In generations past, the de rigueur path to prominence in the musical environs of his native country for an American singer wound through the conservatories, concert halls, and opera houses of Europe. Study with someone irreproachably respectable, sing a few big rôles in small houses and a few small rôles in big houses, sing the concert repertory appropriate to your voice in cities with thorough media coverage of musical events, perhaps give a few recitals before discriminating artists; and then return in glory to the United States to the strains of ‘See, the conqu’ring hero comes.’ It was thus that such a gifted singer as Marilyn Horne passed the ‘galley years’ of her early career in German-speaking Hinterlands and, with experiences from locales like Gelsenkirchen in her pocket, returned to America as an established, respected artist. Then, though, the career of Beverly Sills changed the game for American singers: here was a bona fide star whose musical apprenticeship was served in her fatherland and whose brilliance shone almost solely in the American artistic firmament. More importantly, Sills turned the traditional progress of an American singer on its head: rather than honing her craft in Europe and returning triumphantly to her own shores, she won the hearts of American audiences and then set her sights on Europe, where her endeavors were not entirely successful. Nevertheless, the example of Beverly Sills proved tremendously influential to subsequent generations of American singers, disclosing that the development of a strong technique is far more important to the pursuit of a successful career than where one’s formative experiences are achieved. Much as agents and opera house managements try to pigeonhole voices into easy categories of Fach and functionality, voices, the bodies that house them, and the psyches that govern them grow, evolve, and mature very differently. Beverly Sills was a special singer because her journey as an artist was unique, but an unexpectedly disheartening element of her legacy has been the sacrificing of individuality among young singers: freed to abandon the paths traveled by great singers of the pasts, many of today’s young singers seek in the impersonal lecture halls of conservatories the sort of training that Marilyn Horne received in Gelsenkirchen or that Beverly Sills gleaned from her early tenure at the New York City Opera. What too many of these young singers find instead of their own voices are qualities that enable them to sing identically to their colleagues. No matter how confounding the haze, however, there will always be artists who find their way to clarity, and on 21 October the Metropolitan Opera première of Nico Muhly’s opera Two Boys will introduce MET audiences to one of the adventurous, engaging young artists who has determinedly and unmistakably forged his own course through the perils of training and refining a voice of superb quality, baritone Christopher Bolduc.
Right from the start, Mr. Bolduc displays candor and humility that have become sadly rare among young singers, especially those with legitimate talent. In the MET production of Muhly’s Two Boys, Mr. Bolduc will sing the rôle of the ‘avatar’ of Jake, one of the two boys of the title, a part created in the 2011 English National Opera world première by baritone Jonathan McGovern. ‘I wouldn’t characterize my rôle in Two Boys as a leading rôle,’ Mr. Bolduc comments. ‘The only leading rôles in the opera are Anne, the detective, and Brian, the boy who does the killing. The other boy in the opera’s title, Jake…I play the idealized version of him.’ Nonetheless, this is the rôle that will introduce him to the storied Metropolitan Opera, and Mr. Bolduc is aware of the importance of the engagement. ‘It’s a great rôle,’ he says, ‘and I’m thrilled to make my MET début in this.’ In Two Boys, Mr. Bolduc will share the stage with the dulcet-toned American tenor Paul Appleby, replaced in the opera’s final performance of the season by the dynamic Nicky Spence, and the remarkable British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote.
The avenue that has led Mr. Bolduc to the Metropolitan Opera reveals much about both the integrity of his artistry and the depth of his understanding of his craft. ‘I did not grow up in a musical family,’ he recollects. ‘I studied piano and composition and listened to the local Classical Music station on the radio as a kid, but [what I heard] were mostly symphonies, chamber music, and solo piano works—not opera.’ As any listener who has heard Mr. Bolduc might suspect, music wielded an inexplicable attraction for Mr. Bolduc even in his earliest youth. ‘I had always been drawn to Classical Music and sang in choirs and musicals in school. Around Tenth Grade, I realized that if I combined by love of singing with my love of Classical Music, I would arrive at opera. So, I started seeking it out.’ There could be few better places from which to depart on such an exploration than the music of Mozart. Mr. Bolduc remembers, ‘I had played Mozart Piano Sonatas but never had heard a Mozart opera, so I ordered a Le nozze di Figaro CD and became hooked. I used to sit in my room with my headphones on, listening and reading the English translation of the libretto. By Twelfth Grade, I was enrolled in the preparatory division at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City and went down every Saturday for the entire school year, learning Art Songs, singing in Italian. I really got a feel for what college life would be [like] as a Vocal Performance major.’
