Q & A: Bass-Baritone Seth Carico On Playing Villains, Handling Stress & Anxiety, Growing As An Artist

By Dejan Vukosavljevic
(Credit: Simon Pauly)

It all started with a fall. A fall on stage.

During his first ever performance of “The King & I,” as an adolescent, bass-baritone Seth Carico entered a stage for the first time and purposely fell down the stairs as required by the direction.

“When I heard all those people laughing at what I had done, I was hooked,” the Tennessee-born singer told OperaWire in a recent interview. “I knew that getting a reaction from an audience was what I was made for, and I have never looked back.

That was the beginning of what has been a successful career as an artist that has seen the bass-baritone perform in Berlin, Minnesota, Utah, Saratoga, Leipzig, Torino, and Michigan, among many other major cities.

Carico recently spoke with OperaWire about how he eventually turned to the world of opera unintentionally and how essential it has become to his life and purpose.

OperaWire: How did you realize that you wanted to be an opera singer?

Seth Carico: When I was a teenager, after many years of community theater life, I decided musicals were silly, and I wanted to be a “serious” actor. I focused my energy on studying to be the best actor I could be. My musical life continued in the school choir, and more intensely in the school concert band. At that point I really considered myself more a percussionist than a singer.

It wasn’t until I wanted to impress a date that I discovered opera. I was trying to think of something special to do with my high school girlfriend, and I thought, “Well, fancy people go to the opera. Let’s do that.” I had no idea that what I saw on stage that night would change my entire life. It was a production of “Pagliacci,” and I was simply floored by what I witnessed. I had no idea the human voice could be used in such a theatrical, emotional way, and I decided right then and there that I had found my path.

OW: Being a proud Tennessean, you became an adopted Berliner. How did that happen?

SC: If you talk to any American opera singer, you will hear a similar story. Once we successfully navigate the University or Conservatory path, we are out in a world where we are still too young to work, so we have to further hone our skills through apprenticeships. There are way too many singers for the available positions, so we have to take every job we are lucky enough to be offered, no matter where it might lead us.

So, most of us have a chaotic list of all the places we have lived. I bounced around between New York, Michigan, Texas, and California, and in between jobs, there were years and years of waiting tables and bartending in restaurants. I even have the starving artist’s obligatory massage therapy license, which gave me a flexible way to make money while maintaining the ability to pick up and move my life anywhere my career dictated.

In 2010, I won a scholarship for an apprenticeship with Deutsche Oper Berlin, and that was really where everything started to take off. I was in the ensemble there for nine seasons, and Berlin is still where I call home. The obvious omission of places I’ve lived while building my opera career is my original home, Tennessee, and that is a real shame. I deeply love and am proud of where I come from, and I earned my Bachelor’s Degree at the Middle Tennessee State University, but unfortunately there are few opportunities for professional arts work there. I try to go back as often as possible to sing concerts because I can tell you, there is no better audience than a hometown audience. But the great thing is that after nine seasons with Deutsche Oper and being truly embraced by the public there, I feel like I have two hometown audiences!

OW:What is the greatest challenge you had to overcome to this point in your career? How did you overcome it?

SC: I chose to put my opera career before everything else in the beginning, and I do believe that for most of us, that is a necessity for at least a few years, especially those of us from countries with dwindling options for singing work. The early years of my career were built on taking every single audition that came my way and finding a way to capitalize on every opportunity I could find, whether I could financially afford it or not.

Unfortunately for me, that meant building a lot of debt. Eventually that debt became something that occupied my thoughts every second of every day. I sacrificed most of the comforts that many people couldn’t do without, I lived on a razor’s edge of instability and worry for so many years, and I have lived away from my family now for longer than I lived near them.

I am not unique. This is a common story with successful singers. There are wealthy singers who shot to stardom fresh out of school, and I am very happy for them, but they are not the norm. We come from so many different backgrounds, and we are united in the joyous quest to use our voices to express how we feel about living and breathing. Those lean years were difficult, they damaged personal relationships, and they frequently filled me with consuming frustration, but I wouldn’t change a second of it. Every experience I have had has given me something to use in my craft and has brought me to the place of contentment that I have finally found, so why would I change it? Churchill said it best: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”



OW: Let’s shift gears and talk about the operas you have interpreted. Recently you had a major debut – singing the role of Alberich in Wagner’s prologue opera of The Ring Cycle, “Das Rheingold” at the Grimeborn Festival. How did you connect and empathize with the character that is evil to portray him believably onstage?

SC: Alberich is a unique challenge. I put him in a list with Klingsor in “Parsifal” and Junius in “The Rape of Lucretia.” There is no arguing that these are bad guys who do truly terrible things. But, they are also characters who have suffered a lot of pain, rejection, and loss. There is no excusing their actions, but you have to get to a mental place where you can understand their motivation.

