort of a private person, you know, and I’m not necessarily available like that to strangers.
MMB: Naturally! So, still related to The Audition, you sang Ah! Mes amis…Pour mon âme from Donizetti’s La fille du régiment. I think it was an amazing move but such a famous aria, with the famous nine consecutive high Cs, doesn’t strike me as the obvious choice for a competition of this kind. Why did you choose such a piece? You sang it beautifully, if I may say so.
AS: Thank you, thank you. Well, I had worked on it…a lesson here and there at school and so one of my teachers said: “I’m sorry but you know this is just about a C and if you can sing a C, you can sing the whole thing. Let’s sing something more challenging for you. You can sing Ramiro, which also has a C but then it has also coloratura, there’s other things to study rather than Ah! Mes amis which is really about the C”. And so, we looked at it once and moved on. Then I went to study with Renata Scotto and we went through so much repertoire! I was only with her for three weeks but we sang an aria every day – a different one – and I ran out of Italian repertoire and I finally said: “Can we please do Ah! Mes amis? I really want to do Ah! Mes amis”. And she said no! [He laughs]. She didn’t want to hear Ah! Mes amis! It’s really only about a C, she said, and if you have a high C, which you do, then you don’t need to sing that! So, she refused to do it in a loving manner [he smiles] and I love her but she said no. And so, there is this aria that I have been dying to perform and I get to New York and I miraculously make the finals. And I just didn’t feel like my repertoire was showy enough and because it’s a competition you do need to demonstrate that you can sing technically well. And of course you also need to show your expression and the timbre of your voice and everything but really it needs to be thrilling for the audience and for the judges. You need to make them cheer, you need to get their energy, you know? And I didn’t feel like anything on my list had that. I felt that it was very safe repertoire, very…I don’t know, just not thrilling and so I thought, there’s Ah! Mes amis but no-one has ever let me perform it! So, I asked everybody in the competition about it and they asked me: “Well, can you do it?” And I said: “I think I can do it; I hope I can do it; I want to do it!” And so, they let me try it and you know, in the end, the decision really came down to me thinking: Here I am on the stage of the Met and I might never be back and given this opportunity again. I really want to sing Ah! Mes amis because it might be the only chance I get. So I went for it. I jumped off the ledge [he laughs] and really, I had nothing to lose. It was risky and it might have seemed scary or foolish or whatever…
MMB: Personally, I think it was clever.
AS: Oh! Indeed? Well…good [he laughs]. But really I just did not want to waste that chance and something just felt right about it; the thrill of the piece felt right. I thought that my excitement about it would come through. I had the chance and I took the chance.
MMB: You did well with it. You sounded amazing. Your high Cs were as good as I’ve heard any other tenors sing them, as for example Flórez’s high Cs; really, you were at that level.
AS: Oh! Thank you. Thank you very much [he smiles genuinely happy].
MMB: Still related to The Audition and it will be my last question about it, I promise, what do you think about this type of events? And in your opinion are they useful?
AS: They’re definitely useful, absolutely.
MMB: Were you nervous?
AS: I was nervous until I realised that there was too much opportunity. If you go in and you think about how much pressure there is, with the cameras on you and everything as in that particular situation, there’s quite a bit of stress and you have to sing but you only have a limited time to prove yourself, to perform. So much can go wrong that if you think too much about it then, of course it will go wrong. And so, my advice it is just to enjoy the experience, to be grateful for the experience, to take advantage of the opportunity, to do something that is meaningful to you, to express yourself and not really think about: Am I going to win? What is everybody going to think about me? Just go and enjoy yourself. But anyway, competitions and things like that are extremely important for young singers because they get that person out into the public’s eye right away, I mean immediately. Then, it’s a question of the successful singers dealing with the attention that they will get. But I definitely think that it’s an excellent vehicle for young singers, to promote them before they’ve really got off the ground.
MMB: Have you actually sung the role in La fille du régiment? Tonio?
AS: I covered Juan Diego in San Francisco and since he had done the production before, he was several weeks late for the rehearsal. So, I did all of the rehearsals up until the Sitzprobe, which is about a week before the opening. So, no, I haven’t performed it but I’ve done it in rehearsals.
MMB: So is it in your plans for the future?
AS: It is [he nods with a wide smile], I do have one coming, yes, I do.
