Baritone  Robert  Orth

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Baritone Robert Orth
(Jan 21, 1947 - July 12, 2019)

Throughout his career, Robert Orth created roles and led premieres for numerous contemporary American operas. Credits include Richard Nixon in John Adams’ “Nixon in China,” John Buchanan, Jr. in Lee Hoiby’s “Summer and Smoke,” Fantomas in Stanley Silverman’s “Hotel for Criminals,” the title role of Stewart Wallace’s “Harvey Milk,” Lodger in Dominic Argento’s “The Aspen Papers,” Father in Hugo Weissgall’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” Owen Hart in Jake Heggie’s “Dean Man Walking,” Uncle John in Ricky Ian Gordon’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” Mr. Godby in Andre Previn’s “Brief Encounter,” and Mr. Stubb in Heggie’s “Moby Dick,” to name just a few. He received a Christopher Keene Award for taking on “new and unusual repertoire.”

As for popular operatic repertoire, the baritone frequently appeared as Figaro in “The Barber of Seville,” Eisenstein in “Die Fledermaus,” Malatesta in “Don Pasquale,” Danilo in “The Merry Widow,” Germont in “La Traviata,” and Sharpless in “Madama Butterfly.”

Additionally, Orth enjoyed musicals, appearing as Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha,” Billy Bigelow in “Carousel,” El Gallo in “The Fantasticks,” Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady,” and Fredrik in “A Little Night Music.”

Orth found joy in singing from a young age, participating in church and school choirs. Prior to pursuing a full-time singing career for himself in 1974, he taught music at public schools in his hometown of Chicago.

Orth prided himself in being “the best baritone in his price range,” as he puts it in his website biography, as well as a “devoted family man.” He performed at esteemed opera houses across the U.S., and appeared regularly with Central City Opera from 1983 – 2016. He was named Artist of the Year by both the New York City Opera and Seattle Opera.

==  Throughout this webpage, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

In July of 1997, Robert Orth was in Chicago for performances as Frank Lloyd Wright in the opera Shinging Brow by Daron Hagen, given by the Chicago Opera Theater.  During the rehearsal period, we met at his hotel and had a discussion about this work, as well as others he had performed in his career.  We also spoke of ideas relating to the art of singing, and that is where we pick up the conversation.

Bruce Duffie:   Is it important for an opera singer to have a voice that cuts through?

Robert Orth:   [Laughs]  Are you kidding?  It’s of primary importance!

BD:   When you’re on stage, do you think about the focus of the voice?

Orth:   You think of so many things on the stage.  Actually, by the point that you are performing, no you’re not thinking of that very much anymore.  That’s all the stuff you worked on for the first ten years of your study and training.  By the time you’re on stage and actually performing, there are so many other things you’re thinking about.

BD:   You don’t go on automatic pilot, do you?

Orth:   Vocally?

BD:   Yes.

Orth:   I would almost say that, yes.  That’s the advantage of having spent years of study.  When you’re a young performer and you’re new, you’re thinking of all those things.  But the whole point of experience and training your voice is so that you don’t always have to be thinking if you are placing the voice properly.  You know that you don’t have to be doing all that stuff with it.  You have gotten it where it’s supposed to be.  Certainly, in any opera there are a few passages where you’re going to have to think of particular difficulties, but for the most part, it’s not what I’m thinking about.

BD:   Does what you’re thinking about, in terms of the automatic pilot and other specifics, change from opera to opera?

Orth:   Oh sure, certainly.  There are some operas, especially when it’s a new role, that are difficult in certain ways.  The first time you do them, you’re negotiating those difficulties.  They may be the words, or passages that you’re having trouble with, and there are some times you are concerned about being heard.  But there’s not a great deal one can do.  One gets the size of the voice that one has, and if you try to push beyond that, it’s bad news.

BD:   Do you change for a small house or a big house?

