The Tenor in Conversation with
Growing up in Evanston, Illinois, I learned at a very young age what a wonderful boon it was to have Chicago right next door. The easy availability of this world-class city provided all the perks of commerce as well as the artistic community - which, besides the many chamber groups and smaller organizations, included the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Lyric Opera of Chicago. As a teenager, I became involved in Classical Music, first as a choral singer and then learning piano and bassoon, and I began going to as many performances as we could afford. Now, after more than 40 years of attending mostly outstanding concerts and operas, it’s with special pleasure that I look back on the evenings that included the artistry of Rockwell Blake.
He first appeared with Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1983 in Cenerentola and then in 1987 in L’Italiana in Alegeri, both with Baltsa as the title character. Later he would return in two more Rossini operas, Otello in 1992-93 with Merritt, Cuberli and conducted by Renzetti, and Barber (twice) in 1994-95 with Allen, Von Stade/Mentzer, Ghiaurov/Halfvorson, and in 2000-01 with Kasarova, Croft and Del Carlo, and finally Handel’s Alcina in 1999-2000 with Fleming, Dessay, Larmore, conducted by Nelson. [Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.]
I’ve put his full biography in a box at the end of this interview, as copied from the website of his publicist, and updated as of June, 2002. But I would like to take a few lines to recount some personal experiences and share with you another of the particular joys of being a regular attendee in the Windy City.
A quarter-century ago, when one went to operas by Rossini, we knew in advance that the mezzo would be outstanding since Lyric brought us Giulietta Simionato and later Marilyn Horne, and the lower men’s ranges were filled with a cadre of buffo singing-actors including Paolo Montarsolo and Renato Capecchi. Even the tenor roles were handled well, but all of a sudden, seemingly from out of nowhere, this new guy appeared and we were all blown away. We certainly had not been let down by previous interpreters, but Rockwell Blake had us all sitting up and taking notice. The voice was big, florid and clear, and had a wonderful ring to it in the theater. Our house, though large (nearly 4000 seats), has sympathetic acoustics, and if the performers project without adding extra force, their sound is heard to great advantage, and we in the audience can enjoy them at their very best. So we all knew right away whether the individual knew how to sing, and what he or she had in the throat.
Until very recently, being a tenor in the Bel Canto repertoire was virtually unknown, and those who were persuaded to do those roles ranged from pretty good down to just plain awful. So when Blake took the stage, we were treated to the music as it was supposed to be sung, and our cheers rewarded him at the end of each aria. And I must say, that impressive as his recordings are, they really don’t give a true picture of the voice as we heard it live and in person. He has returned several times, and even been persuaded to give master classes to our young students in the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists.
My radio career, which began in 1975, has given me the opportunity to meet with many of the artists who come to Chicago, and it was with great pleasure that I had the chance to chat with Rockwell Blake in December of 1987. He invited me to his apartment, and I was met by both his wife, Debbie, and their dog. The adorable canine was especially curious, probably because the radio station where I worked had an assortment of cats and dogs that lived there and were occasionally audible during the times when the microphone was open – such as announcements and newscasts! [To see a few photos of them, click HERE.] As we sat down for our chat, the Blake’s dog curled up on (yes, on!) my feet and remained there throughout our conversation, sometimes paying attention, sometimes dozing.
We chatted about many things specific to his career, and so we
with the area for which he’s most noted . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: Do you like being a "Rossini Tenor," and is that label a good one for your voice category?
Rockwell Blake: Yes it is a very good label.
a nice starting point because what I do, at least right now, nobody
does. To blow my own horn, nobody does it as well as I do because
no one has really taken the time to study it. That’s the cross
a Rossini tenor should bear and most don’t. It’s the preparation,
preparing and acquiring the technique for managing the music. Too
many people sort of follow behind, breathlessly trying to get through
music, and in actual fact it’s got to be mastered and
At least in my mind there are very, very few people that came close to
really mastering the difficulties of it, and then doing something with
BD: Is this something that you decided that you wanted to become, or did your voice say “This is what you will become”?
RB: My voice told me the category of things that I would do. The first couple of things that I learned were “Nessun dorma” (from Turandot) and “E lucevan le stelle” (from Tosca), both by Puccini. I loved that music and I still dream of becoming Franco Corelli, but one has to be practical. My voice told me the kind of music that I should sing and I took it upon myself – well, my voice teacher took it upon herself – to instill in me the technique for being able to do it. One of my own crusades is that all singers, all types of voices, should learn how to do this music and should really do this sort of music.
RB: Because all types of voices sang this music. It wasn’t just a particular category of singer. You couldn’t say that a light tenor is a Rossini tenor because it’s not true. There were heavy tenors who were Rossini tenors, because there were all weights of voices singing Rossini in the time of Rossini.
BD: But in the time of Rossini no one was singing Puccini. Now most tenors are singing this heavier repertoire.
RB: That’s right. The demise of that category of tenor or voice, generally, is that the kind of singer Puccini had in mind and was writing for had a lot under their belt when they were singing his music. It’s quite a different matter for a 24-year-old to try to make a career singing Rodolfo, regardless of his weight of voice, and it takes its toll. So in my generation there are maybe a handful of singers that have survived the foray into that repertoire. Many more have fallen by the wayside and we don’t hear of them. We don’t see them anymore because their voices did not stand the test. I think that all voices should try the earlier material and must learn it because it is the basis upon which all the other composers built.
