OPERA TAWK: Q&A With Bad-Ass Tenor Jason Collins

By Dave Allen

BY DAVE ALLEN Opera might be stereotyped as stuffy and uninteresting, but sex, violence and mayhem have always been part of the medium. Alban Bergís 1925 opera Wozzeck takes these traditional elements and frames them, to startling effect, in a score of dissonant but sensual and compelling music. Itís a work that has never fallen easy on the ears of American audiences, but this weekend, Phillyís famed but deeply traditional Curtis Institute of Music, in a co-production with the Opera Company of Philadelphia and Kimmel Center Presents, is putting on this revolutionary work of early 20th-century modernism and, as a friend whoís a Curtis grad put it, ďstepping out of the 19th century.Ē Two of Curtisí fastest-rising alumni appear in lead roles, including Jason Collins, a 2003 masterís grad from Curtis, who plays the vain, sadistic and supremely arrogant Drum Major. Itís a big leap for Collins, a friendly, modest South Carolina native whoís on the verge of making a huge splash in the opera world, and he talked with me about getting into character as a complete bastard, his alma mater engaging in some innovation, and the future of opera. Hint: it has nothing to do with monocles or evening gowns. *** Wozzeck, co-presented by the Curtis Institute of Music, the Opera Company of Philadelphia and Kimmel Center Presents, runs Friday at 8 pm, Sunday at 2:30, and Wednesday, March 18 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are stil available. *** PHAWKER: So my understanding of the role is: youíre a jerk. You seduce a manís wife, you brag about it in front of him and his friends, and then you beat him up. So how are you rehearsing for being a jerk ó are you walking around kicking puppies? JASON COLLINS: Itís fun. Itís an adventure. I hope Iím not that kind of person on the outside. I try not to be, anyway. Thereís just a level of confidence that one has to have. Yíknow, if youíre going to be a bad-ass, youíre going to be that guy. Heís just that guy. You just have to step in. The way his music is written, itís kind of balls-outÖ I donít know how you can write this, butÖ dick-swinginí music. Itís just kind of there. He thinks the world of himself and kind of lets everybody revolve around him. If it was ĎThe Drum Major,í it would just be about this manÖ It takes me a lot of focus to get into there and it takes me a lot of abandon. Like, I have to walk in and just abandon self and abandon that Iím not that kind of person, but he is, and to honorBuchner and honor Berg, I have to kind of abandon Jason Collins and kind of let this man go. Berg did a great job. His music is just right there; itís militaristic, itís bombastic, and itís sexual. And when he beats Wozzeck up, itís in the barracks when heís trying to sleep where heís just been in this tavern scene, and Emma Griffin is just genius, sheís painted this great picture of him going crazy watching his wife get molested. He takes her off and crosses in front of him ó boom ó and then the next scene I come back without my shirt, or just in a t-shirt, obviously having just had sex with his wife, and I beat him up while heís trying to sleep. I donít beat him up in the bar. I humiliate him, and her, too. She just thinks how heís honored by the prince, Iím excused of all military duty. If theyíd set it in this Nazi-era time, he could definitely be the figurehead of the Aryan race. He could be that guy. Heís what the prince keeps saying Ich bin ein Mann ó ďI am the man.Ē So heís been delivered this message from the highest-ranking person, so one tends to believe that. I often feel a little self-conscious after Iím finished because Iím like, ďGod, did I just let go like that?Ē PHAWKER: The work is really dark and filled with soul-crushing oppression and militarism. Does it get to you? Or is it your job as an actor to rise above that? JC: Itís our jobs as actors to leave it in the room, but itís very difficult. I talk with the Maestro [conductor Corrado Rovaris] about it, and I have to go home and sing some Mozart or some Verdi, just technically, in terms of vocal approach. Itís so angular and so angry, and itís so dark. Itís all over. So I have to get back to some roots on that, and emotionally, itís not so bad on the Drum Major. I feel a little guilt-ridden sometimes because heís such a jerk, but you have to learn how to separate that. You have to be able to walk off and (whistles, wipes a hand over his face). My agent used to ó when JonVickers was singing, she was his agent too ó sit in the wings for the final scene of Peter Grimes, and he would just walk off and be like, ďCome on, letís go get a hamburger.