Q & A: American Baritone Lucas Meachem on Evolving Opera Through His Compassion Towards Humanity in His Roles & Love of KaraokeBy Mike Hardy
Lucas Meachem is an American, Grammy Award winning baritone whose compelling lyric baritone voice and dramatic interpretations have led him to the world’s most important operatic stages.
He was discovered by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, with the encouragement of tenor Paul Groves, after he sang a karaoke stint in Paris. Graham persuaded William Mason, the then director general of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, to let him sing the baritone role in Gluck’s “Iphigénie en Tauride” after star baritone Simon Keenlyside withdrew.
Renowned for his signature role as Figaro in “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” he is about to debut in the world Premiere of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” His recent album, “Shall We Gather,” performed with his wife pianist Irina Meachem, was highly acclaimed as “an emotional and heartfelt plea for a better, more tolerant world, through 15 art songs that offer a vision of America’s truly rich national character.”
OperaWire caught up with Lucas as he relaxed by Lake Tahoe before an upcoming concert.
OperaWire: Hi Lucas, thank you for speaking to OperaWire. I know you’re near the California coast right now, you have a performance in Incline Village, Nevada tomorrow?
Lucas Meachem: Yes, I’m here right now at Lake Tahoe, in the mountains. It’s beautiful. I’m a mile away from the California border. California one side, Nevada on the other.
OW: I heard you sing as Sharpless last year at the Royal Opera House, a performance I reviewed for OperaWire. I made a note here about something I wrote at the time of my review:
“His charisma goes some way to mitigate the accusations of American Imperialism frequently levied at this opera, as well as serving to almost minimize Pinkerton’s appalling behavior. He brings both compassion and empathy to the role, as well as touches of self-deprecating wit.”
Was that a conscious decision on your part to perform the role in this way?
LM: I guess I’d start by saying that, with any role, I try and find the humanity in it, and before I try and find the humanity I try and find myself with it. And so, when I see an opera like “Madama Butterfly,” especially with the role of Sharpless, I realize that “he” is the audience. He’s feeling what the audience is feeling. He doesn’t start there, but he goes on the same journey as the one the audience goes on. So, in a way, he’s holding a mirror to the audience for the entire night and saying, “I see you.” He’s a bit of the heartbeat of the piece for me, there’s literally yin and yang. You couldn’t write, you know, a more angelic figure than Madama Butterfly, even when the woman is taken her kid she says, “You’re the luckiest woman in the world.” I’m like, “C’mon! be pissed! It’s not realistic.” And, you know, in the same way Pinkerton is just….it’s hard to play him as anything other than an asshole, you know? So, you’ve got these two huge rocks, and I’m in the hard place in the middle where I have to say “yes” to American Imperialism, yay! or “yes,” empathy for other people, yay! And I end up just looking inside myself with empathy for other people. And so the journey, I have to start off a little bit hardcore. But, also questioning some of the things he says. I mean, I don’t want to get too much into the details of him, but Sharpless the Consulate, has lived for a few years in Japan. So, he respects Japanese culture a lot more than a Navy boy who just sails into town for fun and then leaves.
And so, I’ve started to respect the Japanese culture and I see this amazing woman and I’m moved by it and I think the most poignant part of the night for “my” character, is not a singing moment, but the moment where she, (Butterfly), and Kate Pinkerton are on stage in Act three. (And this is completely me that I add in to every Sharpless that I do), where Kate Pinkerton says, “So you’re going to let me take the child?” There’s a huge pause and a huge silence, before she says “E Sia!” and I feel right before she says that I want to interject and say “That’s it, no! I’m calling this off.” It adds a layer to the tension that somebody’s trying to help her. Otherwise, she’s just left to her own devices. She doesn’t have any advocates and I’ve advocated for the American Pinkerton, for a long time, and then it’s like at the end that has to be the shift: “No, this is wrong. Finally, this is wrong.” Somebody sees what she sees. I don’t know, it feels like it’s a really big moment where she needs someone on her team. That’s why I leave in a huff as well. I don’t exit and say “Yay, we did it, the child’s going to be ours.” I leave as “I can’t believe you did this to this poor woman.” But, that’s how I feel, again, going back to the beginning. What I feel about it personally, and I can’t believe someone would do this to this poor woman. To a mother, you know? And, that’s why I wanted that to be part of it. I don’t know, I’ve probably waxed way too long about the role of Sharpless. But, (laughing), you can tell I care about it deeply.
