Rising Star: Paul Appleby

Interview and write-up: @EmerNestor

Photographs: @FMarshallPhoto

American tenor, Paul Appleby, is certainly living up to the 'rising star' accolade bestowed upon him by the New York critical press. His versatility and keen interpretative facility have led to invitations to perform in some of the world's leading concert venues and opera houses. With Appleby's UK debut at Glyndebourne fast approaching, and a series of engagements with the San Francisco Opera, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, and the Metropolitan Opera, beckoning, the 2015/2016 season is sure to be a game changer for this young tenor.

Final Note catches up with Appleby at the Lincoln Center, New York, following his recent spell as Tom Rakewell in the Metropolitan Opera’s hugely successful production of Stravinsky's The Rake’s Progress, to discuss life as an early-career opera star.

As a teenager, who were the voices of your CD collection — any guilty pleasures to share?

I was very influenced by my father’s CD collection — the home music library — so my listening habits were embarrassingly 70s-centric. I was deep into Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and Bruce Springsteen, primarily. The more time I spend with art song, the more I find that my criteria for a good song is the same across any genres, so I feel less guilty in taking pleasure in these great songwriters’ contributions to the art form as time goes on.

Is classical music and opera in the blood?

No, I am a first generation classical musician. Singer-songwriters are more my origins. I always loved singing, and I began performing in plays and musicals in high school. When I was cast as Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, at age 16, I started taking voice lessons. My teacher said: “I’ll teach you classical vocal technique, and you can apply it to any style you like”. He started me on some early Italian and Schubert songs, and I found myself being drawn into that world more strongly than anything else.

What did you take from your time in the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program?

Many lessons! The musical and vocal training that the program provided was first class and abundant. Between James Levine, the music staff of the Met, and a litany of legendary singers I got to coach with (including Thomas Allen, Renata Scotto, Piotr Beczala and Matthew Polenzani, to name a few), I received the best instruction possible from many different perspectives. This embarrassment of riches, however, also can be problematic, in that different coaches may give you conflicting input. I had to acquire the ability to take in information of all sorts, and filter it through my own process to take what helpful bits from it I could, and leave the rest behind. In the end, I learned that you are responsible for your singing. Ultimately, you have to be your own teacher and take blame for your failures and credit for your success. Seek out whatever advice you can benefit from, but take it on judiciously and responsibly.

How did the Leonore Annenberg Fellowship in the Performing and Visual Arts (2012) enhance your musical development, and prepare you for your current career?

I came out of the Lindemann program with a significant amount of student debt from undergraduate and graduate school. The immense generosity of the Annenberg Fellowship allowed me to invest vigorously in continuing my training, and in seeking out teachers and coaches beyond New York. I was able to travel to Europe, where I took many auditions in several countries, and worked with coaches in England, Germany, and France. Most importantly, the financial support permitted me to pass on job offers that may have been lucrative, but not productive to my healthy vocal growth, or professional development.

Do you consider the ability to deal with failure important to you as a performer, and how have you learned to cope with challenges along the way?

Everytime you sing, you deal with failure on some level: perfection is always the goal, and never the result. No one, no matter how talented, has a trouble-free journey along the long path to consistent vocal standards that a professional career requires. As a young singer, especially, the ongoing physical growth and evolution of your instrument will inevitably pose challenges that you can’t even identify until you have failed to meet them.

Around the time I turned 30, my voice had this kind of lurch forward in size, and I lost the control over it that I had worked so hard to cultivate up to that point. Some of the engagements which I had booked exposed this problem, and I felt that I was not delivering on the promise I had sold myself on. It was a difficult time, and the joy in singing that had animated me started to evaporate under the pressure of the situation. But, I worked very hard and made great efforts to see a voice teacher, and get my technique to a place that allowed me to perform at the level I needed for myself, and for those who had hired me. I think that that period of failure (to a degree) forced me to analyze my voice, and develop a more proficient and self-knowing technique. The arch of growth is never a straight line, but with hard work, the net direction moves consistently higher.

When programming concert recitals, what motivates your selection process?

First and foremost, I start with songs I love. I try to constantly listen to new repertoire — not expecting that most of it will speak to me — hoping to find new songs that I think are great. Once I have a handful of songs that I love and that I feel I can do justice to as a singer, I begin to look for connections between the pile of songs I’m into, and explore whether or not they complement each other in a recital program. I consider myself a serious student of the lied tradition, and always lean toward engaging the canon of 19th-century song repertoire. But, I am also compelled to illustrate my belief that a good song is a good song no matter where or when it comes from. So, I often attempt to find a compelling and justifiable way to pair Schubert with, for example, contemporary American art song.

I do feel a serious responsibility to perform new songs, and songs of living composers in every program I create. When it comes to new work, it is less important to me that I love the songs, because I see my role as a vessel for a composer to pour new ideas into. I feel compelled to offer my voice to the creation of the new, because I believe in this art form, and believe that it must continue to evolve in ways that speak to audiences today, in a way that both participates in, and builds on, the tradition of the art song.

In terms of your current fach, what is your favourite repertoire?

I am fortunate that my fach and my musical taste tend to align! I will never tire of Mozart, and luckily roles such as Tamino, Ottavio, and Belmonte, suit me best right now. My interest, dramatically, always lies in more psychologically complex roles, and there are many that I am hoping to tackle soon. I am very interested in performing most of the roles Britten wrote for Peter Pears. I am finding that Handel roles in the hands of a creative and skillful director can be deeply rich and weird in wonderful ways — I hope to sing as much Handel as possible. In time, I hope to expand my repertoire to more Romantic roles such as Nemorino, Faust, and Des Grieux, but on my way there, I think that concert repertoire is important to my vocal growth. I am itching to sing the Evangelists, because of the incredible use of language and the profound emotional impact of Bach’s Passions. My interest in rep. is quite varied stylistically, as long as the work involves richness of character and language.

How do you prepare for a new operatic role?

The initial process is boring...learn the music, learn the text, work them into your voice. This is basic and essential, but the real work begins once you have created that base. The real development of a new role, I find, can only really happen when you begin to collaborate with a conductor, director, fellow singers, etc.... The ideas that I bring to a role only exist in relation to my colleagues and our audience. I have learned to bring as much musical, linguistic, and vocal refinement, along with a certain amount of research and imagination to the first rehearsal, but in doing so knowing that this is only the beginning of the process of creating a character.

Acting is such a crucial part of the opera experience — who are your mentors in this area?

Stephen Wadsworth is my mentor and only real teacher in acting technique. All directors are providing acting instruction and guidance in any given production, but Wadsworth gave me a structured technique that addressed the art of acting in opera holistically. His technique, as I understand and apply it, comes down to physical discipline, coupled with rigorous application of thought and imagination. Communicating to an audience through singing, especially as a character in an opera or as the protagonist of an art song, is a hell of a trick, in that you have to conceal the physically demanding mechanics of singing so that your audience doesn’t see a tenor managing his passaggio, but a character reacting to a situation. This technique begins with shedding the body tension that distracts, and filling the freed physicality with specific thought that animates character.

What were the highlights of your recent stint as Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky’s The Rake's Progress, and do you enjoy collaborating with former classmates such as Layla Claire?

Tom Rakewell is my favorite role for many reasons, so the opportunity to perform it at the Met where I trained, and which I consider my artistic home, was celebratory. I got to prepare and perform this role with Maestro Levine, who has guided my artistic growth so carefully. I also got to share the experience and the stage with Layla Claire who is my best friend among my colleagues, and who went through the Lindemann program with me...on top of which, I got to perform with Gerald Finley who has long been one of the singers whose artistry I most admire, and whose brilliant career balances opera, concert, and song, with a healthy dose of new music — I hope to emulate this. And did I mention Stephanie Blythe? Everything about the entire experience was a highlight! It WAS the highlight of my career so far!

As an early career musician, it’s tempting to say "yes" to everything and wear oneself out — are you conscious of avoiding this by maintaining balance and control over your timetable, or do you prefer to grasp every opportunity?

It is difficult to say "no" early in the career. I think most of us who choose this path, do so because they are wildly passionate about performing, and are inherently eager to leap on stage at every opportunity. Also, I think most young singers need a certain amount of affirmation from the industry to prove that they are in fact good enough, and desirable enough, to hire. This combination of eagerness and neediness can be dangerous! I certainly was not immune to it, but I was lucky to have an amazing team of mentors, and a manager with the experience and foresight to guide me. Fortunately, my voice was clearly a lighter lyric instrument, and there wasn’t much ambiguity about which rep. was appropriate for me, so there were fewer unwise offers to refuse than many more of my colleagues have had to face.

Do you have any thoughts on American contemporary opera?

I feel, very strongly, that the development of new works is absolutely vital in making our art form relevant and dynamic, and for us to provide that irreplaceable experience that contemporary audiences are longing for. I believe that unamplified singing (usually of the classical technique variety) offers something unique and profoundly human, and that we, as a community, must work harder and with greater resources to support the creation of new operas. While the economics of opera, especially in America, make producing opera so difficult, I fear that composers and librettist are often too constrained by institutions who commission them, to create a commercially successful masterpiece.

First of all, there is no preparation for writing an opera, other than writing an opera, and if the goal is a home-run on your first at bat (to use an American metaphor), the definition of success becomes too limiting to allow for growth after your first not-so-great attempt. The early operas of Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner are super lame. I am not sure how to create an environment in which presenters and audiences alike invest in this grand project, but as a performer, I beseech my fellow performers to seek out composers, and ask to perform their works. Make new music a priority to your career, and make yourself an asset to the composers, librettists, and producers of new opera, so that our best energies and talents serve this vital aspect of opera’s future!

You are preparing to sing the part of Jonathon in Handel’s Saul in Bucharest this September — how do you find the move from opera to oratorio?

Since we are staging Saul, it is functioning as an opera for all intents and purposes. Even so, the da capo structure of dramatic Handelian works creates a different relationship between music, text, and time. Staging Handel, whether opera or oratorio, is incredibly demanding, because there is so little text in the majority of the arias stated over so much time. As an actor, this demands a great deal of imagination and physical ingenuity to make the repetitive text and music live and breathe with the full complexity of human relationships.

Luckily, our director, Barrie Kosky, is deeply invested in conveying the richness of the characters and their plight in this piece. He is musical and collaborates with our conductor, Ivor Bolton, closely so that every recitative and transition from number to number is informed by specific storytelling goals. Saul is a specific historical story, but while we are telling that story, we are doing it in a way that makes it more universal, by exploring the family crisis at the heart of the piece. Parents must at some point cede their authority to their children. Children witness the decay of their once all-powerful protectors to nothing. These are not easy psychological or emotional realities for any of us, and yet all of us experience something like it. This is what good directing and good storytelling can achieve, and I am proud to be a part of this particular cast and production.

On rare days off, what do you like to do for fun in New York?

I am a new dad, so my definition of fun has changed drastically in the last year! Since I have to spend so much time on the road away from my wife and my daughter, spending any amount of time with them, no matter what we do, is precious to me.

Is there a 5-year plan?

I hope to continue to develop my vocalism and my artistry carefully over the next five years, by judiciously combining opera, concert, and recital work. If I continue to grow my voice healthfully and gradually, I believe that after 5 years, many more opera roles will become possible for me. So, I hope that a combination of Mozart roles, some lighter Italian roles (such as Fenton and Nemorino, accompanied by Britten, Bach, and Handel) will provide me with opportunities to make a distinctive mark in my repertoire, while fostering healthy growth.

My recital work is the closest to my heart. Programming a concert is my opportunity to be my own artistic director, to convey something meaningful to me through my selection of song, and the unique, naked experience of sharing a recital performance with an audience. This upcoming season, I am performing recitals at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, Wigmore Hall, and the Boston Celebrity Series among others, and I hope that these performances will give new audiences some insight into who I am as an artist.

For more information on Paul Appleby see: http://paulapplebytenor.com/

All images displayed in this article are subject to copyright.