MMB: You have been preparing for the role of Ernesto in Don Pasquale at Glyndebourne, which sadly you had to cancel on the first night, last Thursday 18th July, due to illness. I do however have a few questions related to that and another role from Donizetti, which you have performed. So, regarding Ernesto, some people see humanity in the characters of Don Pasquale, giving them more depth than normally expected in an opera buffa. Do you agree?
AS: Absolutely, however [he smiles] it seems to me that Don Pasquale in particular is extremely commedia dell’arte. All of the characters can be simplified into that sort of archetype role.
MMB: Okay, so personally, how do you see the character of Ernesto?
AS: Ernesto is merely the young lover of the young soprano and therefore, two things happen: Because of that simplicity you always know exactly what you’re supposed to do and because you know what you are supposed to do you can really expand how you’ll finally get there. So, you can go away in a different direction, as long as you come back to what his type is. So, as an actor, it is a really simple general role and it provides so much freedom to create one’s own particular Ernesto! Depending on the production, you can really make it unique; really make it unlike any other Ernesto because it’s so general. So, for me, Ernesto in this production is naïve; he’s trustworthy and he’s simply in love with Norina and that fuels everything. So, he gets his heart broken at least three times in the show and so everything he sings is usually about loss and what a sad life this is but I love Norina so much, right? So, he always comes back to that and so within that you can play him as…er…like…well, he must be mad at Malatesta because he’s been betrayed, he must be a little mad at Norina because she’s done something to trick him, right? But he’s not sure, so he’s confused and he’s definitely angry with Pasquale but he’s his uncle, it is the only sort of father figure in his [Ernesto’s] life so he’ll always love Pasquale but he’s really against him from time to time, you know? So he goes back and forth, and back and forth, and back and forth until he finally, hopefully, ends up with Norina and it all works out but it has nothing to do with him. He’s a pawn in this game and not that that isn’t human but in terms of the character itself, it’s very broad, very…just generic: Young person in love and that’s all you need for Ernesto. Nemorino in L’elisir is completely different.
MMB: Yes, I was going to ask you about that now, as you have sung Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore. Do you think there are any similarities between Nemorino and Ernesto?
AS: Absolutely. I found a strange thing – I haven’t done too much research on this – but Ernesto, Nemorino and Tonio all have uncles and all are in love with sopranos. So, I’m not sure if that was intentional or a Donizetti sort of recipe or what but Nemorino also suffers because he’s so in love; however, there’s a difference. Ernesto and Norina are a couple. They love each other; their love is not complicated. Nemorino and Adina are different. Nemorino has to win her; he has to convince her that they really are meant to be together and for me, that’s just a deeper character, which is a little more interesting emotionally. Of course, you can still play and craft your own version of Nemorino but you are a little more confirmed in your path. Nemorino has a plan; he commits to a course of action as opposed to Ernesto who finds himself pushed here and pushed there, you know? So, he’s not really in control.
MMB: What about in musical terms?
AS: In musical terms, Nemorino is simply lower. Ernesto is strangely high. I’m not sure why that is. Ernesto almost immediately sings a G and then rises eventually, in that same scene, A flat after A flat and following it, in the duet, B flat after B flat and that’s quite high in itself but then we come back for his big aria, which relies on a strong B flat, an extremely difficult cabaletta, which is often cut, at least one verse – and we have cut one verse [at Glyndebourne] – but even with just the one verse, it’s…well, it’s a challenge. And then, there’s an optional D flat, which I know Juan Diego always does and many tenors do and some tenors do not; like I said, it’s optional. It’s really tradition; it’s not even written in the score. Anyway, following around from that centre of A flat, you come to Com’é gentil, which needs A natural. So, what I’m saying is that as the evening goes on, the role becomes higher and higher and for Donizetti, it’s extremely high. For Nemorino you definitely need a G and by the time, you sing Una furtiva lagrima, at the end of the night, you need an A and that’s it. With Ernesto by the end of your first piece of singing you need B flat. So, it’s a different role completely.
MMB: Just out of curiosity what’s the highest note that you can reach above high C?
AS: Ah! Well, I’ve performed a D a few times now and…I’m trying to think…well, occasionally, I’ll warm up to an E flat but I’ve never needed to sing it, so I’ve never made myself do it.
MMB: Well, you probably shouldn’t.