OW: Having spoken with tenors Freddie De Tommaso and Brian Jagde, they both toiled with the role, in attempts to bring some humanity to the character, by being very aware that he doesn’t come across as being a nice guy. But, trying to present him as what he actually was: a young military man, controlled and governed by events in a different era, and nowhere near as heinous as he ostensibly appears to be.
LM: Yeah, I agree with you on many of those points. I think the most important thing is if you modernize an opera, then you can modernize an opera. But, at face value, we’re speaking about a character that was written when it was written. We have to take it in the time that it was written. You know, what we’re trying to depict here is a historical figure, not a true historical figure. But, that’s what we’re portraying him as. So we have to look at the world at that time, and that’s right. You know, we can’t write an opera like Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” and pretend slavery didn’t exist. You know, you just have to understand that American Imperialism was a thing. So was British Imperialism and Spanish and Portuguese and French. All of these things happened. So, to whitewash the history of what these things are, that’s the thing. It’s like even with “Don Giovanni,” or the Count. I don’t think “Oh, what an asshole.” I have to play the character first.
I have to say, “If I was a man in this period, what would I feel?” You know, I’d feel like “I ruled the world because I do!” And so, I can’t then back off of that and play him as a kitty-kat. I have to play him as the character that was written.
So, I think the biggest problem Pinkerton runs into is the role of Madama Butterfly being written as an absolute angel. If she had one flaw, his flaws wouldn’t look so bad. Just one. Just one. They don’t give her a flaw! It’s unrealistic. She’s an angel. That’s what I’m saying, the yin and yang of their characters together. He has to be the polar opposite of her and let Suzuki and Sharpless live in the middle. You know, ah, well, I could talk about “Butterfly” all day! I love to get into character role development and that sort of thing.
OW: So, I understand you performed a lot of karaoke before discovering opera! Who or what did you discover, exactly, and who or what has inspired you?
LM: Honestly, it took me a long time to think that. Because I thought opera was, well, I won’t say what I thought it was. But, it was impossible for me to do. Because I was a twenty-year-old baritone. I didn’t know how to do it. The voice isn’t prepared to do it. It’s like asking an eight-year-old to become a power lifter. You know, you’re just not ready for it. So, everything I was good at, was musical theatre, was pop-music, was R&B, was Gospel, that sort of thing. So I thought, well I know I’m good at this and then I tried the opera thing. And another thing is, I could also imitate any famous voice. I could imitate Whitney Houston in my falsetto. I could imitate Freddie Mercury or Jon Bon Jovi. You know, I could imitate anyone on the radio. So, my Mom gave me a “Three Tenors” tape, and here was something I couldn’t imitate at all. I couldn’t understand how these sounds were functioned, how they were made in the human throat. I didn’t get it, and so I thought, oh well, I just can’t do that.
Then I went to school. I started studying voice. I studied voice, you know, I wanted to be a singer. But, I didn’t know what that meant. I grew up in rural North Carolina, a place we call the sticks, because there’s nothing in there but trees. We didn’t have much, but we didn’t need much. The closest neighbor my age was about two miles away, and that was four houses away. So, I had a very cool childhood in that I had acres of land to go play on and be a wilderness boy in. But then again, there was no culture. So, I didn’t know anything about anything, and I think in a lot of ways that protected me. I knew I wanted to sing. But in what capacity, I had no clue what options there were. All I heard was the radio. So I thought, I guess I’ll be on the radio, because I know I’m good at this, I just don’t know how.
So, opera became, sort of, my last choice. Honestly, classical singing, I’d say. So I thought, I’ll take these lessons and learn how to sing a little better until I find what to do with my “pop” voice, or my musical theatre voice because they were my only options. Because I couldn’t physically sing opera like the recordings I would listen to. I was like, I can’t make that sound. Who could ever make that sound? It’s just, one of those things that comes with age, you know?
And so, I started to win opera competitions that had age limit cut offs, and I thought, wait a second, because I didn’t think I was any good at this because I didn’t sound like the famous people I’m listening to.
