BWW Interviews: Doing What He Wants To Do: Stephen Powell In San Diego Opera's PAGLIACCI
He has great analytical skills, approaches his roles with remarkable intelligence, and even accompanies himself at the piano. Baritone Stephen Powell, who sings his first Tonio in San Diego Opera's opening production of Pagliacci this season, embodies the phrase, "multi-talented." True to form, the affable performer enters the room singing.
EM: Are you going to sing for me, too?
SP: I hadn't thought of that (laughs).
EM: Where are you from originally?
SP: I'm from Pennsylvania, born in West Chester.
EM: You started out as a pianist?
SP: I was a piano major at Northwestern. But I quickly found out I wasn't cut out for eight hours a day of practicing piano by myself. And everybody's really good when you get to that level. But I loved music, so I started to do a lot of accompanying, which I still love, and play for a lot of violinists and singers. That's how I began to learn opera repertoire.
EM: Were you singing yet at that point?
SP: I'd always sung for fun. In high school I was in musicals, a rock band - which was a lot of fun - and sang in the choir. For the ensemble requirement, I sang in the University chorale and the vocal jazz ensemble. I dabbled in a lot of things to try and figure out what I wanted to do. I loved everything I was doing but needed to center on something, to focus on a vocation, as so many people do in college. But I always knew it had to be music. I was in a work study program doing recitals, practice sessions, rehearsals and recordings and started playing for many studios, in particular for Norman Gulbrandsen, who eventually became my voice teacher. He had heard that I sang, too, and he said, "I'd love to hear you sing someday." And I said, "Ah... no, I'm fine." But eventually I sang for him and he encouraged me to take lessons. At the end of the day he would do a half hour lesson with me, run scales and such. He was very generous with his time.
EM: And did you enjoy that more than you imagined?
SP: I did. I didn't think of it as a focused vocational avenue yet, but I realized there was something there worth pursuing. By my junior year I had switched from being a piano major to a theory and composition major.
EM: Where did that come from?
SP: Composition was also an interest of mine. I really wanted to be Billy Joel growing up. I wrote a lot of songs on my own with my brother, who was also a voice major in college. But composition at that time was very modern electronic music, Milton Babbitt sort of thing. I didn't love writing it, but it allowed me to take other courses outside my piano major, and freed me up to do other things and still get my degree. By that time I was studying fairly regularly with Mr. Gulbrandsen, still playing a lot of piano. So I graduated with a theory and composition degree, which was worth pretty much nothing.
EM: Except that you know how to analyze a score.
SP: I can, and sometimes it helps. After that I spent four years working in music, teaching piano and accompanying recitals and auditions in Chicago, taking lessons and doing anything I could to make a living. I sang with Chicago Symphony Chorus. Looking back now, I realize some of the best musical experiences I had were in that chorus, with Georg Solti conducting. He was one of the greatest musical minds of all time.
EM: What a fantastic opportunity.
SP: Fabulous. In '89 we did a tour of London and Salzburg, Berlioz' Damnation of Faust. So I got to travel. But my voice teacher was encouraging me to pursue singing, and I thought, "Oh my God, opera, the stories are so silly."
EM: But you did get the exposure.
SP: I did. I sang in the chorus for Don Giovanni and had a lot of fun, but I didn't think of it as a vocation. I loved playing opera and enjoyed the music, but I was also a gigging musician, freelancing in a wedding band playing piano and singing pop music till three a.m. with a guitar blaring in my ear. Getting by. I was twenty-five when Mr. Gulbrandsen, who had moved from Northwestern to De Paul, said, "I want you to come get your Master's degree in voice." I said, "What, really?" They were doing Figaro, and my voice teacher said, "You need to audition." After talking with friends and family I decided to get my Master's, paying my way by playing for opera workshops, vocal classes and auditions. I auditioned and got the role of Figaro - I had worked on the arias and played the role for many singers - and I thought, "What am I getting myself into?"
EM: Not just any role, either.
SP: Yes. I got hooked. After all this searching, finally being on stage, being able to act, with the language, the text, the character, the music all combined, it made sense. I found my niche. I pursued it with vehemence and got my two year degree in one year, then right out of De Paul I auditioned for the Lyric Opera apprenticeship program and got in. I was there from '93-'95. Then I went to New York and started singing. I joined New York City Opera in the fall of '95.
EM: What was your first role at City Opera?
SP: I was on a weekly contract, so I had five or six operas that year. Papageno in Magic Flute, Mikado, Rosenkavalier, and the musical Cinderella, with Jean Stapleton and Jane Powell, which was a thrill. Then my agent called and asked if I wanted to cover William Stone in Hindemith's Mathis Der Maler. I didn't think it was a big deal, but when I looked at the score I realized I should have thought about it a little. Meanwhile I was learning two other roles. Then Bill blew out a vocal chord and suddenly I was "on" for the Opening Night of the season, singing from the pit while Bill walked the part on stage. That was my debut! I remember thinking, if I could get through that, nothing's going to bother me from here on. That's turned out to be true, but I learned to be careful what I say yes to.
EM: And your first stage role at city opera was Papageno?
SP: Yes. That's where I met my wife (soprano Barbara Shervis). She sang in Mathis, and Pamina in Flute, and we sang together in Mikado and Rosenkavalier. We pretty much couldn't get away from each other. We've been together ever since. My Met debut the fall of '96 was Marullo in Rigoletto. Now I've moved from lyric, like Figaro and Ford in Falstaff, to more dramatic roles.
EM: Now that you're able to get into the heavier ones, which roles do you enjoy the most, or feel most comfortable with?
SP: It was a slow progression from the lyric repertoire to the lower tier Verdi like Germont and Ford. Now I'd say Rigoletto is my favorite role. I just did Iago for the first time last year and Falstaff at Virginia Opera, and those were fantastic. They're actually best suited for me now. This summer I did Rodrigo (Don Carlo) for the first time.