By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
As Eric Halfvarson savors his plate of beef mole at cvila's restaurant on Maple Avenue, the Dallas-based international opera star ponders a dilemma: Although many bookings in the classical music business occur far in advance (he's presently working out an offer for the year 2000), his immediate concerns are no less complicated.
Soon Halfvarson, 44, will go into rehearsals for The Dallas Opera's production of Richard Strauss' comedic Der Rosenkavalier, which opens January 10. He plays the Viennese Baron Ochs, who becomes engaged to a young woman but loses her to another, younger man. That was to have been followed by the role of Ramphis, high priest of Egypt, in Verdi's Aida at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (February 17-March 15), but the Houston Grand Opera decided it wasn't happy with the singer hired to play the devil in Faust. Now they want Halfvarson to fill the role.
Halfvarson gleefully finds himself "playing the pawn on the big board" in negotiations between the two opera companies. The end result will be a compromise--for everyone but him. He'll commute to Houston, squeezing in rehearsals of Faust between performances of Rosenkavalier. After the Dallas opera closes January 18, he'll open Faust on Friday, January 31, do a Sunday matinee, and hop on a plane to New York to begin rehearsals at the Met--at 10 the next morning. (The Met's live radio broadcast of Aida is scheduled for March 1 on WRR-FM.)
Although the Met performance is more prestigious, Halfvarson feels it's also important to support Houston: He did his apprenticeship at the Houston Opera Studio in 1977-'79 and performed with the Texas Opera Theater, HGO's former touring arm. His last performance in Houston, in fact, was Rosenkavalier in May 1995.
Listening to Halfvarson speak is almost as good as hearing him sing. His mellifluous bass voice flows like warm chocolate. But although he is at the top of his game, it is unlikely he will become a household name, because the bass voice is not in vogue today the way tenors are. And although one would think that a "ballsy" voice would imply sex appeal, the bass' role is usually as the father, the priest, or the bad guy who doesn't get the girl.
"There almost aren't any basso superstars in the same league as Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo," Halfvarson says, "because of the way composers over the past 300 years have written their operas. The lead love interest is usually the tenor, and the longer, starring parts are written for the tenor and the soprano. I don't know why people seem to think that hearing higher notes is more heroic or more appealing. In a previous generation, sopranos were the superstars. It's a fluke for a bass anywhere in the world to be regarded as a media figure."
Baron Ochs has become something of a signature role for Halfvarson, who sees him as "sort of a naughty guy, but he really isn't bad. He's the only truly honest person in the entire cast, and he's a lot of fun to play. It's all terribly romantic, with some of the most beautiful, lush, sensual, sexy music that you'll ever hear."
"I've done a lot of 'Barons,'" Halfvarson explains. "The Baron is a very good friend to me. It's nice to do a lighthearted, fun character, since most of the time I'm rather gruesome and terrifying as the bad guy. I like to get all my bad out on stage so I can be a nice guy in real life!" His most recent, highly acclaimed role was as the Grand Inquisitor in Chicago Lyric Opera's production of Verdi's Don Carlo, which also starred another noted American bass who has performed in Dallas several times, Samuel Ramey.
Halfvarson also does a lot of Wagner roles, and for the past three summers has performed at the hallowed halls of Wagner's own opera house at Bayreuth, Germany. This summer, he'll return to Bayreuth and will record a CD and video of Gotterdammerung, the fourth opera in Wagner's famous tetralogy, The Ring of the Niebelung. He makes his Met Wagnerian debut on May 10 in the same opera.
Born and raised in Aurora, a suburb of Chicago, Halfvarson grew up in a family of voice teachers and moved to Dallas in 1990 after 11 years in New York. He wanted to escape the cold and also settle in a city where he could easily access the United States and Europe. He had performed in three Dallas Opera productions, including the world premiere of Dominick Argento's The Aspern Papers, which was broadcast on PBS-TV.
Texas' climate, tax advantages, and central location keep him here, although he basically lives out of his suitcase and only "comes down to visit my books and records occasionally." In the next year, he says, he may not get back for more than five or six days out of the entire year, but he thrives on such a schedule and is happy to be getting so much work. "Last summer, I had 21 performances in one festival. I'm sort of a monk of the order of devotion to opera. I live in the theater. I just go home to eat and sleep and go back to the theater again. It's quite wonderful."
Additional gigs in '97 include two more appearances at the Met this fall, in Ariadne auf Naxos and Manon; then he goes cross-country to San Francisco for Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. He will be recording the role of Claggart in Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd at the Halle Festival in Manchester, England, with famed American baritone Thomas Hampson in the title role. At Bayreuth, he's in a new production of Die Meistersinger, as well as his three parts in the Ring.
Halfvarson realizes there probably won't be a "Three Basses" marketing blitz, but he doesn't cast aspersions on his successful colleagues. "Some of us kvetch a little about the Three Tenors, but they actually have done a very important service in exposing to a lot of people a little about the operatic singing voice. I thought some of the music they did was questionable, but it had to appeal to a wide audience."
He is less gracious when discussing other current musical forms, especially alternative music. "It's diametrically opposed to the notion of song," Halfvarson says, "and most of what they express seems to have to be something negative with an attitude. I'm hopeful that people will still continue to think about expressing something of beauty, which I think comes naturally out of the human spirit through song and through the voice. It's a higher vibration of energy. There are some people on the planet, I'm happy to say, who are not necessarily intrigued only with buying the lowest possible, most trashy frequency of energy that anybody could produce."
Although U.S. opera companies are expanding their audience demographic, he says European audiences are way ahead in attracting listeners of all ages. "What we've chosen to do here is to sell sports more than we sell culture. In Europe, if a town were destroyed, when they rebuilt it they would say, 'We'll put the power plant here and the post office here and the opera house here.' That would be their priorities. Over here, they'd rather build a multizillion-dollar stadium. I have nothing against sports, except some of us work our whole lives to create something artistic that presumably involves different energies: uplifting, educational, and subjective experiences."
Of the roles he plays, Budd's Claggart is "a really terribly bad-guy character, as so clearly and beautifully delineated by Herman Melville and set to music by Benjamin Britten in the most amazing way." Although he allows that "my favorite role is generally what I'm doing at the moment," Halfvarson particularly likes Gotterdammerung because "I get to kill both the tenor and the baritone in one act!"
The Dallas Opera presents Der Rosenkavalier January 10, 12 (matinee), 15, and 18 at the Music Hall at Fair Park.