AS: You know there’s an F in I puritani?
MMB: Yes, I know but I don’t really like it when the tenors try to sing it. I’ve heard it but most of the times it sounds falsetto.
AS: True. It’s a physical thing. It’s just impossible for a human body, a male human body who’s not in falsetto to sing a high, high F with full voice and so, the only way to do it is to mix it – and I find that for me, that mix happens even on the D – as you go up, you have no choice but to mix in falsetto.
MMB: Changing a bit of direction now, I know that you have also sung various Mozart roles, for which I think your voice is perfect (alongside the bel canto repertoire of the 1st half of the 19th century). When you prepare for a Mozart role, let’s say for example Ferrando in Così fan tutte or Belmonte in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, where do you put your emphasis while preparing? And what do you see as your biggest challenge in Mozart?
AS: Mozart is tricky, different from bel canto. Bel canto sort of stretches. Even with Ernesto, which is higher, there’s a stretch, so you approach the higher note from below or it’s a cadenza or something. Mozart’s range is typically narrower but he uses all of it at all times. So, you might not get…I don’t know…a sort of warm up or something to anchor on when you’re singing Mozart’s music. So that provides different challenges. For me, Mozart needs real support, real breath support in passaggio especially. Also, the Mozart repertoire can be sung by much heavier voices than is required. So that a Tamino, for example, can be someone like a Heldentenor practically; you know with a huge booming voice or it could be a very light tenor and that’s just because it’s so adaptable. For me, it’s just a matter of staying grounded. Sort of singing it as bel canto is possible but it is knowing that it’s just a different style and it needs different glue. Bel canto sort of lends itself to gluing itself together! For Mozart you need to bring your own glue!
MMB: You have also sung 20th Century composers, namely the leading role in Britten’s Albert Herring and Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress that are more complex characters than those of Mozart or of Rossini or Donizetti. What are the challenges in these roles both in musical and acting terms?
AS: The 20th Century music, especially with Britten and Stravinsky, is just much more complicated, much more specific. Good singing, bel canto singing, is really a technique and so I try to bring that to modern music, which doesn’t necessarily lend itself to that because of awkward rhythms and awkward intervals. Britten, I finally find that after singing through seven or eight performances I can start to get his tonality in my head, I can anticipate the chord progression, which in Rossini and Mozart is so simple, so…expected and that I find is the key to making modern music ‘musical’! As the performer, you have to be able to anticipate the changes in tonality so that it’s an organic thing and not a calculated thing. Tom Rakewell was musically the most difficult role that I’ve had to learn. The range of the notes is not that difficult but the rhythms and the text were challenging beyond anything I’ve ever done. Britten is very difficult but Stravinsky was incredible. However, once you’re there, once you get it, it’s locked in forever, for the rest of your life because you’ve spent so much time learning it. So, now that you know it, you have it and you’ll always have it. And so, as soon as I had finished Tom Rakewell, I said to my agent, I need more of this! It was so hard to learn! So, just give me more.
MMB: Well, you had great reviews about it; the ones I read, anyway.
AS: Thank you.
MMB: At Glyndebourne, last year, you have sung in Ravel’s L’heure espagnole. The role of the poet Gonzalve is perhaps not one that most people would associate with you, if they’d heard you only in The Audition for example. Why did you decide to do it? What were the challenges?
AS: For me, it’s just an excellent character. It was interesting to me, which is really how I choose all of my projects. You know, to me being the main role or singing a particular composer is not what inspires me but being a character that’s interesting in a production that’s interesting is really what I go for. So, I knew it was Laurent Pelly and I knew that his production would be fantastic… and it was. In fact my character became even more interesting after we started working, which is always a good thing, always energetic. I think that really Gonzalve could be just any voice, any type of tenor. It all comes down to the portrayal on stage and I think that, like Tamino, it’s something that any voice could do justice to. It’s so well written. You know? I wish Ravel wrote many more operas but unfortunately he did not.
MMB: Earlier this year, I believe you sang Ferdinand in Thomas Adès’s The Tempest. How challenging was it, particularly bearing in mind that it was conducted by the composer himself?
