This was the case with lyric baritone Richard Stilwell, faculty at the Chicago College of Performing Arts and his 14 voice students, myself included! In his weekly performance seminar, singers perform arias, art song, musical theater and a wide range of repertoire for their classmates. The goal of the class is to provide performing opportunities for the singers while also being an arena for constructive advice from peers and highly experienced faculty.
Richard takes time from his busy schedule of teaching, performing, and traveling to provide an insightful discussion about music, life off stage, and how he tackled a career on the big stage...
Morning Richard! Hope I didn't call too early. I completely forgot about the time change. Are you on the east coast?
No no, don’t worry. I’ve been awake and I’m still here in Chicago anyway.
Perfect! Thanks for taking time to talk with me outside of class. I appreciate your help with this project. Why don’t we go ahead and start? Tell me, where did you grow up and when did music become a regular part of your life?
I grew up in St. Louis. When I was 5 or 6 I began singing in the church. This is probably where lots of singers realize they have a talent for singing and also have their earliest memories with music. I had solos with the choir and members of the group encouraged me to sing. Choir was really my musical foundation when I was a kid. Since we had no professional musicians in my family, mounting a career in music was totally foreign to me. That didn’t dawn on me until much later in life. In fact, I was an English major at a small college in Indiana. I did sing with a gospel quartet and toured along the western coast. Music was always with me, but I wasn’t certain what to make of it. I enjoyed it... so, I did it.
What instruments did you study as a child, did someone make you practice, and do you perform those instruments in public anymore?
I studied piano for 3 years, but I wasn’t pressed to continue. I was young and other than my gospel group and a few small productions I’d seen, music wasn’t totally on my radar. However, I did become a pretty good sight-reader and honed a sharp ear for harmony. Singing hymns really boosted these skills. That experience actually landed me my next job in the army chorus, where I sang for awhile after leaving college. But still the thought of opera, legato, coloratura, and stage lights might as well have been ideas locked in the bottom of a tomb.
So what changed? It’s no small feat to sing doo-wops in the mess hall with your buddies and then eventually end up on every major opera stage in the world. How did you find your glass slipper?
Keep in mind it was a very gradual process. Even in the middle of a singing career, even very successful ones, we stop and ask “What on earth am I doing…should I be doing this?” All along friends would ask why I didn’t study music or audition for things and I wasn’t completely sure, but one moment of change came when I sang my first recital.
Sounds like it was something of a milestone. Talk a little about it. What do you remember?
Everything! I worked with a coach from the St. Louis Opera Guild to prepare the music. It wasn’t much but I had to work hard. Working with the coach was a lot like an extended introduction to vocal arts. We worked on building characters and singing with expression. But the thing I remember most was the audience and communicating to them. It was such an exciting phenomenon and I didn’t want to let the feeling go. That experience opened the door to music a little wider for me.
You had an open spirit about it all and rolled with the punches. That’s important for a singer. Do you remember your very first voice lesson?
We talked forever about breath. Then he showed me a "horn of plenty" a kind of old-fashioned loud speaker. He illustrated what projection was. It’s not that I was supposed to go around blatting my voice like a bugle or trombone, but instead, I was supposed to project my sound and used my body for help. After all, opera is a form of controlled and beautiful shouting. I was introduced to opening my throat and allowing sounds to come from my body without force. I started thinking how to make my body more active in my singing. It was a great start.
What was your first professional job?
I was cast as Silvio in Pagliacci and very shortly after as Le Dancaïre in Carmen. Do you know the quintet from Carmen? There’s a tenor role, Remendado, you might enjoy…if you enjoy being a smuggler.
Ooo, sounds fun, as long as I get to carry a knife and have an eye patch, ha ha. What singers inspired you when you began? Who did you look up to or hope to be like?
I have many. It’s hard to narrow. My hero was baritone, Robert Merrill. I couldn’t stop listening to him, such a beautiful voice. I enjoyed Franco Corelli too. His raw musicality was simply unparalleled. I also really liked Cesare Siepe. It was a dream come true when I got to sing with him in a Don Carlo production. I couldn’t believe what was happening. Dame Janet Baker is right up there too. I still gain inspiration from these artists.
Opera is a complex art and at any given moment a singer is asked to do forty things at once. Can you recall any production that challenged you musically, vocally, physically, and mentally more than the others?
The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe at Lyric Opera by Dominick Argento. I will never forget what a bear that was. It was practically atonal. But the mind is so amazing, if you work hard and decide that you’re going accomplish something, chances are, you will. I also did The Aspern Papers at Dallas Opera with Frederica von Stade. There is an incredibly difficult duet that goes on for pages without accompaniment, I worried that we’d never end up in the right key once the orchestra reentered…but we did, every night. The hardest challenges to conquer are those silently stirring inside us. Singing is mind over matter.
Is there an opera or role that's been especially important in your performing?
