Interview with Alice Baker
Interviews..... ...with... ... Alice......Baker...


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 Otello 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 Carmen .

Numerous have been her Rossini vehicles, among them Angelina in La Cenerentola 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 Candide in the role of the Old Lady for Teatro Regio di Torino, and will open the season at Maribor in Slovenia with Carmen , 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 broadcast of Falstaff 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 facility from Des Knaben Wunderhorn of Mahler to the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven, to the Wesendonk Lieder of Wagner, to Mozart's Grand Mass in C Minor , to The Fairy Queen of Purcell.

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 afternoon.....

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 Madama Butterfly in Vancouver that ended up being a very interesting experience. Out of the ordinary

OK, then, let's talk about that. What is in general, your approach to characterization?
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 become 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 feeling 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 of becoming. 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, the reason d'etre ---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 theatre background?

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?

Peter is fantastic, an endless flow of ideas. I worked with him in a production of The Mikado 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 is a good 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 Carmen as I am with Suzuki , as I am with say, Cenerentola . 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 in Giulio Cesare , 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 Ceasare. They are all great roles.

Peter Sellar's production of THE MIKADO 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 in Alcina-- 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 KAMAKAZI 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 zonked, 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 Carmen that evening with Carreras. Well I did, and it went well and it launched 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, this 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?
Yes. 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 may wish to be normal, but you can never really be normal . 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 resistenza 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 Otello 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 athletes do.

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 than this. 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 improvement. Regarding opera, 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 on.....

Copyright Š 1997- 2003 Gabriele Vitella. All Rights Reserved.

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