Orth:   No, I don’t, and I don’t know many singers who do.  Some people will look at the house, and if it’s real big they’ll be worried about being heard.  Conversely, I know singers who have walked into a small house, and say that they can’t sing there.  They will get claustrophobic.  They feel their voice doesn’t sound good in a small house.

BD:   Are there voices that don’t sound good in small houses?

Orth:   They tell me so, but I don’t know who they are.  I was singing with a soprano not long ago, and I thought she just had the most beautiful voice, but the producer said to me that they can’t hear her past the sixth row.  He said that people would stand next to Birgit Nilsson on stage, and they would say it’s a pretty voice.  Meanwhile, the wallpaper is coming off in the balcony!

BD:   In the theater it was just a huge voice.

Orth:   Yes, but up close apparently there wasn’t so much volume.

BD:   So, you really can’t tell?

Orth:   You learn to tell with your voice.  You learn to trust your instrument.  Once again, that comes from experience.  You learn to sing properly, and then when you get into certain situations where you don’t hear it the way you used to, you don’t make adjustments.  Mostly you hear a lot coming back at you, which is generally nicer than not hearing anything coming back.  However, the inexperienced singer will try to sing louder when they can’t hear themselves.

BD:   They over-push?

Orth:   Yes, and that’s not good.

BD:   Do you adjust at all for your colleagues?

Orth:   Of course.  There must be balance, but that’s all worked out in rehearsals.  Hopefully there will be someone with a good ear who can tell you about that.  Just today in rehearsal, I asked if I could be heard, because she’s in the top part of her range, and I’m in the lower-middle of mine.  I was told it was fine.

BD:   Is the conductor, who is standing in a poor place, really a good judge of that balance?

Orth:   No, not always.  In rehearsal, when he’s near and you’re in a smaller room, he’ll make certain judgments, but always in rehearsals which are in the theater, there will be someone out there.  Usually it
s the assistant, or sometimes the conductor will have the assistant take over the orchestra so he or she can go out in the house and listen.

BD:   Does this ever alter your decision of whether you’ll accept or turn down an engagement because of the house?

Orth:   There are a few roles where I can consider that, especially in recent years when people have been offering me heavier roles than I’ve ever done in my life.

BD:   So, it’s the combination of the role and the house?
Orth:   I don’t have a big honker of a voice, so if its a big honker of a role, I would think twice about doing it in a great big house.  For instance, people ask me about Scarpia.  I wouldn’t do Scarpia in a big house, but I would be very interested to try it in a small place, like Central City, Colorado, or something like that, where they have seven or eight hundred seats.  I like small theaters, but I sing in big theaters all the time, and it’s a rush to sing in a huge house, and have all that audience.  There are that many more people enjoying it.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   You sing a lot of roles in English, either original works in English or in translation.  Do you work harder at your diction when you know that everyone in the audience can understand those words?

Orth:   I started out in musical comedy and musical theater, and if you can’t be understood, you’re fired!  [Both laugh]  When I started doing opera, it was pre-surtitle days, and all kinds of allowances were made for singers who had terrible diction.  For the most part, they knew they were going to be singing in the original languages.  But I try to be understood in any language, and indeed, I’ve been told by a lot of people that generally singers who have poor diction in one language, have poor diction in every language.  To me it’s the intent.  Do you mean to be understood?  If so, you make an effort no matter what language you’re singing.
BD:   You sing a lot of new works.  Are there times when you’re fighting the music for the diction, or are there other times when the music is wonderful for the diction?

Orth:   It depends on how the composer has set it.  Even with people that are recognized geniuses, like Mozart and Verdi, there are times that you have to struggle for the diction because of the way they have set it.  This is not to say that they set it wrong.  They just set it that you have to work harder, maybe because it’s faster.  This is true especially for sopranos, who are notoriously hard to understand.  Generally, sopranos have a hard time being understood up high, and in a lot of the modern pieces that they do there are passages that are harder to make intelligible than others.  But that’s our job.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Do you like your job?

