Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively – Let’s start by the required acting for this piece. Nabucco is a particularly difficult role in terms of acting range. The king goes from proud and powerful, to mad (one of the few cases of a mad scene for a male, in opera), to humiliated and pleading, to finding his stride again. Please comment on this difficulty (if you agree), and how you plan to go about it.
Gordon Hawkins – First of all, I must say that this is the first time that I perform Nabucco. This is my debut in the role so I’m still researching to do some of the things that you are asking about. I do have some references through other characters and with the help of the director I should be able to find the right way to depict what I recall of the dramatic arc of this particular character. What I do have is what Verdi does give me. The very first scene when Nabucco enters the temple is so strong! It is even written that he is supposed to enter on horseback, which I think is a very proud and heroic moment in a way, or let’s just say, very arrogant. The next scene after Nabucco leaves and comes back on stage he witnesses someone standing there with his crowd. He is still in a very proud position. Then, he is literally struck down, and in some productions they have lightning effects to symbolize that he is actually struck.
OL – By God.
GH – By God, yes, and immediately the music changes. His tone changes. He doesn’t understand what power or who did this. He almost cannot conceive that some person would have the audacity to do this to him. He realizes that it wasn’t a person. In fact, it was something greater than him. In that moment, he is completely shocked. I think that will be the key to start that emotional spiral. I wouldn’t consider it madness necessarily, but I would consider that his omnipotence is completely shattered. I might develop it differently with insight from the director, but the way that I’m seeing it now, is that. “I came to this temple, I defeated these people and their god, I am a god, I am more powerful, I am everything, and then in an instant, I am not everything.” I think for Nabucco the issue is: “I am not powerful; who am I? If everything I’m supposed to be up to this point is about power, and I’m not the most powerful force here, what am I?”
OL – Do you try to find within yourself the same emotions? Do you try to get into the character’s skin?
GH – Yes. For me it works better that way, because then I can draw from my own feelings instead of trying to pretend to be someone else. I know that singers can be very arrogant [laughs]. I think you need that power to be able to go on stage and deliver in front of an audience. I’ve been a professional singer for over thirty years so I can understand stagecraft. I can understand the pitfalls of it, and the tempo changes. That’s the beautiful thing about Verdi. When these tempo changes come, you find the right emotion to attach to it, and then you are true to the moment. In other words, I don’t have to impose anything. He has written everything right there.
OL – Yes, because you go from an almost shouty range to lower dynamics, when you sing “Chi mi toglie il reggio scettro?” and then you are really low and confused.
GH – Yes, and then he asks for help. I shouldn’t say help. Up to that point when he talks about his daughter, he is completely self-absorbed. He says “I’m no longer a man, I am a God” and now he is no longer that. He is a father in need of a daughter to lean on for support. He is disoriented and needs to find his bearings again. I don’t think he finds his bearings until he has his duet with Abigaille. He then finds where he is going to stand: against her, and for his real daughter Fenena. Then, I think that the rest of the conversion happens for him.
OL – Do you find this role to be a difficult sing, in terms of being long and forceful?
GH – No, I don’t, because as I’m working on the music now, it becomes very clear what I’m saying and why I’m saying it. If I just look at the pitches, technically, yes. This is the early Verdi period and he writes partly in the Bellini and Donizetti style, but it is still Verdi’s style. He hasn’t completely established his mode of writing, which he will get to once Rigoletto happens. So, this is still almost pre-Verdi; he hasn’t developed his full voice that will come in 1851. Nabucco and Macbeth, these two pieces prior to Rigoletto, are the ones where you get glimpses of what Verdi is going to be. That’s what makes this one exciting. There are some clues there that I can use on how to pace it, and they hint at what Rigoletto and Iago are going to be.
OL – Let’s compare the difficulty in this role with another one you did several times, Alberich in The Ring of the Nibelung. Is Wagner much more difficult than Verdi?
GH – That’s a great question. I think that the dramatic and musical responsibilities are almost identical. The text in Wagner is different than the text in Verdi but how both composers use the text is very similar. They are dramatists who use the meaning of the word and the poetry to be expressed in musical ideas. So if you sing the text in Verdi and you sing the text in Wagner, and use the text as the vehicle to transport the emotions, then you are exactly where you need to be. You don’t have to change a thing. If you serve the text you will serve the music. Even though one is in German and the other is in Italian, with different linguistic and phonetic challenges, stylistically and orchestrally, emotionally, dramatically, all those factors are delivered through the text. That’s the key.
OL – Interesting! In terms of preparation, Nabucco is tricky because the libretto doesn’t focus on a single biblical and historical character – King Nebuchadnezzar II – but is a composite of the mad king with Nabonidus and Cyrus who were actually the rulers who took some of the actions in the libretto, rather than Nabucco himself. Do you make a point of reading about all aspects of your character for your preparation, or do you rather focus on Verdi’s music with comparatively less attention to the libretto and its sources?
