During the 2015 season, the blog will feature interviews with our Filene Young Artists. Today we hear from tenor Robert Watson, Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, and Bégearss in our July production of 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?
My introduction to opera was very roundabout. I always loved to sing as a kid. I was loud and liked attention, so it should have been obvious right then. My mom encouraged my love of music by getting me a trumpet, but I didn’t really like it. I’d say two events sent me down the path of opera.
The first would be breaking my leg on the football field my freshman year of high school. I was bored with nothing to do but sit on the sidelines and watch my friends play ball so I decided on a lark to audition for Les Miserables at my high school. I got in, I had a voice and had already been doing a little solo singing, but the grand scale of that show really made me love the stage. It was just so epic, I loved that it was all sung as well as each character’s ‘theme’ as I called it then having no idea what a leidmotif was at the time. I quit the football team the next year and dived right into the musical theater.
I ended up going to college for Musical Theatre at a very fine program at Oklahoma City University (Kelli O’Hara and Kristin Chenoweth’s alma mater among many other fine Broadway actors). At this point opera had already been calling to me. I was ‘the singer’ in high school of the ‘musical theatre guys’ and had two voice teachers who were former opera singers, and they had taught me to sing operatically in order to do musical theater with more ease. At OCU as a Musical Theater major you had to audition for both musical theater and the operas and vice versa. I got a part in the first opera I auditioned for (Signor Deluso) and upon some convincing I changed my major to Vocal Performance, but it wasn’t then that I had decided that I really loved opera.
I found my love for opera in a performance of Turandot that spring. My parents got me tickets to Barber of Seville and Turandot back in Kansas City during my spring break to try and help support my new career choice. Now I liked Puccini at the time, he was my favorite of these strange composers I was learning about, but I had yet to hear “Nessun Dorma” and I can’t tell you how happy I was that I didn’t, because the way Puccini leads the opera into that aria through Act II into act III is nothing short of masterful. You know that tune by the time the aria rolls around, but you don’t know just how amazing it really is, how upon the first hearing of it time suspends for a moment, the entire audience holds it’s breath and you don’t know exactly why but you do too. And then the high B natural resolves at the end of the aria and time starts again. It’s a moment I will always remember as the moment I knew that I wanted to be an operatic tenor and I’d never be content with my life until I was.
If you hadn’t chosen this career, what would you have pursued instead?
I don’t know if I would have chosen this at the time I chose opera, but if I quit today and could do anything else I would want to produce public radio. It’s often a fantastic way to tell a story. Shows like This American Life and the super popular Serial do this so well. You get to present to an audience a story in an audio manner, its so like what I do except your palate of sounds and colors to use are so far reaching. It’s almost like composition, creating soundscapes to tell a story. I just love it. I also love useless factoids and Public Radio shows are rife with those!
What non-operatic music do you enjoy? Do you dabble in performing/playing/singing any other genres?
I really like indie music. I’m going to use that broad label for it though many purists like my brother would be mortified for grouping so many musicians under one label like that, granted that’s the kind of music my brother makes so I understand his position. I should mentation that both of our parents are tone deaf so they’re still trying to figure out from where our musical proclivity came. I’m a huge fan of a band The Mountain Goats. John Darnielle the lead singer and writer is an extreamly talented lyricist. The songs can get pretty bleak and honestly dark so if you know the ground don’t think I’m into that sort of stuff. It’s rather that he writes about bleak and dark things and situations but always with this defiyant air to him and often with a message that there is hope at the end of it all. It actually is beautiful and uplifting stuff. Other groups I really enjoy are Mount Eerie, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billie and Sun Kil Moon to name a few off the top of my head. I used to write piano adaptations of Mountain Goats songs and go perform them at an open mic in a little café that served beer in the evenings in San Francisco. Every Wednesday they’d have this little open mic night and I’d bang out my little adaptations on their keyboard and I’d sing my heart out. The songs were usually really heart wrenching stuff and that made it all the better. No one was looking for me to be an opera singer minding all of my vocal Ps and Qs, I got to sing from my very soul. I loved it.
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?
