He’s 36 years old. He lives in an RV that he uses to travel across the US. He’s coming off a summer in which he scored one of his greatest career victories to date. And he’s also that rare breed of dramatic tenor that takes well to Wagner’s operas. He’s so adept at the musical style that he is the first line of defense at the Metropolitan Opera’s upcoming production of “Parsifal” in the event that tenor Klaus Florian Vogt can’t make a performance.
His name is Clay Hilley and he is on the cusp of a titanic career.
The tenor, who is the recipient of the 2015 Robert Lauch Memorial Fund Award, is slated for a recital performance this Jan. 6, 2018 with the Wagner Society of New York and recently spoke to OperaWire about his career trajectory and how that is reflected in the recital program he put together.
Hilley actually found out that he had been the top prize winner in unusual circumstances.
“I was in Georgia when I received the mail. I opened the envelope to an internal drumroll, and was so excited when I saw the amount of money on the check,” he told OperaWire.
At the time, the tenor had been having car trouble. When he opened the envelope he was sitting with his parents and told them the news. “Dad mentioned that it would make a great down payment for a new car,” he added. “But I used that money instead for an audition trip through Germany the following November and December.”
The recital itself will feature a wide range of repertoire that explores the way the tenor’s career has evolved and what his voice is, in fact, capable of.
“Scott Carlton, the Wagner Society Artistic Director of Singers Programs, wanted me to show what my voice could do from all dynamic levels and styles. That’s why we’re starting with Mozart and ending with the big Wagnerian bellowing, with soft and soothing music from ‘Dmitrij’ in the middle. So, we wanted to show a range.”
So it only makes sense that the Wagnerian tenor would kick things off with “Fuor del Mar” from Mozart’s “Idomeneo.”
“It was actually the opera with which I made my German and Austrian opera house debuts,” he revealed. Hilley chose this particular work because it would allow him to display vocal agility that does not come so easily after a few more years of heroic singing.
“I still have the ability to sing coloratura that I probably won’t have in my 40s or 50s. Who knows how long it will last. And I’m taking advantage of trying to do stuff that’s more flexible while I still can. For instance, my teacher always tells me to do the diminuendo on the high B-flat in ‘Celeste Aida,’ but to not be sad when it’s gone after I’ve done a few ‘Tristans’ and ‘Siegfrieds.’”
Also on the program will be the three tenor songs from Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde,” a piece the tenor performed for the first time on last minute’s notice – this past November.
He had just finished covering “Samson et Dalila” for the Dallas Opera when he purchased his RV. He was heading back to San Francisco and was planning to drive a whopping 450 miles per day to complete the 1,700+ mile journey. On the first day of the trip, he got confirmation that he was needed to cover the gargantuan Mahler piece.
“So we had to say our prayers that we would arrive on-time at San Francisco so I could set up the camper, then take an Uber to the airport to catch my red-eye flight to Washington D.C.,” he noted.
He ultimately did all that and more, singing the performance on just one rehearsal with the Apollo Orchestra.
“It’ll be good to perform the songs this time,” he noted. “It’ll be the first time performing them without jetlag and general fatigue.”
Returning to Site of Victory
The second half will feature a great deal of Czech music, most prominently from Janacek and Dvorak. For the Dvorak, he is excerpting an aria from the opera “Dmitrij” with which he scored a massive victory this summer at the Bard Summerscape Festival. Regarding his performance in the title role, OperaWire wrote, “Hilley has something that very few singers have nowadays and that is he can act with his voice and can captivate audiences once he begins… For opera houses saying there are no dramatic tenors, look no further as Clay Hilley is a tenor on the rise who needs attention.”
“Carlton suggested that I do it again because the world doesn’t get to hear it that often,” Hilley noted about bringing the aria from Act three into the recital.
He will also perform the opening songs of Janacek’s “Diary of One Who Vanished” before closing out the evening with the forging scene from “Siegfried.”
Though the tenor’s career is only just beginning, he is aware of his future potential, and of the need to manage it correctly, not over-taxing himself.
The Foundation for Everything
“Technique is the foundation for everything. It takes a long time for the voice to handle this kind of stuff. Even if you’re destined for such roles as Tristan or Siegfried, you can’t do a lot of it until much later.”
For many years he’s been in the world of covering older, more-established artists. This is currently the case at the Met where he is slated to work on “Parsifal,” covering Vogt.
“If it turns out I have to step in, then the primary focus has to be on a bel canto approach. The vocal chords should not be pressed and the sound should not be muscled out. You have to approach it the same way you sing Nemorino or the Duke of Mantua. You can’t bring excessive weight into the voice. Let it be what it is meant to be.”
The tenor noted that this kind of caution has always been encouraged by his teachers and coaches throughout his career.
“No one was telling me that I should be singing Siegfried in my 20s. The biggest things I sang were Pinkerton and Don José, but that was the heaviest I attempted for a while. And no one knew what to do with me because of my age,” he explained.
But then stepped in celebrated heldentenor Jon Fredric West in 2015 to tell Hilley that he was poised to do big things, but a few aspects of his technical approach could use some “tweaking.”
“John helped me attach my voice to the rest of my voice more solidly,” Hilley explained. “It all came down to posture. I have this habit of slouching and collapsing my upper body. And if my chest isn’t open enough, it causes the pitches in the passaggio to get wonky.”
And a lot of colleagues and friends noticed the improvements immediately. Hilley started getting comments that his voice sounded more fluid, particularly in its upper range.
“My high notes had been too disembodied and careful before working with Jon. I have all this natural squillo, but I wasn’t allowing the whole body to function in the most resonant way it could,” he added.
The irony is that in the beginning, Hilley didn’t know that he was destined to be a performer, per his own admission. He thought he would be a teacher and earned a degree in music education as an undergrad student. But eventually, he started discovering his love for the stage and being a performer.
The clincher was a production of “La Bohème” in Athens, Georgia, for which he was a member of the chorus. Prior to that production, he had both a love for Gilbert and Sullivan satires of grand opera and a casual appreciation for musical theater. But performing in “La Bohème,” he realized that could love grand opera as well.
“I was like that moment when you realized you could love your favorite politician, while simultaneously loving the comedian who skewers that same person on SNL,” Hilley explained. “I was sold on ‘La Bohème.’ I mean who doesn’t love that second act? I caught the bug from that moment on and nothing much has changed since. I knew teaching wasn’t as much a calling for me as performing was.”
And he’s just about to fulfill that calling in a grand way.