It can be embarrassing when you don’t realize you’ve already seen / heard an artist before. I didn’t realize I’d seen Alek Shrader before, in his impressive turn as Ferdinand in Adès’s Tempest at the Metropolitan Opera.
So in other words, he’s a young, attractive looking tenor with a lovely voice who is already having success. You can find a detailed bio here.
Shrader will be coming to Toronto to star in The Barber of Seville, beginning April 17th until May 22nd. I had to ask him ten questions: five about himself and five more about taking on the role of Count Almaviva.
1) Are you more like your father or your mother?
I’d say I’m a pretty even blend of my father and mother, like a clone of both of them but in one body. I also find occasionally I’m not like either one of them. I guess that makes me a rogue clone, ready for misadventures and exploits and whatnot. I’ve been told Orphan Black is a good show.
2) What is the best thing or worst thing about being an opera singer?
The best thing about being an opera singer is that I met Daniela Mack. The worst thing about being an opera singer is having to stay healthy. We don’t get paid if we don’t sing, so catching a cold might mean the rent is late.
3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?
Honestly, today’s music makes me feel like an old person because I hate most of it. Even rappers don’t try to rhyme anymore, and that makes me sad. Musicians used to look cool, but now looking cool is music? I don’t get it, man. Get off my lawn. The Awesome Mix vol. 1 from Guardians of the Galaxy proved to me that music used to be more… musical. On the other hand, I’ll watch just about anything on a screen. Screens fascinate me, like a hypnotist handing out free money. There are far too many shows that I watch regularly to list here (it’s an issue of time), but I will mention Game of Thrones and Community. I’m always up for a movie – flying from Sydney meant I could power-watch Birdman, Fury, The Drop, This Is Where I Leave You, Whiplash, and Nightcrawler.
4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I wish I had the ability to not hold grudges indefinitely. I also wish I could live forever (but in that case, I’d really need the first wish as well, unless I simply outlived those I held grudges against).
5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what’s your favourite thing to do?
Relaxing is hard for me… It stresses me out. I’m always working, though I’m not always singing. When I’m not learning music or researching opera stuff, I’m doing my other job (which is writing). I write stories, comics, pilots, screenplays, even poetry that rhymes. To plot my tales, I read a lot about whatever my subject matter is, going down rabbit holes for hours. And as I said before, watching TV and movies is an any-time-of-day activity. In all my jobs/activities, what I do for fun is storytelling – to me, it is an essential part of life. Writing, reading, watching… Sunlight scares me.
Five more about playing Count Almaviva in the upcoming Barber of Seville.
1) Please talk about the challenges of singing the role of Count Almaviva.
Almaviva has all the classic Rossini vocal challenges: coloratura, stamina, singing in tune, being audible above the orchestra (those might not be uniquely Rossini). Occasionally (and including this production), Almaviva’s guise as the substitute music teacher has a “funny” voice. Almaviva’s aria in Act 2 comes at the very end of the show and it can be a challenge to save enough gas for that (but it’s cut from this production, so problem solved).
2) The Count is inevitably the good guy. How do you approach your portrayal?
Nothing is inevitable! But you’re right – he’s often traditionally portrayed as the earnest young lover (as he is in this production). Almaviva comes from money and privilege, and that’s always been enough to get what he wants. Then he meets Rosina and all of a sudden he needs her to love him for who he is as a person. That’s how we know this romance is special for him. That’s why the few conditions of his pursuit of Rosina involve not revealing his status or wealth. Now, he uses money to further his relationship with her and get out of tricky situations, but what Almaviva is looking for is something that he cannot purchase. Good guy, bad guy, ugly guy doesn’t matter – the story (well, my story) of Almaviva is a guy who needs to feel like he’s worth more than his money. You could also say that he’s just like super in love and needs to vet Rosina before they get married, so he puts on a bunch of disguises and bribes some folks.
My approach to Almaviva (and acting in general) is very simple: play pretend. Many actors and teachers of actors tell me to dig through my own life experiences and wander through that on stage. That’s a perfectly valid method for acting (and in the end, the correct method is the one that works for you), but I reject that approach for opera acting.
First off, opera is by nature NOT realistic – it is larger than life (it was designed that way). My own life experiences were exactly life-sized, and even though I could translate my emotions from those experiences to the stage, I’d have to amp up the drama – now I’m pretending that I’m feeling emotions I never felt anyway.
Second, I don’t need another reason than the first one. Acting is pretending, with calculated sympathy and empathy. Film/TV actors and (to some extent) stage actors have more freedom to inject “reality” into their performances (they can apply their own volume level, their own timing, their own body language, even the direction they are facing on stage), but opera demands (nay, requires!) a grander portrayal while we all suspend disbelief that all the people on this planet are singing.
You asked (in the part of the question I deleted) how much of my Almaviva is Alek Shrader – the answer is none, but we have a lot in common.
3) Do you have a favourite moment in the opera?
I love the overture (though it wasn’t written for Barbiere). I always enjoy the moment halfway through the finale of Act 1 SPOILER ALERT… when the cops arrive because of the ruckus in the house. It’s a sudden full-stop to the escalating chaos.
4) As the Canadian Opera Company presents this highly original production from Els Comediants (the team of Director Joan Font with Set & Costume Designer Joan Guillén), please speak about original & different approaches to opera, and how you feel about working with adventurous directors.
This is indeed a vivid, colorful production with a giant piano, but traditionalists will still recognize good ol’ Barbiere. If anything, it’s extra tradition-y! They’ve added the tradition of the Spanish widow who lives in every house, the drunk who staggers on every street, the patrolman who walks his beat at night, and a few romantic combinations between old and young servants. But we’re still in Seville, Figaro is still a factotum/barber, and all the dots connect to make a Barbiere Bugs Bunny would be proud of. Joan and his merry band have stayed mostly with the text and even reinserted some classic Commedia dell’arte for flavor. This really is a traditional Barbiere (through a bright, geometric kaleidoscope).
Directors (“adventurous” or otherwise) wield authority over the storytelling of the piece. No matter the level of collaboration, in the end it’s their story; how they tell the story is up to them. La traviata has been the most performed opera in the world, and you’ve got the painstakingly reconstructed original production beside the “fresh take” of Violetta as an alien on Mars (copyright). My point is that directors have free reign of their story, and we hope they are telling the same one that was written in the libretto of the opera they are directing, I’m not a hater – I personally prefer updating our story to remain relevant/alive. I’m only illustrating the fact that “adventurous” directing doesn’t always mean “successful” storytelling. TO WIT, when “collaborating” with “adventurous” directors, it remains VITAL that we all UNDERSTAND why we are telling this story (especially them) and how we are telling it (especially me). But that’s an ideal situation, and in the end you do what you’re told because the director said so. (Sorry about all the quotation marks and caps.)
5) Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
Let’s go full circle here. I wouldn’t be doing this were it not for my parents, and I wouldn’t still be doing this were it not for my wife. All of my teachers are amazing (duh). I especially admire Billie Holiday for saying this: “If I’m going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all.”
Alek Shrader opens in the Canadian Opera Company production of The Barber of Seville April 17th, running until May 22nd at the Four Seasons Centre.