Interview with baritone Randall Scarlata

Randall Scarlata (center) in rehearsal with co-founding directors pianist Laura Ward and mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis. Photo: Lisa Schaffer.

Q: How did you decide to become a classical singer? What or who was your inspiration?

RS: As a child, I tried playing a variety of instruments, never finding the right one! When I was 10, I began to play viola and continued to play it into college. I did fairly well at viola, but you’d never know it to hear me pick it up now!

When I was in high school, I became interested in theater as well as music. I remember the movie Amadeus was very popular, and for fun I would try and imitate the Commendatore’s fantastic bellows of Don Giovanni. Several people heard me and encouraged me to investigate my voice.  The choir director at the time, Dr. Paul Vanderslice, pulled me aside and told me I was going to be in choir, no if’s, and’s, or but’s!  He knew I had free time in my schedule, and said I should try it, if I didn’t like it, he wouldn’t press me to stay.  I enjoyed it so much, and made fast friends…many of whom I am still in touch with today.  I began to take lessons that summer (it was after my sophomore year of high school), and had no idea how much I would come to love the union of text and music that is song!

The first classical voice I remember being immediately drawn to was Gerard Souzay.  He was a wonderful French baritone who died a few years ago.  There was something incredibly sensual and dramatic about his sound and approach that made immediate sense to me.  After my sophomore year of college at the Eastman School of Music, I went to study with him in Nice, France and Salzburg, Austria.  He had an enormous impact on my singing, and does to this day.  He was a wonderful teacher – I worked with him whenever I could for several years. I worked on much of the song canon with him.

Q: Tell us about the most strange or unusual thing that ever happened to you during a performance.

RS: I remember doing a production on Mozart’s La finta giardiniera, where I was portraying Nardo, a savvy servant. My counterpart, Serpetta, and I were spying on the main action, hidden behind what appeared to be trees in huge marble planters.  Of course, the planters were merely paper mache, pasted over wire, and set on wheels for east movement between scenes. One of the bits of wire got caught on Serpetta’s skirts, and she began to drag the enormous planter around stage with her as we continued the scene. Hilarity ensued, both onstage and in the audience as I worked fiendishly to free my incredibly strong colleague from the planters. There have been many odd things that have happened onstage over the years, but that one still makes me giggle.

Q: What attracted you to Lyric Fest?

RS: Laura Ward and I first met in Italy nearly ten years ago. We were introduced by a wonderful soprano, Elizabeth Calleo, who said we must work together.  When I got back to Philadelphia, that fall, I called her to work on some Ives songs.  We got along like a house on fire and have been great friends ever since. When she told me about her desire to form Lyric Fest with Suzanne and Randi, I was thrilled.  There are wonderful song recital series in other cities (such as New York Festival of Song), and it was high time there was such a thing in Philadelphia.

Lyric Fest’s approach to programming is what makes it special – that, and the fine singers and pianists they attract.  They gravitate toward singers who are word-oriented, that have a desire to communicate the text as well as the music, and that is essential, in my opinion.

Q: What do you get from performing arts songs that you don’t get from opera and oratorio?

RS: I get to be me – and a whole host of characters depending on the song!  I think it’s also the artistic control that appeals to me.  The power of opera and oratorio is undeniable – the sets, the conductor, the orchestra, the director, the fellow singers…Under the right circumstances, it can be a dream.  But the power of one singer and a pianist telling stories together can be even more magical for me.  It is my favorite thing.  I often call it Classical Cabaret.  Just me, a pianist, and an audience to talk with.

Q: What’s the best advice you ever received in your life?

RS: Slow and steady wins the race.

I find such pressure for young singers to sound like they are fully developed at the age of 23.  They manufacture a sound that is not naturally theirs. Then they reach 30 and wonder why they don’t have the agility and even scale they used to have. Young singers need to take time to develop their voice and repertoire.  There is a time when one has to take nearly every opportunity that comes one’s way – but if you’re not ready for that opportunity, you won’t succeed at it.  You won’t be asked back.

I feel fortunate to have built a career singing works I love, and doing it with colleagues I can call friends.  I’m not interested in being on the road 10 months of the year.  I did that, and it was one of the worst years of my life.  There’s plenty of room for every fine, smart singer if they define who they are and stick to their code.

Q: Name one person in your professional field that you haven’t worked with that you would like to.

RS: I have never had the opportunity to work with the Philadelphia Orchestra’s new director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, although we have many friends in common. He has a wonderful energy and approach to music making. I hope that I’ll be able to work with him soon!

Q: What are your other fascinations, talents and passions?

RS: I absolutely love teaching. I generally spend two days each week out at West Chester University, where I have a wonderful group of young singers. Some that have recently graduated are really starting to take off!

Outside of that, food and wine…too much so!  I love to cook for friends. Gardening, hiking with my dog (although his recent Achilles tendon rupture will set us back a few more months), tennis, reading.

Lear more about Randall Scarlata here.

Interviewed by Inna Heasley

March 28, 2011