Our production at Grimeborn used the reduced version of the opera adapted by Jonathan Dove and Graham Vick, and in that version, Mime is never seen onstage. Therefore, you never really see Alberich at his truly sadistic worst, and that omission makes it much easier to view him as the tragic figure that he is. Through his mistreatment by the Rhine maidens and the greedy gods, his victimhood becomes quite apparent. You have to then tap into whatever it is in your own personal history that makes you feel mistreated and approach the role from there.

OW: You are currently singing the role of Scarpia in “Tosca” at the Staatsoper Hannover. How did you prepare for that role and connect with that character?

SC: It has been my great joy to sing the Sacristan in “Tosca” at the Deutsche Oper for going on ten years now, and that has led to my sharing the stage with a parade of absolute masters of the role of Scarpia, including Sam Ramey, Greer Grimsley, Bryn Terfel, Ambrogio Maestri, Željko Lučić, Lucio Gallo, and on and on. So, I’ve basically had an almost 10-year masterclass on how to handle the role, witnessing disparate voices, techniques, and character choices. There is no formalized education in the world that could equal that experience.

Now, all that being said, I am none of those singers. I am Seth. I can only do it my way. I have taken every bit of observable wisdom I could from those titans, and now I have had to humbly find the path to my Scarpia. This has been a terrifying experience, and there were days when I honestly thought I couldn’t do it. My coach had to tell me, “What? Do you think this was easy for Lucio Gallo the first time he sang it?!” and I had to put my head down and keep chipping away at it. And that was just figuring out how to sing the damn thing!

Making an evil villain like Scarpia credible on stage is a whole other issue. Of course, I could puff out my chest, raise a menacing eyebrow and try to look mean, but I sure think that’s boring to watch, much less to play. Luckily, I was paired with Vasily Barkhatov for my first Scarpia. He also had much more than the average interest in exploring how a monster like Scarpia could come into existence. I don’t believe men are born evil. We have to be “carefully taught,” to quote South Pacific. Something happened to this man to make him the way he is. We answer that question overtly in this production, and I think it is a masterful decision, but no matter what, if anyone else ever trusts me to play him again, they will always get an interpretation of the character as somehow broken inside. I understand some people want to see a moustache-twirling dastardly villain, and I respect that desire, but that will never be my version.

As I hinted at earlier, there can be a danger to this method of portraying villains. You bring them so closely into your head and instill in them your own personal deeply held trauma, and if you’re not careful, they can set up residence there and start to affect your real thought processes. A few years ago, I would sometimes let myself slip into this behavior, but it really is very selfish and unfair to those around you, so you have to find a way to compartmentalize these thoughts. For me a daily meditation practice has been my saving grace. Through that I have learned to fully respond to my thoughts but not react to them.

OW: Which of the character that you have performed so far do you identify with most?

SC: I tend to identify with characters who are outcasts or underdogs. That applies to both drama and comedy. If a character is attractive, successful, and happily in love, I am typically turned off by the idea of playing him. I think the most interesting thing is to play someone who is trying to overcome adversity, and I need to be able to find a way to sympathize with a character; otherwise, I’ll never be able to satisfactorily portray them.

You could say the Count in “Le nozze di Figaro” is trying to overcome adversity, but his adversity is totally unsympathetic, boredom. Figaro on the other hand is trying to battle the absolute injustice of the class system he is born into, but even more he’s trying to battle his innate anger problems, which are a result of being incapable of accepting the status quo. I identify with that struggle on a daily basis.

I look around and I see a world full of powerful idiots and people falling for their garbage, but there is nothing I can do to change it. Other people seem to be able to just ignore that and focus on being happy in their existence, but it is so difficult for me to turn off that part of my brain, and sometimes it consumes me to an unhealthy degree. I just want to wake everybody up.

I think that is Figaro’s big problem. He is the straight man in a comedy of fools. Everywhere he turns, he sees ridiculous things, but he is expected to just accept it. Luckily, he has Susanna, who is even more aware than he is, but she is healthy enough to know how to change the things she can and to find joy in the things that are truly important. If there was ever a character and relationship dynamic I could identify with, that is it!

OW: Which of those characters are most similar to you? Which are most different?

SC: Perhaps the single luckiest thing that happened to me in my development as a performer was being trained by Shaack Van Deusen when I was in high school. He taught us character development in a way that I wish more opera singers could have experienced. I could talk about the techniques I learned from him until the cows come home, but I can say that most of the things I’m praised for on stage have a direct connection to what I learned from him 20 years ago. We performed everything from Kaufman & Hart to Shakespeare to Brecht, and most importantly we never performed musicals.

