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Richard Croft
A Change of Pace

by Olivia Giovetti

Croft as the title role in the Salzburg Festival’s
production of Mozart’s Mitridate, 2006
When Mohandas K. Gandhi made his oft-quoted declaration that we should be the change we wish to see in the world, it’s unlikely that the Indian nationalist leader was aware of just how rapidly change would occur come the early years of the 21st century.

On the flip side of the coin, Darwin said, “It’s not the strongest, fittest, fastest, or smartest that will outlast others and ultimately survive, but those who adapt to change.”

Meeting somewhere in the middle of these two aphorisms is Richard Croft; a tenor who realizes that, in order to survive in the world of professional singing, it’s not only essential to embrace change, but at times to advocate for it.

Growing up in Otsego County, N.Y. (a county famous for including Cooperstown, home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and the Glimmerglass Festival), Croft recounts his first musical memory as his public elementary school education under the guidance of James Millen. The music teacher would wheel a piano from room to room twice a week. Eager to join in, Croft soon began singing regularly. A few years later, Millen told his young student, “Don’t think just because you’re from Hartwick, N.Y. [a town of 400 people at that time], don’t think that because you’re from a small town surrounded by farms, that you can’t go somewhere and do something with this gift that you have.”

Croft embraced that edict and studied under tenor William Cole at SUNY Oneonta. The school may have been close to home, but the musical education was another world. “You can have something—but if there’s no one there to move it along, encourage it, or foster it, it doesn’t happen. I was very lucky,” says Croft of his early mentors and supporters, further noting that Cole was instrumental in “opening up my eyes to the possibilities.”

For a time following graduation, Croft “was flying blind” in New York City. He slept on a friend’s couch for six months while searching for an apartment and took a variety of manual labor jobs while studying with vocal coach Ellen Repp. “I didn’t realize I was supposed to have gone to graduate school,” he says of his initial post-graduate years. “It didn’t even occur to me that I would have been good enough to get into, say, Curtis.”

His career began to gain steam after being accepted into the Santa Fe Opera’s apprenticeship program, and a significant tipping point occurred for Croft when he won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 1984. “That was when my doubts subsided and I was able to say, ‘OK, I’m really going to dig in and do this,’” he says of the accomplishment.

At the same time, however, the face of the classical music world was starting to shift: whereas Croft felt there were few opportunities for up-and-coming singers, by 1975 Peter Macris was—in Croft’s own backyard—putting into action a plan for the Glimmerglass Opera that now includes one of the best known Young Artist Programs in the country. Shaping the tenor’s future, meanwhile, was the rise of historically informed musical performances offered on instruments from the Baroque and Classical eras. Croft, blessed with a lyric tenor ideally suited for Mozart rep, was in the right place at the right time. And while one of his early managers warned him that he would never have a career singing Mozart, Croft went with his gut and began working with the likes of John Eliot Gardiner and Arnold Östman.

“I remember thinking, ‘What the hell is “alla breve in two”? What are they talking about?’” he recounts of the heady stylistic discussions that were taking place around the music of Mozart, Handel, and Haydn. “Well, it’s the declamation of the text: it’s not in four, it’s in two. It’s as simple as that,” he laughs. “And it just makes all the difference in the world.”

After Croft recognized a special resonance when singing Mozart, he added to his tool kit by adopting a true Mozart technique. “There are a lot of singers who treat Mozart as sort of a stepping stone to their later-on, bigger career. And there are some who skip him altogether because he’s just too difficult,” he explains of what he terms an obsession with the composer. “But I was determined; it gnawed at me. I really needed to know how to approach him, how to endure that tessitura. I was able to find that magic millisecond that exists in Mozart and no other composer where you get it right and something divine happens. When Mozart goes right, it borders on the divine.” At this point, Croft is only half-joking when he says that a dream recording project would be a multi-disc set called Mozart Arias (All of Them).

And as a result, Croft’s subsequent career is driven by an intriguing number of equal, yet at times opposite, forces. For starters, he divides much of his performance time between the United States in houses like the Lyric Opera of Chicago (where he recently sang the role of Hyllus in Handel’s Hercules under Harry Bicket) and Europe, where he finds the performance opportunities to be greater for a singer of his specialization. He’s a familiar face in Germany and Austria. In fact, it was in Salzburg in 2006—Mozart’s hometown in the year of the composer’s 250th birthday—that he sang the title role in the festival’s sleeper hit of the season, Mitridate.

While not averse to traditional stagings, it’s productions like Günter Krämer’s visually striking and dramatically incisive Mitridate (available on DVD and worth the price of admission alone for Croft’s masterclass of a performance) that appeal to Croft as a performer. It’s a change in the theatrical experience which many audiences are still averse to, but Croft praised Kramer for crafting “a deep psychological study of this really troubled man in a ridiculously convoluted family dynamic.” Simply put, the work is more interesting when there is a chance to play with the text and the philosophies of the libretto, particularly in works such as those of Mozart, driven as much by the words as they are the music.

