Alice Baker, American mezzosoprano and
great interpreter in recent years
A voice of a thousand colors
Alice Baker is one of the most interesting mezzosopranos in the musical
panorama of this last part of the century. Her credits are without a doubt
impressive considering her youth and rich collaborations with very notable
colleagues. She debuted in the opera world in 1986 singing the role of Emilia
in the opera
by Verdi in Los Angeles, flanked by Plācido Domingo. She made her first
appearance ever in Italy with Josč Carreras at Teatro dell' Opera di Roma in
the role of
Numerous have been her Rossini vehicles, among them Angelina in
at Gran Theāter del Liceu in Barcelona, and Rosina in
Il barbiere di Siviglia
for the Frankfurt Opera. In October/November 1997, Miss Baker returned to
the Italian stage with performances of
in the role of the Old Lady for Teatro Regio di Torino, and will open the
season at Maribor in Slovenia with
, and role she will also sing in other houses in that country, and in Tokyo.
She recently made a special guest appearance for the closing concert of the New
Opera Festival of Rome, and in the coming months will appear in a live concert
for the Italian RAI along with the great Falstaff of our century, Giuseppe
Taddei, and colleagues Fiorenza Cossotto and Janet Perry. In fact, her concert
activity is one of her strong points: Alice Baker has passed with great
Des Knaben Wunderhorn
of Mahler to the
of Beethoven, to the
of Wagner, to Mozart's
Grand Mass in C Minor
The Fairy Queen
She has worked with conductors of the callibre of Carlo Maria Giulini, Giuseppe
Patanč, Sir Neville Marriner, John Nelson, Peter Maag, Sir Alexander Gibson,
Erich Leinsdorf, and Jesus Lopez-Cobos.
She has collaborated professionally with numerous directors, among them Peter
Sellars, Alberto Fassini, Beppe de Tommaso, Silvia Cassini, Luciano Pavarotti,
Pier Luigi Pizzi,and Luca Ronconi.
We met with her in the garden of her home in Rome, on a lovely sunny August
OK, Miss Baker. We know your work does not allow you too much free time, so
right off from the start, thank you for the opportunity. Apropos of the
engagements you have sung in the last couple of years, could you tell us about
one of the more interesting ones?
About a year ago I sang a production of
in Vancouver that ended up being a very interesting experience. Out of the
OK, then, let's talk about that. What is in general, your approach to
Well, I guess you would call me a singing actress, in that, not only do I try
to do absolute justice to the musical values in the score, but I also try to
bring the theatre element to life and give it equal priority. When preparing
a role, even if it is one I have sung before, I try to look for every possible
angle I can find. I research, read, meet with people, study, learn special
skills that might be required----whatever it takes to
the person on stage. So the role of Suzuki then, is an ideal example---to
interpret her, I try to become
her---who she is, her relationship to Butterfly, get into her mind. She is
like a sister to Butterfly, they are childhood friends, they've known each
other since they were little girls, as you see in the original Belasco play.
There is this palpable closeness between them that has taken years to evolve,
so just a look or a glance between them says a thousand words. I try to
capture that feeling, this rapport they have with one another, looking for this
same affinity with whomever may be my current Butterfly; then having found it,
it carries clear out into the house because there is truth in the expression.
The audience can feel it and so can the artists. It is this quality that makes
the performance live and become real in that moment, because there is this
between them. I try to identify with her as deeply as possible. This carries
forward obviously with Carmen, Amneris, Azucena, Preziosilla, everything. I
guess it is more in the way you approach the role, to identify to the point
Then, when it is there, it is true, and is completely natural and honest. It
becomes very simple and clear.
How important then, is the work of the director in relation to the interpreter?