But really, it was when I left. I went to school in North Carolina, the cheapest school I could get in to, it was a great school but I chose it because it was the only one I could afford. But, the second school I went to was the “Eastman School of Music” and I had a teacher there with whom I was finally able to put into words at the age of twenty-three, why I shouldn’t be an opera singer, and it was because I didn’t sound like these guys I’d been listening to, and he told me something that changed my life. He told me: “Lucas, you’re a perfect, twenty-three-year-old baritone. You’re perfect.” And, I’d never thought about it being an age-restriction thing that was holding me back. I sounded good, don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t the best. But, I was always one of the best singers in the school that I was in, among the top tier. But, it wasn’t something that I had to really work at. Not work at, I mean, I practiced. I studied. You know, I did the legwork. But, I didn’t have to work that much at singing. Singing was always something like, my teacher would say, “Oh, you need to fix this,” and I’d just fix it. So it wasn’t much of a journey in that way for me. The big journey for me was trusting myself thinking I could do it, and learning about the history and the traditions and learning who the hell Corelli is. You know, I thought it was a type of coffee maker or Italian oven. I didn’t know anything about anything. Every time people would talk about opera singers, I’d steer the conversation in the direction of sports because I didn’t grow up around that sort of stuff. Even when I went to college, a small college, everyone wanted to be a musical theatre singer. Very few people thought about opera. So, I wasn’t around opera people, so it came so late to me.
Now, getting to the karaoke, I was really good at karaoke so I would go there to get that dopamine, adrenaline rush, people clapping for me a lot. When I was on stage I thought, “this is great, people love this; people love me singing exactly like the artists.” So, I did that everywhere. I won money at karaoke competitions to help pay for my college and my living expenses at college.
OW: What were your karaoke songs of choice?
LM: Oh, there were a bunch. I mean, if I was in a country bar, I’m sing “Sold” by John Michael Montgomery, (sings few bars): “Hey pretty woman won’t you give me a sign…” If I’m in a Southern bar, I’m singing Southern songs. Eventually you learn to judge the audience as soon as you walk in and I’ve used that to such effect as an opera singer. If I’m singing in a small venue, a big venue, a venue out of the country, a venue in a big city. And, I learned that from karaoke.
So, I’ll sing Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” and Queen. I’ve spent so much time in a karaoke bar, I was always trying out new things.
So, to get to the point about me discovering opera, I had already finished the Young Artists Program at the Adler Fellowship. I had been studying for eight years, and I was two years into an internship. So, ten years of studying classical music and classical training, and I’d started my young career in 2006.
We were in Paris. Susie Graham was there, and Paul Groves, Simon Keenlyside, Simon O’Neill, Barry Banks. All these cool people were there, singing in Paris, hanging in Paris, and I show up. I’m staying with Paul Groves, and I don’t know anything about Paris. I don’t speak French at the time, but I know how to sing karaoke. So I say, “We’re going to sing karaoke tonight.” I get up and sing. I bring the house down. All these opera singers are like, “What? That’s crazy! Wait, are you an opera singer?”
So, fast forward a little bit. The Lyric Opera Chicago loses its baritone. Simon Keenlyside pulls out. It’s “Iphigénie en Tauride,” which is basically three roles. Susie Graham and Paul Groves, a mezzo, a tenor, and now no baritone! Biggest role, you know? So, nobody can do it. Nobody knows it. And actually, Paul told Susie, “Lucas would be perfect for this role.” Because I’d actually worked with Paul at San Fransisco Opera before. But, Susie had only heard me sing karaoke in Paris where we had a great time. We were cool. We got to be buddies and she said to Paul, “Are you sure he can do it?” And Paul said, “Lucas will kill it, it’ll be perfect for him.” So, Susie called Bill Mason, at the time director general of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and she says, “Hey, we’ve got a guy, Lucas Meachem is his name, and he’s perfect for this.”
Bill was like, “Didn’t he just finish his Young Artist Program? Are you sure he’s good enough? Have you heard him sing?”
She responded, “I’ve just heard him in Paris, and he was great!”
Bill said, “But what did he sing?”
She thought quickly and responded, “Well, Bill, he sang American contemporary, and he brought the house down!”
Anyway, that’s the whole karaoke story.
