AN INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD MARGISON
Richard Margison is a cousin of Dr. Geoffrey Newman. While they both grew up in the same musical environment (the latter’s mother was an opera singer; Richard’s mother, a piano teacher) and were exposed to opera from an early age, most of their past discussions have been understandably about family, travel and related matters. This is their first serious, and long-overdue, discussion of opera as professionals. Richard Margison grew up in Victoria and made his debut with the Vancouver Opera Company in 1985 in Eugene Onegin. His initial appearance with the Canadian Opera Company was 1989 in Mozart’s Clemenzo di Tito. In 1995, he debuted at the Met in Madama Butterfly directed by Placido Domingo. Since then he has appeared at all the major opera houses in the world; his full repertoire is now 104 operas. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 2001. Richard Margison assumes the role of Pollione in the VOA’s 2009-10 production of Bellini’s Norma.
1. YOU HAVE SPENT MOST OF YOUR CAREER SINGING LARGER ROLES IN PUCCINI AND VERDI. DOES THE TRANSITION TO THE ‘BEL CANTO’ STYLE OF BELLINI’S NORMA POSE ANY NEW CHALLENGES?
I don’t think Verdi and Bellini are that far apart in their vocal writings. Obviously, Bellini requires more attention to ‘bel canto’ style, but both composers write these long beautiful lines and always know when a singer has to go down. To me, Puccini is more up and down, and it’s more difficult to sustain that really long line. In Bellini, the coloratura is refreshing, and it is great to return to it. It is great for the voice. It really gives the opportunity to pare down the voice a bit and rediscover a more subtle expression. I think Bellini can be intimate, and I think Norma at least partially can be treated as intimate opera. I recently did a performance of Aida in Melbourne that was scaled down incredibly (the opposite of animals on stage and the like), and it worked wonderfully well.
2. THERE HAVE BEEN FEW CONDUCTORS MORE ASSOCIATED WITH BELLINI THAN RICHARD BONYNGE. HIS RECORDED PERFORMANCES WITH HIS WIFE JOAN SUTHERLAND REMAIN THE CLASSICS OF THIS REPERTOIRE. IT MUST BE THRILLING TO WORK WITH HIM FOR THIS PRODUCTION.
Certainly to be given his instructions, views, and ideas how it should all be done is really quite wonderful. Already he has shown us so much about style, phrasing and dynamics. We call him Mr. Bellini.
3. YOU HAVE TAKEN THE ROLE OF POLLIONE IN NINE DIFFERENT PRODUCTIONS OF NORMA NOW. WHICH HAS BEEN THE MOST DISTINCTIVE SO FAR?
We did one broadcast performance in Spain in a very small space, somehow conceived as a Star Wars setting. I thought it was absolutely impossible to bring this off, but somehow it worked. The cinematography was the highlight but the music was not sacrificed in the process.
4. WHAT QUALITIES SEEM TO BE ESSENTIAL IN BRINGING OUT THIS CHARACTER?
He is sort of Pinkertonesque character: really not a nice guy. In some way, he is caricature of the traditional southern European ‘brute’, self-absorbed in his female conquests and severely lacking humanity. He tries to win over the audience at the end by jumping into the flames but, overall, there is nothing very endearing about him.
5. SINCE YOU GREW UP IN VICTORIA AND STARTED YOUR EARLY CAREER SINGING IN THE VANCOUVER OPERA CHORUS, IT MUST BE ALWAYS BE AN OCCASION FOR YOU TO RETURN TO YOUR ROOTS. DO ACTUALLY FEEL MORE PERFORMANCE PRESSURE HERE THAN WHEN YOU ARE IN NEW YORK OR EUROPE?
There is always some amount of pressure. I have had a long-standing association with the Vancouver Opera, and there are many people around who remember you from the first days. Some might think that I was a better singer before than I am now. But I was at a reception last night with so many people I’ve enjoyed before, and with them it was like having a wonderful visit with family. Yes, there is pressure, but also great support and love from these people.
