Monday, May 23, 2011

Singer Profile: Zachary Gordin, Baritone

Photo:  Bill McClaren

Zachary Gordin is a baritone known almost as much for his dazzling looks as his beautiful singing.  Often featured on the site Barihunks, Gordin began his career as a countertenor and made a change to baritone while enjoying very successful career singing countertenor rep.  (Although we know quite a few hunky countertenors, we know of no site dedicated to them as a group.)

Some reviews quoted on his web site:

“Gordin is a powerful soloist, almost too powerful for a recital setting, but he brings a great amount of élan and stage presence to even the slightest turn of phrase or simple cadence. He performed the song cycle with a well-focused sound and absolutely flawless diction.” WEKA News - JOURNEY by Sheli Nan

“Zachary Gordin's bull-fighter seemed ready for the prom or the homecoming game... Gordin’s Escamillo was a heroic performance.” 
San Francisco Classical Voice 
CARMEN - San Francisco Lyric Opera

“The third key role is Alfredo's father, Giorgio Germont, portrayed by Zachary Gordin, a young high baritone who adds gravitas and sensitivity as he becomes aware that in breaking up the lovers, he is also witnessing her demise.”  San Jose Mercury News
LA TRAVIATA - West Bay Opera

We caught up with Zach for a chat.

What won't we find out about your background from your web site?

It's been a very unconventional career path for me.  I was never part of a young artist program, and didn't go to school for singing. I was this weird prodigy as a little kid. I wanted a little keyboard for my third birthday, got it, proceeded to learn to read music, play the piano and organ, and it was all fueled by my internal desire to make it happen. Still very young, I got this idea that I wanted to be an opera singer, like most kids want to be movie stars. I joined a boys choir when I was 8, got a bunch of boy soprano solo gigs, and kept working on my piano skills throughout. Around the time my voice was changing (12-14 years old), I shifted focus from singing to organ/harpsichord, and had a serious stint as a church organist and teenage harpsichord builder. I kept singing (in the treble range, after my voice changed), but wasn't passionate about it until I heard some recordings and live performances of countertenors, and thought I could do a better job. I picked up training again with Anna Carol Dudley, who was a local baroque soprano. Then I worked with Erie Mills, and later, Jane Randolph. When I decided to make the switch to baritone, I was lucky to find Olivia Stapp and Carol Vaness, who really held my hand through the process. Now I'm working with wonderful conductors for coaching, and I see Sheri Greenawald to check-in on technical stuff.  

Dido and Aeneas
Courtesy West Bay Opera
In a 2004 Classical Singer interview, you were still singing countertenor. In a 2006 performance on YouTube, you were singing baritone.  Tell us how that change came about.

I think the term "perfect storm" sums it up pretty well. I was going through a lot of transitions, personally, physically (more muscular), and was really starting to grow up. I was getting tired of the musical limitations placed upon me by that instrument. Being cast as a sopranist in operas isn't easy either, and always singing new music was beginning to wear on me vocally. I was always a slave to careful technique. I deeply wanted to be a more animal singer. It's what I love about Callas.

At the end of 2004 I wasn't working much, and I took it as an opportunity to consider where my life was going. I tried singing a little in my baritone range, and it was like a bright new world. I had to start over, technically, and in my career-building, but I never regretted "the big switch".  

I didn't really have to start over completely. I had make some good connections and shown that I could be trusted as a musician and colleague when I was a countertenor. I actually got some jobs without really auditioning. I had realistic expectations of what my life would look like when I made the choice to give up countertenor singing--a drop in income, technical things to sort out, a whole new repertoire to learn. It was a hard, busy new life, with a slow payoff.

There were some jobs I was being considered for around the time I made that transition. I just told everyone thanks, and that I was moving on. I still wonder who holds that against me, but I had to keep moving ahead.  As a countertenor, I had lots of great experiences and wonderful colleagues. I could say I'd had a career, even if that was the last of it. I'm really glad THAT wasn't the end.

Many singers have overcome bad training or other obstacles to have a career. Have you had any kind of roadblocks to success?  

YES! As a child, poverty, and a less than conventional (or healthy) family situation. Later on, dealing with the "acquired situational narcissism" that crept in as a successful performer who got too much attention too soon. Vocally I've had a few hell-trips, and had to completely restructure my technique a few times. Thankfully, I got all that out of the way fairly young.

I've found that the key to success in your career is honesty with yourself. So many singers want to believe what they want to believe, and they get married to an idea or an image, rather than just truly seeing themselves and speaking with their own voice. Honesty, not artifice, is what can be truly penetrating and resonating in a performance. Finding that honesty was a hard road, and I feel like it's never over. There's always a deeper truth, whether it's finding a character's motivation, or the composer's intention, or just being truly in the moment on stage. I really want to turn out a superior product, in whatever I do, and constantly work on myself to make that desire a reality.

I can really identify with the vocal "hell-trips" that required what seemed like starting over technically. Can you elaborate on that?

