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Interview: Bass-baritone John Relyea loves sinking his chops into evil operatic characters

By John Terauds on April 7, 2012

Bass-baritone John Relyea makes his Canadian Opera Company début in The Tales of Hoffmann on Tuesday night (Dario Acosta photo).

In the opera world, the bass-baritone often plays a devil or a sage. Although John Relyea enjoys singing both types of roles, he gets a particular charge out of exploring the darker places.

He gets ample opportunity to do so in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of The Tales of Hoffmann, by Jacques Offenbach, which opens at the Four Seasons Centre on Tuesday night.

Despite the fact that Relyea, now 40,  grew up in Canada and enjoys a  successful international career, Hoffmann marks his Canadian Opera Company début.

This is an occasion in itself. But, catching up with Relyea in his dressing room following a rehearsal, he calmly puts it all into perspective.

The opera singer says that he and the COC’s previous general director, Richard Bradshaw, had discussed work possibilities years ago, but nothing ever came of them. So this production of Tales of Hoffmann, which originated at Belgium’s Flemish Opera, “happened when it was supposed to.”

“In this profession, there is a lot of timing that you cannot control,” says Relyea philosophically. But getting his chops on a bad-guy character brings a satisfying level of control to the here-and-now.

“I enjoy those roles a lot,” says the dark-voiced singer. “It’s fun, and you have a lot of power and control in the story, and a lot of chance to physicalize a character when you’re a villain – you can play them a lot of different ways.

“When I play these characters, my foundation is to be approaching it from a theatrical standpoint first. Whereas, if I was doing something like bel canto repertoire, it would be more about the music and the singing. But, with these characters, there is so much more opportunity to colour things, when you look at the text and the character’s style – factors that would be more of an afterthought in other types of roles.”

In the Tales of Hoffmann, the poet of the opera’s title gets drunk as he rhapsodizes about his beloved Stella, and how she is the sum of three previous women he has loved. Each act of the opera shows a different aspect of this love, and these women, requiring four different evil presences to go along for the ride.

“The characters have to be very contrasting,” says Relyea. “Likewise, the voice goes along with that a little bit. I enjoy that kind of diversity.”

He also enjoys the special connection an operatic character can make with a receptive audience.

Relyea, the son of two prominent singers, says he always knew he wanted to be in music, but was more interested in playing rock guitar until he had a chance to sing the role of Colline in Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème while studying at the Curtis Institute in Philadephia.

“I enjoyed having that extra layer of self-expression,” he recalls. “The theatrical element keyed me in the same way it does a lot of people who who are passionate about opera, even if they are just an audience member. It just makes life much larger than itself.”

The bass-baritone says the experience is highly addictive:

“You look for those moments when you perform when you really grab the audience. There’s this kind of unspoken meeting of minds or a union of sorts, because people are looking for an emotional release when they are going to opera. And you can find those key points in an evening, in a story – like the end of an aria, when you know that the audience is there with you. Those for me are very powerful moments and they are what keep me going.”

Relyea is in fine company in the COC production, which features a stellar quartet of female leads, including Lauren Segal as Hoffmann’s muse, an Olympia sung by Andreana Chuchman, who dazzled in her local début last season with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, as well as Erin Wall singing Antonia and Keri Alkema as Giulietta.

COC Orchestra music director Johannes Debus conducts.

For full production details and tickets, click here.

For a taste of Relyea’s magnetic singing, here is a scene from Act I of a (very different) Bavarian State Opera production of Hoffmann from last fall:

And here is Relyea as Alidoro in a Met production of Gioachino Rossini’s Cenerentola:

John Terauds

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