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Interview, Michael Spyres on Baritenor

Michael SpyresWithout wishing to tip my hand in advance of the first meeting of this year's Presto Awards committee later on today, few recordings issued over the past couple of months have given me more pleasure than Michael Spyres's delightfully audacious Baritenor (released on Erato in September and named Recording of the Month in the latest issue of Gramophone), which sees the American singer playing fast-and-loose with notions of vocal categorisation and juxtaposing snapshots of baritone roles such as Mozart's Count Almaviva and Rossini's Figaro with high-wire tenor arias from Donizetti's La fille du régiment and Adam's Le Postillon de Lonjumeau.

In between rehearsals for his stage debut as Florestan in Beethoven's Fidelio last month, Michael spoke to me over Zoom about the process of coming to terms with his true vocal identity, the historical precedent for male singers moving between very different fachs, and how his childhood love of Looney Tunes voiceover star Mel Blanc informed his later approach to finding his own operatic voice...

How long had you been considering recording an album mixing tenor and baritone repertoire?

The album came together very quickly last year, but this kind of programme had been on my mind for my entire career. I’m Artistic Director of an opera company in Missouri, and my brother recently found an interview that I gave there when I was 19: at the time I was singing Anthony in Sweeney Todd with them, and I spoke about how I’d started out as a baritone but now thought of myself as a ‘baritenor’. So I’ve been thinking along these lines for 22 years, and this fluctuation between baritone and tenor is just the most natural thing for me: even my speaking-voice has always wrong-footed people, because it isn’t what people expect from a tenor!

I floated the idea of an album mixing tenor and baritone repertoire to Warner Classics right at the beginning of our working relationship seven years ago, but the project stayed on the back burner until last summer, when Alain Lanceron called me to say that the Strasbourg Philharmonic was available to record the following month. There were about fifty arias on my wishlist, so I had five weeks to narrow that down to a selection which would tell the whole story! I think we did a good job of chronicling the entire repertoire, which was my main concern – I wanted to show people what voices like mine did in the past and which roles were written specifically for singers like me.

How much precedent was there on disc for this sort of project?

Very little! There are a few recordings of Lauritz Melchior singing as a baritone before he switched to tenor in his early 30s, and curiosities like Caruso singing ‘Vecchia zimarra’, but otherwise the only person I can think of is Ramón Vinay: he was famous for singing Verdi’s Iago and Otello, and there’s a great recording of him singing both (not in the same performance, but at different times in his career!). It wasn’t regarded as an oddity at the time, but no-one has done anything like that on record since then. Certainly no-one’s done a studio album that’s half-and-half, and that’s why it’s a little scary to put this project out there: I’m praying that there wasn’t a reason it hasn’t been done before, and that it wasn’t simply because audiences didn’t want it!

Although a programme like this seems a bit out-there today, there was a precedent before the recording era: this sliding scale of voices has been around for four hundred years, and when we put ourselves in these smaller fachs it does our voices and artistry an injustice. There’s a logic as to why this more fluid kind of thinking went away (by the time of Verdi and verismo it had become crucial to know where your vocal formant’s the strongest), but in anything written before the 1840s people need to rethink what’s possible: with smaller orchestration more colours become available, and that’s why I started this story with Mozart.

People are always surprised when I tell them that Mécène Marié de l'Isle retrained as a baritone shortly after creating the high tenor role of Tonio in La fille du régiment, and went on to have a thirty-year career in baritone roles. The whole story of the baritenor voice is largely untold, and this is why it’s such a fascinating subject; it gave me licence to believe in myself, and tell people that I’m not just one thing or the other. My biggest hope is that this album will generate new discoveries in other people’s voices too: we all have a vocal range of between two-and-a-half and three octaves, and vocal training is really just about locating and controlling that. So many people find a niche and stick with that for the rest of their lives, but that’s not what being an artist is about – it’s about figuring out who you are and exploring all of the possibilities within that.

You mention starting the story with Mozart – might there be scope to cast the net even further back?

That’s exactly what we explore on the prequel to Baritenor, which we’ve already recorded for release next year. That period in music history fascinates me more than anything as of late, because I think people still underestimate just how innovative the composers of the mid-baroque were; there’s still this preconception that it was all rather formulaic and stuffy, when in reality it was dirty and bizarre and amazing, and there’s so much still to be discovered!

And there was a massive precedent for this fluid idea of vocal categories throughout the baroque era: there were female singers and castrati, and the other male singers often sang tenor and bass parts and everything in-between. That gradually fell out of favour when people started associating certain voice-types with certain stock characters (with basses singing the bad guys, for instance), but before that composers were specifically interested in pushing the boundaries of what individual voices could do – and the singers they worked with dedicated every living moment to their craft, so the possibilities were endless!

What’s the story behind the higher version of the Count’s aria from Nozze di Figaro?