BD: So it’s really the foundation of any vocal technique.
RB: It’s the foundation of any vocal technique, and then from there you can build. But the problem is that when you’re young, when the voice is young, it is flexible, it is malleable, and it is very much like a mind – it’s impressionable. And if you force it to do things that are real strenuous, it’s like forcing a young child to lift weights. You can’t do it. This is what happens to the voice in the big parts, and I think they should all learn the earlier things.
BD: Why don’t we have a whole bunch of tenors that are singing Rossini roles?
RB: Market! One can get paid a great deal for the standard – meaning heavier – repertoire. There are more opera companies asking more tenors to sing the heavier roles, the standard repertoire, and so in a market level, the person – the tenor, the soprano, the bass, or the baritone – that wants to make a living right away is going to be singing the standard repertoire, which is the core repertoire of the opera companies in the world.
BD: Did you know this when you were starting out?
RB: Oh yes. Sure. I understood that.
BD: How did you withstand it?
RB: Brains! Just plain, “No.” “No, I don’t sing Hoffmann,” which was one of the first things that was offered to me in my career. So I said, "NO, I don’t sing that." Just about two years ago I was asked again, and again I said, "NO, I don’t sing that." I know I can’t do that repertoire. I love it, it’s fun, but I don’t and won’t pretend.
BD: Are you partially the beneficiary of all this bel canto revival in the last fifteen to twenty-five years?
RB: Yes! As a matter of fact, when I was choosing my repertoire, the bel canto revival or renaissance really hadn’t come to flower. Small rumblings were happening around Callas and Sutherland and Horne, but I chose the repertoire because it was what I knew was good for me, though I didn’t like the idea of having a career filled with just three or four operas. We’re talking of The Barber of Seville and the occasional Cenerentola, very occasionally L’Italiana in Algeri and Don Pasquale, and perhaps L’Elisir d’Amore. I’ve been very fortunate that the repertoire has taken on a life of its own outside of the great divas that really brought up the interest. Now opera houses are choosing to do operas that used to be performed only for a particular person.
BD: Such as Semiramide?
RB: Yes. They’re choosing to do it, and then filling out their casts.
* * * * *
BD: Your voice has dictated that you sing certain roles. Do you like the characters that are imposed upon you?
RB: Oh yes. Well, Lindoro in L’Italiana is not what I would call a terrific character. The only thing that is required of Lindoro is that he should be charming enough to be believed as the love interest for Isabella. As long as he does that, he’s successful as a character because he basically does everything he’s told. We see from the very beginning that the Bey tells him “I’m going to give you my wife, and you’re going to take her to Italy,” and he says “All right!”
BD: Is he a wimp?
RB: No, he’s a slave. In the very beginning he’s a slave. So like most anyone in such a position, he’s going to do anything he can to get out of there. And then his girlfriend shows up and he’s very sensitive to the fact that the Bey tells her that Lindoro is going to be running off with the Bey’s wife. He doesn’t want that to come out, and he has to do a lot of explaining to this woman who’s been chasing him all over the globe. Then she makes up all these plans how to get out of Algeria. Without her he would never have gotten out. He’s been there for three months. You’d think he’d have figured it out by then, and it only takes her a day, and she’s gone! You tend – well, at least I tend – to start discounting this person’s brain. So, in that case, Lindoro’s not one of the greatest characters that Rossini wrote for the tenor, but there are a lot of them that are wonderful in Rossini, and also in Donizetti and also in Bellini. The characters are very colorful.
BD: But you wouldn’t sing all the Rossini roles and all the Bellini roles, would you?
RB: No, not at all.
BD: I can’t see you as Arnold (in William Tell).
RB: Well, I toy with the idea. It’s a possibility. There are two trains of thought because it’s one of the swing pieces of vocal pedagogy.
BD: I guess I always think of the heroic tenors who have sung him.
RB: That’s right. Nearly everyone thinks that way because of a tenor by the name of Duprez who made everyone forget the older voices. He came on the scene in the 1830s and 40s and made everyone forget Nourrit, the person for whom that opera was written. Nourrit had a very light voice, so the character of the piece was changed by the vocal quality of Duprez. Everyone said Nourrit had a very light voice, but it was really a baritonal quality which means it had a lot of heft in it. But it was the way he managed his upper register that was different, and it was Duprez that popularized what hadn’t really been heard before, and that was the chest notes in the high upper register. He learned a new technique for himself. In a sense created it, and it became the rage. All the audiences wanted to hear it, and since the audiences wanted to hear it, all the men – not just the tenors but ALL the men – learned that technique, and it’s a technique we use today.
BD: Even you?
RB: Even me. The only exceptions to the rule that we have today are the people who are doing original music with original instruments. The “original” craze uses a good number of singers that have the pretense of singing in the original manner. I don’t believe that’s quite true either, but you can’t really touch that these days because it’s quite the fad.
BD: Does a technique such as yours work well in these large barns of opera houses that we have here in America?