Christopher Bolduc in the title rôle of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at Theater Basel, 2011 [Photo by Simon Hallström, © Theater Basel]
Mr. Bolduc’s first taste of that college life was offered by SUNY Purchase College Conservatory of Music. ‘I enrolled at Purchase at eighteen years old,’ he says. ‘I had a wonderful teacher, Jacque Trussel, who opened my eyes in so many ways. He built the foundation of my technique, explained how difficult it is even to attain a career, let alone maintain one, and taught the basics of stagecraft, acting, and audition technique. He is really an amazing educator and person; and a friend to this day.’ Studying with Mr. Trussel at Purchase College left no doubt in Mr. Bolduc’s mind that he was destined for the operatic stage. ‘I knew that I wanted a career in opera,’ he says, ‘so, once I started at Indiana University, I signed up for the two-year program to get my Master’s Degree. I studied for two short years with Timothy Noble, who is the only baritone with whom I’ve ever studied. He was wonderful in introducing me to repertoire appropriate for my voice and helping me choose competition-winning arias.’ Still dedicated to expanding his knowledge of repertory and building a technique that would enable him to enjoy not merely a successful but also a long career, Mr. Bolduc sought tuition at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, from which many of America’s finest singers have emerged during the past quarter-century. ‘My life totally changed during my tenure at the Academy of Vocal Arts,’ he reflects. ‘I would describe AVA as a military-style training program for opera singers. There is a lot of tough love involved. There is almost no way to describe how Christofer Macatsoris [AVA’s Music Director] works to bring out the best in [young singers]. He knows the best you can be and sound even before you do. Working with him has forever changed me. With every new rôle I prepare, I think about how he would want me to approach each phrase; how he would make sure I “sing all of the the notes,” meaning to pay attention to every anacrusis, grace note, passing tone, or embellishment in a cadenza. He has an infinite amount of knowledge and experience, and I feel very blessed to have had the opportunity to work with him.’ Mr. Bolduc also feels that he owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to renowned voice teacher William Schuman. ‘I started studying with Bill Schuman at AVA and still study with him privately in NYC to this day. I owe him so much. He gets you out of your own way. He knows and understands voices so well and how to make them easier and often larger—but without over-singing.’
The notion of each singer possessing a manner of singing that is right for his or her individual voice is a concept that is very important to Mr. Bolduc’s approach to the mechanics of singing. This self-cognizance would be central to the advice that he would give to other young baritones. ‘I would urge them to sing with their own voices and not be tempted to imitate famous baritones they might idolize,’ he says. ‘Too often, one hears a young singer—of any Fach—doing his best impression of someone else. At most, you’ll only ever be the second-best version of someone else. You’ll always be the best version of you,’ he confides, echoing from a musical perspective Oscar Wilde’s quip that one can only be oneself since everyone else is already taken, so to speak.
Mr. Bolduc cites reliability and flexibility as qualities that he strives to maintain at the heart of his artistry. Certainly, these traits have been abundantly evident in his singing to date. Contributing inalienably to the histrionic power of his interpretations, the reliability of his intelligence as an artist and of his preparation as a vocalist is refreshing. Beautiful voices are perhaps more common than well-trained ones, but rarer still are voices like Mr. Bolduc’s, which is both beautiful and founded upon especially strong technical footing. Flexibility is apparent both in Mr. Bolduc’s actual singing and in the breadth of his repertory. ‘I love my current repertoire,’ he states. ‘Donizetti, Rossini, and Mozart mixed in with living composers feels absolutely perfect.’ He is keenly aware of the necessity of pacing himself. ‘I have taken caution not to accept rôles which I feel I’m not ready for,’ he admits. ‘I have just begun to accept some new rôles that perhaps I was not ready for five years ago.’ The combination of Mozart and bel canto with 20th- and 21st-Century works is an interesting trajectory for the career of a young singer and one that is paying exceptionally rich dividends for Mr. Bolduc. ‘I enjoy working on contemporary opera, as well as the traditional repertoire,’ he says. ‘Going back and forth from one to the other gives me a deeper appreciation for both. As soon as Two Boys wraps up at the MET [there are seven performances between 21 October and 14 November], I work on another contemporary piece, Heinz Holliger’s Schneewittchen, at Theater Basel in Switzerland. [Mr. Bolduc will sing the Jäger opposite the Snow White—or Schneewittchen—of Anu Komsi and the Queen of Maria Riccarda Wesseling.] It is extremely difficult, musically—possibly the most difficult piece of music I’ve worked on in my career. It’s going to be an exciting project, and knowing that I sing Belcore in L’elisir d’amore right after [the Schneewittchen run] at Oper Köln will feel great!’