Mozart wrote Le nozze di Figaro for Prague, then when it was performed in Vienna a few years later he made a few revisions, including this version of the Count’s aria: it’s only the last few pages that are different, but it paints such a strong picture of the Count’s tornado of emotions and the way his aristocratic mask drops to reveal the dirty, disgusting madman underneath. The only reason that it isn’t done very often is that it’s quite difficult – it has thirteen high Gs, so it’s basically like the ‘Ah, mes amis!’ of the baritone world! This is only the second time that I know of that it’s been commercially recorded; the other is on a Fischer-Dieskau album of Mozart and Haydn arias. But I know lots of people that absolutely could and should sing this version, and you can find it in the appendix of the Barenreiter score.

Has the original tenor version of Thomas’s Hamlet ever been performed?

Never. Thomas conceived Hamlet as a tenor role, but couldn’t find a suitable singer; after searching for about two years he got a new commission, and as the wonderful French baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure was the hot ticket in Paris at the time Thomas just said ‘Fine, I’ll transpose it’. The opera was a huge success, but it’s not what Thomas originally intended: in the tenor version those mad-scenes quite literally reach new heights. I’m a stickler for history, and now that the opera’s coming back into the repertoire I’m pushing to get that original version on stage; I sang an extract from it just last month when the Opéra Comique gave a convocation about their season, and as far as I know that was the first time it had been heard by the Paris public.

Why did you choose to sing Lohengrin’s In fernem Land in French?

I’m positive that Wagner would not have become Wagner had he not lived in Paris and been immersed in the French style. His eventual Paris triumph was with Lohengrin in French, and to the best of our knowledge this is the translation that they used. A number of French-language recordings of this aria were made during the 1930s and 40s, but most of them used reduced orchestration and had poor sound-quality so you can’t really hear the beauty and sonority of it all.

I thought it was important to give it an outing in good modern sound, because I believe Wagner really wanted us to hear that French quality in his music: he’s become associated with this very Germanic sound-world, but really all of his operas show how profoundly he was affected by the French style. He wrote a lot about composers from the Revolutionary period like Spontini and Méhul, whose work solidified Wagner’s idea of music-drama: Spontini’s La vestale was still being performed very frequently when he was living in France, and it helped him to formulate his own ideas about orchestration and generating a new level of dramatic energy through both voice and orchestra.

Would you consider singing any of the baritone roles here on stage?

I’d love to do the Count in Figaro, and it would be wonderful to sing Don Giovanni and follow in the footsteps of all those wonderful tenors back in the early 1880s: Adolphe Nourrit, Manuel García Senior and Andrea Nozzari all sang it, and even Giovanni Battista Rubini, known as the highest tenor of all time. The fact that Rubini kept Don Giovanni in his repertoire tells you so much about his voice and his technique: you can’t be one of these nice light high tenors and then sing ‘Deh, vieni alla finestra’! Luna would be fantastic too, because I just adore those long Verdi lines; and in terms of tenor roles, Lohengrin and Paul from Die tote Stadt are still on my wish-list…

Do you think younger singers are starting to kick against the fach system?

I feel like we made this album at the right time, because things are starting to change. During lockdown I did a few Zoom masterclasses and asked the younger generation about their perception of the fach system: it’s so ingrained for those of us in our forties, but for these kids it’s something they learn about in music-history classes rather than in their actual voice-lessons. So hopefully the system is being pushed to the wayside, because I find it unscientific and extremely subjective: people still have wildly different ideas about what fach certain roles are. I understand why the system came about it, but the idea that a person should base their entire career on a few people’s ideas of their voice seems incredibly limiting and ignorant to me.

Cecilia Bartoli is my biggest inspiration in this industry, because for goodness knows how many years she’s been in total control of her narrative and her voice. For her whole life people have plagued her with questions like ‘Are you a lazy soprano or a high mezzo?’ and her response is ‘I’m just a singer, and I sing well’. That’s what I hope to do too: if a voice is healthily produced and the diction and character is there, then be quiet and listen to their artistry! I feel like a hundred years from now folk will look back and think ‘These people and their fach systems!’.

I think this shift has a lot to do with YouTube, too: there are so many pop-singers pushing their boundaries doing crazy four-octave things, so younger singers realise that there are more possibilities. And as someone who basically got into opera through imitating what I heard, that resonates with me: when I was a kid I wanted to be a cartoon voice-over personality like Mel Blanc so every day I’d practise doing different voices, which was also how I eventually learned operatic technique. I’d find an aria in my anthology, then get different recordings out of the library and think ‘Ooh, I like that sound - I’m going to imitate that’.

I do have scientific evidence for calling myself a baritenor. One of my dear friends is a physicist and singer who specialises in fluid mechanics and the voice; he received his PhD from the University of York about nine years ago and invited me along to take part in the research. I had MRIs done, and was recorded in an anechoic chamber: that feels like singing into a million pillows, but it gets the purest sound and clearest picture of what your cords are doing. He took a vocal spectrum and analysed it against hundreds of tenor and baritone recordings and eventually said ‘Well, you can truly call yourself a baritenor because that is where your vocal formant really sits – now you have the science to back it up!’.

Michael Spyres (baritenor), Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, Marko Letonja

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone)

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC