Q & A: Scott Hendricks On Frankenstein, Villains & Singing Modern Repertoire

By Francisco Salazar

“Powerful,” “lyrical,” “energetic,” “confident” and versatile” are some of the words that have been used to describe Scott Hendrick’s artistry throughout the years.

The Texan baritone has emerged as one of the most versatile singers in the industry, balancing a career between the traditional repertoire and performing modern masterpieces and multiple world premieres. He has sung anything from John Adams to Verdi and Puccini to great acclaim.

This season, the baritone is making waves with the world premiere of “Frankenstein” at La Monnaie and the upcoming “M” at the Komische Oper. Additionally, he premiered a new production of “La Gioconda” at La Monnaie, making his role debut as Barnaba as well as Scarpia in a new production of “Tosca” at the San Francisco Opera.

Hendricks spoke with OperaWire about the new opera “Frankenstein,” playing villains, and the differences in working on modern works versus the traditional repertoire.

OperaWire: Talk to me about the process of bringing “Frankenstein” to life and how long it took to finally get it off the ground?

Scott Hendricks: It’s been a long time coming as we started talking about the work in June 2010 and it’s almost a decade later that it opened. So we were thrilled and the premiere was very special. But it was a long time in the making.

My first show at La Monnaie was “Macbeth” in 2010 and was the last production of the season. We were at the closing night party and Peter de Caluwe was about to leave because he said, ” I have a meeting in the morning with Alex Ollé because we are working on a project.”

He said “Alex wants to do an opera based on ‘Frankenstein,'” and I thought it was coo. He told me they didn’t have a composer and were still looking. So I asked Peter if I could send him some info on Mark Grey, who is one of my best friends. Mark had just composed a piece entitled “Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio” and he composed that piece for baritone, choir, and orchestra, which we collaborated on. So Mark and Peter got in touch and the rest is history. It’s amazing how it happened.

OW: Tell me about Mark’s music and how he has developed his voice since you started collaborating with him?

SH: Mark has been composing for several years now and we met in Rotterdam for “The Death of Klinghoffer.” He was doing sound design for that and for many years he has been the right-hand man to John Adams.

“Frankenstein” is his first opera and his harmonic language is just so great. He uses chromaticism, thematic material, and Wagnerian writing. Then there is minimalism. He also takes modal usage and it really depends on the colors he wants for a particular thing. You can’t pigeonhole Mark by a specific type of music because he takes from all types of music to create his works. It’s all about the libretto and what it calls for. He is very flexible when working with singers because he wants us to feel as comfortable as possible. So he welcomes our advice in regards to tessitura so the roles were tailored for the individuals singing the roles.

OW: What input did you give for the role of Frankenstein?

SH: I really talked to him about my strengths and weaknesses. We all have a sweet spot and my top and middle is where I can really withstand well. But I don’t think of myself as a Pelléas or an Eisenstein. I think something like a Rigoletto or a Posa in “Don Carlo” are very comfortable for me. He did a wonderful job writing Victor for me as he did with “Enemy Slayer.”

OW: What are the challenges of performing this work?

SH: It’s a very emotional work. Unlike other operas, the music isn’t difficult to learn or sing because of the way Mark Grey wrote it. The difficulties come from the story itself because it’s so brutal and gut-wrenching. So getting through that is challenging.

OW: Having been adapted from Mary Shelley’s famous novel, what kinds of thematic elements were emphasized in the work and what were some of the differences between the novel and the opera?

SH: It’s from the perspective of the creature. It was tailor-made for the production and there are a lot of flashbacks from the creature’s memories and that is what is really different from the book. Of course, I’m really familiar with the book so there weren’t really any surprises. I think it tells the story fluently and it works well for the medium.

OW: Alex Ollé is a very visual director. Were there any challenges for you as a performer in his production?

SH: For the performers, there are no technical or physical challenges because the technology works around us or we work around it. It’s nuts and bolts theater and we don’t have to avoid anything. There are a lot of projections and the lighting is gorgeous and it adds to the story. Ollé kept it simple because we use one set throughout the whole show. In the center, we have a platform that rises and lowers and it’s a central part of the drama and that switches from scene to scene. I forget the technology is even there. It’s a seamless staging where he immerses you into the experience.

OW: What is your approach when you sing music from living composers versus classical composers no longer living?

SH: I’ve done a number of world premieres and every single one I have done has been a positive experience. To create something you rehearse it differently and the audience takes it in differently and it’s critiqued differently. The great thing about working on a new opera is that if you have a line that you don’t feel particularly comfortable with you can change it.

And meanwhile, when you sing a classic repertoire staple, they have been done so often that people have a specific way that they want to hear it. So if it falls short of that expectation then the audience is left disappointed. A lot of criticism of the traditional repertoire comes from the element of comparison.

I think that unfortunately it is the responsibility of journalists to press the reset button whenever you see a show and treat it like it’s the first time. So when you do a classic piece you almost want to try and do something against the work because everything has been done. You want a fresh approach and an updated version but you still want to tell the story. And so sometimes you feel like you’re going against the grain and swimming up against the shore when you try to do something fresh and new with a traditional piece.

But with new works, you don’t have that problem. And that is why I love creating new works.

OW: Do you have a preference for new works or traditional works?

SH: It’s interesting because it was eight or nine years ago that I told my agent that I preferred doing new works. There was a season somewhere in there where five of the productions were all late 20th century and I really loved it.

But by the end of it, I told him, I could really do with a “Don Carlo.”  And then I started missing the “Tosca’s” and the “Madama Butterflies” and “Rigoletto’s.” And then I had a season where I had six productions of Verdi and Puccini and it was great. But I also started missing the world premieres. So I think honestly I love both. And I would love to have a calendar with both contemporary works and the traditional works.

This season has been perfect for me because I have done “Tosca,” “Rigoletto, “La Gioconda,” “Frankenstein” and then I get to do a second world premiere with “M.”

OW: You’ll also be doing “M” based on the Fritz Lang film. How did you get involved with that work and what can you say about the opera?

SH: I worked with Barrie Kosky in 2014 in Opernhaus Zurich and he pulled me aside one day and he told me they were doing a world premiere at the Komische Oper in a few years and he wanted me to do it. He told me that it was a dark character and a murderer and that I’d be perfect for it. So that was the first conversation and I said, “Great, let’s do it.” I am very happy with the music and the score is great. I didn’t have any contact with the composer but he nailed it. It’s really well-written and I am very pleased with it.

OW: By the end of the season, you’ll have played Barnaba, M, Frankenstein, Scarpia, and Rigoletto. These characters are all dark and, in some cases, villains and assassins. How do you portray these characters that are so different from you?

SH: It’s emotionally and mentally draining. It’s very difficult but fortunately, I’ve had the ability to work with some amazing directors that have allowed me to explore and relax when I need to.

I think the darkest I ever went was doing a world premiere of “Richard the Third” back in 2005. I never experienced anything like it. Richard is a monster and I remember that on opening night I felt like a monster and awful. I was in character and I slipped into the mindset that was frightening and thrilling. It was an experience of learning one’s inner mind struggles with life and perceptions of many different things.

And doing that is something I really enjoy and you learn a bit about yourself and why these pieces and characters were written. You have to push yourself and they are complex people and that is a lot of work.

OW: You’ve interpreted so many rich characters, both in the traditional repertoire and in modern works. Is there one character or role that you would love to do?

SH: There are two: Alberich in “The Ring Cycle” and Wozzeck. I love the music and the characters and I would love to explore those guys. Of course, I want to continue to do new creations but in the standard repertoire those are the two character I really want to do.


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