Interview: David Pershall’s Career Comes Full Circle

A Young Baritone’s Rise & His Continuing Relation With San Francisco

By Francisco Salazar

“The wheel is come full circle,” once wrote William Shakespeare.

Baritone David Pershall could look on his recent starring role as Silvio in “Pagliacci” at the San Francisco Opera in much the same way. He’s come a long way from his early years when he was a prospect at the San Francisco Opera’s young artist training grounds, the Merola Opera Program.

Being an opera singer is like being a superhero; you have a true tangible ability that few others can truly comprehend or even begin to understand. This can breed a tremendous amount of confidence for any opera star, especially in those formative years where the talent he or she possesses feels limitless and all-compassing.

But Pershall learned some valuable lessons at the Merola Program that kept him very grounded.

“When I was at Merola, I was a baby and everyone there was older and more experienced and further along when I was at the time. It was eye-opening as I was among talented people that were ready for the actual profession.”

He realized that talent was simply not enough. He lacked many of the fundamental tools needed to truly become the artist he thought he could be. It was a “humbling experience,” but completely necessary and essential. So essential, in fact, that he realized that he needed to continue training to become the artist he wanted to become.

He headed to the Yale School of Music after of the Merola Program.

Ivy League & Rough Starts

During his time at Yale, the singer decided to explore the entire musical spectrum from technique, musicality to acting. The experience changed him.

“It really helped bring things together so I was not just a kid with an interesting voice. I could now bring my own interpretation into things. A singer’s career can be perilous. And I am grateful that with that experience I was able to learn the things I needed to learn and it forced me to go back to study languages, theory and composition and things that I needed to make a real career. It’s not only about singing pretty.”

But once he graduated, the road was still not set. There was still a long way to go.

Pershall performed at numerous regional companies and joined as an ensemble member at the Wiener Staatsoper, where he performed numerous leading roles and did some cover work. It wasn’t until he ended that program that he finally returned to San Francisco.

“I was finally ready to be there to make an impression and to begin my career.”

And in 2016 he made his debut with the company in the brief role of Roucher  in a new production of “Andrea Chénier.”

“It was quite remarkable. It was in ‘Andrea Chénier’ and it was David McVicar’s production. Working with him was fabulous. Seeing him bring characters to life was a huge learning experience.

Shortly came an engagement in another short role, this time as Lescaut in Massenet’s “Manon.”

It would take him two years to finally get a shot at a leading role.

A Dream Come True

After years of covering and singing smaller roles at the San Francisco Opera, Pershall got his shot at performing this season during the opening night production of “Pagliacci.”

He had covered the part a number of times, but to actually be the one on stage was a dream come true. Like his past roles Silvio shows up for a limited time but unlike those other two roles, Silvio is crucial to the plot and has one of the highlights of Leoncavallo’s opera.

“The role is not very long but the duet is some of the beautiful music in opera. It’s always a thrill for a baritone to sing something so beautiful.”

But for Pershall the limited time role was expanded by Jose Cura’s production as Silvio is in both “Pagaliacci” and “Cavalleria Rusticana.”

“The idea for it was that the village that the acting troop came to was the same one where ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ took place. So that made things interesting because I was on stage the entire opera before. It was fun and it was a lot more stage time than I thought.”

For Pershall this allowed his character to get a bigger development and allow him to act more.

“Because I was on stage a lot longer the storyline for Silvio changed a lot. In ‘Cavalleria,’ I was Mama Lucia’s helper to run her tavern and I stepped in to be her son once Turiddu was murdered. So I think that was a good way to build sympathy for Silvio. Otherwise, if you don’t play him right he could easily come off as a bad guy who is wrecking the real relationship between Nedda and Canio. It brought a more human side to the character than most productions.”

But being on stage also brought a couple of challenges that he generally does not face if he only performed in one of the operas.

“[It was hard to get] the voice up and pliable so you can sing the colors necessary for the part. It is demanding because if you are not singing the intention and colors behind the words the role can fall flat. So the big challenge was how to carve out time to get the voice ready to do those things, especially given this production.

“But, because we had a long rehearsal period, I was able to find those five minutes to warm up and then we had a ten-minute break in intermission to warm up correctly.”

A Continuing Relation

After making an impression as Silvio, Pershall will be back to the San Francisco area for a recital.

“The repertoire we have planned is near and dear to my heart. We’ll do Mahler’s ‘Songs of a Wayfarer’ and we’ll start with some Beethoven. We’ll also do some Rachmaninov. It will be a good mix of things for the arias with my great friend John Churchwell. And we have some more recitals planned.”

Pershall notes that the recital venue will give him an opportunity to show something different and he will also get a chance to sing music he loves.

“I love Lieder and I look forward to getting back to that art form. It’s different and from a singer’s standpoint, I feel like I can show more of who I am as a singer and as an artist in that particular type of a performance.”

Part of his love for the art form is the intimacy that it allows.

“It’s just you and you show your personality and your interpretation about these pieces. It also takes more time to prepare, which is the challenge but it also becomes more near and dear to an artist because you decide repertoire that really speaks to you and that you have a message to send out. With opera, it can be difficult because you have outside input and while it can be great, you can also find such different points of views that can be a struggle.”

Coming Up

With a handful of recitals scheduled for the company months, Pershall will continue to explore his operatic repertoire, many of them from the Verismo era. This month he performed Sharpless in “Madama Butterfly” with the Greensboro Opera and there is a Marcello in “La Bohème” scheduled at Finger Lakes Opera.

“With Puccini and Leoncavallo, there are similarities. The orchestration for both is larger than you would expect for a lyric baritone. With ‘Butterfly,’ it is a bit longer and more dramatic, but Sharpless is the soul of the show, which is very different from Silvio. But in many ways, if the music is sung and played out correctly it can rip your heart out. Both composers have such power, text and melodic genius. And they require control or else you will lose it.”

Despite enjoying the work in the verismo repertory, there is one role that excites Pershall more than any other – Thomas’ “Hamlet.”

“The vocality of that role is so interesting to me. You have so many great scenes in that work and there are so many windows into that character. The music also gives you so many opportunities to show different sides to his psychology which is fabulous. This character has been fascinating since Shakespeare wrote him and highlighted by the composer is great. It would be the thrill of a lifetime.”


InterviewsStage Spotlight