RB: Yes. It works well because I don’t have a big voice. I always say this to people. Even my conductors in the pit say, “You have a big voice. You’re singing too loudly.” And I say, “I’m not singing loudly. You’re used to hearing me sing in little tiny theaters.” This is a barn of a house. The orchestra’s big, and they play as though they’re not listening to the singers. So the voice that you use in a large theater, especially here in Chicago, has to have enough strength from the singer, from the energy in the body, to have an importance with the orchestra. It’s not a matter of saying that Rossini never intended to have his music heard with such aggressiveness in the manner of singing. It’s just a matter of the theater being very big and the orchestra being large.
BD: So then you change your style of singing a little bit?
RB: A little bit for these houses, and it’s all a matter of technique. If you have the technique to manage it, you can refine the sound for the smaller theaters. That’s really the intent of Rossini with the gracious, refined kind of singing for these sorts of people. But there’s got to be a good deal of aggression in the amount of sound that you’re making for it to come across, otherwise you lose it. It’s a matter of just being able to find the limits, knowing what is a pianissimo in this house, as opposed to a 700-seat house or a 1000-seat house. It’s about mezzo-forte!
BD: But then you adjust your fortes.
RB: Yes. The forte goes a little farther and we adjust. It’s just a matter of having the technical apparatus available to know your limits, to know how far one’s voice can go and stop there before the voice starts to be pushed out of shape. When that happens, you get too tired and you lose notes in the upper register. It’s a matter of technique and training, and once these things are settled for you, then no matter what size – here in Chicago, or the Metropolitan, or San Francisco – you walk into the house and you say, “It’s a big house, and I know how to sing in this opera house.” It’s not a matter of, “Oh, my GOD!! Look at this space!!” which is a natural reaction for many singers.
BD: Do the acoustics play a big part in that?
RB: Yes. Sitting in different areas of the house, you realize that the house is variable. There are so many errors that singers can make about an opera house. It’s an error not to go out and listen to rehearsals. That’s number one. It’s also an error to go out and listen to rehearsals in just one spot because you don’t know what the theater’s like. If you run to different places in the theater, you realize that, on the whole, the theater’s very good, even if there are spots where you can sit down and get very scared. Depending on where the singer is on the stage, there are spots in the theater where it’s hard to be heard. Then he moves around onstage and oh yes, you can hear him. So you begin to think this is a hot spot and that’s a cold spot, until you move to another seat and realize it doesn’t really matter where you are on the stage. For the most part, the theater isn’t bad, it’s just variable, and you don’t want to over-sing when you’re onstage in one spot or another.
BD: Is there any theater in the world that is not variable?
RB: There are some. There are some theaters in the world that you can sit anywhere, and it’s wonderful. Lisbon happens to be one. You can sit anywhere in that theater and the voices are clear. Barcelona as well. That is a terrific example of a large theater. It’s about 3000 seats and it’s wonderful. The voices are so favored; it’s incredible how much they are favored as opposed to the orchestra. The orchestra can play loud and the singer still comes through. Then you go to the State Theater at Lincoln Center in New York, and I think the architects had in mind it was going to be a ballet theater because you can’t hear the clomping on the stage, but neither can you hear the voices! The point is that he did a good job if he wanted to make it a ballet theater, because people jump up and down and knock those toe shoes into the ground and you don’t hear it.
* * * * *
BD: Do you like being a wandering minstrel?
RB: I’m getting used to it. When I first started out it was an adventure to discover the world. I grew up a farm boy, and so I never got away from my town. I didn’t really go any distance until I was in college.
BD: As a farm boy, how did you get interested in opera?
RB: I fell into it. When I was a kid I didn’t actually live on a farm. My father worked for a fur raiser, a fur farm, and so in that sense he was a farm worker and made farm worker’s pay.
BD: Where was this?
RB: In Plattsburgh, upstate New York. It was quite specific, Schuyler Falls, New York, and the falls happen to be a 20-foot concrete dam. He worked for this furrier until he was sixty or sixty-one, and they closed. The originator of the place died and his wife retired and closed the place and sold off all the animals. But anyway he had a gross income of maybe $6000 a year until the time when I was going into high school, so I had no pretensions of having culture accessible to me if I could afford it, and in the area in which I lived it didn’t exist. One of the standing jokes still is that Plattsburgh has only one kind of culture, and it is agri-culture! [Both laugh] A very old joke, but of that area it’s quite true, and it’s only in recent times that they’re starting to try to change that. There’s a large group of people that are trying to bring in the performing arts and hang paintings in the public buildings and do shows.
BD: Do records and radio broadcasts and telecasts make culture more accessible to remote areas like this?
RB: Sure. I think that the Texaco broadcast from the Met arrives there, and the CBC is accessible from Canada, and there’s a public radio station across the lake and the public television station in town, and I think there’s another one across the lake in Burlington, Vermont, so the arts are accessible on the airwaves. There’s an arts council which is partially state-funded that brings in different things, and, as a matter of fact, they’re going to bring me in December. I’m going to do a recital there.
BD: Local boy makes good.
RB: In a sense, local boy still trying.
BD: You don’t consider yourself having made good?
RB: I always say that if you think you’ve arrived, you start sliding, so I always put goals in front. If I reach one of my goals, I pull it out of the ground and throw it farther ahead so I just keep going forward. I always look at myself and say “Well, you’re doing all right, Rock, but you haven’t made it yet.”
