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Playing Hoffmann: Who Could Ask For Anything More?

Vinson Cole interviewed February 24, 2004 by Ed Hawkins

Vinson Cole made his Seattle Opera debut as Orphée in the 1988 production of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice and has returned to the company often, singing such roles as Nadir in Bizet's Pêcheurs de perles, Roméo in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette, Don José in Bizet's Carmen, Gerald in Delibes' Lakmé, Cavaradossi in Puccini's Tosca, and the title roles in Verdi's Don Carlos, Gounod's Faust, and Massenet's Werther. He was last seen here as Gustavus III in Verdi's Ballo in maschera. Cole appears regularly at the Metropolitan Opera; San Francisco Opera; Paris Opéra-Bastille; Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels; Vienna, Bavarian, Berlin, and Hamburg State Operas; Deutsche Oper, Berlin; and Opéra de Monte Carlo.

Ed Hawkins spoke with Vinson Cole at Seattle Opera's administrative offices on February 24, 2004.

You haven't had the pleasure of performing at McCaw Hall yet, have you?

Not since the opening night event, no. This will be my first full-length opera there.

Have you ever sung any other Offenbach?

I have done one other Offenbach piece, years ago when I was a student at Curtis Institute of Music. We did a one—act piece which has many names-I knew it as R.S.V.P.—a kind of operetta spoof which is quite bizarre. Lots of spoofing of sopranos and tenors.

Tell me about your history with Hoffmann.

Well it's kind of crazy—my first Hoffmann ever was at the Paris Opera. So it was a trial by fire. Since then, I've done it with Opera Pacific, with Michigan Opera Theatre, at La Scala, and three times in Sydney.

Have you sung the same version for each engagement?

No. For every production, every company has given me their own score; and while most of the music is the same, you still have to relearn the role each time because there are always little changes. The version we're using here will include music that is new for me. As we know, Offenbach died before he prepared and finished a performance edition. He left quite a lot of music, thus we don't know what music he would have used in the first performance.

I was reading the article which Maestro Dean Williamson wrote for our magazine detailing the score being used for this production, and he talks about it as a blend of several versions.

Yes. It's a mix of the Choudens and the Oeser versions. I think it will work well.

E.T.A. Hoffmann is an important German cultural figure, and Offenbach was himself born in Germany before moving to Paris. In terms of aesthetic, do you consider The Tales Of Hoffmann to be more German, French, or an even mixture of the two?

I would definitely describe this as a very French opera. I feel the German influences exist in where certain scenes are located. The music for me is totally French in style. I'm not an expert, but having sung a great many French operas, I feel that the vocal writing is definitely French and not German.

Can you talk about what you see as the hallmarks of that style?

These hallmarks are a bit difficult to describe in words, but the requirements for the singer are all-encompassing. You have to be very attentive to the words first and then have the technical abilities to be able to sing forte to pianissimo. Being very expressive and creating many nuances all are part of what I consider French vocal style. One is also usually called upon to sing throughout their entire vocal range comfortably. It's a very elegant and refined way of singing; it's not your "blood-and-guts" way of singing. It's a very difficult thing to talk about, much easier to just do it.

So is the palette used more extensively throughout?

Yes, the palette is more exercised throughout the entire voice, one is never concentrated in only one area of the voice, you get to use every part of your instrument.

Do you consider the singing itself to be of a lighter style in French works?

Not at all. People sometimes think of this music, and other French works, as being "light," but just listen to Carmen—what could be more dramatic? Also, some of the great operas by Meyerbeer and even more so Verdi's Don Carlos—which was originally written in French—these are certainly not "light" in style. (Although I find a French Don Carlos very different from when the opera is sung in Italian.) I think refinement and elegance are very important in singing French music, and sometimes that's mistaken for "light"; but you still have to really sing. 

You don't really get to leave the stage in this show, do you?

Well, I hope I get to at some point! But you're right, and I've done productions where I never leave the stage, which can be exhausting. 

Even with some rests, this is a marathon role, isn't it?

Yes it is—in terms of sheer length, it is a marathon. Once I come on stage in the Prologue, I don't ever leave it, nor do I really even stop singing for a good hour or so. It is a demanding role, but also a wonderfully rewarding role to sing and act. 

How do you prepare to meet those demands?

First of all by learning the role, slowly and thoroughly, and then by singing it over and over. I think the biggest advantage for me is that the first time I ever did the role was at the Paris Opera. I really must have been crazy to make my debut in this role at that venue, but I was fortunate to have Janine Reiss, the famous French coach, assisting the production, and she saved my life and also made my first adventure in this role very easy. After every rehearsal she would go with me into a coaching room, and we would work on the music, the style, and the character. Her widsom was an invaluable gift, and I've been able to apply different aspects of it—particularly the musical knowledge—to every production I've done. 

When you're singing your way through a performance of Hoffmann, is it like a marathon in the sense that you have to ration your output, check the mileposts, and pace yourself so you know you can hit everything and finish strong? Are you in your head a lot?