The rapport one has with the director is extremely important. I've been
exceedingly lucky to work with some of the greatest directors in the field
today, who have pulled wonderful things out of me, and am often able to throw
in ideas of my own that help define and develop the character. Obviously this
work requires at its very basis a great collaborative spirit, and a lot of
experimentation goes on, so it's exciting to combine ideas and develop things
in this way. Then of course, there's the music. The foundation of everything,
---which logistically, in performances on stage, requires coordination in the
pit with the conductor, another artistic collaboration which is simultaneously
going on. Usually we all work together from day one, with musical readings
first, then into staging rehearsals, with the conductor present throughout.
That's great because in this work which takes place in a room before
progressing to the stage, the conductor is there too, close, as close as the
director, a very intimate way of working, so one can see all the nuances of
the phrasing, changes of tempi, etc., all perfected and integrated at the same
time as the staging is developing. You kind of have to compartmentalize your
brain a lot with this type of work---with this dual emphasis on both music and
theatre. It's fascinating and challenging. I love it.
Do you work better with opera directors or with directors with a film or
I really think it's more a question of communicative ability and empathy.
I've worked with directors from different backgrounds with equal success---what
matters is "buon volontā", and given that in any production, people converge
from all parts of the globe, bringing different culturals, languages, ideas,
thoughts, hopes, and dreams; it all still works because the language of theatre
and music is somehow universal, and functions regardless of the differences.
In fact, maybe that's the clue, the
differences make it more interesting.
How did you find working with Luciano Pavarotti?
Well, let's just say that when I walked into the rehearsal room for the first
read, I was scared stiff. When I walked out after that first rehearsal, I was
thinking, my God, he's just
great to work with. I mean, hear is this legend, and whenever he works, he
has a choice. He can impose his fame on a young singer, or he can be who he
is---one of the great artists of our century, yet support and inspire. And
that's what he's like. He is accessible, real, natural, simple, which just
makes him all the greater. I have had equally marvelous experiences working
with Domingo, Carreras, and Shirley Verrett, to name just a few. There's a
reason why these people are such great artists, and it has to do a lot with
what kind of human beings they are together with their art. That's a very big
part of it. So I've been extremely lucky and have learned so much by virture
of their generosity.
And of Peter Sellars, what do you think?
fantastic, an endless flow of ideas. I worked
with him in a production of
at Lyric Opera of Chicago while an apprentice there. I was one of the "three
little maids", and we all learned to ride skateboards for the production. We
came out of an elevator singing "three little maids from school are we" with
these ghetto blasters resting on our shoulders, riding around on our
skateboards, around this big board-. room table of a major corporation in
Tokyo, e.g. the set. The audience had these little white paper covers on
their seat backs like they do on airplanes, as if they were seated on a 747
headed for Japan. Things like that, really fun. So here was this production,
obviously updated and highly original, as is his trademark. In spite of the
fact that he set it this way and it breaks all the traditonal concepts of
Gilbert and Sullivan, to me this is what theatre is all about, and should
very much be this way in opera---and I don't mean necessarily that one has to
update productions to make them fresh, but refer rather to the wealth of
creative ideas he brings to his work, and actually his concept of the piece
remains for me at least, the definitive version of the work.
What roles do you most like to interpret?
Well, I have a voice which allows me to sing a fairly wide range of repertoire
as it has size and compass, yet retains flexibility. So to answer your
question, I guess there really is no one simple answer, no particular role or
roles. I sing both leading and secondary roles and it doesn't matter a bit if
it is a so called starring role or a little role. All that matters is that it
role and that I can find an affinity with the character. That it says
something. I think
maybe I am what is refered to in the acting world as a character lead---there
is a certain amount of facility, and quite frankly, I look upon this as an
advantage. It makes for freedom artistically, so many possibilities. I hope
that makes sense. I mean, I am equally happy with
as I am with
, as I am with say,
. Or for example, look at the roles in Handel operas. In any given opera
there might be three or four roles I could take on with equal facility. Like
, for example. Since women in opera sing "trouser roles", I sing the title
role, but I also can sing Sesto, who is the son of Cornelia, the widow of
Pompeii, or as it happened most recently in Edmonton, can sing Cornelia, to
Derek Lee Ragin's
They are all great roles.