Sure. I have had two basic kinds of trouble: being led down the wrong path by a teacher, and just running into problems over time, as a result of trying to do what everyone around me is asking. I think that both problems are pretty common for a young singer, who is subjected to a lots of differing opinions and tastes, and aesthetics. Problems are bound to happen when you don't have a solid internal compass, and you have an overwhelming desire to please everyone around you.

In my countertenor days, I worked with a teacher for a few months, who shall remain nameless, who really straitjacketed my singing to the point of strangulation. I was getting a fair amount of attention from major theatres, and had to say no a lot, because I realized my technique wasn't up to the task. Realizing I needed to say no to all these engagements, and take a few steps away from career so I could fix myself, was probably the best move I could have made.

As a singer, I find it's easy to have a team that tells you everything to do: what to sing, how to sing it, what the notes are, etc. It's harder, but ultimately more durable, for a singer to embark on the hard road of self-discovery, and really own his instrument and technique.  Now I'm in a place where I can put outside information and advice through a filter of what I know to be true for me. It's a great place to end up, and sadly, it seems the only way to truly get there is to have the necessity of taking apart, and re-building your instrument completely.

How old are you? How has your voice changed over the years, both as countertenor and as baritone?

I'm 31. When I started my career as a countertenor my voice was low, dark and tubby. As time and training progressed it just kept getting higher. I ended up being more comfortable singing Tosca than a Handel opera. After the transition to baritone, I started rather in the same way. It was very bass-like and dark at the beginning, not very loud, with ridiculous fast coloratura. Now I'm happiest singing Verdi. There's a lot of steel in my sound now, and it's a much bigger voice than it was, but there is still a bass-like anchor in my middle and my top is easy and secure. Maybe I'll end up a heldentenor.

What's your favorite role to sing? (And don't take the cop-out "Whatever I'm singing next!")

I love Escamillo, and want to do that again soon. Aeneas, which I'm doing right now, has reminded me of how I enjoy being sexually aggressive or charged on stage. On a deeper emotional level, I really want to do Renato in Un Ballo in Maschera. Any takers?

Are there roles you'd love to sing that are outside of your fach? Are there roles within your fach you don't want to sing [again]? 

Outside my fach, I'd love to do Cavaradossi in Tosca, Romeo (Gounod), Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, and Turandot. [n.b. One assumes he meant Calaf, but can't be sure!]  Within my fach, I have put down the short character roles. They're not right for my instrument or character. I find I need something of substance to say, some notes to sing, and then it's beautiful.

You seem to get a big kick out of teaching, and I've read some very favorable comments about your teaching.  How has that affected your own vocal technique and performing?

I've been incredibly lucky to have such a successful studio, and to be able to work with the type and level of singers I have. I'm endlessly curious, and like taking things apart so I can completely understand them. I don't think I'll ever stop teaching, or learning. For me, it's made all my years of training really become solid. There's nothing like having to explain something in great detail. It forces you to fully understand it. The confidence that comes from seeing your work and technique proven on a constant basis is also a huge help. I think we all, as performers, have to deal with an inner negativity or critic. Teaching such wonderful artists has definitely given me another kind of confidence to rely upon in my performing career.

I hardly know what to ask about your status as barihunk.  We've all seen your pecs pics.  We know it opens doors but in the end it's not what gets jobs.  Is there anything specific about being a barihunk you'd like to say?

What you say is true. Having a look doesn't get you a job. That's what supernumaries are for, right? I have actually noticed that barihunk status can work for or against me in some odd, visceral ways. The outsides aren't wholly indicative of what's going on inside. Sometimes people just see an intimidating fitness model, and assume I'm less intelligent, more difficult, or in some way scary to work with, and they write me off. Sadly, they don't see the years spent studying four centuries of repertoire, history, years of ballet training, playing harpsichord continuo, the 12 year old church organist, or the severely overweight kid I used to be. Still, I have a good time with barihunk-ness, and love what the Barihunks blog is doing to increase visibility and exposure for singers and lesser-known works. Of course, my gym buddies constantly walk the line between admiration and mockery about it.

You mentioned assumptions people form based solely on your looks.  Do you have any thoughts about how opera has followed along with what some would call Hollywood's obsession with extreme fitness and "looksism"? 

I know that this will make me a few enemies, but I have to say it. With modern audiences and their desensitization and constant need for stimulation, opera is already a hard sell. Let me put it this way: do we turn our heads and gawk when we see two ridiculously overweight people are having a romantic coffee at an outdoor cafe? Not usually. Replace those characters with models, and there's a different visceral response, activating a primal voyeurism. If that voyeuristic element is missing in opera, it's one less, vital dimension that the audience experiences, and hence, a lower level of engagement. If opera is to be truly moving, on as many levels as possible, there needs to be as much animal passion as there is stunning vocalism. The days of polite presentation being lauded by our public are over. The next generation of singers has a lot more of an obstacle course to deal with, and I'm ok with it. You really should have everything to make an exciting performance, and a successful career.

Also, I'm sure you've seen the YouTube videos of Zachary Stains singing Ercole nude.  Would you do that if you were asked?
Yes, and yes. No hesitation.

My favorite question from "Inside the Actor's Studio": What's your favorite swear word? 
Goddamnmotherfucking. It just rolls off the tongue...

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