Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively – Florestan, like Leonore, represents an ideal. Some interpretations present him in this manner, as a noble, dignified man whose beliefs have sustained him through terrible suffering. In several recent productions, however, he has been portrayed as someone who has clearly been traumatized by his experiences and exhibits symptoms of psychiatric disturbances. What are your own views about this character? How realistically should he be depicted?

Andrew Richards – I am interested in the directorial choices as of late in that they solve the dramatic problem with the piece: sustained disbelief that Fidelio does not recognize Leonore in the prison. Scenically, it is rather challenging to solve this problems with lights or costume alone if one is to believe the two have an intimate and meaningful relationship which they certainly do. So I think giving him some psychological distress is a good dramatic choice, albeit if not carefully done, it would be a quick fix to the dramatic tension. I hope to go further into his humanity, not giving him so much psychological distress that he is less a PTSD sufferer beyond all human capability to feel great and pervasive despair, and more the living, breathing man of honesty and steadfast character. Going far into the psychologically traumatized is a good solution, but it risks making him less an ideal — and everyman — and more the freakish victim. I want to pursue honesty and intense humanity where the audience member is tempted to think: "That could have been me! Maybe I could have been that heroic in the face of tyranny." 

OL – A number of people, from singers to music critics, have said that Beethoven did not write well for voices. The role of Florestan is not especially long, but it begins with an enormously difficult aria. How do you prepare yourself to sing what is regarded as a very taxing part? And how do you plan to approach the word “Gott!” in your aria? Many tenors sing it at forte, though there are a few – Jonas Kaufmann notably among them – who begin the note at pianissimo and then sustain it through a long crescendo all the way to forte.

AR – Jonas' contribution, notwithstanding, is excellent but not precisely historical solution to how the opening word has been delivered. The simple fact that it is enumerated is interesting to me. Abstractly, I can sing it this way, and have used quite a bit of softer-grained singing onstage (eg. the opening duet to Carmen at Opera Comique in Paris, seen now in DVD form and online, or a pianissimo "E lucevan le stelle" from Verona for which I received a demand of an encore) but honestly, I prefer a more declamatory dynamic that is more a cry of pain like Vickers', and less a vocal display. I'll work closely with the conductor and director to craft something that is within the context we agree on and not offer a definitive decision on what to do with this first note. For me, it simply must be truthful and never thought of as self-indulgent.

OL – The events in Fidelio are actually set in the 16th century, but there has long been a tendency to place them in the early 19th century, the time when Beethoven composed the opera. In recent decades, we have also seen productions that have updated the action to anywhere from World War II to the late 20th century or the present day. The staging in Charlotte will place the action in the former East Germany just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Do you think this opera makes a greater impact with audiences if it includes references to recent political events? And what happens when a staging transfers the action to a different location, and gets out of synch with the libretto in certain places as a result? How will Opera Carolina’s production deal with a situation where, for example, Florestan in East Berlin wants to send a message to his wife in Seville? And what about all those references to a King in a Communist country?

AR – It is kind of exciting to bring it into the present day, seeking some sort of 'relevance' but not necessary. A well written story is a well written story. I am equally moved by the written forms of Pride and Prejudice as I am by Bonfire of the Vanities. Honestly, I think of updating things as a form to vitalize and intrigue an audience tempted to think "I've already seen Fidelio." Will it be the cause of having a greater impact? I doubt it. A great score is a great score. But still incredibly fun to play flesh and blood characters. 

Solving the libretto's intricacies, I leave to more clever people than myself. I'm quite convinced as I read what has been given to me in this updated version, that the story is cogent and sensible.

OL – Arguably one of the greatest roles in all of opera is Parsifal, and you have portrayed him in Stuttgart and in Brussels, both in new productions. Please describe briefly, then contrast and compare the two productions, and tell us about your emotions singing this magnificent part. You are singing another great German role in Florestan. Do you see yourself going heavily into the German, and particularly the Wagnerian repertory?

