Adam Klein is a man of many guises. He’s a tenor, singing in many different styles. He’s a composer. A teacher. An instrument maker.
No wonder Klein seemed to be a natural as Loge in Das Rheingold at the Metropolitan Opera earlier in 2012, the singer who seemed most ready to exploit the challenges of Robert Lepage’s carnivalesque production, singing sideways on a wall (with the help of wires) as if he were Spiderman. Klein first sang there in 1971, the first boy that the Met entrusted with the role of Yniold in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. He’s sung lighter roles such as Tamino in The Magic Flute, yet also has sung Tristan in Seattle in 2010.
Klein is a classically trained composer with a few operas under his belt, who also teaches composition. Speaking of opera, Klein teaches voice, and also shows you pronunciation if you need to sing in several foreign languages. He’ll show you how to build several instruments, and then once you’ve built them, show you how to play them as well.
Up next: Klein is Rodolfo the poet in Puccini’s La bohème, June 29th and July 1st with Nickel City Opera, just across the lake from us in North Tonawonda NY.
I ask Klein ten questions: five about himself and five about his upcoming appearance with Nickel City Opera.
1) Which of your parents do you resemble (what’s your nationality / ethnic background)?
I have my mother’s hair and ears, my father’s eyebrows, nose and mouth, and an exact combination of each’s eyes. Being male, the rest of my body more resembles my dad’s.
On my mom’s side I have mixed German-Australian/British (her mom) and 100% Swedish-American (her dad — Stellan Windrow, the first Tarzan of films, drafted into WWI during shooting but they used shots of him in the trees in the final cut which only has Elmo Lincoln’s name on it); from my dad I get mixed German American-British American-Native American (his dad) and 100% Irish-American (his mom).
2) what is the BEST thing / worst thing about being an opera singer?
Best: when opera works, there’s nothing like it, except perhaps Mahler’s 8th Symphony — but that’s almost an opera. The goal of the founders of modern opera, back in CE 1600, was a simultaneous presentation of music and drama, and if each component is at its best, nothing — not film
Worst: the absolute lack of financial stability.
3) who do you listen to or watch?
I’m going to answer this as if it meant: whom do I like to listen to or watch, or whom do I learn from when I listen to or watch them, since I really have no choice but to watch and listen to everyone I’m on stage with, or anyone who’s doing a role I need to learn and don’t have time to work on in the proper way, namely, just memorize it from the score without reference to any recordings or performances, since only then will the role have a chance of being my own and not a composite of what I’ve already witnessed. This caveat is far from complete but also already too long.
Before I give any names, I should say that on my off time I don’t really listen to opera, or watch it, so some of these names will seem mysterious unless one knows what they do. So I guess I’d better give short descriptions.
- Mamady Keita, jembefola and leader of the African drumming troupe Sewa Kan . I would watch other drummers but I have no films of them. I do watch them live, though.
- The entire cast of Firefly (TV show)/Serenity (movie); same for
- Iron Man I & II (particularly Mickey Rourke),
- Men In Black I & II,
Galaxy Quest, and all the Christopher Guest/Michael McKean movies, starting with Spinal Tap; most of the cast and many of the guest stars in the first eight seasons of Stargate.
There are some others but that will do.
In opera: Vladimir Ognovenko. Andrei Popov. Vladimir Galouzine. My wife Tami Swartz.
Listen: my brother singer/guitarist Moondi Klein in whatever band he’s in, currently Jimmy Gaudreau & Moondi Klein. Other musicians/groups: Ani diFranco. Hamell on Trial. Voo Voo. EastWest Rockers. Huun-Huur-Tu. Yat-Kha. They Might Be Giants. Talking Heads. Bob Marley. On A Dead Machine.
In opera: Birgit Nilsson. Ramon Vinay.Walter Cassel. Pamela Armstrong. Mark Delavan. Greer Grimsley. Brenda Harris.
These are the names that pop off my head without thinking too hard about it. There are probably many others, but unlike a search engine I can’t access all my memories anytime I like.
4) what ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
The ability to persuade people to stop doing such stupid things to the planet. The dexterity needed to be really good at piano, guitar, violin, horn or many other instruments. Infinite patience: mine has limits, and they’re shrinking.
