This is the second part of an interview with baritone Lucas Meachem, conducted at the “ranch” of the Santa Fe Opera, during the 2009 Santa Fe Opera Summer Festival. Part I can be accessed at: Rising Stars: An Interview with Lucas Meachem, Part I.
Wm: Last year, you were in Santa Fe for the new production of Britten’s “Billy Budd”? What was it like working with Paul Curran the production designer-director and that cast?
LM: It was a truly great experience. Curran is an awesome director. Not only did I play the role of Donald, but I covered Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Billy Budd.
The cast was amazing. I had already become friends with William Burden, from the Florida Grand Opera production of Bizet’s “Pearlfishers” the year before. I really enjoyed getting to know Rhodes and working with Peter Rose, the Claggart. Rose and his partner Flo have become very close friends, and have been guests in my home.
[Below: Billy Budd (Teddy Tahu Rhodes, center) with his shipmates, including Donald (Lucas Meachem, next to Rhodes, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Even though I only covered the role in Santa Fe, the part of Billy Budd fits me perfectly. I am scheduled to do it in April 2010 at the Opera National de Paris.
Wm: “Pearlfishers” has become one of those operas for which the stage directors and costume departments seem to favor those Nadirs and Zurgas who spend a lot of time in the gym. Do you find that people casting this opera now have expectations favoring men with winsome physiques, such as Nathan Gunn?
[Below: Nadir (William Burden, left) and Zurga (Lucas Meachem) sing their famous duet with sets and costumes designed by Zandra Rhodes; edited image, based on a Deborah Gray Mitchell photograph for the Florida Grand Opera.]
LM: Zurga is a wonderful role musically, and one that I plan to keep in my repertory.
I have great admiration for Nathan Gunn, and his musicianship. We are good friends. I look forward to later this Fall, when he and I will be sharing the role of Figaro in Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” at Los Angeles Opera.
I do realize that with his attention to his physical appearance, Gunn has raised the bar for those who follow after him. I happen to have a build that is good for opera, and can wear the costumes designed for artists in good physical shape. I use gyms everywhere I go. I bought a bicycle for London, and have one with me in Santa Fe. I am very careful with what I eat, and avoid “fast food”.
Wm: You returned to San Francisco Opera in 2008 in the roles of Franz, Fritz and Pierrot in Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt”. What was it like to be in a revival of Willi Decker’s production, conducted by Donald Runnicles?
LM: I found the production to be very cool. Working with Meisje Hummel, who staged the San Francisco mounting of the opera on Decker’s behalf was an intense, but exhilirating, experience. The scene with the acting troop was very difficult. Every gesture was choreographed. We would do five seconds of the music and stop. It must have taken us six days to stage twelve minutes of music.
[Below: the dancing troupe in the dream sequence in “Die Tote Stadt”, with Lucas Meachem as Fritz (tallest man in white, back row); edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The “Tote Stadt” roles appeal to me. The ballade that Fritz/Pierrot sings in the Dream episodes is one of the most beautiful songs ever written.
I did have one frustration – being dressed as Franz when I took the final curtain calls, because much of the audience do not associate Franz, who appears in the “reality sequence” with Fritz, dressed in white during the dream sequences, who sings Pierrot’s ballad. But I found that on the nights in which I took my bow holding the Pierrot hat, all of the audience would realize I sang both parts and would respond with enthusiastic, rather than just polite, applause. (For the performance review, see: A Seductive Dream: Runnicles’ “Tote Stadt” at S. F. Opera – October 12, 2008.)
Wm: Last year you were one of the “supporting cast” members and the cover for the lead in a new Paul Curran production. This year you are the lead in a revival of a production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” that was done here for Mariusz Kwiecien in 2004. Yet, revivals seem not to get quite as much attention from the media as new productions, even if the casts are very different.
LM: I have become conscious of the fact that a lot of reviewers skip revivals, even though the revival may be quite unlike the previous production. After all, the only name that appears in both the 2004 and 2009 Santa Fe “Don Giovanni” productions is the director.
This year people are coming to see the “three divas” (Natalie Dessay, Christine Brewer and Patricia Racette), each of whom is singing a new role in a new production. With constrained travel budgets for much of the print media, the three operas in which these sopranos star are getting more media attention.
I also am aware that some of the reviewers who do come feel the need to compare my performance with other Don Giovannis of the past and present – say, of Cesare Siepi, or Mariusz Kwiecien. If a person likes my ideas (or not), I should be judged on my performance, rather than whether or not I performed the role in the way that some other artist did.
Wm: I have seen both Siepi and Kwiecien perform Don Giovanni, but I promise not to try to compare you with any other artist.
In some parts of Europe, a company’s resources seem so concentrated in the new productions, that the revivals are given short shrift. For example, production photographs are only taken of the new productions.
LM: Yes, that is a problem in Europe, especially in the amount of rehearsal time allocated to new productions as opposed to revivals. Lavish rehearsal time is spent on the new production, but there may be very little time allocated for the revivals.
The latter also have more frequent cast changes, sometimes a role changing for a single performance or two, with only a brief run-through of the stage business. It can be very frustrating to be in one of these revival casts. In North America, revivals do get more attention.
