During the 2015 season, the blog will feature interviews with our Filene Young Artists. Today, we hear from bass Timothy Bruno, Louis XVI in The Ghosts of Versailles.
Which experience(s) most influenced your decision to become a professional singer? What’s the earliest point in your life that you can identify in pointing you in this direction?
I originally went to a school named Bowling Green State University to be a music education major. I had only ever heard one opera at this point (the Sills, Burrows, and Treigle Tales of Hoffman, which is still one of my all time favorites) and had never imagined actually being an opera singer. At the time, I was studying with a fantastic teacher, David Okerlund, who was truly my role model in all things, singing and personally. He was discussing with me what a Fach was and gave me a list of people who he believed should be my vocal models, and I hurriedly ran to the library and got every recording I could find of Cesare Siepi, Samuel Ramey, and Nicolai Ghiaurov, and thought that I would be truly happy if I could make sounds anywhere near as beautiful as these gentlemen. I changed my major to performance that semester and have been striving to sing that well ever since.
Can you tell us an anecdote or story from your training or career so far that will give us insight into what makes you tick as an artist?
I would love to have license to tell two stories from my time at CCM, if you don’t mind.
1) The first production I was ever involved in at grad school was Les mamelles di Tirésias, where I was performing the very small role of A Bearded Gentleman. This was in fall 2009, which I only mention because it was at the height of the swine flu epidemic. The baritone who was playing Monsieur Presto had taken the day off due to illness and everyone was terribly nervous that he had fallen victim to swine flu and would have to be released from the production. Because of this, I was asked to be his cover after a class I had with the director of the production, which was about an hour before that evening’s rehearsal began. I ran home and as quickly as I could I shoved as much of the role in my head as possible, and ended up knowing it well enough to come to rehearsal with only an index card with a few phrases of French written on it. I then ran through the dance number with the Monsieur Lacouf and performed the entire room run with only an hour’s notice. The Presto ended up not having swine flu and joined us again in a couple of days, which was good because my French diction was atrocious, but I have never been one to shy away from an opportunity.
2) This one is a little more fun. One of the last productions I did at CCM was The Marriage of Figaro in which I performed Antonio the Gardner. I have never been very shy of physical humor and wanted the Act 2 Finale to be really over the top. I am 6’3″ and was particularly large at the time, but even with that as a factor, one of the Figaro’s was an extremely big and strong guy who was powerful enough to really throw me around on stage. In one of the bits that we did, Figaro would throw my geraniums down at his feet and stomp on them and I would jump on his back. He would spin around with me hanging off of him and would eventually bend down and stand up quickly enough for me to be thrown off his back and land on the ground.
During one performance, when he threw me off, my heel caught on the rake of the stage and I began staggering. For some reason I thought it would be funny for me to stumble backwards and then catch my balance and stand up, rather than fall right then. In doing this I found my balance impossible to catch, ended up falling backwards about eight feet, collapsed onto an end table, and shattering it into what felt like a thousand pieces. Luckily all of the action at that moment was happening at the foot of the stage so none of the other performers were thrown off by my fall. I stood up just in time to catch my next musical cue and the scene went on without a hitch. I had quite a few people come up to me over the next couple of weeks and ask me how in the world we staged such a perfect prat fall.
If you hadn’t chosen this career, what would you have pursued instead?
I have asked myself this many times; I really don’t know. In college I was between Music Education and Psychology, and to this day, one of my favorite pastimes is studying the Enneagram personality system. Perhaps I would have studied psychology, become certified in Enneagram, and been a career or relationship councilor.
What non-operatic music do you enjoy? Do you dabble in performing/playing/singing any other genres?
Actually, my first musical love was not classical, but Barbershop Quartet singing. To this day I am still astounded by how you can take four average singers and by focusing on blend rather than technique, they can make a sound like an organ with full under and overtones being audible. Plus, I have always enjoyed the schmaltzy, big band music of the 40’s and 50’s, from which most barbershop arrangements are derived.
I also try to always make a conscious effort to see musicals when I am in New York. I have a rather soft spot in my heart for the works of Sondheim, Schwartz, and for Jason Robert Brown’s latest pieces. My wife is a musical theater performer, as well, so we generally try to get tickets to a few shows a year.
What interesting things have you discovered about yourself or about your character (in this summer’s operas) during your role preparation? What aspects of your character are natural fit with your personality and/or which aspects are a stretch for you?
One of my all-time favorite character types are flamboyant buffoons who break up the dramatic action in beautiful love stories. It is a rare occurance, but Baron Ochs in Rosenkavalier, Osmin in The Abduction from the Seraglio, Louis XVI all share this archetype and I sincerely look forward to exploring this more this summer. I have always been a bit of a ham, as is Louis, but there is definitely more than that. I believe that comedy should be organic and grounded and at its core, Louis is a man who is trying to hold on to a relationship with someone he loves who is pulling away, and I can emphasize as someone who loves hard, myself.
What’s your favorite part (or parts) of the preparation/rehearsal/performance process(es)?
Wow, there is a lot to say on this topic. This is a pretty beautiful career we have chosen and there is quite a bit to love about it. Some standout moments are the first music rehearsal, where everyone gets to basically do a mini performance for each other. The Sitzprobe never ceases to amaze me, either. It is generally the first time that we all get to sing in the performance venue and the first time to hear the orchestra, which I can’t imagine ever getting old, no matter how many operas you do. There is also some amazing art happening all over the world in this field, and a great rehearsal process should be a sort of melting pot where everyone brings in their own wealth of experience and you end up creating a production that is a singularity, and would be impossible to repeat. When this happens, it is pretty extrordinary, and makes you truly appreciate what we do. However, I would say that my favorite thing in any production is when an audience truly gets what we are doing. When a not obvious joke lands or when there is silence after a beautiful or dramatic moment, there is honestly nothing like it.
