Q & A: Baritone Todd Thomas on ‘Rigoletto’ & His Passion for Verdi

By David Salazar
(Photo: R. Tinker)

The ever-elusive Verdi baritone. A voice with a unique timbre, range, expressive quality, and psychological immersion that manages to let us into the lives of the composer’s most complex and complete characters.

A lot of baritones aspire to this title, but it’s not in the cards for most of them.

But it was for Todd Thomas. Just look through his bio and you’ll find (among a lot of other Italian opera roles), pure Verdi. Verdi everywhere. “Nabucco.” “Attila.” “Macbeth.” “Falstaff.” “Aida.” “Il Trovatore.” “La Traviata.” “Otello.” “Simon Boccanegra.” Even the rarely performed “La Bataglia del Legnano.”

But towering over all of them is one role – “Rigoletto.” He’s performed the role for years at such companies as Tulsa Opera, Florentine Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, Des Moines Metro Opera. And currently, he’s showcasing his interpretation with Florida Grand Opera.

OperaWire had an opportunity to speak to the baritone about his interpretation of the iconic role and his overall passion for the composer behind the music and the drama.

OperaWire: Who is Rigoletto? 

Todd Thomas: For me, above all else, Rigoletto is a father, a tormented man whose only reason for living is found in his daughter, Gilda. He’s tormented by his deformity, his alienation from the entire society, the constant  ridicule he endures,  his lack of family and a partner. 

OW: How has your interpretation of his character changed since you first started performing the title role? What are some discoveries you have made along the way?

TT: I am a dad to four children at home, two daughters and two sons.  I believe my preparation and experience singing these great Verdi father roles have been informed by my own paternal experiences. Furthermore, in many cases I also think the fathers of Rigoletto, Germont (“Traviata”), Boccanegra, Rolando (“La Battaglia del Legnano”), or Nabucco have all had a hand in forming as a father to Lydia, Gabriela, Samuel and Noah.

I remember in the first few productions I would bring my own shoes for the role. In the late 90s I purchased the costume of Tonio (“I Pagilacci”) from a European tour I was singing. I knew the  shoes, which had a two-inch elevation on the right shoe, would come in handy for future Tonio’s and Rigoletto’s.  It helped greatly, I never had to manufacture the walk it was already in the shoes. In the years following and when my daughters were approaching their teenage years, a close conductor friend would yell over the piano to me,  “Think about, Lydia, sing about her.” that was part of my process, I guess from becoming a method actor in a way. The journey started from finding the character through the shoes and ended up living into  the role as a dad.

OW: As you noted fatherhood (and especially the father-daughter dynamic) is essential to many of Verdi’s greatest baritone roles and Rigoletto might be the peak of that dynamic. Does your interpretation of the role rely on the soprano who plays Gilda in any given production? How have other Gilda interpreters helped you discover new facets of this dynamic?

TT: I have been very fortunate to work with several generous and highly gifted artists through the years. They were all perfect fits for the production and the director or the time.  However, I believe the chemistry I shared with Canadian opera star, Tracy Dahl and stage director, Rob Herriot was particularly special.

In that production we took the time to discuss the relationship in the score as well as our own parent/offspring experiences. In that Manitoba Opera production the three of us discovered what makes the relationship so dynamic, in that the roles of comforter and victim become exchanged throughout the entire drama.  I recall feeling similarly in an Austin Opera production with my  late dear friend, stage director, Kay Walker Castaldo. She worked with Lyuba Petrova and I without music staff for a session to simply  talk about this relationship. taking time in that way is  valuable. I further fondly recall singing this relationship in three productions with Jane Redding, most notably with stage director, A. Scott Perry.

OW: Rigoletto is one of Verdi’s most challenging baritones. It has been said that it might be the peak of his baritone roles in terms of psychological and vocal complexity. What is the most challenging aspect of interpreting this role? From a vocal perspective, what makes this role so complex?

TT: In terms of music and vocal  history Verdi changed the baritone voice! He moved the previously middle voiced tessitura to the higher extreme of the range. Not only do we see passages written above the staff, but he also adds softer dynamics while  singing in the upper range. Technically, this can often be a challenge: to make a supported softer sound while still projecting in a large hall and over and orchestra. 

