Wagnerian opera star tells young singers, `Trust your instincts'
``I can't tell you how happy I am that I am not a young person having to try to make a career under the circumstances that exist today,'' says Wagnerian opera star Thomas Stewart. ``The competition is unbelievable.'' Mr. Stewart, who is appearing at Carnegie Hall tomorrow night with his wife, soprano Evelyn Lear, in a concert version of Strauss's ``Capriccio,'' is acknowledged as one of America's finest Wagnerian singing actors.Skip to next paragraph
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He is not by nature a grumbler. But in his long career he has watched colleagues come and go, seen talent of great promise pushed too quickly, and observed the entire art form of opera change from one where love of singing was valued to one where money, profits, and a fundamental lack of respect for the singer's art are at the fore. It's seen, he explains, in the type of entertainment popular today.
``I'm firmly convinced that we, as human beings, in every facet of our lives, are being desensitized so horribly. Anything that requires you to have a fine touch, or a fine ear, or to be aware of something happening inside of you -- those things are being manhandled. That is the reason the world has become so violent. All forms of entertainment . . . look for the startling, the shocking. It's screamed at you.''
In opera houses all over the world, he observes, singing that verges on screaming -- with young or small voices pushed into heavy roles -- is becoming a regular experience.
Stewart says he and Miss Lear cut their operatic teeth at a time when young singers were still nurtured, not exploited. Yet when young singers seek him out for guidance, he doesn't dwell on the good old days. ``The other times are gone,'' he says.
``My advice to young singers today? If you are not blessed [with a legendary voice], a singer has got to be sharp, to know how to move around the stage; has got to know what it means to say something to an audience, not just as a singer but as a performer; has got to learn, in addition to his vocal talents, theatrical talent.''
Both Stewart and Lear established themselves quickly as impressive singers and actors at a time when operatic histrionics were still limited to a few select gestures and expressively bent elbows.
Stewart, with a year at Juilliard (where he met Lear), won a prestigious contract with the Chicago Lyric Opera in 1954; but he wasn't up to the demands, he concedes, and was not asked back. Ironically, it was a trip to Europe in 1958 -- a last stab at performing, intended to round out their r'esum'es for teaching positions they sought -- that ignited their careers.
The couple was chosen to open a new opera at the new German Opera House in West Berlin. The work was soon forgotten, but the performers were not. Within a few seasons, both careers were flourishing in Europe, with Stewart doing all the standard baritone roles, from Don Giovanni to Rigoletto.
One night, conductor Herbert von Karajan heard him sing Iago in Verdi's ``Otello'' and invited him to the play Wotan in Richard Wagner's ``Ring of the Nibelung,'' which von Karajan was undertaking at the Salzburg Festival. From there, Stewart went on to become the most sought-after Wagnerian baritone of the day, singing the ``Ring'' cycle at Bayreuth (where he has done most of the major and some lesser roles), in Vienna, and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He has recorded the ``Walk"ure'' and ``Siegfried'' Wotans; Dutchman; Amfortas (``Parsifal''); Telramund (``Lohengrin''); and song recitals.