OW: I’ve spoken to a number of tenors who started out in their career singing baritone, and they have a distinct, dark baritone quality to the their lower registers. Although you’ve always sung as a baritone, I also find you have a lightness, a tenor-like quality to some of your phrasing in the higher registers.
LM: People hear a lightness in my sound that I’ve always had. But, it’s a clear, clarion lightness. But, as soon as I darken that tone to be “baritonal,” all of a sudden it weighs on me. (Indicates his throat area), and you know what’s happened, with age? It’s what all my teachers have always told me. If you sing like this, eventually when you hit thirty-five, or forty-years-old, it’s going to open up. The voice is going to fill out. And it has. It has absolutely filled in and it now sounds much more baritonal than in the beginning. I agree it does sound tenoral, but you know what it sounds like? It sounds like a young, lyric baritone. It sounds like I’m perfect for my age. Which is what my teacher said my voice was when I was twenty-three-years-old. That’s what I tell young singers these days. “You’re perfect for your age right now. You’re perfect for your development level. Don’t try and stretch, don’t try and sound like me, don’t try and sound like Sherrill Milnes, don’t try and sound like anyone, what makes you special is that you only sound like yourself.”
I say to young singers, “You have like a thumb print, a thumb print almost, a vocal print, that is only yours and if you go against that, you’re literally going against what makes you special in the first place.”
I first had this idea when I was a young artist. I’d listen to famous singers that came through San Fransisco Opera. I’d be like, what makes these people famous? Yeah, they’re good, they’re good. But, are they better than X, Y and Z? What makes famous people, famous. Even in pop music? It’s that they only sound like themselves. So, as soon as someone adds something to their voice, they flavor it or they tweak something. They’re going against the thing that can make them famous or make them succeed, which is sounding like yourself.
OW: You may have a lightness to your voice at times, but you also have much resonance and volume. I heard you very loud and clear above a most enthusiastic orchestra at Covent Garden in “Madama Butterfly.”
LM: Can I say that it’s no surprise that my voice has that clarity and volume because it’s the most important thing to me vocally. I literally modify every vowel and consonant. I am a scientist! Like those Disney movies with the, what is it, weird scientists or wacky scientists or something? But, that’s me when it comes to making sound at all times. At the start of every Masterclass I give, I ask these young singers: “What’s the most important thing in opera?” The most important thing in opera for me, is being heard at all times. You can study music history, you can know what Mozart ate for breakfast on the morning he wrote the overture to “The Marriage of Figaro.” You can spend twenty years in Lucca, Italia, and learn Italian diction as though you were born and raised there and your Grandparents and your generations lived there. If the audience can’t hear your perfect diction, then it doesn’t matter that you have perfect diction. And so, it’s literally what I strive for at all times. Whenever I’m performing, is doing so, however, without pushing. That is the rub right there, that is the rub.
OW: It seems to be quite fashionable, at the moment, to criticize and denigrate contemporary opera singers online. These so called “aficionados” or “cognoscenti” lament the voices of old, like Corelli and Del Monaco, and such. They lambast the voices of new. Do you think that the teaching of voice has changed over the years? Did Corelli and those singers with notably large voices train differently than singers today or were they merely freaks of nature?
LM: I think there’s no way the training has changed and, hopefully, the output has remained. We make as much sound as healthily possible in order to be able to cut through the orchestra, while being artistic. I’d say there are just as many talented singers today, as there were then. I guess it’s the “oldies” at this point. It’s like, liking James Brown instead of John Legend or Bruno Mars, you know? It’s liking Freddie Mercury instead of Adam Lambert. It’s like, pick a poison you know?
I’d also say that opera houses have gotten bigger. There were big houses back in the day, but you know, they’re cherry picking singers from decades of eras and saying, well this one person was the greatest and they’re doing this and if you cherry pick singers today, I mean, I could cherry pick Piotr Beczala who fills any house he sings in. And, I could pick Sondra Radvanovsky who probably has the biggest voice in the world right now. And, I could go back a bit further and you know, there’s so many people to cherry pick from if we’re going to cherry pick. It’s what we always get, we get oh, Anna Moffo! Oh, Maria Callas! Oh, Corelli! Oh, Björling! Oh, Alfredo Kraus, you know? Yes. Fantastic. Wonderful. What about Fabiano? What about Kaufmann? What about Hvorostovsky? What about… It’s like, we have our stars. It’s that people want to live in the past, in the first moment that they first heard an opera. Again, whatever psychologically might be going on, it might be that they heard their first “Tosca” with Del Monaco. And, then they heard their fortieth “Tosca” with Brian Jagde. Then they’re like “Oh, but Del Monaco…”
It’s like, it’s almost like, seeing Micky Mantle hit a home run. Or having seen Pele score a goal. It’s like “They don’t do it like they used to.” You know, that happens everywhere, it happens in cooking, it happens in art and painting. It happens in sculpture. It happens in sport. It’s always, it’s never as good as it once was. But, in twenty years it sure will be.
