24 September 2010

Interview: David Adam Moore on ‘Winterreise’

Winterreise: “Gute Nacht”
Video image by David Adam Moore©

Every time he steps onstage, Texas-born baritone David Adam Moore must confront two phenomenal challenges that never arise for most other singers. First, he is exceptionally good-looking — particularly by the standards of Opera World. As Purcell’s Aeneas with Neal Goren’s Gotham Chamber Opera in 2002, David wore tight leather trousers, a navel ring, and maybe some aftershave, instantly becoming the talk of New York. More recently, he tied for first place in the fansite Barihunks’ reader survey of sexiest men in opera. It must be a constant struggle not to upstage himself.

The trousers that made New York pant:
As Aeneas, Gotham Chamber Opera, 2002.

Compounding David’s plight is a second challenge: he’s an excellent actor. Take these things into account, and it would be easy to forget that — oh, yeah — he sings, too — in Tel Aviv, Tokyo, Paris, Milan, and London (for the U.K. premiere of Eötvös’ Angels in America), as well as at American companies such as Fort Worth, New York City Opera (as Papageno, again under Goren’s baton), San Diego, Pittsburgh, and Seattle, where he was a member of the young artists’ program. For contemporary operas in English, David is a go-to guy, and he’s been known to harbor compositional ambitions of his own. But he’s equally adept in Bizet, Mozart, and Rossini.

Winterreise: “Gefror’ne Tränen”
Video image by David Adam Moore©

David possesses a warm, richly colored baritone voice and the kind of expert musicianship that allows him to step at the last minute into roles as demanding as that of Laurent in Picker’s Thérèse Raquin, learning the difficult score in a matter of days. His restless mind keeps finding new meaning in music, and new means of expression.

While the voice has plenty of heft, David really excels in projecting intimacy, and his attention to text is exemplary: nothing gets past him, as he communicates directly with each listener. These are qualities that suit him ideally to Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise (The Winter’s Journey), so you can imagine my excitement when I learned that David was preparing it.

Aeneas again: with Tamara Mumford
in Jonathan Miller’s production, Glimmerglass 2009.

Being David, however, he’s made things tougher for himself. He’ll perform Winterreise in a multi-media staging — for which he himself designed the video presentation — and he’s taken time out from rehearsal in order to tell us more.

WVM: To start off, where and when will the Winterreise be performed, and how can readers get tickets?

DAM: It will be Sunday, September 26, 2:30 PM, in Theater 1 of the Performing Arts Center at Houston Community College. Tickets will be available at the door. More info can be found at my website — www.davidadammoore.com. There’s also a good chance this concert will be repeated on the East coast in the near future.

Winterreise: “Rückblick”
Video image by David Adam Moore©

WVM: Who did the staging and video?

DAM: I’m doing both the staging and the video. It would feel strange to say I’m “directing” or “staging” it, since, from my end, it’s the same process of character development and storytelling I would do for any recital. What’s special about this concert is that, as the performer, I’ll be free to use the entire stage and include visual elements to illustrate things that would normally be left to the audience’s imagination. This beats the hell out of standing in the crook of a piano.

WVM: It’s a multimedia performance. What does that entail?

DAM: In this case, it will be singer, piano, a large rear projection screen displaying HD video, and a set piece on which supertitles (or side-titles, in this case) will be projected.

The text and music of Winterreise are so full of imagery that it’s impossible to perform it or listen to it without seeing some sort of mental “reel” of what is being described. The video element is an attempt to externalize this. I want to give the audience an idea of what my character is seeing as he describes it — a chance to peer into his head. So, in performing this, I’ll make a point to never interact with or refer to the screen.

Fun times: Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2007.
When David made his La Scala debut with buddy Daniel Okulitch (not pictured),
their offstage experiences sometimes sounded like a remake
of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

There are 24 songs in the cycle that follow a loose narrative thread. Each song has its own video. Some of the videos are there to set the scene and illustrate exactly what the character is experiencing. The first song, “Gute Nacht,” is a good example of this. To simply show you where/when the story takes place, the video opens with time-lapse footage of an urban neighborhood getting pounded with snow as day turns to night. The next shot depicts my character tossing and turning in bed, clearly troubled by something. Just as the key changes to C major and he sings about quietly leaving the house, he slowly gets out of the bed, revealing, for the first time, the form of a young woman sleeping peacefully next to him.

This points to the fact, which is never addressed in the text, that she’s going to wake up a few hours later and discover that he’s long gone. If you were to only see the remaining 23 songs of the cycle, you would think that he was kicked out and/or dumped because of the way he laments the loss of the relationship, but the fact is that he decided to leave, and secretly, no less. This adds a whole new layer of emotional complexity to his predicament, and raises more questions than answers, which is part of the genius of this cycle — much of the narrative is left for the performer and listener to decide.

Other videos serve as abstract meditations on the character’s emotional experience in that moment. The video for “Irrlicht,” for example, is just a close up shot of a plume of white smoke in slow motion, reversed, wafting back and forth, appearing and reappearing.

Winterreise: “Irrlicht”
Video image by David Adam Moore©

WVM: Who’s the accompanist?

DAM: The pianist will be Thomas Jaber, he’s on the faculty of Rice University and is very well known in Texas. He’s a brilliant musician, and one of the best pianists I’ve gotten to work with. I’ve known about him from the time I was a student, and have always wanted to collaborate with him.

WVM: Winterreise is something of a test for baritones. When did you first discover this music? Is this something you’ve looked forward to singing? How have you prepared for it?

