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Forging a Distinctive Niche in New Opera
by Susan Dormady Eisenberg
Orth as Mayor Fazzobaldi and Angela ManninoIf you had to name a singer who has spent the better part of his career performing new American opera, Robert Orth would likely top your list. From his 1977 debut as John Buchanan, Jr., in Lee Hoiby’s Summer and Smoke at Chicago Opera Theater to his 2011 tour de force as the wily, corrupt Mayor Fazzobaldi in John Musto’s The Inspector at Wolf Trap, the baritone has forged a distinctive niche plumbing the hearts and psyches of new characters.
as Agrippa in John Musto’s The Inspector
at Wolf Trap, 2011
And if you could see and hear this singer, still in his prime after 37 years in the business, you’d probably feel as dazzled as I was at The Inspector’s world premiere. Orth ruled the stage with high-wattage magnetism, perfect diction, and elegant singing, all produced with effortless charm. To quote Anne Midgette in the Washington Post, “The stereotype of the greedy local potentate with delusions of grandeur is a comedic standby, and the veteran Orth was able to mine it with just the right tone and a great deal of enjoyment.”
Or, to put it another way, he stole the show!
In September Orth added still another debut role to his growing catalog, Sir Anthony Absolute in Kirke Mechem’s The Rivals, at Milwaukee’s Skylight Opera Theater—and a big 2013 premiere is shaping up at Opera Theater of St. Louis (details to come). Yet it’s not surprising, given his palette of vocal and dramatic colors, that Orth also shines in the standard repertoire, employing his bright lyric voice and skilled acting to portray such diverse personalities as Don Alfonso, Dr. Malatesta, Dr. Pangloss/Voltaire, Sharpless, Germont, and Eisenstein.
One colleague who has observed Orth for nearly 30 years and values his artistry is Canadian coloratura Tracy Dahl. The two met in the 1980s when they sang Orpheus in the Underworld in Dallas, Houston, and Los Angeles. That was Dahl’s first professional engagement (these days she teaches voice at the University of Manitoba while continuing to perform), and because she admires Orth and they’ve often landed in the same cities, the two singers became enduring friends.
“He’s extremely good at comedy,” Dahl remarks during a recent phone chat. “And the thing about comedy is that some people seem destined to sing comic operas—coloraturas, high baritones—but it can get cloying. Yet Bob is never shticky, and because of his nature he brings as much honesty to comedy as to his dramatic roles. Frankly, he’s the best Figaro in ‘Barber’ that I’ve ever seen.” She pauses to laugh. “The man is fearless. He knows what he can and cannot do—and if he can put the splits in a performance, he will. And look at the number of new works he’s done! I think one of the reasons he’s so successful is that he’s interested in furthering the art form.”
I had the pleasure of meeting the protean Robert Orth last April when he was rehearsing at Wolf Trap, his reunion with the company where he apprenticed during three life-changing summers in 1975, 1976, and 1979. He’s a tall, handsome man with an easy laugh, and having weathered nearly four decades in opera, he takes its demands and vagaries in stride.
Over a seafood lunch in McLean, Va., I ask whether he holds the record for American opera debuts, and he cheerfully replies, “No! Look at any singer’s bio nowadays and they’ve all done a lot of premieres. But years ago when I redid my bio, I basically took out most of the traditional stuff and put in all the new operas, and maybe that made casting people think of me more. Frankly, it’s what I wanted—the works of Jake Heggie, John Adams, Daron Hagen, and Ricky Ian Gordon. It’s what I was proud of! I love being part of the creative process, even doing a small role such as Owen Hart in Dead Man Walking [San Francisco Opera, 2000]. That was one of the most gratifying parts I’ve ever done because the character changes so much.”
Reviewing his performance in the San Francisco Chronicle, Joshua Kosman wrote, “Robert Orth was the picture of righteous anger as the father of one of the victims, heading a fine ensemble.” It’s the role that launched Orth’s relationship with Jake Heggie, whose music he adores. “Jake has written me some terrific stuff,” Orth remarks. “He knows my strengths and limitations, so the music suits my voice well.”