Orth:   Oh, I love my job, yes.  I’m very lucky.  I don’t have to work for a living!

BD:   Can we assume it’s more than just the job?

Orth:   Oh yes, absolutely, which is why I have some feelings of guilt occasionally, because I don’t have a real job!  [More laughter]

BD:   When you’re up there singing, how much is job and how much is art?

Orth:   I would hope that I’m producing art, but it would be up to someone else to say that I’m producing it.  A lot of times, I’m hoping not to damage it, because I’m dealing with these geniuses, and I don’t feel I’m at their level.  I’m just doing the best I can not to hurt Mozart, or Donizetti, or any one of these guys.  But as far as it being business or work, there are times when you don’t feel like it’s the best production you’ve done.  But once you get out there and you feel the audience, you know why they’re there.  They’re there to be entertained, or enlightened, or touched in some way.  I don’t want to say it becomes my ‘mission’, because that sounds like work again.  It’s not like work, but there are nights when it may be be a little like that.  I’ve done Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger a couple of times, which is a five-hour-plus opera.  During the intermissions, I’m very tired, but afterwards I’m revived.  It’s a very interesting phenomenon.

BD:   Beckmesser is sort of a crummy character...

Orth:   He’s a wonderful character!

BD:   He doesn’t seem to be very likable.

Orth:   I’ve done two different productions, and although he wasn’t likable in one, he was sort of saved at the end of it.  Hans Sachs pulled him forward, and had a reconciliation, and that was wonderful.  It’s not normally done that way, but I did like it.  But you’re right, and I don’t have to play likable people.

BD:   Is it different when you’re playing a likable person, a protagonist, as opposed to an unlikable person?

Orth:   It’s different, but the thing that’s the same for any character is that you want to make it as full as you possibly can.  Sometimes the composer and the librettist make your job fairly easy, because it’s a well-drawn, well-rounded, believable human-being, whether it’s a generally bad human being, or generally a good guy.

BD:   Do you ever wish you were a tenor so you would get the girl more often?

Orth:   Oh, I get the girl enough!  [Both laugh]  Tenors so often have to play pie-eyed, moony characters, and those things are hard to play.  When I’ve had to play those sort of characters, poetic parts where you just have to sustain this dreamy, romantic attitude for so long, it’s hard to do.  I play characters that generally change from one moment to the next, and to me they’re more interesting.

BD:   Is there any one character that is perhaps a little too close to the real Bob Orth?

Orth:   Ha, ha, no!  I don’t think so!  Part of the joy in what I do is finding all those parts in myself.  In many ways, stage work is therapy.  It’s actually better than therapy, because in their jobs, many people have to have their emotions subjugated.  In order to do the job, they are allowed to be cheerful, although not too cheerful, and they’re forced to be serious about the work.  They’re not to express any extremes of emotion.  In my work, I’m not only paid, but I’m obliged to bring parts of myself up to be examined, not just by me, but by everyone.  Hopefully this puts them in touch with parts of themselves which the rest of the week, or the month, or the year, they’re not supposed to, or they’ve been discouraged to.  All of us are such rich human beings, and that’s why we like art.  It puts us in touch with parts of ourselves which we generally don’t have access to.

BD:   Is it very different when you’re portraying a fictional character, as opposed to a real human being, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, or Harvey Milk?

Orth:   No, I wouldn’t say it’s very different.  When you do a historical character, particularly a contemporary character like those two you mentioned, there’s much more material, or you can actually talk to people who knew them.  But it doesn’t matter where it comes from.  If it comes from your imagination, that’s fine, but it’s basically the same.  You get your information wherever you can, and certainly with most of the standard repertoire pieces, there’s so much tradition.  That’s where you get it, so it’s sort of given to you, handed to you that way.  With the new pieces, you have to go dig it out, but it’s there.
BD:   If you’re playing a character that people know, might they be concerned that he wouldn’t have done this, or you’re not exactly supposed to do that?

