Maria Callas once said that ‘an opera begins long before the curtain goes up and ends long after it has come down. It starts in my imagination, it becomes my life, and it stays part of my life long after I’ve left the opera house.’ This, to those who love the genre as participants or observers, expresses the sensation central to the operatic experience: a lingering fascination, a feeling of having taken part in a performance that began and ended but was strangely without beginning and ending. Opera at its most engaging transports the listener to what Ivor Novello called the ‘Land of Might-Have-Been,’ a space somewhere between dreams and reality in which it is not important whether one truly believes the things opera asks one to believe as long as the emotional responses are genuine. Implausibility fades into insignificance in the wake of a dedicated artist’s performance, and a listener’s surrender to the suspension of reality indeed remains part of his life long after the curtain falls.
Many writers have suggested that, as the genre in which the elemental aural and visual veins of human creativity converge, opera is the zenith of performing arts. In this confluence of artistic lifeblood, the senses are seduced collectively. Yet the work of an operatic artist is more difficult for this because the listener hears him, sees him, and strives to know what are those words he sings. His task is to reach from the stage to take the listener’s hand, to banish doubt, and to lead his listener from the mundane to the Might-Have-Been. The thrill of opera is born of the frequency with which artists fail at this task: when an artist succeeds, when there is for some period of time nothing else in the world but what one sees on the stage before one’s eyes, it is sorcery; the sorcery of Callas and of Opera.
When Milwaukee’s Skylight Opera presented Puccini’s La Bohème in autumn 2008, it would have been natural to expect any sorcery to originate with Mimì and Rodolfo, the young lovers struggling with poverty and fatal illness. The work of an important artist emerges from its surroundings even if he has only a single line to sing, however, and the heart of Skylight’s Opera Bohème was Colline, sung by young American bass-baritone Thomas Forde. Colline is (or should be) the pillar upon whom his suffering friends lean, exuberant and grave in turn. In far too many productions, however, Colline’s frustrated philosophizing is confused with bitter irony, discrediting to a great extent the dignity with which Puccini infused the role: his little aria of farewell to his overcoat (‘Vecchia zimarra’) may not be top-drawer Puccini, but the sentiment with which Colline resolves to pawn his coat in order to buy medicine for the dying Mimì, along with his entreaty to Schaunard to allow Rodolfo and Mimì to be alone with one another in what he knows will be their last moments together, prepares the listener for the emotional impact of the final scene. Colline is a sharp-tongued but deeply caring character, and Skylight Opera’s Bohème benefited enormously from the Colline of Thomas Forde, in whose performance it was clear that love for his friends is as central to Colline’s character as acerbic wit.
Having earned his Master of Music degree from the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston and his Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, bass-baritone Thomas Forde has embarked on an exciting career marked by vocal beauty and natural gifts for open-hearted, dramatically convincing performing. This journey began with apprenticeships with several of America’s most prestigious programs for young artists, including those at Central City Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera, and Utah Festival Opera. Following these experiences, Mr. Forde was invited to sing in Fort Worth Opera’s production of Turandot, productions of Tosca and Salome at Dallas Opera, and Shreveport Opera’s La Traviata. ‘I remember looking out into the 3,800-seat house of the Dallas Opera, and thinking, “How am I here?”’ Mr. Forde says of his early mainstage engagements. ‘I was lucky that each role was appropriate for the timing in my life. However, I missed the feeling of having a teacher and a coach that I could regularly approach for guidance. I was learning a whole new set of skills by being out in the real world, but at twenty-four years old I knew I wanted to go back into the young artist scene and have a sense of stability in this crucial time of development.’
Mr. Forde’s desire to continue his development as a singer under the auspices of a program for young artists was fulfilled when he received an invitation to join the Seattle Opera Young Artist Program, a superb institution that has contributed to the shaping of the careers of such fine singers as Lawrence Brownlee, Brandon Jovanovich, and Indra Thomas. ‘I had admired and longed to be a part of [the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program] since I was in my undergraduate experience,’ Mr. Forde says. ‘Seattle Opera was a place where I confronted what I was really having issues with at the time. I was still fairly young in the game of bass voice development, and the repertoire that I was assigned [at Seattle] was challenging, yet appropriate. It was a place where I was constantly pushed to attain the next level of performance.’ With the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program, Mr. Forde sang the role of Snug the Joiner in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. ‘I learned an immense amount of skills regarding musicality, diction, and stage presence from people I had admired for a very long time,’ Mr. Forde recollects.
In addition to his work in Seattle, Mr. Forde also gained valuable exposure to the work of established singers by participating in Santa Fe Opera’s Apprentice Program. ‘In my youth,’ Mr. Forde recalls, ‘I knew nothing about singing opera. I had never attended an opera until I was in college. I had taken voice lessons in high school, but I always saw myself pursuing acting with a cross-over into music theatre.’ During his tenure in Santa Fe, Mr. Forde observed performances by artists whose work shaped his conceptions of operatic singing and acting. Especially vivid in his memory are performances by Christine Brewer, Natalie Dessay, Dimitri Pittas, and Patricia Racette. ‘It was such a lesson,’ he states, ‘to watch Natalie Dessay sing her first Traviata. In another sense, I learned what she has to go through every day to be at that level when she gave a Masterclass about the singer’s life. It is an insane amount of dedicated work ethic.’
