Interview: Vernon Hartman, opera singer
A regular performer at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Vernon Hartman performed in his first production of Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus (The Bat) in 1975. He's gone on to perform the piece countless times and directed it five times. This weekend, he'll be directing, and starring in, the Triangle Opera's English-language production of the piece-a work Hartman adapted from several sources. Recess editor Adam Winer spoke with Hartman in his dressing room after a late-night rehearsal.
Tell me about your adaptation of Die Fledermaus.
Except being translated into English, it's probably closer to what you'd see in the Wiener Volksoper than you'll ever see in this country. My model for this was the way they do it. I tried to take this to the original German and the original Austrian ideal of how to do this, which is with contemporaneous references, political humor whatnot. That really is the style that they do.
So it's been updated for modern America?
It's been updated throughout history. Anachronisms are part of it. Some people think this piece is a sophisticated comedy of manners among the aristocrats. It's nothing of the kind. It's more of a farce. It's more of a vaudeville burlesque than anything else.
Do you have more freedom here than you would in New York?
Yes and no. In regional opera in general the expectations are different from what they are in New York. You don't have the critical scrutiny of the great, grand tradition like the Met has to deal with. Now here, you may have people in the audience who've seen thousands of operas, but more likely you've got people that are coming for the first or second or third time. And you have freedom in that because they don't bring huge expectations or preconceptions or prejudices as to what they expect to see. That gives you more freedom to play with your own ideas without fear of criticism, and that's great.
Is opera relevant and accessible to college students?
Oh, without question, it's relevant to anybody. It's a great fusion of all the arts really. I mean, opera involves orchestral playing, singing, scenic design, art, history, dance, foreign languages. Opera can encompass all facets of your education.
Operas aren't part of our indigenous culture in America. It's a European art form. But it's something that the more you bring to the table as you learn about the art form, the more you appreciate it. It's like great wine; it's like great theater; it's like great literature. And nowadays we've been able to scrape a lot of the barnacles off the hulking hull of tradition, that have sort of been around our art form and people have made fun of for a long time. We've really restored it to relevant, powerful theater. We reinforce that relevant, powerful theater with that music, and that's what makes it special.
What's the highest note you can hit?
I'm a baritone, but I sing a huge cannon of repertoire. The highest thing I sing in this piece is a high A.
Can I hear it?
Yeah, if you buy a ticket. No, high is not important, it's color. Basic baritone range is what I use.
Die Fledermaus will be playing at the Carolina Theatre Friday, Tuesday and next Friday at 8 pm, as well as on Sunday at 3 pm. For more information, see the calendar, p. 10.