Keith Phares: When the World is on Fire, the Artistry Explodes

Baritone Keith Phares is known as a master of wide repertoire. From Mozart to today’s prominent composers, he’s been noted as “an authentic contemporary-American-opera divo” in the press. Recently, in this year’s Grammy awards he shined as a soloist of year’s best opera nominee – a recording October 2018 performance at Florentine opera and Milwaukee of full-orchestral version of Carlisle Floyd’s Prince of Players. His complex yet masterful performance of Kynaston – a performer, changing characters on stage in his own right – engage to the last minutes. In the interview, he discusses his struggles with the role and its recording as well as his experience with the pandemic.

I saw that you were making a lot of online performances. How is your situation at the moment?

I’m very grateful to have an university position at Bowling Green State University. It’s a privilege to be busy right now. I enjoy teaching and I’m just grateful to have a job. I’ve had opportunities to perform as well – I recently did a workshop with victory hall of a new opera written by Matt Bowler, who has had a great career as a bass, but he is a composer as well. I’ve had friends and colleagues of mine that had been wanting to produce their work. This was over the summer. I arranged some songs they had already written for baritone and marimba. That was interesting. I got to have a little taste of what’s like trying to put those zoom style recordings together. And it’s a little complicated, there’s some smoke and mirrors involved. I still got to do my faculty recital at school as a stream with no audience. I’m going to be singing in a film production at Arizona opera. They’re filming war-zone John Delos Santos opera called “The Copper Queen”. At the end of April, we’re going out to Phoenix and start filming.

It feels like for you this was a time for experimentation and seeing what else can opera be.

Exactly. I was finding a way to work, adapting to the situation. We did a virtual workshop of a piece, called “The Extinction List” with “Heartbeat” opera. It was over “Zoom” and we even tried to do a duet there, which is next to impossible, because of the lag. Soprano had a much more complicated part than I did, so she would sing and then whenever I had to enter, I would try to come in a beat early, so that by the time my voice go to the other side, it is lined up. It all felt like experimentation, adapting. It has also been a time to reflect. I am still hopeful for a return to regular live performances, because nothing beats that.

Do you feel like it will change how people see opera? Did it changed you personally?

I can’t predict the future, but I feel like certain aspects of this will change. Some of the ways in which people have been adapting are here to stay. I think you’re going to see a lot more streaming. There will also be ways in which artists are trying to expand or diversify their career – discover other outlets online and learning how to monetize many of these offerings. This has really been a long time coming. Some of this stuff is overdue and it’s unfortunate that it took a disaster, but the way history works is that when the world is on fire, then the artistry explodes.

It’s very unfortunate that arts are strangled by the situation when they supposed to be helping everybody to go through this time. I know a lot of opera singers really changed the careers. Did you ever had any thoughts of making a change?

I am thankful for the people that have big ideas and the courage to get things started. I knew I needed to begin to diversify and supplement my own performing career a couple of years ago, which is why I started to put my materials together and looking for a teaching position.

That was coming as an inevitable next chapter of my career. I had a desire to teach, but I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy it and be any good at it. Fortunately I feel good about the work and I really love it. It’s a piece of my life that I didn’t realize was missing.

This year you have vocal lessons online. That must be really difficult.

I’m relatively new to teaching to begin with, so the switch to remote lessons was just another new thing. I feel that I am still able to see and hear most of what I need to, I can still get work done. Even though you never quite get a sense of what the sound is. That’s the biggest drawback. I’m actually doing most of my teaching in person. We teach in a large rehearsal room or a theater. So we stand at about 15, 20 feet away. It feels more like a traditional voice lesson.

Did you also have to find a new routine for your voice?

It hasn’t had an effect on how often I sing. I do a recital in school every year and I am assigning song repertoire to about 20 students. So I’m learning much more repertoire than I ever had. I was almost exclusively singing opera. I would do a recital occasionally, but now it’s a whole new world, that I have to learn about. If there’s anything that has changed in the way that I sing, is that I think about it a lot more. I was always a very natural singer, so I didn’t think much. Now I’m trying to explain to students where it might not come as naturally. And so I’m overthinking my own singing, which has its advantages and disadvantages. I catch myself over analyzing, but then I’m able to draw from what I’m showing students in order to help them. I take my own advice, which works for me.

When working with new singers you must remember how you started your career.

When I started to study voice, I already had a soloist mentality, I was already inspired by opera recordings, I wanted it to make noise and sing as loud as I possibly could in the most beautiful way. Actually one of the students asked me during virtual auditions “what do you look for in a student?” I love it when I have a student who becomes a little obsessive about practicing vocal technique. I do have a few students that enjoy that process, who’s got that desire to grow as a soloist. They’re the most fun to teach.

I imagine that “The Prince of Players” was recorded before the pandemic on stage.

That’s correct, it was recorded live in October 2018 at Florentine opera and Milwaukee. And it was released in April of 2020, in the early days of the pandemic. We had two performances and a patch session. They recorded some of the dress rehearsals as well. It was such a surprise to me when it was finally being released.

It must be stressful to hear how you really sound in the recorded version. What challenges did you face in the recording process?

Well, just before rehearsals started, I had come down with a pretty serious upper respiratory infection and I was fighting through that. Fortunately the role wasn’t that high, it’s a pretty standard Carlisle Floyd baritone role, very full voiced. It was still distressing trying to sing when you’re not physically a hundred percent. It messes with your technique too, because you feel like you need to sing around certain things.