Such a balance is another duality central to Croft’s career. He recognizes the crucial element of such libretti, whose dramas are driven by the music. “The music is the vehicle to deliver the drama and the words and the profound myth of it all,” he says. “So if you have a good book, you have a place to go.”

To that end, Croft refuses to think of his performing as a craft. “It’s not all technique; it’s from the inside,” he explains, alluding to the verbal cues of a work that come part and parcel with the musical core. “It’s not performing for; it’s sharing with. It’s opening up and being emotionally available and allowing people to see what it is you’re feeling rather than whatever it is that you’re presenting. It’s not artificial.”

In a sense, he considers himself a method actor. When listening to a recording like his account of Gluck’s Orphée et Euridice, recorded for Archiv under frequent collaborator Marc Minkowski, it’s easy to be gobsmacked by Croft’s seemingly effortless account of the oft-cut, fiendishly difficult Orphic aria “L’espoir renaît dans mon âme,” a galvanizing four-and-a-half minute joyride of colors, runs, and trills. The difficulty is apparent in Gluck’s scoring, but not in Croft’s delivery. Of his approach to such an aria, Croft demurs and cites a zonal shift that is thanks more to time than tutelage.

“I think about what it is I’m saying. I think about where he is in his anxiety,” he offers. “And I just think the notes. After we work a passage technically I tell my students, ‘Just think the notes. Think it. It will come out.’ For me, I don’t know what it is. I get in the zone and I just think it. There’s not time to actually think about technique.”

Text, however, is equally important in a non-operatic setting, one that Croft finds himself in frequently. As of press time, he had just wrapped up a series of concerts of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis with the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert Blomstedt. Such is a work suited to the tenor’s commitment to historically informed performance methods and tenacity when it comes to mastering the music.

“When you don’t know a piece, it keeps challenging you, it keeps sniping you on every page,” he says, laughingly admitting that there were score study sessions that left him angrily psychoanalyzing Beethoven for the manifold complexities of his mass. “These great works of art demand that you ask with respect to be allowed in. And if you show proper respect, they will throw you a bone, they will reveal themselves. And once they reveal themselves, you know you’ve been accepted and you know you can go into the piece.”

Croft acknowledges that there were a number of knocks at Beethoven’s door before the piece began to unfold in a crescendo of ideas and visualizations during a moment with “Et incarnatus est.” And such a curiosity and patience has served the singer well with a work that falls on the opposite side of the repertoire spectrum—indeed, falling so far opposite that it almost loops back to the same side: Philip Glass’ Satyagraha.

He came to the role via a performance of Copland and Corigliano acolyte Elliot Goldenthal’s Grendel in Los Angeles, singing the role of the Blind Harpist in the same manner that he would sing the title role of Idomeneo. It was enough to capture the attention of the Met’s Artistic Manager Sarah Billinghurst, who flew in from New York for the occasion and made a seemingly out-of-the-blue offer to Croft to sing the role of Gandhi in Glass’ landmark work. (Interestingly enough, Croft’s younger brother, baritone Dwayne, has also sung a historical figure in a Glass opera: Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Appomattox.)

The piece had its challenges, notably in mastering the Sanskrit libretto (“It’s difficult to memorize a language when you don’t know where the verb is,” says Croft). And Glass’ hyperkinetic scores are rooted in mathematical formulas that keep his singers constantly counting.

That’s where Croft’s method dogma came in: “You have to open yourself up to a part; you have to surrender and dare to stand there and be completely emotionally available or naked,” he says of mastering Satyagraha. “It wasn’t something where you could take it by the throat and say, ‘I’m gonna own this role and I’m gonna conquer it.’ You couldn’t approach it like that at all. You had to sort of give up and say, ‘I’m yours and I’m gonna do what I can.’ Each and every night it was that way, and through each and every act it was that way—each and every moment it was that way.”

Though Croft had some reservations about taking on a role seemingly so discordant with the majority of his noted repertoire, the risk paid off. Writing for Opera magazine, David Shengold praised a Monteverdi-worthy beauty in Croft’s return to the role in 2011 following an equally successful first run in 2008. The surrender the tenor speaks of was not lost on reviewers like Anne Midgette, who wrote for the Washington Post: “Croft gave himself utterly to Gandhi, investing the role with a fitting, radiant simplicity.”

Croft acknowledges, however, that not every new role necessarily generates the same harmonic convergence. Between his two goes at Gandhi, shedding pounds each time to physically inhabit the role, Croft entered Wagnerian territory as Loge in Das Rheingold in 2010. Like Satyagraha, it was an intriguing idea to the tenor—made even more so by the fact that it was a new production and the first installment of the Met’s much-amped new Ring Cycle helmed by Robert Lepage.