GH – Again, that’s a great question. I can use the biblical references and that conglomerate to study, but my responsibility, I should say, is that I am interpreting a piece that has already taken those things into consideration. There is very little writing in Verdi’s letters to suggest that he had very much appreciation for the Church, but he was very much aware of the Bible and what is in it. When he scored this piece, as he did for other operas that relate to biblical texts, he synthesized how he would like it to be delivered, and it is not my responsibility to make a comment on that. It is my responsibility to make that come alive. Now, as an actor and as a singing actor, I can use all the outside resources that I want, but the issue is, how do I interpret this piece, based on the libretto that was given to him?
OL – Great answer! Did you look at some of your predecessors who sang this role, when you prepared for it? If yes, who are your sources of inspiration?
GH – I have looked at none of them. When I do a piece for the first time I don’t want to be influenced by that. I’ve seen a few different productions of Nabucco, but after I do it in Charlotte and in Seattle then I’ll live with it. Then I plan to go back and see particularly how Renato Bruson, Renato Capecchi, and Piero Cappuccilli have sung it. I’ll do that then, but I wouldn’t want to do that now, because I think I’ll be biased by what they do.
OL – So, what other steps do you take for your musical preparation of the role, if you don’t like to listen to predecessors? Do you go first to the piano score with an accompanist?
GH – I started preparing at the end of this past spring. I didn’t do anything musically at all, at first. I first went to the libretto and read it all, because the words are going to be what inspires the music, anyway, right? Verdi got the libretto first, and then he composed, so the first preparation that I’m going to have is with the meaning of the text and the poetry of the text. Once I feel comfortable with that, then I apply the musical part to it. I have an accompanist that I go to, and we work through the music. I use Verdi’s markings as guides but the first time I sing any of it, I have what the Italians call “intenzione di parole” – the intentions of the words that I am going to sing.
OL – This opera requires significant forces – from a large chorus to six gifted singers in the main roles. What is your expectation for this Opera Carolina production?
GH – I’ve worked in Charlotte before. I know James Meena very well. I know the quality of the work that he strives for and attains. I know that the chorus is very, very good, and they take their roles very seriously. I’m sure that they are very well aware of the big chorus piece in this. I want to see the relationship between the chorus and the director and what they feel that that particular piece represents for them. Whatever the “Va, Pensiero” meant in Verdi’s time, we are now in the 21st century, so there has to be a connection in the here and now, particularly for the chorus, of what it feels to be that group in this time. It is a fantastic piece, but it has to be an organic living piece now, not something that they are trying to reproduce as if it were a museum piece. It has to be relevant and spontaneous, now. They have to find that connection, so that it is real to them right now.
OL – Very nice. I got curious about some items I saw in your biography. The first one is the Gala Concert you did for the US Supreme Court. How did that experience go, for you? Are the Justices big opera fans?
GH – [laughs] Bless your heart! This was back in 2006. I did two roles at the time for the Washington National Opera. I am a Washingtonian so I have a long history with that opera company. I sang Porgy and Bess in the fall and the Ring cycle later that spring. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Antonin Scalia are big opera fans, and Ruth came to the Porgy, we met, and we hit it off. She has a regular recital series at the Supreme Court. She invited to me to participate in it.
[pauses] I’m getting quiet a little bit, because as I think about it, it was a tremendous honor, not only to do it, but for the fact that this extraordinarily brilliant woman from New York City with a public school education who has strong connections to the arts and to the community deals with the Constitution in a manner that is sympathetic to my beliefs and thoughts, and we could actually connect and become friends through music. I really did marvel at how it came about. If I had planned to create something like that I would never have been successful, but the sheer fact that we were brought together in a friendship through music, I consider a blessing.
OL – Wow, nice! I was also curious about your performances at the Met with Plácido Domingo and Mirella Freni in La Bohème, and with Luciano Pavarotti and Aprile Millo in Un Ballo in Maschera. These are legendary singers. It must be something, to perform and interact with them.
GH – To be fortunate, you have to do a lot of hard work, and you have to be prepared when the opportunity arrives. With that in mind, yes, I was prepared to sing Bohème; I had studied it and performed it, and was eager to do it. The circumstances were nothing that I expected. I got a phone call from the Met that day of the live broadcast that goes not only to the United States by all over, telling me that the baritone that was supposed to sing Marcello was ill, and that I would do that performance. I had done two performances before at the Met that I was contracted and scheduled to do, but I was not scheduled to perform at the live broadcast. So, I got that call at 11 AM for a matinee that started at 1 PM.
To tell you the truth, most of it was a blur. I remember it all now, after the fact, but during the performance I was just trying my best to be Marcello, and just trying to relate to Rodolfo and Mimì, but I’m looking at Plácido Domingo and Mirella Freni, and I’m thinking “these are the greatest singers on the planet and I am on stage with them!” It was a challenge. It was fantastic, but it was a challenge to see these great artists and try to make myself see Rodolfo and Mimì and not Plácido and Mirella. I don’t know how successful I was with that!
