At the Santa Fe Opera 2009 Summer Festival, I continued my series of interviews of persons involved with the production of opera, beginning with two festival artists in lead roles, both San Francisco Opera former Adler Fellows, who are in the early years of what promises to be important international careers.
The first of these interviews is with this season’s new Don Giovanni, Lucas Meachem, whom I talked with at the Santa Fe Opera “ranch”. This busy open air area, surrounded by outbuildings containing administrative offices, originally was part of a working ranch purchased by Santa Fe Opera Founder John Crosby.
At the beginning of each summer, rehearsals of the different summer operas often occur simultaneously, and the ranch serves as an administrative, social and professional center for the artists and personnel producing each year’s festival.
Because of the interview’s length, it will be posted in two parts.
[Below: Lucas Meachem as Don Giovanni; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Wm: What life experiences did you have before you became an opera singer?
LM: My first job was at age 15, in swimming pool construction, but I always sang in church and in the house. I grew up in the tiny town of Carthage in South Central North Carolina, where there are no inter-urban freeways.
I always knew I could sing, but I thought I would be doing popular music, even karaoke. I found my own voice through imitation, listening to phonograph records and repeating what was sung.
I went to college at Appalachian State University, in the Blue Ridge Mountain town of Boone, in Northwestern North Carolina. At the university’s Hayes School of Music, I studied voice. Through studying singing, I discovered how ignorant I was.
I always thought I would hit a ceiling, but as I progressed through my scholastic career, I was always acknowledged as having one of the best voices, wherever I was. This gave me confidence in myself. Since others expressed confidence in me also, I started to believe that I was good.
[Below: Lucas Meachem; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of www.lucasmeachem.com.]
I then went to University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, and after that to Yale University’s Department of Music. I first thought my career would be in musical theatre. I took part in the Ohio Light Opera in Wooster Ohio, that does eight shows a summer – as ambitious a summer festival as one can find in this country.
Thus, at age 21, I was “thrown into the pool” in Wooster. That was the best preparation I could have had to learn stage roles, stagecraft – even learning such important details as awareness as to whether I was inadvertently upstaging another artist.
Wm: But rather than musical theater, you pursued opera. How did that happen?
LM: I was always the “singing contest” guy who entered every competition. One can make money doing this. There are many young artists programs in the United States, and trying out for them just seemed the right thing for me to do.
In Summer 2002, at age 24, I was accepted into the Central City (Colorado) Opera Young Artist Training Program. At that program, I heard from my colleagues there that the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Artists Program and San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program were those to which they wanted to be accepted.
So in the December audition period, I applied both to the Santa Fe and San Francisco Programs. Santa Fe didn’t accept me, but the Merola program did.
And I then enrolled in the San Francisco Opera Merola program, and was one of the 2003 “Merolini”.
Wm: After your experience in the Merola program, you were chosen to be one of the San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows. How does the Merola program differ from the Adler fellowships?
LM: Everyone in the Merola program hopes to become one of the San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellows. You are always auditioning. You need to wear a nice shirt if you go to the opera house. You are always scrutinized.
The Merola experience is a much more controlled environment than the Adler fellowships. Once I was accepted into the Adler Fellowship program, I had the freedom and entrée to be able to go to San Francisco Opera Center Director Sheri Greenawald with specific requests for artistic assistance. For example, I needed coaching in Russian diction, because I was covering the title role in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”, so that was provided to me.
Wm: Not only did you cover Russell Braun in the title role of Onegin, but you actually had to replace him for a performance.
LM: As soon as I discovered Russell Braun was ill and I would be replacing him, I knew what I needed to do. I psyched myself up like Rambo and decided that everything was going to be great. I did not get nervous and performed well. The audience was very kind.
Wm: In that same season, at age 26, you were cast as Fra Melitone in Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino”, conducted by Nicola Luisotti in his San Francisco Opera debut.
Although I thought that this was one of the strangest productions in San Francisco Opera history, and had the feel of something thrown together at the last minute, Luisotti was magnificent, and I thought your take on Melitone, whom you made seem like a very cool, “big man on campus” fraternity guy, was one of the bright lights in this otherwise very deranged “Forza” production.
[Below: Fra Melitone (Lucas Meachem) attends to the needs of the novice, Leonora (Andrea Gruber); edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
LM: Melitone is not a role that I will ever to do again, at least not until I am in my 60s. But, here is what happened. The Opera artistic management had tried out three other Melitones, none of whom they liked. They decided they would try to find a different artist, so someone came to me, who knew that I love singing onstage, and said the company needed someone to do this part.
I stepped in at one of the last sitzprobes with very little rehearsal. I remember everyone in the cast, but not that much about the production.
Four days before the opera opened, I went into a rehearsal with Luisotti. He started conducting, but did not look at me. Then I started singing. Then Luisotti looked up at me and smiled and said “all right”. Working with Luisotti is wonderful. Every performance I would be amazed by his conducting of the “Forza del Destino” overture.
I do not have a grandiose buffo voice, as one expects for Melitone. Mine is a shimmery voice, but Italian ears do like it.
Wm: Some 19th century Italians regarded Melitone’s music as so different from that of other roles that they used the term “bariton brillante” to describe it. Perhaps that term should be revived to describe your voice.
But your “breakthrough” role was at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, when you replaced an injured Simon Keenlyside and sang Oreste to Susan Graham’s Iphigenie and Paul Groves’ Pylade in Robert Carsen’s production of Gluck’s “Iphigenie en Tauride”.
[Below: Lucas Meachem as Oreste in Gluck’s “Iphigenie en Tauride; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
LM: I know how very fortunate I was to have had this opportunity. Now, I am booked by major companies years in advance, because they all heard of my success at the Lyric, and made sure they signed me.
Luck in itself is not enough for a successful career. I know I was prepared for the role and had a good voice for it, but am very aware that I am the same artist as I was before this performance got the attention of the world’s big opera companies. I see other artists whom I know are just as prepared as I was, and sing just as well, but who have not had such a break.
Wm: What was it like singing in Carsen’s production?
LM: It was a great production. I love singing Gluck’s music, although it is very difficult. Believe, me, Oreste is one of the hardest roles for a high baritone to sing. Once someone does it onstage, they will understand just how hard a role it really is.
Wm: Graham and Groves appeared in the production when it debuted in San Francisco (with Bo Skovhus as Oreste) in 2007 (whose San Francisco mounting is reviewed by me on this website). Now, Groves is with you in this summer’s (2009) Santa Fe season singing Admete in Gluck’s “Alceste”. Have you and Groves become close friends as a result of these shared experiences?
[Below: Oreste (Lucas Meachem, left) is comforted by his friend, Pylade (Paul Groves); edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
LM: When Paul and I were onstage at the Lyric, we truly connected in a real life way, and we have developed a close friendship. It is great having him here in Santa Fe.
This interview continues at: Rising Stars: An Interview with Lucas Meachem, Part 2.