The Crested Butte Opera Studio has had the tremendous honor of working with the distinguished American baritone, Todd Thomas, in this summer’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff. Todd is an internationally recognized singer who has appeared with such companies as the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Seattle Opera, Florida Grand Opera, Sarasota Opera, Arizona Opera, among many others. Mark Moorman, the Festival’s Director of Artistic Administration recently sat down with Todd to discuss his upcoming performance in Falstaff.
Tell us a little about yourself? Where did you grow up and what was your path to becoming an opera singer?
I grew up in Elmira, New York. I always enjoyed music, even as a little kid and I had excellent music teachers in school. I remember being very moved by music from my earliest days, for example, in my church. The visceral sense I had when hearing that music was something I’ve never forgotten. Even as a young kid, I thought that it would be incredible to create the experience of music for other people. I wanted them to feel what I felt.
That desire to be in the world of music inspired me to do many things: I took piano lessons and I took voice lessons with a teacher with whom I’m still in touch. I initially decided that I wanted to be a Music Education Major, studying at Ithaca College for a year, transferring to Oberlin Conservatory a year later. At Oberlin, I found myself in the chorus of Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea and that is when the idea of being an opera singer first occurred to me. I was so moved by the music, the story, the costumes, the acting, the everything! Fortunately, my voice teachers agreed and my serious career began there.
Your fellow singers for this production are members of the Crested Butte Opera Studio, many of whom are singing a major leading for the first time. Tell us a little about your first operatic role and the importance of being able to sing lead roles in an opera.
Singing a leading role is how you learn your craft. Among my first lead roles was Papageno in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. I will admit that I was very nervous during the rehearsals for this role because I thought the point of the rehearsal period was to learn the role—I had seriously underprepared. The director of that production finally came over to me a week before the performance and told me, “Todd, you don’t know this role.” I sheepishly agreed with him and asked him what I should do. He told me that I needed to live with the role 24/7 till every note was part of my very being. I followed his advice to the letter and, miraculously, by the opening night I was prepared. But what a great learning experience; it has stayed with me ever since. My next role was, interestingly, Ford in Falstaff, and by then I had a solid technique for learning a lead role. The program here in Crested Butte is so unique in giving people the chance to sing a leading role—this is exactly what young singers need.
You are known as a “Verdi baritone”—what exactly is that and what was your path to singing so many Verdi roles.
Excellent question. As I had indicated, my third big role was Ford in Falstaff, which I did in English—these were the days before supertitles. The director of that production gave me some interesting advice: she said that she thought I had an Italianate voice; operatic voices are often categorized by nationalities based on their sonority and their “fit.” When I was accepted into the Academy of Vocal Arts, the faculty their felt the same and my next role was Germont in La traviata. Over the years, Verdi has been a particular favorite of mine. I give a lot of credit to Victor DeRenzi at Sarasota Opera, who, during his legendary Verdi cycle, cast me in many great Verdi parts such as the title roles in Nabucco and Attila, and really obscure things like La battaglia di Legano. Maestro DeRenzi has a real feel for the Italian style and I learned a lot singing so much Verdi with him.
You are especially renowned for your portrayal of the title role in Verdi’s Rigoletto, one of the most difficult roles in the repertory. Do you see any similarities between Rigoletto and Falstaff, the role you are singing with Crested Butte?
Well, Verdi was brilliant. You see that on every page. I do see some similarities between the two roles. For one thing, both Falstaff and Rigoletto are performers. Falstaff essentially performs for whomever he is with, which says a lot about him as a person, as it does Rigoletto. When Falstaff taunts his lackeys Bardolfo and Pistola, it reminds me of Rigoletto’s mocking of Ceprano.
Falstaff is such a great role—there are so many ways of playing it and I’ve done it differently in different productions. I’ve been asked to play it broadly in a kind of raucous and raunchy style, which made me a little uncomfortable because I think there is much more to the role than that. Alternatively, I’ve done one production in which the conductor didn’t want anyone to laugh because they would then miss Verdi’s beautiful music. Imagine that! During the previews for that production, we had given a performance for children and they were laughing so much that the conductor asked the director to take out some of the funny bits.
My point of view is that this opera is a comedy and by that I mean it is very human. The humanity of Falstaff is always apparent. He may put on a big show and act ridiculous much of the time, but he doesn’t think of himself as ridiculous. He truly believes in himself and he believes that his enormous abdomen is one of as his greatest assets. He’s very proud to show off his belly to the world and doesn’t really care when people make fun of him. True, when he’s pulled out of river after being thrown in there by the Merry Wives, we see him rejected and downcast—and we do feel sorry for him. But it doesn’t last very long—Falstaff pulls himself out of his doldrums—which is a marvelous thing to see.
Do you see any of yourself in Falstaff?
One thing I really like about Falstaff is that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He respects himself, but in the end he doesn’t mind being the butt of a joke—he basically says, well, let’s just forget about our difficulties and go out and have a nice dinner. I am someone who tries to do that in my own life—and I have to say that Falstaff is a great teacher in this regard. That said, every character in Verdi teaches us something important about life and about humanity in particular.
Any final thoughts?
I want to say how grateful I am to be here and to be part of an educational program. In my hometown, I created a scholarship to encourage high school students to pursue their musical education while they are in college. Music is a miracle, and I’m so pleased to be part of any organization that commits to making sure music is passed on from generation to generation.
Photos: Todd Thomas in the role of Falstaff with the opera companies of Opera Santa Barbara and Opera Manitoba. Todd is also seen in rehearsal with the Crested Butte Opera Studio.