5) When you’re just relaxing (and not working) what is your favorite thing to do?
Geek out watching a rerun of some of our favorite sci-fi movies or shows – or read through a script of one out loud – after having prepared a priceless and unique gourmet meal of organic ingredients, accompanied with excellent local New Jersey wine (when we’re in NYC or NJ: Twenty Valley wine when we’re in the Buffalo-Toronto area) -Amalthea, Valenzano or Sylvin wines (Calamus or Featherstone in the Twenty).
Or wake up in the screened-in porch at our NJ swamp house in spring and summer and listen to the wood thrush we have named Rupert the Resplendent, along with the frogs, or later in the season, katydids and tree crickets.
Five more concerning Klein’s appearance as Rodolfo in La Bohème with Nickel City Opera.
1) How does playing the role of Rodolfo challenge you?
I refuse to take the Big Aria down a half step like Luciano and so many others did and still do. [Say it ain’t so Jussi! this one is taken down a semi-tone]
I don’t see the point of doing Rodolfo if you can’t sing the C — not because it’s written that way because it’s not in the score — but because Puccini wrote it in A flat, not G (at least, that’s what the SCORE has, but the key changes between that aria, Mimi’s aria, the little conversation after it, and the duet that ends the act, make me suspect that some of these keys are not original — they’re just a half step or whole step off from where I expect them to be); and because the duet before it sounds so dull when taken down a half step; and because like the Duke’s big aria you can’t sing it without the interpolated high note and show your face the next day. I say all this because, though the C is not hard for me to sing, when I’m singing a lot of this stuff, I’ve had ten year at the Met doing low and character parts with nothing above B flat, except for The Nose which has two pages with 16 high C’s and nothing else — but I covered Gordon Gietz in that and didn’t peform it, so doing the high C in public after not having sung the role for six years is a bit scary.
Other challenges: I’ve been lucky, with a very few exceptions, to have had great casts and good directors and conductors every time I’ve done Rodolfo elsewhere, so there’s no longer the challenge of doing it the first time, or doing it with another cast, conductor or director. We haven’t started rehearsals yet, so there’s a possible challenge, knowing the piece as well as I do, of doing it differently from how I’m used to playing it — one gets set in one’s ways after doing enough repeats of a part, one decides what works in a part and what doesn’t, and one’s patience with breaking in new people or working with a “radical new concept” — actually, trying to make the concept work — can wear quite thin, so keeping an open mind is always a good goal.
For the piece itself, what makes Bohème special to me, in a way that the other Puccini operas don’t, though it’s present in most of them to a degree, is the irony pervading the whole plot, and other aspects of oppositeness: trying to keep a light spirit while one is freezing to death, Mimì struggling with every ounce of strength left to her to make sure she tells Rodolfo what she needs to say, and so many other examples — I always hope the production in question is able to get that point across to the audience, because for me that’s what it’s about, not just the singing or the antics. It’s the theatrical core, and as Rodolfo I try to bring it out as much as I can regardless of who else is out there or how it’s being directed. With a less acting, more singing cast, that can be quite a challenge. I’ll know more after the first day of rehearsal.
2) What do you love about Puccini’s operas?
Composer’s POV: That in an age where “serious” composers faulted him — and some Ivory Tower bigwigs do still — for being sentimental or writing music that was passé, as if Schoenberg’s Blind Alley was the way to the Promised Land and anyone who thought differently was an idiot, Puccini stuck to writing music that the people listening could understand with not one second of classical music schooling, because his music is the language of emotions.
Singer’s POV: That he wrote such deliciously singable lines, and so many of them, and made the high notes mean something — integrated them fully into the drama of every moment. Not every opera composer does that.
Actor’s POV: That he carried on Verdi’s torch of writing serious music theater — though I do regret that he never traveled the US to see that there is no desert in Louisiana, at least not in its current dimensions.
Director’s POV: That he used plots that were simple, or at least easily distillable into archetypal gestures to which he wedded ageless archetypal music that sounds as if it’s been there since the dawn of time, that makes it hard to conceive of such words without hearing his music with them. (Listen to Leoncavallo’s Boheme as a test of that.) But also that he made sure his archetypes were present in real people, not as, ooh I don’t know, singers with big plastic chestplates on.
