Conversation Piece:


By Bruce Duffie

It is probably safe to say that Rodney Gilfry is one of the most versatile baritones working today.  Not only does he perform parts within the usual realm of his voice category, he also keeps operetta, cabaret and a weekly radio program in his grasp.  And if that wasn't enough, he has created noteworthy new roles such as Stanley Kowalski and Tsar Nicholas II.  Naturally, he has a website - - where details about his career and a large photo gallery can be found.

It was during the time of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City that Rodney Gilfry returned to Chicago for performances with Lyric Opera.  He had made his debut in Capriccio several years earlier, and it was good to have him back again in the Windy City.  We met in between his performances and had a wide-ranging discussion about his life and interests.  Here is much of what was said that afternoon . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:  You’re a lyric baritone?

Rodney Gilfry:  That’s what they say.  I’m just a baritone, basically.  Most of what I’ve done is lyric baritone repertoire but that’s changing.

BD:  Changing how?

RG:  I’m going to do Eugene Onegin for the first time this summer, and I’m doing some things that are not typically associated with a lyric baritone.  I’ll do my first big Verdi part in San Diego in 2004.

BD:  Do you like the direction that your voice is taking you?

RG:  Yeah.  And that’s what it is.  My voice is taking me there.  I want to be sure that it’s going about by that process, and not that I’m pushing my voice into something that it’s not appropriate for.

BD:  Is this how you decide if you’ll accept or reject a new role?

RG:  Absolutely.  As every singer should, I’ve made an effort to sing in my own voice as much as possible.  That means to know how I should sing in my voice that sounds the most beautiful, but is really easy.  That is the big secret.  If you have to do something that takes force to sing, then it may not be right for you.  But in my investigations into my own voice, it has shown me where it is most comfortable, and that is in a little bit heavier repertoire than Rossini and Mozart.  Not that I’ll give those up, but I’m very happily moving into Verdi and some of the Russian repertoire.

BD:  Your voice selects the roles.  Do you like the characters that these parts impose on you?

RG:  So far.  It’s a real broad palette of different characters, which is a lot of fun.  I don’t know of any roles that I would refuse to play because of the characters.  I don’t mind playing bad guys, or good guys, or innocent guys, or really corrupt guys.

BD:  Baritones generally either kill or get killed.

RG:  That’s usually the case.

BD:  You wouldn’t rather get the girl?

RG:  I don’t care if I’m not the romantic interest on stage although that happens in many operas, you know.  Don Giovanni does get killed, but he is the central character of that opera.

BD:  He’s had women; but I don’t think he gets any new ones once we see him.

RG: No. We see him in the process of his downfall and it’s interesting.  From the time the curtain goes up till it goes down, he’s unsuccessful at getting any more.  It’s the end of the line.

BD:  Tell me the secret of singing Mozart.

RG:  Oh boy!  Mozart’s tough.  Mozart is probably the most demanding thing that I’ve done so far because it’s so exposed.  To do it well requires a really good musician and a real master of technique.  You’ve got this beautiful kind of pristine, crystalline, classical sonority the way that the orchestra and the voice work together.  It’s all there.  It’s laid out bare bones.  There’s nothing to hide behind.  It takes a great deal of skill, but by that token it’s also very rewarding to do Mozart, if you can do it well.

BD:  Do you do it well?

RG:  Never as well as I’d like to.

BD:  You’re always striving to get a little better?

RG:  Well sure.  I think everyone should and I think most of us do.

BD:  Is there such a thing as a perfect performance?

RG:  Interesting question.  I don’t think so.  There’s probably no such thing as a perfect anything.  I did have an experience where I was working with a soprano who had just come from singing at the Metropolitan Opera.  I said, “What have you been up to?” and she said “I just came from singing five perfect Donna Annas at the Met.”  I went “Wow!  That’s amazing!  Even if I thought I had been really good, I don’t think I would say I was perfect,” and she said, “Every single night, every note, everything I did, came out exactly like I intended it to, and it was really unusual.”  She said that because it WAS unusual.  I don’t think I’ve ever come off the stage and said, “That was a perfect performance.”  As much as we prepare with all of our voice lessons, all of the preparation that goes into each role, and the years of experience we’ve had, every time we walk onto the stage it’s still a crap shoot to some extent.