What aspect(s) of this career do you find the most challenging?
I would say that the most challenging part is being on the road all the time. I am sure that this is a common answer, but it is definitely tough sometimes. Being away from loved ones or family or even pets for an extended period of time can certainly be lonely. Luckily, most people feel this way and it does not normally take long at all for opera people to become close. Whoever you are working with on that job is like your family, and that might be one of the best parts of this career.
Do you have any “hacks” that make your job easier/more enjoyable?
When I am very busy rehearsing and learning operas, as much as I desperately love the art form, I can get a little burnt out. If this is coupled with a lot of travel, which it normally does, listening to music all the time can be a little irksome. That is why I listen to podcasts constantly. At the gym or when driving, I find listening to people talk, rather than sing, really refreshing and entertaining when I need a little opera break.
I’m not sure that actually qualifies as a hack, so I am going to include another short one. When I have to learn lines of dialogue or am having a hard time memorizing text or word for word translations (I’m looking at you, German articles and prepositions!) I make audio recordings of myself just saying the text over and over again and listen to it before I fall asleep. Then, review when I wake up. It generally works like a charm.
What’s the most exciting thing you think is happening in the opera industry today? The most discouraging/challenging thing? If you could change one thing about our art form and/or industry, what would it be?
The most discouraging thing is the fact that the audience for opera is dropping. Up until 2008, I’m not sure how much of a problem this was, but America is definitely in a different place since then and a lot of companies are trying to hold on to its audience. However, call me an optimist, but I think that this has some very positive results. In the wake of companies trying to build audiences and keep its patrons, two things are happening.
First of all, opera is trying to stay relevant to its audience. One big way that this is happening is creating believable drama onstage. In my humble opinion, it seems to me that there is far more focus on performers being able to convey drama, not only through convincing acting, but casting people who look as though they could be the people they are portraying. I am sure that this makes the job of artistic administration a lot more challenging, but the result is a world of opera that is not just about beautiful singing, but one that makes its works far more relevant to its audience.
The other way that it seems companies have been dealing with a diminishing audience is to come up with new and creative ways to expose audiences to the art form. Of course when someone thinks of opera, I am sure that the first thought is a house like The Met where there are 5,000 seat houses, elaborate sets, and big stars. While I am sure that this will always be a staple of the opera world, there are some pretty fantastic advances in bringing grand operas to small spaces. Companies are taking advantage of orchestral reductions for pieces like The Ring Cycle and companies like Gotham Chamber Opera are doing opera in unconventional spaces, like museums.
Large companies are doing a great job of reaching out, as well. I currently am working with Michigan Opera Theater on their Merry Widow, and concurrently with this production, they are creating new audiences by having a traveling production of an opera that is very relevant to Detroit, Robert Rodriguez’s Frida. This is in conjunction with an exhibit at the art museum and every performance has sold out. I also know that Cincinnati Opera, where I made my professional debut, has just won a grant to convert a semi-truck into a performance venue that unfolds to be both both a stage and seating. I am astounded by how ingenious companies have been recently. The decline in audience may end up actually building a fan base that will carry the art form to the next generation.
If you were talking about opera with someone who has never experienced it, what part(s) of it would you be most excited to explain to them?
To me, what is most exciting about opera is how many amazing things are happening at the same time. It can truly run the gambit of all of the best parts of the arts. It is a symphony concert, solo recital, musical, comedy, and grand drama all in one art form. It is astonishing how much goes into it and how much there is to love.
What’s your dream role and why?
What a tough question! I could mention a dozen without breaking a sweat, but if you will indulge me, I will try to narrow it down to two. I love both the comedic and the dramatic parts of the repertoire. The one on the humorous side of opera is an easy choice for me: Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier. It is the perfect mixture of stunning Strauss music, virtuosic singing, and raucous humor; all of which is found in one of the my favorite operas ever.
On the other side of the spectrum, I find the character of Wotan to be one of the most interesting and wonderful characters in all of opera. Watching his evolution from impetuous young god in Das Rheingold to a commandeering tyrant who tries to singlehandedly change the fate of the world in Die Walküre, to Siegfried, where he travels the world and learns what it is like to actually be a part of it for the first time right before he believes it will end. I believe it is truly one of the greatest character studies in opera, and that is without even mentioning the fact that it is paired with one of the most glorious scores in all of the repertoire.
If you could travel back in time to meet any composer/artist from a former time, who would that be and why?
The answer that comes to mind is to just watch Cesare Siepi sing live and take copious notes. Being in a room during a performance of his would be a delight, as I would be able to pick up on every subtly that is missed on video and audio recording. I would pick his brain about every aspect of the art, as I have always loved his dramatic interpretations of roles almost as much as I enjoy listening to him sing them.
What are you most looking forward to this summer?
Being asked to be a part of this historic organization is really an honor. Ghosts of Versailles is one of those operas where I find more and more to love each time I listen to it and I sincerely look forward to delving deeper into this piece. I also have known quite a few
Wolf Trap alumni who say that the summers they spent there were their favorite ones, and I can’t wait to experience everything first hand.