Heggie is eager to return the compliment. In an e-mail he writes, “The first time I heard Bob sing—Harvey Milk at San Francisco Opera in 1996—I was knocked out by his almost unbelievable range as a singing actor. Nothing seemed to be beyond him. He has laughingly described himself as ‘half man, half tenor,’ but what I heard was a great artist through and through. I understood every word, every dramatic turn; the vocal range was huge and even, and there were no empty gestures. Everything meant something and everything was in service to the story. I was deeply impressed by his performance and completely hooked.
“When I was given the commission to compose Dead Man Walking just two years later, I knew for sure I wanted Bob to be a member of the cast . . . I’ve since composed three roles for him: Owen Hart, Parkis the detective in The End of the Affair [Houston Grand Opera, 2004], and Stubb in Moby-Dick [Dallas Opera, 2010].
“What do I love about writing for him? I know that he’ll find everything I have put into the role and parts that I didn’t know about. He will dig deep—and quite organically—to create a flesh-and-blood character that leaps off the page and into the imaginations of the audience. He will make the story more vital and raise the bar very, very high for the rest of the cast. He will make the character seem real and knowable. . . . He has inspired me again and again.”
In light of such glowing praise and Orth’s track record, it’s all the more amazing to learn that the baritone, a Chicago native, didn’t set out to sing opera. Fresh from earning a B.M.E. in music education at Wheaton College in Illinois, he launched a teaching career in the late 1960s and married his wife, Jane, a piano teacher who also became a conductor and director of multiple church choirs. The couple settled in suburban Illinois and were blessed with two “creative” sons: Zak, now an actor, and Josh, who’s a writer and marketeer.
In the early 70s, Orth worked as a teacher from September through May, then spent his vacations in summer stock singing baritone leads from Billy Bigelow to El Gallo all over the Midwest. “I love musicals,” he says, “especially the older ones written for trained singers.” But his college voice teacher and mentor, Harriet Marty, noticed his classical potential and encouraged him to apply for opera apprenticeships. Orth followed her advice and was surprised to find himself singing Hortensio with Anna Moffo in The Taming of the Shrew (his young sons were supernumeraries) and Baron Douphol opposite Beverly Sills’ Violetta in La traviata during two Wolf Trap summers.
“Beverly and I talked during rehearsals, but we weren’t close friends,” he comments. “I mean, she was the star and I was an apprentice. Yet whenever I ran into her in the future—she hired me a number of times at City Opera—she always remembered me and she’d always say, ‘Wasn’t that an incredible cast that we had for ‘Traviata’?’ Then about a year before she died, I heard her on the radio and sent her a little card, and she wrote back and said, ‘Oh thank you. You don’t know how good that made me feel. We really did have a little golden age of our own back then at City Opera with some wonderful people.’”
Orth’s return to Virginia, this time playing the baritone lead, reminded him of his early ambivalence about singing for a living. “One of the great things about getting older is that you know what you’ve got,” Orth muses. “Back then, 36 years ago when I came to Wolf Trap, I really didn’t know what I wanted or even what was possible. So to come back to a place like this which was so important to my getting started, well, it’s wonderful. It was coming here as an apprentice that first made me think I could go somewhere else. For instance, San Francisco Opera saw me here and offered me an eight- or nine-month touring contract with Western Opera. I thought, ‘I can’t do that. I’m teaching school.’ He felt grateful when his wife suggested he take a leave of absence and try performing full time—a brave idea considering the financial risks involved for his young family.
Once off the fence, Orth quickly earned his chops as a classical baritone. He went on to sing principal roles at all the top U.S. companies, often returning to Chicago Opera Theater (founded as Chicago Opera Studio) where he’d made his professional debut in Così fan tutte in April 1974. “Alan Stone started the company,” he explains, “and Alan found letters Mozart had written that said, ‘If you translate my operas, don’t bother to sing the recitative. Just speak it in the native language.’ So we did spoken recitative, and to me it seemed like a musical. You spoke sometimes and then you burst into song, and it was very unintimidating that way.