BD: Do you do the same with your roles? When you feel you’ve mastered one, do you move it ahead and do more with it?
RB: Yes. That I do as a matter of boredom avoidance. I’m always looking for more, always looking for something different in the role, whether it be in the music or in the character. For Lindoro, for example, it has been discovered by the powers that be in Pesaro – one of whom, Bill Gossett, lives right here in Chicago – that the first aria in the second act was not written by Rossini. At least the belief is that the small aria that is standard for the opera was not written by Rossini, and that for the reprise of the first production Rossini did write an aria for it. I try to get it put into production whenever I can, and I was saddened that we didn’t get to do it here, for some reason. It’s a much nicer piece of music and it’s something I try to do because it’s more interesting, prettier, and gives a bow to the authentic music people.
* * * * *
BD: Which is the part that you sing the most?
RB: I would say it would be The Barber of
and probably Mitridate, Re de Ponto of Mozart. That’s one
of those un-singable pieces which people come and ask you for, and some
people are foolhardy enough to say “Yes,” and this one I’ve sung a
lot. The Italiana I’ve sung a lot, but the Barber
most definitely the leader.
BD: Tell me a little bit about Count Almaviva.
RB: Almaviva! Ah... He’s a very impetuous rogue with few redeeming values except for the fact he has wonderful music! He’s not a nice man, but the role for me is fun because it has three different people. It has the Count, a drunken soldier, and a music teacher who usually turns out to be a priest, or to pretend to be a priest. In that sense it’s interesting to me because I get a chance to change what I am. It’s like playing third base for twenty minutes and then going over to first, and then playing catcher, and then go out on the mound for a while. That makes a great salad of personality through the night, so it gives you a chance to really shake the acting ability out into the open, rather than just having to go out and sing and concentrate on one thing.
BD: Since this is the first of the three Beaumarchais dramas, are you at all conscious, when you’re singing this one, of what’s going to happen in The Marriage of Figaro?
RB: Oh sure. I’ve read all three for character building, and all of the things that come later in the other two plays must be present in embryo. The possibility in the man’s personality has to be there. I don’t think Almaviva should be played as the fresh-faced young boy that comes on the stage, smiles at everyone, and has not a single bit of malice toward anyone. I don’t believe that’s true. I don’t see him that way. As a matter of fact, I see him quite the opposite of most producers that see him as the fall guy of Figaro. In actual fact, I think that Figaro is the henchman of Almaviva, and for me they’re on a par. The two of them do what they do on the stage and there is a good deal of friction between them, even though they work together. Figaro works for Almaviva, for the money. He doesn’t like him, and there should be reason for it. There should be a class friction there. Beaumarchais had that in mind himself, and I don’t think it should be lost in The Barber of Seville. In that way, I think that the two people there should be a clash of personalities, and yet camaraderie remains because of the way the society was built in that time. Then the two people had to work together, and Almaviva definitely needed Figaro to really worm his way into that house or into any house below his station. He could burst into the door of any house he wanted to, but to actually WORM his way in the way he did, he needed the help of someone from that station in life. And Figaro needed the Count because that was where the money was. He was working for other people in Seville – like doctors and professional people – but the true money, the place where he could really make a killing, would be out of the aristocracy, and so he needed the Count for that.
BD: Are you ever upset that Mozart didn’t write his Count as a tenor?
RB: Mmmmm... No, I don’t think so.
BD: Have you ever sung Basilio in the Mozart opera?
RB: No, I never have. It would be fun to do. I’m hoping that somebody will take it upon himself to do a really good job of setting the third play. It would be fun.
BD: But you do sing a lot of other Mozart.
BR: Yes I do.
BD: What’s the secret of singing Mozart, and is it very different from singing Rossini?
RB: No, not much. I think the big secret of Mozart is that it’s not easy. People don’t think that Donna Anna is easy, or Donna Elvira is easy, or that the Don is easy, but they do have the opinion that the tenor part’s sort of easy, and the basso buffo’s sort of easy and it doesn’t matter much about his voice. That’s not true. None of the things that Mozart wrote is easy. Nothing. The music is difficult to interpret. It’s so exposed, it’s so simple, it is like walking a tightrope. All you have is the rope. There’s a very thin line in the music to follow and you could fall off that thing so easily by misinterpreting, by not following the phrases correctly. There’s actually no such thing as "correctly," but you should follow it in a stylish manner and deliver the music in a way that’s beautiful. It’s the music, not just the sound that you make, which is the problem today. The sound should be very good. The sound of the voices should be very beautiful, as beautiful as possible, but if there’s a technical difficulty in the voice, then the music sort of klunks around and it’s not gracious any more. For me anyway, the intent of the great pieces of Mozart is a tour de force of making it look simple where it isn’t, and giving the music a tremendous amount of interest. If you were to try to make a computer play the music, just play the notes, it becomes uninteresting. It takes a good technician in Mozart to really interpret the music, to give it an interest to the ear so that it’s exciting. It shouldn’t be just "pleasant". I have a hard time going to performances of Mozart because for the most part it’s pleasant, and I think Mozart’s music can be and should be exciting – and it so often isn’t. But Mozart is such great music, such wonderful music, that it survives on “pleasant” when it should be exciting. It’s rather like stainless steel – it’s indestructible. So that even if it’s just pleasant it’s wonderful.
