Q & A: Christian Van Horn On His Richard Tucker Award & His Role Debut As ‘Mefistofele’

By Francisco Salazar

Christian Van Horn is one of today’s rising stars in the opera world, the bass making major role debuts and opening new productions at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Canadian Opera Company and the Metropolitan Opera.

This year, he became the third bass-baritone to win the Richard Tucker Award and the first of his voice type since 2003. Van Horn’s win comes 15 years after his Sara Tucker Study Grant in 2003 and his win at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

He is also slated to make his role debut in Boito’s “Mefistofele” at the Metropolitan Opera where the opera will return after an absence of almost 20 years. The role will also be his first title role with the company and his biggest assignment yet. Soon after he will make his Opéra National de Paris debut in a new production of “Le Troyens.”

Van Horn recently spoke to OperaWire about winning the historical Richard Tucker award, his upcoming role debut at the Met, and the challenges of his Paris debut.

OperaWire: Congrats on winning the Richard Tucker Award. Where were you when you found out you had won it?

Christian Van Horn: I was in Toronto in the gym and my phone rang and I was on a treadmill thinking about Mephistopheles getting in shape for that. And Barry [Tucker] was saying, “We love for you to sing at the Tucker gala this year.”

And I said, “Of course, I would love to sing in the gala.”

And he said, “Well, would love for you to sing in the gala because you are our winner.”

I said “Wow.”

OW: What else did you feel when you realized you had won this historical award?

CVH: I was a part of a Tucker gala filling in an ensemble in 2003 which was the same year that I had won a Sara Tucker grant. I was so excited to be in that concert and I saw the winner that year, which was John Relyea and I remember he wasn’t there for the concert.

I remember thinking it was such a shame that he couldn’t be there and during that concert I envisioned myself winning it. I wanted to believe that something like this was possible especially if the hard work was being put in.

So I had to reactions to it. It was a surprise because I thought I was too old for it at this point and it was something that had already passed me by. But at the same time, it was something I had envisioned for myself years ago.

OW: You’re the first Bass-baritone to win the award since 2003 and the third in the history of the Tucker award. What does that mean to you?

CVH: It makes it seem a bit rarer. It’s the Richard Tucker award so I feel like historically more tenors have won. I don’t know how true that is but it has felt like that for a long time. But this list of winners is an incredibly elite group and this is by far the most humbling aspect of my career thus far.

OW: You’re headlining the gala. Tell me what you’re most looking forward to and is there any aria you’re looking forward to performing?

CVH: It’s humbling. I can’t wait to sing the concert and it’s a tremendous celebration of Richard Tucker himself and the human voice. There are so many great singers in this concert and to be on that list even as a winner is a huge honor.

I can’t wait to sing “Ella giammai m’amo” because it is the bass dream role and I am looking forward to singing that with an orchestra at Carnegie Hall. That will be huge for me.

OW: Following the gala, you will be making your role debut as Mefistofele in Arrigo Boito’s opera of the same name. This is your first major Metropolitan Opera role. What does it feel like to headline a production?

CVH: I knew about a year ago that this production was going to happen. It was so humbling to get the role because it’s the Robert Carsen production made so famous by Samuel Ramey and one of my favorite basses Norman Treigle made this role very famous. So to be part of that lineage is so great.

OW: This character is an interesting one. What kind of layers do you find in him and do you feel he is sympathetic in any way?

CVH: This Mephisto, like the Gounod, is having a great time and it’s all in the music. Some moments are of pure evil like the church scene in Gounod, when you feel evil for the first time. In the Boito in “Son lo Spirito” you feel the sinister part of this Mephisto. But this is a game to him and the first thing he says when he makes a bet with God and heaven is, I bet you I will get him. It’s a wager and for him, he is having a blast. And if that comes across in this production, I will be doing my job correctly.

OW: What is your favorite moment in this score?

CVH: The classic Walpurgis Nacht is amazing. This scene where we go to hell is the most Macab orgy of indulgences and there Mefisto is standing on the stage saying “Here is the world.” He is ridiculing the pathetic nature of people. There are winds and whistles and it’s the most exciting music of the score. But of course the chorus at the end, that scene is going to blow the crowd away.

OW: What are the vocal challenges of this role?

CVH: It’s the right role at the right time. I don’t see many vocal issues. There are a couple of very big notes but it’s the perfect bass-baritone role. I am much more comfortable with a High F sharp than a low F sharp so that is exactly where this role lies.

From a vocal standpoint, I would say the soprano and the tenor have a harder night. What I find most interesting is that it is the title role and when does that ever happen. There are about three or four titles and to have a title role at the Met is a dream come true.

