Since his Metropolitan Opera debut as Enrico in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in October 2007, American baritone Stephen Gaertner has emerged as an artist to watch in the operatic world. His other roles at the Met have included Melot in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Paolo in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, Montano in Verdi’s Otello and Chorèbe in Berlioz’s Les Troyens. He made his European debut in December 2010 with Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège, Belgium as Escamillo in Bizet’s Carmen. Recent career highlights have included an appearance with the 2013 Savonlinna Opera Festival in Savonlinna, Finland in the title role of Verdi’s Macbeth, a role he reprised for the 2015 Opernfestspiele Heidenheim in Heidenheim, Germany. He made his Italian debut in July 2016 with Teatro di San Carlo, Naples as Amonasro in Verdi’s Aida, and appeared in October 2016 with Teatro de la Ópera, San Juan, Puerto Rico as Iago in Verdi’s Otello.
This fall he sings the title role in Verdi’s Rigoletto with Opera Grand Rapids. We spoke with Stephen to learn more about his remarkable background and talents coming to the Opera Grand Rapids stage.
How did you come to opera?
I came to opera at a very young age. My mother was an opera fan. She was a fan of classical music, generally, and certainly of great singing. I just kind of had an ear for it. My mother would play records in the house and I enjoyed it very instinctively. I think I was about 10 years old when I was given a record of great old-time singers—an excerpts record, each artist doing one selection from an opera—and I started getting interested that way. And, eventually, I came to understand opera itself. It was so fascinating to me for some reason. I just latched onto it.
I had been studying violin and piano, and it sharpened my ear a lot, matching pitch with the printed music as well. I guess I always had perfect pitch, but that really improved my understanding of pitch as a sound and as an intonation. I was about 19 when I decided to go ahead and pursue singing, and it just made perfect sense.
How do you embody the role of Rigoletto?
First thing, of course, I learn the music, the words, the dramatic situation. Once that is done, I try to find other colors, other aspects of the character, and how I can relate to that. In the case of Rigoletto, he is a man who’s seen a lot of disappointment. He’s been greatly disadvantaged as a man who’s physically handicapped and, during his time, there weren’t many options for him. I don’t know much about his background, but I gather that he probably came from a good family that didn’t have anything to do with him because of his deformity, and that he had no choice but to be a court jester in a very decadent court—all of which caused a lot of bitterness in his soul. I take certain moments and allow myself to really, as they say, go there, and if I can somehow infuse that into the delivery of the lines, that’s how I’ll better be able to portray the character.
What will audiences like about Rigoletto?
The libretto is exceptionally strong. The story always makes an effect, no matter how it’s performed. It just always works. It was just so well put together, and on top of that, the music was absolutely one of Verdi’s best scores. Between the beauty of the melody and the atmosphere that Verdi was able to capture, it comes together so nicely.
Also, the character situation is relatable no matter which character you are looking at. There are several dimensions—from my own stand point—in Rigoletto. A lot of people see him as a despicable character, but they need to remember there is a soft side. If you allow yourself, you’ll find there’s probably a lot more that you can relate to. He is a man that has had incredible disappointment.
Verdi is often praised for his complex characterization in Rigoletto.
Prior to Rigoletto, most of his operas weren’t as three-dimensional. Most of the operas that he wrote were for specific theatres to make a career, essentially. But, by the time he got to Rigoletto, he was able to have more artistic control over his subjects that he set to music. Macbeth is one of the exceptions to that because it was a subject based on the Shakespeare play and he was a big fan of his. Some of his later operas have that Shakespearean complexity that appealed to him.
Given your experience portraying the roles of Rigoletto and Macbeth, do you have an affinity for Verdi?
I feel that his writing for the baritone voice really fits my voice perfectly. It’s become more so as my voice has developed and matured; it became more and more suitable. And, also, with time and maturity, I could relate better to the characters. Thankfully, I haven’t outgrown portraying characters on the young side as well. The music that those characters have to sing does call for a very strong and mature sound. It’s an interesting combination.
I recently performed my first Carlo in La Forza del Destino, and I waited a long time to have the opportunity, and to do it full justice. The character is on the young side, but the vocal writing is very mature. And, the voice part is rather rangy, as in all of Verdi. The parts require a strong top range (which had always been my strong suit), but they also require a strong and rich middle, which that has, for me, only come about recently. So now I can do better justice to these characters because my voice has really grown into the music and what it requires.
Last year I performed the role of Iago in Otello in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In this particular case, I found this experience truly memorable primarily for vocal reasons, as I felt I had truly arrived at the point where my voice could do full justice to the music Verdi wrote for this character. Also, one of the performances was attended by one of the great interpreters of the role of Iago in the past several decades, Puerto Rican-born Justino Díaz! It was a tremendous honor for him to have greeted me afterwards and to have been incredibly complimentary to me.
What’s your most memorable experience from a production?
One of the most exciting experiences I had would be the first time I ever sang the title role of Verdi’s Macbeth in 2013 at the Savonlinna Festival in Finland, and I that was a venue I had always dreamt of performing at. The opera festival takes place in a converted courtyard of a fortress located in the middle of a lake. What a perfect ambience for an opera like Macbeth! Two dreams coming true together—it was truly special.
I had always been attracted to performing opera in concert form as well, mostly because most operas performed in that way are less well-known and yet the music is certainly worth hearing. Probably my favorite experience, in that regard, happened almost at the last minute. In November 2015, I received an email out of the blue from Opera Rara in London. This is a company that records and performs lesser-known operas from Italian bel canto and French repertoires—and they were venturing into their first ever projects from the Italian verismo period. They were doing Zazà—an opera I happened to have performed in concert in New York back in 2005—and they had lost their lead baritone. I was recommended by the Metropolitan Opera to fill in, and the experience involved recording the opera for a CD release and performing it live at the Barbican Hall in London.
What would you say to someone who has never been to an opera?
I think a lot of people have preconceptions about the experience of going to the opera that might not necessarily be a positive one—and we’re certainly not inundated with that type of singing in our daily lives. But I think when they come to an opera and see so much else that goes into it, I would like to think that they would change their minds.
With Rigoletto, you will see a wonderful story, hear incredible music coming from the orchestra and on stage, hear incredible voices making these unbelievable sounds—and if they are singing in a different language, we now have translated titles in our theatres that will help you understand better what’s going on to enhance the experience greatly. I would say give it a shot because there’s really nothing like it. I would say this is definitely one opera that is a good one to start with if you’ve never been to an opera before. It’s one of those, say, five operas that’s good to start with.
October 13 & 14 | 7:30 PM | DeVos Performance Hall
OPERA | CLASSIC | DRAMA | ITALIAN
Italian grand opera at its finest.