John Relyea chats about playing the bad guy, Gounod's Faust and future projects

'Opera is, after all, ultimately about trust and interaction'

9 June 2010


The San Francisco Opera summer season started only a few days ago with a production of Faust starring some of the most acclaimed singers on the contemporary opera scene. Together with Patricia Racette and Stefano Secco, a young superstar features in the cast: Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea. At thirty-something, Relyea has already conquered audiences and critics around the world with his charismatic presence and his intense and precise timbre. Winner of the prestigious Richard Tucker Award (2003) and Beverly Sills Award (2009), he has also been an Adler Fellow and a Merola program alumnus at the San Francisco Opera. He is now back on the West Coast to perform one of the devilish roles that made him popular: Mephistopheles from Gounod's Faust.

As a young music lover, he dreamed of being a rock star – until his parents, baritone Gary Relyea and soprano Anna Tamm-Relyea, noted that his voice would be suited for the operatic stage. Since then, he has collaborated with the most prominent artists of the major opera houses and concert halls. In Europe, he has recently sung in the Bayerische Staatsoper's Le nozze di Figaro and at the Baden-Baden Festival. Lately, he has been busy in the US: among his many performances, he played Figaro in Jonathan Miller's production of Le nozze at the Met. Fans all over the world can admire him in broadcasts from the Met Live in HD series, where he starred in Don Giovanni, I puritani, Macbeth, and many others.

Our conversation starts with some thoughts on the role he is currently performing at the San Francisco Opera, Mephistopheles. How does he relate this role to other 'devilish' characters he has embodied, such as the ones in La damnation de Faust or in The Rake's Progress? "The Mephistopheles in Gounod's Faust is quite multi-faceted. He truly enjoys the events he is unfolding upon Faust and Marguerite. All the while he plays 'servant' to Faust - as per the contractual terms. His character shows more irony, humour, and sarcasm than that of Berlioz's Damnation, which is much darker, more serious, and seemingly controls a broader scope of the world which his victims inhabit. Nick Shadow, in sharp contrast to the other devils, is much more straight to the point and deliberate in selling his wares. He truly makes no facade in tempting Tom Rakewell deeper and deeper into sin, encouraging him to cast off the binds of morality and convention in order to master his own fate."

I wonder how it was to perform in this SF Opera's Faust. Did he work closely with the stage director, and with choreographer Lawrence Pech, or was he free to take initiative in creating his role? "I actually recently worked with our director Jose Maria Condemi at Chicago Lyric in Damnation, ironically enough! It was a much more modern production, and so there was much probing further into many of the scenes and the characters. Also, there is much more to be defined in the Berlioz, where as a concert piece, much of the setting is vague and nebulous. As a result of this more intense work, he was able to understand my development process, and we very much agree on ideas and follow a similar creative process as artists. This has really created a very easy, free atmosphere for preparing the Gounod here in San Francisco. The production is also fairly traditional, so many of the corners and transitions in the story are solidly and logically rendered. As a result, it is easy to be creative and spontaneous within such a sound framework – where the playful, easy and unpredictable nature of Mephistopheles can thrive."

RelyeaI am curious about his performative approach, especially for characters that require both detachment from his personality and a powerful presence on stage. How does he go about preparing the dramatic aspects of his roles? "While I have often found that the process tends to evolve differently for some characters, I do think that more often the aspect of physicality is key to unlocking ideas. The walk, the speed and size of movements or gestures, the kind of intensity you see in the eyes at given moments will often lead to more of the inner ideas – personality, motives, and so on. I know this is a reverse of the usual process for building a character, but, for me, it is good to explore my physical realms first, so that there is an active moving instrument ready to articulate the inner world of the character more clearly to a large house."

How was his relationship with the fabulous cast featuring in this production? "It has been excellent. I am always thrilled when no one in the cast lets their ego get in the way of putting a production together. It makes all the difference in the world - it is after all, ultimately about trust and interaction. If we can't achieve this during rehearsals, it will be far less real on stage. In our Faust cast, Patricia Racette is just this kind of example of a fully committed artist, which inspires others in the scenes to be right there with her in the moment."

