A Discussion of Susannah’s Olin Blitch and Tosca’s Scarpia (and other subjects) with basso Raymond Aceto

The following continues a conversation that first took place as interviews set up by the Houston Grand Opera and San Diego Opera [Rising Stars: An Interview with Raymond Aceto, Part 1] and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden [Rising Stars: An Interview with Raymond Aceto – Part 2]  and has continued at the Dallas Opera and the Santa Fe Opera “ranch”. Aceto currently is singing the role of Olin Blitch in a new San Francisco Opera production of Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah”.


[Below: Raymond Aceto in 2009 in Tanglewood, New York; edited image, based on a personal photograph, courtesy of Raymond Aceto.]


Wm: You are cast the role of the preacher Olin Blitch in a new production of Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah”, which constitute’s that opera’s first performance as part of a regular San Francisco Opera season. Yet the San Francisco Opera did produce “Susannah” 50 years ago at the War Memorial Opera House, as part of the Spring Opera Theater, a performance directed Carlisle Floyd himself, with the important cast of Lee Venora as Susannah, Richard Cassilly as Sam Polk, and the great basso Norman Treigle as Olin Blitch.

Does it give you special satisfaction to be asked to be the first artist since Norman Treigle to sing this role in performance at the War Memorial Opera House?

RA: Susannah is a truly an ‘American Opera’. It’s a challenge of the highest degree to be asked to sing this role and to follow in the footsteps of Norman Treigle on the War Memorial Opera House stage.

Wm: Early in our conversations I had used the term basso cantante to describe your ability to sing beautifully the long legato lines of the big Verdi bass roles, such as Fiesco Grimaldi in “Simon Boccanegra”, which you sing at Houston Grand Opera and Zaccaria in “Nabucco”, which I saw you sing at San Diego Opera, and you’ve sung subsequently in Verona and Florence. You’ve also recently sung Banco in “Macbeth” at Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Ramfis in “Aida” in Verona and Procida in “Les vêpres siciliennes” in Frankfurt.

You are announced for Barcelona as Loredano to Placido Domingo’s Jacopo Foscari in “I Due Foscari”. We can expect more of these assignments as you move into your mid-40s.

RA:  It’s my goal to add each of the great Verdi bass roles to my repertory over the next few years, including Filippo Secondo in “Don Carlos”, a role that is in so many ways the high point of the Verdi bass canon.

It’s an interesting time for me. I’m a bass in my 40s. In opera years, it’s a milestone for the bass voice. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for  many years. The dynamics are such that, now that I’m moving into my prime, there are many more opportunities for me to perform these roles.

Wm: From you own experience, how would you counsel the young basses of the generation behind you.

RA: If you are a young opera singer with a low voice, you have to believe that “slow and steady” is the approach you have to take. You have to give your voice time to mature, but when you arrive at this point with your voice intact you are ready to make your contribution. It is an exciting time.

Wm: Yet, what has interested me about the roles you do is the mix between the Verdi and bel canto bass roles, such as Oroveso in Bellini’s “Norma”, what I would call character bass roles, such as Varlaam in Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godonov” and Vodnik in Dvorak’s “Rusalka”, and intensely dramatic bass-baritone roles such as Baron Scarpia in Puccini’s “Tosca” and Blitch in “Susannah”.

Yet, if some of the basso cantante roles are quite similar –  father figures, set in their ways – who sing long, beautiful passages – the character roles and dramatic roles are all very different from one another. Would you prefer to concentrate your future in Verdi, or do like mixing it up with the Vodniks and Blitches and Scarpias and Escamillos.

RA: I’m very happy to mix the basso cantante repertory with the big dramatic and character roles you mention.

Wm: What has it been like, inhabiting Olin Blitch’s soul in preparation for your San Francisco appearances?

RA: It’s my belief that Blitch truly believes everything he says. He truly believed that if Susannah performed the rituals his church and the community expected, the public confession and baptism, she would find peace. It was in the process of consoling the distraught Susannah that human weakness overcame him and he seduced her.

Blitch is a powerful man, physically and vocally. He is charismatic and impresses the whole town. But when he commits what he knows is the sin he rails against, he disintegrates, begging Susannah to forgive him.

Preparing the role for this new San Francisco Opera production has been an enormous amount of work, but I believe the dramatic results are extremely satisfying.

[Below: the Reverend Olin Blitch (Raymond Aceto, center, with hand raised) tries to convince a skeptical congregation that Susannah (Patricia Racette, right) is the victim of false witness; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Wm: I’ve reviewed your performance of the character of Scarpia in Puccini’s “Tosca”, in very different productions in Houston and Santa Fe, and you subsequently have performed it in Bologna, Italy.

Both characters (Scarpia and Blitch) try to use their power, be it political or spiritual, for sexual conquest, and both die within hours of doing so.  But they are intensely different, sociologically and psychological, aren’t they?

RA: One overriding difference between Blitch and Scarpia is that Blitch’s motivation was to save souls. He did not arrive in New Hope Valley with the intention of becoming sexually involved with any woman.

Blitch’s loss of self-control at Susannah’s expense was a shattering experience for him. Scarpia, on the other hand would have relished the seduction of Tosca.

Wm: As you know, many American audiences, to the consternation of some European artists, like to “boo” characters such as Blitch and Scarpia, although it always seems good-natured and not a critique of the artist’s performance. Does this American custom bother you?  You probably would not want to hear it, say, in Italy.

RA: Not at all. All of us playing the villains in American opera houses have come to expect it. It can be considered a kind of compliment that we’ve done our job to the audience’s satisfaction.

Wm: There are some roles that some artists play as boorish that I think work best played with a touch of class, even elegance. Scarpia is one. Your Scarpia in John Caird’s production for Houston Grand Opera lacked the refinement of  your Scarpia in Stephen Barlow’s production in Santa Fe. Was your elegant Santa Fe Scarpia, Director Stephen Barlow’s vision or a combination of the two. 

