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Team Player
Baritone Lucas Meachem

by Claudia Friedlander



Meacham as Figaro in the LA Opera's production of The Ghosts of Versailles, 2015
Lucas Meachem is the very picture of calm and graciousness when he welcomes me to the eastside brownstone that is his home throughout his Met run as Silvio in Pagliacci (last May)—you would never know his travel itinerary has just been scuttled and that he is waiting to hear whether he will be boarding a flight to London immediately after our chat or sticking around New York for a few more days.

Meachem has become accustomed to rolling with the punches—an important skill to have when faced with back-to-back contracts requiring him to perform seven roles in eight countries over the course of the coming year. Next up is Marcello in La bohčme at the Royal Opera House. His 2015–16 season includes performances in Oslo, Toulouse, Dresden, San Francisco, and Birmingham—reprising roles in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Don Giovanni, and Le nozze di Figaro as well as debuting roles in La traviata and Don Pasquale.

When I remark on how collected he appears in the face of his accelerating career, Meachem seems a bit surprised himself by the pace he’s been keeping. “It’s been a lot of singing, a lot of back and forth, a lot of rehearsing—I’ve been all over the place!” he laughs. “But it’s the life I love, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Relationships are central to the pleasure Meachem takes in his profession. He draws inspiration from the conductors and directors he works with and revels in the camaraderie he enjoys with colleagues.

In addition to the recent Met Pagliacci with Fabio Luisi, Meachem sang Silvio at the Hollywood Bowl last season under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel. He describes working with both conductors as invigorating. “Luisi was great to work with, just to see him do his thing,” Meachem says. “Dudamel was awesome.” In both cases, Meachem says, “We didn’t rehearse that much to get to the product that we had.” He was struck by the efficient, focused approach both maestros were able to implement. “We didn’t work together so much, but they were just so professional about it that we were able to elevate it to a certain level together.”

Another memorable recent collaboration was with director Marie-Čve Signeyrole, who designed the mise-en-scčne and stage setting when Meachem took on the title role in Eugene Onegin in Montpellier, France. “She did this incredible Eugene Onegin based in communist Russia. It was really quite special for me,” he remembers. “When you go to see a modern take on a famous opera, sometimes you’ll be disappointed. This one was great. They really hit it out of the park, and I was proud to be a part of that.”

Meachem’s ability to forge enduring relationships sustains him through his itinerant lifestyle. “My colleagues are awesome,” he shares. “I love going fishing with my buddy [tenor] Paul Groves—that always makes me feel more human. We go for some big fish. We catch ’em, too!”

His colleagues appreciate him as well. “He is so outgoing and friendly,” says soprano Jennifer Rowley, who sang Musetta to Meachem’s Marcello in Royal Opera House’s Bohčme last June. “He was the first person to say, ‘Let’s all go to dinner!’ ‘Want to go sightseeing?’ He even made a WhatsApp group with the whole cast so we could all share rehearsal photos.”

Rowley admires the way Meachem’s natural spontaneity extends to his artistry. “He knows his blocking cold, but within the outline of what he is given, he is always living in the moment on stage,” she says. “I remember in one performance, he somehow ended the big Act 2 sextet with a chicken leg in his hand . . . When I ran to his arms for ‘Marcello!’ ‘Sirena!’ he still had this chicken leg! After we kissed and made up, he waved it in my face and said, ‘You better not do that ever again!’ He plays on stage and makes a gorgeous sound while doing it.”

While Meachem admits to being a frequent instigator of social outings, he is careful not to push himself beyond the bounds of what will keep his voice in top form. “I’ve become known as something of a party boy, but the funny thing is that anyone who still thinks of me that way is probably someone I haven’t seen in quite a few years!” he laughs. “I have to work harder now to produce the more mature sound that I have, and so I’m not quite as adventurously outgoing as I used to be.”

A favorite hangout during his Pagliacci run was the placid Bar and Books lounge around the corner from his lodging. “I’ll meet up with a friend for a quiet drink,” Meachem says. “Nobody’s ever there; you can have a quiet conversation, coffee or tea, read a book, or work on an e-mail. So that’s me now.”

As Meachem’s voice and career develop, he is doing what he can to balance moving familiar roles like Figaro and Don Giovanni into larger houses with taking on new challenges, including Verdi roles like Germont in Traviata and Rodrigo in Don Carlo, as well as some Bel Canto. “I’m doing my first Don Pasquale this year—two of them, actually—so I’ve got a couple of new roles I’m adding to the repertoire,” Meachem says. “So it’s nice, because I’m stretching myself a little bit. But I’m trying not to move too quickly because this career is a marathon, not a sprint! The danger of sprinting is that you can run a hundred yards really quickly and then fall off! You’ve got to take your time with it.”

While young singers often have a hard time saying ‘no’ to things they feel they’re not ready for, this has never been an issue for Meachem. “As a young singer, I was really happy to say ‘no,’” he recalls. “I would say ‘no’ not only to things that I didn’t think were good for me, but also to things that I didn’t think I was one of the best at.”