I certainly hope I don’t identify with either one of these guys! Certainly not Bégearss – but that’s not to say I don’t like playing off the wall characters. I love to become people totally different from myself and that’s one of the most enticing things about Bégearss. It’s one of those gonzo roles where you just get to go wild like playing the Joker or some psychopath. I love getting to push my limits and go as far as I can and think ‘no I can go even further’. I’ve been posturing and giving line readings all day in my apartment, my neighbors must think I’m crazy. With a role like this I like to draw on sources of inspiration but you cannot emulate. I am excited to see how the role further takes shape as the rehearsal process starts.
As for Pinkerton, well that’s a real challenge. As Pinkerton you really can’t know how much of an ass you are being, you have to think you’re the coolest guy around because that’s what young arrogant men think about themselves. I feel like in all actuality Pinkerton is a mamma’s boy and just such a kid. The moment Butterfly enters all of his brash cocky attitude melts away, that first exchange is magical so open and honest as if he doesn’t even know what to say in the wake of all of her beauty that is really made audible to us in that divine opening aria. When Pinkerton returns he really needs to be more of a man. He’s come back to try and face what he’s done and do what he feels is the right thing, a man does that not a boy. That’s not to say he’s a strong man, he in fact isn’t as he can’t face her and leaves his wife to do so. In the end he is a very weak man and he hides it under his bravado. I feel like in the space between acts I and II as soon as he finds out that she is pregnant he leaves, like a “I’m going out for a pack of smokes” sort of thing This really is a role with so many more facets that people think. It’s going to be a very interesting summer.
What’s your dream role and why?
My ‘dream’ roles change often. When I was younger it was Otello as all of that fire and passion and very loud singing really appeal to a young tenor. At one time I would have said Peter Grimes and I still do often. I have a huge love for Britten and the chance to play a character like Grimes is a real dream. Musically it’s a real toss up between Cavaradossi in Tosca and Manrico in Trovatore; both are just a rip roar of a good time to sing.
Do you have any artistic heroes? People whose careers or artistry you particularly look up to?
I should say it’s one of those very artistically mannered tenors like Peter Pears of Fritz Wunderlich and how they are so artistic and how good their Mozart is but I will always go with Franco Corelli because of his sheer vocal excellence. I have developed into much more of an artist in the last few years but deep down I’ll always be a bit of a vocal ‘jock’ as some say and it just doesn’t get better than Corelli. What people often forget with him is just how beautiful his singing was. Somehow people just want to remember his endless high notes, glass shattering tone and stunt diminuendos and call him a musical pig but listen to that legato and phrasing.
If you could travel back in time to meet any composer/artist from a former time, who would that be and why?
Britten. I’d want to coach the The Rape of Lucretia with him.
What are you most looking forward to this summer?
All of it. Last summer was one of the best experiences in my life and I can’t wait to come back!
Excellent article. My family is greatly looking forward to Friday evening. One worry (minor) I have is that my favorite opera recording is one conducted by Sir John Barbirolli with Renata Scotto and Carlo Bergonzi. I have wondered how I can approach the Wolf Trap version with an open mind. In that regard, reading Mr. Watson’s comments on Pinkerton made me want to hear his performance. Any other tips for keeping focused on the opera in front of me?
I think be respectful of different artists’ interpretations and keep an open mind. It’s so hard when we have our favorites all picked out, a few times I’ve caught myself about to write off someone who performs a work differently, but doing so turns every scene and famous aria into a stand-off instead of the chance for me to be moved in a different way. Just let it wash over you and appreciate the contrasts versus “nit-pick” them.
Thanks for your comment! And yes, I understand that challenge that comes from being well-acquainted with an iconic recording (or having seen a previous, much-beloved production.) Of course, the fear is that any new experience won’t quite measure up. But I actually think that you have an advantage over audience members who aren’t as well versed in Butterfly. Through your immersion in your favorite recording, you’ve gained an intimate understanding of the libretto, the orchestration, and Puccini’s beautiful vocal writing. If this performance (or any new performance) is approached through the lens of exploring how a different singer’s interpretation is able to illuminate different aspects of the character and the music, the experience can feel like discovering new things about an old friend.