BD:  I just wonder about those “perfect performances” if her colleagues or the audiences would also say that they were perfect performances.

RG:  I’m sure people would find fault in every performance.  For her they were perfect.  I guess I am striving for that although I know I’ll probably never attain it.  Maybe for one performance of something, I’ll say, “That was exactly as I intended it to be.”

BD:  Right now we’re right in the middle of the Olympic games.  Is an operatic performance like an Olympic competition?   Are you striving to get that gold medal?  And how do you feel if the audience is marking off every little mistake?

RG:  That’s a really good question.  I don’t think we should have that attitude, but sometimes, you know, as they say in Italian, “In bocca a lupo”  - into the mouth of the wolf.  I’ve always taken that to mean the wolf is the audience, so that tells you a little bit about my mind set!  I am aware that the audience is there, but when I’m performing my best I’m not thinking about that.  I’m really thinking about being a team player and I’m very aware of everything that’s going on around me and very unabsorbed in my own performance.  That’s when I do my best.  It seems contrary, but that’s really when I do my best.

BD:  You get wrapped up in the character?

RG:  In the character, in the moment, in the dramatic situation, in the music at the moment, but not about what I look like, not about what I am doing with my voice.  I’m just a participant in this wonderful creation, and if you allow yourself to be like that, wonderful things can happen.  It's like a doubles match in tennis – you get served a ball that’s a little over to the left and you lob it back, and the other person hits it back in their own way, and your partner picks it up from another corner of the court.  In that way it becomes dynamic.  Every evening is different, and it has a very liberating effect on the whole performance.  Everyone relaxes, and says “OK, we don’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to be exactly like we did it last time.”  You don’t think about last time, you don’t think about next time, you don’t think about what’s going to happen in three bars. That’s when the best performances are achieved.

BD:  Do you actually try to become the character, rather than just portray the character?

RG:  Oh well, yes, of course.  It’s complicated, though, because there are so many different things going on.  This is the difference between singing a concert and singing in an opera.  In a concert, you can pretty much concentrate on the music, and you’re not even expected to move around very much.  You’re not expected to do much of a portrayal of a character, particularly if it’s an art song.  Opera’s different.  You’re expected to have the same vocal mastery, the same vocal ease as you would in a concert or a recital, but you’ve got a lot more to think about.  The conductor is twenty or thirty feet away, you’ve got all the business on stage, you’re moving around, playing with props, reacting with other characters, you’ve got your costumes and the lights and the makeup. You’d be surprised how distracting it is to wear a hat and a beard!  It totally changes your perception of your singing.  So if all those things can be taken in stride and be taken into the whole kind of gestalt, then it’s a great experience.  But it’s a challenge!

BD:  Is it possible to overanalyze any of these characters?

RG:  Oh sure it is, and I’m sure I do that a lot because I tend to be analytical about these things.  Sometimes the most important thing is just to sing beautifully.  I remember when I first did The Queen of Spades, I sang Yeletzky’s aria for the conductor and he said, “No, no, no.  Be like a cello.  We don’t want to hear the words. Just sing beautiful melody.”  He demonstrated to me without any consonants.  I thought “He doesn’t really mean that,” so I did it with no consonants, and he pointed at me and said, “That’s right!  This is a musical moment.”  So it definitely is possible to think too much about the music, to think too much about the diction, to think too much about the character.  There are times, as in La Bohème which I’m doing now at the Lyric, where the music is the most important thing.  The melody, the beauty of tone that expresses what’s trying to be expressed better than any characterization, any kind of perfect diction, any kind of complicated thought process; just that beautiful melody sometimes is what does it the best.