6. IT MUST BE A FASCINATING EXPERIENCE TO PERFORM IN OPERA HOUSES ALL OVER THE WORLD. DO YOU FIND LARGE DIFFERENCES IN PERFORMANCE/ REHEARSAL CONDITIONS BETWEEN EUROPE AND NORTH AMERICA?
In North America, singers have to arrive with their part fully learned and memorized. In Europe, it is not clear that this is the case. For a new production, rehearsal times are often a lot longer in Europe. For example, one German opera house required seven weeks of rehearsal attendance even though my part involved only fifteen minutes of actual performance time. But they are at the other extreme for existing productions. Here your rehearsal time is so short that you only hope that you recognize the soprano and other soloists on stage. The Met can be daunting for the newcomer, but consistently gives at least a week to rehearse with the people that you are singing with. This is much better; just to be thrown into the mix does not generate a collaborative spirit.
7. WHAT ABOUT AUDIENCE RESPONSE?
In Germany, for example, there are many opera houses in which they applaud very little during the opera. They want to keep the flow of the music. I actually prefer that, as do many conductors. I have done a lot of work in Spain in the last five years. They typically applaud only at the end, but are extremely appreciative. It is interesting that for our performance of Norma, we are stopping at the end of the big arias.
8. YOU HAVE TAKEN LEADING ROLES IN OPERAS SUCH AS AIDA, TURANDOT, MADAMA BUTTERFLY, UN BALLO DE MASCHERA AND DON CARLOS MANY TIMES WITH MANY DIFFERENT CONDUCTORS. HOW MUCH DOES THE CONDUCTOR SHAPE YOUR INTERPRETATION EACH TIME?
In many cases, it can be a pedestrian going-through-the-motions type of thing, where you don’t get any inspiration from the conductor at all. Luckily, I have worked with conductors who have brought things from music that you’ve never heard before. Tony Pappano is tremendous in this way. Ricardo Chailly is also a wonderful experience. To hear new things brought out of the orchestral texture makes you think anew, and is an inspirational experience for all on stage.
9. WHAT CONDUCTORS THAT YOU HAVE SUNG UNDER SEEM TO BRING THE MOST OUT OF THE SOLOISTS?
I did an Elektra with Lorin Maazel last December in a concert performance, and I recently did Das Lied von Der Erde with the London symphony orchestra under Bernard Haitink. Both conductors are amazing because of their control over complex scores. However, I think Carlo Maria Guilini was the greatest conductor that I have ever worked with. I will never forget his hands and the way he created magic from them. What he drew out of singers was amazing; he inspires everyone to be better than their best. Of more modern conductors, I really enjoy Marco Armiliato (so much into the music, and so aware of what you need) and Nello Santi (a big bear of a man with a phenomenal memory of the score from beginning to end).
10. YOU WERE RECENTLY PROMINENT IN THE WORLD PREMIERE OF LORIN MAAZEL’S OPERA 1984 AT LA SCALA IN MILAN. THAT MUST HAVE BEEN QUITE AN OVERWHELMING EXPERIENCE FOR YOU, WORKING WITH A COMPOSER WHO IS ALSO A GREAT CONDUCTOR.
Yes, the work is a phenomenal marriage of music and theater. To experience it live, with its technical and visual effects, is mind-boggling. Before the performance, we were wondering how the locals would take to this. Nine performances later, standing ovations each night, and a DVD transcription that was the best selling in Italy for three months, proved that Maazel has written something exciting. I think it will stand the test of time. It is a long and brutal piece (a libretto of 396 pages) and it is very difficult for soloists to sing over the orchestra. When I got the score, I just sat at the piano, and using my grade six piano skills, went note by note. This was difficult for a Puccini singer inexperienced in twelve-tone music. Maazel is a demanding conductor who appreciates both musicality and theater. But he is very kind man too. One time in performance, I could not pick up the note that I was supposed to be singing; the conductor told me that it was played on the triangle, which I could not really pick out. Maazel then had the note played on the trumpet for easier recognition. We rehearsed for three weeks, and after nine performances, I think we just about got it right.
