Rafael de Acha in Conversation with Singer/Director Kenneth Shaw

United StatesUnited States Rafael de Acha in Conversation with Singer/Director Kenneth Shaw

Bass-baritone Kenneth Shaw made something memorable of the gossipy Marquis d’Obigny in Verdi’s “La Traviata” with the Cincinnati Opera just a couple of summers ago. Over the past and current seasons, he sang a superb King Phillip in a concert version of the French-language edition of Verdi’s Don Carlo, a beautifully sung Méphistophélès in Berlioz’s “La Damnation de Faust,” and a perfect rendition of the Dutchman’s “Die Frist ist um” in an all-Wagner concert with the CCM Philharmonia.

Shaw’s illustrious career has encompassed appearances in opera in companies all over the United States, plus Glimmerglass, Wolftrap, Artpark, and Chautauqua opera festivals. Since 1999 he has been on the faculty of the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music, where he is a Professor of Voice. As if he were not busy enough, he also heads the Undergraduate Opera Series, Opera d’Arte, a valiant group of young people with fresh voices and keen ambitions for an opera career. Among their more successful productions was “The Cunning Little Vixen,” Janáček’s enchanting tale about men and fauna in uneasy coexistence, lovingly staged by Shaw with no lack of inventiveness and on a shoestring budget.

Rafael de Acha spoke to Shaw—by telephone and email recently—on the subject of Opera’ Arte’s upcoming production of Ravel’s “L’enfant et les sortileges” and on Shaw’s increased activities as a stage director.

Rafael de Acha: Ken, you recently staged a superb production of Britten’s Owen Wingrave, which I liked immensely for many things, among them your subtle direction of the singing actors. In today’s world of concept-driven opera directors, it is fresh to see directorial work such as yours that focuses not on the director’s ego but on the singers. Is your way of directing a result of your years of experience as an opera singer?

Kenneth Shaw: Honestly, I couldn’t do anything else! I feel the music and the words are inextricably tied together in our art form, so unless singers are comfortable in their own skins—feeling they can tap into their own bodies, hearts and minds to find the character I’m hoping they’ll discover—I feel “the play is ruined.” I’ve had enough experiences with directors who have attempted to wedge me into a rigid concept without first understanding me as an artist and what I can bring to the table to perhaps enhance or improve upon that concept. One of the many joys I find in directing is discovering what my artists can do to help me tell the story more vividly.

RDA: Do you see yourself at this point in your very varied three-decade-long career at a turning point, with more directing work in the future and, if so, will you be combining it with singing work in and out of CCM?

KS: I would not describe this particular juncture in my life a turning point.  Years ago, when I began transitioning from full time singer into teaching the art of singing, the adjustment was much more jarring—even frustrating and disappointing at times.  Today, I am quite happily a teacher first, a singer second, and now I’ve simply discovered that directing is a beautifully fulfilling combination of both for me. 

RDA: The French writer Colette provided the libretto for Ravel’s lyric fantasy about a little boy whose destructiveness leads to serious results when animals and inanimate objects set out to teach him a lesson or two. Is this blurring of reality and fantasy not a theme that reoccurs in opera quite frequently? I’m thinking about Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen to name but two. Even Britten’s Owen Wingrave deals with the natural and the supernatural tragically overlapping. In your opinion, can contemporary opera audiences embrace such themes as relevant to their lives in 21st century America?

KS: Absolutely!  The dramatic device of employing the supernatural is still probably an easier pill to swallow for audiences, no matter how sophisticated, because it puts us at some distance from the discomfort of reality.  So, we see it used frequently, and I think for solid reasons.

Not to be too very philosophical, I think this opera (if we’re open to the idea) could show us that we, like our Child (L’enfant), can tend to ditch our responsibilities and daily duties in favor of more selfish pursuits.  In doing so, we can more easily separate ourselves from reality, making room for us to betray, defy, traumatize and destroy. 

But, I am one who thinks that something—God, another person, an event—attempts to offer us another path.  In the opera, L’enfant is shown that path when the very objects and animals he has abused awake to describe in detail the trauma they’ve endured. Like the Child, we may find the path mysterious, even frightening. But the gift is given, and if we accept it, we are somehow brought to our senses and are healed.

RDA: You are immensely busy with lessons, auditions and rehearsals, so I’m going to let you go, wishing you a Happy Valentine to you and your Operatic Muse. Thanks for your time and lots of luck for your Ravel next week!

KS: Thank you, Rafael.  I would like to add two things you may not be aware of.  First, this production represents the initial collaboration between CCM and the University’s School of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning School (DAAP). The design expertise at DAAP seemed to be a perfect fit for us, and we are in discussions on how we might see this develop, perhaps as a class, seminar or something broader. Secondly, I am delighted to welcome as Co-producer of Opera D’arte, our outstanding new soprano faculty member, Amy Johnson. She is now teaching the performance development classes related to Opera D’arte, and working in tandem with me on every aspect of what we do.

Rafael de Acha