Apropos of Rossini, do you prefer to sing from critical edition scores, or do
you like instead to follow the current trends of fioratura as evidenced by
your own colleagues?
Critical editions. Maybe because I prefer to try to get to the
essence of what the composer intended, to do justice to his work. When I sang
L'Italiana in Algeri
at the Opera in Rome, the critical edition of the opera had just come out, the
one by Bruno Cagli, and that's the one we used. It was a revelation. I had
arrived with a score from the States, and it was sadly lacking in elegance and
refinement, and of course, in places where there is some doubt as what Rossini
actually wrote, Cagli knew how to find the closest best guess ---his real
intentions. Then there are of course the copius notes and his wealth of
knowledge on the subject that he included in the edition, so there's just no
comparison. Like night and day.
So there's no real preference regarding the roles. Has there ever been a
composer whose work terrified you to learn, or at least, presented interpretive
difficulties for Alice Baker?
No, in general I don't think so, not problems of interpretation, even if at the
very beginning of my career I found myself often in the position of having
assignments given me----and with a certain apprehension on my part----on very
short notice. In St. Louis for example, I was invited to come and take over
for a countertenor who suddenly pulled out, so there I was, learning Ruggiero
nine arias on either side of recitatives, and all the da capi with all the
ornamentation to write, in only ten days before going into production. That
is what I now refer to as a
mission. Oh, and no prompter in St. Louis, so there's nobody going to save
you if you drop a line---and in a recitativo that can be deadly. About an
hour and a half of non-stop singing to get through the role from start to
finish, then of course, everything else inbetween to know the work---any given
opera is about 350 pages of music. My mother and father have a farm in
Michigan, and I went there before going to St. Louis. There is a lane which
runs the length of the property---it takes 20 minutes to walk the length of the
lane, and I did nothing
but walk back and forth on that lane for those ten days with my headphones on,
to get that opera in my head. It was a really tough rehearsal period, the
rest of the cast having been engaged long before and all extemely well
prepared, as I would have wanted to be, and of the highest possible callibre,
the best young singers in America. So I was really under the gun the whole
time. I'd come back from staging rehearsals so
run the tub, get in, turn on the tape and unwind while still studying,
getting everything memorzied so I could affront the next day. It all came out
just fine in the end, and that's due not only to the monumental amount of
compressed work for me that was involved, but really, because of all the help
and support I got from a great conductor and director, namely John Nelson and
Stephen Wadsworth. They coddled
me through it!
Or my debut in Rome; actually it was my European
debut. I was rehearsing for
L'Italiana in Algeri
which was to be the actual debut, and I got a call from Michele Corradi, who
was at that time the artistic director of the Theatre, at nine in the morning
(I was still in bed), asking if I would sing
that evening with Carreras. Well I did, and it went well and it
me, but let's just say that in general, I would never recommend this method.
I believe in calculated risk, but let's not exagerate. So to finally get back
to your question,
is the kind of thing I find really frightening. You are so young. Anyone who
strives to have a career must obviously make sacrifices,
take intelligent risks.
Do you feel like offering any advice to singers just starting out?
Thanks for asking.
I am of the opinion that you have to have a profound passion for this work.
You have to eat, sleep, breathe, dream it, and then some. It's
necessary to arrive at and maintain the level of artistry
. You change
hats a lot, have to be flexible, open, and willing to do whatever it takes to
get there. You have to protect and
maintain the instrument---you're a vocal athelete. You need good health, you
have to take care of yourself. Otherwise it shows up in the voice and in the
quality of your work. It's hard on friends and family because you
to be normal, but you can never really be
. You're traveling all the time, sometimes when they need
or want you to be around. You keep different hours than most folks. You kind
of slip through the cracks as far as day to day life is organized for most
people, especially on bea
urocratic sorts of things.
