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Born in New York, Brian Mulligan made his debut at the MET as a student at Juilliard in 2003. An alumnus of Yale, the baritone has sung in the world's most prestigious opera houses, and this season, takes on three roles with the San Francisco Opera. Below is the transcript of our August 31, 2015 conversation with Brian Mulligan.
EH: At what age did you realize that your talent was a bit unusual ? Were there any musicians, performances or recordings that influenced your decision to become a musician ?
Mulligan: I was seventeen, and what happened was it takes a while for a man’s voice to drop (laughs). At first, I thought I was maybe a tenor - I didn’t know that I could sing my low notes as well. But I would say the inspiration I had was not any one particular singer but kind of the art form as a whole. As you can imagine, opening the doors to opera, it seemed like there was a limitless number of singers, repertoire, languages, etc. It was just this overwhelming feeling of seeing all of these different operas, and I would watch recordings of them on VHS that I borrowed from my voice teacher. Sometimes they were from the MET, or San Francisco or Europe, and in watching all of these – the Ring, Figaro, Eugene Onegin - I began thinking that this was an art form that could keep me challenged and engaged all my life. And I was right (laughs).
EH: At some point, every artist realizes that technique is the only way they can advance to the next level. I’m curious to know, at which point did you finally begin thinking of the problem of improving yours ? Which matters of vocal technique are the most challenging for you ? And was it ever a struggle for you to unify your head voice, middle voice and chest voice ?
Mulligan: I would say right from the very beginning that practice – repetition, really – was what was going to ensure consistency. From the first time I chose a song to sing, a musical or an art song, I would practice it multiple times every day. When I got to conservatory, I began to understand the necessity for technique. The longer I was singing, people were going to assign me more and more challenging repertoire – higher notes, longer phrases, pieces that required a larger dynamic range, etc.
I found my technique with my teacher – my current teacher, I’ve studied with 15 years – and it was a very long process to learn how to sing with him. I would say the most challenging thing for me that I work on every single day, is remembering my air flow, how every single note that I sing needs to be inspired from a place of care, giving, and it’s all inspired by air moving through my vocal folds.
EH: Beyond technique, there are many singers who dream of having a big career. It doesn’t sound like you’ve been through much rejection, having won roles at the MET as a Juilliard student. What advice might you give about persevering through the many rejections ?
Mulligan: Oh, well, you know, every artist faces rejection on a daily basis. Regardless of your talent, there are people you can work with who are going to reject your ideas, conductors who will reject the way that you want to sing something, a phrase you feel strongly about, etc. I think you really have to be honest with yourself: are you really working as intelligently as you can ? Who are you? What is your instrument, who are you on stage ? What kind of roles or career path is realistic for you ?
As long as you are realistic and you know who you are as a singer, there is a path for you. Not everybody is born to sing the leading heldentenor roles around the world; you may be born to sing character tenor roles at a regional house. There are all different kinds of careers, and if a person wants to work in this industry, they need to be realistic about who they are and working as intelligently as they can: mastering language, understanding consistent technique, improving stage craft, etc.
EH: This season, for you, is one of the most ambitious undertakings an opera singer can conceive of: you’ll be singing 10 new roles in 16 months – three of them with the San Francisco Opera this season. In 2012, you wanted the title role in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. What are your feelings for this character today ?
Mulligan: It was on my wish list because it’s such a magnificent piece. It’s one of those pieces you’re not sure you’ll ever have the chance to do. But now that musical theater pieces are performed more often in opera houses, which has happened in the last 5-10 years, it’s a little more conceivable that I would get to do the role.
Sweeney is just a fun, wonderful role. The music is brilliantly composed, witty, devastating, a whole range of emotion from joy to despair. As an artist, that’s really the kind of role that I long for. I love those kinds of roles. In this particular production, it’s particularly brutal, and I would say my Sweeney is a brute (laughs) and particularly bloody. In addition to all that brutality, there is a person underneath, a naïve, innocent young man with a huge heart, a very trusting person. A fascinating moment of the piece is when I have the dichotomy of this brute and one-time innocent, innocent no longer. A person who is just completely heartbroken and robbed of his life.