BD: Do you sing anything in French?
RB: Yes. I’ve sung in French, I’ve sung Lakmé by Leo Délibes, and La Fille du Régiment which Donizetti wrote in French, also Robert le diable of Meyerbeer, and Le Comte Ory of Rossini. So I’ve sung some French. I like it. I like it very much. I’m really singing quite a bit more, actually. I’ve gone deep in, nearly over my head in music now learning a recital. I’m preparing nearly from scratch a program which I’ll do in December in Paris, and there’s lots of French in it. I’ll sing it in Paris and then in Montpellier and in Nice, and then I’ll do it in my little home town. That’s what it’s going to say, on the advertisements – “Direct from Paris, Montpellier and Nice”
BD: Do you also sing orchestral concerts as well as opera?
RB: I haven’t done a lot. I’m so tied up with opera performances that I really have a hard time squeezing them in. Those sorts of things come around rather late in the opera world.
BD: Do you like being booked two and three years ahead?
RB: Put it this way – there’s a great deal of security in having those things stretching out before you. Any consultant, anyone in the business world who works from contract to contract will understand what I’m talking about when I say it’s nice to have those contracts lying out there in the far future. They’re things you can bank on. You can say, “OK, for the next five years I can stop worrying about the budget.” In the first seven years of my career there was always, “Oh my God, am I going to have enough money for the next six months?" Then you look down at the six months of activity and there’s just one contract, which is not going to pay the bills. There’s no cushion. You start out with nothing, you have nothing, and there’s no such thing as an investment in property or something like a dentist would have to go through. You move to New York, take an apartment and go to everything you can go to, and shell out a lot of money to pianists and coaches, which is necessary. One needs to study, regardless, and you have to shell out money for the auditions, and if you are serious about making a career you go to every audition there is. That means maybe three or four times a week you’re shelling out twenty-five bucks for a pianist just to play three arias for you. So it gets expensive, especially when you have no income.
BD: Is it all worth it?
RB: It’s worth it! Most definitely it’s worth it. But it puts a mind set in the head, and if you see a hole of three or four months in your schedule, it can make you nervous even when you have no right to be nervous whatsoever. But you think you’ve got to find something to put in there.
BD: Are you now in a position where you make sure you can take some time off to give the voice some rest?
RB: Well, yes, but I do it a different way from many singers. They take off a month or two months and just say, “I’ve stopped, I quit, I’m resting.” I believe that’s wrong, because they do that while they’re actually working. They go to rehearsals, they sing ALL the rehearsals full voice, they get out of the rehearsal and they go home and they study their voice, in the sense that they’re making the voice work, singing full voice to keep their voice in position. I don’t do that. I don’t do that at all. I don’t sing nearly half the rehearsals. I don’t sing even a third of the rehearsals. I hardly sing until the orchestra arrives into rehearsals, and then if the rehearsals come back-to-back every day, or two rehearsals in a day, I only sing one of them in a day.
BD: Do the conductor and stage director know this?
RB: They find out!
BD: Do they object?
RB: For the most part, no. It’s the people who are meeting me for the first time who object because conductors generally have a low level of expectancy. They don’t expect to get much more than they’re going to get in any piano rehearsal. They hear the voice for the first time and that’s all they think they’re going to get, and if they don’t know the person, they have no idea what to expect. They have not the slightest idea. So with a conductor I’ve never met before, generally I’ll come into the first piano rehearsal and sing my butt off, and give him everything that he could possibly expect in a performance. After that I wait, and the next rehearsal I don’t give so much. Generally you get one of two reactions. One will run up to you and say, “What’s wrong, are you sick?” and the other says, “All right, it’s fine, don’t worry about it.”
BD: I would think that you would want to confide a little bit more, and tell him what’s coming.
RB: Conductors are a funny breed. It’s almost impossible in the first few days to understand which stream they’re going to swim in. I’ve found in my experience it’s always better to let them come to you and tell you what they want, and then negotiate from there. Know where they stand and then you can negotiate with them. But to go in and say, “This is what I do,” to many conductors is like cutting their legs. They like to call the shots, so I let them call the shots. I’ll let them react to what I do. I do what I do, and they react to that, and then we negotiate. Generally after we’ve talked about it and they hear what I do and how I do, it’s no problem. I’ve never worked with a conductor that I’ve really had any trouble with.
BD: Are you sort of playing Lindoro to their Pasha?
RB: No, no. I’m not pliant in that way, in the sense that I do everything they tell me to do. I work with them. I work with every conductor and every stage director on an equal basis. It’s, “What do you want from me?” and then we negotiate. It’s always a matter of logic, and usually conductors are better than stage directors. I’ll ask what they want from me, and they say, “I’d like you to sing.” Then I would say, “Tell me why you want me to sing,” and they say, “I’d like to hear for balance,” and I say “With the piano?” and he says, “No, no, I mean, I want to hear you sing.” “Why do you want to hear me sing?” “How are you going to perform it?” “I do it exactly the same way with half-voice as I will do with full voice,” and we negotiate thusly. Then we get on the stage and he says, “I want to hear balances so I want to hear voice.” I’ll say “OK, let’s do it,” and I’ll give him his balances and so on. By the time the orchestra comes down we’ve come to some understanding, and if we have two rehearsals in a day I’ll say “You’ll get me in the morning or in the afternoon. When would you like to hear it?”
