Based on the San Francisco Symphony’s previous offerings of semistaged operas, Mussorgksy’s Boris Godunov, playing June 14, 15, and 17, will be a hot ticket. Many of the lead roles will be sung by singers better known abroad than in the U.S., but several of the supporting roles will be done by singers well known to San Francisco audiences. Among them, baritone Aleksey Bogdanov is a Merola alum and has performed with local companies such as San Francisco Opera and Opera Parallèle.
Bogdanov did his undergraduate work at U.C. Santa Cruz under the guidance of conductor Nicole Paiement and voice teacher/director Brian Staufenbiel (now artistic and creative directors of Opera Parallèle, respectively.) Though his nascent career has been impressive, including two awards from the Metropolitan Opera National Council District Auditions, and other awards and apprenticeships, the 35-year-old Russian-American does make time for a personal life. Bogdanov will be married this very Saturday, to soprano Rebecca Nathanson. When we spoke, he expressed gratitude to the Symphony, not only for giving him the opportunity to make his debut, but also for releasing him from rehearsals to fly back east over the weekend for the nuptials.
What is it like to take part in something semistaged like this? Is it a bit nerve wracking to have such a short rehearsal period?
Sometimes the repetition of rehearsal is what makes things feel secure, so for people who have done their roles before, like our Boris Godunov [Stanislav Trofimov], it’s a matter of stepping in and doing what he knows. It comes down to being focused. Actually, there’s no time to get nervous. Singers always love doing something that’s semistaged, or even staged but with an orchestra not in the pit, to feature the orchestra so the audience can look at the players. And you get enough of the action. We think of this as a staged event. It will be much more than standing in tuxedos; there are costumes, a set design and projections and all of that.
How would you describe your voice, both the color and the category?
I’m 35, so to throw around something like “dramatic baritone,” it’s a lofty term. I classify myself by what people hire me to sing. I sing a lot of declamatory parts that need a lot of projection, and I sing romantic leads and villains. There was a point last year when I had seven or eight villains in a row, roles like Jack Rance in Fanciulla [del West], and Scarpia in Tosca. I’m just starting with that repertoire. Some baritones have the youthful lyric baritone type and they’re able to cash in on that in their late twenties, singing Barber of Seville and all of that stuff. I never really came from that. I would say I’m equal parts bel canto and can belto.
Did you get typecast early on as someone who could handle the Russian repertoire because you spoke the language? The “L” sound in Russian is sometimes called a “hard L,” and it can be quite tricky not to get the tongue too involved. Do you have any thoughts on the particulars of singing Russian?
I grew up in the Soviet Union, so I grew up speaking Russian and it has definitely come in handy. There are a few things that give away the non-Russian singers, and it is the elision, the hard “L” that you are talking about. It’s very hard to explain, there are some sounds that exist in the Russian language that people don’t recognize, so it takes as much as five years to get to sound like a native speaker. Opera is very much based on the Italian technique; even if you’re singing in German or French, there is an Italian vocal style you’re supposed to deliver. So even native Russian singers, everything has to adjust so that the sounds carry the voice.
Did it every concern you to jump into this repertoire so early?
It’s tricky. I have the only baritone role in Boris Godunov. With Russian repertoire, it’s either the really high baritones like Lensky in Eugene Onegin or Robert in Iolanta. Being a fuller baritone, you sort of get caught in the middle, so I have to gravitate toward singing the lyric Russian stuff like Lionel in Maid of Orleans, or Onegin. It’s either a young baritone or old bass sound.
This is an aristocratic character you’re playing, a Boyar. What kind of work do you do to get into the physicality of a character, whether it’s this or Jack Rance or the Torreador?
That’s the blessing of this profession. They come in different shapes and sizes. You start at the beginning. With Rance, or Scarpia, first and foremost, they are cops, and Rance is a gambler and a drunk so you have to be able to paint that loneliness. The entire score gives opportunities to be a character in every moment I’m onstage, whether I’m singing or not. We are vocal actors; our job is to tell the story through our voices, but they have to be integrated into a character. And people do notice.
In the case of the role I’m singing, Shchelkalov, he’s not a big role, but he’s a historically important figure, and with that comes a certain responsibility to read up on the character. He was a diplomat, he was in the police force, very well liked by Boris Godunov and praised by him. I’m basically delivering announcements, no different than somebody on CSPAN who starts a vote or gives a speech. My character shouldn’t be emotional, waving his hands around. He has to be the kind of person that when he speaks, people listen to him. Creating the physicality is actually the most fun part.
Say more about that.
