Rising Stars: An Interview with Baritone Elliot Madore

[Below: Canadian baritone Elliot Madore; resized image of a Cryil Mater photograph.]

Wm: I like to know the earliest memories that my interview subjects have of music? What are yours?

EM: My love of music was fostered at a young age singing with my school choir. I vividly recall being utterly taken and transfixed by the sound we were collectively able to produce. The harmonies, dissonance, that purity of tone brought me to another world. It’s that initial feeling that has stayed with me all these years and one that I try let guide me in all my musical decision making.

Wm: Almost all of the opera singers whom I have interviewed have had childhood and/or adolescent experiences in vocal performance, whatever the musical genre. What were yours?

EM: My fondest memory was singing the role of Jean Valjean in Schönberg’s “Les Misérables” as a teenager in high school. At the time, I revered that music and to be able to communicate that love to my family and friends was something I’ll never forget.  To have experienced that level of collaboration, where an entire school comes to create something, was truly special and made me realize at an early age the power of a shared goal. 

Wm: At age 21, you won the Palm Beach Vocal Competition, and the next year you were a winner of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s National Auditions and were selected by the George London Foundation as the Best Canadian Singer.

What were the milestones that led you to pursue opera, and to develop the vocal preparation that enabled you to excel in international voice competitions and to receive recognition awards from your profession?

EM: When I think of milestones in my career, I always relate that to the wonderful human beings who have guided me over the years. Lois McDonall, my first voice teacher, believed in my potential, taught me the power of words and to always retain my natural voice. Later, Marlena Malas, Mikael Eliasen, Brian Zeger, Ken Noda and Natalia Katyukova all helped cultivate the basis of my artistry. 

With regards to the competitions, beyond the vocal preparedness, what allowed me to succeed was my temperament. I was inwardly fiercely competitive and outwardly calm. Stradling that duality allowed me to be intensely focused and undistracted by the circumstance because, and I feel this way especially now, I am always and only competing against myself.

Wm: Over the next couple of seasons you became an ensemble member of the Zurich Oper, singing principal roles, during a period when the late Maestro Nello Santi was a major artistic force. You’ve retained ties to Zurich throughout your career. How would you describe your association with Zurich and its opera company?

EM: Starting off my international career in Zurich as an ensemble member at the age of 25 was, for me, a dream come true. I dove in the deep end and in the process became an independent artist. Being entrusted with principal roles at that young age was extremely empowering and I’ve carried that experience with me throughout my career. Retaining that professional relationship over the years with Zurich Opera has been deeply gratifying and it indeed feels like a home away from home. A few years ago, I had the good fortune of meeting my wife in Zurich while singing in a production at the Opera House. For that reason alone, Zurich will always hold a special place in my heart.

Wm: My first opportunity to see you in performances was as Anthony Hope in the late Lee Blakeley’s production of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” at the San Francisco Opera in 2015. [See Review: Searing Performances by Brian Mulligan and Stephanie Blythe for San Francisco Opera’s First “Sweeney Todd” – September 12, 2015 and Review: A Second Look at “Sweeney Todd” at San Francisco Opera – September 20, 2015.]

What are your thoughts about performing a SondheAim classic on an opera house stage?

[Below: Elliot Madore as Anthony Hope in San Francisco Opera’s 2015 Lee Blakeley production of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

EM:  I’ve always viewed Sweeney Todd as an opera and so, in that vain, performing it on an operatic stage felt entirely natural. The beauty of Sondheim was that he stressed the words above all else and so I always felt a certain amount of freedom with that. You’re able to fully inhabit the emotional realm of your character. You were, in a sense, freed from solely concentrating on sound production by constantly redirecting yourself and letting yourself be guided by words and melody.

I must say, Patrick Summers did an incredible job guiding us in that direction and giving us the freedom to fully encompass the emotional complexities within Sondheim’s musical framework. I’m also exceedingly exciting to return to Zurich next year to perform Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”, once again in Andreas Homoki’s production alongside Bryn Terfel who has been an inspiration since childhood.