Now, as an adult I have reconnected to my earlier love of musical theater, and I am very passionate about it, but I am so grateful that I learned to develop characters from a straight theater perspective, rather than from a musical theater one. I have so many more tools in my toolbox than I would have otherwise, and without those tools, I wouldn’t be the performer that I am today. All that being said, for me to feel like I’m doing my job properly, I have to feel like every character I play is similar to me somehow. Stanislavski’s “magic if” is a great method if you are playing characters who have a similar set of experiences to you, but in opera we often find ourselves playing gods, dwarves, dragons, and perhaps the most foreign to us today, 18th century nobility. There is no way for me to imagine what it feels like to be a bird catcher for a magical queen of the night, but you better believe I can identify with a man who is expected to be upbeat and friendly in public, but inside he feels all alone and just wants to find someone who understands him.

I think most performers have felt like the sad clown at some point, and bringing that experience to the role is what makes Papageno sympathetic and endearing to an audience. I haven’t played him though, so it’s just a theory, but if you want to see what I’m talking about, go see Simon Pauly do it. It’s perfect. Wow, I really didn’t answer either of the last two questions as you asked them, but you picked me for this interview, and that’s what you get.

(Credit: Simon Pauly)


OW: You are slated to sing number of big roles at the Deutsche Oper in such operas as “Death in Venice,” “Les Huguenots,” “La Prophète,” and “Antikrist,” among others. Then comes another big debut – the title role in “Don Giovanni” at the Minnesota Opera. How do you maintain vocal versatility?

SC: No matter what you think about American singers, you can’t deny that when we finish our training, our versatility is unmatched.

I appreciate that this can be a negative thing, since some people do better when they specialize early, but overall our approach to learning all languages and styles serves us well, as long as we approach every new role with humility and the mindset of a beginner. It’s super tempting to want to feel like an expert, but I find I am able to get so much more out of a project when I view it as a learning experience.

So, when I work on a role for the second or third time, like “Death in Venice” or our cycle of Meyerbeer operas, I could show up and say, “I know how this goes. Let me do my thing.” But I prefer to say, “I did a good job last time. Now, let’s pick up where we left off and see how much better we can make this thing.” That means finding fresh ways to use the text, since the musical staff will potentially be different this time around, and every new person you work with has something new to offer. It also means playing off of the new people on stage, who will give you different things to work with than the previous cast. These jobs are all collaborative efforts, and what makes opera fresh is that you will never see it done exactly the same way twice. I find that exhilarating.

I’ve been singing Leporello for 15 years now, and this season I am singing “Don Giovanni” for the first time ever. I could easily assume that I know who he is and how he is supposed to sound, but it won’t be until I spend hours in rooms with other people that I will find out how I will sing him and play him.

OW: You have spoken openly on your blog about big stress opera singers are dealing with. How did you personally deal with it, and what advice could you give from your own experiences to young singers who are just starting?

SC: Look, opera is a hard job, but not really. The people who spend all day on their knees replacing stones in our sidewalks, and the people who make sure our city streets aren’t covered in garbage, those people have hard jobs, and we owe them our eternal gratitude and respect. Nobody claps and cheers for an elementary school teacher, but is there anything more important to our continuation as a civilization?

I know, I know, this is a meaningless argument to make in this context and it makes us feel guilty, but it is important to remember when we start talking about the pressure of our job. But . . . this job has a lot of pressure. There’s a reason we get paid to do it. If it were easy and fun all the time, it wouldn’t be a job. My biggest concern though with what I have experienced and what I worry about with young singers is the pressure to be the people the opera world expects us to be. Somehow there is a persistent myth in music schools that singers must be draped in expensive clothing and living a life of luxury. I guess that myth comes from the fact that we are often invited to high society events, but that’s not our world. We are there for work.

And what worries me is the young singer with social anxiety (like me), who feels like there is something wrong with him or her for being uncomfortable in these situations. There are people who truly enjoy schmoozing, and opera companies need them to be out front leading the gala charge, but there is also a place for us nerds. Every sponsor group has people who are there for the glamor, but there are always also nerdy sponsors sitting in the corner who the glamor people find boring because all they want to do is talk about OPERA!

My advice is to go find those people. You might be surprised that these people can be more than just fans or sponsors, but they can become close, long-lasting friends and confidants, and that’s what we need to survive in this business, people who believe in us, both in front of and behind the stage. I’ve spoken already about my meditation practice, which is invaluable, but that’s only the polisher for me. I had to do a lot of work to find my place in this world, and that includes many, many hours in therapy, and now five years of sobriety.

That’s my personal path, but I think more than anything else in this business, we need to stop viewing our mental health as something to be ashamed of, and we need to start talking to each other and being vulnerable with one another right now. I spent years hiding myself and trying to fit into some persona I thought people wanted, and that led me to panic attacks and drinking myself to sleep. Standing in front of 2000 people and singing an entire opera from memory over an orchestra is hard enough, one shouldn’t have to do it while thinking everyone in the world hates them.


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