AS: True, yes. At first, it was terrifying. It’s very difficult music. And again with modern music you kind of have to work to find the music, however, he [Adès] made it easier. He was such a comfort when I was singing…I mean, to all of us. He was supportive. He was there, he was kind and he always checked to make sure; he always asked: “Is this okay for you? What do you need from me as a conductor?” He was just really wonderful to work with. He was one of the best conductors I’ve worked with, to tell you the truth, in the way that he was there to work with me and not to force me. He never said: “You must do it because I am conducting it this way”. No, he was never like that at all and I love him for it…because…because, yes, it was terrifying [he lets out a slightly nervous laugh].
MMB: You have worked with controversial director Hans Neuenfels in Giovanni Mayr’s Medea in Corinto. How was it working with Neuenfels? How important was this production in your career, particularly, bearing in mind that it has appeared on DVD and blu-ray (review)?
AS: It was extremely important in my career. It was the first time I did an original production in a major house in Europe. I think it was actually the first time that I did a production in Europe. The fact that it was going to be on DVD was also very important to me. As for Neuenfels, well, he was fine. To me, he was always very well-behaved, respectful of me as an actor. We had an excellent conductor too, Ivor Bolton, and as a conductor he was very collaborative. So really, I had no stress at that time from either one of them. I did observe what you might expect from Neuenfels as his behaviour but it was never directed at me so I really can’t say that he is obscene or that he is a terror to work with. He has a particular style and a particular artistic voice; so, surely, if you’re running an opera company and you hire that man, you know what to expect from him and you certainly can’t punish him for using his voice, right?
MMB: Yes, I totally agree with you but some people are very critical of him. So, I just wanted to hear your personal opinion.
AS: Of course. He was not more treacherous than any other director. To tell you the truth, he was perfectly fine to work with.
MMB: Okay. So, changing subject a little again, whenever I hear you sing, besides your crystalline tone, one of the things that immediately strikes me is your very clear diction no matter which language you are singing in. Does this come naturally to you?
AS: I’ve had this compliment before and I really appreciate it because it’s important to me. Obviously, the text is why we’re all making a sound on stage. If there were no text, then, what would we be saying, right? [He smiles]. Anyway, before I even studied languages, I had several diction classes so I learned to say all my syllables without even having a vocabulary and I think that helped me quite a bit. Then, every time you do a role, there will be a diction coach to tell you if something is sounding different from the way one would say it. So, that’s always included in the production. For me, personally, it’s really about making it seem as natural as possible even though singing is an unnatural thing. I want it to sound as normally spoken as possible. And for me what that means is actually not over pronouncing it. Because if we were speaking and somebody started over pronouncing every syllable, it would be very strange and you would wonder why somebody was being so robotic. So that means to me that yes, there might be a consonant here but if we were just talking, I might drop it and so I don’t need to over produce all of the consonants. I think that’s really the key to sounding natural and if you sound natural you’ll be understood. So, that’s really what it comes down to. All diction coaches agree with me by the way [he laughs good-humouredly].
MMB: So, something else now: Have you ever sung or do you intend to extend your repertoire into Lieder?
AS: Yes, sure. I love doing Lieder. I haven’t done very many recitals but I make sure of including some Lieder on every recital that I do. Of course, Brahms, Schubert and Schumann were a big part of my studies and I’ve done many of their songs. I find that I really enjoy singing Wolf. To tell you the truth, he’s one of my favourite German composers and I am always exploring more obscure repertoire. It’s fun for me to sing things that people don’t know at all and so, it happens that it’s brand new or really old and forgotten. So, I really look for…I mean not just Lieder, even the mélodies or Italian art song, anything sort of lost, I really go for that.
MMB: You have been at Glyndebourne before and hopefully, you will be able to do the remaining Don Pasquale performances. What do you think of the opera house? And, for you personally, what does it mean to sing here and how does it compare with other perhaps more conventional opera houses?
AS: Well, Glyndebourne, because it’s a festival situation and we have many productions going on at the same time, it’s in my experience certainly as good as any other of the places I’ve been. Opera Theatre Saint Louis has a festival; Santa Fe has a festival and from the stand point of the staff it is so much more work, it’s so much more effort to fit all the pieces together. Now, when you have a place like Glyndebourne that can do so many successful, interesting, well-cast, well-performed productions, I think that says something really good about the place. You may have a wonderful Le nozze [di Figaro], followed by a wonderful Don Pasquale…Billy Budd is also coming…So, all these fantastic productions.
