Rising Stars: An Interview With John Relyea, Part 1

[Both parts of the following interview took place in the Green Room (now the Press Room) of the San Francisco Opera’s War Memorial Opera House, where John Relyea was performing the role of Mephistopheles in Gounod’s “Faust”.]

Wm:  You were born into a operatic family in Toronto with classically trained singing parents. Your father, Gary Relyea, was a noted Canadian bass-baritone, taught by the great Canadian baritone Louis Quilico. Obviously, you knew about opera at an early age. What was the first opera to make an impression on you?

JR: Although I had heard my father practice around the house, the first time I saw any opera, I was six years old. We had a summer home in Ottawa, and my father was performing in a summer festival there. I saw him as Marcello in Puccini’s “La Boheme”, which is so charming and so tragic, and in a production of Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” directed by John Copley, and starring Allan Monk. It was overwhelming. Copley is not only a great director but a family friend. I remember how hard I laughed at the Britten opera.

There was also a production of Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” in which my father played the part of Yeletsky, who defeats Gherman in the card game at opera’s end. That was a terrifying experience, but seeing my father onstage made a huge impression on me. I can imagine what effect that seeing me onstage has on my own young boys.

[Below: Opera Star John Relyea, winner of the 2003 Richard Tucker Award and 2009 Beverly Sills Award; edited image, based on a Dario Acosta photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Wm: Since you have children of your own, some will wonder whether there will be a Relyea operatic dynasty. Do you envision the possibility of another generation of Relyea opera singers?

JR: I don’t want to force anything to happen. The passion for music has to find its place in each individual person. But both of my sons show interest in and talent for music. My older son plays the cello. It is my younger son who is showing an interest in singing, and piano also. It could happen. He’s been learning about singing and I have been coaching him, since I was a boy soprano and sang the role of Amahl in Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” and the Ghost of the Son in Britten’s “Curlew River”. He has a wonderful sense of pitch. I am interested in where this might lead.

He has an audition for the shepherd boy in Puccini’s “Tosca”. He has told me that for operas with roles for both a bass-baritone and a boy soprano, we could travel together.

Wm: Will you both have the same agent?

JR: I suspect that we would offer my agent the right of first refusal.

Wm: In your high school years, you played in a rock band. Was there a time when you might seriously have considered a career in pop music?

JR: I was a lead guitarist in a loud rock band. We played funk and heavy metal. At one time rock was my passion. I could imagine myself going to Los Angeles and joining a rock band. I’m a pretty good guitarist. In fact, I played classical guitar for three or four years.

Wm: in retrospect, do you feel you were truly destined for opera?

JR: What affected me the most was coming to understand  how powerful it is to be the musical instrument yourself rather than you producing music through some other thing. It almost starts to change you psychologically.

As my voice began to develop, classical vocal music became more lyrical for me. I started out in the concert world, like my father, who enjoyed doing concerts and oratorios, which did not require him to be away from home for the long periods that opera often does. He always had a more even balance between concerts and opera.

For me, concerts were an easy style of singing. However, as I started to do a little more opera, it became a bigger world for me. I began to find the theatrical part of operatic performance satisfying.

Artists may be drawn to this kind of singing, because there is something cathartic about singing opera. Some opera singers are very private people, some are even socially  withdrawn, but there is something deep inside them that they express through their operatic voice. Singing opera can be very powerful for themselves and the audience.

I still enjoy concert work, but I like to go back and forth between operas and concerts. I think it is physically and psychologically healthy to mix the two ways of performing.

Wm: Please describe your vocal training prior to you being accepted into the San Francisco Opera Merola program for young artists.

JR: You learn singing the way you learn a lot of other things. You imitate someone else’s style, and I learned from my father.  My mother was also a singer. She influenced me during the time I was a boy soprano. After my voice changed, I identified with my father. We had some common ground in the years that you usually are trying to get far away from your parents.

After I did concert work in Canada, I applied to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Edward Zambara, the bel canto specialist, was my teacher at Curtis. Because he  had the same voice type and range that I did,  I could identify with whatever he might demonstrate.

In 1995 I was a Merolini in the San Francisco Opera Center. It was an amazing amount of vocal development in a short amount of time. You are your own boss  and have to look after yourself. In the Merola program you have ten weeks of intense training. You may have to learn something that you will sing a few days later. You bccome personally aware of what your potential may be.

That ten weeks was a good experience. It is tough, but it gives you an idea of what it is like out there for someone trying to make a career in opera.

Wm: You were selected as a San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow. What impact did that have on your career?

JR: The Adler fellowship gave me the chance to be in mainstage productions. It was invaluable working with so many great singers. It is an ideal situation and a lot of singers go into it to gain that kind of experience. It was perfect for me since I was the only person in the group doing the bass-baritone repertory. Lotfi Mansouri (at that time San Francisco Opera General Director) gave me a great experience in learning how to “inhabit” a role. He enjoyed helping young artists develop their acting skills.

About the same time that I started my Adler fellowship, I made contact with basso Jerome Hines.  I studied with Hines for five or six years, then he passed away not long after that.

Wm: Who is your principal teacher now?

JR: I had made my Metropolitan Opera debut. After that Armen Boyajian, who taught Paul Plishka and Samuel Ramey, accepted me as a student. By the time he became my teacher, he had gathered an extraordinary amount of skill and expertise in vocal training. Plishka, in the early 1960s, was Boyajian’s first pupil. Now every bass and bass-baritone wants to get a piece of his thinking. He makes a student go back to basics, spending months on the proper sound for every vowel and  every phrase.