“I have since changed my tune on that,” Meachem continues. “I used to not want to let anyone down with just being good enough—I wanted people to say, ‘He’s great! He’s the best!’ Now I realize I have to sing everything with my voice, and it’s just a matter of opinion. If you want a Don Giovanni like me, then you want someone who is going to be able to sing it lyrically, beautifully—not someone who is going to be able to knock you over with the low stuff. If that’s what you want, then you hire someone else. I’ve started to have more confidence that the people who hire me know what they want—that thing being me.”

Meachem emphasizes that while a career can look like a carefully designed master plan, it rarely unfolds in a well-ordered progression. It certainly did nothing of the kind in his case. “In the beginning with the training part, it may look as though there were careful decisions, but in reality it was more like, ‘OK, I’ll go over this way now!’” he says. “I really kind of stumbled, tripped, and fell into it—into three different colleges over a period of eight years plus a Young Artist Program, and I don’t have any degrees to show for it!”

He began singing professionally while still an undergraduate at Appalachian State University. “My first professional gig was at the Ohio Light Opera,” he says. “It was a summer gig, and . . . first of all, that place is awesome for a young singer coming up. We did a different show every day of the week.”

When he first auditioned for Ohio Light, Meachem had actually not been planning on looking for professional opportunities—he was just tagging along with a friend on an audition road trip and then decided to inquire whether he could also be considered. Both Cincinnati Opera and Ohio Light were willing to fit him in at the ends of their audition days. Cincinnati offered him a hefty sum for chorus participation in one show and a possible small cover, while Ohio Light offered him roughly half as much money for a good deal more work—a longer commitment, multiple choral assignments, three small parts, and a modest lead.

“So I called my dad and told him I’m for sure going for the money at Cincinnati Opera; I’m going to have a cool summer,” he remembers. “And my dad tells me, ‘Lucas, you don’t need money. It doesn’t matter about the money at this point. You need the experience, to go out on stage and see what it feels like.’ And he’s not even a performer, he’s an architect! Couldn’t have gotten better advice. It started me out on this path. It was the first time that two roads split, where I had two opportunities.

“In the beginning, you don’t need much money,” Meachem concludes, agreeing with his dad. “You need the opportunities. You need to get out there and sing in front of an audience.” His decision led to three highly active and valuable summers with Ohio Light Opera. It also helped to establish the pragmatic mindset that has assisted Meachem in making difficult choices throughout his education and career.

Like the Ohio Light gig, Meachem’s transfer from Appalachian State to Eastman was the result of serendipity rather than strategy. He was visiting a friend at Eastman who encouraged him to sing for John Maloy, his friend’s teacher and, at that time, the head of Eastman’s voice department. Maloy agreed to hear him after his friend’s lesson.

“I started singing, and he was sitting at his desk looking down,” Meachem remembers. “Then he just looked up, sat back in his chair, and rocked back and forth a little bit . . . and I stopped, and he didn’t say anything at first. Then he said, ‘Lucas—is that your name? Where do you live?’ I told him I was a student at Appalachian State. ‘Well, I want you to go back to Appalachian State and I want you to pack all your stuff. Can you do that?’”

Meachem went home, rented a Penske truck, and left Boone, North Carolina for Rochester, New York on a Saturday night with only a $100 bill in his pocket. He hadn’t accounted for the truck’s mammoth fuel needs or for the toll booths he would encounter along the way. At about 2 a.m. on Sunday, a little over a third of the way to Rochester, he shelled out $60 to fill his gas tank and realized that he had a problem. He called his father, but at that hour there was no way to get him any money, so he figured he’d just drive as far as he could and hope that a solution would present itself.

As Meachem pulled the truck back out onto the highway, it occurred to him that he had packed a really nice telephone answering machine that he’d recently purchased at Walmart and that the receipt was still in the box. “And like in a movie script, I suddenly see this blue haze over the horizon, and it’s the sign of a 24-hour Walmart Supercenter!” Meachem tells me. “At 3:00 in the morning, in rural Pennsylvania! They gave me $55 for this answering machine. I filled my tank up again, I paid the tolls I hadn’t known existed, and I ended up in Rochester with $4 in my pocket! Then I ate canned beans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the next couple of days.”

When still a year away from completing his Eastman degree, Meachem was engaged for the summer as an apprentice artist with Central City Opera, with tentative plans to take some time away from school and move to New York City afterward. “I sang for everyone who came through Central City, including Doris [Yarick] and Richard Cross, who came down from Yale. So I sang for them, and they were immediately like, ‘We want you to come to school at Yale.’ I said, ‘Thank you so much for the offer, but I’m moving to New York City.’ Of course, I didn’t know that Yale had a voice program. I didn’t know anything about it, that it was a good one.”