There were many challenges. We were also singing with a posh British accent. For my brain it’s almost like singing in another language. Our director had a problem with his visa, so first week was musical rehearsal because our director couldn’t get into the country. So we only had about two weeks of staging rehearsal. We don’t get the same kind of rehearsal time that a Broadway production would have. Opera was fired out of a cannon.

Challenge for me in particular was the various costume changes. Opera is about the Kynaston – a restoration era actor known for portraying women. He goes back and forth over the course of the opera, there are several quick changes. Houston grand opera was allowing us to use their costumes, so we couldn’t quite rig them. So we had to take extra care, which meant that my quick changes were not so quick. Those can get tense, you come out huffing and puffing and sweating. Trying to catch your breath to sing another aria.

There are so many elements to focus on. Do you focus on the stage performance or on the recording?

We had dozens of microphones, but we were not expected to, to work them. I was singing for the audience, so I had to worry about cutting over a 50 piece orchestra and couldn’t experiment with colors a lot.

I’ve done some productions where they have miked the singers. I remember singing Anthony Hope in Sweeney Todd with the New York City Opera in 2004. It was back when New York City Opera was in Lincoln center, that was built for ballet. It muffled the sound coming from the stage. So for Sweeney, they decided to mic us because it was musical theater. When Anthony sings the Joanna theme, it’s supposed to be floaty and sweet. I did that, knowing I was miked. On a break a sound engineer came up to me and said “you can just sing right out into the hall. You don’t have to back off because of the mic”. I took that personally. When I got back up to do the scene again, I sang it as loud as I possibly could. When conductor George Manahan gave notes afterwards, he said “Keith, I have a note from Steven Sondheim – not so stentorian”. Then I realized that the composer of Sweeney Todd was sitting in the rehearsal.

Is it true that when you sing naturally, you don’t really hear how you really sound?

Well, it’s tough, I rely too much on my ears. Over the course of my career, I have learned to rely more on sensation. It took me a while to find that easy ring. That’s something that I’ve been able to pass onto my students – they sing from a comfortable place.

What are you focusing on the most when you perform?

There are so many distractions in opera that doesn’t allow to focus on your voice. When I am on stage, I am plugged in. I am trying to be in character as well as tell the story. Later I don’t remember what is happening, I can’t tell you. I was very fortunate to have a great conductor and a great director. They are both here for you and they also wants you to feel good about what you’re doing. I felt like I had support.

Do you have any exercises that helps to focus and plug in?

I don’t, I’m very boring that way. I’m just trying to stay peaceful and relaxed. Gentle with myself so that the extra adrenaline boost that comes with curtain going up, wouldn’t be too much. As soon as the downbeat happens, then that’s it. It’s a quick thing for me.

I imagine that every voice has a typical character. You are a baritone on stage playing a female prima donna. How could you describe this experience?

It was fun, but it never felt real. Kynaston is always being someone else and he can’t be himself. He is portraying a woman from the outside in – doing the right feminine gestures that look very beautiful. My costar Kate Royal helped me with learning them. There are even books that show the gestures that were used to communicate emotion on the stage. They are fascinating to look at. The first scene of the opera is the Othello Desdemona scene, where Kynaston is playing Desdemona. I decided to displace octaves, so I could sing in a reinforced falsetto. It’s something we played around with, because the part’s not written that way. The part is written completely in a baritone range.

How do you usually approach new characters?

I think about what my character wants and what my character is trying to get. I use my own personal experience. Even though I can’t identify with being, for example, a nobleman with much power, but I can identify with having a sense of entitlement. They’re all human beings and so am I. I’m not trying to do an impression of an opera singer. In the most generic terms, I’m trying to be a person on stage. I am trying to find the basic humanity and every character that I play, because that’s how I relate to the audience. Sometimes it’s not so difficult, because many typical characters are not built as humans, I think.

You sing a lot of classic and contemporary opera. What makes you choose new music?

One of the reasons why I love doing contemporary opera is because I get to put my own stamp on it. There is no pressure to do it in certain way and that’s very liberating. New music is often also vocally challenging.

It’s interesting that for contemporary opera he chose to go back into the historical time of when the classical opera was written.

I thought it was going to be a more epic historical work, but it’s not quite that – it’s not a documentary. Yes, there’s the accents and other things that fit the period. But this is a piece of theater – it’s about people and relationships. I feel like the historical nature of it is just a setting.

I imagine that it was quite unexpected to get so much public accolades.

It was great to see that. Contemporary opera in general doesn’t sell a lot. You’re lucky to get a handful of performances and then you may never do it again. When recorded it at least they live on in this format. So I am grateful for all the attention and a Grammy nomination. Maybe it has a little bit to do with the timing of the release, because so many things had been shut down. Here’s one of the things that’s happening – a recording of Carlisle Floyd’s latest opera.

Most of the opera repertoire is still the same traditional opera. I imagine it’s very difficult to get contemporary opera to get attention from the public.

Companies have to figure out how to connect to their audience. There has to be a balance. Carlisle Floyd has been writing operas for 70 years. I’m just very happy that he is finally able to tell this story. It was a privilege for me to be a part of it, for sure.

Thank you for the conversation!

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