American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn is having a banner month of April. Currently in town to make his role debut as the Emperor in Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, an unexpected withdrawal by a colleague meant that he is now slated to make a different role debut, taking over the longer and more demanding bel canto role of Enrico VIII in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. As if that’s not enough of an unexpected (but happy) turn of events, it was just announced that he’s the recipient of the 2018 Richard Tucker Award, a prestigious prize given to an American singer on the “threshold of an international career.”
I recently met up with Christian Van Horn for a chat during a break in his rehearsal schedule at the COC Headquarters on Front Street. Meeting him for the first time, one is immediately struck by his height. When he opens his mouth, his speaking voice has that unmistakable, deep resonance of a low voice singer. And when you combine his imposing physical stature with his equally imposing bass-baritone, not to mention a powerful stage presence COC audiences have experienced in his several appearances here, it’s little wonder that he’s in demand on the opera stages of the world. Given that he’s already a veteran of international opera houses the likes of Munich, Rome, Salzburg, and Paris, the Tucker Award is if anything rather belated and certainly fully deserving.
Congratulations on the Tucker Award! How does it feel to be chosen?
I got the call and was very surprised. There have only had a few bass wins in the forty or fifty years of the Award. Fifteen years ago, Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea won. I spoke with Barry, Richard’s son, on the phone. He kind of tricked me by saying ‘would you like to come to sing at the concert this year? I know you’ll be in New York.’ Of course! It would be an honour to sing at the Tucker Gala. He then said: ‘we’d like you to sing at the Gala, because we’d like you to be the winner’ (laughs). It’s very exciting. The concert is wonderful, and to be associated with that list of singers! I had already won a Sarah Tucker Study Grant, fifteen years ago, in 2003.
Have you made your professional debut at that point?
No, I made my professional debut in 2004, when I sang the Duke in Romeo and Juliet with the Florida Grand Opera. But as a young artist in 2002, I sang the Second Gravedigger in Hamlet, with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis.
I recall hearing you many times in Munich, where I go every July, to their Festival. You seemed to be in every show! I just assumed you were German or Dutch…
Oh sure, with a name like Van Horn. I was a Fest singer in Munich for two years, 2008-10. I did a hundred performances and seventeen roles in eighteen months. It was great! And I went back in 2012 and 2015.
It’s good to have you back at the COC. Is this your third time here?
It’s my fourth. I was Angelotti (Tosca) in 2012, Colline (La boheme) in 2013, and Escamillo (Carmen) two years ago.
You were supposed to be the Emperor in the Stravinsky, and now you are singing another royalty, Henry VIII in Ann Bolena. You must be very good at playing royalties!
(Big laughs) Well, that’s the life of a bass — you’re always the king, the priest, or the devil!
Tell us a bit about the circumstances of this role change.
I was the official cover for Enrico. I’ve never done it before and was not exactly performance ready. I prepared well, but I was also working on the Stravinsky, which is a lot to learn; very difficult music, plus the Russian language. It was a challenge. I arrived and did a week of rehearsals and staged everything. I was ready to do it and then got the phone call that “We need you to sing Henry.” That day I went from one rehearsal to another rehearsal!
What do you think of Anna Bolena, and bel canto in general?
This music is so rich, so moving. It’s the kind of singing why I got into this business — big, beautiful lines. Enrico is a great role. I am thrilled with the promotion!
Have you worked with Sondra Radvanovsky and the others before?
We did Norma in San Francisco several years ago. I worked with Bruce (Sledge) in Chicago in a Der Rosenkavalier. I was the Polizeikommissar.
Have you worked with Corrado Rovaris, the conductor?
We did Lucia in Santa Fe, and we’ll do it again in the fall, in Philadelphia. He’s more than just a musician and a conductor; I love the human being, generous and sweet.
Tell us a bit more about the role of Enrico VIII. It’s quite a big sing.