When he told the other singers that they had made him an offer and he turned it down, they explained to him why he should consider it a very good option. He reopened the conversation. “I sat down and talked to Doris and said, ‘I’m going to need a full scholarship to go to Yale.’ I had no money, my family had no money, there was no way. It’s funny because now she probably thinks I’m the best negotiator in the world, but I am the worst—I was just being honest.

“When she gave me about half what I would have needed, I said, ‘Thank you so much for the offer, but there’s just no way that I could come for that.’ And then she worked it out so that she could give me three fourths, and I said, ‘Thank you so much for the offer, but there’s just no way.’ And then finally she came around and found me a full scholarship so I could go there. I’m sure she had to do a bunch of stuff to work it out, but it wasn’t good negotiation on my part—it was just that I had zero money. Zero. And nothing to make me have money all of a sudden! So that’s how I got into Yale.”

A subsequent summer as a young artist with San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program secured Meachem an Adler Fellowship—a two-year residency with the San Francisco Opera. “When I was offered the position with San Francisco Opera, the people at Yale were not happy that I was going to go because they had plans of their own for me,” Meachem says. “But it was the obvious choice.”

San Francisco invited him to cover Eugene Onegin and Guglielmo and offered him supporting roles in Doktor Faust and Billy Budd. His teacher at Yale was only able to counter by saying, “I have so many things in the works for you right now, but I can’t tell you what they are. . . . ”

“They were going to keep me there for their own needs, and so they tried to scare me into not going,” Meachem says. “It was selfish. A lot of schools do this, so people deserve to hear this kind of story. The arts are the only industry where it happens a lot because they think it makes the school look good.

“Say you’re a stockbroker and you’re going to school for business,” Meachem continues, “and all of a sudden your investments go crazy and you get a job offer from an incredible firm in New York City. You’re going to go talk to your teachers, and they’re going to go, ‘Get your butt out of here!’ They’re not going to think, ‘Oh, you’re going to make me look good as a professor because you’re making all this money.’ They want you to go on because that’s the point! The point is, you need to go on and do better things!”

While Meachem received his training from a number of outstanding schools and companies, his was not a simple or traditional path. “There is no path,” he points out. “There is no set formula for success in a stage career. There is only giving it your all. What I did, whenever there was a train coming along that was a different opportunity that was a better one, I took it, no matter what. If it was a better opportunity, I didn’t stay to make someone else happy. I ruffled some feathers by leaving without finishing my degrees. But it’s kind of like being a professional athlete—you have to go where the biggest talent is and where you can make the biggest impact.”

Athletic analogies come easily to Meachem, a lifelong athlete himself. “I played a lot of sports growing up—basketball, football, baseball . . . Now, my favorite sport is definitely basketball. I don’t play as much any more because I’ve had two surgeries on my knees and, honestly, I just have to put my career first. But other than walking out on stage in front of thousands of people, the only thing that gives me that jolt of energy is going and playing a basketball game with some really good players.”

Meachem meets up with a group of basketball players whenever he’s performing in San Francisco, many of whom are former players for high-level college teams or professional teams in Europe and are now doctors, lawyers, or entrepreneurs. “Every Saturday morning without fail, even if we were all out together the night before drinking until 5:00 in the morning, we will be there at 8 [a.m.] grinding it out on that court.”

Meachem values the balance this group contributes to a life lived primarily among other singers. “It’s sort of this unspoken brotherhood,” he says. “I can write them and say, ‘Come see my show. I’m in San Francisco.’ And we hang out. It’s a good thing for me to have in my life.”

Meachem is benefitting from practical parallels between his athletic pursuits and life as an opera singer. “If anything, opera has made me more aware of my body—especially in my abdominal area, down into the diaphragm,” he muses. “If something happens, if something is off, I know it immediately. So it’s the same thing, when I was a pitcher or when I threw a football, if my knees would hurt, you have to pay attention to those things.

“I didn’t pay as much attention to those things as a kid as I should have,” he continues, “and now as an adult, I pay attention a lot more in an athletic way. If my back is a little sore or I’m feeling some tension in my throat or in my shoulders, I do what I can to make sure that my body feels good before I go out there to give the best performance I can. If something’s out, it affects your voice, it affects the way you carry yourself.”

Meachem now puts a premium on keeping himself in the best possible shape at all times. “It’s feeling more important now than ever for me to take this career very, very seriously,” he says. “Which I always have, but now even more so because I’m really excited for what the future holds.”

He guards against taking any of the extraordinary opportunities that come his way for granted. “I was talking to my dad and saying, ‘Man, I’m the luckiest person in the world,’ and he said, ‘I hate when people say that, when they put as much work and effort into something as you have.’ My dad is a pillar in my life. He said to me, ‘Lucas, you need to give yourself some credit, because every time an opportunity came along, you took it.’

“I am lucky, but—and I can’t remember who said it—‘I am a great believer in luck. The harder I work, the more of it I seem to have!’” [Coleman Cox said this, in his 1922 collection Listen to This. —ed.]

Claudia Friedlander is a voice teacher and certified personal trainer with a studio in New York. Find her on the Web at www.claudiafriedlander.com.











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