A few years ago, tenor Paul Appleby made headlines for a potent and powerful showcase in Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress.” Little did he know that that role debut would turn out to be a major calling card in his career.
He is now heading into his third major production of the opera at the Festival Aix-en-Provence and is finding the character far more fascinating.
The opera essentially pits us with a modern Faustian tale with the central character slowly losing himself in the excesses of the world around him. It might be easy to judge his overall lack of character and slide into the “dark side,” but Appleby isn’t one to judge.
An Interpretation in Progress
“I relate to Tom too well. It’s important to see him as universally as possible,” Appleby told OperaWire in a recent interview. “He represents everybody. Everyone that watches this can relate to him in some way. His journey is essentially the process of moving from childhood into adulthood. All kids are inherently selfish in a way and you have to learn to mature from that. It’s hard and no one get through it without a few mistakes. I am trying to erase judgement as much as possible from my portrayal of Tom.”
He relates so well to the character that he actually finds some of Tom’s major characteristics in himself.
“He has vanity about his intelligence. I can see that in myself. I cherish it,” he noted before emphasizing that this kind of intelligence was inculcated in him by his father, a professional that placed great emphasis on the intellect.
When Appleby first portrayed the character at the Met in 2015, he didn’t really think too deeply about who Tom was, going more on his instinctual understanding of the character from the get-go.
But a lot has changed in two years.
“My voice has changed. And because I have a bigger palette of vocal colors available to me, more character things have flowed from that,” he stated. “That combined with a strong director, who is an incredibly accomplished writer and actor, that I am discovering new corners. While I don’t agree with certain components of him, I have been willing to open up myself to them.”
The new production, directed by Simon McBurney, will emphasize a more stylized approach to the Stravinsky drama.
As described by the tenor, the set is a “large box that telescopes out into the house. It is made of white paper.”
As the production unravels and Tom’s life implodes the paper shreds, the first major tear coming from the villainous Nick Shadow’s first entrance.
“By the time we get to the mad scene it looks like a padded cell and it has been destroyed,” he added. “There are tears all over this big edifice. There is a big progression that mirrors Tom’s moral degradation.”
A Production in Progress
What has been most unique about seeing the production unfold is the actual process itself. Per Appleby’s admission, the entire team of designers came into the process with no idea what they were expected to do.
“Nothing was set in stone,” Appleby revealed. “Usually everything is settled a year before that first rehearsal because of the tech demands of doing it in a big theater. But these people are fleet of foot and ready to adjust. They are true geniuses of their craft.”
Another aspect that has Appleby excited is how McBurney has married a specific aspect of Stravinsky’s style to his directorial approach.
“Stravinsky establishes some strict parameters for himself musically and that is exactly what Simon [McBurney] did here,” he noted. “There are strict rules that Simon is setting up about how we relate and move onstage. It’s hard to discipline and restrict yourself to specific gestural vocabulary. But now I am internalizing that idea and I am finding that it is giving me focus and concentration that also focuses my vocalism. It’s hard to get there, but once you see the light it is very liberating.”
The vocal liberation is key because, as Appleby notes, the Russian composer’s music is not particularly easy to sing. That said, he finds the style “energizing” and “rewarding.”
“The style [Stravinsky] was paying homage to, so much of it is so inspired by dance-based music,” he related. “That combined with added syncopations and so much off-beat at the same time in-time music, there is so much vitality and rhythmic energy that I find it incredibly fun.
“Especially when you think of Puccini or late romantic work, that I find lacking,” the American tenor continued. “It is all driven by vocal line. But the rhythmic content of this, I find it so fun and energizing. He also wrote such beautiful bel canto singing music lines for this character. There are some angular phrases that aren’t quite so easy, but his tenor writing is so good.”
He went on to note that while Stravinsky does place some passages in the challenging passagio part of the voice, the composer had great knowledge of the voice and its limitations and capabilities.
“He placed the word ‘heart’ on an F#, which is tricky because of where it lies. But he knew that and wants you to approach it in an open way. Because of that, it becomes this wail of a lament,” he noted. “Because of how Stravinsky gave himself strict parameters, when he pushes against them, he finds this incredible tension and friction that creates amazing expressivity.”
One of the great treats of singing this role also comes from the fact that he gets to explore his native language further.
“I love singing in English because I am constantly playing with how far you can stretch this diction. In English, I have a liberty in a way I can’t in other languages,” Appleby admitted. “I can’t take too many liberties in French because I have to be as accurate as possible. I find that to communicate English in opera, more so than song and concert, you have to really go very far and exaggerate certain things. And you have to know what to exaggerate without bringing attention to the effort you are making.”
He noted that he is currently obsessed with the limits of the “wa” sound, which is not quite so common in most other languages that he sings.
“For example the word ‘weeping.’ The more I play with these ideas onstage and talk with others to know what reads and doesn’t, there is a lot of space with the colors available and how English is structured and functions. I love it. You can create so many colors and nuance through extreme manipulations of consonants.”
After “The Rake’s Progress,” Appleby heads to San Francisco Opera to take on the world premiere of “Girls of the Golden West,” a project he is pumped for.
“You read about John Adams and I am so excited to work with Peter Sellars and him and I feel like I am involved in history in a way that I have never been involved with,” he stated.
The tenor noted that for him being a part of modern opera and helping it grow and develop is one of his missions as an artist.
“The more time I spend as a professional musician, I find myself to compelled to be drawn to new works,” he explained. “There is nothing like working with a composer and having input whether it’s about a vocal line or even a libretto line to improve it.
“It is a challenge that is always rewarding. There is something about singing the standard repertory that is frustrating in how the world perceives you. You are always compared to someone else when they know the piece well. ‘Did he sing it as well as Wunderlich?’ ‘Why didn’t he sing the line the way Bjorling did?’ Inevitably you are considered in the context of that.
“Personally, I am more and more interested in expressing ideas and my voice in ways that speak for themselves outside of those comparison.”
He added that as he looks to the future he hopes to be able to develop as an artist and showcase new works that may have gotten overlooked after their respective premieres. He noted that he has an idea of doing a song cycle by William Bolcom and combining it with Schubert songs to find the connections.
“I think it’s fascinating to find connections to better understand this art form. How do things speak to each other,” he noted.
He also noted that he hopes to develop his repertoire outside of the standard Mozart operas he has sung over the years.
“I am starting to look ahead to things like Lensky, Pelléas because my middle voice is filling out. Britten will feature a lot in my future. I think ‘Turn of the Screw’ might come into my voice,” he listed off. “And I hope eventually that maybe ‘Peter Grimes’ will make its way into my repertoire. That’s a long ways away, and time will tell, but that is certainly a dream for me. If I had my druthers, I would want Don José [from ‘Carmen’] or lead Wagner roles fitting in my voice. But time will tell how that works out.”
Time in deed. But in the meantime, this tenor is making serious progress.