Bass-baritone Douglas Williams is now performing the title role in the Opera Atelier production The Marriage of Figaro that runs this week at the Elgin Theatre.
His repertoire reaches over four centuries, being a sought-after interpreter of Monteverdi, Handel, Bach, and Mozart, in addition to the romantic and modern eras. You can read more about his extensive professional credits around the world but even find examples of his poetry & photography on his website.
I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing him onstage especially after seeing his answers to my questions.
ONE) Are you more like your father or your mother?
I supposed one of the joys and shocks of getting older is discovering just how much you are your parents’ child. From my father, a retired electrical engineer with unique hobbies, I inherited a sense of process, diligence, curiosity for what lies around the corner, independence, stubbornness, and a peculiar sense of humor. From my mother I took my entire emotional palette, including laughter, passion, and dreams.
TWO) What is the best thing about what you do?
The best thing about what I do as a singer is getting to explore all that makes me human, and then share that with other humans through my performance. I’ve learned a lot about myself and my body through training as a singer. Our voice is one of the chief mediums for how we put ourselves into the world, and there are all kinds of layers and ideas about identity, who others perceive us to be, how we perceive ourselves, that can prevent us from finding our true voice. This is the journey of the singer. There is technical mastery but for many, myself included, this parallels a journey into the self. Ultimately then I get to sing for an audience and they receive something of the freedom and truth that I’ve been mining from my body and my psyche, expressed in song.
The acting part of singing of course also allows you to shine light on all sort of emotional corners of yourself that we don’t get to visit or express in day-to-day life.
THREE) Who do you like to listen to or watch?
One of the best pieces of advice I received as an adolescent who loved music, was to keep my listening tastes broad. Right now I’m really into the American composer John Luther Adams, in particular his works for strings, The Wind in High Places and Canticles of the Sky. These are expansive, painfully beautiful plaintive pieces that fill me with wonder and stillness when I listen. I’ve also been listening for the first time to works of Johann Rosenmüller, an early German Baroque composer who wrote in the majestic Venetian style. Just the other day I was thinking, I bet I am the only person at this gym listening to Rosenmüller!
Also George Enescu symphonies, Christa Ludwig, Kurt Elling… just to name a few.
I do not watch any television show regularly. I’m looking forward to watching the new installment of Twin Peaks, perhaps after this Figaro closes. I think there are lots of interesting short things to watch online these days, too. I like the surreally edited youtube videos by Vic Berger, commenting on the ridiculous state of politics and the media in the U.S.
FOUR) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I wish that I was a better pianist. I want to write songs for my own voice – something I haven’t done since high school. But I’m afraid that the piano accompaniment will be extremely rudimentary, and the thought of embarrassment is precluding me from just trying.
FIVE) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?
Spend time in beautiful natural places. Last May, I did a solo pre-dawn hike up Telescope Peak in Death Valley National Park, arriving at the 11,043 foot summit just in time for sunrise. This was perhaps the most ecstatic experience I’ve had in nature, just being alone with the black silhouette of the mountain, hiking in high open desert terrain under the canopy of stars. Then witnessing the approach of dawn across a vast sea of mountain ranges, as if it were the moment of creation itself. There was a sense of safety and wholeness as I traversed that ridge, alone in the vastness, and I will treasure forever the serenity and awe of that early morning. I think that feeling is the same source that allows artists to create great works of music and art. For me there is a vital connection between spending time in nature and making music, and next to my list of repertoire I’d like to sing, I have a long list of places I’d like to visit.
More questions for Douglas Williams as he undertakes the title role in Opera Atelier’s Marriage of Figaro
ONE) Please talk about the advantages of doing Figaro in English, even if in this might make it harder for you.
Probably like my colleagues in this cast I had my doubts about doing an Italian opera in English.
But these doubts are only because we have all heard bad English translations of all sorts of works, or bad performances in English that make the language sound stiff and artificial. But this is an excellent translation, intelligent and funny, and retaining the sense of vivacious cleverness of the original Italian. Of course some people say that English not as lyrical as a language as Italian, where all of the emotional information is a carried in vowels, bouncing from syllable to syllable. But I am convinced that English is a beautiful language for singing and I think we have taken care in our preparation at Opera Atelier to make it beautiful and communicative, alive with the lilt of theatrical dialogue, and lyrical and gorgeous to express the charm of Mozart’s music.
Dramatically, the advantages of doing this opera in the vernacular are now very clear to me. The audience is hanging on every word, they are reacting to the development of my thought in real-time as I explain to them the Count’s deceitful plans for my Susanna. They laugh at the jokes as they happen, not from a surtitle screen. This is very important for comedy to be truly funny. We want to laugh at a joke in the first degree, without being removed from the humor as it pops on state.
