Dallas — This weekend, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra presents a program that highlights Vaughan Williams’ first symphonic work, known as “A Sea Symphony,” featuring the talents of baritone soloist Nmon Ford and soprano Sarah Fox, with Robert Spano conducting.
Ford’s career in music has been varied and eclectic, with stints in notable opera houses and periods of work in more administrative roles. His background includes a great deal of concert appearances as well, so in preparation for the DSO’s performance, we caught up with Ford to chat about his career, preparing for performances in the concert setting, and his own musical project, Orfeus: A House Music Opera, which will be making its World Premiere at the Young Vic in London this spring.
Also on this program is the world premiere of George Tsontakis’ Violin Concerto No. 3, which he wrote for DSO Principal Associate Concertmaster Gary Levinson, who will perform it.
TheaterJones: You’ve worked with Robert Spano before?
Nmon Ford: Many times. I’ve been fortunate to work with Bob a lot, actually.
Is there an established relationship there in terms of the artistic exchange on stage? If so, what is that like?
There is. One of the things I’ve always appreciated about Bob is that we have a similar sense of function when it comes to rehearsal and performance. He’s very much about respecting the artist as opposed to being a sort of dictatorial type of conductor. It’s concise and organized, but internally it feels very loose and free. So, performers who work with him feel completely free to be themselves as artists.
I’ve seen how extensive your background is, not just with opera but with concert appearances as well. How does the mental prep work differ between the two?
The best way I can describe it is, for the concert stuff I sing, I am just me. It’s just Nmon on stage telling people what I think about the music I’m singing. I don’t feel that I am interpreting a character, but I am interpreting the music. It feels like a more immediately connected experience between me and the audience. As soon as there is some movement that indicates a character, it becomes more of a theatrical experience, which in a way separates me, the person, from the audience, the people. But, in another way it gives them a different vantage point from which to subsume themselves into what’s going on.
To prepare for that, for a concert, all of the energy that would be spent towards making the theatrical trappings work—costuming, make-up, finding my light, etc.—goes into the music. There’s more of a concentration on vocal technique. The voice has to do a whole lot of the heavy lifting in order to put across the interpretation of what those words and that music mean.
I read an article where you stated that Jocahanaan from Richard Strauss’ Salome is a dream list role for baritones. I’m wondering why you say that, and what are some of the other roles on that list?
One of the things I tend not to like for baritone that are more dramatic is that they don’t allow for a lot of space for the voice to be pretty. Jocahanaan allows you to sing with everything you’ve got, but still sing beautifully. You can sing with a certain kind of line and attention to detail, while still giving high drama. That role is the pinnacle of this kind of thing.
Others may disagree, but I think Telramund from Lohengrin belongs on that list. It’s one of those roles that has all that drama, while the vocal line is really extraordinarily written. Most of Verdi I would put in that category, Don Carlo especially. A lot of Strauss — Barak from Die Frau ohne Schatten.
Akin to that dream list of baritone roles in the opera realm, does such a list exist in terms of concert programming for you?
I think so. Mendelssohn’s Elijah is a big one. Brahm’s Requiem belongs on that list, too. Carmina Burana I’m just so used to. I know that a lot of baritones love the Fauré Requiem. And then, of course, Mahler. I’m a huge Mahler fan — Songs of a Wayfarer, the Kindertotenlieder, especially the Rückert-lieder, the Eighth Symphony. For me, it’s the concert equivalent version of doing something like Jocahanaan, where the baritone gets really lovely lines to sing, and the level of drama matches the level of beauty in the music.
Can you tell me about Orfeus: A House Music Opera?
Well, it is literally what the title says. It’s 50 percent house music and 50 percent opera. My brother got me into it. I’ve always been a big fan of the individual and collective elements of house music. And a lot of what I’ve liked about house music I have also liked about opera — the emotional scale and the grandeur of it, and the way the emotions are thrown out there with no apology as broadly delineated as emotions can be.
When I left Universal, I had a break of a few months and I said to myself, “If you don’t do something with this concept, you’re going to be mad at yourself five years down the road.” So, I mixed some demos and put together a simple website, and I sent it off to a bunch of people I knew. One of those guys was Charles Randolph-Wright, who directed Motown on Broadway. He set up some meetings for us in London to get it workshopped, and the next thing I know, we were looking at contracts and doing artwork and everything else.
The concept is something that I’m really close to. The notion of getting diverse audiences — as in, people who are interested in different things—should be to bring everybody into the same room at the same time, enjoying the same thing. So, if we can do that with two genres as diverse, but with similar elements, as house music and opera, you’re getting them into the same place. If we’re really talking about inclusive audiences and experiences, isn’t that the ultimate in it?