We all understand a great voice or a voice that touches you, but there are also a lot of good voices or functional voices or voices that fit the criteria of the character and what’s important is that physicality. Singers are often concentrating very heavily on their singing, but performers have to understand that moving the body around frees the singing, it colors the singing without having to worry about the colors.
Some singers really like to dig into the historical background. I’ve interviewed Thomas Hampson a couple of times and it’s not only that he thinks the research is an important thing to do, but he seems to really enjoy it. It seems that maybe you are of that type.
Absolutely. When I get a new role, I will take months to just speak the role. Singers often get a new role and immediately start pounding out the arias or the high notes before they have internalized what the arc of the character is, why there is an aria, and what this aria means, what the voice is going to do in that moment. It’s important for me to lock in the delivery of the text. Then when I start to sing, I need much fewer coachings, or barely any lessons because I’ve done all that work at home.
I used to think it was muscle memory: You keep singing things over and over again and it gets better, but it’s actually all the intellectual aspects. There’s always something every day when you’re researching a character, looking at a score, a line jumps out at you differently and you have to know the scene exactly and what is going on, but also to be flexible in case the interpretation of the director or production is more abstract or more counterintuitive to what is in the score. You have to be able to see it in every way possible.
I’m very much a text-driven singer as opposed to a vocally-driven singer. I’d like to say that I can run up and down stairs and do cartwheels and then also deliver something meaningful, rather than just stand there and sing, which can be enough, but there’s no reason for that to be all that there is for a performer.
Shchelkalov’s music is so beautiful. I find it very persuasive, which perhaps is the point, but it also does have a somewhat sinister aspect? What do you think of this guy?
He has two main speeches in the opera; he’s certainly not a bad guy. There is a certain Russian soul in this music, the heaviness of it, the Russian people looking for a leader and an identity. Shchelkalov represents that voice that says, “We are all together, let’s figure it out, let’s pray to God that Boris takes the power that we all want him to take.” He absolutely is persuasive, you’re absolutely right. It’s a moment in time that sounds perfectly like the situation that is evoked [in] the music. It has a heaviness to it and also a transparency. The Russian people are like that. There’s a melancholy, a realism, and a plaintive beauty.
Some singers have said, “artists should not meddle in politics,” while other singers are happy to use their platform to express opinions. You were born in Ukraine, but your bio calls you a “Russian-American baritone.” Do you mean that from a musical point of view, or can you say more about how you feel about your national identity?
That’s a two-part question. In terms of politics, any opera can be relevant. What I like about Boris Godunov is the main theme of Boris feeling the guilt of how he achieved power. It’s sort of like Hamlet. It’s not certain if Boris is guilty. He’s accused of having something to do with the corruption that led him to power, but the entire opera he is wracked with guilt, and it’s sort of like that scene where Hamlet wants to avenge his father’s death and he wants to kill Claudius, but he sees him in a moment of praying, and he spares his life, saying you can’t kill a man who’s praying, in a moment of grace. I love that universal idea of a powerful man toppling because of his own guilt of corruption. You don’t get that in real politics. People are lying behind each other’s backs, or whatever goes on behind closed doors, you don’t see people crumbling under the weight of their own guilt. That is the fascinating thing to me about this opera.
In terms of my own upbringing, yes, I was born in Odessa, Ukraine, but I don’t speak Ukrainian because I was born in the Soviet Union. When I grew up, we would say it was all part of Russia. My grandfather is Romanian, my family is from all over the place. My mom was born in Belarus. I have Finnish, Italian, all kinds of heritage. To say I’m Ukrainian is not correct, but to say that I’m Russian is not exactly right either. I’m American. I came here as a kid. I’ve never been back. We emigrated in 1992 and it was the best decision my family ever made. My brother did the “23 and Me” [a company that tests genetics to reveal heredity] and it said that 80 percent of my family were Italian Jews. I struggle with this all the time. It’s confusing. I can’t call myself an American baritone because I wasn’t born in America.
As far as I’m concerned you can call yourself whatever you want, but I do think there is also singer’s language. We call someone an Italian tenor even if he is from Duluth, because we’re talking about the voice.
Right. When I was growing up, my strong suit was actually English. I got awards for my English diction from Opera Theater of Saint Louis, a company that does all their operas in English, because I wasn’t taking it for granted. I sang my whole life, I played guitar my whole life, but I wasn’t a very good singer for a very long time. I had a lot of things to figure out. One day, maybe in my mid twenties, as soon as I decided to connect my singing to my text, I became a much better singer. My voice automatically focused. Some singers say the opposite, that the pronunciation gets in their way. Maybe it’s because I’m a baritone and 80 percent of my parts are in my speaking range, and I’m able to just sort of speak through a part with some gravitas and it sounds like opera, and then I sing a couple of high notes and go home.