Wm: There were some 2016 milestones for you in the French repertory. A recording of Ravel’s “L’enfant et les sortilèges”, in which you sang the roles of Le chat and L’Horloge Comtoise won a Grammy.

EM: I’ll forever be grateful for my mother’s decision to put me into French immersion for my schooling. Naturalness in the spoken word leads to uninhibited singing.  Learning French at an early age and later becoming fluent has been integral to my role expansion in the French repertoire. Having sung Pelléas now in seven different productions, I can say that I feel very much at home singing in French language.

As for our recording of “L’enfant et les sortilèges”, I’d be remise if I didn’t mention my gratitude in having Maestro Seiji Ozawa as our conductor. His ability to communicate his musical expectations solely by means of conducting was absolutely astounding. Very few words were spoken and yet you knew instinctively what he wanted by simply observing and catching that musical wave along with him. I didn’t know that so much could be communicated through a single gesture until I met him. Needless to say, I’m grateful for that experience.  

[Below: Maestro Seiji Ozawa’ performance of Ravel’s “L’enfant et les sortilèges”, resized image of a Decca record album.]

That year you sang Mercutio in Stephen Lawless’ production of Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette” at the Santa Fe Opera, transported to the time and place of the American Civil War. [See Review: A Surprise at Santa Fe Opera – Joshua Guerrero joins Pérez, Aceto in Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette”, July 29, 2016.]

What are your thoughts about participating in the creation of a Lawless production in the Santa Fe environment?

EM: Singing in Santa Fe is unlike any experience in the opera world. The unique beauty of the landscape, the remoteness of location, the sunsets beyond compare and the outdoor operatic event is something that simply cannot be replicated anywhere. Stephen Lawless and Harry Bicket really worked to create a Roméo and Juliette which inhabited a world of its own both scenically and musically. It was a joy to work with both of them in that setting and certainly a memory I won’t soon forget.

Wm: In addition to singing Mercutio at the Santa Fe Opera, you sang it at the New York Metropolitan Opera, where composer Jorge Martin heard you.

[Below: Mercutio (Elliot Madore, left) gives some friendly advice to Roméo (Vittorio Grigolo, right) in the 2016 New York Metropolitan Opera production of Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the New York Metropolitan Opera.]

Recently, I had a conversation with Martin, who composed the music and was co-librettist of the opera “Before Night Falls”, based on the autobiography of the Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas.

When the Florida Grand Opera was preparing for a 2017 new production of the work, your name had been suggested to Martin for the lead role of Arenas. Martin was particularly impressed to know you have the role of Pelléas in Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” in your repertory.

[Below: Elliot Madore (left) was Pelléas and (right) Elena Tsallagova was Mélisande in the 2015 Bayerische Staatsoper production of Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande”; edited image, based on a Wilfried Hösl photograph for the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich.]

EM: Immediately upon learning that I would be undertaking the role of Reinaldo Arenas in “Before Night Falls”, I knew that it would bear a heavy responsibility. To portray a human life of such importance requires a certain understanding of what it means to selflessly give your life for a cause you believe in. Being openly gay in a communist Cuba, Reinaldo is a person who lived his life by his own ideals and didn’t hesitate to suffer the consquences of those ideals. Simply put, his bravery paved the way for generations of gay writers. That he managed to find great joy and love in his life through all the sufferings he endured is a testament to his beautiful humanity. 

Musically, this is an incredible achievement by Jorge Martin. Naturally, you can hear Cuban influences but there is a wide ranging musical language – from Verdian verbiage to Debussy’s transparency. The role itself was a mammoth undertaking. I’m onstage virtually the entire opera which means I had to learn how to pace myself accordingly.

[Below: Elliot Madore as Reinaldo Arenas in the Florida Grand Opera productiop of Martin’s “Before Night Falls”; edited image, based on a Chris Kakol photograph for the Florida Grand Opera.]

Because this is such an emotional opera, I had to sometimes separate the multitude of heart-rendering feelings from the vocal output. The wide vocal range allowed me to find a great many vocal colors and dynamic shadings which I enjoyed wholeheartedly. In that sense it’s a bit like Pelléas where there is a wide vocal range that can at times be sweet and innocent and in other instances passionate and declamatory.