MMB: Indeed. Before Don Pasquale, which by the way, I liked a lot…
AS: Oh! Good! Good! I’m glad you liked it.
MMB: Yes, very much. So, I also reviewed Le nozze di Figaro and the Rameau Hippolyte et Aricie, which were very different approaches but really fantastic and of great quality.
AS: Yes and that is what really says something for Glyndebourne; that they can do five or six successful, really well done, high quality performances and as diverse as Le nozze di Figaro, or the Rameau, like you said, and in such a short amount of time. And then, there are the settings, which are really special. I mean you’ll never find that anywhere else.
MMB: Now, to end the interview, I would like to ask a few, slightly more personal questions, if I may?
AS: Of course. Please do.
MMB: Thank you. So, first, I would like to know what your plans are for the future. New roles/old roles? Recordings? Concerts/recitals?
AS: I’m doing mostly Almaviva coming up. It has happened that way. It used to be that I do one or two a year but I’m doing four or five next year and no new repertoire…I’m trying to think…my next new role won’t be for quite a while, which is also new to me because it used to be that every time I sang, it was a new role. So, this is something in a way relaxing, as it’s all music that I’ve done before and it’s mostly opera. I do have the recital I mentioned in San Francisco but it’s more of a donor event…I owe them an appearance because I was a young artist there, they optioned me for a recital performance to raise some money and everybody is happy. But yes, it’s mostly opera and mostly Almaviva for the next season.
MMB: What about recordings? I was looking everywhere for recordings by you but the only one I could find was Medea in Corinto.
AS: Yes, that’s the only thing at the moment but Glyndebourne does DVDs and I think the Ravel, which I did last year and Don Pasquale from this year, will also appear on DVD.
MMB: And are you going to be in the DVD, bearing in mind that you’re not yet fully recovered from your illness? Personally, I hope so, as I’d like to catch up your performance.
AS: Yes, yes. I hope so too but going back to your question: As far as audio recordings are concerned, nothing has come to fruition so far.
MMB: Next, may I ask what do you normally do to relax?
AS: Yes, well, I’m a huge movie fan. I travel with many, many films and it’s wonderful that we have Netflix here now because we have it in the States. So, now we can use the same account here in the UK. So, I’m watching many films and television shows. All that really allows me to decompress and relax, as it’s something where I can be totally quiet, totally still and just enjoy my movies that I love so much. After that, if I’m still looking for something to do, I like… – well, it’s a hobby right now but I would like to be a little more serious about it – so, it’s actually writing, it’s writing screenplays for film and television. I can’t say that I have dedicated myself to that quite yet but it’s something that I’m very interested in.
MMB: That’s really interesting to hear, particularly, for me because I am a writer. Besides this, I write novels so I think it’s perhaps unusual hearing from an opera singer that he likes writing and especially that it relaxes you.
AS: Well, yes and the fact is that I really can’t help it! I’m sure this happens to you too: Where there’s a story to tell, there’s something to say and it’ll just distract me, you know? It will bother me until I finally sit down and do it.
MMB: I can definitely relate to that too. Going back to your love of films, just out of curiosity, have you ever thought about starring in a movie yourself? I hope you don’t mind me saying so but you certainly have the looks for it.
AS: [He laughs] Oh! Thank you! I never really thought about being an actor but then I didn’t think about being an opera singer either. I will say that there have been – probably because of The Audition – yes, there have been a few steps into an acting experience but again, nothing has come out of it yet but I certainly wouldn’t be opposed as it sounds like fun and that’s the thing for me: As long as I enjoy it, I’ll try it. I’ll do anything.
MMB: I have read a few times about your “Cinderella” story…
AS: Oh! Yeah! [He smiles]
MMB: And as you’ve just guessed, I am talking about the fact that you fell in love with the singer playing the princess while performing the Prince Charming in Rossini’s La Cenerentola.
AS: That’s right [he nods with a warm smile].
MMB: Which is a really lovely story but what I want to ask you is more about work-life balance. So, how do you and your wife manage a balanced family life with a career as opera singers? You both travel and so what do you think are the biggest challenges that you both face in order to have a healthy family life as well?
