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An interview with tenor Clifton Forbis

C. Forbis (Courtesy of SDO)

Known as a specialist in heldentenor roles such as Tristan and Siegmund, Clifton Forbis returns to San Diego Opera this week for Saint-SaŽnsí biblical opera Samson and Delilah. Fresh off of a run of performances singing Verdiís Otello in Italy, we talked to the busy tenor about Samson, Tristan, and his new position teaching young singers as the Voice Department Chair at Southern Methodist University.

ConcertoNet: Can you tell us a bit about this production of Samson and Delilah in San Diego?

Clifton Forbis: It is a pretty visually traditional Samson and Delilah, but in terms of directing, Lesley [Koenig] brings some different processes to it that make it much more realistic in a way. Thatís really nice for a change.

CN: Since Samson is such an archetypal character in a traditional biblical story, I can imagine itís hard to give it some life and vitality.

CF: Weíre kind of dissecting the lines and finding a relationship between Samson and the hoard of people at the beginning that I havenít seen a whole lot. A lot of times it looks like costumed oratorio, but not in this particular production. Lesleyís really developing the interactions between Samson and the rest of the Hebrews.

CN: This is your second time singing Samson in San Diego. I know youíve sung it at the Met and many other places. Is this a role that ages particularly well with you?

CF: I think so. Musically, itís a wonderful piece. Everybody knows that and the subject matter is great [laughter]! This is one I donít get tired of.

CN: Do you think Saint-SaŽns gets a bad rap as a composer?

CF: Itís all very singular, and because of that, the easily identifiable aspect of it, I think thatís what gives it its uniqueness. I donít think he gets a bad rap at all. I really donít. I think itís one of the better written operas out there.

CN: Do you think Saint-SaŽnsí voice as a composer helps make this story more evocative of the time period?

CF: I think it does. That and the fact that the ďBacchannaleĒ is there. Heís pulled in so much that, aurally, people would associate with that region of the world. Thatís an important detail.

CN: What is special about San Diego Opera?

CF: I have to tell you, I love the people here. Theyíre just wonderful. The company is one of the most welcoming, well-run companies that I get to visit. Not to say that others arenít, thereís just something special here that makes it fun. Of course, the weather is not a bad draw either [laughter]!

CN: Youíve made a career out of roles like Samson, Otello, Tristan, and Siegmund, would you call yourself a heldentenor?

CF: Yeah, I would say yes. The distinction there, though, is no matter what you are in terms of fach, that you sing lyrically. I think the whole heldentenor mystique is something that is a bit misunderstood. People try to jump fachs into the bigger repertoire and they wind up beefing the voice or losing the line in the voice. Wagner is simply giant lieder. If you have the voice to sustain it, then thatís what it comes across as. When tenors jump fachs and they donít have either the technique or the stamina to sustain the role, and Iím not making derogatory comments, they wind up doing other things that people associate with barking. A lot of listeners new to Wagner donít recognize the difference between that and the size of the voice that sings lyrically in the correct repertoire.

CN: Who would be an example of a tenor who knew how to sing Wagner lyrically?

CF: Ludwig Suthaus. The color in that voice and the line was just pretty incredible [laughter]. But, I go back to that generation of singers anyways. I think that they are the golden age of singing. You get every illustration for every example that you are trying to make from one singer or the other.

CN: What is the reason weíve sort of lost that Italianate singing in Wagner?

CF: I think patience. Oftentimes those voices take longer to mature. We have become a listening society of immediacy. We want to hear the next young hot thing in everything. The amount of time that it takes, not always, mind you, there are some people who are just born with it...to develop that technique and to really, really learn the music, live with it, digest it, assimilate it into your body, that takes years. Our business is not one of patience so much anymore. Those singers who in the past would take three years to study a role and live with it before they performed it, thatís not the case anymore. People are oftentimes learning roles on the way to another gig, and thatís not fair to the music, the listening public, or the composer, or the voice. I think thatís [part of] the larger overall picture as to why weíve lost that type of singing.

