John Relyea? I remember hearing that one of Canada’s great singers, Gary Relyea, had a son who was making a name for himself in the USA, first at the Merola program of the San Francisco Opera and inevitably at the Metropolitan Opera. He was still young in my mind when he stole the show in the 2008 High Definition broadcast of Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust as Mephistopheles, when it became abundantly clear that the man can sing and act.
He came to Toronto to sing the villains – a varied series of roles —in Tales of Hoffmann c/o the Canadian Opera Company a few years ago, stunning singing and acting. And last season he gave us another dark portrayal for the COC as Bartok’s Bluebeard.
Relyea is now recognized as one of the great basses in the world. And we’re fortunate to have him back in town to share his gifts, this time in the Toronto Symphony’s Messiah later this month. I had to ask him ten questions: five about himself and five more concerning singing about good & evil.
1) Are you more like your father or your mother?
Very tough question. I guess a bit like both. I know I definitely inherited my dad’s off the wall sense of humor. My mother and father are extremely unique, and pretty hard to duplicate!
2) What is the best thing about being a singer?
I think the best moments are those when you get into ‘the zone’ on stage.. being in the moment, living the role, while the voice finds its most natural sound without having to look for it. These are moments that always stay with me.
3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?
I will watch just about any great musician – singer or otherwise.. Since I tend to get my fair share of opera.
I tend to listen to other types of music in my free time. I was just rediscovering David Bowie last night. He is one of the most original artists out there. His projects have always been strong pieces of theater, music, and art all in one.
I also love the singer Cassandra Wilson. Reminds me of Nina Simone -smooth, dusky sounding voice. I also love the band the National.
4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I wish I could write screenplays!
5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?
Usually something pretty mindless, in order to escape. The latest news is I have fallen for the zombie phenomenon, and am addicted to ‘The Walking Dead’ miniseries. Perhaps I will eventually move towards something a little more sophisticated…
Five (or six?) more about the upcoming TSO Messiah.
1) In a work such as Messiah that is informed by religious text and spirituality, please talk about how you reconcile those different aspects in your interpretation.
Looking at words in biblical text can often be cryptic, to say the least, especially for singers without a religious upbringing. It is always useful to revisit the stories in the Bible which these texts occur, to the point where we can have some strong imagination of those events, to bring the drama into the text and in turn before the audience.
2) You often sing of abstractions when you portray Mephistopheles, Bluebeard, the villains in Tales of Hoffmann or the bass parts in Beethoven’s 9th or Messiah. What if anything is the difference between singing about good and evil, as opposed to a real life person such as Figaro or Escamillo?
I think the best, and for me perhaps the only approach in portraying any of these parts of my repertoire consists of just being the part, playing the text. For instance, there is often ample irony within a comic libretto. Such moments are best presented with minimal affect. It’s better leave it to the audience to do the reflecting and interpretation. Usually the result is much stronger, especially in comedy. So I suppose whether playing good or evil, the process of performing remains the same, so that something meaningful can happen.
3) What is your favourite moment in Messiah?
And He Shall Feed His Flock. I think this has to be one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. I wouldn’t be surprised if Handel had his strongest spiritual moment writing this part.
4) What is your next big gig?
I will be singing Zaccaria in Nabucco with the Royal Opera at Covent Garden.
5) Do you have a favourite recorded version of Messiah?
The Neville Mariner recording.
6) Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
George London. To me, this was a voice and dramatic presence of the greatest level. A beautiful voice of soul-piercing blackness, and a truly visceral performer.
Let John have the last word concerning the TSO Messiah, to be presented the evenings of Tuesday through Saturday December 15-19, plus a 3:00 pm matinee Sunday December 20th.
You will love Andrew Davis’ new, bold and playful edition of Handel’s Messiah. It is a great evening, and will reopen your eyes to this legendary work.
I am really excited to share the stage with some truly great singers, the outstanding players of the TSO, and the Mendelssohn Choir!