Ē And he was able to leave it on the stage. Itís a great outlet of emotion when you can tap into that and itís a great luxury to be able to be a jerk on the stage, and no one will hate you for it. You can leave it there. Wozzeck is a different story, butShuler is such a fantastic actor, Iím sure heís mastered his craft enough that he can leave that behind as well. But it is our responsibility, but we all are just fried. Last night, we had a run, it was just (forceful exhale). You donít even know what to say, because you canít give notes. You said, ďWeíll do notes tomorrow.Ē You just have to have a break, and I usually watch some kind of mindless TV or something to get my mind off of it. Itís just dark and just depressing. PHAWKER: You played this role six years ago for the Opera Festival of New Jersey. What do you feel youíve learned in the last six years about the role and yourself that you want to bring to these performances? JC: Well, I would say, if Iím personally speaking, how to leave it in the theater. Thank God I had Curtis here, because I was trained to do that. Mikael [Eliasen, director of vocal studies] challenged me to do big scenes and picked things that would make me do that. Now, I think thereís more assurance. Iíve been working, Iím a working singer and a singing actor. Iím comfortable in myself and in my work ethic and my preparation levels now, and my vocal abilities, and so when I was just finishing being a student ó well, Iíll always be a student, but I had literally just graduated ó and I was still working things out, so I couldnít exude the confidence that the Drum Major has to exude. He has to just walk on and everybody just (he freezes). They have to think, ďIs he going to kick me? Oh thank God, he just beat Wozzeck up tonight. He didnít beat me up tonight.Ē I think thatís what Iím bringing differently this time is just a confidence in Jason, and so Jason can let go and let the Drum Major be arrogant. PHAWKER: Since then, I know youíve done some Wagner. What are your thoughts on some of the controversies surrounding him, his philosophies and his music? JC: I grew up with Pavarotti, so I just knew of Italian singing, but Wagner is, to me, the Shakespeare of opera as a whole entire art form. Youíve got Mozart, whoís musically a genius, andda Ponte , whoís a wonderful, ingenious librettist. You have Verdi, whoís a master of vocal writing. But if you want a complete opera, to me, Wagner just does it. His libretto, his word choices, his alliterations Ėnothingís just ďoh, okay, thatíll be fine.Ē I started Juilliard a couple of years later, so I was 20 and everybody else was 18, and I remember getting in such a heated debate in music history class. They played something from Wagner, ďRide of the ValkyrieĒ or something that everyone would know, and I wasnít a great student and was not well-educated in music at that time. It was my first year. And theyíre like, ďListen to how nationalistic this music is.Ē (He sings the famous melody from ďRide of the Valkyrie.Ē) I said, ďThat just sounds like great music to me. It doesnít sound nationalistic to me.Ē Theyíre like, ďHow can you dare say itís not nationalistic?Ē ďBecause Iím hearing it for the first time, and I donít know anything. Iím just hearing it as music for the first time.Ē Wagner canít help who chose his music to march his troops to. We have ďYankee Doodle DandyĒ or whatever we want to march our troops to. Whatever motivates people is beyond a dead manís choice, I would say. I donít know, I try to avoid that because, for me, the music is first, and itís beautiful music, and it can be delivered in a way that that beauty comes across, not anything else. There are so many musical geniuses that, because of their genius, their faults get overlooked. Because their music is just greater than any fault that they could have. I think Wagner goes beyond that. I think the beauty of his music and his texts and everything are what they are, and I hope that, given the progressive nature of our country and where we are, thatÖ it wasnít that long ago that black people couldnít even ride a bus. Now we have Barack Obama as our president, and thatís wonderful and exhilarating to me. If that shows anything, it shows that people can accept the beauty of what Barack Obama is, and