Q & A: Baritone Keith Phares on Recording ‘Prince of Players’ & the Challenges of COVID-19

By Ona Jarmalavičiūtė

Baritone Keith Phares, renowned as a master of a wide repertoire ranging from Mozart through to today’s most prominent composers, has been recognised as “an authentic contemporary-American-opera divo” in the media.

Recently, in this year’s Grammy Awards, he shined as nominee for Best Opera Recording for his soloist role in Carlisle Floyd’s “Prince of Players.” This was a recording of an October 2018 performance at The Florentine opera in Milwaukee of a full-orchestral version of Floyd’s most recent work. Phares’ complex yet masterful portrayal of Edward Kynaston–an actor who is changing characters on stage in his own right–engages the audience to the last minute.

In this interview, Phares discussed his struggles with the role and its recording as well as his experience with the pandemic.

Opera Wire: I saw that you were making a lot of online performances. How is your situation at the moment?

Keith Phares: I’m very grateful to have a university position at Bowling Green State University. It’s a privilege to be busy right now. I enjoy teaching and I’m just grateful to have a job. I’ve had opportunities to perform as well. I recently did a workshop with Victory Hall of a new opera, “Fat Pig,” written by Matt Boehler. Boehler was originally trained as a composer, had a career as an operatic bass and is now more actively composing again. I also had friends and colleagues of mine who had been wanting to produce their works. This was over the summer, and I arranged some of their pre-written songs for baritone and marimba. That was interesting. I got to have a little taste of what it’s like trying to put those Zoom-style recordings together. It’s a little complicated, there’s some smoke and mirrors involved. I still got to do my faculty recital at school as a stream with no audience. I’m going to be singing in a film production at Arizona Opera as well. They’re filming Clint Borzoni and John Delos Santos’ opera “The Copper Queen.” At the end of April, we’re going out to Phoenix to start filming.

OW: It seems like for you this was a time of experimentation and seeing what else opera can be.

KP: Exactly. I was finding a way to work, adapting to the situation. We did a virtual workshop on a piece called “The Extinctionist” with Heartbeat Opera. It was over Zoom and we tried to do a duet that was next to impossible because of the lag. The soprano had a much more complicated part than I did, so she would sing, and then whenever I had to enter, I would try to come in a beat early so that by the time my voice got to the other side it all lined up. It all felt like experimentation, adaptation. It has also been a time to reflect. I am still hopeful for a return to regular live performances because nothing beats that.

OW: Do you think it will change how people see opera? Did it change you personally?

KP: I can’t predict the future, but I feel like certain aspects of this will change. Some of the ways in which people have adapted are here to stay. I think you’re going to see a lot more online streaming. There will also be ways in which artists are trying to expand or diversify their career; discovering other outlets online and learning how to monetize many of these offerings. This has really been a long time coming. Some of this stuff is overdue and it’s unfortunate that it took a disaster, but the way history works is that when the world is on fire, then the artistry explodes.

OW: It is very unfortunate that the arts are strangled by the situation when they are supposed to be helping everybody get through this time. I know a lot of opera singers really changed their careers. Did you ever have any thoughts of making a change?

KP: I am thankful for the people who have big ideas and the courage to get things started. I knew I needed to begin to diversify and supplement my own performing career a couple of years ago, which is why I started to put my materials together and look for a teaching position.

That was coming as the inevitable next chapter of my career. I had a desire to teach, but I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy it and be any good at it. Fortunately I feel good about the work and I really love it. It’s a piece of my life that I didn’t realize was missing.

OW: This year you have taught vocal lessons online. That must be really difficult.

KP: I’m relatively new to teaching to begin with, so the switch to remote lessons was just another new thing. I feel that I am still able to see and hear most of what I need to and I can still get the work done, even though you never quite get a sense of what the sound is. That’s the biggest drawback. I’m actually doing most of my teaching in person. We teach in a large rehearsal room or a theater. We stand about 15–20 feet apart. It feels more like a traditional voice lesson.

OW: Did you also have to find a new routine for your voice?

KP: It hasn’t had an effect on how often I sing. I do a recital in school every year and I am assigning song repertoire to about 20 students. So I’m learning more repertoire than ever before. I was almost exclusively singing opera. I would do a recital occasionally, but now it’s a whole new world that I have had to learn about. If there’s anything that has changed in the way that I sing, it is that I think about it a lot more. I was always a very natural singer, so I didn’t think much. Now I’m trying to explain to students when it might not come as naturally. So now I’m overthinking my own singing, which has its advantages and disadvantages. I catch myself over-analyzing, but then I’m able to draw from what I’m showing students in order to help them. I take my own advice, which works for me.

OW: When working with new singers you must remember how you started your career.

KP: When I started to study voice I already had a soloist mentality. I was already inspired by opera recordings, I wanted it to make noise and sing as loud as I possibly could in the most beautiful way. Actually one of the students asked me during virtual auditions “what do you look for in a student?” I love it when I have a student who becomes a little obsessive about practicing vocal technique. I do have a few students who enjoy that process, who have that desire to grow as a soloist. They’re the most fun to teach.

OW: I imagine that “The Prince of Players” was recorded before the pandemic on stage.

KP: That’s correct. It was recorded live in October 2018 at The Florentine Opera in Milwaukee. It was released in April of 2020, in the early days of the pandemic. We had two performances and a patch session. They recorded some of the dress rehearsals as well. It was such a surprise to me when it was finally released.

OW: It must be stressful to hear how you really sound in the recorded version. What challenges did you face in the recording process?