Does he think the original source of Gounod's Faust, Goethe's Faust, still has a bearing on the interpretation of this opera, for him? "It has been some time since I read the Goethe, but it struck me that actually Berlioz's interpretation carried the most resemblance. His vision is very dreamlike and scenes tend to morph into one another. While he had written Damnation as a concert piece, he did not confine himself to making a consistent logical sense in the pacing of scenes, interactions of characters and changes of setting. To me, the Goethe seems to be the same type of animal. Primarily it is very much a long poem, often a narrative, where images and atmosphere are often more in the foreground than real time, first person story development. Regardless, one can find many useful ways to imagine the characters from this beautiful work, which obviously inspired so many composers to set it to music."

RelyeaJust as in the case of Faust co-star Racette, Relyea's career is closely linked to the San Francisco Opera: he was the recipient of an Adler Fellowship and a graduate from the Merola Opera Program. How has this relationship shaped his artistic growth, now that he is an international artist performing in all major houses? "During my Adler Fellowship I performed close to twenty different roles with SF Opera. The value of this really speaks for itself. I gained so much valuable experience at that time, and worked with many great directors, conductors, and singers whom I had looked up to for many years. This time really taught me all that would be expected of me to achieve my artistic goals."

Can he tell me a bit about his vocal training and his early musical experiences? "I grew up in a very musical house. Both my parents are opera singers, so it was always a part of my life. Although, I didn't give much thought to singing until my late teens - after my voice had changed, of course! Up until that time, I had studied piano, and my main passion was guitar. I studied many kinds of guitar – rock, classical, jazz...I even played night clubs as a lead guitarist in a very loud band! One day, my dad asked me to sing a few notes, and it became immediately apparent that opera was a very strong possibility for me. I became very fascinated by the idea of acting as well as singing, too. Within a year, at age twenty, I was singing concerts with many major orchestras. I eventually went to the Curtis Institute to continue my studies. Later on, I studied voice with Jerome Hines, and most recently with Armen Boyajian."

I mention to Relyea that I saw him in London in two wonderful performances of The Rake's Progress at Covent Garden and in Verdi's Requiem conducted by Sir Colin Davis with the London Symphony Orchestra. I was struck by the intensity and density of his vocal quality and interpretations. Does he feel more comfortable being on an operatic stage or performing in concert? "While I do enjoy both, I guess I find opera the most fulfilling. Creating a character, and being in a set, interacting with other characters...I really get a charge out of the process. When there is real chemistry, real trust and creativity going on in a cast - well, there's nothing like it."

RelyeaHe is part of the fabulous cast of a Don Giovanni from the Metropolitan, featuring Renée Fleming, Bryn Terfel and Ferruccio Furlanetto, which was released on DVD in 2005. Nowadays, many music lovers are able to experience operas through DVDs and live broadcast in cinemas, or public screenings in squares and so on. Does his approach as an artist change with these new forms of experiencing operas? "As the cinema telecasts give audiences a very close up view of a production, the entire approach of the cast on stage has to take on a more detailed, perhaps smaller, more real-life scale of delivery. For example, gestures and expressions have to be done in a scale that is very true to life, and not in the usual grandness so as to read in a 3500 seat house. I think this helps a performer 'fine tune' their ideas, and test the believability of what they are doing to an even greater level."

He has been playing many different characters in many productions around the world. Is there one role that he likes to embody the most? "Right now, I'm doing it - the Devil. I have always enjoyed being Villains. I find them full of possibilities, both physically and psychologically. Much can be explored. It is actually impossible to decide which Mephistopheles I like the most. They are both great in different ways. But, I imagine once I take on Boito's Mefistofele, that will probably end up being my favourite. That is a truly magnificent work."

Let's conclude with a look at the future: what kind of repertoire would he like to explore in the coming years? "The next chapter will be more Verdi and Wagner. The two roles I am really looking forward to are King Marke and Boris Gudonov," he concludes with excitement.

By Marina Romani

Photo Credits (from top to bottom): Dario Acosta; Terrence McCarthy (SF Opera, Faust); Ken Howard/The Metropolitan Opera (New York Met, La damnation de Faust); Cory Weaver (SF Opera, Faust).



RacetteRelated articles:

Opera Review Faust at the San Francisco Opera
Interview Patricia Racette
Interview Eva Podles
Interview Joyce DiDonato


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