December 3, 2013

Baritone Mischa Bouvier on Messiah and More

By Jason Victor Serinus

Mischa BouvierMischa Bouvier must be one of the more self-effacing baritones around. Ask him what he’s doing besides singing Handel’s Messiah with American Bach Soloists (ABS) and the Alabama Symphony this month, and you get the sense that he spends a lot of time waiting for the next gig. Then you take a look at his bio, and discover that the man with the “immensely sympathetic, soulful voice” and “rare vocal and interpretive gifts” (see review) had an exciting 2012/2013 season that included prestigious debuts with The Knights, the Princeton Glee Club, New York Festival of Song, and the Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys.

He’s also sung Apollo & Dafne with ABS, Monteverdi with TENET, and an all-Grieg recital for Close Encounters with Music in Ozawa Hall in Tanglewood. Then there are the recordings, most recently Mohammed Fairouz’ new opera, Sumeida’s Song (Bridge), plus a concert version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel with Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops (BSO Classics). And that’s just for starters.

Bouvier has also done well in competition, counting among his honors the Concert Artists Guild Victor Elmaleh Competition Winner. It was through CAG’s efforts to promote its winners that Bouvier secured his performances with ABS.

In advance of his return to the Bay Area to solo with ABS in San Francisco and Davis, Bouvier chatted about Messiah, his vocal development, and the challenges facing a gifted singer in 2013.

As anyone who has heard you in person or on the Web can attest, you have a gorgeous voice. Tell me about the arc of your career.

At 36, I don’t consider myself a young singer, but I did have a bit of a slow start. I did my bachelor’s and master’s at Boston University and the University of Cincinnati College–Conservatory of Music. After that, I decided to move closer to New York City — Long Island, to be specific — because I felt the opportunities would be greater. It was between the preparation — the schooling — and the actual application that things slowed down.

I found getting into the business very difficult. So I did what many young singers did: I auditioned, pursued several young-artists training programs with some success, and did what was vocally appropriate in hopes that more work would come.

It feels very good right now. I’ve had some high-profile engagements, and I’m very pleased with the work I’ve been doing in the past year or two. I’m very proud that I’ve been in the Bay Area quite a bit with American Bach Soloists.

I’ve also had a couple of symphony debuts this year and last. I’ll be debuting with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, which is really great, because I grew up in Alabama, of all places. It’s sort of a return home with my native symphony. I’m also doing my first appearance with the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas in Brahms’ German Requiem. Last year, I was thrilled to join [for performances] the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra of Georgia, and several others. There’s also my Alice Tully Hall debut with Musica Sacra singing the New York premiere of Jocelyn Hagan’s amass. It feels good!

A few years back, you received an award from American Bach Soloists.

It was the Henry I. Goldberg Young Artist Award, which they gave in the first year of the [ABS summer] Academy. It was thrilling.

Jeffrey Thomas [ABS’ music director] is one of my favorite conductors to work with. When I heard about the Academy, I chased the opportunity to work with him, learn, collaborate with sterling early-music players, and have two weeks of auditions, so to speak. I find it very easy and comfortable to work with him, and I think we understand each other well.

Let’s turn to Messiah, and how you approach the baritone-bass role.

I find it takes a lot more than just dusting off the score. Like anything, it’s important to get the arias back in my voice, so I sing them a lot. From Grace Cathedral with ABS, I sing Messiah in Alabama. So this year’s preparation is largely about the [concert tuning to] 415 to 440 [Hz] switch for me, which is exactly what happened last year.

I love working with composers, and would love to premiere some new art song. I can’t ask Handel what he was thinking, which I can do with living composers.

This year, in particular, I’m spending time on the low arias, because they require a little more from me at lower pitch. Then I’ll turn to “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” which for me is the difficult aria on top at 440.

The rise from 415 Baroque pitch to 440 modern pitch is about a half step, isn’t it?

Yes. When I was younger, I used to think that a half step didn’t matter much, but with these particular arias, it does. There’s a big difference in my voice between an E-flat and an E, and there are a lot of Es in the trumpet aria. It takes a resetting of the voice.

Are you doing many embellishments with ABS, and will they allow them in Alabama?

I don’t know about Alabama. I’ve worked with Jeffrey for years now, and don’t know what he’ll request in rehearsal. I don’t normally embellish a lot, because I don’t think there’s a great need for it in arias that are already embellished. Other than to add a couple of trills, I don’t know how much more I’d embellish the very first thing the bass sings, “Thus Sayeth the Lord,” or “The People that Walked in Darkness.”