BD: I was just going to ask if you let them choose which one they can have.
RB: Sure, sure. Universally, conductors are, in that way, very logical and businesslike. They are musicians. There are very few people – real rank amateurs I’ve run into – that just couldn’t deal with it, and they wanted their singers to sing out all the time without exception. Generally I only worked with them once. I’ve never had to turn down a conductor. I’ve never had to say “I don’t work with this person.”
* * * * *
BD: Do you ever feel you’re a slave to the voice?
RB: Oh most definitely! Oh, yes! The throat is the king. Every profession has its demands and I know what mine are and I just follow them.
RB: Oh sure. I don’t begrudge. I used to. I can’t say that I always followed the dictates of nature without some reluctance, but as the years passed I got less rash and less impetuous. What I do is what I like doing, and so I don’t long to be under an automobile. My family is all manual laborers, and I’ve always taken great pleasure in doing some sort of creative manual labor, like playing doctor to an automobile or building or repairing homes and making furniture. That sort of thing I’ve always enjoyed, but it’s not something I can do. And it’s not something I can do and expect to sing, either. I can’t get in a dusty room with a bunch of lumber and expect to create a desk, and at the same time be able to go off and study music. It just doesn’t work. Your vocal cords just say “STOP!” I’d love to go to all the museums here in Chicago and take in the culture that’s available here, but I can’t because I know what my body will take. If I expect to produce a good product vocally, I’ve got to husband the energies that I have. It’s one thing to be active physically and to do exercises and sit ups and pushups and go out for a walk, but to take oneself out to go to a museum and stand up all day, it’s just basically doing a full day’s job. When I have a two-day break I can run around, go out to do shopping, but in a rehearsal period it’s impossible. And when we have performances day after day, and if you have only a day between, you really need that day in the middle to stop and rest and recover, because a performance, no matter what music you’re singing, takes a toll on the vocal cords and you’ve got to rest them. You have to recover from that performance the same way you would recover from a fever. It’s not the vocal cords you’re resting, you’re resting the whole system, and the vocal cords will recover because the whole system is recovering. It’s a mistake to think that just if you stop speaking and do everything else you want to do, your vocal cords are going to be better. That doesn’t work.
BD: Is it easier on you being a man traveling with a wife than it is for a woman traveling with a husband?
RB: It depends on the husband, or male companion, if you will. As far as the stereotype is concerned, yes, but there are marriages in this business that operate very well. It’s easier for me because Debbie and I are a team. She gives me a great deal of support that generally is reserved for one’s colleagues. Historically that would be so, many, many years ago, and this has disappeared in our business. We don’t have the kind of colleague relationships that were in the old days.
BD: You don’t have the "ensemble companies" the way they were.
RB: Exactly. Exactly, and Debbie supports me in so many different ways that I am lost without her. Actually, Debbie studied voice with my voice teacher and she understands what I do, and understands my voice very, very well. We spoke earlier about going into theaters and sitting everywhere in the theater to understand what the theater’s like. I don’t have to do that because Debbie does it. But it’s necessary, so if she’s not with me, I do it. I was doing Il Pirata in Catania, and when we got to the orchestra rehearsals I sat in every level and every conceivable area where there might be a glitch or something in the theater. I toured the whole thing to see what kind of a theater it was. It’s a beautiful theater, but I understood the theater when I finished.
BD: Most singers don’t do that.
RB: No. They don’t even think about it. They don’t think it’s part of their job. They don’t think it’s relevant.
BD: They expect the conductor to take care of balance?
RB: Oh, I don’t know how many singers would fool themselves into thinking that the conductor takes care of balances. There are very few conductors that really care, and they don’t really know. I’ve worked with so many people that have given me the wrong advice from the pit. They say, “We can’t hear you. It’s not loud enough. Sing louder here,” and it’s getting off into the theater just fine, but he can’t hear it in the pit because of the peculiarity of the theater.
BD: Very often the worst place to hear is right there in front of the orchestra.
RB: Right. The orchestra may hear us as well as you hear us, which is very, very well, but then the orchestra begins to play a little more and the conductor has to really sit on them. They don’t volunteer to play softly as often when they’re hearing the singers really singing. We do make his job harder by singing out for the theater, but it still remains his job and it still remains his task to keep the orchestra at a level that is right in the theater. There are very few conductors – maybe one or two conductors that I have worked with – that get a piece started and leave that pit and go up into the theater and listen to it. And if conductors don’t do it, they don’t know what the theater sounds like. When you get in a small theater and you have the right sized orchestra, all you need to do is get it started and get the orchestra playing and playing together and the singers singing together... except in a very complicated piece where there’s an interplay between the singer and the orchestra. But these things are givens. When the pieces begin and they are rolling on their own, there is no need for someone to wave a stick at them. So once the conductor gets them started, it’s very easy for him to turn around, open the little doors that keep him captive, and walk out into the theater and really listen to what it sounds like. I don’t know why they don’t do it. They don’t trust it. It’s as if they don’t trust their ears, as if they’re not going to learn something. I think it’s a mistake for anyone that’s going to be performing to not really become intimately acquainted with the acoustics of the theater they’re performing in. This includes the stage director.
