The Baritone Who Sings Klinghoffer

The Monitor's editor, Richard Cattani, caught up with Sanford Sylvan at Tanglewood, where Sylvan talked about his singing career and American opera. He also discussed his lead role in 'The Death of Klinghoffer,' premiering at the Brooklyn Academy of Music tonight.

By , Editor of the The Christian Science Monitor

BARITONE Sanford Sylvan tonight sings the title role in the American premiere of John Adams's opera "The Death of Klinghoffer," directed by Peter Sellars. Mr. Sylvan talked about his singing career and the opera in a recent interview.Monitor: What is the cultural impact of the Adams-Sellars operas, the earlier "Nixon" and now "Klinghoffer"? Sylvan: In a way, more people in America know more about "Nixon in China" than about "La Boheme." Everyone knows there's this opera about Richard Nixon. That's one part of Peter Sellars's impress on the American operatic scene. The other is that his productions are about people relating to each other on stage and having that accepted by an audience.

Isn't "Klinghoffer" about an unappealing historical event? Well, "Rigoletto" was an unappealing event. The unappealing nature of Richard Nixon when we started "Nixon in China" was overwhelming. Watergate is not far off enough to leave people with good feelings. With "Klinghoffer" we're not doing a TV docudrama. It's about God and people coming together or not. It's about theology and personal struggle and political struggle and religious struggle. It is not about a bunch of people who came on a boat with some guns and killed an old guy and then got off the boat.

What does the audience see? There's a prologue in which the Klinghoffers are not involved, in which I actually play another character. The opera proper begins with the actual hijacking. The first words of the opera are: "It was just after 1:15." The captain narrates the story. You see a dramatized version of the hijacking, narrated by the captain and by other passengers and by some of the Palestinians. The Klinghoffers themselves never speak until the second act.

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Does Klinghoffer progress as a character? Absolutely. I start out as a terrified old man who cannot save his wife because he's bound to the chair, being hijacked and people pointing guns at us. Then, in the second act when I first speak I have an enormous aria of rage and impotence. Then I have a stylized farewell. By the point that the Klinghoffers speak in the opera, [they] are no longer just [themselves]. I [as Klinghoffer] am out of the chair and being played by a dancer and I am standing next to the chair. I am now the soul or voice of Klin ghoffer. The final aria belongs to my wife, Marilyn, speaking of her loss.

When did you know you were going to be a singer? There was a difference between thinking that I wanted to be a singer and then that I was going to be a singer. I grew up on Long Island. When I was 12, in 1966, my folks said I should visit the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center. I was interested in theater and plays, so I went. I was wandering along and looking here and there. There was a slide exhibit, maybe two minutes of da." I thought: What's this! I watched it over, and over, and over again. I just fell in love with opera. I went to my chorus teacher at Jericho Junior High School. I said: "I want to be a singer." She said: "Well, then, you should go to Juilliard Prep." So I went to Juilliard Prep, when I was 13. I lied about my age at the audition because boys weren't supposed to go until they were 16. After that I decided to go to a conservatory, the Manhattan School of Music, rather than to a normal college.

You're a Boston singer? I was in New York until I was 23 and then I came in 1977 to Boston. [I took] a year's hiatus in Scotland. Boston is where I grew up as a performer, singing at Emmanuel Church, Bach cantatas every week. I had come here first when I was 20, in my third year of school at Manhattan. It was 1974 and I thought ll come and work with this Phyllis Curtin lady." I had seen her sing at the Met. She taught this completely unyielding focus on the most important issues: the text, and the music. Each of us carries within us certain vocal things that are little extras - good high notes, or good middle notes, or whatever. We cannot use them cheaply. The basics and the extras, everything, has to be incorporated into one focus.

You're said to have an "unconventional" career. That refers to my not living in New York, and to my stopping singing in 1980. I went to a place called Findhorn, near the top of Scotland. It's a spiritual farming community.

What happened there? I learned that I choose to sing. I started real young. My folks now are incredibly supportive, but not in the beginning. I had a to use lot of will to get ahead. But when my career was going well, I felt a spiritual emptiness. I was replacing now with my career. Almost all singers have something happen in their late 20s, or in their 30s - some moment of retraction. People said: Oh, your career! When I went [to Findhorn] I had no schedule for when I was coming back. I sold everything. I gave everything aw ay to my friends.

Was that required? There're no requirements there. They make no judgments on what you do with your regular life.

Did your singing suffer? I knew that instructions given on an inner level will yield what you need, and so I meditated, explained my predicament to myself and didn't push myself, and everything came back - and much more. Because I did it because I wanted to do it. With a career you think everyone else has these requirements for you, that "they" want you to do this or that. But there is no "they."

What happens on the day of opening night? I get up around nine o'clock, go out and have breakfast, read the newspaper. I sing usually three times a day. Three short sessions: half hour to 40 minutes at 10 o'clock in the morning, again at 3:30, and then right before the performance. I get there early always, two hours before.

How do you feel when you step out onto the stage? I don't think about it, I think about the character.

At the end of a production are you exhausted? Exhilarated? After "Nixon" I'm in a great frame of mind; all night I've been doing this beautiful, sensitive man, Chou En-lai. At the end of "Cosi [fan tutte]," where I play someone unable to deal with people, I feel terrible. After "Figaro" I'm exhausted but happy. After "Klinghoffer" we're crying: It's dark, and sad, and beautiful.

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