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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Dancing with Mister D.: Lyric Opera's Samuel Ramey
by MARY SHEN BARNIDGE
2003-11-12

This article shared 3564 times since Wed Nov 12, 2003
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The posters adorning the Victory Gardens marquee featured a handsome and roguish-looking actor named Nick Sandys. But as theatregoers passed by the display on their way inside, their most frequent response was, 'Oh, doesn't he look like Samuel Ramey?', with one young patron of the arts adding, 'Samuel Ramey? He's such a hottie!'

Opera is often perceived in our culture as an elitist pastime. But occasionally, a personality emerges whose appeal transcends these prejudices. Samuel Ramey's interpretations of such vividly-etched characters as Mozart's libidinous Don Giovanni, Stravinsky's sinister Nick Shadow, and Offenbach's shape-shifting Coppelius have garnered him an enthusiastic following worldwide. The role for which he is best known, however, is that of Mephistopheles, the dark angel of no less than three operas—Charles Gounod's Faust, Hector Berlioz' The Damnation Of Faust, and Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele.

Waiting for our interview at the offices of Chicago's Lyric Opera, I hear Ramey before I see him. Amid the ambient noise, as media relations manager Magda Krance escorts him down the hall, the famous bass-baritone voice is distinct as a cat's soothing purr. I recall mentioning to friends that I was to meet Ramey and having them react as if I'd announced I was touring with The Rolling Stones. I wonder if I should scream by way of greeting him.

But the man who enters the room, far from the commanding figure he presents onstage, does so with his leonine countenance wreathed in a smile of such disarming modesty that all previous apprehension vanishes. This initial impression is borne out subsequently by his disinclination to hurry along the interview process with glib replies, instead carefully considering each question before answering. Whether this laconic delivery stems from shyness or a wish to preserve his voice, it makes for a leisurely-paced conversation punctuated with quiet chuckles whenever something strikes him as amusing.

MARY SHEN BARNIDGE: Nick Sandys—whom you know as the Lyric's fight choreographer—tells me he's been called Sam Ramey's stunt double.

SAMUEL RAMEY: People have remarked that we resemble each other. They want to know if he's my younger brother. I've also been called opera's Mick Jagger. ( laughs ) We're about the same age, anyway.

MSB: In most operas, the lower-range vocalists—basses and baritones—play older men, while the tenors are the dashing young heroes. Does being cast as grandfathers when still a teenager make for longer careers?

SR: It's true that basses are very often cast as old men. And so was I, very early in my career. ( laughs ) You have to take opera with a grain of salt—

MSB: Or at a great distance—

SR: Though there HAVE been many lower-voiced singers with very long careers. One that comes to mind is Jerome Hines, who passed away just a couple of years ago. He was still singing into his 80s—practically up until his death. But Nicolai Gedda is a tenor and he must be—what? 70, 75?—and he's still going, too.

MSB: What kind of roles do you like best?

SR: Oh, the villains have always been my favorites.

MSB: Why?

SR: They are the most multifaceted characters—and the most dramatic to play. I'm often asked my favorite role, and I hesitate to pick one. But if I were forced to choose, it would be Gounod's Mephistopheles. Of course, there are a few Good Guys that are also my favorites—Figaro, for example. And Boris Godunov, though you can argue whether he's a good guy or not.

MSB: What's the hardest role you've ever played—singing or acting?

SR: I would probably say that Boris is the hardest role. It's not a very large role—certainly not one of the longest. But when he's onstage, ALL of the action is concentrated on HIM, so there's no time for the singer to relax. It's a very intense part vocally, but I love singing in Russian. The Boito Mephistopheles is also very demanding, vocally and dramatically.

MSB: Your bio says you've played the Gounod Mephistopheles more than any other role—over 200 times. Do you ever get bored singing 'Le Veau D'Or' again and again?

SR: It's not hard to keep it fresh, since I enjoy performing it so much. Doing the role so many times has given me the opportunity to mold the character over the years. My favorite of the productions I've done still remains Frank Corsaro's for the New York City Opera 30 years ago. But it's always interesting to get different directors' takes on the whole thing.

MSB: A fantasy-scenario like Faust would seem to be an invitation for directors to pull out the stops. What's the strangest Mephistopheles you've ever done?

SR: I just did a production of The Damnation Of Faust in Los Angeles. It was done sort of in the style of the Commedia Dell'Arte. It was interesting, and very successful— ( laughs ) but not really my cup of tea.

MSB: How did this affect how YOU played Mephistopheles?

SR: I'm used to being very flamboyant onstage. I had to rein all of that in and be more reserved. Lots of very small gestures and not much of the grand style.

MSB: Why do you think opera continues to be popular today? I mean, you've got people vocalizing in patently unnatural voices that blur the lyrics so that even Benjamin Britten, who writes in English, has the text superimposed on the screen whenever one of his songs is telecast.

SR: Well, English is the hardest language in which to make yourself understood when you're singing in it. I think supertitles [ simultaneous translations projected above the stage ] have done a lot for opera. Since they've been introduced, attendance has increased. People know they can follow the story even when the opera's in an unfamiliar language. ( laughs ) I think supertitles are terrific.

MSB: Composers like Andrew Lloyd Webber have incorporated elements of classical music into popular entertainments. Do you see audiences being less intimidated by 'high-brow' music as a result?

SR: Stephen Sondheim may be the closest you get to a fusion of Broadway and opera. I'm not sure that seeing Sweeney Todd will necessarily lure audiences to La Traviata. But maybe it WILL. Younger singers are doing a lot of crossover records. It certainly can't hurt.

MSB: So overall, what's the attraction?

SR: Opera is a total performing arts package—orchestral music, singing, sometimes ballet and choral singing. It has ALL these things, and I think that's one of the reasons people fall in love with it.


This article shared 3564 times since Wed Nov 12, 2003
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