As an actor you really can’t beat getting to sing in your native tongue. I have developed sufficient proficiency in the main languages of opera to emotionally connect to the text — that’s our job! But nothing can compare to English, the language I was raised in, where every word is going to have a web of emotional associations both conscious and subconscious because I have spoken that word thousands of times in thousands of contexts over the course of my life. The job of the singer-actor is that much easier and alive.
TWO) As you make your Opera Atelier debut, I’m sure you’re aware that this is a company devoted not just to historicity but a very self-conscious approach to movement vocabularies and carefully researched period performance, through their director Marshall Pynkoski. Please talk for a minute about historically informed approaches to music and theater, both your experience and your preferences.
Since 2003 I have appeared in operas with the Boston Early Music Festival, a company that does historical informed stagings of baroque opera. This was one reason why some Canadian colleagues of mine had suggested I might be a good fit for Opera Atelier. I like all kinds of stagings, and I’ve done it all from the abstractly futurist, to the most pure, to something that can feel almost too bound to historicity. In working on The Marriage of Figaro, I’ve enjoyed Opera Atelier’s approach, which I would say is very stylistically aware of the period, but also very sure of itself as live theater for a modern audience. The staging must always communicate clearly to the audience — that is paramount for Marshall.
The physicality that I inhabit in this production feels right to me for the ubiquitous elegance of Mozart, and the confidence and wit of Figaro. It’s quite satisfying actually to feel the music and the staging and the character all meet together in your body — and I find that this is especially possible when doing a staging where your movement is informed by the period. It’s like putting a costume on from the inside out.
THREE) Please talk about the special challenges of the role of Figaro vocally and dramatically.
I first did Figaro a year ago with Edo de Waart and the Milwaukee Symphony. Our Marcellina was the great mezzo soprano Susanne Mentzer, who sang Cherubino for much of her career with the greatest singers of our time. She told me that regardless of the production the Figaros always found this role tiring because there is so much running around, bursting onto the scene, getting slapped, diving for cover, etc. I don’t think it’s possible to do a Figaro that isn’t athletic. You simply must bring the zeal, the energy, the silvery cunning and assuredness to every scene. He is the engine of optimism in this opera. So it is physically tiring, but you have to save enough to sing properly. I sweat through my shirt in every act.
FOUR) What are your favourite parts of the opera?
My favorite parts of the opera would be the finales that conclude acts II and IV. They are such genius works of music theater, it’s baffling to think of how Mozart conceived of this music. The text and music are so fluidly intuitive that I think he had no process. He just had the brilliance to know immediately how to interweave all the voices together, conveying disparate worlds of thought among the characters but with such gorgeous, effortless music. To sing these ensembles is really a joy. The act IV finale is like a carnival ride. You step on and you go!
But if I could sing any aria from any repertoire that is not for my voice it would be Susanna’s “Deh vieni, non tardar” from act IV. I love getting my heart broken by this song, night after night.
Mireille Asselin sings it beautifully.
FIVE) One of the special challenges in some roles is the desire as a feeling person to react, to feel. A performer who is reacting emotionally –perhaps crying or laughing—has lost some if not all of their control, and is no longer performing, having become another of the spectators. In comedy this is especially problematic, if one starts laughing at the funny things one sees onstage. How do you stay clear in a role like this one, where your feelings may overwhelm your thought process, where you might giggle at what you see and lose your focus?
Speaking of “Deh vieni, non tardar”, this is the one point in the opera where I allow my emotions to overcome me. I get to lie on the floor, in hiding, listening to Susanna sing to a man who is not me. Because I only have one short line of distressful recitative after her aria I can afford to let the heartache of this moment break me.
This is a trick of singing, to pull so deeply from your emotional sources, but to ride them in your voice and, in almost every case, never become so overwhelmed that you cannot sing beautifully. With Figaro the draw at times is to become a bit aggressive, like in the opening cavatina “Se vuol ballare” or overly bitter in the act IV aria “Aprite”. The emotions are so real because the situations are very relatable, and the music is so powerful that you become seduced into the true emotion. But you can’t do that, because in real life when you are angry or bitter the body’s natural response is to tense up. This is when I have to remind myself, I don’t have to feel everything for the audience to get it. Sing the text, be in the moment, don’t over-show, do the gesture, but always sing, and from the stage the audience puts the pieces together in their own experiences.
SIX) Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
I would like to thank my teacher, Neil Semer. He has been a true guide, showing me what is possible beyond what I imagined of not just my voice, but my self. When I started with him we worked on the Figaro arias but it felt like a stretch for me. I told him that these Mozart arias felt like something outside of me — I couldn’t imagine myself in that world, like clothes that didn’t fit.
He told me there would come a day when I would laugh at that notion.
Douglas Williams, Mireille Asselin & the rest of the cast of Figaro will be onstage at the Elgin Theatre until November 4th.