Orth:   Our job is to capture the essence of the person.  Certainly we had those comments with Harvey Milk.  Most of the people said,
“That was Harvey!  That’s what happened!  That’s how it was then, and that’s who he was.  I didn’t do that by doing a Harvey Milk imitation, and I do not intend to do a Frank Lloyd Wright imitation either.  It’s the composer’s and the librettist’s job to give us the raw materials, or the refined material, to produce this person.  Then it’s up to us to bring it to life, and capture the essence of this person, which is much more important than whether I walk the way he walked, or grumble the way he grumbled.  There’s more to a person than that.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Having grown up here in the Chicago area, are you familiar with Frank Lloyd Wright’s work?

Orth:   I was born in Chicago, but then I grew up in Texas and Montana.  I went to Wheaton College, but I wasn’t overly familiar with Wright.  I’ve been in the Unity Temple [in Oak Park] to sing, and when I first walked in there, I went,
“Wow!  What a great place this is.  That was years ago.  Then I visited some Frank Lloyd Wright places, especially Taliesin and a home in Grand Rapids, but no, I wasn’t overly familiar.  Of course, now I’ve read several of the biographies.  There are lots of books about Frank Lloyd Wright, so there’s no shortage of material.  I’ve been learning about him, but he wasn’t a big part of my upbringing.

BD:   Do you like the character?

Orth:   That’s a very good question.  I know people liked Frank Lloyd Wright.  They loved him and they hated him, and that’s the way many people felt.  He was the kind of person that could rub you the wrong way.  He was an egomaniac.  He was incapable of seeing anything through anyone else’s eyes.  He had his way of seeing the world, which was to him the right way, and then everyone else had their way of seeing the world, which was the wrong way.  If you disagreed with him, he wrote you off.  He was a compulsive liar.  He just lied all the time, even when it might have been in his best interest to tell the truth.  He just lied out of habit, it seems.

BD:   So, he was out for Number One?

Orth:   Oh absolutely!

BD:   Was he out for Number One Frank Lloyd Wright, or was he out for Number One his work?

Orth:   That’s open for debate.  I don’t think you could separate them in his mind, and it’s the same with the truth.  He figured if he said it, it was true.  In his own mind he was his work, and his work was him!  Would I like him?  I suppose I’d like him and I wouldn’t like him!  It’s not that simple.

BD:   Do you suppose he’s looking down and enjoying your interpretation of him?

Orth:   I hope he’s looking down instead of looking up!  [Both have a huge laugh]

BD:   Is it partly your job on the stage to let us know that he is looking down and not up?

Orth:   No, I think that’s for you to decide.  I don’t have to tell you that.  I get to show you Frank Lloyd Wright, and I don’t really care to make an apology.  It’s not my job to make him likable.  It is, however, my job to make sure that he’s not one-dimensional, so that you would say,
“Oooo, what a terrible person, because I don’t think he was just a terrible person.  Similarly, it’s not my job to make him just this wonderful person.  Indeed, he did that well enough in his own book!  I intended to represent all the aspects of him.  There were many.  He was a very complex person.

BD:   Can you portray all of him, or just one segment of his personality?

Orth:   This opera shows a certain part of his life.  As someone put it, it shows the most sordid period of his life.

BD:   That makes better theater, I guess.

Orth:   I guess so.  It is more operatic.  You’ve got to have people die in an opera!  We just do a short period of it.  We’re not doing his whole life.  There are probably about four or five operas there, because he lived to be ninety-one.  He had quite an extraordinary life.  Brendan Gill’s biography of him is called Many Masks, and indeed that is what he wore during his life... the family man, the scandal-ridden adulterer, the grand old man of American architecture, the futurist, the traditionalist, and on and on and on.

BD:   Do you like some of the masks more than others?

