Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively – The role of Canio has some of the most iconic music for tenor in all of opera, and enormous dramatic impact with his poignant situation. It must be thrilling to interpret this character. Please tell us about your feelings when incarnating him, and how you plan to go about it.
Jeffrey Gwaltney – I must admit that I Pagliacci and other verismo operas of this time period actually enticed me to begin studying classical music in the first place. There is something that is so raw and humanistic about the drama, and the music really is able to highlight that in a display of true mastery by Leoncavallo.
As a student, I actually aspired to be a baritone, so I hoped to play the role of Silvio or Tonio. I had no way to foresee a chance to sing the role of Canio, but now that I am on this side of the drama, I have to say the most obvious challenge is NOT trying to fill the shoes of the many, great artists that have realized this role before me. Those are big shoes to fill indeed (Caruso, Björling, Corelli, Domingo, Vickers, and Pavarotti etc.).
The challenge I find with this role, is finding a way to be present in the climaxes of this piece with dramatic credibility, while retaining the consistency that is required to sing the music with due respect for the quality which this art form deserves. This part is a particular challenge, and I will go about accomplishing it with preparation, meditation, and eating my wheaties! [smiles]
OL – One of your mentors, Plácido Domingo, with whom you worked at Washington National Opera, delivered one of the most extraordinary filmed performances of this role, in the famous Zeffirelli movie, with Stratas as Nedda. Was he an inspiration in your preparation to sing Canio? Was anybody else also a model for you?
JG – Maestro Domingo is an ideal model; he is not only technically proficient as a singer, he is one of the greatest actors on the stage today, period. Yes, I know this recording you've referenced well; as witness to his ability, consider the fall on stage without missing a single beat… Incredible! However, there are others indeed; the menacing calm of John Vickers, the unbridled passion of Mario Del Monaco, the piercing beauty of Corelli, and the list really could go on and on. I am not only an opera singer, but an opera enthusiast. I respect the performance history of this art form very much.
OL – In terms of character arc, Canio doesn’t evolve very much in the opera – he remains bitter, disillusioned, and jealous throughout the piece. You’ve portrayed another verismo character on the opposite side of a love triangle – instead of the betrayed husband who kills, as Luigi in Il Tabarro you were the wife’s lover who gets killed. Tell us about these characters, and please let us know, acting wise, which one was easier to portray, and why.
JG – Since you've put it that way, in my view, they seem to be two stock characters: the forlorn lover and the ardent suitor. Canio is a working artist who may be a little idealistic when regarding the nature of his partnership with Nedda. His passion eventually drives him to mania and despair once his suspicions of infidelity are realized.
Jeff as Luigi
Luigi is a a libertine who is disenchanted with the the social injustice of Parisian working class struggle; this emboldens him to press for what he wants in absconding with the unfaithful and conflicted Giorgetta. Both are driven by strong emotions; one rage, and the other hope of a better life. Acting wise, I would say Luigi is easier to play, as hope is a more familiar emotion with which to identify in comparison to Canio's rage.
OL – While I’m sure you are extremely well-prepared, I wonder if having to sing one of the most famous arias of all time – "Vesti la giubba" – and one that you know the entire audience is waiting for, is a bit nerve-wrecking. Please tell us about it.
JG – "Vesti la giubba" is undoubtedly one of the most recognizable pieces from the standard operatic repertoire. It has the distinction of being the first million album selling recording with Enrico Caruso singing in 1902. The music is powerful alone, but the dramatic implication of that aria in context holds even more weight. It is nerve wracking for sure, but also should feel almost therapeutic for Canio to release such inner turmoil. I approach this piece of music with the utmost respect.
OL – It must be nice to get to sing this spectacular character, but then be able to sit down and relax, and maybe watch your friends and colleagues perform Aleko, next. It’s very clever pairing since these two operas seem to mix very well both dramatically and musically. Not only they have similar themes, but they premiered two days apart, in 1892. Surprisingly,Aleko is very poorly known in the United States, although undeservedly so. Are you very familiar with it?