I’ve just been reading a biography recently by Cappuccilli. In it, he said, “God, if only they’d reviewed me or treated me as well as…” and he names some old baritone who was famous, who was 20 years his junior. You know? In 20 years, that’s what they’re going to be saying about, hopefully, me. But, I’ll at least say Piotr, Jonas, Bryn and Dmitri, Thomas Hampson and Anna Netrebko. Of course, Anna Netrebko is probably the best singer on the planet right now, you know? And, I think she can hang with anybody.
OW: Historically, there’s always been a great plethora of American talent in the Opera circuit. Tenors, baritones, sopranos, probably more so than in any other country in the world. Why do you think this is?
LM: I’ve actually thought long about this. I won’t say I have an answer, but I have a thought on it. I think it’s the American conservatory system. The education system. I’m not talking high school or up until the age eighteen, I’m talking about college university and beyond. The fear of God is put into us. I’m not sure it’s still happening today, but when I came up, it was literally, if you’re not prepared, you’re out. If you’re not working hard, you’re out. You just have to be this proficient and if you show up and you’re not perfectly memorizing your work, you’re going to be fired. And it’s like, I “fear-learned” so many roles. I still “fear-learn” roles! I still show up as prepared as anyone else in the cast, if not more so, because I have this work ethic that was put into me.
Other countries have great work ethic, it’s not that. If someone comes from the UK to learn in the United States, they’re going to learn that same fear that I learned, you know? And so, I don’t think it’s about ability, I don’t think it’s about anything because you know, there are some great singers from the UK, there are great singers from France, and Spain. However, I’ll say what I do run into as an American artist, is, people think that Americans can sing proficiently in any language, and they won’t give you a hard time. But at the same time, they’ll say they’re not as genuine as European artists. That they don’t give as honest a portrayal of the role because they’re “try hards.” And, I’ve had to fight against that, as have other artists that I know that are American. We all have to fight this pre-conceived notion that we can’t give as pure an artistic performance. That we give a vocally almost flawless performance, but not as artistic a performance as a European because they know how to give more of their heart somehow. I never travelled to Europe until I was twenty-six years of age. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, I didn’t have any money. The only time I’ve gone to Europe is when I’ve been paid to go to Europe, that’s it, as an American.
Wherever I travel in the world, the biggest thing I try and show is class. Class and artistry. That is the first thing. Not a joke, not a friendship, not a party. Class and artistry. I find that as I lead with that, more and more, I get more and more respect.
OW: I know you have an upcoming “Don Giovanni” and a world premiere of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” What else in the future for Lucas Meachem? What more do you want to accomplish?
LM: A lot of more of the same, but I’m ready to move into the next stage of repertoire. Early Verdi, for me, all the Bel Canto, Donizetti, Rossini, and I’m really ready to tackle those. I think the voice is absolutely ready, I’m forty-five-years old and it’s the time for it. And, again, I love to be able to go back to my “Don Giovanni’s” and my “Nozze di Figaro’s” and my “Barbiere’s.” But, I’m also ready to open that door and I was about to kick that door down with three back-to-back Verdi roles during Covid, and I feel that was my coming out party that we’d set up. But, it never happened so now I feel like, I’m not spinning my wheel, per se, because, again, I have a full calendar. I’m doing great work. I love the work I’m doing. I love the houses I’m at and the people I’m working with, for sure. But, the voice is ready for it. I’m not being egotistical. I’ve waited twenty-five years, longer than that, thirty years, to be at this moment that I’m at, and I’ve reached this moment. And I feel, I’m not spinning my wheels, but the wheels are not spinning as quickly as I’d like.