“In fact, when I started in regional companies, we did everything in English which, frankly, I love still when I do new operas. There’s nothing like having an audience understand exactly what you’re saying as you’re singing it. Baritones always have patter songs, whether it’s the Queen Mab aria in Romeo and Juliet or ‘Largo al factotum’ in ‘Barber.’ It feels totally different to sing it while an audience is looking over your head and reading your lines rather than when they’re looking at you and being thrilled that they understand the text, sung at a lightning pace.”
Chicago Opera Theater offered the baritone one of his breakthrough roles in Summer and Smoke during 1977 and 1980, and PBS televised the latter production. It was there that he also played Frank Lloyd Wright in Shining Brow, a new opera by Daron Hagen, in 1997. He returned to COT in 2006 to sing Nixon in the Midwestern premiere of John Adams’ Nixon in China, now a signature role that Orth introduced at Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 2004. Since then he has sung Nixon in Portland, Cincinnati, Denver, Vancouver, and Toronto—several times opposite the Madame Mao of Dahl—and he’ll do a concert version conducted by the composer at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 2012. He and Dahl also recorded Nixon in China on the Naxos label during the 2008 Opera Colorado production.
“It’s easier to play historical figures like Nixon or Frank Lloyd Wright,” he says, “because you have so much information about the person. I remember getting a call from David Gockley in Houston who said he was doing an opera about Harvey Milk and about the power of one. That was interesting because our director, Christopher Alden, said he didn’t necessarily want to me to act like Harvey or look like Harvey.” Orth premiered Harvey Milk by Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie at both Houston Grand Opera and New York City Opera in 1995 and San Francisco Opera in 1996, the production that brought him to Jake Heggie’s attention.
When I ask Dahl to describe the special traits Orth offers to his cast mates, she’s happy to weigh in. “Bob has integrity. Bob is always Bob. There is no pretense, and it’s so refreshing. He was a teacher, and we often talk about the first rehearsal as ‘the first day of school’ when you meet everyone and wonder if you’ll get along. Half the singers bring out their—well, these days it’s their iPhones—and they’ll take a call from their manager and tell you where they’re going next. But Bob is interested in you as a human being and he’s interested in the world. He doesn’t let himself be isolated by music. He loves to bring the world into rehearsal and that can be useful, especially for [operas like ‘Nixon’ or Harvey Milk].”
Another role Orth was proud to debut was Uncle John Joad in Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie’s The Grapes of Wrath. “It’s a great new opera,” Orth declares, “and I loved doing it.” He performed the premiere at Minnesota Opera in 2007 and sang Uncle John again at Pittsburgh Opera in 2008. “There’s a huge advantage to working directly with composers,” he adds. “They tell you what they want. They change notes; they change the words. They’ll say, ‘Don’t sing this on the low D, or take the D up an octave.’ This happens all the time. There was also a time when a composer told me, ‘Nothing will be changed,’ but then a lot was changed. It’s hard for them to make cuts, but sometimes the music in question is not helping the story, and with so many new operas you’ll hear, ‘It’s out.’ Or they hand me something new just a few days before the show, which is exciting. I’m constantly looking at composers and librettists thinking, ‘This came out of your head!’ and I’m full of awe.”
He also feels passionate about the commitment of singers whom he meets in his travels. “Everywhere I go there are fantastic people doing principal and supporting roles at regional companies. They live in this or that town, and they’re housewives or office workers—I’ve even sung with a car mechanic. And I often tell such colleagues, ‘You may not get what you think you want—a big international career—but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be really, really good. The fact that you’re not traveling all over earning buckets of money from singing alone doesn’t mean you’re not a success in your profession.’ And sometimes they find out they wouldn’t like the life—being away from their wife and children.”
Orth admits that his own nonstop schedule has often kept him away from home for many months each year. “My wife didn’t marry an opera singer, but she’s been incredibly supportive and she loves what I do. She feels she has had a more interesting life for being married to me—she’s gone to different places and met interesting people. Yet it’s cost her something. Nothing comes free.” But he declares that “having children is the most important thing I’ve ever done,” and he’s thrilled to be a grandfather as well.