BD:  Have we thrown in another joker now because you’re performing Italian or Russian in an English-speaking country with the supertitles above, so the audience can read the text?

RG:  There are two sides to that coin.  I think supertitles are the greatest boon to opera in America.  I think they’re absolutely wonderful on the whole and in general.  You can say to people “Go to the opera,” even if they’ve never been to an opera before, and when they say “Yeah, but isn’t it, like, in Italian?” you can say, “You can understand every word!  There are supertitles projected above the stage.  You can see everything that’s going on in real time, all in English.  You’re completely in the know of what’s going on.”  The negative side, of course, is that they distract you from looking at the stage, especially if you’re up close you’ve got to really crane your neck to look straight up to see the supertitles.  The other thing is the timing.  You may have a great line or a great joke that has a punch line.  In a recitative in particular, you can decide the timing, and if someone pushes the button too soon or too late it messes it up.

BD:  Comic singers often tell me that they get two laughs:  one when the audience reads it, and one when they see it a moment later on the stage. Do you like playing for the audience?

RG:  I really enjoy playing for the audience if it’s a comic thing.  I enjoy being on stage.  I enjoy acting.  I enjoy presenting something beautiful and of real integrity to an audience, but I can get carried away.  I can go the wrong direction.

BD:  Well, of course, that was my next question:  How far is too far?

RG:  That’s a real fine line.  Making a joke, like pointing out a line in the supertitles for effect, is acceptable.  But there’s definitely a limit; and it’s just a matter of taste.  It’s completely subjective and you just have to feel what’s right and what’s not.

BD: Do you get this perhaps in La Bohème in the fourth act where you’re screwing around for awhile and then all of a sudden the girls come in and everything has to be serious?

RG: No, not that.  Not that at all.  That’s composed in such a way that there’s an abrupt change of mood and that’s in fact what makes it so effective.  We’re just joking around, basically having this big free-for-all, and BOOM!  Musetta walks in the door followed by Mimi and it turns deadly serious, which makes that much more contrast between the two moods.  There are times on stage where it would just be inappropriate to break the illusion of the separation from the audience, and do something directly to the audience.  In a serious piece, where the aria ends and the performer stands there and takes a bow, I’m so offended by that!

BD:  I thought we’d gotten mostly away from that.

RG:  Mostly we have, but it does happen occasionally.  Maybe if it’s not a bow, the singer will stand there with their arms outstretched, and it’s just too obvious that they’re trying to garner applause.

BD:  Do you think about that in rehearsals, so when your aria ends you know what position you’re going to be in so that it’s not looking badly if there is a long pause?

RG:  Yes.  You have to consider those things.  You know the audience is there.  You’re not performing it into empty space.  You are presenting it to a public, and that’s part of the whole art of it all – to do it in a way that they feel included but you don’t want to look like you’re grandstanding.  I remember a wonderful story that a friend of mine told me.  He went to a play many years ago on Broadway, and there was a very dramatic scene where the actor collapses and he’s crawling across the stage trying to get to his nitroglycerin pills.  They’re twenty feet away, and he’s having a heart attack.  There was a girl sitting in front of my friend who had never been to the theater before, and she turned to her date and said, “He doesn’t even know that we’re here!”  and I thought that was a beautiful comment.  Of course he know they were there, but the actor made it so effective, so real, that it was not presentational.  It seemed like everyone was witnessing this actual occurrence and it wasn’t being demonstrated.  He wasn’t saying, “Now I’m dying!”

BD:  We have to eavesdrop on you, almost.

RG:  That’s it.  That’s right.

BD: Which brings me to another one of my balance questions.  In opera, how much is art and how much is entertainment?

