Q & A: Norman Garrett on King Arthur, Chausson & the 2021-22 Season

By Francisco Salazar

On July 25, Bard Summerscape is set to present the rarely performed opera by Chausson, “Le Roi Arthus.” The work is the only opera by the French composer and is considered one of the finest examples of French romanticism.

For this historic production, Bard has put together a superb cast with the likes of Sasha Cooke and Matthe White as well as rising star Norman Garrett in the title role.

Garrett has been hailed by the New York Times as a “Scene Stealer” who has performed at the Metropolitan Opera, Bayerische Staatsoper, Washington National Opera, and Dayton Opera.

OperaWire spoke to the baritone about his upcoming role debut, Chausson, and the thrill of singing a rarely performed work.

OperaWire: How did you get involved in the production?

Norman Garrett: My agent called me a few years ago and asked me to look at the score of the piece which is available on IMSLP because Bard is doing it. First I looked at the score and Arthur is the first voice you hear and I said, “Well this looks exciting.” Then I managed to find two recordings which are available of the piece and once I heard it, I said, “I have to take this.” The music is moving and so powerful and expressive. It feels like the expression you feel in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” or “La Bohème.” It has that expression but it’s for a baritone. I am so happy to be doing it and it is right now my favorite role I have ever sung. There is no repeated melody and it is all a continuous flowing thought process and every phrase that he writes has a different color or orchestration to it that makes him more expressive. It’s not like “Rigoletto” or “Don Carlo.” It’s got this organic sense of flow.

OW: Chausson’s music does have this free-flowing expressive quality. How does it compare to other French works that you have sung?

NG: Chausson was in the Cesar Franck school and Franck was a major Wagnerian lover. So this being Chausson’s only opera, you can hear the influences of Franck and Wagner that give it that thickness and that depth of the voice that fits to the texture of the orchestra. I say that it feels more Wagnerian except that it’s French. But it’s not traditional Wagner or as heavy because there aren’t many orchestra players. It’s as if you took the role of Wotan and you put it up a whole step to a third, it has that kind of feel. But then as far as harmonically, it is as if you took Wagner and turned it into a movie score. The musical interludes that are there when no one is singing sound like a movie score. It’s very Korngold-esque and is ahead of its time. And that is what made it kind of hard to learn. Strauss is also hard to learn because it sits so perfectly with the structure that he has created. But here you can’t see where the tonalities are going or where they come from. So it is like Wagner but then you mix in a little Massenet, a little Verdi, and a little Puccini. I hear a lot of composers.

OW: King Arthur is one of the most iconic characters in literature and film. Tell me about working with the director Louisa Proske and your approach to this character? How have you worked together to develop him?

NG: I love working with Louisa because she wants to know how the character feels. And she wants to know what drives the character. It’s a really popular character and if you go online and start reading about Arthur, there are various versions of how it happened versus what actually happened. It’s like a rabbit hole. So we have to be very clear with our choices so what we did to make it safe was we borrowed a couple of ideas of the big conglomerate of ideas about Arthur and Merlin and their relationship and hones in on that. But other than that, we really stuck to the text of the score and we stick to Arthur as a man and what he is trying to achieve versus what he has done. We feel like this opera is centered around the idea of Arthur trying to achieve this beautiful clever idea of the round table and equality and all of that together. We ask “what does that do to a man?” What does it do to his personal life and his marriage? What does it do to his friends around him and how do they feel when Arthur is around? His priority is maintaining this round table. And in this piece that becomes very difficult for him to do. And he fails and the round table fails. That is what we have been working on and how he maintains these relationships with the people around him.

It also asks the question of how his ideals which are so grandiose and naive in a sense work? You would think that people would be on board with this way of governing but they prefer more civil war. We are trying to poke holes in how Naive he could be and discovering how things could never work forever. A lot of the piece is him grappling with him watching the world that he has built disintegrate.

OW: When you were preparing the role, did you watch or read anything about the character or did you base your interpretation on the opera’s text?

NG: After I translated it, I realized that all the ideas that I had seen in the piece about Arthur are already there. The text is very humanizing and I found that the movies and some of the books tended to focus on the fantasy part of it.