Wm: The great basso Ferruccio Furlanetto has said that Don Giovanni (like Mozart’s Figaro) is a young man’s role. At 31, you fit his description. In addition, your colleagues in the cast are also young.
LM: I am very excited about people coming to Santa Fe and checking out this production. Every Mozart role I try to strip bare to find what I need to do to make the character’s behavior understandable. Any Mozart role for me, be it the Count in “Nozze di Figaro” or Guglielmo in “Cosi fan Tutte” or Papageno in “Zauberfloete” is already a work in progress.
But one needs to make a special effort with any character that people do not like. You need to bring some sort of humanity to him. I think a lot of what I bring to the role is new. To me, the Don is not just a dark broody character. I understand why he made the decisions he did.
There is a soliloquy in the second act, when Leporello says, why don’t you settle down and love one woman? The Don’s reply, I believe, is the key to the opera. The Don says to Leporello – you know that this idea of limiting myself to one woman is a big problem for me. Since I know how to make a woman feel special, and she and I have a wonderful experience with one another, then were I to limit my attentions for all time to one woman, it would deprive all the others of the chance to share this experience.
[Below: Don Giovanni (Lucas Meachem) invites Zerlina (Kate Lindsey) to experience his attention to her needs; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photoraph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
He knows that the rest of the world considers his attentions to many women to be a problem, but he believes he is right, and that those who want to curtail his amours are wrong.
Wm: Your thoughts on the Don’s motivations were outlined in my review published earlier this month. It wouldn’t surprise me if you didn’t have some lingering glances from women as you passed by. (See: The Man Who Loved Women: Lucas Meachem’s Empathetic Don Giovanni – Santa Fe, July 31, 2009.)
Your take on the character is quite a paradigm shift for thinking about Don Giovanni. It may also explain his reluctance to repent at the end, even to save himself. One could imagine a religious community, say in the distant historical past, that would not wish its women to experience the enlightenment that such a Don would bring, and would want to consign his behavior to their version of Hell. Looking at it this way, the Don absolutely could not repent, because he knows that the social mores and the criteria for damnation for hell are wrong, rather than his behavior.
I take it, you are quite satisfied with the 2009 Santa Fe “Don Giovanni”.
LM: I really do believe that this is one of the strongest “Don Giovanni” casts that could be assembled anywhere. And, they are really cool to hang out with.
Wm: In Mozart’s “Nozze di Figaro”, the great role of Count Almaviva is sung by baritones, but there is not a comparable baritone role in “Don Giovanni”. Is this a reason why bassos and baritones fight over who is to sing the Don?
LM: When I am singing the high tessitura of Don Giovanni’s mock serenade to Donna Elvira, that causes discomfort to so many bassos, I know the role is right for me.
Wm: What do you think of the Santa Fe Opera experience, spending an entire summer at this high altitude, in close proximity to so many artists?
LM: It’s different from every other operatic experience in good and bad ways. It’s very laid back. The families sit by the pool during rehearsals. But with so much scheduled outdoors, it can create its own kind of stress. We have had people pass out in the heat.
It’s good and bad for Santa Fe Opera’s apprentice singers, although mostly good. There are more things that you have to do here, and they perform in events throughout the city.
It leans much more towards being a wonderful experience for both artists and opera-goers. But the laid back atmosphere has its risks. One has to walk the line between doing the work necessary to maintaining one’s professional standards and having too much fun at the parties.
Wm: You aren’t scheduled to return to Santa Fe Opera next season. Are you planning to return here after that?
LM: Next season, I will be at the Glyndebourne, England Summer Festival. But I am in discussions about returning here in the future.
Wm: What singers do you admire?
LM: Bryn Terfel has been a person I have respected for a very long time. I have been an admirer of the baritones whom I think have built intelligent careers – Marius Kwiecien, Thomas Hampson, Sir Thomas Allen, Bo Skovhus, Carlos Alvarez, Rod Gilfry. Of the tenors, I especially am impressed by Piotr Beczala and by Anja Harteros among the sopranos.
Wm: How do you see your career developing from this point?
LM: I plan to continue to work to perform the Mozart roles, the lighter Italian baritone roles, such as Figaro in Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” and those of the 18th and 19th century French repertory. I want to prepare Pelleas in Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande”. I will look for a natural progression of roles after that.
Wm: Don’t turn down an offer for you to do the mellifluous role of Lionel in Tchaikovsky’s “Maid of Orleans”.
LM: I had not considered that role, but would look at it.
However, I regard an opera career as a marathon, and will pursue only those roles for which my voice is ready. Too many singers take on roles that push their vocal resources too early, often with regrettable results. The 22 year old who takes on bombastic Verdi and Wagner roles, instead of waiting until they are 40 to try them out, may be heading for a short career.
Wm: You seem to get along very well with your colleagues.
LM: One of the lessons from what I had experienced so far in the performing arts, I was ready to put into practice. I discovered that when you worked with famous people, if you treat them like humans, they treat you with respect also. Just because a person is a good singer, it does not mean that the person does not also have a real life outside of the opera stage. You are a guy who has a job. Your job is up there on the stage.
Whether I was singing a part, or was only there to cover another singer, I made sure that I was fully a part of that opera’s cast camaraderie. It is amazing how some artists who are “covering” a principal singer fade into the corner. But that’s not me.