KP: Well, just before rehearsals started, I had come down with a pretty serious upper respiratory infection and I was fighting through that. Fortunately, the role wasn’t that high: it’s a pretty standard Carlisle Floyd baritone role, very full-voiced. It was still distressing trying to sing when you’re not physically one hundred percent. It messes with your technique too, because you feel like you need to sing around certain things.

There were many challenges. We were also singing with posh British accents. For my brain it’s almost like singing in another language. Our director had a problem with his visa, so the first week was all musical rehearsals because he couldn’t get into the country. So we only had about two weeks of staging rehearsal. We don’t get the same kind of rehearsal time that a Broadway production would have. Opera is fired out of a cannon.

A challenge for me in particular was the various costume changes. The opera is about Edward Kynaston, a Restoration Era actor known for portraying women. He goes back and forth between characters over the course of the opera and there are several quick changes. Houston Grand Opera was allowing us to use their costumes and we couldn’t quite rig them. So we had to take extra care, which meant that my quick changes were not so quick. Those can get tense, you come out huffing and puffing and sweating, trying to catch your breath to sing another aria.

OW: There are so many elements to focus on. Do you focus on the stage performance or on the recording?

KP: We had dozens of microphones, but we were not expected to work for them. I was singing for the audience, so I had to worry about cutting over a huge orchestra and couldn’t experiment with colors a lot.

I’ve done some productions where they have miked the singers. I remember singing Anthony Hope in “Sweeney Todd” with the New York City Opera in 2004. It was back when New York City Opera was in Lincoln Center, which was built for ballet. Its design muffled the sound coming from the stage. So for “Sweeney,” they decided to mic us because it was musical theater. When Anthony sings the Joanna theme it’s supposed to be floaty and sweet. I did that, knowing I was miked. On a break, a sound engineer came up to me and said “you can just sing right out into the hall. You don’t have to back off because of the mic.” I took that personally. When I got back up to do the scene again, I sang it as loud as I possibly could. When conductor George Manahan gave notes afterwards, he said “Keith, I have a note from Steven Sondheim: not so stentorian.” Then I realized that the composer of “Sweeney Todd” was sitting in the rehearsal.

OW: Is it true that when you sing naturally, you don’t really hear how you really sound?

KP: Well, it’s tough. I rely too much on my ears. Over the course of my career I have learned to rely more on sensation. It took me a while to find that easy ring. That’s something that I’ve been able to pass onto my students: they sing from a comfortable place.

OW: What are you focusing on the most when you perform?

KP: There are so many distractions in opera that do not allow you to focus on your voice. When I am onstage I am plugged in. I am trying to be in character as well as tell the story. Later I don’t remember what happened, I can’t tell you. I was very fortunate to have a great conductor like Bill Boggs and a great director like Michael Gieleta. They are both here for you and they also want you to feel good about what you’re doing. I felt like I had support.

OW: Do you have any exercises that help you focus and plug in?

KP: I don’t. I’m very boring that way. I’m just trying to stay peaceful and relaxed. Gentle with myself so that the extra adrenaline boost that comes with the curtain going up won’t be too much. As soon as the downbeat happens, that’s it. It’s a quick thing for me.

OW: I imagine that every voice has a typical character. You are a baritone on stage playing a female prima donna. How could you describe this experience?

KP: It was fun, but it never felt real. Kynaston is always being someone else and he can’t be himself. He is portraying a woman from the outside in, doing the right feminine gestures that look very beautiful. My costar Kate Royal helped me with learning them. There are even books that show the gestures that were used to communicate emotion on the stage. They are fascinating to look at. The first scene of the opera is the Othello–Desdemona scene, where Kynaston is playing Desdemona. I decided to displace octaves so I could sing in a reinforced falsetto. It’s something we played around with because the part’s not written that way. The part is written completely in a baritone range.

OW: How do you usually approach new characters?

KP: I think about what my character wants and what my character is trying to get. I use my own personal experience. Even though I can’t identify with being, for example, a nobleman with much power, I can identify with having a sense of entitlement. They’re all human beings and so am I. I’m not trying to do an impression of an opera singer. In the most generic terms, I’m trying to be a person on stage. I am trying to find the basic humanity in every character that I play, because that’s how I relate to the audience. Sometimes it’s not so easy, because many typical operatic characters are not built as humans, I think.

OW: You sing a lot of classic and contemporary opera. What makes you choose new music?

KP: One of the reasons why I love doing contemporary opera is because I get to put my own stamp on it. There is no pressure to do it in a certain way and that’s very liberating. New music is also often vocally challenging.

OW: It’s interesting that for a contemporary opera Carlisle Floyd chose to go back into the historical period when classical operas were written.

KP: I thought it was going to be a more epic historical work, but it’s not quite that: it’s not a documentary. Yes, there’s the accents and other things that fit the period. But this is a piece of theater: it’s about people and relationships. I feel like the historical nature of it is just a setting.

OW: I imagine that it was quite unexpected to get so many public accolades.

KP: It was great to see that. In general, contemporary opera doesn’t sell a lot. You’re lucky to get a handful of performances and then you may never do it again. At least when they are recorded they get to live on in this format. So I am grateful for all the attention and a Grammy nomination. Maybe it has a little bit to do with the timing of the release, because so many things had been shut down. It may have been a case of “Here’s one thing that’s actually happening: a recording of Carlisle Floyd’s latest opera.”

OW: Most of the opera repertoire is still the same traditional operas. I imagine it’s very difficult for contemporary opera to get attention from the public.

KP: Companies have to figure out how to connect to their audience. There has to be a balance. Carlisle Floyd has been writing operas for 70 years. I’m just very happy that he is finally able to tell this story. It was a privilege for me to be a part of it, for sure.

OW: Thank you for the conversation!


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