American Orpheus: An Interview with William Burden

The following interview was conducted within the administrative offices of the Seattle Opera, whose facilitation of this interview is deeply appreciated:

Wm: What were your earliest memories of operatic music? What led you to pursue vocal studies and an operatic career?

WB: My earliest operatic memories were from the Miami Boychoir, in Miami, Florida. We played the children’s chorus in Puccini’s “La Boheme” with the Miami Opera. The production starred Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni, and from that first experience, I developed an interest in opera when I was 11 or 12.

[Below: Tenor William Burden; resized image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Later in my college career, pursuing studies at the Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, I was inspired when the coach and accompanist, Glenn Parker, pulled me aside and said that he thought I should study with Margaret Harshaw at Indiana University.

I began studying for a Masters degree in voice performance at IU under Harshaw. We worked intensely to build a foundation of technique. In the years that I was in graduate school I did summer programs – San Francisco Opera’s Merola Young Artists Program, the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice program in 1989 and 1990 and  at Wolf Trap Young Artists’ Program. After those summer experiences, I began working regularly.

Wm: What were the circumstances that led to your operatic debut? 

WB: My serious debut was in 1992. Sarah Billinghurst (now at the Met) was then at San Francisco Opera and gave me the roles of the Count of Lerma in Verdi’s “Don Carlo” and Janek in Janacek’s “The Makropoulos Case”. My Met debut was also Janek in 1996.

What do you consider your first “major role”?

My manager and I secured the opportunity to play Rodolfo in a new production of Puccini’s “La Boheme” as my European debut at Britain’s Opera North. This was a wonderful production by Phyllida Lloyd, who created the stage and film versions of “Mamma Mia” and “The Iron Lady”.

Wm: But Rodolfo is not a role that has remained in your repertory.

WB:  It’s good to try a role, and then decide whether it suits one’s voice. Rodolfo is a role I never have sung since. However, that experience remains one of the greatest memories of my career.

Wm: As a lyric tenor, you have performed many of the Mozart, Donizetti, Gounod and Massenet roles that lyric tenors of the previous generation, such as Alfredo Kraus performed, yet you have explored a much wider repertory than Kraus and many of his contemporaries did. Do you believe that the operatic repertory is expanding, in ways that is advantageous to your style of tenor voice?

WB: I have to preface my answer, that I wish it were by design that I’ve sung such a wide repertory. The reality is, most singers take the work that is offered them, and I have been offered an incredibly wide range of repertoire. I feel very grateful that I’ve had the technical foundation to sing in a variety of styles.

American singers in general have a more diverse range of repertory, because it is part of our training. We are expected to sing Mozart, Verdi and Puccini; and both French and Italian operas. Most of the training in graduate programs in the U. S. includes a wide and varied range of languages and musical styles. As times change, both economically and in the changing tastes of the opera-going public, it behooves any singer to embrace variety, regardless of voice type.

[Below: the dying Edgardo (William Burden, right fron) sees a vision of Lucia di Lammermoor (Alexandra Kurzak, in bridal veil); edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Wm: You are currently singing a high tenor role of Orphee in the French version of Gluck’s “Orpheus”. A half century ago the only pre-Mozartean opera that was regularly performed by major opera houses was this opera in its Italian version. Now, baroque and the classical operas besides Mozart’s are often performed. Given this fact, shouldn’t the Gluck masterpiece become a regular standard of the major companies, and, if so, should it be in the French or Italian versions?

[Below: Orphee (William Burden, top) embraces Eurydice (Davinia Rodriguez); edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

WB: I think to some degree Gluck’s opera is part of the standard repertory, because there are now so many mezzos and counter-tenors who sing it. I’m partial to the French version (since there’s no role for me in the Italian). I think the story is told beautifully in French.

I would love to see this piece done in both of its incarnations. The challenges are different for mezzos and tenors and countertenors. It does sit high in the tenor voice, and  I don’t think everyone should do it.

I love the experience of revisiting this piece at Seattle Opera.  I thought I knew Orphee, but I’m blown away by Gluck’s music. It just speaks to me.  It’s been an incredible learning experience to sing in this tessitura for 90 minutes at a time.

Having some facility with the text makes a difference. What interests me the most  about Orphee is the storytelling that evolves uniquely through the singing.

Wm: How would you compare the high tessitura that Gluck’s Orphee sings to that of Ernesto in Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale”, that is also known to lie so high in the tenor voice?

WB: My teacher, Margaret Harshaw, discouraged me from singing Ernesto. “You are not a leggiero tenor”, she said. At that time in my career, I had only sung Mozart and Rossini roles. That is when I was offered Rodolfo in “Boheme”. Harshaw said “Just go do it. If you know your instrument well enough, you will know when you cannot sing a role.”

Any time that I’ve had an opportunity to stretch the boundaries of my repertory into a new area, and I know my voice is right for it, and that it will add dimensions to it, I will go for it. I’ve taken the lyric roles with high tessitura.

Wm: But you also sing the baritone role of Pelleas in Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande”.

