Those two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Those immortal words by Robert Frost might as well apply to almost anyone who takes on an artistic endeavor. But for bass Matthew Curran, the path to operatic success has been a truly unusual one, as he related to OperaWire in a recent interview.
For Curran opera was never a passion of his as a young boy even though he had plenty of exposure to it in his youth. While his Hungarian grandfather was a major opera lover and his mother grew up listening to the Metropolitan Opera Radio broadcasts every weekend, it was never part of his childhood.
His first exposure to opera was when his mother took him to see Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” in New York City. But as he notes “I was so young that the memories are so blurry.”
As a student in Princeton, Curran was an average boy trying everything out and figuring out what he wanted to do.
“We had a very good musical program in the public school system. So I was lucky that I had a good education introduction to classical music and choral music and choral singing. And then I was very active in choir. I sang in a church choir, the High School choir and I sang in an a Capella group and I did one or two musical theater shows. But I also played sports and I did everything. And it never occurred to me to go to school to be a singer or be a professional.”
So when it came time to apply for college Curran wanted a new experience. He wanted to move to a place where he could discover more culture even if it was at the expense of not knowing what he wanted to do for a profession.
“I actually went to Tulane University after high school and what attracted me to New Orleans was the music there and just the culture in general. Growing up in the Northeast I didn’t want to go to school to a place like the one I went to in high school. I wanted to meet people and see new places and New Orleans fit the bill. I loved it and I was having fun and it was really eye-opening.”
But as his academics started spiraling it was time to make a choice and figure out what he wanted.
“I decided to transfer to Loyola University. And I just became a voice major by default and I was introduced to opera.”
But opera was not his primary interest from a professional standpoint.
“I was really interested in jazz music and seeing if I really wanted to be a crooner. I started taking piano lessons when I was in music school all the while doing the 24 Italian songs and doing the typical thing. It was my own little secret. So I sang jazz wherever I could. I would sit in the clubs around New Orleans.”
But as a vocal major focusing in classical music, Curran had to perform in one of the staged productions and at the age of 21 he sang in the chorus for Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” As he admitted this was his very first introduction to opera.
But the opera that made his fall in love with the art form was “Les Contes d’Hoffmann,” which he also performed during his time there.
“That was really amazing and I loved the opera. I sang chorus and sang the small roles.”
His constant work with the New Orleans Opera was also inspiring. “Standing close to them and hearing these voices come out unamplified and doing the staging and everything else and sounding like a superhero was really impressive.”
But he was still not convinced that this was the path he would take in his career. Jazz remained at the forefront. For now.
The Turning Point
The change really came about during one summer at the Aspen Music Festival.
“That sealed the deal.”
“I was blown away and completely shocked at how many really interesting, fun, cool and super talented people still in college were trying to be opera singers. ‘Who goes to the opera in this country?’ And it blew me away to see so many young people going after it. And these people knew their stuff.”
What was even more impressive was having the chance to interact with some of the most important people in the industry.
“That summer they did ‘Don Giovani’ with Julius Rudel conducting, ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ with Robert Spano conducting and ‘Powder Her Face’ with Thomas Ades conducting and that was actually the US premiere. We all had to do some bit of work as part of the program and I ended up working on the stage crew for ‘Powder Her Face.’ So I got to see that a lot. At first it was crazy and I was trying to make sense of that music but with each rehearsal more things started jumping at me. That really struck me.”
And then he took the plunge.
“I thought this was really interesting. I like this and this is enough for me to pursue this,” he noted. “I didn’t know whether or not I was going to make it or whatever. But I knew it was interesting enough for me to go down that path. So that’s when I decided to go to grad school and got more serious preparing my self for auditions.”
He wound up at Indiana University where he got his masters and started to take his vocal work in a new direction.
Exploring New Music
Now in the midst of his career Curran is finding new ways to express his art. He has done many of the traditional roles in the mainstream repertoire, such as Colline in Puccini’s “La Boheme” and Timur in Puccini’s “Turandot” as well as Ramfis in Verdi’s “Aida.” However, his low key status has also allowed him to explore his voice and newer repertory.
“I’ve done a number of new music pieces so I’m sort of accustomed to the challenge of it. But it depends on what the composer’s style is like,” he elaborated. “Some write really crazy difficult music that seems more like math problem than a musical score. But then some write lyrically and it almost feel like a renaissance of neo-lyrical going on now.”
He recently performed Missy Mazzoli’s “Breaking the Waves” with the Prototype Opera. Curran was lucky enough to perform the work right after the world premiere in Opera Philadelphia, an experienced he learned a great deal from.
“Missy Mazzoli has a really wonderful dramatic sense and a timing that seemed apparent that her writing is very much sturdy,” he explained. “Her vision and idea of how this is going to live on stage. While it sounds unquestionably new and more contemporary and unique and not like some standard opera, it makes sense to the ear and as a musician you begin to see the patterns and you begin to see how things really do fall into a relatively simple approach. So I found her music to be very approachable.”