Oh yeah, it’s not for kids! There’s no proper aria, but there are four big, big scenes. They call the opera Anna Bolena, but the story is as much about Henry as anyone else. The music is so beautiful. Sometimes you sing a beautiful aria and you think the audience loves you, but they’re actually in love with the music [laughs].
What are the vocal challenges of Enrico?
A lot of it is stamina. The first duet with Giovanna is incredibly difficult, and you are chasing her the whole time. You have to negotiate this scene and sing at the same time. And to make the character of Henry the Eighth real and not turn him into a cartoon.
I guess a lot depends on the production. Is this a physical production?
We’re all committed to it being real. Stephen Lawless is so wonderful in his ideas, gives you so much to do that sometimes you can forget how difficult the music is!
“I will start off like myself, and with each scene, they put another layer of fat suit on me. By the last scene, I’ll be like the picture of Henry VIII we all know.”
Henry VIII is supposed to be fat. What is he like in this production?
I will start off like myself, and with each scene, they put another layer of fat suit on me. By the last scene, I’ll be like the picture of Henry VIII we all know. He was actually quite athletic until he had an injury and got an infection in his leg and got very overweight after that. I think I have Gerry Finley’s fat suit from Falstaff in this show (laughs)!
You have a new role coming up, Boito’s Mefistofele. And Enrico here is new. How many firsts are you doing this season?
It seems like they are all firsts recently! Boito is new. I’ve started my study. I’ve performed the aria but not the role. It’s such an honour to sing this at the Met. The first time they did it was when Sam (Ramey) did it. It’s the Robert Carson production which is so fantastic. I’m also doing Narbal in Les Troyens in Paris – I’ve done that several times. And I’ll sing Escamillo in Munich which I have done a bunch. I’m coming back to the Met for Publio (in La clemenza di Tito), with this incredible cast. I think it’s very important that we go back and sing Mozart.
Why is that? Why do you think singing Mozart is important?
We have to reset the voice. You have to sing Mozart correctly; it’s not as easy as it sounds. They give it to young singers; it’s the perfect training tool. From a technical standpoint you can only do it correctly your you’ll hurt yourself. Before you get to sing Puccini and Verdi and those grand things, you sing Schubert songs and Mozart — I think this is the right way.
How do you classify your voice? Do you consider yourself a bass or a bass-baritone?
I always say I am a bass-baritone. I have a low F, but I’d rather sing a high F. I sing Figaro a lot; I have it coming up, and I’ve recorded it for Sony.
Looking at your repertoire, I see a lot of Italian things, from bel canto to verismo to Verdi. Also lots of Mozart. You’ve sung very little German operas, especially considering that you were based in Germany in those years.
I’ve sung Donner in Das Rheingold. I want to stay away from Wagner. I’ve been asked but I’m trying to put it off. Something happens to Wagner singers – once they start (singing Wagner), they end up singing only Wagner. There’s so much music I haven’t done yet. Maybe never, but if I do it, it’ll be much later.
Also I’ve noticed that you seem to sing relatively little new music, except for Exterminating Angel.
No, I’ve done three or four American premieres — Marco Tutino’s Two Women in San Francisco; Tan Dun’s Tea in Santa Fe, Jonathan Dove’s Flight in St. Louis, and Anna Karenina in Florida Grand Opera. All young singers have to do contemporary opera!
Oops, I guess you’ve done a lot of new music! I’ll ask you this question then – how would a steady diet of new music affect the voice?
If you approach it correctly, it shouldn’t hurt you. Yes, sometimes the vocal gymnastics can be taxing.
For example, Exterminating Angel. I can’t believe the vocal writing!
For some of the characters, yes. There are some strange sonorities, but from a singing standpoint, Thomas Ades knows voices. I don’t think anybody is in trouble at all. Maybe if you do it all year, it may be taxing. But so can Tosca!
Some singers tell me, “Oh, I sing it like Mozart”, or “I sing it with legato, like in bel canto.” Really?
