Corigliano’s latest opera The Ghosts of Versailles just won both best opera recording and best engineered album at the Grammys. primephonic caught up with one of the stars of the celebrated production, the American baritone Lucas Meachem.
In an insightful post in your blog you tell the story of how you went through three different colleges across eight years and despite being very close to finishing you never completed a degree. As polemic as it may sound to some it’s a story of taking risks and venturing into new challenging artistic horizons that offer personal and professional growth (not without investing much effort of course). So, how did you discover this was your vocation? What kept you sure and motivated in pursuing opera singing through those different paths?
Those paths are exactly what motivated me forward towards the goal of becoming a professional opera singer. Without the opportunity or the confidence in myself, I would have never left my first college Appalachian State. I somehow knew at the time that certain opportunities only come once so I took a leap of faith. Some people are more equipped to take these leaps than others and that can be a deciding factor for a career. Every opportunity presented to me was better than the one before so I kept moving closer to my goal rather than stagnating in one place. The fact that I don't have a degree is a positive thing in my eyes because I was willing to do anything to forward my career. That courage and resolve has served me well.
Three things gave me the self-assurance to pursue singing: reinforcement from my peers and mentors, honest self-evaluation of my singing, and a healthy ego.
Together with Don Giovanni it seems Figaro has been your oldest and most recurring role. How has the character grown on you? How would you differentiate the one you play today from your earlier performances and what aspects would you like to work on for future performances?
With the comedic role of Figaro there is a fine line between classy humor and over-the-top humor. This is a man who finds himself in the middle of a hilarious plot while tasked with making sure that the story ends well for everyone involved. He's a Jack of all trades and this can come off as classy or clownish. In my younger renditions of Figaro, I tried too hard to get the audience's laugh. But as I get older, I find that less is more for this character. The words and the music are just enough.
Vocally, as I grow older I find that this role gets easier for me. A lot of this is just entering my vocal prime as a lyric baritone, something that can never be rushed. My overall sound is opening up and my high notes require less effort but more support. Basics of vocal technique, but the years of practice and maturing of my voice make it all come together.
What are the most challenging technical/acting aspects of some of your favourite roles? And what unexpected rewards have you discovered playing them?
Singing never comes into my mind concerning a role's difficulty. This can be attributed to the amount of preparation before one arrives at an opera house, as well as reinforcing a solid technique. My wife is a professional coach and we both make sure of this. These days, my artistic goal is to be honest with my characters. No more, no less. That means that every movement or action on stage is motivated by the music or the words that I'm saying. So I try to draw focus with my intentions not my actions.
I just debuted in the role of Sharpless at The Dallas Opera. It's the third most important character in the opera and my job is to pull the audience along with my inner struggle. A hard thing to do. Sharpless sympathizes with Butterfly the same way that the audience does so I have to be emotionally invested at all times. I can't foreshadow too much or too little. It's like walking the edge of a knife until the end of the night. I also believe that the best character portrayals are not about arriving at a moment in the show--they bring the characters to life in the minds of an audience even after the curtain lowers.
How was performing Corigliano’s Figaro a nurturing experience for you? How did you approach this version of the character differently?
When I performed in the Ghosts of Versailles, a page turned to a new chapter of my career. Instead of playing the young, boisterous Figaro from Rossini's Barbiere di Siviglia, I played his older self who has seen his share of success and failures over the years. This opened my mind to add flaws to the younger Figaro so that he could reach a more realistic version of himself. I wanted to preserve much of the same joie de vivre to the older Figaro but I quickly discovered that he was a little worn out. From time to time, I would bring out the twinkle in his eye--the burst of energy to plot again, to bring a couple together, and win the day. All in all, he's still got his groove.
How was the making of this Grammy-winning album a memorable experience for you? What can you share with us about the whole process? (Insights on the score from your perspective, on its referential nature to other Operas, any particular challenges of recording this live? Any fun anecdote perhaps?)
We recorded the Ghosts of Versailles during three live performances at the Los Angeles Opera. This made for an exciting ambiance and realistic singing for the recording. However, it also meant that there were mistakes just like any live performance. On recording days, I felt like I was taking notes in my head as I was performing on the things I did well and not so well, so the next day I could improve upon the things that needed work. This took a lot of brain power--like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time.
Working with Patti LuPone was incredible. She is unbelievably selfless. When we were rehearsing the final bows, she was assigned to bow after me but she wouldn't. She said that my part was bigger and that she should bow before me instead. Many performers would take the chance for a later bow but she cares about her colleagues and the integrity of the performance rather than her ego. She is a true star.
So lastly and back to my first question…. How are you challenging your artistic growth today and what’s in store for the future?
This is a great question since now I am slowly entering the second stage of my career. I can put behind me 13 years of productions and 49 operatics roles. I feel proud of the consistency of my product and when I look backwards I feel a sense of gratification and establishment.
As I venture forward in my career, I continue to be hired for my signature roles. I am also beginning to explore heavier repertoire in bel canto and early Verdi. This will open up a new window for me to perform larger roles than before while also continuing to lend my expertise to roles that I've been performing for over a decade. For my 50th role, I will be debuting Thaïs at Minnesota Opera, my new hometown, next season.
Lucas Meachem in conversation with primephonic's Juan Cervantes