Now he is taking yet another challenge in his career. He will be performing the New York Premiere of “Prince of Players” by the legendary composer Carlisle Floyd with the Little Opera Theatre this Thursday, Feb. 23. The work is said to be the composer’s last opera. Floyd’s style evolved after he composed his first and most famous opera “Susannah” in 1955. The music became less melodic and, as Curran suggests, more angular.
“When I look at the music for this show, it is unquestionably very different from ‘Susannah’ and it is less immediately accessible. At least for a singer trying to learn it,” he revealed. “There is more crunch to the sound and textures. There are a lot more neighboring sounds used. So while there may be an implied harmony during this measure or phrase while he may hit the important notes of the chord, he will do it by hitting the notes around it and maybe touch the important note. But there is a lot more emphasis on the notes outside the chord.”
Another big challenge is the lack a huge orchestra.
“The orchestration is rather spare. So you don’t have a lot to support and it’s challenging to confirm that your singing the right thing. Since there is so much of an emphasis on the neighboring notes, it can be one of those things that when you’re right it sounds wrong and feels wrong. With that kind of thing there is a certain degree of repetition. So to get past that point you have to repeat it and get comfortable,” Curran revealed.
For Curran, this requires hours at the piano sorting out the composer’s intentions.
“It’s about repeating it and getting some muscle memory of just the notes without trying to worry of what you hear harmonically. Often times that helps a lot and in this case I’m not finding that it’s helping much,” he confessed.
But when all the work is done and the production has been put together there are numerous rewards.
“Prince of Players” is a new work that has not been recorded and has not been widely presented. And for Curran that is a blessing as he does not have to uphold any particular legacy surrounding the piece.
“I’m not being compared to someone else. There isn’t someone who set the standard where I’m going to have to sound like that person and try to do something different. That’s definitely freeing. As much as its a thrill to sing Mozart and Verdi, it does feel a bit confining when you know the style and what the historical practice is with things that are not necessarily on the page but understood that that’s what you do.”
Working with the Small Opera Companies
Curran is taking his time in developing his craft and that is something that working in a company like the Little Opera Theatre is allowing him to do. In many ways these small companies have so much to lose if a production flops and they are unable to convey the opera’s emotional complexities. But that is what also makes them so creative and rewarding.
“It is a humble, creative and ambitious company. There is very much a team atmosphere. There is no huge difference career-wise between people in the cast. There are no mega stars and no egos. It is a little safer and more comfortable because its a bunch of people putting on a good show and doing good work. Do what artists are supposed to do.”
One challenge of working with a smaller company is the limited rehearsal time. As Curran confessed they never get a normal six-hour schedule because many people have day jobs and budgets don’t permit it.
“Rehearsal process has been a bit more drawn out than I’m used to. It’s deceptive because it feels like a long rehearsal process but since were only doing evenings, we have two or three hours of staging a day compared to maybe six with bigger companies.”
The Future and Beyond
As Curran continues to explore his voice and his repertoire he knows very well that he wants to move to the more traditional works. After “Prince of Players” he will sing two Bach Oratorios, the “St. Matthew’s Passion” and the “St. John’s Passion.”
“I will be singing Jesus as well as the bass solos in ‘St. Matthew’s Passion.’ I’m really excited about that. It fits my voice so well and they are incredible works. They are pillars of the repertoire. It’s also neat to sing Jesus which is recitatives and moves along the story,” he enthused. “Then I will be doing Bach’s ‘St John’s Passion’ at Duke University with Bryan Schmidt, who is a conductor I’ve worked with numerous times. It’s an incredible cathedral and an incredible instrument. I’ll be doing the Jesus character in the oratorio also.”
But the piece he is most excited for is Verdi’s “Requiem.”
“It’s fantastic because that is an epic work and any chance to sing that is a great opportunity. It’s very nice.”
And after these works, Curran will be continuing to explore his instrument and trying to find some repertory stability.
“I would like to develop a core of my repertoire which I think will enable me to go further and higher in the business,” he explained. “I’ve spent the last fifteen years essentially doing a little bit of everything and doing whatever comes along. That has been fantastic because I’ve done quite a range of music from traditional, wacky and musical theater. To some degree it’s necessary and the only choice for a bass at times. You never get the lead and you get used to singing the secondary. I’d like to settle into a track that is smooth.”
As for the dream roles, his eyes are on the biggest prize in the Italian repertoire.
“I would like to have a shot at Filippo in Verdi’s ‘Don Carlo.’ That is the pinnacle of the bass repertoire and I have done the aria and some pieces of the work in concert performances. I would love to sing some of the Italian bass repertoire. Singing any of the great music is an honor as you become part of a tradition and your’e allowed to take your turn to put on the costume.”
“I would also love to do Claggart in Britten’s ‘Billy Budd’ and Olin Blitch in Floyd’s ‘Susannah.’ I love it and the arias from that work are beautifully lyrical. And also incredibly dramatic and effective in conveying the story.”
“But I just want to do good work with great music that I can connect with and just enjoy singing.”