BD: But the director often is out in the house, watching and presumably listening.
RB: That’s right, but it behooves him to know what the acoustics are like so that he knows where to set the singers. I don’t suggest that stage directors should have the singers step to the apron as it was done in Rossini’s time. Neither do I suggest that a stage director discover a true dead spot on the stage and put everybody there, which DOES happen from pure ignorance of the acoustics. They insist on putting people in certain areas in certain theaters that they know very well are not good for the voices. This is either ignorance of the fact of that dead spot or a total disregard of the importance of the music and of the vocal line that the person may need to be delivering from that area.
BD: You’re kind of an anomaly – a smart tenor!
RB: [With a sly grin] I don’t want that to get too well published because it’s a wonderful thing to hide behind.
* * * * *
BD: In opera, where’s the balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value?
RB: I think they both land right in the middle. I can’t say that by giving a very artistic performance or production and remaining true to those ideals you are in some way cheating the entertainment value of an opera. I think that they’re one and the same. The problems you run into are when people have made some wrong choices. I’m talking about arts in general, which is a very subjective thing. For me, the question “Is it good?” is answered by “Does it entertain? Does it work? Is it liked? Is it accepted? Is it worthy of watching? Does it get a reaction?" It doesn’t have to be liked, but does it have a reaction, does it have a value? If it angers the audience they get really angry, especially in Italy and France now with the idea of the new production values. There are many times that the audiences are incensed by what they see on the stage. I say that’s valid, it has entertained them, they have in their own way gotten a good deal from the performance they’ve seen whether they agree with what was done on the stage or not. They were reached. Productions that are forgotten are productions that make no impression. If people yawn on their way out, that means wrong choices were made by the people who are performing or producing. Anyone who says, “I’ve done a very artistic thing which has not been appreciated by my audience” is silly. That’s hiding behind the word “Art” and it’s assuming an ignorance on the consumer.
BD: Then let me ask what you expect of the public that comes to hear your performance?
RB: I expect them to enjoy it! I don’t expect them to do anything except to come! That’s one of the reasons I like the supertitles a lot, especially in a show like this which is a comedy. The music’s beautiful, the music’s fun, what is going on in the scenic values on the stage were very well done. The Ponnelle production has stood a test of time in the sense that it’s many years old. It’s been around, people keep doing it, and it’s still liked by those who see it. I’ve been doing it for twelve years now, and I still enjoy it because Ponnelle did a good job in staging it. He still fiddles with it. Every time I come back to it the people who actually put it on tell me “Well, we’ve changed this, and we’ve changed that, and you do this instead of that.” We may have a different traffic light, but we’re going in the same direction, we’re going to the same place. He’s tired of one picture and he makes another, but the importance of the message of the staging is the same. It remains a long thread so that the quality of the production has remained very, very high. The supertitles give the audience what I think they should be given, but in a better way than if we had sung it in translation. I think the language carries a good deal of the music with it. When we deliver the melodies and the lines and all the music and especially the patter. If you’re doing it in English it turns into Gilbert and Sullivan and it’s no longer Rossini. With the supertitles we get the best of both worlds. They laugh and they enjoy it, and this is what we want.
BD: Do they ever laugh a little bit too soon or a little bit too late?
RB: Sometimes it happens, but that’s a minor problem. It’s something one understands. It’s our profession. We are the ones presenting our performance, and it’s not their job to feed us the reactions. It’s our job to elicit them, and if they’re a little early or a little late, we have to deal with that.
BD: Don’t you feed off the audience at all?
RB: Not in the sense of the sort of interplay on a
basis as if you were having a conversation back and forth. My
from the audience is on an evening level. One gets a feeling for
what the audience is catching and how they’re enjoying it, and their
with the production is a matter of electricity that remains with you
the evening. Yes, you can feel it wane and come back, and wane
and come back, but the immediacy of throwing a pie at somebody
having it hit somebody in the face and having the laughter come before
the pie materializes, is irrelevant to the situation. For me it’s
the lasting value of the electricity of the evening.
"Cavaliere Ufficiale" in the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic" for his "outstanding services to Italian music", "Officer" in the Order of Arts and Letters of the French Republic" for his outstanding contribution "to culture in France and in the world", Doctor of Music, Honoraris from the University of the State of New York for "his extraordinary contribution to the art of bel-canto"; these are but a few of the recent honors bestowed on Rockwell Blake in his more than year 25 year career.
During those years Mr. Blake has been acclaimed for opera, concert and recital performances in all the major theaters of the world. He has appeared across North and South America, Israel, Japan and Europe, performing regularly at the Metropolitan Opera, the San Francisco Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera, La Scala, Vienna State Opera, the Grande Theatre de Geneve, the Teatro La Fenice, the opera houses of Rome, Turin, Parma, Florence, Bologna, Palermo and Naples, the Paris Opera, Chatalet, Theatre Champs Elysees and Opera-Comique the opera companies of Marseilles, Nice, Lyon, Toulouse, Aix-en-Provence, Montpelier, Bordeaux, Avignon and Strasbourg, Brussels' La Monnaie, the Liceu in Barcelona , the Teatro Real and Teatro Zarzuela in Madrid, and the theaters in Zurich, Hamburg, Munich and Lisbon. Since 1983 he has been a regular guest of the Rossini Festival held annually in the composer's birthplace of Pesaro.