I hope thatís a sign of the possibilities. I mean, ďDer RosenkavalierĒ is one of the most beautiful things ever, and I donít particularly care what Straussí personal views were on the Jewish race, nor do I really care what Wagnerís were. I only care about Wagnerís music. And itís my responsibility and a privilege to get to deliver it in a beautiful and meaningful way with zero hatred, with just love. I think thatís the glory that he left behind. Here, heís allowed his personal views, youíre allowed your personal views, and Iím allowed mine. And thatís what being an individual is all about, but he wrote music for the world to share, and I think thatís what we do: Make music. Heís given us this great gift. Nothing in ďDer ValkyrieĒ says anything about his personal feelings toward any particular race. It just says, ďHereís some of the most gorgeous music in the world. Hereís the greatest libretto in the world. Here, go make it yours.Ē And thatís my privilege. Thatís a real honor to be able to do that. PHAWKER: Wozzeck is a tad more daring or adventurous than what Curtis usually does. Having studied here, did you think they would do something this modern? JC: Oh, Iím not surprised. Mikaelís had a fascination with Wozzeck for a long time. You just canít cast a Drum Major from a student. You could, but it wouldnít be beneficial. It wouldnít be a learning process. It would be, let me cross our fingers. Itís just hard. Same thing with Wozzeck. But with the Doctor and the Captain and everybody down to the chorus, itís very hard. But as you know, these are extraordinary singers and musicians, extraordinary talents. Together with the Opera Company of Philadelphia, merging this together in theKimmel Center, it was a great realization, and Mikael went to long lengths to get alumni that were capable of doing this. Itís the first time in history theyíve ever brought in alumni to sing in an opera here. The first time this was done, as an American premiere, was also a co-production with the Opera Company of Philadelphia and Curtis. They were both involved in it together, and now weíre bringing it back. But it doesnít surprise me, because if Mikael could find a way to do it, he will. Same thing as when I was here ó we had the voices to do Vanessa, and we did it. Thatís what Mikael does. Itís not just a business. There are conservatories that are turning into businesses, but I feel that he remains true to the talent he has. The kids ó I shouldnít even call them kids ó my colleagues are coming up. He sets the bar and makes them come up to it. Itís professional level, and theyíre great. I hope it pushes on to braver and bolder things. PHAWKER: Whatís been your experience with Philly audiences? JC: I love Philly audiences. I always have a great time performing in Philadelphia. Itís close enough to the New York scene, but itís not a scene. Itís a real music-lovers town, I find. Itís not a ďmy diamondís bigger than your diamond, let me show you, Iím at the Met opening.Ē Itís like, ďOoh, Iím going to see Wozzeck, I hope I can get tickets.Ē Itís that kind of crowd. Itís a musiciansí haven. I find I make really good music here, and I donít know if itís because I was educated here. Iím kind of vagabond in my career, but I feel grounded here. I feel like I can trust the audience, I can trust the presenters. And the audiences, I find that theyíre very appreciative of honest music-making. PHAWKER: Where do you see the future of opera heading? Obviously thereís been a rise in these movie theater broadcasts. Are you worried about how youíll look inHD? JC: I think thatís the wonderful thing and, yíknow, I was 75 pounds heavier a year and a half ago. So itís definitely heading in a direction where you have to look the parts. Itís no longer the fat lady singing anymore. Itís becoming more theatrical. A great teacher of mine, RichardBado ó I donít think heíll mind me quoting him ó once said, ďMusical theater is theater enhanced by music, and opera is music enhanced by theater.