RG:  Oh, gee, I don’t know how to define either of them, so it’s a kind of impossible question.  I think we have the responsibility to entertain on some level, but “entertain” does not mean to make people laugh.  “Entertain” means give people a meaningful experience, to give the public something that they can’t get anywhere else.  Leave them enriched when they walk out of the theater and in the process, there’s art involved.

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BD:  You mentioned concerts.  How do you divide your career between staged opera and concerts?

RG:  Well, concerts are kind of a tricky thing, because they’re usually booked so much later than operas are.  Basically what I do is try to keep some time free in between engagements, and then at a later date fill it out with concert dates.   I’ve also taken to doing a cabaret show, which now qualifies as one of my concert dates in my calendar.  I’ve also done some musicals recently.  I did musicals for years, but since I became a professional classical singer, I haven’t done that many musicals.  I did a couple in Los Angeles during the last year.

BD:  Do you find those satisfying?

RG:  Oh, I love the musicals.  Sometimes I think that’s what I’m best at, where I should be.

BD:  Really?  Why?

RG:  I like to entertain.  I think I can do more than stand there and be an opera singer.  It’s a hard thing to describe.  I have a lot of fun doing musicals.  I feel like there’s more contact with an audience.  That’s also why I love doing my cabaret show.  I actually talk to the audience for about a third of the time, just talking to them, telling stories and whatever.  I just feel like a lot of my talents that don’t get used in opera can be utilized in musical theater.

BD:  Is it difficult going from singing to speaking and back and forth?

RG:  It’s tricky.  It’s tricky, especially in musical theater.  You can’t sing musical theater like you do opera.  It’s just wrong.  If you get out there and sing with a big round baritone voice it’s just not right, it’s not the right style.  It has to be much more speech-pattern, and I think the moments where you use your whole operatic voice with all of its resonance have to be carefully chosen because it’s a sound that’s foreign to the musical theater stage for the most part.  Not that people don’t appreciate beautiful voices, they certainly do. I just did Most Happy Fella in Los Angeles, singing the part of Joey, and I really had to be careful.  My voice is fairly dark, especially in contrast to musical theater sound, and when I just sing with my natural voice in musical theater, I have to be careful because it sounds so different from everyone else.  I stick out, and that’s not right.  It’s not right to be such a huge contrast to everyone else that you don’t fit into the cast.

BD:  You want to get back to being a team player again?

RG:  You want to be a team player, and it can be misinterpreted as showing off, because nobody else can do that on the stage.  So the operatic sound has to be used judiciously in musical theater.  The other side of it, though, is that you can use it since I think it’s much closer to normal speech coordination of the whole vocal apparatus.  It’s not as bad going from speech into singing and back into speech.  In opera, for instance, in the Magic Flute, where you do a lot of speaking, or the Merry Widow, where you do a lot of speaking and then singing, it’s a little more of a challenge.  It depends also if you’re miked.  If you’re miked you can really speak like I’m speaking now and everyone in the hall can hear you.  If you’re not, then you need to project more, and then it will have a little more of an operatic sound because your voice needs to be properly positioned.  You have to find that pocket where you can make quite a bit of sound without straining and still have inflection and sound like you’re not trying to talk loudly!

BD:  Do you prefer one over the other, or do you like to balance the two?

RG:  I like to balance.  Obviously I’m an opera singer first and foremost, at this point anyway, and I enjoy that.  I love singing opera.  I won’t give it up, but I really like to go over to the other side and sing musical theater as well.  I did a lot of musical theater in high school so I wouldn’t consider myself crossing over.  I’m not an opera singer crossing over into musical theater.  I’m just coming back to something I did a lot in the past.

BD:  Come over to the light side!

RG:  Yeah!  It is lighter.  When I was doing Most Happy Fella, it was concurrent with the rehearsals for the Merry Widow in Los Angeles and Merry Widow is almost like a musical anyway.  But I was doing six hours of rehearsals for Merry Widow and then I’d go off and do the musical that night.  I did that the whole week - eight shows in a week and rehearsals every day!

BD:  And you had enough voice left?