When you complete the Boyajian training regimen he breaks out the champagne. It was an incredible year of learning about your voice, your capabilities and your potential. He has been my teacher ever since. You need to have someone you implicitly trust that can get you past any adversity. Boyajian is the person whom I trust.

[Below: John Relyea as Banquo in Verdi’s “Macbeth” at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; resized image, based on a Clive Barda photograph, courtesy of johnrelyea.com.]

Wm:  Your “apprenticeship years” with the San Francisco Opera were during the 18 months that the War Memorial Opera House was closed for earthquake repairs. What was it like to sing opera in San Francisco in such diverse settings as the Orpheum Theater and the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium?

JR: It was wild. The Civic Auditorium in a 7000 seat “barn”. The opera company would find ways to cordon off certain sections. But the biggest challenge is that the orchestra was above and behind us. There were big monitors while we were performing. We asked each other how it could possibly work, but it worked well, better for certain productions than for others.

The production of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” was the highlight of that time. It was a huge set, but it worked so well. “Hoffmann” took place on a giant scroll. Things just rose and fell from the scroll. I sang the role of Schlemil. Lotfi really understood that this production could work. It was directed by Christopher Alden. For him it was a very good fit.

We did Borodin’s “Prince Igor” that year. I covered a principal role. Lotfi did the big run of  Puccini’s “La Boheme” at the Orpheum. That was my debut as “an Adler”. Lotfi had  so much going on that “out of the opera house” year, but he made it work.

Wm:    Two of your breakout roles at San Francisco Opera were Colline in Puccini’s “La Boheme” and the title role in Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” (the latter with Anna Netrebko as Susanna). Both of these roles you have retained in your repertory. Do you have a special feeling for these roles. Would you describe Figaro as your “signature” role?

JR: Figaro definitely was a signature role for me, although one I will be leaving behind for a while.   In the early years of my career, much of my repertory was centered around men who are supposed to be much older than I was in age. Even in small roles I was doing as an Adler Fellow, it required a lot of physical effort trying to project a much older character than I was.

[Below: Figaro (John Relyea) prepares for his marriage to Susanna (Anna Netrebko); edited image, based on a Marty Sohl photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Figaro was so different. When I played him, I could be myself with a character my own age. When I was Figaro, I could take off  what seemed to be a physical weight of being 50 0r 60. When a young man plays a young man, as in these great Mozart parts for bass-baritones, there is the opportunity for physical spontaneity. (Wm: For my review of a Relyea Figaro, see: S. F. “Nozze di Figaro” – July 2, 2006.)

When you are doing a Mozart role in a great cast that trusts each other, it is about “heart”. If you get all of those things right, it is an incredible experience.  It is a fine way to be spontenous.

I was in just such a wonderful cast last fall at the Met.

Wm: Tell us why you regard the Met “Nozze” cast as especially memorable for you.

JR: We had a great time with each other, both onstage and off. Everyone just wanted to create something fun. You can’t always create something that’s believable on stage.

The famous English tenor Philip Langridge, who since has passed away, was in the production. He could have shown resentment for having such a  small role. He came in there like Papa to everyone, and we all developed our scenes with him. I talked with him so much.

[Below: Susanna (Danielle de Niese) and Figaro (John Relyea) discuss their roles as servants; edited image, based on a Marty Sohl photograph, courtesy of johnrelyea.com.]

The rest of the cast was also wonderful. Danielle de Niese, the Susanna, is very natural. Bo Skovhus was hilarious. It usually is not the case that an opera cast so enjoys their work with each other onstage that  they spend time together socially afterward, but that “Nozze” cast would go out together and really enjoy spending time with one another.

Wm: You won the Richard Tucker Award in 2003 and the Beverly Sills Award in 2009. How do these prestigious awards impact your career?

JR: Everybody in the field of opera notices those things. It is a validation that you’ve gained credibility as an artist.

The Tucker Award helped boost my career at the Met. Those who administer the Tucker Award are very good about whom they choose and why. You put together something as a young artist to develop a respectable reputation. These awards are a validation.  They help you.

Wm: So when, say, Stephen Costello won the Tucker award in 2009, it changed your way of thinking about him?

JR: It just confirmed that others agreed with what I already thought. He stood out at the Met in the smaller role of Arturo in a production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” with Natalie Dessay as Lucia, in which I was the Raimondo. Costello took over the lead role of Edgardo for the last performance. When you look at the talent among young American tenors, to have received the Tucker Award is a very good way for you to stand out among them.

Wm:  In the San Francisco Opera production of “Faust” you are joined by former Adler Fellows in the roles of Marguerite, Siebel and Marthe, with a former Adler fellow as stage director. Do you feel a bond with others who have been through the Adler experience?

JR: Definitely. I think there is a certain kinship. I think every opera house with a Young Aritsts program creates its own artistic persona.  Pat (Patricia Racette) and myself were both here during the Lotfi Mansouri years and have the same approach and strategy to learning operatic stagecraft.

There is a similar sensibility in how we are as artists. A lot of one’s own uniquness comes to it, but we have a sense of trust in each other. The San Francisco Opera is so much like a second home to us, that we are really relaxed in putting it all together in the rehearsals. There is a sense of what it means to have been “an Adler”. There is an unspoken understanding, (Wm: For my review of the performance, see: Racette Ravishing, Relyea Riveting in San Francisco “Faust” – June 5, 2010.)

[In the second part of the interview, John Relyea discusses the Lyric Opera’s “Damnation of Faust”, his upcoming “Don Quichotte” in Seattle, and how  he sees his repertory of roles changing over the next few years. See Rising Stars: An Interview with John Relyea Part 2.]