American tenor Eric Cutler has made a name for himself in the Mozart repertoire, and is now a popular singer at the New York Met.
His repertoire also covers the bel canto and French lyric roles, which he has sung in America, Australia and Europe, and his recent engagements include highly prestigious debuts at the Wigmore Hall and Carnegie Hall in New York.
I caught up with him in the last days of rehearsals at Covent Garden, where he is playing Ernesto in the Royal Opera’s revival of Jonathan Miller’s production of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale.
It’s his debut with the company, which he says he’s looking forward to ‘very much. I’m a little nervous but I’ve been looking forward to it for a while and it’s a piece that I think I have something to say about.’
It has to be said that Ernesto isn’t the most psychologically complex character in opera, so I wonder, what does Cutler make of it? ‘Well, it’s the first time I’ve done it. I think in all honesty, he’s fairly two-dimensional: it’s hard sometimes to make something out of nothing. He is just that stereotypical spoiled and titled rich child, and he behaves that way. A lot of his music is pouty and self-pitying but it’s some of the most beautiful music in the whole opera!
‘With Jonathan Miller’s concept, which is to make us all dolls, it actually starts to make sense, because all of the characters in a lot of ways are just two-dimensional. So if it was in the sort of landscape that was real-life, as in films and such, it would be very difficult to make him come alive, but in the setting of the doll’s house, it’s much easier.’
Knowing the problems with the acoustics of the set when the production was new, I ask Cutler how he’s finding it. ‘It’s taking me a little bit to get used to. I noticed today that the balance with the orchestra is a little difficult because we’re so far away from them: a lot of my stuff is on the very top floor, so it’s tricky. But his music is so difficult to sing anyway, it’s one of the most impossible sings, but I’m getting over that. The acoustic in the House is so beautiful anyway.’
The production is being conducted by Bruno Campanella, who conducted the production back in 2004, and also led the last revival of the previous production. How is the new Ernesto responding to him? ‘He’s fantastic. He never needs to look at the score, he can step out of the stand in rehearsals because he has it memorised he knows every word and note of it. It’s really been terrific. I was a little nervous at the idea of working with Campanella and Corbelli because they’ve done it so much, but I’ve learned a great deal from them, and they’ve been sweet, in a ‘big brother’ sort of way!’
And his co-stars? ‘I’ve worked with Chris[topher Maltman, who’s playing Malatesta] before in Zauberflte at Glyndebourne, and I’d always looked forward to Corbelli, who I’ve seen in Jonathan’s production of Cos. He’s a tremendous artist. I didn’t know Aleksandra [Kurzak, in the role of Norina], but she’s amazing. For once we have a real bel canto soprano, who has the top and still enough sound in the middle.’
– On Aleksandra Kurzak, who plays Norina in Don Pasquale.
Although still young, Cutler can already look back on some impressive engagements. What stands out for him particularly? ‘Certainly La Juive at the Met [which the Royal Opera is to give in concert performances at the Barbican in September]. Working with Soile [Isokoski] and Neil [Shicoff] was a big thing for me. The first Romeo I did in Sydney was also a big deal for me, because up to that point all I’d really sung was Mozart. It was nice to be able to sing the repertoire that I think I’m going to be singing a lot more, which is bel canto and French repertoire. My Wigmore Hall recital debut was a huge experience, just because the hall itself is like an acoustical phenomenal, and it was just a tremendous opportunity to stand and sing in that space for an hour. That was one of the highlights of my career.’
He’s sung with some great conductors already, most notably James Levine at the Met and Christoph von Dohnanyi with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. What are these legendary musicians like to work with?
‘Levine and Dohnanyi are just on a whole other plain! Even the coaching I had with Pappano in New York about six months ago: he has that thing, the ‘it’ factor. You can’t really define what ‘it’ is, but the great conductors have it. It puts all of us in a special place.’
Does he have any plans to return to Covent Garden, given how much he’s enjoying the House?
‘No, I don’t know! I certainly hope that this is the beginning of a long relationship with the Royal Opera House. The House and the Met are the two greatest opera houses that I’ve worked in. It’s such a well-oiled machine. Everyone’s so positive and wants you to do well and put on great product. I hope I come back!’
– On working at Covent Garden.
‘I’ve done Madrid and Genoa and I’m going on to Paris and Edinburgh. The goal is to work in all the greatest houses Vienna and Berlin as well.