A great influence on Mr. Forde’s development of his vocal technique and individual approach to singing was introduced by his collegiate voice teacher, Ronald Hedlund, who Mr. Forde credits as being ‘the first [person] to calm [his] fears about taking a road into singing opera.’ Mr. Hedlund gave Mr. Forde a recording of the legendary Ukrainian bass Alexander Kipnis. ‘I put [the disc] in my stereo when I got back to the dorm and listened to Kipnis sing “Il lacerato spirito” from Simon Boccanegra. I hadn’t translated the aria as of yet, but I could hear from his coloring of different phrases and his use of dynamics that it was an incredibly pained and emotional piece of music. He was one of the great basses, who sang with his true tone at all times. He never darkened the tone, and he was not afraid of singing with emotion. At times I think I need to try [to] shake the walls of the theater with each phrase, but whenever I go back and listen to Kipnis, I am taught a new lesson about singing.’
This sense of subtlety, derived from the music and text rather than the size of the venue in which he sings, was evident in Mr. Forde’s Milwaukee Colline, of which he says, ‘[Milwaukee’s Skylight Opera Theatre] wasn’t a huge space, but there are a lot of intimate moments in a show with such a large chorus and so much going on during most parts of the opera. You have to know your body really well, which is something I am focusing a lot on right now. Your posture and your use of even small gestures can be so effective on any size stage. I find the choices of whether to turn quickly or turn slowly, how I walk across the stage, or how I stand to directly effect whether the audience “gets” what I am trying to say to them. If I really have a clear idea of the character and the text, all of those things will start to come naturally.’ Adopting this close attention to the nuances of the characters he portrays through music and gesture as a critical aspect of his personal philosophy on performing, Mr. Forde will align this dramatic analysis to his easy, beautiful vocalism for Mozart’s Figaro in Tacoma Opera’s March performances of Le Nozze di Figaro.
Like many young singers, especially those of a Fach with relatively few truly excellent younger singers to its credit, Mr. Forde is mindful of the course his career should take in order to realize the full potential of his voice. ‘Most of [the roles that] I have been offered have been appropriate,’ he reflects. ‘One of the great things Seattle Opera encouraged me to do was to sing repertoire that would encourage youthful bass singing. I started to sing a lot more Handel, Mozart, and even Puccini. I was starting to sing repertoire that suited my personality and voice as a singer in [his] mid-twenties.’ Mr. Forde is fully conscious of the ambiguous nature of singing auditions for opera companies, many of which have specific preconceptions about the types of singers they wish to engage for particular roles, as well as problematic expectations for casting in future seasons. He observes, ‘The challenge I have is that I have the capability to sing Sarastro [in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte] and Raimondo [in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor], but I am usually not what [companies] are looking for just yet. My voice is still gaining color and timbre as I progress, but I am often viewed as being able to sing Colline, Figaro, Masetto, or Giovanni at this point in time.’ He adds, with characteristic humility, ‘I would never want to get a job because a company didn’t have any other choice. It took me a while to realize when I walk into an audition that I don’t have the responsibility to show a company or a young artist program what kind of singer I am going to be in ten years.’
Judiciously building a career that has already garnered praise for the strength of his acting, the heart of Mr. Forde’s artistry is the pure tonal allure of his voice. Possessing a veritable spectrum of colors that present a great wealth of dramatic possibilities that continues to broaden as his career progresses, Mr. Forde’s voice is youthfully vibrant but also plush, suggesting opportunities in a wide-ranging repertoire. Hearing Mr. Forde’s voice in Italian repertory, it is easy to imagine his voice in time bringing great eloquence to Verdi’s ‘O tu, Palermo’ (I Vespri Siciliani) and ‘Ella giammai m’amò’ (Don Carlo), as well as the aria that helped to launch his interest in opera, ‘Il lacerato spirito.’ ‘I would love to have the chance to sing much more bel canto and Romantic music as my singing future moves forward,’ Mr. Forde says, adding that the music of Verdi and Wagner is ‘music I [know] in my bones I [will] sing one day.’ His early progress displays every requirement for the vocal and dramatic adaptations necessary to graduate into different, heavier repertory. ‘There will never be another Sam Ramey…but [young basses are] all trying!’ he jokes. Mr. Forde comes nearer to that mark than most of his colleagues owing to the panache and cantante quality of his singing.
Above all, Mr. Forde exhibits that quality that not only most significantly contributes to a singer’s artistry but also endears him to audiences: a palpable, almost contagious joy in singing. ‘A voice is not an instrument you can turn off or leave at home. If you’re like me, you find yourself singing or warming up all the time and not even noticing it after a while,’ Mr. Forde suggests. Even while acknowledging the logistical challenges of pursuing a career that requires worldwide travel and virtually eliminates the possibility of having a single ‘home base,’ in addition to the emotional stresses endured by the artist and those who love him, Mr. Forde is keenly aware that the path he travels is the correct one. ‘I love to sing, and I think that the reason I can be happy and smile so much during the process is that I know how lucky I have been so far. I can’t imagine anything else,’ he says. Those who are fortunate enough to have heard him sing know that luck plays a minimal part in the success of this young artist: Thomas Forde is that rare singer who does not merely sing but enchants, a true operatic sorcerer.
The author’s heartfelt gratitude is extended to Mr. Forde for his incredible candor and kindness in contributing to this article, as well as for his assistance in providing the photographs used.
Click here to visit Mr. Forde’s official website.
Mr. Forde is represented by Kristin Cowdin of Guy Barzilay International Artists Management.