So in a way, it puts a burden on the people around you . They have to put up
with you. But the rewards and satisfaction, the sheer joy of it, and the
knowledge that you are creating something very rare and special and offering
it up to the people who see and hear you make it no sacrifice at all.
For some critics, especially our Italian critics, being too young is dangerous
for singers attempting certain roles. What do you think?
In principle, I agree, because here we are talking about vocal maturity and
vocal resources, even though a very young singer might be perfectly capable of
negotiating the dramatic demands of a given role at the outset of his or her
career, it might present problems of vocal health in the long run---what I mean
is, even though you might be able to get through the score and sing the part,
can you do it every day in a row, could you do it for years on end, can you
still do it when you have the flu, can you do it six hours a day, six days a
week while in production, and still have something left over for the
performances? And then, what kind of shape are you going to be in after the
production closes and you move on to the next city, the next climate, and the
next production? I have seen a lot of three and five year careers. It
depends on the development and
of the voice, not just the ability to get through the role. Everyone is
different and matures at an individual rate. A light lyric soprano, for
instance, might be vocally mature at only 25 years. Heavier voices can take
much longer. I'm sure you know all that. I am for example, just now
learning Azucena, a role I have dreamed of singing for as long as I can
remember, but have waited until now. It will be, I think, about as far into
the dramatic repertoire I can safely go, I must sing her with great
intelligence and always lyrically, musically. But I think I will find a way to
do justice to the role and leave my own mark. Singing is very mental---it's
a lot about how and what you do with the resources you have. Look at Domingo
and his approach to
and how he has taken this role and made it his own. When he first sang it, I
think people were not really sure about his ability to tackle the role without
damaging himself. He sings with such intelligence. Maria Ewing has done the
same thing with Salomč. I happened to be singing another production in
repertory at the Opera in Los Angeles at the time she sang the role for the
very first time, so of course saw it, then I saw her sing it again a few
months ago, in the same production by the way, the Peter Hall production, in
the new opera house in Detroit. It was marvelous to see how she has grown in
the role and assumed so many more dimensions, and this in a span of about 10
years. Whatever the role, I remain convinced the voice must always be cared
for and used with care, never ever forced. Otherwise you run the risk of
damaging the instrument, and what good is that? Singers need to remember they
are athletes, albeit vocal athletes, and take care and train themselves like
Is there for you, a challenge to meet at every cost?
Yes. To be the best, artistically, and more important,
as a human being in this world. I'd like to see the opera world arrive at a
continually higher level visually---on a paar with film and theatre. I
think it's time we really did something about the situation of people starving
to death, or dying of diseases that we really could handle, or of people
not having a roof over their heads: with all the money and brains and talent
in this world, why are we still having these problems? I know we can do better
A basic education. If I ever arrive at any sort of power to effect change, I
will aim there.
I know that's a big order...but there's still an awful lot of room for
I'd like to get rid of the stereotypical stuff that sometimes makes opera
silly and dated---get to the truth---
and fully respect the wishes and intentions of the composer. Some projects
adapt well to changing the time and setting, but others don't. I really object
when directors who don't speak the langauge of the libretto fluently, or didn't
do their homework ask singers to enact scenes which have absolutely no relation
to the text which they are singing at that moment. If you're smart and good at
what you do, you can find a way to do it and still remain "fedele" to the text.
Same goes with the music.
A lot of opera today looks like the silent movies of
the first decade of the century---it must be great theatre and great music or
it will never work, otherwise it weakens the whole structure instead of making
it stronger, it's distracting, and takes away from the greatness of the art
form. I'd like to see arias, for instance on MTV, like music videos. With
the right director and production values they'd be just fantastic. I'd like to
see more well-made films of opera, produced realistically...I could go on and
Copyright Š 1997- 2003 Gabriele Vitella. All Rights Reserved.