JG – Being American in nationality and residence, I would be lying if I said I were familiar with Aleko. Calling it rare to see in America would be an understatement as you mentioned. I've never had a chance to see it. It is very exciting to be a part of this unconventional double bill, and I congratulate Opera Carolina for this interesting pairing. I wait with bated breath to seeAleko produced in a professional theater.
OL – Unlike the very interesting move Opera Carolina is doing this time with this double bill, the usual pairing with Pagliacciis of course Cavalleria Rusticana, and you’ve portrayed Turiddu as well. It’s an eternal discussion, like Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning… but which one do you prefer, Cav or Pag, and why?
JG – I Pagliacci was one of the first operas that I owned on disc, so I am partial to it with nostalgia. However, I thinkCavalleria Rusticana is more realistic dramatically in some senses, and the music is so incredible! It is hard to choose here, but if I must I would choose I Pagliacci.
OL – You have had performances in at least six different productions already in the UK and Ireland, so your international career is taking off pretty nicely in the British Islands. Would you tell us a bit about your experiences singing there?
JG – Singing in the UK and Ireland have been some of the most memorable experiences in my life. Living there during the rehearsal period offers so many opportunities to explore art and history, not to mention the plethora of music an theater to enjoy! London is such a special city where it is hard to be productive with all of the museums, galleries, concert halls, and theaters to distract you. There also seems to be a greater appreciation for art in general. Dublin also has a massive history in theater which I was not fully aware of until working there. The quality of the productions in the opera houses are also very high in general.
OL – You’ve performed an obscure opera composed in 1899, Koanga by Frederic Delius, in the Fall of 2015 at the Wexford Opera Festival. I confess that this one I don’t know. It seems to be the first European opera that based its material on African-American music, and it is set in a plantation in Louisiana. Please educate me and our readers about it, and tell us about the production.
JG – Wexford is a special place and the opera house is really a national treasure. It has the official title of Ireland's national opera theater. Delius' Koanga is a story of an African Voodoo prince who was stolen into slavery and brought to a Lousiana plantation. He arrives incensed and threatens to curse the entire lot, however he falls in love with a mixed-race servant of the plantation's matriarch. The plantation master consents to their marriage on the condition that Koanga will be a devoted slave. The plantation manager Simon Perez, who I played, also loves this handmaiden, Palmyra. He thwarts the wedding by kidnapping Palmyra, after Koanga's forced conversion to Christianity in order to validate the marriage.
Jeff as Simon Perez
Koanga is enraged, runs away and curses the plantation with plague and failed crops. Some time passe;, Koanga returns to find Simon Perez advancing on Palmyra, and slays him in justifiable rage. Koanga is immediately killed by hunters, and Palmyra kills herself in her grief. Not really a happy endin; it is opera after all.
However one notable facet of the piece is the way in which Delius uses traditional Negro melodies in rhapsodic composition. Many of the choruses are just stunning. He was inspired by the traditional music he heard during his time on a plantation in Florida, hence another symphonic jewel of Delius, the Florida Suite. The music is extremely lush, and the drama is intense. The production was beautiful; they employed South African dancers whose modern take on traditional African dance enhanced the symbolism of Koanga's African roots. It was very rewarding to be a part of this production.
OL – How did you get to pick opera as your career, growing up?
JG – Like many of my colleagues, I came to opera later in life. As a child, although I loved music of all kinds, opera was not really accessible, as I grew up in a fairly rural area. I was exposed to opera when I was 18. My interest was really in music and straight theater, and once I began to understand what opera really was, it was a perfect marriage of the two. I decided when I was 20 to go to music college and begin my formal training in earnest as an opera singer. It is a very long road.
OL – What are some of your extra-operatic interests?
JG – Besides a general interest in arts and the humanities, I am a bit of an outdoors guy. I enjoy hiking, fishing, camping, and gardening. I am also a self-admitted foodie and enjoy cooking for friends and family. I love the farm-to-table scene that is so prevalent here in Charlotte with our great Farmer's markets. I also enjoy craft beer and local music. My wife and I like to travel together as much as possible and pay visits to loved ones along the way.
OL – Thank you for your interesting answers!
JG – Cheers!