‘It’s difficult to adjust at the beginning to speak three or four languages in a rehersal, but I’ve grown to love it. In a way as Americans we need those experiences, to come over and work in Europe.’
So is there a great diffierence between opera in America and in Europe?
‘Yes, certainly. The Met and Chicago and San Francisco hire a lot of Europeans just because they want to validate their artistic existence. And then you go into the provinces and you find a huge change in the level of what’s put on. For me, though, the difference is in the audience. Here, the audiences just understand the art form, they love it, it’s part of their history. They’re certainly more appreciative here than there. New York is a place where the audiences are well-educated, but that’s about it. It’s not that they don’t enjoy it but I think you could put anything on stage and they wouldn’t know the difference. Which is fine we’re a young country and it’s really not our artform!’
Cutler’s debut album was released by EMI in September 2003 to great acclaim – a typically eclectic programme of Barber, Schumann, Hahn and Liszt. Are there any more recordings in the pipeline?
‘If I could make a recording every year, I would! You look at the artists back in the 60s and 70s they recorded everything! What a way of seeing where you’re progressing technically. It’s the only way we get to hear our work properly.’ And does he worry about his legacy? ‘No not at all. We don’t have the chance to record, our generation. All the record companies want to record is operas that have never been recorded, or they want to try to make a starI’d jump at the opportunity to record a French arias disc! But I try not to worry about it. For me it’s just such an incredible experience to make music and have this life, because I certainly didn’t come from people who were wealthy I just grew up in the middle of the country [he’s a native of Adel, Iowa] and was poor. So to wake up and be able to make art for a living is more than I ever dreamed of having. As for my legacy, I was speaking to Soile Isokoski yesterday she’s such a beautiful singer and a beautiful woman! and she said to me, ‘Darling, don’t worry about people making comparisons about you let them do that. You focus on the music’. The more I can do that, the better.’
– On making recordings.
Opera singers sometimes suffer from being associated with a single role which they are then invited to sing perpetually, but Cutler’s repertoire has included a wide range of composers including Berg, Britten and Busoni. Is he worried about being pigeonholed as a singer though?
‘If it were me, the more high bel canto and high French repertoire I could sing, the better, because that’s where my voice feels best. Unfortunately people saw that I could do what I wanted technically with my voice and thought I’d be perfect for Mozart and I can see why. But the extra third or fourth on the top of my voice was not being utilised. Why would I only sing four or five Gs in an evening when I’ve got high Cs and Ds? I hope we don’t have this idea of what Italian tenors should be. The opera world loves their tenors to be Mediterranean there’s a real bias in the opera world in this respect, against the English and Americans. That really shocks me, actually: it’s a real discrimination, and I’d like to break into some of this repertoire more.’
So where does he plan to go to from here?
‘I would love to sing all of the bel canto repertoire and the French lyric repertoire. Then see what happens. I’d love to sing La bohme after that, and I see my voice opening up into a bit of Verdi and Puccini. Some people think they hear me going the Wagner route I don’t see that at all. I see myself singing high and loud!
‘There’s no Tristans in my future. The bel canto repertoire is the music that allows me to find the pliant and malleable side of my voice. I find in Mozart which I love singing it doesn’t give me the opportunity to show off the top enoughNowadays I think more about the characters, because I spent ten years doing the technical work. For the first time it’s starting to be fun!’
– On future plans.
Why did he become a singer?
‘It just happened. I wanted to be a conservationist to go and work in a National Park! But it just happened. I won the Met auditions when I was 21, then I went to New York and studied at the Met. Then I told myself I was 28 and still not singing principal roles, but parts came along and here I am! So many people would cut off their right hand to do this.’
How does he cope with the life?
‘Making music at this high level all the time is just amazing. You find ways of coping and take home with you, and the world becomes your home in a sense. This is the third time we’ve been to London now and I love it. I hope that happens more and more in places I work atWorking at the House is amazing it’s the best, with the Met. It’s such a first-rate company on every tier, even down to the dresser! The level of what they do here is incredibly high.’
Student tickets are available for all these performances at greatly reduced prices. Is it good to have a greater mix of ages at the opera?
‘Kids really show their appreciation and want to get involved in the performance in a way that many opera audiences don’t want to be involved. You need to get energy from the audience. You need them to let you know, ‘Wow, that was great!’. I saw Rigoletto here with Gavanelli, and the audience was screaming! So it’s great to have students here, you notice the differenceWe have to keep the artform evolving and not let it become a museum piece.’