RG:  Before I did it I thought I was probably going to die!  But I’d been wanting to do this musical for such a long time and this was the only way I could work it out.  It was a piece of cake!  I just made sure that I got home by a certain time and got some sleep.  But it was not hard at all because musical theater singing is not as demanding as singing opera.  We were miked for the dialogues, so it was a real pleasure.

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BD:  There’s one other facet of your career I want to ask about - recordings.  Do you enjoy making them?

RG:  Yeah!  I do enjoy making them.  I don’t think I can say that I like any of my recordings, but I like the process of making them.

BD:  Are you supposed to like them?  It’s we who are supposed to like them!

RG:  That’s good, because I don’t!  I’ve heard a couple that I’ve been pretty happy with, but you hear everything on those recordings and there’s no escaping it.  Once it’s down, it’s down.  I do enjoy the process, though.

BD:  Does it surprise you then, when someone comes up and says, “Oh, this recording of yours is wonderful?”

RG:  It does surprise me, but the recording industry is in such bad shape right now, I think it will be a while before it picks back up.  I’ve made about ten recordings, mostly operas, but some other things too, and so, we’ll see how that turns out.

BD:  One of them is Iphigénie en Tauride of Gluck.  Did you have to work very hard to learn that style?

RG:   The style of Gluck!  Not really.  My voice teacher was Martial Singher.  I worked with him in Santa Barbara, and one of the first things he handed me was Gluck’s Orfeo.  I didn’t take it very seriously, but he was really enamored of it and loved the style, and I kind of got a feeling from him of his idea of the style.  I did quite a bit of earlier music in concert before I was an opera singer - Bach and even back to Monteverdi - so I understand the sonorities and harmonies and the declamation, which is so important in any language, particularly French.  It can’t be emphasized enough.  I felt very comfortable when I did that recording because I got it in my ear and it’ll never go away.  I hear what that’s supposed to sound like.   I also studied French diction intensively.  I never studied the language per se, but I studied the diction intensively.  It also helped during the recording sessions that we had a very good coach who would give me little pointers in refining certain things.   All those things together made me feel very comfortable with the style.

BD: We’re talking about old things, so let’s go to the other end of the spectrum.  Do you also do new works?

RG:  Yes I do.  I’ve got two world premieres coming up.  The first one is this December at the Royal Opera in London.  I’m doing Sophie’s Choice, a new opera by Nicholas Maw.  If you saw the film, I’m playing Nathan, the part that Kevin Kline played.  Simon Rattle is conducting and Trevor Nunn is directing, and it should be a big deal.  All the things are in place to make a big thing out of it.

BD:  Is it going to be compared to the movie?

RG:  Undoubtedly.  That’s inevitable.  I only received the score last week, but it looks very good.  I’m very encouraged by what I saw on the page, so we’ll see how that turns out.  And then in the fall of 2003 I’m doing Nicholas and Alexandra at the Los Angeles Opera, and that’s being composed by Deborah Drattell, who did Lilith at the New York City Opera.  I’ll be playing the part of Tsar Nicholas and Placido Domingo is doing Rasputin. That should be really fun.

BD:  Is it especially interesting working with a composer?

RG:  Yes, it is, particularly in the case of Deborah Drattell.  It is going to be a real collaboration.  I'm looking forward to that.  When I did A Streetcar Named Desire in San Francisco, the score was basically finished by the time I saw it.  André Previn, who is a fantastic composer and a wonderful colleague, had more the attitude of "it’s done, there it is, if there’s a problem I’ll change it, but if there’s no problem that’s it, it’s finished."  So we didn’t make that many changes to Streetcar.

BD:  Is it strange knowing that Drattell is writing around your talent?

RG:  Oh, it’s great!  It’s great!  The part of Nicholas was not initially intended to be a baritone.  It was supposed to be a tenor; and when she decided to make it into a baritone she had me in mind, which is really wonderful.  We’ve had several conversations and she’s heard me sing but she wants to know if I can sustain a certain tessitura.   She also wants to know how low I can comfortably sing, so we’ve had discussions about that.