You can tell when a singer is just going for a pretty sound or when they understand what they’re saying and trying to communicate with the people around them. That’s what opera is. When Mozart was composing and premiering his operas in a hall of 500 people, it was about delivering what it was about as much as it was about the music, the harmony, or singing the right notes and rhythms. It’s the stagecraft and texts that brings it to the next level, because that’s how the composers thought of it. They wrote the music from having the libretto. It was the words first for the composer, why shouldn’t it be that way for the singer?
I know many singers have performed at the Supreme Court, because Justice Ginsberg is a huge fan, as was Justice Scalia. But I don’t think I’ve ever interviewed a singer who had a gig at CIA headquarters. How do you get a gig at the CIA?
One of the great perks of being in the apprentice program at the Washington National Opera is living in D.C. I did Merola in 2009; in the summer, and that fall I went to Washington National. Every city has their advantages when you’re an apprentice. D.C. has a very large government contingent and a lot of those events were singing for certain government events: That was always the fun and surprising part of it.
I sang at a memorial service. It was not a happy occasion. Seven CIA agents were killed in Afghanistan, and there were about 1,300 agents there. Part of the vetting process was finding out whether any of the singers lived near any of the agents. They didn’t want us to be able to go to Langley and see somebody and realize, “hey that guy lives near me.” There was a lot of security clearance, and it was a very emotional experience for all of the agents. At the beginning, President Obama came and sat in the front row with his wife. I think I sang Aaron Copland’s “Shall We Gather at the River?” and I remember enunciating and just being horrified to think maybe a projectile was to hit the president. Thinking that my good diction got me this far, and now I have to worry about that.
You have some covers coming up at the Washington National Opera in 2019. Many companies have cut back on having covers. How is it these days?
Every company should have covers. Some don’t. If you have eight shows in 10 days, having a double cast makes covering unnecessary. I think it’s important for these big companies to nurture a local cover culture. If you have singers who are locally based who are adequate to the job, then they should be the ones covering, instead of not having a cover or having an expensive cover they can fly in. If you have a local corps of artists who are used occasionally, or once a season, the audience wants them to succeed.
I’m great with covering. I like being a cheerleader for my colleagues, watching, being ready. I’ve gone on a few times. Preparation is key. In those big houses anything is possible. People sometimes don’t understand, if you’re sick or you have the flu, you can still go to work, but if you’re a singer and you can’t phonate, and a lot of times, if a singer is gravely ill with laryngitis, they feel they have to go on if there is no cover, or they would be letting everybody down. It’s a financial decision and it doesn’t have to be. There are affordable, adequate covers out there. The bigger companies can use their apprentices. As an apprentice I covered lots of roles and you get that great experience, watching people who are 15 years ahead of where you are. Of course, time passes better when you’re singing. Some singers might complain about doing covers, but I’m not sure I would ever complain about getting paid not to sing. I’m getting paid to hang out and have dinner and watch a baseball game, or if I am called, I save the day.
You’re a big baseball fan.
I emigrated in 1992 as a 9-year-old and that’s when the Giants got Barry Bonds from the Pirates. It was love at first sight. I never knew baseball. We never had baseball in the Soviet Union, and I looked at this game with no time limit, and all this strategy around the play, these guys standing around. I fell in love with the game. I played in high school. I listen to Giants radio every single day. Even in Spain, in Valencia in 2014 when the Giants won the Series. I was listening to every game until 5 in the morning, and then going to rehearsal.
You have a fair amount of backstage time in this role. Might you watch a bit of the game, or play ping pong backstage, or do you stay in character?
Some people like to play poker or listen to the radio. I probably in my two hours off will be looking over my part, sitting in my dressing room, eating — I don’t like to sing on an empty stomach — going over my part again and again. It’s not about singing it. I don’t even warm up before a show. There are singers who sing an entire opera before they go on stage, and there are singers who don’t warm up but should.
I have a system. Every day before I go to the theater, around 4 or 5, I will speak the entire role from beginning to end, as if I’m recording an audio book. Then I show up at the theater and I’ve warmed up that way, I go do my show. So I’m going to be looking at that music, I’m not going to be checked out at all. I like to prepare my scores, double check, triple check, so when I get out there, I will never sway from the preparation. My friends sometimes never see me. I live in Harlem right now. I’ll sit in my apartment with my fiancée, speaking it over and over, and she’ll say “don’t you want to go out?” or “don’t you want to do something?” And I’ll say, “I just want to memorize this page again.” There is a lot of camaraderie, and some singers love to distract themselves, but me personally, I need the private space to focus. I will smile and have a beer after it’s done.