Q&A: Brian Mulligan On His Debut Solo Album And Collaborating In The Studio

By Francisco Salazar

American baritone Brian Mulligan has become sought out by the world’s leading opera houses and orchestras, singing a unique variety of repertoire from works by Argento, Meyerbeer, Puccini, Spears, Verdi and Wagner.

Throughout the past few years, Mulligan has appeared at the San Francisco Opera, Wiener Staatsoper, the Metropolitan Opera, Opernhaus Zürich, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera and Oper Frankfurt among other theaters.

He has also collaborated some of the world’s greatest conductors and artists including Plácido Domingo, James Levine, Nicola Luisotti, Yannick Nézet- Séguin, Seiji Ozawa, and Robert Spano.

Mulligan recently released his debut album for Naxos which includes two monumental song cycles by Dominick Argento, “The Andrée Expedition,” and “From the Diary of Virginia Woolf” with pianist Timothy Long. OperaWire had a chance to speak with Mulligan about the album and his experience in the studio.

OperaWire: Let’s talk a little about the new album. Where did the idea come from? 

Brian Mulligan: The idea came from me! I have been working on “The Andrée Expedition” for years now, and it’s always been a dream to record it. It’s one of the great American song cycles written for baritone, and it’s an immense, daunting challenge. I’ve known “From the Diary of Virginia Woolf” for a long time, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I began singing it myself. The Woolf was written for a mezzo-soprano, the goddess, Janet Baker, so I had never thought to try singing it. But through my work on Andrée, I realized I could also sing the Woolf, and without any transpositions. This album was an opportunity for me to sing gorgeous, special music that I feel passionately about, and also present it in a way that’s never been done before. To my knowledge, this is the first time a man has recorded the Woolf.
OW: What did you want to bring to audiences with the recordings?
BM: Honestly, I just want people to enjoy this music. I think Dominick Argento has created some of the most compelling and beautiful art songs of the 20th Century, and I’d like more people to love his music as much as I do.
OW: What can audiences discover from this album?
BM: The genius of Dominick Argento. With these two song cycles, in particular, one can experience some of his most powerful music. Dominick describes these cycles as “monodramas.” They are art songs, meant to be sung beautifully, but with the edge of a dramatic recitation almost. Something a little beyond the traditional song cycle, and uniquely American.
OW: What was the experience of working in a studio? What did you learn from it?
BM: I was incredibly fortunate to work with the Grammy Award-winning producer Adam Abeshouse for the Argento album. He is a uniquely talented man, a true mensch, and from the start, he offered kindness, guidance and real support. The entire experience of recording this album was wonderful and I have Adam to thank for that. I learned a lot during the process, but the greatest take away was this: Make your own artistic dreams come true yourself. With patience and determined, hard work, you really do have the power to make anything happen.
OW: What was it like to work with Timothy Long
BM: I’ve known Tim for a long time, we first met at the Aspen Music Festival in 1999. He is an impossibly musical pianist, so sensitive and thoughtful, but he’s got incredible chops too, he can play anything! Tim also happens to be one of my very favorite people in the world.  We had a ball rehearsing and recording this album, it was just a joy. We literally spent entire days together working at his home in Brooklyn. It was a truly happy time and a memory that I will always cherish.
OW: How did you discover the work of Dominick Argento? 
BM: I first encountered Argento as a freshman at Eastman.  All undergraduate singers take Chorale, and on my first day of college, we started with “I Hate and I Love” by Dominick Argento. I had never listened to or worked on “modern” music like that before, but it was love at first sight. For the rest of that year, I listened to Argento every chance I got and learned everything I could about the man and his works. Since then, I’ve slowly learned much of his song repertoire, and even some of his choral works too. I simply love his music.
OW: What is your favorite song on the entire album? 
BM: Parents (December, 1940)  – From the Diary of Virginia Woolf (Track 20). It’s just such a beautiful song, and Virginia’s words are so heartbreaking.
OW: How does song repertoire differ from singing opera and did you have to adapt your voice to these songs? 
BM: I sing with the same technique, always. However, I do strive to adapt as a musician to anything I am currently singing. Different characters, different languages, different musical styles…every piece of music requires it’s own subtleties to make it truly sing, but my vocal technique always stays the same.
OW: Would you want to do another recording and what other music would you want to explore? 
BM: Actually, I’ve already recorded my next album! It consists entirely of American songs from the early 20th century, many of which were popular on the radio through the 1950’s. This album was inspired by the fantastic American baritones John Charles Thomas, Nelson Eddy and Lawrence Tibbett. They’re magnificent songs from a fantastic musical era of America, but many of them have been forgotten. I was unbelievably fortunate to record them with my friend, the brilliant Craig Rutenberg, and boy, did we have a blast. We’re still in the midst of editing the album now, but from what I’ve heard, it’s going to be good!

OW: What do you like about performing song cycles? What do you get out of them and what do you learn musically?

BM: In opera or symphonic performances, you’re collaborating with many, many people to create an immense musical experience. With art song, there are just two people collaborating: the singer and the pianist. There is something so special about distilling a collaboration down to just two people. You both have the opportunity to explore every musical instinct, to create music in which every single moment is truly your own. I love collaborating with an entire opera company or a humungous orchestra, but every now and then it’s wonderful to collaborate with just one other artist. When I work on art song, I am reminded of my own musicality and that’s priceless.


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