‘Being immersed in the thoughts and feelings of a character enduring terrible emotional duress is of course exhausting…but it’s impossible to sing properly while sobbing.’
Stephen Gadd will be opening the 2023 Season performing the title role in Rigoletto, and closing it performing Sir Roderic Murgatroyd in Ruddigore. He tells us about coping with the darkness of a role like Rigoletto as well as the value of comic opera today.
Can you introduce us to your first role at OHP this year?
Rigoletto is a widowed, loving father to a teenage daughter. Due to his physical disability, the only work he can do to support her is a job he detests, entertaining an obnoxious Duke and his hangers-on.
Rigoletto is an iconic role: how heavy is the knowledge of the baritones that have gone before you?
No heavier than any other role. My approach is always the same: try to find the essence of what inspired the librettist and composer, and ignore the layers of performance cliché that have accumulated and often belong to the tastes and preferences of bygone times. I’ll try to express a dramatic honesty to the best of my vocal ability.
You are a Historian by training, how does this influence your operatic career?.
I went to music college as an engineering graduate, actually, and have only recently gained my PhD in History. But rather than influence my operatic career, these other interests provide a useful counterpoint to it: light relief from the emotional turmoil of operatic plots, a rest for my ears, and not least an economic safety-net over the past few difficult years.
Last year we saw you in Le Villi, which is performed very rarely in comparison to Rigoletto, which is widely known and loved. How do you approach roles in each kind of production?
Le Villi has particular challenges due largely to the circumstances of its composition and compression of the plot, which mean that much of the character development takes place off-stage. That’s why we were particularly fortunate to have a director, Martin Lloyd-Evans, who makes sufficient time to discuss each character’s motivation and evolution, filling in the blank spaces left by the libretto and music. But the same process applies to other operas, only to a lesser degree usually.
How does performing an opera with very little light or hope affect you personally?
Being immersed in the thoughts and feelings of a character enduring terrible emotional duress is of course exhausting, not only in performance but also through the rehearsal period too. Ideally, one would embody these emotions only during the rehearsal process, to properly gauge an authentic dramatic response, but thereafter merely synthesise that response because it can otherwise destabilise vocal production. It’s impossible to sing properly while sobbing.
You end the season playing Sir Roderic Murgatroyd in Ruddigore, how do you prepare for a role like this in comparison to Rigoletto?
It’s certainly a lot less vocally demanding, but requires considerably faster word-recall. I tend to test my memory while showering, so I may be getting through more hot water than usual.
What do you believe is the relevance of comic opera such as Ruddigore?
It’s light entertainment. Sometimes we want thought-provoking, intense drama, but on other occasions we just want to empty our heads, laugh, and leave the theatre humming. Opera can provide for any or all of these needs.
Are we likely to see a return of your dancing from Le Villi at some point this season?
Be careful what you wish for.
Is there a role, operatic or otherwise, that you have yet to play but would love to?
I’m extraordinarily lucky to have performed most of the roles on my wish-list, and very grateful to have sung many of them at Opera Holland Park. I feel a particular affinity with the rich psychology of Verdi’s baritone roles, but have yet to tackle Iago…
What is one piece of advice you’ve been given as an artist that has stayed with you?
Take the work seriously, not so much yourself.
Interview by Lucy Hicks Beach