If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s embellishment for the sake of embellishment. I would imagine, especially considering how many changes that Handel made to Messiah depending upon the forces he had available or who was sick or who was gone, that we see largely what he would have wanted in the first place.

The bottom line is that I look at everything as an opportunity. If I can afford to take that opportunity, I do.

Have you done much opera?

I think I’m well suited to many opera roles. My voice size may not be appropriate at this point for the biggest houses in the country, but I’m ready for more opera. I’ve enjoyed what opera I’ve done very much, and it was certainly as successful as my concert and recital work. It’s something I want to do very much, but there is a bit of a void in terms of my repertoire experience compared to the guy who’s done Malatesta five times.

My list of fantasy roles is huge. In Mozart, besides Così, I’d love to do Papageno and Don Giovanni. I’d also love to do some Britten and Donizetti.

Beyond opera, I’m drawn to Rameau and certainly Mahler, especially the Rückert Lieder. I love working with composers, and would love to premiere some new art song. I can’t ask Handel what he was thinking, which I can do with living composers. [Despite how this sounds, Bouvier has premiered a number of new works.]

Have you considered going to Europe as fest [member of a repertory company]?

I’ve considered it, and it’s not something I’ve taken off the table. I don’t know if it’s right for me. Maybe that decision will be made by necessity, but right now, I haven’t felt it necessary to go to Germany.

I do have a couple of colleagues who are fest in Germany, and they’re all urging me to give it a shot. It’s a big commitment. I was just in Berlin, and I saw the size of the houses. It’s probably something I should continue to consider.

Have you found the fact that some companies are folding or cutting back an impediment?

Yes, now is a difficult time. I think my colleagues who are doing well are the ones who are innovating and flexible in terms of what they’re willing to do, and the fees they’re willing to accept. Many of us went through school with an idea of how it would go from here, but that world is changing. Those who don’t go with the flow may not have as much opportunity. But the situation is not bleak.

I just finished a lovely concert of Purcell Odes, one to a part. It couldn’t have been any further from a Mozart role, but the music was lovely. I don’t remember those sorts of opportunities being anything I talked with my professors about when I was earning my master’s degree.

I’ve taken part in several collaborations, such as festivals of song or evening recitals with four or five singers, where you spread the burden and increase the value. I’ve also sung with Sting, which I never thought I’d be doing, and I’ve done quite a bit of work supplying background live music with dance companies.

I’ve also done some work where the selling point is, “I’m sorry we can’t offer you more, but just think of the exposure!” It’s a way of putting in my time until I do feel overexposed. The bottom line is that I look at everything as an opportunity. If I can afford to take that opportunity, I do. And I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been afforded appropriate opportunities.

I listened to your Ravel and Ives songs on your website, and they’re beautifully done. Have you been doing any recitals?

I’m in collaboration with several wonderful pianists, chief among them Igor Shevtsov, and I’ve been really lucky. For the past couple of years, at least, I’ve been able to book six to seven recitals a year. I love it, and it feels completely natural to me. But it does seem harder and harder to book recitals. It seems there’s a healthier appetite for instrumental works, in general, than for standard art song recitals.

Is your voice still developing, or do feel you’ve arrived?

I had difficulty in the top register for many years, and it’s much easier for me now. We only get so much singing capital, and when you spend a lot on the top notes, you spend real fast. When I sang high rep, I felt uncomfortable, more exposed, and less sure. A lot of that has gone away in the last two years. I largely credit my teacher, Mark Schnaible, as well as the natural process of “settling.”

The bottom has also grown. I have a bit of a unique voice in that it goes pretty low. I studied for many years as a bass-baritone, which was what my teachers and coaches wanted, but I think, from my color, that I’m a full-fledged lyric baritone with a low extension. It makes me useful in early music and certain ensemble settings, because a lot of baritones bottom out at 415 pitch.

My voice, I think, is still changing. Nonetheless, in the past two years, I’ve surprised myself with how much it’s settled and finished developing. I think this is why a lot of things are taking off for me.

Jason Victor Serinus is a professional whistler and lecturer on opera and vocal recordings. He is editor of Psychoimmunity and the Healing Process: A Holistic Approach to Immunity & AIDS, and he has written about music for Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, AudioStream, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, and other publications.

Event Information

Chamber Music, Orchestra, Choral, Early Music/Baroque
Handel's Messiah at Grace Cathedral

    Handel's Messiah at Grace Cathedral

    • Organization: American Bach Soloists
    • Venue:
    • City:
    • Date: Wed December 11, 2013 7:30pm
    • Price Range: $25-$94
    • Tickets: 415-621-7900
    Additional Dates:
    Thu December 12, 2013 7:30pm
    Grace Cathedral

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