Orth:   No.  In any period of his life, he was a very complex person.  That didn’t change.  He would put on whatever he felt was needed.  He wouldn’t just change in periods of his life.  This is an over-view, but even within hours or days he would change his masks to suit his needs, to get what he wanted and what he needed.

BD:   Was he somewhat theatrical himself?

Orth:   Oh, very theatrical!  You see pictures of a flamboyant dresser.  He was very agile with words to the point that you’d listen to him and you’d go,
Wow!  Then if you really thought about it, you might wonder what did that mean?  [Both laugh]  He’s Welsh, so he had this great facility with the language.  It aspired to music, which is one reason why this may make good opera.  The librettist uses a lot of Wrights own words.

BD:   Did he use any of Wright
s own tunes?

Orth:   Did he write tunes?  He could play the piano, and he loved music, but no, I don’t think he wrote music.  He was always having music performed at Taliesin.

BD:   Does the music that has been used for this opera work well?  Is it married well to the text?

Orth:   As we say over and over, it is ‘integral’.  Yes, it is very well integrated.  The music is very ‘Americana’.  The piece is dedicated to Leonard Bernstein, because Daron Hagen, our composer, was a student of Bernstein’s.  So you hear some of that.  There’s a lot of barber shop quartet stuff.  There
s also some homage to Strauss in a section where we’re talking about how Frank went to Europe and met Richard Strauss.  There are all kinds of things in there.  For a singer, some of it is quite difficult to learn and retain.  But when you listen to it, you’re not aware of that, which is somewhat surprising.  You start learning it and go, Wow, thats brilliant, but it’s a little more complex than I thought it was.
BD:   Do you have to hide the complexity?

Orth:   There’s no problem hiding the complexity.  When you get it right, it comes out sounding beautiful.  When I first started doing music of Benjamin Britten, I thought it’s sort of learning another language.  At first, it’s just gibberish and difficult, and you have to think, think, think.  Then after you’ve worked on it for a while, everything makes perfect sense, and falls into place.
BD:   Is it safe to assume that the new roles that you sing are generally from more tuneful operas, rather than from more complex, or atonal operas?

Orth:   I haven’t done a lot of what I consider to be ‘honk and squeak’ atonal music.  Sarah Caldwell was doing Taverner by Peter Maxwell Davies.  We were about a week or two before we were to start rehearsals, and I was tearing my hair out
of which I have very little left anyway!  I got a call that she had canceled the production.  I didn’t tell her, but I was relieved because it was quarter tones and just... ugh!  It was really hard!  Most of the new American pieces I have done by Argento, and Hoiby, and Stewart Wallace, and now Daron Hagen, are very tuneful, very tonal.  Argento uses twelve-tone, but in such a refined way that it sounds like beautiful music.

BD:   It’s very accessible?

Orth:   I think so.  A few years ago [1991] at Lyric Opera, I did Prokofiev’s The Gambler [first performed in 1929], and people who came to hear it would sometimes say it was modern music! 
Modern music, folks??  Its time to catch up.  Were now less than three years away from the twenty-first century, and you’re still talking about music written fifty, seventy years ago as ‘modern music!

BD:   A couple of years later, Lyric patrons had to put up with Lulu, which is from the same period, but is far more advanced.

Orth:   Absolutely.  It
s well advanced, or it might just be a different kind of music.

BD:   When you get offered a role, how do you decide yes or no?

Orth:   The first question is, am I busy during that time-period?  [Both laugh]  It’s true.  It’s a practical consideration.

BD:   There’s no point in even thinking about it if you’re not available?

Orth:   Right.  For instance, I was asked to do Shining Brow when it was first premiered, but I wasn’t available.  Then, if the dates work out right, I want to look at it to see if it fits my range.  I’m a high baritone, and if it hangs in the bottom of my range, I don’t want to go there, or spend much time there, because that’s not where I sound the best, nor project the best.  Then, I’m very interested in the dramatic thrust of the piece.  Does it appear to be a viable piece of drama?  I’m interested in doing a piece of theater.  There are so many things that go into it, as well as the mundane considerations, like money!