Sometimes it’s not possible, but as I said, if you have Mozart or Rossini on your schedule once or twice a year, you can reset (your voice).
As a bass, in Rossini, how do you deal with all that fioritura?
Sam Ramey ruined all that for us because he was so good at it! One of my first CDs was Sam Ramey singing Rossini arias. I heard him in some of these things and my head was spinning. I couldn’t believe that he sang all those notes, and he would go up to the F, F sharps and the G! He set the bar, and we all strive for that, we know it’s possible. Before Sam, Rossini was for buffo bass, not for full throat singing. Sam made it legit and that’s what we have to do. He sent me a nice note after this Tucker Award.
What do you think you are going to sing at the Award?
I don’t know. I would love to sing “Ella gammai m’amo” (Don Carlo). We’ll see.
Ah, Filipo! Have you done it?
It’s my dream role.
On the subject of dream roles, anything else?
I’ll sing a Claggart which I’m very excited about, and Nick Shadow in Rake’s Progress.
“It’s so much more fun to play the bad guy…”
Speaking of Claggart, do you like to sing heroes or villains?
It’s so much more fun to play the bad guy, just from an acting standpoint. We’ll leave the heroes to the tenors and baritones. The bad guys get to control everything. I just sang Mefisto in Chicago. What a joy to be this puppet master!
You also sing the Four Villains in Hoffmann. Do you sing the Diamond Aria?
Of course! They tried to cut it in San Francisco. There’s an alternate aria. The Diamond Aria wasn’t composed for Hoffmann.
Ah! I just assumed that they cut it because the bass doesn’t want to sing it!
It’s in three keys, you can do it in a D, and just the F sharp at the end.
Where do you see your voice going?
Certainly, my top has expanded. The bottom has stayed the same.
I’m told that with age the bass voice goes up and the high voices go down.
It’s true. I am winning the Tucker at 40. My tenor friends win it at 25. Their career started when they are very young, while I was singing small roles for a long time. I sang nine productions of Zuniga (Carmen) before my first Escamillo. We go slower.
Early in your career, you spent a lot of time in Europe. What made you come back to North America?
I wanted to take a Fest contract because I wanted to accelerate my stage time. I did have some good roles in Munich, but I had lots of medium roles. It was losing the fear of the audience. It was having so much stage time that you don’t care, it was doing five different operas in seven days, and just learning how to deal with the prompter, meeting the tenor on stage as the curtain goes up, etc. You have no rehearsals. Some of these things, especially with the La bohème. They give you three hours of rehearsals, maybe six hours, and you still wouldn’t meet the tenor. I’d be shaking hands with the tenor as the curtain was going up! From a singer’s standpoint, you lose your nervousness. It’s the difference between good and great, forgetting that the audience is there and just tell your story.
And the Munich audience is special…
Oh yeah! It’s a great audience. Every night, sold out. If the production got bad reviews, you can never get a ticket — everybody wants to see the bad show!
Do you go back to Europe to sing these days?
Now I do. I’ve got stuff coming up in Paris and Amsterdam, and Munich.
“You want to do this as well as you can for as long as you can.”
One final question: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
I won’t tell you who gave me this advice, but it’s one of the smartest man in the biz. He told me this career is a slow burn. You want to do this as well as you can for as long as you can. The second piece of advice, from another person, was ‘slow and steady’. Don’t go too fast. The people who go too fast, it’s a case of too much too soon, and they come back down.
But how do you resist the temptation if a really good offer comes in? How do you say no?
It’s not easy…when Placido Domingo calls and says I want you to sing Romeo on the opening night of the Met, you say Yes.
Thanks so much, and toi toi toi for opening night!
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Canadian Opera Company’s Anna Bolena (Donizetti) starring Christian Van Horn opens Saturday, April 28 at the Four Seasons Centre, 145 Queen St. W. Runs through May 26. Details here.