The new production of Lucia, I can’t wait to sing with those colleagues and Maestro Luisotti. The double bill in December of the Usher opera – I didn’t even know of the existence of that opera until it was brought to my attention. But that will be a fascinating night for me, as I’ll be paying the same character in two different operas.
EH: On the subject of Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor, is there anything in your development as a singing actor that has changed or matured since you last played the role ? How will you attack it differently ? Historically, which singer’s portrayal, their musical decisions, have influenced your own ?
Mulligan: I actually don’t really draw very much from historic performances. I respect every artist for who they are. Every single artist is their own unique artist unto themselves. That’s why people still want to hear Lucia -- they’re hearing it with a different voice. I would say that I have probably sung Enrico more than any other – Toronto, Chicago, DC, London, etc. I am constantly evolving as a person and as an artist, and my voice is developing too.
I think it remains to be seen in this production, because we haven’t done rehearsals yet, about how it will challenge me this time. In Lucia, I believe I’m actually going to be albino. I have an albino wig that they’ve already fitted for me, but I haven’t thought of how being an albino person would affect your personality and how you interact with other people. It certainly is a challenging role to sing, but all of the other performances and life experiences I’ve had since the last time I sang will certainly make a difference in how I sing it this time. Some parts will be easier, some harder. I hope to find new things in the character and the music, which will undoubtedly happen. When you collaborate with people as talented as the team at SFO, they’re going to have ideas about the piece that may have never occurred to you before, which is hugely enticing. I love to have new ideas, and I love to collaborate and think of a character I’ve never thought of.
EH: There are many who fear for the future of the art form and classical music in general. What are your personal thoughts on this matter, and what can be done to alter the course ?
Mulligan: Well, I think that as long as ideas keep happening, as long as the art form keeps attracting innovators, artists, and people who want to see the art form thrive, we’ll be okay. There are a lot of young singers who are trying to break into the industry, which is encouraging, but in some ways frightening, as there aren’t enough spots for everyone.
There isn’t really anything else like opera. This is it. This is where you’ll see singing like this, innovative stage craft that combines amazing orchestrations, and in some cases, ballet. Live theater is irreplaceable, and what I think is that getting people to go out and experience live theater is something that once they do it, it can become addictive. It is unique as an art form and as entertainment, and I think this will keep it alive.
EH: Ideally, what is the impression you strive to make when you’re on stage ?
Mulligan: I learned that I need to be root for my character, even if no one else in the audience does. I need to understand where he is coming from, what he wants, rationalize everything about who he is, and support it. It can take quite a while to get to that point (laughs). What that whole process means is melding Brian, personally, with the character, and understand the choices they make and how I could understand them.
With Sweeney, that’s reconciling ‘Would I be capable of murder, slitting their throats, etc.’, and that’s a very tough thing to come to grips with (laughs). I spent a lot of time looking at the score, the text, trying to see what my character is saying, trying to really understand who we are. After that process, I spend a lot of time making sure that in everything I say and do as the character, that my intention is 100% known to me.
I feel that then the audience will be able to be along for the ride with me, that it will read even in a house as large as the SFO. It’s a lot of back work, sitting with the book, etc. If there’s original source material, I will read all of it, find out what inspired the composer to create the character they created - if not the composer, then the author or whoever, the librettist. I spend a lot of nerdy time studying my score, and honestly, I study my score through the final performance. If you come to my dressing room, the score will be open on my table. I am constantly trying to figure out what the composer and the librettist thinks of them.
EH: Brian, thank you for taking the time. Best of luck to you in San Francisco this season.
Mulligan: Thanks, Elijah. It was a pleasure speaking with you.