11. WORKS LIKE MAAZEL’S 1984 OBVIOUSLY TAKE INCREDIBLE PREPARATION, BUT HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE YOU TO PREPARE FOR A STANDARD PUCCINI OR VERDI OPERA THAT YOU HAVE DONE COUNTLESS TIMES? IS THERE OVER-FAMILIARITY?
It’s amazing. Operas such as Aida just come right back, even if I haven’t performed them for a while. It’s frightening in a way how you just know them. What is difficult is memorizing one piece while you are doing another. Right now, I am preparing another new production while performing Norma; the problem is that passages from Norma suddenly appear out of nowhere while I am reading the new score. I do think I keep familiar scores fresh by not over-analyzing them before the next performance. I am a great believer in the adage that ‘over-analysis leads to paralysis’.
12. IT IS FUNNY THAT SOMEHOW OUR FAMILY INHERITED MANY OF YOUR VINYL LP’S FROM THE EARLY DAYS. GOING THROUGH THEM, I WAS ASTONISHED TO FIND SO MANY RECORDINGS OF JUSSI BJORLING. WAS HE YOUR PRIME INSPIRATION?
Yes, for sure. To this day, I find that there is something riveting about the quality about his voice – that plaintive, soulful sound.
13. AS A ‘MATURE’ ARTIST NOW, YOU CAN SEE MANY YOUNG TENORS ARRIVE ON THE SCENE AND ATTEMPT TO MANAGE THEIR CAREERS JUST LIKE YOU DID BEFORE. IS THERE ANYTHING DIFFERENT NOW IN THE WAY TENORS DEVELOP THEIR VOICE AND REPERTOIRE AS COMPARED WITH YOUR OWN EARLY EXPERIENCES OR, FOR THAT MATTER, THE CLASSIC POST WAR ERA OF GREAT ITALIAN SINGERS?
There are a lot of younger tenors who are possibly seduced into major roles by their glamour, and are now facing crisis in their careers. I am certain that they try to move into big roles too fast. This is the one problem of the art form today: everyone wants a visual with young attractive singers in the big roles but this does not square with how long it takes to build up the infrastructure to perform these roles. For a spinto tenor you come into your prime at 40 or 45, not 25. Yet audiences seem to demand that young singers make this error. I think the voice is like a great red wine; it has to spend years in the cask before it actually matures. Opera, as an art form, is about voice, and not about stunningly beautiful young people with ultimately short vocal careers.
14. IN YOUR EXPERIENCE, WHO WOULD YOU SUGGEST IS THE BEST MODEL OF VOICE DEVELOPMENT AND CAREER MANAGEMENT?
The perfect role model is Placido Domingo. In terms of the career, he’s been incredibly clever at giving his voice longevity. Starting in the lighter things, then moving into Verdi and Puccini, and eventually to Wagner while still maintaining the large Italian works. That to me is the most brilliant way to go. It is difficult to start in Wagner (Domingo did try it early and immediately dropped it) and then come back because it is a completely different world.
15. ONE PREVALENT FACT OF MODERN DAY DEVELOPMENT IS THAT THE EMERGING MARKETS NOW DEMAND OPERA AND PROVIDE TREMENDOUS SINGING TALENT. EASTERN EUROPEAN SINGERS OF COURSE HAVE MOVED DRAMATICALLY INTO THE SPOTLIGHT IN THE PAST DECADE. BUT WHAT ABOUT ASIA AT THIS POINT? SUMI JO IS OF COURSE A KOREAN ARTIST WHO HAS ESTABLISHED WORLD RECOGNITION ALREADY.
I am absolutely amazed with the number of singers coming out of Asia, and there must be a lot of phenomenal teachers behind them. The transformation of the East is something that I am grateful that I could witness in my lifetime. I can hardly believe that I am going to Shanghai next May to perform Turandot with Lorin Maazel. To show the extent of the cultural transformation, many members of the directing staff at the Met are already learning Chinese to further their Asian opportunities in the future.
© Geoffrey Newman 2009