Ē It was a wonderful quote. Basically, I hope in opera that the emphasis stays on good music-making, and then the emphasis on the theater. I mean, theyíre very close, but overall, Iíd rather hear a great Traviata than see someone rail-thin who canít sing it, because thereís a responsibility to your material. I love the HD broadcasts. Itís bringing in new audience and bringing in a lot more interest. These theaters are selling out for these broadcasts, and thatís great. There are these great people ó the Flemings, theMattilas, Deborah Voigt, Jonas Kaufmann ó these people, theyíre embodying everything now, and I think itíll become a great art form like that because they are embodying great singing and great looks. There can be extremes, I mean. Pavarotti, he just had to stand there, but his voice was enough. There wasnít a better voice. So he could do whatever ó just stand there and be propped up on the stage. He was in his own league, way different than anyone else. The economy worries me, with this art form, but I think itís steadying off, and I think people are realizing that theyíre responsible for all aspects. Youíre responsible for your music, youíre responsible for how you look, youíre responsible for your acting skills. Itís not just one part. Itís not a concert, itís not a play. Itís opera. And so Iím glad that thereís been some emphasis on it, because I want to see it. I want to see and hear a great Traviata at the same time. Thatís going to keep me on the edge of my seat. Thatís going to make people want to come back. Thatís going to get people excited when they see that on the screen, whether theyíre seeing it inHD or seeing it live. Thatís the essence. Thatís what people want from the art form. Thatís what the composers, I think, had in mind ó Wagner, Verdi, Puccini. Iím sure they didnít write Mimi for some 300-pound bear of a woman, or Rodolfo, the starving artist, for that either. Iím sure in their visions, in their head, they said, ďThis is what it looks like.Ē When they were sitting across the table, when it was modern music, Iím sure they had a concept. But then there are voices that supersede all that, and there are actors and actresses who supersede all that. I think itís leveling off. I think it went a little (whistles, makes a veering motion with his hands) just at the onset of the theater being broadcast and the commercialization of opera, but it needed that. It needed a stirring, I guess. Once it stirs and sits, it becomes something real. I think itís getting there. PHAWKER: In this production, youíre working with Shuler Hensley. Heís a large man, bigger than you, and you have to boss him around and beat him up. How are you going to handle that? JC: He is an incredible singing actor, and we donítÖ we were talking the other day, and I was thinking, how does one become homeless? I see these people in New YorkÖ at what point are they homeless? At what point does everything abandon them and they seem so weak? Even these huge people who are homeless. And when the curtain opens up on Wozzeck, heís kind of at the bottom. Heís biting the hangnails off of someone and shining their shoes, and thereís a vulnerability and a weakness that comes into seeing somebody do that. And I beat him when heís down. Had he had a privilege as a man that he would rise up, but he didnít. The character of Wozzeck didnít have that privilege, to be born into that, therefore I attack him where heís most vulnerable: his wife, and when heís sleeping, when he feels the most secure. He has given up on himself, I feel, and heís just trying to do whatever he can ó shine shoes, go into a back alley for an experiment with a doctor ó just to get some money. The only shred of dignity, and itís a very small thread, is that he loves Marie, and he believes she loves him, and he has to provide for this kid. Heís not getting a government check every month, and so he doesnít care, and it makes it easy to beat up on someone who doesnít care about themselves. Whatís the sayingÖ ďAs a lion, you only have to be as fast as the slowest gazelle.Ē And I think thatís what the Drum Major is. Heís not going to go up to someone on his level, and thereís higher ranking people. Thereís the Captain, whoís higher-ranking than the Drum Major. Iím just leading the corps in parades.Shuler gives that vulnerability of ó ďOh yeah, are you going to give me a drink? I believe youĒ and then POP! Heís down, and he doesnít feel like heís worth it. He really delivers that on the stage, and you feel bad for him. As big as he is, in physical form, he makes Wozzeck tiny. He makes it very easy to beat him up, when I know afterwards that, if we were out having a drink, he could take me out in a second. Wozzeck, co-presented by the Curtis Institute of Music, the Opera Company of Philadelphia and Kimmel Center Presents, runs Friday at 8 pm, Sunday at 2:30, and Wednesday, March 18 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are stil available.