CN: Did you wait before singing Wagner?

CN: I waited a bit. As with any singer up until technique is settled, you donít label the voice. Once the technique has settled and is no longer a technical exercise but is something that is natural to the singer, then you find repertoire that is applicable to the voice. As I progressed, it went that direction. Having started as a baritone, I still had that color in there, but early on didnít quite understand how to use over a long period of time. That only comes with time and being willing to put in the work necessary to figure out how to make it work over five and a half hours at a time. I waited a bit, but once I started singing it, it just felt like home.

CN: What is your favorite role currently?

CF: My favorite role, and it probably will be until forever, is Tristan. I cannot explain why. Itís a piece of music that I can absolutely, 100% disappear into. It sweeps you along as a singer. Act I, maybe not so much, parts of Act II, maybe not so much, but I sing those just for the chance to get to sing Act III [laughter]! I know that sounds a little silly, but in Act III...how tortured a human being can you possibly find? Every possible heartbreak, every possible joy this guy goes through, he runs the life gamut in an hour and a half. Itís something musically that is haunting and visceral. For me, the best of all words in Act III is where Tristan says, ďUrvergessen!Ē Itís beyond! You canít put your finger on it. Itís something that, when Iím in it, thereís nothing else. To have a chance to be moved like that, as a performer, is priceless.

CN: Is there a conductor youíve worked with on that role that has brought that music even more alive for you?

CF: Yes, Semyon Bychkov. To watch him, and Barenboim both, actually, from the pit, they look to the stage and while itís going on, almost from measure to measure, theyíre spontaneously creating within the confines of the structure theyíve already established in the rehearsals. They look at you and through their eyes, you can see the question: ďShall we try this? Is this OK for you?Ē Itís that instantaneous, ďyeah, letís do that!Ē without ever saying a word, but you feel that desire within the confines of what theyíve already established, to experiment with possibilities of new sound, new nuance. Both of them have been absolutely wonderful.

CN: As you were learning, what was a technical challenge, as you made the transition from baritone to tenor, what was a challenge for you?

CF: A lot of it is the passaggio. You have to get used to feeling and hearing the voice a different way when you move from baritone to tenor. A lot of the time, early on, I was singing high notes and undergraduate teachers would say, ďOh, no, donít do that. Thatíll hurt you.Ē And then when you finally get with someone who has the same type of voice, worked with the same type of voices, understands the technique thatís involved with what you potentially could be, then you receive a validation of, ďNo, Cliff, thatís actually the right sound.Ē So when someone who knows gives you permission to continue making that sound, then your confidence rises, a myriad of effects take hold. Technically, I think the passaggio area [is the most difficult], but surrounding that entire thing is finding a teacher who knows and has been there and done that and understands how it works.

CN: Who is the teacher who had the most positive influence on you?

CF: Iíve had the same teacher now for 18 years. His name is Bill Neill. He was head of the voice department at McGill University for a number of years, performed for thirty years throughout Europe, and sang the same type of repertoire. He was Ben Heppnerís teacher early on. Jay Morris is still with him as well, and thatís how I made the connection with Bill.

CN: And you have gone into teaching yourself! Can you tell us about Southern Methodist University and your participation there?

CF: SMU is a great school. Itís funny because I was there as a grad student with a close friend of mine, Jay Morris, who is now singing a lot of Wagner repertoire as well. So, to get a chance to go back there and give back to, hopefully, the next generation of singers is really fun. I enjoy it a lot. I enjoy my colleagues and the faculty. We have some great students there. Every singer, at some point, makes a transition [to teaching], but SMU still desires for me to continue to perform, and I do. In a way, I kind of thought, at the time, that maybe it might be a bit of a break, but itís actually harder [laughter]! But itís great, passing to these kids what has been passed to me. I love it. Itís lots of fun.

CN: What do you find different in the current singing students then when you were going to school?

