Saturday 6 January 2018

A journey from Rossini to Richard Strauss and beyond

I chat to tenor Bruce Sledge as he takes the title role in Meyerbeer's Le prophete at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin.

Bruce Sledge
Bruce Sledge
The American tenor Bruce Sledge has been on my radar for some time, he sang the role of Paolo Erisso in Rossini's Maometto II at Santa Fe Opera in 2012 [see my review] and Leicester in Donizetti's Maria Stuarda at Welsh National Opera (WNO) in 2013 [see my review]. More recently he sang in WNO's performances of Andre Tchaikovsky's Merchant of Venice [see my review] in tandem with Macduff in Verdi's Macbeth.

Bruce Sledge, who studied at the University of Southern California and was a finalist in Placido Domingo’s Operalia 2000 competition, has gradually made the transition from high Rossini tenor roles, to the more lower Rossini tenor roles (those written for Andrea Nozzari) to Verdi's lyric tenor roles including the Duke in Rigoletto. That his voice might be continuing on this journey is indicated by his making his role debut as Jean in Meyerbeer's Le prophete at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin [see my review]. I met up with Bruce whilst I was in Berlin to find out more about Le prophete and future plans. This year (2018) Bruce will be singing Bacchus in Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos with Sante Fe Opera, and Percy in Donizetti's Anna Bolena with Canadian Opera Company, a combination of roles rarely seen in tenors.

Verdi: Macbeth - Bruce Sledge - Welsh National Opera 2017 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Verdi: Macbeth - Bruce Sledge - Welsh National Opera 2017
(Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Before studying Le prophete, Bruce had no experience of Meyerbeer's operas and he found the score very different. For a start, the role of Jean de Leyde is a challenging one, thanks to its length with many different vocal layers from moments requiring light lyric tone to passages needing a spinto voice. Also Bruce found himself using falsetto (voice mixte) to get the right colour at the top in some of the quieter passages, such as a triple piano high B flat. In fact, the first time he has used falsetto in a role. When he first tried out the role he intended to sing it all at full voice, but found it such a marathon that this mixed approach worked well.

Coming in as the second cast in a repertory house like the Deutsche Oper, Berlin means that Bruce will have had relatively little stage time before the premiere. But Bruce is a note-taker, noting down all the details of the staging which he feels is useful. Also, his experience covering roles at the Met in New York has helped (though he has also performed roles in his own right there too). On such occasions Bruce is aware that it is up to the singers to create the right mood, whatever the production it is important that the audience be 'blown away by the singing'.

Rossini: Maometto II - Bruce Sledge - Santa Fe Opera 2012
Rossini: Maometto II - Bruce Sledge
Santa Fe Opera 2012
Bruce took voice lessons at high school and followed his teacher to university (the University of Southern California) where he did his Masters, essentially he says that he just stuck with singing as this seemed the best career for him to pursue.

Bruce's ability to combine high notes with agility when he was younger meant that he sang a number of high Rossini and Donizetti roles, he comments that if you have the high register than go with it.  He feels that his voice had more colour and roundness to it than some tenors who specialise in this repertoire, something that opera companies liked. He has not sung these high tenor roles for ten years, there came a point when he wanted to sing the Duke in Verdi's Rigoletto and found he had to back off performances in roles such as Tonio in Donizetti's La fille du Regiment (with its famous sequence of high C's). Bruce eased himself into the Duk and found his voice developing, it grew and the lower register developed.

And important moment was auditioning for Alberto Zedda at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro in 2004, and instead of the high tenor role in Rossini's Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra he was offered the Andrea Nozzari role, Leicester, often described as a bari-tenor role requiring a lower register but still with some high notes and agility. It suited him well, and he also sang Paolo Erisso, the Nozzari role in Rossini's Maometto II with Santa Fe Opera and with Canadian Opera, as well as a number of Donizetti roles.

Bruce emphasises that he simply goes where his voice does, and that this development is taking some interesting turns. He was offered the role of Bacchus in Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos at Santa Fe Opera in 2018. The role is a notorious dramatic tenor role (albeit a relatively short one); Bruce took a look at it and thought he possible. He studies the role with Marilyn Horne who though it suited his voice well. [The first Bacchus in 1912, Herman Jadlowker, was in fact not strictly a dramatic tenor and was renowned for his coloratura ability and his performances of Rossini and Mozart.]

Donizetti: Maria Stuarda - Judith Howarth, Bruce Sledge - Welsh National Opera 2013 (Photo Robert Workman)
Donizetti: Maria Stuarda - Judith Howarth, Bruce Sledge
Welsh National Opera 2013 (Photo Robert Workman)
With Marilyn Horne's support he is now preparing an assault on the lower foothills of the dramatic Wagner tenor repertory, learning Wagner arias and considering a role like Lohengrin. When I ask other roles which Bruce has his eye on he mentions Florestan as a possibility, but also the title role in Berlioz' Benvenuto Cellini, which seems to suit his voice well sitting as it does between dramatic and lyric. On his wish list are also Rodolfo in Puccini's La Boheme and Edgardo in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, he has enjoyed excerpts from this latter role but is aware that like Jean in Le Prophete, it requires stamina.

Bruce's fantasy role would be Calaf in Puccini's Turandot, he thinks that this might be a fun role, and might not be out of the question some day.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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