3) Do you have a favorite moment in La Bohème?
The moment which makes me cry, which is Marcello’s line in Act II: “Gioventù mia, tu non sei morta”.
4) How do you relate to Rodolfo and Puccini’s opera about bohemian life as a modern man?
Not much has changed for disinherited/runaway artistic twentysomethings in any big city, so it’s not a stretch. I didn’t have Rodolfo’s life, though, at least not at that age, but I knew people who did – one soprano I knew, about 21, was living — squatting — in a condemned building in Lower Manhattan, when she wasn’t sleeping in her car. She had nothing but enmity for her dad — odd, and yet on reflection not odd, that in the opera no mention is made of any of these kids’ parents, as opposed to Germont in Traviata.
Also, I have my own leanings toward counterculture – for just one example, I knew a man and woman who refused to be married by any state-sanctioned official, since the state didn’t recognize the right of every loving couple, regardless of gender, to marry. So they got married on a mountaintop with their families present. I had more respect for that act of defiance of the State than for most other actions I’ve learned about by anyone.
Another example I can’t resist citing: please, Canada, keep growing the hempseed I eat every morning in my cereal, since the US doesn’t allow domestic production of the plant we get canvas, oil paint and the most concentrated plant protein on earth from, just because it can also make you high. The original Levi’s jeans were made of hemp fiber. But since those in power keep carrying this Double Standard (to wit: alcohol makes you drunk, impairs your motor skills and is addictive, but is legal; cigarette smoke gives you cancer and is addictive, yet it’s legal; Mary Jane gets you high with little or no motor skill impairment and is not addictive, yet it’s illegal), I’m forced to identify with a Counterculture because I disagree with them. But that’s the funny thing about being Other: from one’s own perspective it’s everyone else who’s not behaving right. I am my own personal Establishment. Anyway, Bohème is timeless because the issues it presents are universal topics of humanity.
What does it mean to live your life? Do you take the path laid out by your parents and become, say, a dentist, nice safe job, wife, kids, dog, retirement — or do you make your own path and live your life in the moment, as the Bohemians did? This is a romantic notion even now, and whether or not the audience is conscious that this is what Marcello and company are doing, they see it happen and they can see themselves in their shoes. I doubt this will ever change until the present civilization collapses, and then — maybe — relating to these characters might become more difficult.
5) Is there anyone out there whom you particularly admire, and who has influenced you?
Besides my parents, you mean? No really, they’re special people, Bohemians in their own way – my mom, 90, is an oil painter; my dad, just turned 81, a classical pianist (also plays pretty good jazz). He is Muggle-born, I like to say [you may insert a Harry Potter explanation here for your readers if you deem it prudent: the metaphor is, people in Art are Wizards; people without Art, Muggles]: his family did not appreciate his towering musical talent. She was from Wizarding stock (her dad Stellan was in the theater world all his life, and she was in films as a kid and on Broadway in her “tweens” (a Hobbit term), among many other pursuits. They met and subsequently managed to become and stay part of many erudite artistic circles, so really they made their own path in this life.
But there are many, many people “out there” who have influenced me, some long dead, though Art has a way of smearing that boundary. Verdi, an Atheist among Catholics, yet revered by them; Stephen Jay Gould who carried the torch of reason for decades against the Zealous Right’s attacks on science in schools, and who sang hymns in choirs in Boston. Among the living: Joss Whedon, who gave us the universe of Firefly, which Fox failed to kill. Paul Gross and Christopher Guest and their respective teams of thespians who continually bring us offbeat, independent gems of theater, proving that neither Hollywood nor Vancouver owns the business. Jane Goodall, still trying to get humans to stop eating their cousins to extinction. And as a blanket praise for all whose names my mind is blanking on this evening: anyone who stands up for reason, integrity and doing the right thing and who cannot be bought. Sadly, few and far between – but more than many realize.
June 29th & July 1st
Nickel City Opera
North Tonawanda NY
To purchase tickets and
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