WB: I’ve sung Pelleas quite a few times, and have strong feelings about it. I don’t think a tenor that doesn’t have a secure bottom to his voice should do it. But a tenor and baritone who have the range can bring different things to the role. Many of Pelleas’ most dramatic moments are high in his range.

Wm: You made your Seattle Opera debut as Gerald in Delibes’ “Lakme”. A question I like to ask any tenor who has sung Gerald is: What do you believe happens to Gerald at opera’s end? Does he return to his regiment? Does he marry Miss Ellen? Does he “go native” and live with Lakme’s family under the protection of Nilakantha?

[Below: William Burden as Gerald in Delibes’ “Lakme”; edited image, based on a Gary Smith photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

WB: My sense is that he returns to his regiment and to England with a hole in his heart. I believe that Lakme is one of the great opera heroines. Her choice to seal her fate with him, even when she is angry with him, but then to let him go, is a courageous one. Unlike Gilda in Verdi’s “Rigoletto”, Lakme’s choice is a mature one.

Wm: How did you feel about playing Gerald?

WB: I could never see Gerald as truly callous. I saw him as tormented and swept away by something far greater than he ever experienced before. I sang the role in performances of “Lakme” here in Seattle and in Detroit. Audiences in both cities went crazy. Yet opera companies do not seem willing to mount this opera.

Wm: In my interview with Nathan Gunn, he made reference to you and him appearing in Francesca Zambello’s famous production of Gluck’s “Iphigenie en Tauride” at the 1997 Glimmerglass Festival. He believes much of the emphasis on the male physique over the past 15 years of operatic performance derives from those Glimmerglass performances.

WB: I agree.

[Below: William Burden as Nadir in Bizet’s “The Pearlfishers” at the Opera Company of Philadelphia; edited image, based on a photograph courtesy of William Burden.]

Since then, you have been associated with Nathan Gunn many times, including both of you participating in world premieres, and will join him in Adamo’s “Mary Magdalene” at the San Francisco Opera in Summer 2013. Do you find a special rapport in working with Nathan Gunn?

WB: Absolutely. We first worked together in 1996 as Tybalt and Paris in Gounod’s “Romeo And Juliet” at the Met. We’ve been in at least ten different productions together. We’ve done Bizet’s “Pearlfishers”, Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte”, Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” and Britten’s “Rape of Lucretia.” At Seattle Opera, we both sang in the world premiere of Hagen’s “Amelia”.

It’s such a gift to be singing with your close friend. We have an incredible trust of one another onstage. There is a wonderful sense of immediacy. Anytime we’ve had to fight onstage, it’s always very safe, but it can be very high octane.

Wm: You have appeared in operas directed by particular  favorites of mine, including Jose Maria Condemi and Francesca Zambello. I was particularly impressed with your performances in operas directed by Paul Curran, such as as Captain Vere in Britten’s “Billy Budd” in Santa Fe and as Alwa in Berg’s “Wozzeck” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Are there stage directors whose ideas you find revelatory or inspirational? Are there directors with whom you particularly look forward to working?

WB: For me the greatest thing I can find is a collaborative rapport with a director. I have worked with renowned directors with whom I have had trouble. But Stephen Wadsworth, Jose Maria, Francesca, Paul – their greatest gift is to help to find the way to our best performance within the context of their production. Now we have much more intelligent audiences.  Such directors have gone a long way to create an exciting theatrical experience for those audiences.

[Below: Stage director Jose Maria Condemi, left, confers with soprano Davinia Rodriguez and tenor William Burden on the Seattle Opera production of Gluck’s “Orphee et Eurydice”; resized image of a Seattle Opera photograph.]

Staging rehearsal for Seattle Opera production of Orpheus & Eurydice.

If at the time you are working with such a stage director, you also are working with a conductor who trusts your vocal skills, then the sky’s the limit. For me, at this phase of my career, I’m so much more interested in doing something dramatically. I like to believe that I can count on having the technical vocal foundation so that I can concentrate on developing the character I am playing. I always say that the characters I play are therapy for me, that allow me to explore being someone else.

Wm: Do those directors with whom you’ve  had trouble include productions whose staging seems to work against an opera?

WB: Most singers are willing to come with a full buy-in to the production in which they are performing. I think its part of our job to be willing to explore different options. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t.

I don’t mind feeling awkward. I’m willing to go to the places that directors wish me to, as long as I don’t look ridiculous. I always tell young singers that is the only line I draw. If the staging makes me feel stupid, I have to throw down the guantlet!

Wm: You created the part of Daniel J. Hill in Theofanidis’ “Heart of a Soldier” in San Francisco in September 2011. This was a biographical work about 9/11 and the character you played is living.  In such a situation, did you consciously try to play the actual Dan Hill, or did you attempt to create a character that you felt was “right” for the opera’s music and story line?

WB: The character I played did feel right for that show. I take the piece that I’m given and play the character as he appears in that piece. I had spoken to Dan Hill just once. He sent me an unbelievable  letter that was three pages long filled with information about his remarkable life. As a performer, I have all of that letter as part of my research, or background for that role.