AR – I still consider Wagner new territory though I am also learning Siegmund and Lohengrin. Having been an instrumentalist until turning to singing later than most, I am drawn to the orchestration and inter-dependance of Wagner's compositional style. One instrument leads to another's commentary, rather than early Verdi's more "orchestra as boom-chick-chick accompaniment." Still, my temperament is closer to the Italian Tradition, so I don't see myself leaving it behind any time soon. In fact, to do so would probably be short-sighted, since Wagner's scores wear on the voice in a particular way. 

I've written quite a bit on the two Parsifals on my blog "Opera Rocks" (www.operarocks.me). The two productions could not be any more dissimilar and in my mind represent everything right with European opera at present. Incredibly creative directors with completely different styles. I saw Calixto Bieito this week in Antwerp for his current production of Tannhäuser, and he wouldn't stop saying our Parsifal was probably his most favorite moment in his career where everyone was "freed to make art without a moment's worry of what we were supposed to do." We were exploring boundaries and comfort levels and he was very keen to "tear down the hallowed halls of a religious Parsifal." He wanted to poke fun at German culture which so highly revered it, certainly. His style is to take intensity and take it to an extreme. Grueling, exhausting work, where I had to go to the gym 5X a week to be able to handle running onstage for 4 hours and keep being able to breath, all the while acting like a crazed wolf-child! Perhaps on some level we may have even succeeded. I know where my limits are now!

[Editor's note – click (here) for a video clip of a fragment of Bieito's Parsifal with Andrew Richards – warning: contains nudity]

Romeo Castellucci's production was a different experience altogether and a watershed moment in my personal life. As crazy intense as Bieito's was, Castellucci's wasn't. As active and engaging as we sought to make Bieito's, we were directed to not enter into the drama in ANY way with Romeo. It was nearly Kabuki theater in its style. I have always sought to bring my fullest self to the character and be alive onstage. Romeo would have none of that. Truly, doing nothing was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. Disquietingly so, it unearthed in my own life all the questions I was afraid of asking: about religion and faith, about marriage and parenting, about existence and love itself. And when the depiction was taken from the literal and placed in the very abstract, there was more meaning to the piece. He intended not to cover up the contemplative quality of the piece with crazy intense action, but sink into it, lull the audience into a dream-like state where our reasoning minds were bypassed, where the movement and music and visuals left a deep imprint on the subconscious. And being the genius he is, Romeo really succeeded. Since its premiere in Brussels and then again in Bologna last year, I never stop being written by people who experienced it, all saying the same thing: "I don't know why, but Castelluci's production changed my life." I've truly never seen anything like it, and even the commercial DVD cannot convey how powerful it was to experience. 

OL – Let’s talk about your personal story a little bit. How did you encounter opera growing up? What kind of person are you, in terms of personality, approach to life, and favorite hobbies and interests?

AR – I grew up in an extremely religious setting in Phoenix, Arizona. Opera was "worldly entertainment" and not really sanctioned by the Brethren. I was however, given opportunities in my late teens to play alongside jazz greats Sarah Vaughan, Carmen MacRae, The Hi-Los and The Four Freshmen. It wasn't until I was nearly 20 when I was dragged to my first opera and I never looked back. Basically overnight I decided to give up a budding career as a trombonist and pursue singing. It was that compelling to me. Maybe it's my religious upbringing speaking but I tend to think you are called to opera… or you aren't. It is a demanding and sometimes frustrating art form, but when it speaks to someone's soul, they never stop loving it. It is a spiritual, life-altering experience when it's done well, like any fine art.

I guess it's apparent I'm a person of extremes. As I age, I'm learning to be less so and dig a little deeper than the readily available emotional content of a score or a relationship or a favorite beer… and seek the most sustainable and efficient way to being, to presenting my thoughts and work onstage. The through-line has always been: is this honest? Is this meaningful? Is this uplifting? Or is this indulgent and only evokes vanity?

I succeed about 10% of the time and that's good enough to keep doing it and giving opera everything I've got. It is my calling, like my three children are. If we open ourselves to it, opera has a special ability to help us grapple with our humanity and clarify our priorities. Do we consume only, or do we enter in and strive to live gracefully and fully? Big questions which good productions can really stir up. And I can't think of a better place than Opera Carolina to look for some answers!

To read more from this interview, click here