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Sydney Opera House

Helping singers sound their best

Pittsburgh Opera Music Director Antony Walker, who conducts Rossini’s The Barber of Seville at the Sydney Opera House this month, talks to Allerta! about coloratura, comedy, being a singers’ conductor and making his Met debut in Gluck’s L’Orfeo this April.

Allerta!: You once conducted the final act of Aida while singing the role of Radamès from the pit. How does your singing background inform your conducting style?  

Antony Walker: When I rehearse an orchestra, in the first read I always sing certain phrases, because sometimes it’s easier for the orchestra to lock in to accompanying the voice by listening to the way I sing a phrase and relating that to my gesture. Also, some symphonic conductors treat opera as if it’s a score ultimately governed by the music, where the words are of secondary importance. For me, language is extremely important: opera has a story to tell and if you’re not telling the story, something is not right.

Allerta!: You’re also a trained cellist. Do you sometimes look at the score from the vantage point of the string section?

AW: Yes, in the sense that when you’re playing a string instrument there are various articulation possibilities. In Rossini’s time, orchestral players changed bow strokes several times even in legato melodies, and that spilled over into the way people sang. 

Allerta!: Rossini has a highly characteristic comedy style, filled with exuberant runs, trills and coloratura. How does this support the drama?

AW: It depends on the situation. In his opening cavatina, for example, the count woos Rosina with beautiful filigree lines and elegant embellishments – he’s showing off in a gentle way. In the cabaletta his music becomes faster and more virtuosic, so that the coloratura works as a bravura element: Look how fast I can sing!

Likewise, Figaro’s first aria reveals his quick-witted nature through the number of consonants and syllables that he articulates in a very short time, and Rosina, who starts her first aria very smoothly, reveals her determination when she begins to talk about winning over Lindoro in an increasingly virtuosic singing style.

Rossini makes the coloratura work in very specific dramatic ways; the challenge is to make sure that the singers really embrace this.

Allerta!: Barber was the earliest Italian opera never to have disappeared from the repertoire. What ensured its continued popularity, when Guillaume Tell, generally considered Rossini’s masterpiece, is rarely performed today?

AW: Guillaume Tell is very long, and if you cut it, you destroy its structure, which is why it is so seldom performed. Barber by contrast is a simple, compelling story that has been structured very beautifully. It was the first Italian opera performed in Italian in the US, which has always given it a special place in the repertoire there, and it requires modest forces – a small men’s chorus, six to eight principals and a small orchestra – so that it’s economical to perform. And it’s damned funny!

Allerta!: What are the pitfalls of conducting the piece?

AW: The tempo which you had in mind, and which might work brilliantly with the orchestra, might not work for the singers, and if the singers can’t articulate fast enough, it will sound laboured. So you have to massage the tempo to suit the singer’s coloratura. The beauty of Rossini is that there is flexibility in the musical language.

Allerta!: Until the mid-20th century, Rossini’s comedies were performed in a slapstick style – it was as if singers didn’t take it seriously. Why was that?

AW: Because they couldn’t sing the music – we only began to regain the technique for singing those runs and trills and ornaments in the past 40 years. Even in the last 20 years, thanks to the work of singers like Cecilia Bartoli, there’s been a renaissance in Rossini singing. These days there are artists who specialise in Rossini. And some of them still leave out some of the ornaments.

Allerta!: Why is it so difficult to find a baritone to sing the role of Figaro?      

AW: Because Figaro is the only major high baritone role that requires substantial coloratura. Giorgio Caoduro, who is Figaro in Opera Australia’s revival this month, specialises in bel canto and Rossini and has a fantastic coloratura.

Allerta!:Do you sometimes have strong differences of opinion with a singer?

AW: Oh yes, quite frequently. It’s natural, as a passionate artist dealing with other passionate artists!

Allerta!:How do you resolve them?

AW:It depends who the singer is…

Allerta!: If it’s Renée Fleming you fall in with what she wants?

AW: I’ve never worked with Renée Fleming but I suspect that might be the case! (Laughs) But there are not many singers of that stature around. Personally I like to compromise. 

Allerta: You’ve never had a singer storm off?

AW: I’ve never let it get to that stage – it’s not productive, and ultimately the singers have to sing the music. My role is to help them sound as good as they possibly can. That and to be the composer’s advocate.

Allerta: Any exciting commitments coming up?

AW: Yes, my Met debut in Gluck’s L’Orfeo this April. I’m very excited about that!