“But it turned into a kind of perfect storm,” says Croft in hindsight. Of the 17 performances he was slated to do, he withdrew after four. The role seemed lightly orchestrated enough, but the tenor found himself pushing his voice down and meeting resistance from his instrument. He lost his voice on a nightly basis in the production, which involved him singing while suspended off the side of a wall and having his waist constricted by a harness.

Yet Croft is eager to discuss the matter in his characteristically even and thoughtful tone, treating his rumble with the Ring as an object lesson rather than a point of rancor. “You have to try out these different things, some of them are going to fly and some of them won’t,” he says. He is also quick to credit Met General Manager Peter Gelb for making the experience positive in the end. “He called me and said, ‘I hope you’re OK. I’m sorry it turned out that way.’ He wanted to make sure I knew I was welcome to come back as often as I wanted.”

Such lessons also form the basis of Croft’s second life as a faculty member at the University of North Texas, where he has been a professor of voice since 2004.

“I think perhaps the most valuable thing I can do for my students is to remind them that history is speeding up,” he says of his work with the university’s music school. “There’s a phenomenon taking place now termed ‘generation flux’ in which those with numerous skill sets have a better chance of surviving than those with just one. The days of long-term job security are over. Tenured professorships are on their way out. Unions are under pressure to relent. . . . You turn around and everything’s changed.”

Having sung himself a number of chieftains—Gandhi, sure, but also the morally ambiguous and dramatically complex Mozart monarchs like Tito, Idomeneo, and Mitridate—Croft feels a certain amount of empathy to the artistic leaders he encounters. He praises Gelb for understanding the nature (and speed) of change in the current zeitgeist and for staying ahead of the curve.

“He recognizes it; he’s attempting to adapt,” says Croft, noting that the Met in HD program has been an especially prescient move—and one that has allowed his own students to see his work with the company from the comfort of a Lone Star State cinema. “Of course, there are reactionaries. There’s a lot of pushback to this. There are a lot of people who insist that Zeffirelli is now. But I’m all for experimentation.”

Croft is wary of political terms like “the war on the arts,” citing the state of Kansas’ recent arts-funding crisis as a current example: last year, it became the first state to completely eliminate arts funding in a controversial move from Governor Sam Brownback. Earlier this summer, the decision was reversed after no small amount of citizen outcry, which in the opera world notably included an impassioned plea from mezzo and Kansas City native Joyce DiDonato.

Acknowledging that he is “in lockstep” with his colleague on this, Croft notes that he also found the situation to be more complicated than a black-and-white matter, not unlike many of the Mozart roles he has sung which were written in equally charged and political times and reflect such discourse. “There aren’t good guys and bad guys. I think that everybody wants there to be an arts culture in our country,” he says.

Croft notes that with his own students, this understanding of change is starting to become more prevalent—and becomes even more so with age and experience. “Like all of us, it took me a while to realize there was more to it than standing in a pose and singing prettily,” he says of his own transition from the park-and-bark tradition into the more iconoclastic works of Peter Sellars, a director he hugely admires. “It’s always the word for me. And if you can find depth of meaning, then do.”

Likewise, Croft finds himself adapting as a singer and a pedagogue with his students. Teaching was a way for him to augment not only his own skill sets but also his singing career by shaping the next generation. However, he also credits the position with introducing new works into his repertoire, particularly in the field of art song. Showing versus telling in classes also helped his own technique as he found himself demonstrating vocal passages and finding effective ways of verbalizing them.

“My way of singing isn’t necessarily pedagogically correct. So when I tried to teach students something like a soft onset, I couldn’t do it. They ended up whispering the entire song. They couldn’t understand placing the bow softly and then drawing it once the string begins to vibrate,” he says of his own learning curve as a teacher. He also credits his colleagues and music school dean James Copeland Scott with helping him to grow into this new role of leadership (when Croft travels for work, Classical Singer 2009 Teacher of the Year Inci Bashar steps in). Striking the balance in his students between audibility and nuance has been another dual nature present in Croft’s career. “It’s a lot like spinning plates: you’re running back and forth trying to get them to do both things at once, trying to keep both things in the air.”

All told, it’s that duality, balance, and willingness to expand one’s tool kit that has given Croft a career that may be devoid of traditional PR flash but rife with fulfillment. It’s the sort of life’s work that he hopes future generations of singers will enjoy. And, unsurprisingly, it’s the future generations that he’s especially conscious of in an election year.

“To me, the most important thing a government can do is to ensure from grade one that kids have music twice a week, visual arts twice a week, gym three times a week. If there’s a break in that learning chain, it’ll take generations to repair that,” he says. “We can’t stop moving.”

Olivia Giovetti has written and hosted for WQXR and its sister station, Q2 Music. In addition to Classical Singer, she also contributes frequently to Time Out New York, Gramophone, Playbill, and more.

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