DAM: This is one of those cycles I fell in love with as a student, but my teacher at Oberlin, Richard Miller, kept me away from because it is too advanced, both vocally and emotionally, for a student. It’s one of many pieces for baritone that requires solid technique, stamina, and a bit of mileage on the voice and heart before approaching. I’ve looked forward to singing this piece for years. It’s the same feeling you get when you’re a kid and your legs finally grow long enough to ride that bike you’ve been eyeing for so long.

The first time I heard it was the classic recording of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore. I was struck by how cohesive it was — the way the vocal and piano parts functioned both independently and together as storytelling devices. The repeated chords of the first song sound and feel like feet trudging through wet snow.

The first time I heard it live was when a professor at Oberlin, a bass-baritone named Gerald Crawford, sang it on a faculty recital. He was a very reserved guy, bordering on shy, and had a remarkable voice. He sang the entire cycle standing dead still, staring at the music stand. It was impossible to see his eyes, even, because his glasses reflected so much glare from the stage lights. The concert was stunning, though. He sang with so much passion and drama in his voice alone that we were floored. It was an incredible experience, and an important lesson that, ultimately, it’s not the “stage business” that sells a piece — it has to start with the voice, music, and emotional intent.

Angels in America, Fort Worth Opera, 2008:
As Pryor Walter, with soprano Janice Hall.
Photo by Ellen Appel.

WVM: The previous song cycle you worked on was Soldier Songs by David T. Little. Any observations about working on the music of a living composer, versus that of one who’s been dead for 182 years and is very unlikely to be in the room with you as you rehearse?

DAM: Because classical music is meant to last for centuries, I think there’s a process of natural selection that happens with vocal works. Among the pieces that merit a place in history, the only ones that will outlive their composers are those written well enough within the natural limits of the vocal instrument that they can be performed effectively by future generations of singers who have different levels of technical ability. Most vocal music within the standard repertoire passes this test, which is, obviously, why it has become the “standard repertoire.” Writing for the voice is damned difficult, and unless the composer is an accomplished singer him/herself, it helps to have an ongoing dialogue with the singers during rehearsals, so that the singer can more faithfully execute the composer’s vision, and so that the composer can make adjustments to better utilize the singer’s strengths.

In Little’s Soldier Songs

When the composer is alive, you get to have this dialogue — that’s the advantage. In Soldier Songs, this was key, because the story we were telling is contemporary, and David T. Little and I were able to get on exactly the same page about who my character is, what makes him tick, and how the music relates to this. On the other hand, the advantage of singing music by long-dead composers is that the music has made it through this “natural selection” process, so it will likely be easier to sing well.

WVM: It’s almost impossible to talk about your work as a singer without discussing your skill as an actor: you really dig into the dramatic psychology of your roles, and that’s one reason I find the prospect of your Winterreise so exciting. What do you see as the drama (or story) of the cycle, and what’s your approach to it?

DAM: It’s really just a breakup story — a John Cusack movie without the funny parts. I always enjoyed this piece from afar, but when it came to bringing it into my own world, I was pretty stumped at first. I haven’t been in a bad breakup for years, so I had to draw on the experience of one of my best friends who recently went through an epic breakup. There’s a lot of grieving involved, and many of the songs in this cycle are like little snapshots of the different stages of grieving.

At some point, I realized that, for me, this story is just the beginning of the protagonist’s journey. The direction in which he thought his life was going has changed dramatically, and now he has to learn more about himself and find his place in the world again. Who knows if he will — we don’t get to see that part. The story clicked for me when I realized that during every step of this painful journey, he’s learning and growing. This gives it a sense of direction. Who knows what may happen to him after song #24? He might go back to the Lindenbaum and hang himself, learn to be happy alone, or find someone else.

“Der Lindenbaum”
Video image by David Adam Moore©

WVM: When Winterreise fails to hit its mark with this audience member, it’s usually because the artists haven’t been able to shape the songs into a cohesive structure. Does your background in composition give you any helpful insights into the cycle? And, while we’re at it, does that background give you an edge in singing other works, as well?

DAM: I think a lot of singers make the mistake of doing what they think they’re supposed to do, rather than taking the responsibility to fill in the story’s blanks for themselves and making the piece their own. The part of the story the audience sees is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s the interpreter’s job to figure out what the rest of that iceberg is all about. The same idea can work from a musical perspective. The composer starts out with only the text, the story, and a vast array of possibilities for working this into a musical structure. The resulting piece is the tip of that iceberg. So, as I’m delving more deeply into a piece like Winterreise, I like to consider what other choices a composer might have made in shaping a melody or choosing a harmonic direction. This can help give a clearer idea of where the composer was coming from.

“More Life”: David’s impassioned account of this aria
pretty much justifies Eötvös’ entire opera.
With Ava Pine (left) as the Angel and Craig Verm.
Angels staging by David Gately for Fort Worth Opera, 2008.
Photo by Ellen Appel.

WVM: A great deal of your career thus far has been devoted to singing in English, and your ability to color text is superb. What challenges does the German text present?

DAM: German is always easier to pronounce well when it’s sloooow. Like English, German requires the singer to sort of rewrite the rhythm of each word to give each of its consonants adequate space to sound, so I have to work hard to keep from getting tripped up during fast sections of text. German is like a text-coloring playground, because the words are so onomatopoeic.

WVM: You’re also preparing a recording of Winterreise. When will it be released, and how can readers acquire it?

DAM: We’ll record it in New York in summer of 2011, and it should be released shortly thereafter. It will be released on GPR Records, and available via iTunes, Amazon, and on a limited-run CD via whichever retail outlets may have survived by then.

Winterreise: “Auf dem Flusse”
Video image by David Adam Moore©

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