By Gary Murphy
With 12 role premieres under his belt, baritone Rod Gilfry is flying high these days—both literally and figuratively—with a career that spans almost four decades. Even with that longevity, Rod is no old hat. The New York Times recently stated that Rod has become “the singer of choice for new [italics added] American operas.”
After reprising his role as Mr. Potter in Jake Heggie’s new opera adaptation of It’s A Wonderful Life at San Francisco Opera in December, Rod returns to Los Angeles for yet another role premiere in the loser, an intense tour-de-force and daringly staged one-act opera from Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang. Based on the novel by Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, the loser tells the tale of a failed piano student who recounts a life lived in the shadows of his famous friend Glenn Gould. This painful meditation on dreams forsaken and hopes unrealized unfolds in an unusually intimate staging that incorporates multiple levels of the spectacular Theatre at Ace Hotel in Downtown L.A., February 22 and 23, 2019.
Rod sat down with the Opera League to talk about the West Coast premiere of the loser, an intimate work for baritone, piano and chamber ensemble, plus a few of his LA Opera memories.
BRAVO: David Lang’s the loser seems an intriguing role choice for you. Is it really a 65-minute sung monologue performed on a platform built above the orchestra?
Rod Gilfry: That’s exactly what it is. It is just me standing on a 4’ x 4’ platform that’s perched 20 feet in the air with no chairs, no water and no place to sit. I’m simply standing there dressed in a tuxedo. It’s both intense and challenging for me, no doubt. The material doesn’t seem a likely candidate for an opera or a dramatic setting, but composer David Lang finds these odd vehicles and makes great theatre from them. Take anatomy theater for example. He turned human dissection into an opera. He saw something in Thomas Bernhard’s novel, also entitled the loser, and thought it would make a good opera piece.
BRAVO: You play the character of the Narrator who is one of two piano students who were in school at the same time as Glenn Gould. Is that correct to say?
RG: Yes, there are three characters in the book—Glenn Gould, who has just died, and there is Wertheimer, who has just killed himself. The survivor of the trio is the Narrator who never reveals his name. It’s interesting how the book is written in these massively long paragraphs, each one its own chapter. That’s a style of Thomas Bernhard, it’s one of his literary idiosyncrasies.
BRAVO: I would imagine the tension must be high for the audience as they watch you standing on a small raised platform above the stage.
RG: It’s a fascinating piece, and many people have told me how captivated they are in the theatre. You have to understand something else about the way it is envisioned. The platform I stand on is built above the orchestra section of the house which is left empty—no one sits there. Everyone sits in the mezzanine section, and I am eye to eye with the audience while the bare mainstage sits behind me.
It’s only in the last five minutes of my monologue that a light comes up onstage revealing a beautiful grand concert piano and a pianist lightly playing some sort of vague impression of a Bach piece. Maybe it’s Bach, perhaps a bit of the “Goldberg Variations” which is mentioned several times throughout the piece. David has written it as a sort of very loose and lovely, somewhat mysterious interpretation of a Bach composition.
BRAVO: You just wrapped It’s A Wonderful Life in San Francisco where you reprised the role of Mr. Potter that you originated at Houston Grand Opera. You seem to enjoy creating new roles and recently did so in Crossing here at LA Opera. Is it harder to create new roles versus finding your character in well-known roles?
RG: It’s a totally different process. One of the things about doing a new role is that it’s a completely blank slate. You can do what you want and figure out your own way through it, and then you’re the original one that everyone else goes from and you’re the point of departure.
Whereas if you do a familiar role, then you must honor tradition whilst somehow making it distinctively yours. Though I have to say there is not much latitude in any classical vocal music. By the time the composer has set the text, about 95% of your choices have been decided by the composer in terms of speed, rise and fall of the line, where you pause, the dynamic. All those elements are pre-determined by the composer so the leeway you have for interpreting is only about 5% as opposed to an actor where you can essentially be the composer.
BRAVO: You’ve performed at LA Opera many times from The Merry Widow to Nicholas and Alexandra, and, most notably, the title role in Billy Budd. When did you first appear onstage for LA Opera?
RG: The first role I did was in Otello, the 1986 inaugural production that began LA Opera. I played the role of the Herald, Araldo, who had a single line to sing in the opera. It’s the opening of the third act, and I step out onstage and sing one line—“La vedetta del porto ha segnalato la veneta galea che a Cipro adduce gli ambasciatori.” And Plácido Domingo as Otello sang back to me, “Bene sta.” It was short but a great moment in my life.
I have a cabaret show where I talk about how I got started and mention LAO’s inaugural season and how I had this fantastic role Araldo and had a beautiful aria. I’m setting up the scene for my audience, describing the whole story. My pianist plays the introduction, and I come back onstage steeling myself to sing this beautiful aria. The audience laughs, but I say that I sing that line to Plácido Domingo. Well, one night I was doing my show at the opera house in Barcelona where Plácido happened to be singing, so he came to my show. This time, when I got to my one line, Plácido stood up in the audience and loudly sang Otello’s response: “Bene sta!” It was definitely the most affirming moment of my career!
BRAVO: I’m sure the Opera League has become a friend of yours over these many years. Is there one Opera League moment that stands out?
RG: Most certainly. The one thing I totally remember was in 2000 when I was performing Billy Budd, a role I had been singing all over the world. It was the last opera of Peter Hemmings’ last season, and it always had been his dream to have Billy Budd in Los Angeles. It was the Opera League that stood up and guaranteed they would find enough funding to ensure the Billy Budd production. As it turned out, it was not only Peter’s last production at LA Opera, it was also the last time I performed Billy. It was all so poignant.
BRAVO: Are you still teaching at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music?
RG: Yes, it’s my 10th anniversary as a voice professor at USC. This semester I’m only teaching about five weeks! I am very lucky to be allowed to blend my performing career with my teaching career. I love working with students to help them discover their voices and coaching them with their roles, especially if it is a role I’ve sung. At this point in my life and my career, I find great passion in teaching, as I have so much to share. If there is one important lesson that I want to inspire in my students, it is the need to communicate, whether in the opera repertory or in art song, they must communicate from the stage with authenticity, proper diction and vocal color. I say to them, “If I can’t understand your words, you are no longer telling me the story. You’re just making pretty sounds.” Clear communication and authenticity is key.