BD:   Do you also do much concert work?

Orth:   Not a lot.  Part of it is that the symphonic pieces that are done a lot, like the Beethoven Ninth, and the Verdi Requiem are bass-baritone roles, and I’m a high baritone.  I do Carmina Burana a lot.  I’m doing one again in September with the Seattle Symphony.  I also sing the Brahms and Fauré Requiems, and certain pieces that aren’t done a lot.  My wife and I have also done a lot of concerts with piano, community concerts and things like that, but not in the recent couple of years.  I’m just real busy with opera all the time.

BD:   Do you make sure that you have enough time for family, and for learning all the new roles?

Orth:   It has tended to work out on its own.  There have been times when I’ve turned down viable work because I just needed to be at home for those weeks.  But for the most part, I’ll have a month or sometimes even two months free, and it’s just nice to be at home, and I don’t worry about it.  It’s great.  When I do worry, it’s about some of those times when I’d look at my schedule and realize that for four or five months I only get to be home about ten days here and there.  But my children are grown, so my wife comes to see me when she can... although she’s very busy, too.  We talk on the phone every day, and now I have e-mail!  I have to have my laptop, and I e-mail people all the time.  [Remember, this conversation was held in 1997, when e-mail was just beginning to be ubiquitous.]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let us talk a bit about Harvey Milk.  You have recorded this opera?
Orth:   Yes, we recorded it last fall in San Francisco.

BD:   Do you sing differently for the microphone than you do for the live theater?

Orth:   No, I didn’t.  I know that I can, and I know that for some things you are supposed to, but this was to be done as we had done it in performance, not doctored up.  There are things that are intended to be sung for the benefit of a microphone, or to be manipulated that way, but this was certainly not.  Most operas aren’t.

BD:   Did you enjoy playing this character?

Orth:   I loved it!  It was just wonderful.  He was such a character.  He was a flamboyant person, and certainly found himself in some very interesting situations.  The thing that I enjoyed most about it was that it is such an important topic.  It was about something.  I don’t want to name names, but so many operas aren’t about anything!  They’re about a key, or some mistaken identity.
BD:   Dont those opera then become about the emotions of the moment?

Orth:   Yes, which is fine!  This was about something very important, which is gay rights, and this man who ultimately gave his life, although he didn’t intend to.  He sort of knew he was going to, and he had premonitions for gay people.  We all were so committed to what this opera was about, and I loved that.

BD:   Has it become a ‘cause-opera’?

Orth:   I don’t know.  Certainly, we got a lot of people coming to it that hadn’t been to operas before.  They were coming because they were curious about this particular character, and what we were going to do.  There is some outrageous stuff in it, including the drag queens doing the Stonewall Riots Kick Line.

BD:   Where there some people who were outraged that this kind of material was being set to music?

Orth:   Not as many as you might imagine.  When we premiered it in Houston, they were all ready for protests by ministers, but we were pretty much ignored by the people who expressed hatred or animosity toward homosexuality and homosexuals.  The protests didn’t materialize.  In fact, some of the people [He laughs] who complained, were gay people themselves who either felt we didn’t go far enough!  We felt that as long as we were offending some people, we were doing something right!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Should the lead character have been given to a homosexual singer?

Orth:   I don’t know why.  Rock Hudson always played straight people.  The man who plays Frank Lloyd Wright doesn’t have to be short and have lots of hair.  There are all kinds of ways of looking at people.

BD:   Does this opera give a true portrait of Harvey Milk?

Orth:   Absolutely!

BD:   It’s not operatic in any way?