Well, once I start a performance, I just go for it. I'm trying to live the character so all the technical matters, such as pacing myself vocally and making sure I will get through the opera feeling in top form, all happens months before I even start rehearsals. I will admit there are probably two or three places in any opera where I do think about vocal technique, but I never let go of creating the character I'm singing. 

Your performance here a few years ago as King Gustavus in Un ballo in maschera really impressed me. You struck me as somebody who doesn't have a lot of barriers; an open performer, very engaged with telling the story. You seemed to be invested in all of the moments rather than spending a lot of time in your head. It made me eager to see you sink your teeth into something more complex. How does Hoffmann rate in terms of characterization?

Well, he's one of the great tenor roles to sing and also to try to portray. He's right up there with Werther, every tenor's favorite role. Hoffmann is a very complex and dark personality. He has become one of my favorite roles because of the richness of his character. He's got it all: great music to sing, fantastic tales to tell, and a wonderful persona. You think, "who could ask for anything more?" 

Not to mention you've got three leading ladies.

Well, the three ladies are great, but they can be extremely tiring because they each come out fresh and I've already been singing for hours. I love them but also hate them. (laughs) 

Have you ever been in any production where it was just one soprano singing all the principal female roles?

I have done it only once with one soprano singing all the roles, and it was very interesting because I had done the same production in Sydney with three different sopranos. In this production, every soprano was a different movie star. Olympia was like Marilyn Monroe from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Antonia was made to look like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and Giulietta was like Rita Hayworth in Gilda—a really interesting concept. It worked with three sopranos and with one also; it was just very different. 

There are pros and cons to either option, I guess.

Well, the biggest consideration is that it's rare to find a voice that is comfortable singing three very different soprano parts. Olympia is a real coloratura, Antonia is a full lyric soprano, and Giulietta a mezzo-soprano. There have been successful sopranos who have pulled it off, but they are not the norm. 

When I interviewed [stage director] Chris Alexander, he talked about how these three female characters could represent three aspects of an ideal woman whom Hoffmann pursues during his lifetime.

I think that's very true. Hoffmann is constantly searching for the one person who meets all his requirements in a relationship. Of course, he ends up with no one. We all know that no single person will ever be 100 percent of what we desire, and we accept that, but this poor man keeps looking for perfection. 

And in the end? I know there have been as many takes on the ending as there are versions of the score. Is Hoffmann left desolate and alone? Does he drink himself to death? Does he sacrifice it all for art? What do you think he ends up with?

I think Hoffmann ends up very much alone, at least in the physical sense. Spiritually, maybe he's not completely alone; you feel that he does become a complete artist, that all his energy goes into his work. Which is what often happens in life with artists: we spend many long lonely hours working on what we do. Hoffmann is no different. 

So does that make this a romantic tragedy or something more true to life?

I think the emotional aspects of this opera are true to life. Aren't we all looking for that special someone who is going to make us feel fulfilled and happy? And yet practically speaking, that's unrealistic; whatever you find in life should be a complement to yourself. So I do believe that there is a certain amount of emotional realism that one either feels or one doesn't. This is the aspect of the character I think we all can relate to. We all believe in romanticism and we all have tragedies in our lives, so there are some true-to-life aspects in the character. 

There is some warmth to him, isn't there?

Yes, he is a warm person. Most artists are very appealing, and Hoffmann is also entertaining, a great storyteller to his friends, whether he's talking about his real life or the imaginary Kleinzach. 

Is it rare for the tenor role to be dark/complex? Or is that an overgeneralization?

Well, it varies from opera to opera, of course. I would say many tenor roles are not terribly dark. In many operas, the tenor is the romantic lover, sometimes a very happy-go-lucky idealist. Hoffmann happens to be a very complex and not well-adjusted person; his search takes him on many journeys to find perfection in a woman, and it brings him only unhappiness and frustration. I must say it's nice to play a more complete character like Hoffmann—you really can try to portray many human and natural emotions. 

It's interesting to hear you describe Hoffmann with such weighty adjectives, because most people talk about this opera in the same tone they would talk about a comedy. I don't know if that's because of its populist musical style or the fanciful story elements or what.

There are many different ways of looking at this opera. There's certainly a great deal of tragedy in it, with the small amount of comic relief being just that. As a whole, it's not a light or comic opera, and it certainly can be depressing at moments. One only hopes that at the end Hoffmann realizes his faults and will try to change his attitude about life. After all, I believe this is a story about life, about how we all have happy and sad moments in life, and we all must learn to cope. I like to think that Hoffmann eventually learns this. 

Ed Hawkins, a Seattle Opera staff member, is active in Seattle's fringe theater community as a director, actor, copywriter, and playwright. His interviews are a regular feature of Seattle Opera's publications, including this Web site. He will appear as a supernumerary in The Tales Of Hoffmann.