Oftentimes Verdi encourages the baritone voice to be as vulnerable as possible. He often chooses to select a solo instrument to accompany an aria. For instance in “Il balen del suo sorriso” from “Il Trovatore,” he is supported only by an arpeggiated figure in the Clarinet.  Similarly, when Nabucco sings his conversion in “Dio di Giuda.” Regarding “Rigoletto,” he assigns a solo flute to accompany Gilda. Listen to the end of “Cortigiani, vil razza, dannata” and you will hear chamber music. A virtuosic cello line along with english horn and the baritone voice. 

I recall a wonderful compliment I received from famed conductor, Gerard Schwartz following “Falstaff” for Seattle Opera.  At the time, I don’t think I understood the depth of his compliment when he embraced me following our curtain call, saying,  “Wow, doing this piece like you is like chamber music.” It took a bit of reflection to understand what a great compliment that was. It is about an intimate dance with the conductor, isn’t it, at least ideally.  

Lastly,  Verdi provides us these gifts in his manuscripts with specific guidelines as to how to sing certain words or parts of phrases.  Above the vocal lines we read things like voce cupo (covered)  voce aperta (open) voce suffocata (suffocated voice) 

Regarding Rigoletto he gives three directions in a two-bar figure when he recalls how Gildas mother loved him. It moves from “con dolore (with pain)” to “Piangendo ( crying).”

OW: What is your favorite dramatic or musical moment in the work?

TT: I recently had  this conversation with Sharleen Joynt, who is singing Gilda with me here in Miami.  I believe some of the most satisfying music is found in the duets. For me, this is true in all of Verdi. The duets are where we find the genius of Verdi not only musically but psychologically and dramaturgically as well.

The Act three duet with Gilda is masterfully written and composed. The scene ends thrillingly with the father  swearing vengeance against the Duke, while his daughter is pleading for mercy from her father.

OW: In addition to Rigoletto, you’ve performed several other Verdi roles. What does Verdi’s music mean to you?

TT: The more experience I have singing this music, the more I am inspired by his humanity.  He captures  the global and universal themes of patriotism, liberty, sound global stewardship, while simultaneously penetrating  our hearts and souls with our most profound relationships  in our families.

OW: What makes Verdi unique from other composers you’ve performed?

TT: I think with Verdi, more than most opera composers, everything you need is in the score, especially in the later works. Investigate for instance how Verdi changes the mood in  the second act of “Otello.” Cassio exits the scene with Iago with the same triplet figure in the orchestra we hear in the  top of the act. When Iago is on stage alone about to deliver his “Credo” the same figure transforms into this demonic turn. Or also how he chooses to open “Otello” with the greatest symphonic and operatic storm imaginable. He plays joke on us throughout “Falstaff,” opening the first bar with a rest on the down beat of the entire piece.

The “tinta musicale” of Verdi is spectacular. isn’t it?  In the opening prelude of “Rigoletto” we hear the music of the curse. The dotted figures intoning unison C in the trumpets.  and the subsequent gloomy dark chords which paint the inner pain and  turmoil found in the title character.

OW: Do you have a favorite Verdi role and why? If it’s Rigoletto, which one comes in second?

TT: Yes, I truly love this role. After more than 25 productions I am not tired of putting on his shoes nor his hump yet.  I think of a “Simon Boccanegra” production I sang recently with Mo. Timothy Vernon at Pacific Opera Victoria. The Grand Council Scene is a speech which resonates loudly in our own political environment of today and recent years of the American and Global environment. As I mentioned earlier too, it is the recognition duet in which we find his humanity when he finally sees his daughter, Amelia, again after years of being separated.

OW: Are there any Verdi roles that you have yet to perform that you want to sing in the future? Which one and what excites you about that possibility?

TT: Certainly “Don Carlo,” “Ernani,” “Stiffelio” come to mind,  but more that that I would welcome more opportunities to rediscover the lives of Nabucco, Macbeth, and other titles like “Un Ballo in Maschera” and “Attila” equally as well too.

OW: Any last comments you want to make?

TT: I need to express a great deal of gratitude to an artist who has generously  mentored from the early years of my career.  Maestro Victor De Renzi has given me incredible opportunities to discover the great works of Verdi at the Sarasota Opera. Each production with him was a huge growth in my development in very facet imaginable. My words cannot express the depth of my admiration and  gratitude for  his interest and guidance in my career.  Colleagues and friend will attest, it was not always an easy, warm or fuzzy relationship,  however his dedication, respect and  integrity to the music and to the composer are unmatched I believe.

In closing,  VIVA VERDI!


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