Orth:   Oh, yes!  Are you kidding?  During rehearsals we called it Moses in San Francisco, and lots of the press referred to it as a mythologizing, which was the intention of the composer and the director and the librettist, because that is what opera does best.  If you want a documentary, you go rent the fabulous documentary called The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, from 1983, which won the Academy Award.  But if you want an opera, you don’t do a documentary.  You expand it, because opera takes things and cloaks them in big emotions, and sustains it all through music.  That’s what we did with Harvey, but that’s what we do with all of our heroes.  We don’t keep them tiny.  We want them big.

BD:   Do you want to make sure that people know you don’t learn your history from the opera?

Orth:   Oh, of course, nor do you learn it from television.  You’ve got to compare sources and draw your own conclusions.

BD:   Movies these days are somewhat operatic.

Orth:   Yes, they can be, but I still wouldn’t say that you can rely on them for truth and facts.

BD:   Now you have the experience doing Frank Lloyd Right and Harvey Milk.  Do you bring that same experience when you go back to Figaro, or Papageno?

Orth:   They’re different characters.  I suppose one benefits as a person from all those characterizations, and I assume in some way it shows up in other characters, but it’s nothing that I could put my finger on.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve done quite a number of musicals and operetta, too.  You’re about the only one I know who seems to flow back and forth freely between the operetta and musical genre, and grand opera.

Orth:   Really?  I know some other singers who do it.  I like it.  It seems well-suited to me, and I’m certainly well-suited to it.

BD:   Is speaking dialogue ruinous to the voice?

Orth:   I see what you mean, but no, it’s not ruinous to the voice at all.  You simply have to know how to speak in the theater.  When they’ve done their first dialogue show, some singers panic because when you sing, the pitch, the rhythm, the emphasis, the important words, the pauses are all given to you and controlled.  All you have to do is learn it and interpret it to some extent.  But when you’re given a script, it’s a much more creative act.  I get to decide how fast I’m going to say it.  I get to decide what words are important.  I get to decide how high or low I’m going to do it.  I make all the decisions except for the actual words themselves.  So, if they’ve never done it before, some singers do panic.

BD:   I assume that a musical has much more dialogue than, say, The Magic Flute.

Orth:   Yes.  The Magic Flute does have dialogue, and if you’re doing it in German, you also have that to contend with.

BD:   Would you rather sing and speak in the original with supertitles, or in English translation?


Orth:   It depends.  I love singing in English.  I think English is a wonderful language to sing in.  I’ve gotten into many discussions and/or arguments
not just with singers, but fans and all kinds of people who have strong feelings about it.  Many of them don’t like singing in English, but I love it.  There’s nothing wrong with English because I understand it, and singing in America, the audiences understand it.  There’s no substitute for that.  I can feel the difference when I’m singing a patter song, particularly Figaro’s aria in The Barber of Seville [shown above], or the Queen Mab aria in Romeo and Juliet.  When I’m singing it in English, I have the audience right here in the palm of my hand.  Theyre listening to me intently, and getting every word, and loving it.  When I’m singing it in a foreign language, they’re reading it about twenty feet over my head.  I can be acting my little heart out.  [Laughs]  There can be blood on the stage, and they don’t know it because the words are going a mile a minute up there in the surtitles.  I can feel the difference in the response.  Surtitles are a wonderful compromise if you’re going to do opera in the original language.  There are certainly benefits to doing opera in the original language, not the least for the singers.  We don’t have to keep learning new translations!  I’ve done five or six translations of a lot of the things I do.  But when you sing the original language, it’s just there and that’s what you do.  But I do love doing opera in English, and there are certainly wonderful translations out for many of the standard pieces.

BD:   Some of the singers who do comedy tell me they get two laughs
one when the people read it, and another when they see it acted on the stage.

Orth:   Right, and that is maddening when the person who is running the surtitles doesn’t time it right.  Sometimes you have gotten your line half-way out, and the audience is laughing.

BD:   You need an assistant conductor, a Maestro di Titles!