[Below: Dan Hill (William Burden, standing front center) listens to the call of an imam from above; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Still, I had to perform what the composer, Chris Theofanidis, had composed and what Francesca Zambello, the stage director, wanted me to do. Whether or not Dan Hill saw himself in my performance, I do not know. I’m not really sure I want to know the answer. I guess I approach almost any character in a similar way.

Wm: You will be joining Mariusz Kwiecien, Dennis Petersen and Raymond Aceto, among others, in the Santa Fe Opera’s production of Szymanowki’s “King Roger”, in Polish. In how many languages have you performed so far? What is your take on that opera?

WB: Polish will be the seventh or eighth language in which I’ve performed. To be completely honest, I think it has the potential to be a really interesting, wonderful night at the theater.

The story is complex. It’s about the intricacies of the relationships between the characters, and how each individual character responds. It has great relevance to the crises of faith that people experience.  I look forward to the opportunity to explore this opera with the incredible artists that make up the cast, and with Stephen Wadsworth directing.

Wm: Would you want be a stage director at some point in your career?

WB: I love and value being directed. I’m not sure that were I to direct an opera, I would have  the set of eyes that could decide who should be where onstage. I think that if I were to see myself in any other way than as an opera performer, I would want to be an advocate for this art form. It’s something we so badly need.

I think it is not too much to ask every state in the Union to support the arts. Princeton, New Jersey is our home. For a state as big as New Jersey is, we struggle to keep  an opera company alive. In my opinion, it does not reflect well on the current state of affairs in our society.

Wm: These days one can experience operas in such media as DVD, YouTube and movie theaters, but none of these really replaces live performances. And yet, the quality of singing live performances of opera, in my experience, has never been greater.

WB: The short answer is, nothing will every replace live performance. But technological advances now offer live versions through social media.This is terrific if the goal is to build audiences in the theater. Using all the advances we have at out disposal to increase the opportunities for more and better live performances should always be what arts organizations strive for.

If you take every graduating music student with a vocal degree, there are not enough opera roles in live performances the world over to provide opportunities for all of them to perform. It’s terrific that the music schools support the art, but it leaves great numbers of singers with no outlet for their creative talents. A major music school might itself perform eight productions a year, but if there are 500 vocal students, only a fraction of them will even be able to perform even in the college production.

Wm: What seems to be occurring is that the big voices are taking smaller roles – a tenor with a world class voice appears as the Messenger in Verdi’s “Aida”, quite possibly there as a cover for Radames. But that has a big impact on the comprimario artists. 

WB: The whole comprimario career path has disappeared. The notion of building a career as a comprimario barely exists any more. When I started out you could be a character tenor like Anthony Laciura or a character mezzo like Judith Christin. These were two people for whom the craft of performing was everything to them.

That both could sing quite wonderfully was a given. But they could take 30 seconds and turn it into the most engaging 30 seconds of the  night. There was a master class on the character artists at the Santa Fe Opera Festival. A lot of my colleagues were not even interested in attending that class. 25 years ago the master class would have been full.

Wm: Finally, some readers of this website may recall that I reviewed a performance of Gounod’s “Faust” at Houston Grand Opera, in which you were indisposed, but had to act while another tenor sang the role from the wings. [See:  A “Faust” Surprise in Houston – January 23, 2007.] What was that experience like for you?

WB: I guess this brings us back to the discussion about live performance! I only discovered upon entering the theater that evening, that I was ill. It turned out to be a case of viral pharyngitis, so although my vocal chords were not affected, I was unable to sing.

There was no rehearsed cover for my role, but one of the very talented young artists in Houston [Beau Gibson] had been preparing the role, so at the last minute I walked the part on stage, while he sang from the side. It’s a great case of “the show must go on”.

I have also been the guy singing before – one evening at the English National Opera when both the singer and his cover for Nadir in Bizet’s “Pearlfisher” were ill, the cover was well enough to walk the part, and I sang, in French (although ENO performs the opera in English) from the side. Audiences seem to actually to enjoy these experiences, and it truly gives them a taste of what “live” really means.

Wm: Thank you for your time.

WB: Thank you as well.


 For my reviews of William Burden performances, see: William Burden Triumphs in Gluck’s “Orphee et Eurydice” – Seattle Opera, February 29, 2012, and also,

Hampson’s Heroic “Heart of a Soldier” at the War Memorial – San Francisco Opera, September 10, 2011, and also,

Countdown to Britten Centennial: Conlon, Racette and Burden Impress in Enigmatic “Turn of the Screw” – March 12, 2011, and also,

“Lulu” at the Lyric – November 19, 2008, and also,

Superlative: Original 1951 “Billy Budd” Catches the Santa Fe Wind – August 14, 2008, and also,

The Remaking of San Francisco Opera, Part IV: “The Rake’s Progress” – December 9, 2007, and also,

San Francisco Opera: Santa Fe’s L’Italiana in Algeri September 30, 2005.