I think that the relationship with Merlin is very vague in all the movies and series. So Louisa, who did a lot of research made some very clear choices with that relationship. So most of the work was done once we got Louisa’s ideas of it. I also didn’t want to get to rehearsal with a lot of preconceived notions on what the piece would be. I also think that because the music is so complex, I think it was better to build on it.

OW: This piece is rarely performed and has very few recordings. Do you think it is easier to sing something rarely performed especially since there are no preconceived notions about interpretations as there are with more common staples of the repertoire? Is there more freedom to create an interpretation?

NG: There is a bit of a freeing aspect when it relates to your part and making your own interpretation and being able to build this guy from the ground up. People from the audience also don’t have any preconceived notions of who this guy is except for what they see on TV which is different from what they will see on stage. I will say there is a bit of freedom there. But I will say that with those other roles like the job is the same and I feel like they are similar. Everyone knows who Don Giovanni is and everybody knows who Escamillo is but no one ever knows how they came to be and I feel like there is a lot of from to have your own interpretation as well.

The one thing I do love is that you can listen with fresh ears at a work like this. It is hard for an audience to listen with fresh ears these days because the audience has seen the other operas and they have these ideas of the way the work is supposed to sound like. A lot of times of they have ideas of the way it should be staged. So for the production team, they have had a lot of freedom because they can just create whatever world they wanted and as long as it makes sense it is going to make sense for them. I feel like that is more difficult with the standard repertoire. So there are liberties and freedoms that you can’t take with the standard.

OW: Your cast is made up of rising stars and established singers. Tell me about working with this cast?

NG: I didn’t know who the cast was at the beginning and I only knew that Sasha Cooke was going to be doing Guinevere. I liked that mystery and when I stepped into the room the first day I realized that at some point in my career I have worked with every single person in this cast except for Sasha. So it has been easy and a lot of these bonds have gone back 10 or 12 years. Some of them go back to my young artist time at Washington National Opera. I have worked with the tenor Andrew Bidlack in Des Moines and I have a story for everyone.

With Sasha, the way the part is written, I don’t interact with her. We have our first scene together where we have established that I am the king and she is the queen and then that’s it. So I don’t get to interact with her. But with the rest of the cast, it has been easy and it’s like picking up where we left off. After rehearsal, we’ll just go eat dinner and we’ll talk about what’s going on for us and it is one of my favorite things to do.

It’s been amazing and I have felt very at ease in the room rehearsing with all these familiar faces.

OW: Leon Botstein has championed a lot of rare repertoire. Tell me about your experience working with him?

NG: We did the first week without Leon and Sasha. So when we did our first music rehearsal, he was really adamant about not making the text sound the same. He wants to pull out as many colors and dynamic shifts as possible in the French language. The way it is written it could just be one sound all the time and I felt like the first rehearsal it was that because we were just trying to sing all the notes. But it is interesting how he would stop and then how he would start. He is all about the text. He doesn’t care if you are singing a role with one line but he wants the text to make sense as to what is happening on stage. He is very detailed and I am very surprised. He has ideas about the staging and he brings a little bit of life to some life. He wants what’s happening on the stage to match the music. That is his thing. It has been so cool working with him on that. He is so glad to put some on stage live because for him it’s the first time since March 2020 and so he is very lively.

He also loves this piece and it is one of the pieces that he has done a couple of times and he has a recording of it that he did a few years ago. He has an attachment to the piece.

OW: What is next after “Le Roi Artus” and what are your hopes for this upcoming season?

NG: I start off in the season opener of the Metropolitan Opera’s “Fire Shut up in My Bones” and I reprise my role as Jim in “Porgy and Bess.” Then I go to the Lyric of Chicago and then I’m off to Seattle for “Le Nozze di Figaro” for my role and house debuts. It is a very fulfilling year for me and I don’t have to be on all the time and I can focus on my job at the time.

Next season is a perfect sprinkle of what I have done and new works. And I feel really good about the 2021-22 season. I am excited to see how we are going to feel as a cast when we stand on one of these big theaters that have been closed for so long. I am excited to see the first fully staged opera with an audience at one of these theaters. I can’t wait to feel that and it is going to be emotional. I can’t imagine what the applause will be like at the Metropolitan Opera after it has been closed for two years. That is going to be a very special.


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