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John Relyea: one of the most exciting bass baritones around today,  talks to Anne Ozorio about singing  Nick Shadow in the new Royal Opera House production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress (AO)

John Relyea - Picture © Dario Acosta

As singers go, John Relyea is still young,  but he’s already near the top of his profession.  It’s no surprise. His is a voice so distinctive that once heard, it’s not forgotten.  He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2000, and his Royal Opera House debut in summer 2002.  He started appearing at the Proms and at Edinburgh in 2001.  In the space of a few years he’s become a regular at the Metropolitan Opera and has appeared in at the Vienna State Opera, the Paris Opera, the Munich State Opera, San Francisco, Santa Fe and Seattle.  He appears frequently at Festivals like Lucerne, Salzburg, Tanglewood, Ravinia, Blossom and Mostly Mozart Festivals and has been a regular at the Proms. He’s worked with conductors like von Dohnanyi, Eschenbach, Rattle, Haitink, Boulez, Sawallisch, Rattle, Maazel, Salonen, Davis and Levine, amongst others.  He has sung most standard bass baritone roles such as Figaro, the Four Villains in Les contes de Hoffman, Raimondo in Lucia di Lammermoor, Giorgio in I Puritani, Escamillo in Carmen, Don Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Colline in La Bohème, Marke in Tristan und Isolde, Caspar in Der Freischutz, the title role in Bluebeard’s Castle, Banquo in Macbeth, Collatinus in The Rape of Lucretia, Garibaldo in Rodelinda, Bluebeard in Bluebeard’s Castle, and Creon in Oedipus Rex.

He’s singing Nick Shadow in the new production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. This promises to be an interesting as it’s a collaboration between the Royal Opera House and
Théâtre de La Monnaie, Brussels, Opéra National de Lyon, San Francisco Opera and Teatro Real, Madrid and will be conducted by Thomas Adès.

“I’m particularly drawn to that time in the 20th century where you have the convergence of impressionism, expressionism and even the echoes of Romanticism, fading away.
I’m interested in Bartòk, Zemlinsky and Stravinsky because that was a time when different artistic movements were intersecting.  In The Rake’s Progress, Stravinsky is making hints back to neo-classical and baroque forms, and there are even bits like Hollywood soundtracks in this piece. He had a real passion for film and the emergence of television. At the time he wrote this he was immersed in American culture – you can hear it in the music”.  The Rake’s Progress was inspired by an exhibition of Hogarth’s etchings held in New York in 1947. “I hear this in his music and I think of all those abstract paintings of that time.  Those visual ideas appear in the music.  I’m really drawn to Stravinsky’s geometrical shapes. He has these rhythms and harmonies going in different directions and levels you’re not really expecting. But then you get involved and it does something to you,”

" In The Rake’s Progress, Nick Shadow is “the carrier of the action.  He’s always there wh
en Tom is sinking further into corruption.  He’s a great character. What I like about the part is the detail, and that the words are so great to speak.  The libretto is written by Auden. It’s so good it could almost be done as a play even without music. The characterization is so true. On the outside Nick is a gentleman but on the inside he’s the Devil. There are lots of levels to him. Comparing him to Méphistophélès in Gounod’s Faust, for example, this rendition is so much more three dimensional.  You have a lot more sympathy for all the characters in the music, you don’t want to see Tom fall victim to the curse, you feel his pain at losing Anne and everything else.  It’s such a great libretto.  You get sucked in by Nick who’s so seductive, so persuasive. He’s very studied in creating temptation as he’s the Devil, after all, but on different levels, he’s very clever.”

“I find villains in general to be great fun to do. I suppose you can say that they are much more direct in the sense that they don’t have the same sort of inner conflicts that you get with “normal” characters and heroes. A lot of the bass repertoire is of course the “patriach” type, kings, priests, sympathetic charismatic roles whose inner worlds are developed from humanity and compassion. Villains aims and goals are unwavering, most of the time and on a certain level that’s easy, but I like the clarity of a villain’s mind and the way they focus so firmly on objectives.  It gives you a lie to follow. It’s interesting how Stravinsky plays around with the rhythms in the part. In romantic music, the music is always telling you the mood. Not that Stravinsky doesn’t do that, but he has sideways and more indirect of showing how the action unfolds. What happens is that you are made to feel the drama illustrated rhythmically rather than melodically.  Preparing this role is interesting because Nick is just so unlike normal people.  But I started with that great libretto. I’ve done a lot of Stravinsky before, so I understand how he writes his music, and how it develops”. 

“Nick Shadow’s music is based on recitative, so you have to approach it from a conversational angle almost first and foremost. Stravinsky is very specific with his tempo markings because (In think he wants “conversational” rhythms illustrated in the score. He’s specific about the pitches too, but I think it’s the speech rhythms that are more important than anything else in revealing Nick’s character. He has these eloquent, long spoken passages which the other characters don’t have nearly so much. Like recitative in an oratorio, it gives him control.  Nick is an enhanced version of most villains, he’s believable and convincing because he’s well-rounded.  He’s leading others on all the time.  There’s that suave eloquent side of him.  He’s intelligent but conceals his true, unchanging motives.  He could be a used car salesman, or a very clever politician !”

Relyea’s voice is magnificent, the resonant glories of the bass allied with the agility of a baritone. It’s an interesting fach whose possibilities are undervalued. What makes him so distinctive is his musical intelligence, which grows from very deep roots. He grew up in a musical home. His father was the Canadian baritone Gary Relyea and his mother a singer and voice teacher.  His parents wisely let him come to opera in his own way.  He played guitar in rock bands and liked jazz. One day his father suggested that he try singing and he found his vocation.  “Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony – what great music ! It is so wonderful to sing !”   Relyea is still fairly young, only in his late thirties, yet already he’s outstandingly impressive.  Don’t miss this Royal Opera House Rake’s Progress.  It runs only five days, from 7th to 18th July but it’s a major event that might be something to talk about for years ahead.

Anne Ozorio

For tickets, please see The Royal Opera House web site

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