Dramatically this was a dream come true for me. To have the opportunity to portray Reinaldo’s life from his younger years in Cuba until his death in New York City was something I relished. There were a myriad of emotions I had to convey. From being young and confused, inspired, tortured and dismayed, free and open to being ultimately wise and completely self-aware. I don’t know that there is another role in opera that so completely encapsulates the entirety of someone’s life. And so, It was truly an honor to have had the opportunity to portray Reinaldo Arenas’s life. 

[Below: Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas (Elliot Madore, right) bonds with his fellow Cuban Lazaro (Michael Kuhn, left); edited image, based on a Chris Kakol photograph for the Florida Grand Opera.]

Wm: The next opportunities I had to review you in performance were in two very different 21st century operas – Liza Lim’s “Tree of Codes” and John Adams and Peter Sellars’ “GIrls of the Golden West”.

I cannot imagine a more challenging work than your role as the Son in “Tree of Codes” whose Spoleto Festival performance I reviewed. In my review, I stated: “Madore’s attractive, lyric baritone is enlisted to convey the disintegration of what remains of the living into what is dead. It is an extraordinary performance requiring a strong sense of the work’s elusive pitches and a memorization of disconnected words and phrases.” [See Review: Elliot Madore, Marisol Montalvo Perform Liza Lim’s “Tree of Codes” – Spoleto Festival-USA, June 4, 2018.]

Am I overstating the complexity of the work’s vocal and dramatic requirements?

[Below: The son (Elliot Madore) searches in pockets of time for his father during the hours after his father’s death; edited image, based on a William Struhs photograph, courtesy of the Spoleto Festival-USA.]

EM: Absolutely not, that was without a doubt one of the hardest experience I had learning a role but also one of the most fulfilling collaborations that I’ve been a part of. What I loved about Liza Lim’s music was the other worldly nature of her vocal writing. Once you came to terms with the elusiveness of her writing both musically and dramatically, you realized it was an incredibly beautiful world to inhabit and one that I eventually became comfortable living in. I wish the opera world would present more works of living composers.

To perform a living and breathing opera is so satisfying. Nothing is set in stone and the piece is pliable and can be contoured over time. Nothing is better than hearing a fresh sound, something new. I’m hopeful we see more of that over time.

Wm: I reviewed the world premiere of “Girlls of the Golden West”. After “Before Night Falls” and “Tree of Codes”, that seems quite a change of pace. [See World Premiere Review: Adams’ “Girls of the Golden West”, San Francisco Opera, November 21, 2017.]

You’ve now sung the opera in multiple performances in different venues. What are your thoughts on the future of that opera?

[Below: Ramón (Elliot Madore, left) has words with Clarence (Ryan McKinny, right) in the San Francisco Opera 2017 world premiere production of Adams’ “The Girls of the Golden West”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

EM: It’s been disappointing to see the cultural sector left behind during this slow reopening. As for the future of opera, I’ll simply say it’s vital to our society. Telling stories, sifting through emotions, navigating tragedy, opera provides a mirror to our own life. It allows us to reflect, to compare our circumstances and to find comfort in the joys and difficulties of life. If we don’t have that we become hallow beings and a people who have no self-awareness. That’s a dangerous society to live in and it’s something to be mindful of as we, hopefully, get back to normal. Opera offers us all a lifeline and means to experience life on a higher plane, if only for a brief period of time, let’s not lose that.

Wm: The Covid19 pandemic has impacted most of us during 2020. How have you been faring personally and professionally?

EM: It’s been extremely difficult. Quite possibly the most difficult time in my life. My jobs through the fall have been all cancelled and so I’m looking forward to getting back on the stage starting in 2021. To live in uncertainty on a daily basis is challenging for anyone but I can say that the mental fortitude that my colleagues have shown across the opera world has been unbelievable. When we all come out of this on the other side, we will all be a little wiser and ready to show the world the true power of opera.

Wm: I appreciate you devoting time for this interview.

EM: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.