Q & A: Baritone Malcolm MacKenzie On The Verdi Chorus, Playing Villains & The Loss of Listening Skills

By Gordon Williams
(Credit: Matthew Staver)

Baritone Malcolm MacKenzie loves playing the bad guys.

On his website he notes that Scarpia, the villainous police chief who sexually harasses Tosca before being murdered, is his favorite role. Another of his favorites is the conniving Iago and he was even the first man to take on the role of the vengeful Roger Chillingworth in the world premiere of “The Scarlet Letter.” He has performed with a wide range of companies including Opera Omaha, the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, the North Carolina Opera, Eugene Opera, and the San Diego Opera.

He is also set to perform alongside the Verdi Chorus in a concert of classic opera hits, part of the Santa-Monica based choral ensemble’s ongoing program dedicated to promoting opera in the community. The baritone recently spoke to OperaWire in anticipation of his upcoming performance with the Verdi Chorus.

OW: Among the vocal numbers you are singing in this concert are favorites such as Iago’s drinking song from “Otello,” Count di Luna’s aria “Il balen del suo sorriso” from “Il trovatore,” and the “Te Deum” from “Tosca.”These are characteristic moments of some of your signature characters. 

MM: Yes. Because of the timbre of my voice I spend a lot of time portraying bad guys even though, as a person, my friends would say I’m kind of goofy.

OW: I noticed that you said on your website that Scarpia, the evil police chief who sings in “Tosca”’s Te Deum, is your favorite “baddie.” 

MM: It’s the insidious nature of his character and the way his music is written. It’s so sensual. Scarpia has some really juicy music and there are not many baritone parts like that. I’m in love with that entire opera.

I would say “Tosca” is the perfect opera. It’s movie length, which is great for modern audiences. It has three great main characters (who all die). It has one of the great First Act culminations just before the intermission with the “Te Deum,” and the opera is about a strong female character who just happens to be an opera singer!

OW: Conversely, “Il balen del suo sorriso” has sympathy written into the part of Count di Luna. Do you worry about finding a sympathetic tone in parts like Scarpia and how do you do it?  

MM: Not so much Scarpia. He’s just so seductive. But Iago is just bad without any explanation, even though Verdi took the liberty of writing that Credo – that statement of his dark beliefs that is not in the play. Verdi loved Shakespeare’s plays. It was quite a bold step to provide that credo – not really an explanation of why Iago does what he does – but more a description of what he does. 

OW: Speaking of Iago, you’ll be singing his drinking song. How would you characterize that? 

MM: Besides being the bawdy party piece it is, the drinking song is a graphic depiction of how Iago has lived his life. Moving from person to person, telling each what they want to hear, deftly manipulating them to his own desired outcome. It’s really quite amazing. 

OW: In addition to taking on these major repertory staples, you have been very involved with new music. For example, you created the role of the vengeful Roger Chillingworth in Lori Leitman’s “The Scarlet Letter.” What is it like knowing you’re actually the first person to do a role? 

MM: It’s wonderful and terrifying. I really admired the way Lori made Roger more sympathetic than he is in the book. I enjoyed creating the character. He was more complex than I was originally thinking he was going to be. It was really her music that opened up his pathos to me and I was able to use that to make him an engaging character.

OW: Continuing on this topic of modern works, you’ve twice performed Stubbs in “Moby Dick” in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles and created this role for Lori Leitman, what do you think of the state of opera in the United States?  

MM: That’s a really hard question to answer because I’m of an age where I can remember what most people would call the tail end of the Golden Age of opera (so, the mid-80s to late 80s perhaps) and since then I think there’s been a general dwindling in the knowledge level of the audience, and a shrinking of voices in general.

One of my first jobs was singing a small role in “Otello” where I stood next to Vladimir Atlantov while he sang the “Esultate.” If the young artists I work with now could hear that size of voice in person… it would blow their minds.

I remember when Johnny Carson could present Pavarotti or Montserrat Caballé on his show, but now the most famous opera singer in the world could walk through an airport and nobody would know who they are. Public awareness is one of my concerns and I guess many of the operas we’ve had in English in the last 20 years are trying to lock in a new audience for opera, but I don’t know if it’s going to happen.

My personal worry is that the public has lost their ear for acoustical music. They may be losing their ability to distinguish between music made by a machine, music that has been adjusted in some way electronically, and music that has been produced without electronic adjustment.

Even popular music is shrinking the dynamic range. Since the late 90s and early 2000s you’ve seen producers continually shrink the dynamic range of music as it is recorded so people are no longer used to listening to quieter sounds/louder sounds and having that be an integral part of what makes music, music. I’ve had people come up to me after a show who said they’d wished that the theater had turned the mics up more. There were no mics! And now I see the operatic industry beginning to amplify things and even out sound-levels which I think is a huge mistake.

We used to not have an onstage monitor except where staging or sets made it impossible to hear the orchestra. Now, inevitably, the orchestra is being piped on to the stage via monitor speakers. It’s creating a generation of singers who don’t know how to listen and accommodate for the orchestra being between them and the audience, and it contributes to a muddy sound mix in the hall. Sound moves slowly, and if there are two sound sources for the orchestra, on stage, and then again in the pit, there is a disconnect from the audience’s perspective. And the singer who would normally be trying to sing ahead of the beat so their voice hits the audience at the same time as the orchestra sound, becomes caught between these two sound fronts and ends up being with neither.

I recently had a conversation with an extremely talented young soprano who complained to me that on-stage monitors were too low and she couldn’t hear the orchestra when she was singing. I had to say, “Yes. You may not be able to hear them while you’re singing. You have to listen to the orchestra when you take a breath and watch the guy with the stick.” After a few rehearsals she came back to me and said she could feel the difference. She wasn’t trying to compete with the amplified orchestra on stage, but rather blend with the pit. These are the skills that we are in danger of losing with todays “ear bud” culture. I worry about the future of acoustical music.

OW: Are there any positives?

MM: The number of smaller houses around the country and boutique opera, but they can’t pay enough for a singer to be just a singer, and concentrate all the time on doing this job and making the greatest art.

So this is a reason why I’m very grateful to organizations like the Verdi Chorus because it brings audiences to opera. Yes, it’s the “greatest hits of opera” but that is one way to open people’s eyes.

I do meet people who are excited by opera and sometimes excited enough to decide to do opera themselves. I really look forward to meeting somebody who is inspired by opera in this day and age because I hope opera lasts.


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