Reflecting on his 37 years in the opera business, he says, “If I’ve done anything right in my life, I’ve taken the opportunities I’ve been given. You take some jobs because it’s a lot of money, or you take some jobs because you have a big role. But there’s no way of knowing whether it will turn out to be good. My idea is ‘Just do it and do your best.’” Over time, of course, he’s noticed some changes in the industry, such as the introduction of supertitles, which he views as extremely positive for the most part. He also admits that because of the volatile U.S. economy, opera companies are waiting longer to firm up “holds” placed on artists, which means that when productions fall through, many singers face unforeseen gaps in their schedules.
“Another thing that’s different,” he adds, “is that when I started out, somebody from Chicago Lyric and someone from Chicago Symphony recommended I go to Europe to build my career. Do people recommend that anymore? I don’t think so, but back then you were supposed to go; it was the model. I understood why because that’s where opera was invented. But I had a wife and children and I heard stories from friends who did it—and they told me how little they were paid and how they had to argue with intendants about roles [because of the Fach system]. So I feel really lucky to have moved forward without singing in Europe.”
As this article goes to press, Orth is finishing a run in Dominick Argento’s A Water Bird Talk, a one-person, one-act opera, at Indianapolis Opera and is also preparing for the San Diego Opera premiere of Moby-Dick in February 2012. He looks forward to revisiting the “monumental libretto of Gene Scheer which ideally complements Jake Heggie’s brilliant score,” which he will also reprise at San Francisco Opera next September. Yet wherever he works, Orth likes to reflect on an aspect of singing that Dahl mentions above and that he deeply values: collegiality. “The worst thing I noticed as an apprentice is that some people treat opera as a competition, but what’s really important is that you’re all working together. Along the way you find out that it’s great to be in a show with people who are so much better than you are, because they lift you up.”
Though opera remains his primary focus, Orth keenly hopes that one day he’ll be cast as Hajj the Beggar in Kismet, a musical he did at Wolf Trap. In the meantime, his upcoming season includes The Lighthouse at Dallas Opera and Candide at Portland Opera. “I love performing,” he tells me. “You don’t have to have a big role or the title role. I’ve played romantic roles and leading roles and also smaller stuff. It’s a nice balance.” He smiles. “It clearly wasn’t in the cards for me to be a Pavarotti or a Domingo. Everyone wants to perpetuate the myth that we make a choice to be a star. But actually we don’t choose. We just work.”
It’s obvious why a generous, down-to-earth artist like Robert Orth might inspire newcomers. One such colleague is soprano Angela Mannino, who was a 2011 Filene Young Artist at Wolf Trap Opera and who played Agrippa, the blond bombshell director of education, in Wolf Trap’s April production of The Inspector.
“Bob is warm and friendly,” Mannino explains in an e-mail. “My experience working with him was in a comedy, and since he is a pretty funny person in real life, he’s the same guy onstage as off. The reason I think he is such a great comic actor is all in his timing. And he’s very honest, so his delivery is very sincere, not fake in any way. When observing someone like Bob, you learn that being funny can be deadpan, silly, or even over the top—but if it’s delivered with complete conviction and sincerity, it works. Being onstage with him brings your interpretation up to his level. Also, as a veteran performer he’s got a great attitude about the business and he shares great stories and makes you feel good about following in his footsteps.”
One can only hope—considering Orth’s talent, experience, and staying power—that many composers are already in their studios writing new operatic roles for this one-of-a-kind American baritone.
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Susan Dormady Eisenberg has written profiles of singers for Classical Singer, Huffington Post, and Opera News. She has published a first novel, The Voice I Just Heard, about two Broadway singers who long to sing opera, and she’s now writing an historical novel about American sharpshooter, Annie Oakley. E-mail her at Susaneisenberg@aol.com or follow her on Twitter @Susandeisenberg.