Magazine article Opera Canada

Master Singer: Between Big-Screen Role Debuts at New York's Met, Russell Braun Addresses Some Basic Questions

Magazine article Opera Canada

Master Singer: Between Big-Screen Role Debuts at New York's Met, Russell Braun Addresses Some Basic Questions

Article excerpt

Given their druthers, most singers would take their first steps in a new role on a stage far smaller than "the Metropolitan Opera's--and outside the scrutiny of HD cameras magnifying any potential falter for a global audience. But baritone Russell Braun--Frankfurt-born, Toronto-based--seems unfazed by numbers as he tackles in rapid succession two very different firsts, and two live HD transmissions, at New York's "big house": Chou En-lai in John Adams's grand-operatic Nixon in China and Olivier in Richard Strauss's intimate "conversation piece," Capriccio.

"In Europe, role debuts are very important--they get special mention in the program. In America, not really," he observes, as if his current performance venue should explain his sangfroid rather than disrupt it. "And I have two weeks off between the end of Nixon's run and the start of Capriccio rehearsals." He's, Chou-like, sipping ginseng tea in a cluttered apartment--mine--near Lincoln Center, a way station on a trip downtown to purchase an electronic keyboard on the eve of the Nixon premiere in January. "And boy, working on Capriccio makes working on the Adams seem like playing 'Chopsticks,'" he says, punning either accidentally or very drily indeed. "It's also one of the few roles I can sing in my native language." Braun spent most of his childhood in Germany, where his father, the esteemed baritone Victor Braun, based his career. Papa Braun would come home from an engagement frustrated that his children were speaking nothing but German. '"It's going to be only English for a week!'" he'd announce, knowing it was a losing battle. All my friends were German, my education was German," says Braun the son, and there's still a touch of German precision in his soft-spoken, elegant, articulate English.

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In Capriccio's central debate of Ton oder Wort? (music or text?), Braun's role, the poet Olivier, stands firmly for verbal primacy. Braun seconds him equally strongly. "I'm completely drawn to the words. That's the source. I've started to work with young singers over the past couple of years, and the one thing I repeat over and over again is to become a lover of words, because in the words there is technique, there is characterization--so much of characterization is how you pronounce and inflect words. In [Schubert's] Erlkonig, for instance--" and he demonstrates two very different-sounding sibilants. "I love language, anything to do with words. I love crossword puzzles. I download a half-dozen of them every day. I've always loved word games, loved puns--anything like that."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

How does he relate to opera in translation? "I'm not completely against it. But it's not always a good thing. I recently was offered the chance to record Pelleas in English for Chandos. Once I'd agreed, I was sent the score with a recent translation done for English National Opera. Well, my conscience wouldn't allow me to do it--it was so far removed from the original meter. Debussy was so inspired by the rhythm, the sound of Maeterlinck's prose, and this translation took Debussy's vocal line and altered it to fit the new English words. It wasn't Debussy any more. I wound up pulling out of the project, and ultimately the whole thing fell through. Onstage, obviously, the translation had worked, but on record, with sound alone, it just wouldn't have.

"And Pelleas is a role that's meant everything to me. This, and maybe Figaro in Barber of Seville--they've allowed me to make music on a different level than I otherwise might have done." Figaro has been his most frequent role at the Met ("a barbiere di audita," as I've lauded him in these pages). "At the moment, though, I'm in a little bit of a transition in my career. Most of the roles I've done for the past season or two, and coming up, are new. I'll be doing my first Verdi roles. I'd been scheduled to do Posa [in Don Carlo] in Vancouver, but that production was replaced by Aida, and I don't think Amonasro is a very good fit for me! …

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