I continued my relationship with Plácido over these twenty something years. He was the one who brought me to Washington to sing my first Ring cycle, and to LA to sing the Ring there too. I just did the Iphigénie with him at the Met in the last couple of years. They are going to release that this fall on a DVD. He is generous. As talented and as much of a superstar that Plácido and Mirella were – Plácido still is – he is an even better colleague, Luiz! He is nothing but supportive, nothing but present, nothing but giving. You hear stories about singers and egos and all of this, and of course he has an ego, but as a colleague you couldn’t want anything better. That relationship continues today.
With Luciano, I was, again, very fortunate that when we did Rigoletto together, I had a small part but he literally liked the sound of my voice. He asked me if I was going to be in Europe that following summer, and I said yes, I was, he said, “OK, you come to see me in Pesaro.” He had a home in Pesaro and I went there in the summer, and I studied with him. I prepared opera roles with Luciano Pavarotti, by his invitation. After that he invited me to do his international vocal competition in Philadelphia of which I was a winner, and I got to sing two more roles there.
These were and are the greatest artists of our lifetime, surely. I had an intimate relationship with them, not only working with them but being able to be colleagues with them; just buddy with them, and there is nothing else I could have ever wished to have in my career.
OL – You also won the National Council Auditions. How was that moment for you, in your career?
GH – Oh, I think I was just young. I don’t think I understood what it was. I knew it meant to compete, I knew the significance of it, but a competition is not the same as a career. You have a couple of arias to make your impression, and everyone at that level is very talented and can be impressive but not everyone can have a career and sustain the singing for an entire opera and for years. I think the competition at that age brought me to the attention of a lot of people, and there is a lot of pressure regarding what you do with that attention, but it is not the same as having a career for thirty years. I’m appreciative that the competition brought me to the light of some important people in New York City, but I’m more appreciative of the work that has been done for the last twenty-five to thirty years.
OL – On a more personal note so that our readers get acquainted with man underneath the artist, please tell us a bit about you as a person. How was your encounter with music?
GH – I always loved music. I studied the piano and mostly the clarinet. I sang in Church. My father was a minister. For me singing was associated with faith, community, and family. I didn’t make the association toward a profession until maybe my graduate school, later. What sticks, what remains from that, is that I always associated singing with an expression and celebration, more than I thought of it as a pedagogical or academic endeavor. I was connected to making those sounds in my community as opposed to standing on a stage. Maybe that’s a different type of love or appreciation of what music is, and certainly later I expanded my feelings toward music, but at the core of it, it really is a validation of who you are as a person and how you relate to sharing it with people.
OL – From instrumental music with the piano and the clarinet, how did you get to opera? What was decisive to push you in that direction?
GH – I don’t know! It came rather late. My initial connection to classical music was playing the symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven. Opera, I honestly can’t tell you what the specific thing that led me to it was. It was more of a continuation of my musical growth. I sang in choruses but they weren’t operatic. When I took voice lessons in college and my mentors said “You know, you really can do this,” I think that support and that reinforcement led me in that direction. I can’t say I went to college to achieve that. As a matter of fact, I didn’t. I went to college on a scholarship to play baseball!
OL – Oh wow, that’s interesting. How do you feel now about opera, looking back at those thirty years?
GH – I’m 55. You know what I know now, what opera is? Your audience should know that I’m the youngest of seven, so I have four older brothers and two older sisters. If you come from a large family or know anyone who comes from a large family, you will know that when you are the youngest, you are the last one who is heard. Everyone has a voice that is bigger and stronger, and they have more to say. You’re just the youngest; you have to wait your turn. Psychologically, I think part of the reason why I became a singer, is because I had something to say.
OL – That’s interesting. I am the youngest of five, so I can relate.
GH – I just have something to say. I have something to communicate. Maybe the reason why you write is that you also have something to say, maybe.
OL – Yes. So, how do you define your personality?
GH – [laughs] I don’t know how to answer that. [laughs] I’m pretty easygoing. Hm… that sounds boring, doesn’t it? It’s like a generic answer. [thinks] I started it all looking to belong, to be part of something, because I came from a big family so I wanted to be part of another big family. As I get older, though, I have more of an appreciation for space and for time and silence. I live in the Sonora desert, and I like the quietness of it. I’m not a city person, although I lived in Milan and London and Berlin, all those major cities. Right now I like the quiet of not being in those cities. I like going to visit them and working in them but I like not living in them at this point in my life. That might change, but Luiz, right now, I like not being in the city.
OL – What are your main interests outside of opera and classical music?
GH – I do like sports very much. I’m a very avid golfer, so if there is anyone there in Charlotte that has a golf course that they’d like to take me to, I’d love that. I love reading. I don’t talk politics, although I am very clear about what I am: a liberal Democrat and very proud of it, but I know that there are different interpretations of how things should be, and I respect people for that. I like the fact of being part of a community, that we live off of each other. Maybe a little bit of the 60’s is in me. Philosophically, I believe in that we really are part of the same community, and that’s what I am going to live.
OL – That’s what we had. It was a pleasure; your answers were very interesting. I look forward to listening to you and meeting you in person on October 18th!
GH – Definitely, please make sure you come backstage! Luiz, thanks; I enjoyed speaking with you and appreciate your time.
Interviews by Luiz Gazzola from operalively.com – click here to visit the full article.