OW: What does it feel like to bring back this opera for the first time in 20 years and what are you most excited for audiences to discover?

CVH: The Gounod “Faust” is a very concise story so it works from a production standpoint. But the Boito is much more expansive with two sopranos and two different characters. Because we separate the two characters in this version it’s harder to tell from a production standpoint and to that end, I am looking forward to bringing the spectacle of the piece to New York.

And this work has such great chorus numbers from the beginning to the end. And what is exciting is that I have future “Mefistofele” productions already in the books so it will be great to start here and continue exploring the character in other productions.

OW: Tell me about your collaboration with Michael Fabiano and Angela Meade?

CVH: I sang with Angela in my Met debut in “Falstaff” and she is an absolute force. There is no singer singing as well as Angela. I have yet to hear her sing something she has not dominated.

With Michael, we have done “Bohème” all over in Toronto, San Francisco, and at the Met. I feel like I have been singing with him for a long time. And what is so great is that Michael brings this special confidence. That is inspiring and when you have singers like him it’s easy because every time they sing you up your game a little bit. When you are surrounded by the best you can’t help but be the best.

OW: What about maestro Carlo Rizzi?

CVH: Carlo breathes with you, but he also pushes you. He’ll never let you drag the show and he will never let you indulge. He stays true to the score and he will always stick to what the composer intended. He allows you to indulge sometimes, especially if you have a great high note. But he will drive the ship and I’m so glad it will be him.

OW: When preparing the role, which were the recordings that you listened to?

CVH: Right away Norman Treigle. Nobody made it more famous than him. And then there is Sam Ramey. Vocally, it is a different approach from Treigle who was reckless abandon singing like it’s the last day of his life.

Sam leans on his technique so much that they are perfect. And then there is Ferruccio Furlanetto whose vocal color is royal class, which is what I hope to one day be considered.

OW: You have sung Gounod’s “Faust” as well. What are some of the differences in the characterization of Mefistofele and what is it like to play the same character in two different works?

CVH: My approach is not going to be too different. When I think about Mefisto I think that if he is having a good time then you’re halfway there.

To me, the Boito “Mefistfele” has a bit more arrogance and more full of himself. He has an ego issue and he takes the fact that it is not going very well much harder than Gounod’s Mefisto. Towards the end in Boito, Mefisto is really drinking himself to death because it is not working. His ego is more bruised and that angle is easier to play in this work.

OW: One of the works is in French while the other is in Italian. What are some of the similarities in the text that both these composer’s used for their work?

CVH: It’s coming straight from the Goethe but in the case of the Boito who wrote the libretto himself, it often times it was a word by word translation and to that point, some of the Italian is a bit archaic.

Meanwhile, the Gounod flows a little better. Going from English to Italian or English to French, there is always a moment of translation that may be a bit more challenging.

OW: To perform the same character in two different works is very rare. Have you ever compared the two works in your discovery of the character?

CVH: We have the trilogy of Figaro but it is never the same voice type. It’s very rare and I had never thought about it. But I do consider that it is the same character in the same story. However, the layers are a bit richer in the Boito so to that end I have thought about it a lot more.

With Gounod’s “Faust” I have been doing it for so long that it is kind of muscle memory for me. This new role has been a more interesting process for me knowing what I knew about Mefisto and how it relates to this music.

OW: You’ll be doing a new production of “Les Troyens” at the Opéra National de Paris. Tell me about returning to this Berlioz work?

CVH: This will be my third production of “Les Troyens” and I am really excited to work with Dmitri Tcherniakov. This will also be my debut in Paris and of course singing, this French Grand Opera in France is a great honor. Narbal doesn’t come in until page 300 and it is the only bass role in the work. I don’t know if it sticks out much in the work but it is a role I know and I am happy to return to.

OW: It’s your Paris debut. Tell me about the experience of making a major debut like this?

CVH: I get very nervous when it comes to a role debut but I don’t really get nervous to a house debut. I have done Narbal enough that I am confident enough in my ability to do it. I am confident in my ability to sing in a house as big as the Paris Opera. However, I will always be nervous singing in the original language of the country. The first time I sang in German was in Munich was in “Zauberflöte.” It was intimidating to do dialogue for the German people. But it is always important to lean onto your singing technique and do your best. That is why I always work extra hard on my diction.

OW: With so many roles and house debuts, what is one role that you hope to sing one day?

CVH: Well number one is King Philip [in “Don Carlo”]. This is my dream role and this is what I want.

I could see myself singing Boris and I know that down the line I could do Wagner but I have no rush doing Wotan or Wagner. There is more than enough time for those benchmarks. But for the immediate future, it’s a lot of Verdi and French opera. I am not in a big rush to do German repertoire.


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