WASHINGTON — Forget tenors and their high "Cs." For opera at its grandest, just be sure there are more singers on stage than people in the audience - and that most of them are basses. Add a crisis of state, famine, schemes, anarchy, madness, and a love story (in case someone misses one), and look no further than the current production here of Modest Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" at the Washington Opera.
It doesn't get grander than this, especially when the role of the brooding, tragic Boris is sung by a bass who could segue into a second career playing Shakespeare's MacBeth.
Samuel Ramey is the most recorded bass ever, and he just keeps getting better. Yet he refused the role of Boris the first few times it was offered. "It's a part best put off until you're really ready," he said in an interview with the Monitor.
Boris is one of the most complex and interesting roles in opera. The brother-in-law of Russian Czar Ivan the Terrible, he murders Ivan's nine-year-old son Dimitri on the way to the throne. (It's not clear that the historic Boris Godunov did this deed.)
Unlike MacBeth, Boris doesn't seem to lust for power and barely wields it. In early scenes, we see him as a tender, devoted father to his children. But for the opera to work, you have to see in this loving father a capacity for brutal ambition.
When it comes to playing evil fiends, Mr. Ramey has no match on any opera stage. Early on, he opted to avoid the war-horse bass roles - the outraged father, the implacable high priest, or the graybeard prophet - in favor of what he calls "personality parts" - especially devils.
"There are a lot of good bass parts where you just come out and stand there and sing. My agent and I decided to ... concentrate on roles that are dramatically more challenging and physically more challenging as well," he says.
As Mephistopheles in "Faust," one of his most celebrated roles, Ramey must appear to be struck by bolts of lightening, leaping and contorting before he finally tumbles into the abyss. There's a lot of flinging to the ground in his current work as Boris as well.
But critics say that what distinguishes Ramey is the flexibility and range of his voice. He can turn a phrase with the lightness and agility of a coloratura soprano. It's that technique that has made Ramey's "Ah! ha! ha!" the most chilling phrase in opera. "The bad guys have more fun," he deadpans.
Ramey wasn't born to the stage. A native of Colby, Kan., he saw his first live opera production at Central City Opera in Colorado one summer. "I'd had no exposure at all to opera, and very little to classical music, except for a music-appreciation class I'd had in high school," he says.
His mother was an amateur singer and his father a meat cutter. As a kid, he listened to Elvis and Pat Boone (and still does).
What attracted him to opera was an old recording of Ezio Pinza singing "The Marriage of Figaro." A friend told him that the summer festival at Central City Opera hired young singers. Ramey sent them a tape, joined the chorus, and kept on going. He is now booked five years ahead.
What's left of Kansas is the trace of a Midwest accent and signature cowboy boots that look as if they belong there. No white silk scarves here, and very little sign of a star temperament.
In opera, tenors get the girl, and much of the press, but Ramey insists that being a bass has its compensations. "Basses are a friendlier group," he says. "You'd never see a roomful of tenors sitting around chatting. Basses do that a lot, and not just about music."
He worries that opera is too expensive to see, especially for young people. "Opera is still considered an elitist art form ... [but] even at the prices they charge, most opera companies are running huge deficits," he says.
To new opera listeners, he suggests "keep giving it a chance." To young singers, he says, "Know when to say no. Impresarios and agents will hear what they think is an incredible voice and immediately want to push singers into roles that are probably premature.
"Now, young singers are so eager to start. They think if they are not in the throes of a big career at 25 or 26, they are way behind. For me, it was an advantage starting later. I didn't make my real debut until I was 30," he says.
*Samuel Ramey can be seen in 'Boris Godunov' at the Washington (D.C.) Opera through March 3.