The Utah Symphony will perform Berlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust” this weekend. David Burger submitted questions to tenor Michael Spyres, who will sing the title role. Here, edited for length and clarity, are the email responses from Spyres, who has sung in many of the world’s leading opera houses, including London’s Covent Garden and Barcelona’s Liceu.
You will be performing “The Damnation of Faust” with the Utah Symphony. What makes your role so challenging?
I would have to say that the biggest challenge of this role is the extreme tessitura. There are very few roles in operatic repertoire that require this type of singing. Berlioz must have had quite an amazing tenor in mind to sing this role because it is seemingly written as a person with two voices. One tenor is lightly orchestrated with notes up to a top C-sharp coupled with amazingly long lyrical phrasing that demands an extremely advanced breath control. The other tenor is on the opposite end of the spectrum with its low-lying center, which requires a great deal of stamina and the ability to cut through the orchestra when singing virtually as a baritone. This is why [the role of’] Faust is difficult to cast, because it was written for someone who has the flexibility of a bel canto singer but also has the squillo along with the strength and support required from Puccini or Verdi. In fact, all three of the main roles are written in an extreme manner that pushes the singer to the limit, and I do not believe that this is for lack of understanding of vocal writing; quite the contrary, Berlioz knew exactly what the voice is capable of. I believe that in the case of Faust, he expressed within the vocal lines the human duality that is the angel and the demon within all of us. That is the genius of his writing, because when watching “Damnation de Faust” performed live, you get to see three singers pushed to their vocal edge.
Some have called it an oratorio, others an opera or cantata, and Berlioz himself called it a “légende dramatique.” How would you characterize this piece, or does it defy easy categorization?
I believe that Berlioz had it right when he described it as a dramatic legend. The story is absolutely a grandiose legend yet an intimate drama about free will. Within the fantastical story, he shows the very real drama of the human experience of dealing with the mind and the self and the ability, or at times, inability, to take control of one’s actions, which ultimately results in us suffering the consequences of our actions.
Have you played this role before? If so, where and when, and what do you remember about those performances?
Yes! I have performed the role of Faust just this last year for the first time and it was an extremely memorable production. I was directed by the famous film director and hero of mine since childhood, Terry Gilliam. This was his first time directing an opera, and just as you would expect from him, it was captivating and extremely interesting as well as beautiful and moving. He set the opera with the idea to capture the history of Germany from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s. His concept was eerily perfect for the libretto written half a century before his time setting and we could not have performed the opera in a more poignant city than in Antwerp. Many people are aware of Germany’s history in the last century and [how its citizens] were affected by the world wars, but very few people were affected as much as those in Belgium. In Terry’s setting, Faust was a scientist who did not want to do anything with people but instead wanted to become a god among men with his knowledge and understanding of physics. Immediately when I heard Mr. Gilliam’s idea, I was struck by how much it paralleled the real-life story of Fritz Haber, which I became aware of from radiolab.org. Few people have lived a more Faustian existence than that of Haber. If you do not know his story, look him up and you will understand how life can be stranger than fiction. Amazingly, the controversial production went over extremely well and it was an incredibly moving experience to be a part of.
Coincidentally, one month after my debut in Salt Lake City, I will again sing as well as record the role of Faust in London with the LSO Symphony under the baton of Valery Gergiev.
Does it help to identify with the character you play and to sympathize with your character?
I do believe that it helps to identify with the character you are trying to portray, but sometimes sympathizing is a stretch. I do believe that in order to project the character in a believable manner, one must understand how the character thinks. Many people believe that in order to truly portray a character, one must become that person, which for me is an absurdity, and this is when I feel that people misinterpret the techniques and the ideas of great thinkers such as Stanislavski. We must always keep in mind that we are acting, which is the art of making everyone believe that you are the person that you are portraying. I think with enough practice and focus that some actors might believe they are someone else, but in fact have only started believing their own portrayal, which is in essence the full circle required from an actor. Sympathy can be a very useful tool for an actor, but it is not always necessary to portray a character believably.
Have you performed/visited Utah before, and if so, what do you remember about it. If not, what do you expect?
No, I have not visited Utah before, but I am very excited to perform and visit the area. I have many friends who have been to Utah and a few that have sung in Salt Lake City, and they all have said that I am in for a treat with Utah’s natural beauty as well as the high quality of art that comes out of your fine city.
What has been your favorite performance, or is it yet to come?
I have had many memorable performances but I would have to say my favorite is when I had a chance to perform “La bohème” with the opera company that began my career, SRO Lyric Theatre in Springfield, Mo., along with virtually my entire family in the cast. I sang Rodolfo, my wife [soprano Tara Stafford-Spyres, who has been cast as the Celestial Voice in the Utah Symphony’s “Damnation of Faust” this weekend] was Mimì, my brother [tenor Sean Spyres] was Benoit/Alcindoro, and my father, mother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew were in the chorus! There was a moment in the Cafe Momús scene in which I stood and sang “La più divina delle poesie è quella, amico, che c’insegna amare!” which translates as “The most divine poetry is that, my friend, which teaches us to love!” In this moment my life was imitating art and truly that of divine poetry because as I sang this phrase, I looked around and saw my family performing onstage with me along with so many people that I love in the audience who have supported me through the years and I was truly thankful to live the life that I lead. It does not get better than this, and I know that it will be difficult to ever top that moment onstage.
Symphony for the devil
Thierry Fischer will conduct the Utah Symphony in Berlioz’s music drama “The Damnation of Faust.”
With • The Utah Symphony Chorus, prepared by Susanne Sheston and augmented by singers from the Utah Opera Chorus and the University of Utah; mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey (Marguerite); tenor Michael Spyres (Faust); baritone Roderick Williams (Méphistophélès); bass-baritone Adam Cioffari (Brander); and soprano Tara Stafford-Spyres (Celestial Voice).
When • Friday and Saturday, Sept. 27-28, 8 p.m.
Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $18 to $69 ($5 more on concert day) at www.utahsymphony.org.
Learn more • Fischer and Utah Symphony VP Toby Tolokan will chat about the music onstage an hour before downbeat.