The Mozart operas have been extremely important in my career, particularly the Count, Don Giovanni, Don Alfonso, and Guglielmo. Guglielmo was my Met debut. I returned 25 years later to sing Alfonso. No other singer has ever done both roles in this opera at the Met. Pelleas in Pelleas et Melisande by Debussy was also important because this role got me into La Scala, Covent Garden, Paris Opera, and other major houses overseas. I recorded it with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. It has been THE major role in my career.
Ok let’s take a few moments to talk about singing technique. What does this word mean to you?
Technique is about singing freely with the least amount of pressure and projecting the voice with beauty and articulation. A singer needs to use long vowels and give even the smallest notes purpose. Technique is really a heightened awareness of your body and the ability to let it do want it wants naturally…relax. But relaxation is not laziness. Singers need energy and space in the throat and mouth to produce the sound they want to make.
Are there any basic singing principles that you emphasize in your own teaching and singing… breath, posture, relaxation?
Relaxed jaw is important, but the not the body…that’s got to be energized and ready. After all, we really are athletes! I would lose five pounds a night singing Giovanni. With experience, you learn technique and endurance.
Some singers have a natural legato while others have endless high notes or wicked coloratura. Were there musical or technical concepts that you grasped more quickly?
Legato I understood early, a lot of this came from simply listening to other singers. You can learn so much by not singing a single note but, instead, by opening your ears. Listen to what the masters are doing. Listening is something that I feel a lot of singers in your generation have gotten away from and it can teach you so much. How we do what we do is important and listening is key. Now with YouTube and the Internet you guys can hear what would take me a lifetime to find in a library or record store.
Rarely do people talk about a singer’s job. Yes, singing and performing are very important parts of what we do, but are there any other aspects of our job that you believe are equally important?
Giving back has always been important to me and it’s always been a personal mission. I have been very lucky in so many ways and I feel responsible for sharing what I’ve learned. I want to pass the torch.
Many singers have a good idea of certain goals they want to achieve in their careers—singing at the Met, winning a very prestigious competition, etc—but what advice can you share about sustaining a career in opera?
Well, that’s the trick! Think in terms of the big picture and longevity. Learn from others, be patient, and above all know yourself and your voice. Gather information and make informed decisions about roles and literature. There are plenty of people out there to help. So keep good council near by. We all need it, at every level. Sometimes you will just have to turn things down and that’s totally okay. Remember it’s you up there when the curtain goes up and you never want to have that sudden feeling of “uh oh” for any reason.
Is there anything you now know and understand about the business that you wish someone would have explained when you first started out?
You’ll have to make sacrifices and sometimes they aren’t easy: being away from one’s family, raising children, developing a home life… there’s a whole list of things that people don’t really talk about. Sometimes we singers have to make time for things that would otherwise seem so simple and basic. Sometimes we battle loneliness and depression, especially the more demanding our calendars become. And sometimes, it can all be overwhelming. This is all part of the job description that no one ever really explains when you sign up. There are many wonderful rewards in what we do, but yes, some things people don’t talk about. So be careful what you wish for; there is always a cost.
You have devoted many years to training young talent and have inspired students through your vocal instruction. Can you talk a little about your teaching philosophy?
It’s all about being the complete performer, not just singing. I want you all to be singers, actors, and artists. So, it’s not enough for me to just teach you guys how to sing pretty notes. Audiences will want to know something about you, who you are. I want to help you all get to the next level and equip you with everything needed to go beyond even your own expectations. It’s never just about singing. That’s only one part of what I teach. I encourage my students to go beyond.
Thanks for talking with me Richard. Our talk adds real insight into a life on stage and becoming a professional in opera. Actually, I have only a few more.
Of course, I’m happy to do things like this.
You have been asked to address an auditorium full of singers; some are just beginning their careers while others have been singing for several years. You are told that you can say no more than three words and that you will have a very limited time in front of them. What are your three words?
Wow. Let me think about this one...
How do you prepare for a performance?
Gearing the body up is important, usually I do something like a walk beforehand. I also do some light singing too, simple scales and arpeggios, nothing too taxing on your voice or energy. When you get to the theater there will be lots of things racing through your mind. So you’ll want to feel ready and prepared.
Are you talking about mental toughness and focus?
Exactly. Performing is mind over matter in most cases. And let’s face it you’re always going to be working against something that's never the same thing…congestion, stress, fatigue. Sometimes you just have to sit down and talk yourself into a better frame of mind. You have to call upon yourself. It’s not easy every time, but it’s necessary. Every performance won't be your best, that’s impossible; we are human beings, not robots. But remember all the things that can help you. People want you to do well. So when you’re up there try getting yourself into a positive, “CAN-DO" state of mind.
Any other advice about preparation or mental toughness?
Adrenaline is a helpful friend. I shocked myself sometimes. Somehow the body just knows what to do when the overture starts. Low energy can translate in many ways. What felt like bad nights, became performances where I received the most praise.
Okay, one last question…the chicken, or the egg?
Haaaa haa haa, really?
The egg! That’s where all the possibility, inspiration, and beginning is; it’s the place where something greater is growing.
Now I’m hungry.