This versatility enables Mr. Bolduc to realize one of his foremost goals as a singer, to offer audiences meaningful portraits of a wide array of characters. ‘The most gratifying element of singing for me is the thrill of getting to be someone totally different on stage for an evening,’ he says. ‘You’re given the structure of the music and the staging but then can make it come alive and make it your own. It’s very addictive!’ Mr. Bolduc aims to make this addiction as powerful for the audience as for himself as a singer. ‘I concentrate on embodying the characters as much as possible in the rehearsal process,’ he states, ‘and I rely on directors to advise me if what I’m doing is appropriate for the theatre we’re performing in.’ This awareness of the appropriateness of an interpretation for the space in which it is being enacted is, in Mr. Bolduc’s view, vital to the long-term survival of opera. The question of how best to present opera to 21st-Century audiences influences Mr. Bolduc’s artistic sensibilities to a significant extent. ‘The answer, I think, is different based on the size of the theatre and whether or not you’re being filmed for an HD performance, let’s say. One of the things I love about opera is how collaborative it is. I’ve learned to trust more and more the others around me involved in the process: my colleagues on stage, the creative team, the makeup and costume crews, and everyone backstage. In this way,’ he confides, ‘I give myself the freedom to focus on what I have to do, therefore performing at my best.’
Jan Cornelius as the Countess and Christopher Bolduc as the poet Olivier in Richard Strauss’s Capriccio at the Academy of Vocal Arts, 2010 [Photo by Paul Sirochman, © AVA]
For Mr. Bolduc, performing at his best can be achieved under any conditions in which artistic decisions are made with understanding of the music at hand. A production need not be ‘modern’ in order to be effective, he feels. ‘Frankly, I’m a traditionalist kind of guy when it comes to opera,’ he says. ‘I think [that] there are so many challenges and so much work to be done anytime a group of people get together and attempt to produce any of the great masterpieces in the operatic repertoire. Some modernized interpretations are wonderful and eye-opening: for me, this is when a director really knows and has studied the piece and existing secondary sources and bases his or her vision on the intentions of the composer and librettist. Simply introducing a foreign and newly-invented concept into the piece and then working backwards [throughout] the entire rehearsal process to “make things work” can be frustrating.’ Mr. Bolduc’s comments bring to mind the anecdote concerning a famous American actor’s first encounter with the venerated Sir Laurence Olivier. Perplexed by the younger thespian’s bizarre appearance and actions on the set of the film in which they were appearing together, Olivier expressed his concern for the young man’s wellbeing. The impetus for his deprived state was an effort at identification with his character’s situation, he told Olivier; to which Olivier purportedly replied, ‘Try acting, dear boy.’ Olivier’s uncomplicated method might find in Mr. Bolduc an expert practitioner. ‘Life on the stage is fantastic,’ Mr. Bolduc says, ‘but after the lights go out and the applause is over, there is an abrupt return back to reality.’
Mr. Bolduc concedes that there are certain realities of a singer’s life to which each artist must adapt—and with which he must cope—in his own way. ‘The greatest challenge [of pursuing a career as a singer] is everything that happens before you get to that opening night,’ he says. ‘The time away from family and loved ones, the long hours of rehearsals, desperately trying not to get sick or trying to get well again before the opening if you are [sick]: keeping your voice in shape and your body healthy is a daily commitment.’ This is a commitment that Mr. Bolduc takes very seriously, not merely as a guiding principle of his life but also as a vital component of his artistry. ‘I’m at the MET this season, in my home state and close to my family and friends,’ Mr. Bolduc says, ‘but for the past few seasons I’ve worked out of the USA for nine or more months out of the year. It can be very lonely.’ He quickly adds, ‘This is not a complaint—it’s a statement of reality. I love what I’m doing and love the fact that I actually get to do it. I wouldn’t trade this career for any other.’
That singing is as much a fulfillment of a deeply personal need as a means of making a living is apparent in every note that Mr. Bolduc sings. ‘I am a singer because I love to sing,’ he shares. ‘It’s what I’m meant to do, and somehow I’ve known that even from a very young age.’ The most extraordinary voice is of little consequence without this sort of dedication to singing at the zenith of one’s abilities: in Mr. Bolduc’s case, both a superb voice and a palpable artistic integrity are at the heart of every performance that he sings. Music without passion is nothing more than a series of notes, but music from Mr. Bolduc’s throat is the language in which characters communicate their innermost feelings. ‘I love the opportunity to be someone totally different from myself for an evening,’ he remarks. ‘I love to express myself though music and get the opportunity to stir up emotions in others.’
The musical distinction and psychological depth of Christopher Bolduc’s operatic portrayals confirm that, his enjoyment of stepping outside of himself notwithstanding, this exceptional young singer surrenders himself to the power of music and produces every note with equal measures of sound and spirit. Many singers share Christopher Bolduc’s appreciation of the opportunities offered by opera to stir up emotions in others: few artists succeed as he does in making his every performance genuinely stirring.
Sincerest thanks are extended to Mr. Bolduc for his kindness, candor, and patience. All photographs are used with Mr. Bolduc’s permission.