CF: As a whole, what I have found is, and again, Iím not casting aspersions, but a lot of the younger singers donít have a real understanding of the history of the art-form or their ancestral singers. Beyond one generation back, a lot of these younger singers donít know of Suthaus or Vickers, that type of history of singing, and thatís a bit frustrating. I [also] think there is more of an immediacy of coming out of undergrad thinking theyíre ready. Some are, but a majority of singers need time to live their art, to really digest what the music is. Thatís something that takes time.

CN: Do you think the imperative to label young singers, is something that can be harmful?

CF: Absolutely. I have some friends who are teaching, and they called me and said, ďWe have a 20 year old kid, [who is] probably a young heldentenor.Ē And Iím thinking thatís just not possible (laughter)! Donít label these kids. Teach them how to sing first. Give them technique and then decide. You never know. I think itís extremely damaging, but, again, a singer wants to have an identity, and itís hard to ask a singer to continue to explore and learn their voice, especially bigger voices. Younger singers who are light lyrics, they are doing it all the time. Bigger voices, sometimes they crash and burn. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesnít. Itís frustrating to them not to have an identity.

CN: Do you see any technological tools that are more helpful to these singers that theyíre able to use to their advantage?

CF: Yeah, like YouTube. You go and punch in ďGiacomini.Ē If you have a tenor, you show him and say, ďthis is what Iím talking about when I speak of sub-glottal compression. Watch this guy sing. Listen to this guy sing.Ē Itís a perfect illustration. At the same time, I try to stay away from that, because really vocally talented kids, as good as they are, can wind up imitating a sound as opposed to doing the correct process which reveals their own sound. I try to balance that as much as I possibly can. But having resources like that...when I was in grad school, it was the big VHS recorder that had come out, so taping lessons was a major undertaking, and now you can do it with your cell phone [laughter]! Thatís great! Those things have helped tremendously. Then again, they can also be an impediment.

CN: In working with the younger singers, whatís the one point you seem to come back to?

CF: I think thereís not just one thing. Patience is one of the things I focus on, but itís also repeating the process. Donít repeat the result. If you go searching for a sound then the sound that emerges is either inconsistent or not grounded. I think the primary thing to focus on is always repeating the process in terms of technique. Then the possible variables for bad things are a lot lower than if youíre just trying to make a sound. As long as they focus on the technique and repeat it until itís no longer a matter of focusing on the technique, it becomes part of the process, then I think thatís where kids really learn how to sing.

CN: Would you liken that to making the technique second nature?

CF: Yes, itís almost as if it disappears. The body will eventually learn what to do and then you make music. Rachmaninoff used to say, ďThere is no artistry without technique.Ē Iím a big proponent of that. I think that technique is the facilitator for freedom artistically. I think it gives you the ability to do what you want, what you imagine, what you hear inside, without fear of, or wondering, what will happen if I do this. You do it.

CN: Do you foresee keeping up your busy schedule while youíre teaching?

CF: In a way, thereís really no down time now. Iíve been gone since the end of December. After this, I go back [to SMU] for about a month. Itís a lot of teaching everyday [laughter]! And then Iím out again. So, the downtime that one normally has in between [performances] is really no longer there. So itís more busy than it was [laughter]! But I also find that performing helps me become a better teacher. Every time I go out [on stage], I learn something new and itís something I can bring back to my students for them to put in their singing vocabulary. Thatís a benefit of the performance. The school wants me to continue to do that, and I applaud them for that, because having a singer out there doing what theyíre teaching is very helpful to the students in their studio.

CN: What do you find most gratifying about performing still?

CF: I have to say, not to sound cliched, Iím so lucky to get to do what I do! I love singing. I love the performances. Iím not always so thrilled about rehearsal period [laughter]! But itís what you go through to do what you want to do. The fact that we get to stand up there and deliver this music and then watch the audience enjoy it, thatís the reward.

Matthew Richard Martinez



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