BD:  It's good that the composer is considerate of the voice.

RG: Yeah!  I know!  I have to encourage her to be challenging enough because I don’t want her to be so nice that it’s all easy to sing.  You want to go to the extremes so you have some range of expression.

BD:  You want to be challenged?

RG:  Of course I want to be challenged!  I’m a thrill-seeker!

BD:  Do you want the audience also to be challenged?

RG:  Absolutely.  Yes.  I don’t want them to be so challenged that they walk out and say “That was a piece of junk, I can’t whistle any of the tunes,” but you don’t want it to be so easy that they say “So what’s new?  We heard Verdi do this, or we heard whoever do this, a hundred times.  What’s new?”  Of course beautiful writing for the voice will never get old because the voice has not changed.  It’s an instrument that stays constant over the generations, and it’s basically a tonal instrument.  Our minds work along tonal lines.  There’s something appealing about beautiful music written for the voice.  If it gets too atonal or gets too percussive, I think maybe the composer’s using the wrong instrument.  That’s what it feels like when you have to sing that stuff.

BD:  You have done a few of those parts?

RG:  Oh yeah!  I’ve done enough of that. Really, there are some parts that I have done where I just say to myself, “I hope this is worth the time that it’s taking me to learn this, because it sure is a hell of a lot of work.”

BD: And then you decline any future offers to sing that?

RG:  Usually you don’t get other offers to sing it, because nobody puts them on.

BD: What about a role like Wozzeck?

RG: Well, that’s different.  That’s a masterpiece.  That’s getting towards the limits, though.  I think that’s getting towards the limits of what you can do with harmonies, with melodies, with tonality, and with voices.  What I hear in Wozzeck is music composed so much for the characters that if they do what’s on the page, it works.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Do you leave enough time for you?

RG:  I don’t feel any lack of time for me.  I don’t feel like I’m overburdened.  I don’t ever feel like I need a vacation, so I guess the answer is yes.  We’ve got four days between performances here in Chicago and that’s CRAZY!   What do I DO with myself!  I’ve been learning Russian for Eugene Onegin, so that’s what I do.  I use the time preparing for future things.  But my main concern is not leaving enough time for me, but rather leaving enough time for my family. I’ve got three kids and they’re all teenagers! I’d like to spend a little more time with them!  That’s one of my motivations for getting into acting and musicals and straight theater, to do some things like that in Los Angeles. I’m right close to the television and film center of the world, and there’s a hell of a lot of competition, but at least if I can do some of that I’ll be able to spend a little more time at home.

BD:  Do your kids like being able to say, “My Dad’s an opera singer?”

RG:  I don’t know.  You’d have to ask them.  I know they’re proud of what I do but it’s a two-edged sword.  They’re proud of what I do, they’re proud of me, they’re proud to have a Dad who’s an artist, who travels and knows famous people, but on the other side, they don’t get me half the time.  So there are two sides.

BD:  The goods are better, and the bads are poorer.

RG:  Yeah.  But I think in the end that it’s been great.  The kids have had an unusual and rich life thus far, because we’ve lived in foreign countries.  We did travel a lot, they speak two languages, they really have a lot of culture that most of the kids their age have no idea about, and it’s a big advantage for them.  But, you can’t have everything for nothing, so I just don’t get to be home that much.

BD:  Thank you for being a singer.

RG:  My pleasure.

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Bruce Duffie has contributed interviews to The Opera Journal since 1985.  He was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago for just over a quarter century, and now teaches Music History at Northwestern University.  He also continues his radio work with a weekly program on WNUR-FM, which is also available on the internet.  Next time in these pages, a conversation with tenor David Cangelosi.

©2004 Bruce Duffie

First published in The Opera Journal in February, 2004

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