Orth:   Yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Are you pleased with where you are at this point in your career?
Orth:   Very!  The whole thing is a surprise to me.  I realize it depends on how you choose to look at things, and I’m a glass-full person.  There are a whole lot of people out there who would love to have the career I have.  I also know that if Plácido Domingo or Luciano Pavarotti had to settle for a career like mine, they’d probably just as soon be driving a truck.  [Both laugh]  But I feel extraordinarily blessed to be able to do this.  It uses all of my talents, and it’s very rewarding.

BD:   Do you sing much in Europe?

Orth:   I’ve never even been to Europe!

BD:   Is there a certain sense of pride to be an American singer singing in America?

Orth:   Oh, absolutely!  I’ve also sung in Canada a bit, and I’ve even sung in the Philippines.  I’ve been asked to sing in Europe a number of times, but I’ve had jobs here, and it just didn’t seem prudent to cancel what I was doing here in order to go over there and sing.  It’ll probably happen, and if it doesn’t, I’m not going to slash my wrists.  America has been good to me.

BD:   You’ve made the recording of Harvey Milk, and you made a recording of The Telephone.

Orth:   We also did a live recording of Six Characters in Search of an Author at Lyric a few years ago.  As I travel around the country, I’m absolutely astonished at how many people come to me and say they’ve got that recording.

BD:   Why does that surprise you?

Orth:   It’s just so esoteric.  There are a lot of esoteric lovers out there.  I have those three recordings, and my agent says that I have a ‘discograph’.  Now, if we record Shining Brow, then I’ll have a ‘discography’.  [Much laughter]  I want to get stuff down and record it before I can’t sing anymore.

BD:   Have you planned out your career to end it at a certain time?

Orth:   No, heavens no!  I hope I can keep going for a long time, but if I sound bad, who knows?  Here’s my theory...  When I was young and sounded fabulous, either I couldn’t get a good job, or they certainly wouldn’t pay me very much because nobody knew who I was.  So, if it works right, as you get older and people know who you are, you eventually sound awful, but they’ll pay you lots of money.  [Laughs]  It will all balance out!

BD:   Thank you for giving so much of your time here in Chicago.

Orth:   I’m very happy to be able to work at home.

BD:   You’ve given us quite an interesting portrayal of many different roles.

Orth:   I’ve been lucky to have those opportunities.  When I started out in musical comedy and early opera, I thought that I would be doing mainly comic roles.  But I’ve been really lucky because of companies like Chicago Opera Theater, and many companies all over the country will use me one year for a comic role, and the next year for a real heavy one.  That’s very rewarding.  I wouldn’t complain if I just got to do one or the other, but it’s much nicer to do both.  It’s nice to be able to explore all those aspects of my own personality, and then touch people with all of them.

BD:   So, back to a question we touched on before.  Is there one which is a little too close to the real you?

Orth:   No.  When I find something that’s too close, I revel in that.  It’s so close that I feel it is the part of me that I can identify with, and can explore.  We go to rehearsal every day to bind these parts of ourselves, and bring certain aspects to the surface.

BD:   Can you put something of you into each role?

Orth:   I don’t know if I put it in, but I find it.  [Both laugh]  I don’t think I’m layering anything on top of it.  What I’m trying to do is find out what’s real in me that I can bring out for the character that I’m playing.

BD:   Do you have any advice for younger singers coming along?

Orth:   [Sighs]  Good luck! [Gales of laughter]  I look at them, and sometimes I almost get tears in my eyes.  I find them so poignant.  They’re so hopeful, and they don’t know what’s ahead of them.  None of us does, and I hope they get what they want, although we must remember that old saying,
‘Be careful what you ask for, you might get it.  [Both laugh]  I have felt that way a few times in my life.

BD:   Thank you so much for speaking with me today.

Orth:   Thank you.

========                ========                ========
--------        --------        --------
========                ========                ========

© 1997 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on July 4, 1997.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following week.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, 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.