AS: There are many challenges. An opera career takes a lot of time and when we’re both doing it there’s even less time left. We’re lucky in a way that right now, we don’t have children and so we’re free to move around as much as we do, which is constantly. We don’t have a flat, we don’t have a home because twelve months out of the year at least one of us is working somewhere and if the other one is not working then we just go to wherever she is or she comes to wherever I am and sort of keep house while the other person is working, you know? So, that way we can make it work not having a home but if we had children and they were the age that they needed to go to school, then, it would be a different matter. I wouldn’t want to bring them all over the planet, not let them make friends or not let them grow up normally. So, until we have children this arrangement works, we figured it out We see each other a lot, almost as much as a normal couple would see each other but from time to time, it would be nice to have our own place to go to; just to relax at home. That’s sort of a fantasy at the moment, I mean, to have a house.
MMB: On your twitter profile you state that you are: “Writer, Crime Fighter and Opera Singer”. We know about the opera singer and you’ve just talked a little about the writer, can you please elaborate a little on the crime fighter and perhaps a bit more on the writer too?
AS: Okay [he laughs]. Well, the writer…you asked me earlier if there was any other career that I would be interested in and writing is it. Although it was something that I didn’t want to pursue professionally in my high school, in my earlier years but I’ve always liked inventing stories and writing them, writing poetry even and writing my rock and roll songs and things like that but now that I’m grown is film and television writing but like I said for now, it’s merely a hobby but might be fun in the future. Who can say? As to the crime fighting [he laughs again good-humouredly], I guess the most specific incidents happened when I was living in San Francisco. At night, I would often hear, unfortunately more often than I would have liked, a car window being broken out on the street. I could hear it from my apartment and I would look outside and see the burglar stealing things from the car and then running away. I saw that so many times that I got really angry and so eventually, I started to yell from my window: ”I’ll call the police” or “I can see you; I’m taking your photo”. So just to try and scare them. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. My wife, who was living there too, would get so upset with me and tell me: “Now the criminal knows where we live, you’re putting us in danger”. So, I began refraining from doing that but in my mind, what I would like to do was sort of police my neighbourhood and keep everybody’s car windows safe. I felt a responsibility to them. I didn’t necessarily want to be a vigilante but I have this desire to keep people safe, better and if I can help I want to help. I never left my apartment to go down. I tried to a few times but my wife stopped me from actually going downstairs to confront the criminal but, in my heart, I would have gone, I would have gone immediately.
MMB: Your wife was probably right!
AS: Yes, she was probably right [he says in a tone of a person who does not actually agree with what he has just said] but it’s just some poor person’s car and they thought it was safe…Anyway, it just happened so often that I couldn’t…I couldn’t take it anymore. Luckily, we moved!
MMB: Finally, as a young, emerging tenor, do you have a role model? Is there anybody you look up to (past or present)? And do you have a favourite opera or composer?
AS: I honestly have to confess that I do not have a role model in just one person. I find something that I can learn from or something that I can aspire to be like in almost everyone, I mean, there’s always something in a person, all the time. So, inevitably, there are too many people to name whom I admire. I will confess that Rossini is my favourite composer. I find his music thrilling. As a composer, even though perhaps he is not as…[he pauses] I don’t know what word to use! He’s not…hum…I can’t say artistic but when he wrote music, he was writing music to entertain, he needed to sell tickets to his operas and he wanted the audience to have fun and enjoy themselves, which is what I think opera performance should really be about. There are times when, as an audience member, you are seeking something more personal or more touching, introverted in a way but for me, his music is all about the enjoyment and the spectacle and the fun. At this point in my life, that’s what I want.
MMB: Just related to that, one more thing. A couple of years ago, I interviewed your compatriot, Joyce DiDonato, and one thing that she said was that Handel and Rossini made her a better singer. Would you agree with that?
AS: Oh! Sure,I would agree with that. I was very fortunate to find my coloratura naturally. In fact it wasn’t something that I sought out, that I really had to learn how to do, which I understand can be frustrating for somebody who needs to put a lot of effort to do coloratura. But apart from the coloratura, in Rossini you really have that stretch, that bel canto stretch, that legato and all that, I mean all that excellent training, which you get just from learning roles. So, I absolutely agree with that and while I haven’t done a lot of Handel, I’ve only done Messiah and Alcina, it is similar but lower but it is very similar in technique. So, again I do agree with that.
MMB: Okay, so we’re done. Thank you so much Mr Shrader for your time and this opportunity. It was a real pleasure to meet you.
AS: Thank you.