With his extraordinary vocal technique, a two-and-one-half octave range, and an elegant and graceful style tenor Rockwell Blake continues to lead the revival of rarely heard operatic masterpieces by Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. Mr. Blake has sung the leading role in over 50 operas from this highly specialized repertoire, including such little-known works as Mozart’s’ Mitridate, Re di Ponto and Zaide, Haydn's L'Infedelta Delusa, Donizettis’ Il Furioso all'Isola San Domingo and Marin Faliero Bellini's Il Pirata, and Meyerbeers’ Il Crociato in Egitto & Robert le Diable. As the number one exponent of Rossini's tenor roles, Mr. Blake includes 20 operas, 10 concert works and numerous songs, by that composer, in his repertoire.
Trained in singing by Renata Carisio, tenor Rockwell Blake studied music in Plattsburgh, New York, the city where he was born. He began his professional singing career at the age of 23. As the winner of two George London Awards (1974 & 1975) he was immediately invited by George London to make his solo operatic debut as Lindoro in Rossini’s Italiana in Algeri, a production which opened the 1976-1977 season at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. Hailed by critics as "what the world has been waiting for since the Rossini revival began" he became the first winner of the prestigious Richard Tucker Award in 1978. Soon thereafter he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, at the side of Marilyn Horne, once again as Lindoro in Rossini’s Italiana in Algeri. Other Met roles include Lord Arthur Talbot in Bellini's I Puritani, Don Ottavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and the Count Almaviva in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. It was as Almaviva that the Met restored, especially for him, the daunting eight minute tenor aria of the last act, "Cessa di piu resistere", written by Rossini for the legendary Manuel Garcia, but, due to it's extreme difficulty, usually absent from productions since the opera's 1816 world premiere. Finally the New York audiences heard Rossini’s masterpiece as Rossini himself intended. Today, thanks to Mr. Blake and his insistance to include this aria whenever he sings Almaviva in Barbiere productions, a new generation of young tenors now has the opportunity to sing this aria around the world.
Eight years ago Mr. Blake turned his attentions, in part, to a long-neglected repertoire of early French operas, composed for a kind of tenor voice which rarely exists today. He has been credited with their revival and has notably demonstrated this in recordings for the EMI label. His first recording with EMI, Rockwell Blake, Airs d'Opéras français with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo won the prestigious Diapason d'Or de l'Aneé, distinguishing it as the best operatic release for the year 1994 and his recording of Boieldieu’s La Dame Blanche, won the distinction as the Best French classical recording of 1997 by Les Victoire de la Musique. Other record awards included that the "Grand Prix du Disque" of the "Academie Charles Cros", the "Grand Prix du Palmares des Palmares", Frances two top awards in the recording field and Opera International’s "Timbre Platine".
Most recently, and between singing engagements, Mr. Blake has begun to develop a new facet to his career, as a teacher of young singers. For the past five years he has happily accepted invitations from As.Li.Co. to teach Masterclasses with the young artists in this Milan based Italian Opera training center. He has also taught young singers in Masterclasses at the Conservatoire Nationale de Paris, at Santa Cecilia in Rome, Duke University of North Carolina, the State University of New York, the Hamburg Staatsoper, and at the Chicago Lyric Opera young artists program.
Other recordings by Mr. Blake include Arabesque's The Rossini
on which he is heard in a handful of never-previously-recorded Rossini
arias with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Ambrosian Choir under
John McCarthy; The Mozart Tenor, offering a collection of unusual
opera and concert arias with the London Symphony under Nicholas
Encore Rossini, another recording of Rossini rarities with the London
and Ambrosian Choir under Maximiano Valdes and Rossini Mélodies
(EMI) with Maestro Antonio Pappano at the piano.
= = = = =
o p e r a - r e p e r t o i r e...........
Adam – Le Postillon de Longjumeau
Bellini – Il Pirata
Boieldieu – La Dame Blanche
Cimarosa – Il Matrimonio Segreto
Delibes – Lakmé
Donizetti – Anna Bolena
Gluck – Armide (Rénaud)
Handel – Alcina
Lalo – Le Roid'Ys
Massenet – Le Jongleur de Notre Dame
Meyerbeer – Il Crociato in Egitto
Mozart – Cosi fan Tutte
Pergolesi – Il Flaminio
Rimsky-Korsakov – Le Coq d'Or
Rossini – Adina
= = = = =
o r c h e s t r a - r e p e r t o i r e..........
Bach – Magnificat
Beethoven – Mass in C Major
Berlioz – L'Enfance du Christ
Britten – Les Illuminations
Elgar – Dream of Gerontius
Handel – Acis and Galatea
Haydn – The Seasons
Mendelssohn – Elijah
Mozart – Requiem
Orff – Carmina Burana
Rossini – Argene e Melania
Saint-Saëns – Christmas Oratorio
Stravinsky – La Pulcinella
== == == == ==
[ Copied directly from the website of Blake's publicist,
© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on November 5, 1987. Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1991 and 1996. This transcription was made in 2005, and posted on this website at that time. More photos and liks were added in 2015.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago. You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.