Sunday, February 2, 2014

Tenor Scott Ramsay talks about his career and "Lucia di Lammermoor"

Scott Ramsay as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor © Ken Howard / Portland Opera
Portland Opera's current production of Lucia di Lammermoor stars tenor Scott Ramsay as Edgado, the star-crossed but ill-fated lover of Lucia. This is Ramsay's debut with Portland Opera. Edgardo is considered his signature role. He has sung it at the Lyric Opera of Chicago opposite Natalie Dessay, Dublin International Opera Festival, Kentucky Opera, Anchorage Opera and New Orleans Opera, among others.

When did you arrive in Portland to start working on Lucia?

I got here on the 6th or 7th of January and have been working hard to help get all of this put together. We’ve had some time to enjoy the city and the surrounding area as well. We’ve had some gorgeous weather, too!

How many times have you sung the role of Edgardo?

This will be my tenth production! Actually, it’s my tenth production in ten years! I find the role you will be singing, somewhat unusual, because you have to sing earlier in the opera but then you’ve got a full load at the end and have to carry the opera.

It’s very interesting the way that this opera is set up. There’s a duet in the middle of the opera that opens the second act. It’s a duet between Enrico and Edgardo, a kind of confrontation scene where they challenge each other to a duel. It’s great musically and adds to the story, but lot of times, this duet is omitted, because it uses an extra scene, which means another set. So a lot of opera companies won’t do it because of the cost. But in the Portland Opera production we will do it, and it’s my third time to do this scene. I’m really looking forward to singing it.

For Lucia, how high do you have to sing?

In the duet with Enrico, there’s a cadenza that goes up to a high E flat. That’s normally the way that I do it, but in this production they want it done a different way.So in this production, the highest note is a B natural.

Okay, so that’s got to be easy pie for you!

[Laughs.] For some reason that B natural – just shy of a high C can be a lot more difficult than you’d think – especially at the end of the night. It’s funny that with singing this role in this opera, I have to change my sleep patterns. I have a lot of singing to do after 10 pm. I try to stay up until 1 or 1:30 in the morning so that I am more energized and it all feels natural when I have to sing so late in the evening.

How did you get drawn into singing opera? Were you always singing a lot as a kid?

I grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It’s famous for its football, and I’m a big Packers fan and grew up playing football. I got into singing through school choir and some local community theater. When I was in seventh grade, I had a teacher in school say, “You are so loud and you’ve got a big voice. You should be an opera singer.” I laughed when I heard that. I didn’t know what an opera singer was. But I started doing some community productions outside of school. My parents kind of pushed me into that area. I started singing in an opera chorus when I was in high school. We had a small opera company in Green Bay. I think that the Merry Widow was the first opera that I was in – singing in the chorus. There was something about it that kind of hooked me, but I didn’t return to it until college.

I went to college to study music, and I really wanted to be a high school choir director. So, I took some voice lessons, and my teacher said, “You know what. You should be a performance major and look at minoring in education.” The minute I did an opera workshop – we did a scene from Verdi’s “Falstaff” – I was hooked. This was great. It had theater and music, and it was challenging. When I had done musical theater before, the directors always told me that I was great, but I was too loud. So, I started to train and learn how to sing opera. I had to learn how to project.

Where did you go to college?

At first I went to the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point and then to Milwaukee. I finished college there and sang in the chorus of the Florentine Opera and the Skylight Music Theatre. I got to see how professional singers did it. There was no one moment when I decided that this is just what I’ve got to do. It just happened. I was singing in the chorus at the Florentine and was approached by one of the directors there, Bernard Uzan. He and his wife, Diane Soviero, were running the young artists program at Florida Grand Opera. I asked me to audition, and I did it, and got a position I the young artists program right after I finished my undergraduate work. So, it became my grad school. Then it kind of hit me that I’m actually doing opera singing as a profession.

You’ve done a lot since then, because you’ve sung all over, including at the Chicago Lyric.

That was the first place that I sang “Lucia.” It was during my final year there. I had been singing there for three seasons. “Lucia” became my break. I had been an understudy for Edgardo and had been singing the role of Arturo. This happened to be the first production that Natalie Dessay would do in Italian. The Edgardo was Marcelo Álvarez. He had done the role many, many times, but didn’t want to rehearse it in Chicago during a cold February. So, I go to rehearse with Natalie Dessay for two weeks. The director was John Copley who said that I would get treated as if I would be the tenor who would go onstage in case Álvarez didn’t come. Well, Álvarez did come and sing, but before the final performance, which was going to happen on his birthday, he decided that he didn’t want to do it. Natalie then put her foot down and said that I want Scott to do the role because we’ve rehearsed it. So that was my big break. It was the whole opera with the Wolf’s Craig scene, all in the original keys, and a big audience. It was a night that I will never ever forget.

What a terrific thing!

And another thing that happened during that time was a writer from the New Yorker, Bill Murray, who was following the young artists and some the stars at the Chicago Lyric around all year in order to chronicle us. He wrote about that night when I got to sing Edgardo in “Lucia.” He published that in his book called “Fortissimo: Backstage at the Opera with Sacred Monsters and Young Singers.” The sad thing is that he had passed before the book was published.

Jumping back to Green Bay, have you been asked to sing at a Packers game?

I actually have! It was about 10 years ago. I think that a friend of mine from church may have even posted it on YouTube. It was an NFC North Championship game, and I think that the Packers won it. It was wonderful exposure for me. A bunch of the players from that team went to my church there, and my pastor was the chaplain of the Packers. I’ve sung a number of chapel services for them. It’s been really neat to know some of the players like Aaron Rodgers.

Opera singers travel a lot, because that’s part of the job. When you travel, how do you like to stay in touch back home with your spouse or partner?

I have a partner who is in the administration at Lyric Opera in Chicago. When you are on the road, it’s tough. You have to make time for your relationships. I stay in touch with him and my family in Green Bay on the phone and with Skype and Facetime. That makes a world of difference. The most that I’m gone is three months at a stretch. But when the gig is over, I’m ready to go back home!

I’m very fortunate, that Portland Opera treats opera singers like a family. People bend over backwards for the artists. The give us great housing. We get a bike to ride around the city. This is my first time here, but I’ve had friends who have sung here, and they say “Oh, just wait until you get to Portland and work with Portland Opera. It’s great.” I was just talking with my manager earlier this morning, and she said, “Every artist I have talks about how fantastic Portland Opera is with visiting artists.” On top of everything, I have a lot of friends who have moved to Portland from the Midwest. So, I’m really enjoying reconnecting with them.

What are you doing after Portland?

I’m going home for three weeks before heading out to Albequerque, New Mexico, to do “Pearl Fishers.”

What do you recommend for singers that is most helpful?

Be sure to drink enough water. Keep hydrated, and get enough rest.

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