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Basses rarely get the girl. Instead, they’re more likely to portray the villain, notably the devil in operas such as Gounod’s Faust or Boito’s Mefistofele. But John Relyea, one of today’s most celebrated exponents of this vocal type, doesn’t mind.
On the plus side, he points out that singing this type of character can feel empowering, especially given the potent music that composers often write for them. The down side is the lingering emotional effect that such roles can have on singers. “It can affect your mood,” Relyea said. “I really believe that can happen over time. Let’s be frank, a lot of these stories are very dark, but you kind of work the rest of your life in a totally different direction and distract yourself and don’t get too absorbed in that.”
Local audiences know Relyea well. He has appeared in three Lyric Opera of Chicago productions since 2010, including The Damnation of Faust, and he has performed multiple times with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Orchestra Hall and at the Ravinia Festival. He will return to the CSO on March 28-30 and April 2 with guest conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, joining mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung in a concert performance of Béla Bartók’s only opera, the one-act expressionist work Bluebeard’s Castle. Relyea bass calls it one his “favorite pieces on the planet.” “It’s one of those pieces out there where the music and the drama are so well-integrated, just the way the music illustrates all the imagery in the text,” he said. “It’s a really powerful piece, and it has so many different levels and colors.”
Bartók wrote the dark, enigmatic opera in 1911 when he was 30, revising it twice before its 1918 premiere in Budapest. Based on Charles Perrault’s fairy tale, La Barbe bleue, it opens in Bluebeard’s castle as he and his fourth wife arrive there after their wedding. She demands that he open seven mysterious, locked doors and quizzes him about his three earlier wives. The score draws on late Austro-Germanic romanticism and Debussy, but musicologist Stephen Walsh argues in the Viking Opera Guide that it is not derivative. “It has an individuality that comes partly, perhaps, from Bartók’s study of Hungarian folk music, with its strange modal scales, which seem to rub off on the opera’s harmony as well as on its melody,” he wrote.
Performing this opera in a concert setting can be an advantage, Relyea said, because such an approach avoids the need for the “meeting of the minds” that has to happen in a staged production between the director and two soloists. “In terms of storytelling, the piece is very subjective,” he said. “So it can be a longer journey to get to the message you want to put across when you are staging it; whereas doing it in concert allows the audience’s imagination to take the words and the story and make it something of their own.”
Both Relyea and DeYoung have previously performed the work with Salonen, for whom the bass has high praise. “This is really his specialty, because he has the kind of mind that is really able to take these kinds of pieces apart and then interpret them and still do it in a way that is very real and organic and very connected to his heart,” he said. The singers teamed up for Bluebeard’s Castle for the first time about 12 years ago, and Relyea estimates that they have collaborated on it 10-15 times since. “So we’ve both really lived with the piece a lot — together or with other singers,” Relyea said.
DeYoung and Relyea performed in a concert version of the opera in 2017 with conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra in that ensemble’s home venue as well as at Carnegie Hall. New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini described the New York performance as “riveting.”
“Ms. DeYoung’s singing had radiant bloom and molten intensity, which conveyed Judith’s youthful naïveté as well as her willful determination,” Tommasini wrote. “Mr. Relyea’s Bluebeard sounded almost courtly during an initial exchange with his wife, as he earnestly asked her why she had chosen him. But the character’s maniacal bent increasingly came through in Mr. Relyea’s chilling tones as Judith kept peering behind the doors.”
Relyea’s opera career was almost pre-ordained. He was born in Toronto in 1972 to Gary Relyea, one of Canada’s most acclaimed opera singers, and Estonian-born Anna Tamm-Relyea, also a professional singer. “It was genetically almost set in a way,” he said. Growing up with a father in the opera world allowed him to understand from a young age the behind-the-scenes, everyday workings of the field. “It’s a very different world with a very different set of personas,” he said. “Some people go into it, and it’s almost like a shock for them.” Relyea, however, was able to begin his career with no “over-romanticized or glamorized notions” about the music business or artistic lifestyle.
Before graduating from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in 1998, he spent one summer in the Merola Opera Program, a pre-professional training center associated with the San Francisco Opera. Relyea made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 2000 in a production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola and has returned there regularly since. Although he performs a great deal in Europe, Relyea still considers the Met to be his home company.
The bass has recently added five new roles to his repertoire, including four in the last year or so — something he had not done since early in his career. “You do that sort of stuff when you are young and your brain feels up to the task, and your voice is used to trying to adapt and make lots of changes,” he said. Among the new characters he has taken on are Fiesco in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, the title role in Mefistofele and the dastardly Claggart in Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd.
He first appeared as Claggart last May at the Rome Opera and returned to it this January and February at the Norway Opera. “Of course, as a bass, you play so many different villains, but with Claggart, there are so many possibilities as to what goes on inside of him, lots of deep psychological conflict,” he said. “What makes him react so violently? It’s nice to live with a role like that and add layers to it. Not just dramatically but musically, it’s a really amazing piece. I think it’s one of the great bass roles out there.”