RA: John Caird’s production of  “Tosca” in Houston conceived of Scarpia as was more animalistic, especially in act two in that dungeon.

Stephen Barlow’s production in Santa Fe set act two in a beautiful settings with elegant costumes.  I’ve tried to make him suave, elegant in its own right. I’ve never approached it as a “barking” role. People are going to do what you tell them to do.

I love playing him as a Baron who rose to the rank of baron through talent, rather than through birth. Cavaradossi is born into the upper nobility with time on his hands that that results in his radical politics.

Even though I share three minutes of stage time with Cavaradossi, my Scarpia is not out to dominate Tosca per se but to destroy Cavaradossi. He says it in the aria “The more I see you suffer. The more it inflames my passion”.

Wm: So when he talks about “bel mario” swinging from the end of a rope, there’s a bit of class envy, like Carlo Gerard’s resentment of the di Coignys in Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier”, except that while Gerard joins the Revolution, Scarpia signs on with the Counter-revolution.

Speaking of the Barlow production, what did you think of opening the 2012 Santa Fe Opera season?

[Below: Baron Scarpia (Raymond Aceto, left) threatens Spoletta (Dennis Petersen, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph for the Santa Fe Opera.]


RA: First of all, the Santa Fe Opera is amazing. It’s a rite of passage for an American artist. It is one of the most important Summer Festivals, certainly in the United States.

It is a great honor to sing a lead role on the Festival’s opening night, 12 years after my first appearance. It was amazing, a great experience.

It is so beautiful here. I’ve had a great time. When we first started rehearsing, it hadn’t rained for three weeks. We would show up with 6 to 8 percent humidity. Then the monsoon season started, when it becomes a bit more humid, increasing to 18% humidity at 87 degrees. It is challenge atmospherically. You have to really acclimate to a warm, low humidity, high altitude emvironment, to get your breathing in order. But it’s a great challenge. I like to head into battle full on.

Wm: One of the extraordinary recent Santa Fe Opera mountings was the Stephen Wadsworth’s production for the 2012 Santa Fe Opera premiere of  Syzmykowski’s “King Roger” in which you played the Archbishop. What was it like, working with Wadsworth and singing in Polish?

RA: The opera “King Roger” is amazing. It’s a great piece with a incredible production. Stephen Wadsworth is a wonderful director to work with.  Evan Rogister has been a friend of mine for quite a while.

My role, that of the Archbishop was interesting. I open the show with a strong entrance, although it’s not a long role.

Wm: In my conversations with opera singers, it seems to me that a common denominator of almost every artist’s youth is some type of vocal performance in childhood or adolescence – chorus, high school musical, even rock bands. Would you say that there are some elements of these experiences – such as, learning to read music, and singing on pitch – that might prove fundamental to later careers.

RA: I think of it this way. If you have the courage and the talent to stand up on a stage and sing a role like Olin Blitch at the War Memorial Opera House, you don’t just show up and do it.

The courage has to have developed as a constant progression from sometime earlier in your life. When I was onstage as a teenager, playing guitar in a rock band or singing in chorus, these were steps towards where I am now. Everything is a step. Our development as artists begins early on in life, even if it is subconscious.

Wm: You’ve now have over 20 year’s experience in opera performance. What are some of the key milestones of your personal success?

RA: In 1990 I had just finished Bowling Green University. I went to North Carolina to do several Young Artists auditions. I auditioned for Wolf Trap, for Santa Fe, for San Francisco Opera’s Merola program, and for the Met. I had invitations from all four. I turned down Santa Fe and San Francisco. I accepted Wolf Trap for the summer of 1991 and the Met for Fall, 1991.

Six months from college I was in the Met program. I worked on languages. I had master classes and acting classes,. I was able to get to all the performances I wished to see, and might see around 16 or 18 of a single opera. I would be asked to sing for patron parties. I would see how artists were doing.

My Metropolitan Opera debut was in 1992, at age 20, as the Jailer in “Tosca” (with Luciano Pavarotti as the Mario Cavaradossi). It was personally very satisfying that 20 years later I was opening the Santa Fe Opera season singing Scarpia in that opera.

Wm: Are you satisfied that the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist’s program was the right one for you?

RA: If you have the opportunity of the Met Young Artists training, it can be career-enhancing. You are centered in New York City, where you can come into contact with great voice teachers, coaches, managers and officials of the many opera companies that hold auditions in New York City.  These can prove to be invaluable opportunities for a singer at the beginning of a career.

Wm: At this point in your career, is it your manager or yourself who talks with opera managements about future roles?

RA:  At this time in my career, the majority of my future engagements are based on my body of work to date. My manager is responsible for maybe 20 percent of new bookings for me, and, of course, my manager handles the contractual details for all of my engagements.

Wm: As an artist who sings both in North America and Europe, what is your general impression of how the American artist fares compared with the European artists?

RA: American singers are the best trained singers in the business. Because we have no indigenous opera form, we need to be as good as a person who is native in the style of whichever language in which the opera is composed.

[Below: Raymond Aceto as Daland in the 2013 Phoenix Opera production of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman”‘; edited image of a production photograph, courtesy of the Arizona Opera.]


Wm: You sang Hunding in Wagner’s “Die Walküre” in San Francisco in 2010 and Daland in Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” in Phoenix and Tucson in November 2014. Does that suggest you may be doing much more Wagner roles in the future?

RA: A singer has to be very cautious with taking on Wagner. Once you’ve done a good amount of Wgner, it can be difficult to return to the bel canto style.

Wm; Thank you, Raymond, as always, for your time.

RA: My pleasure.