Interview with Roland Wood who plays Scarpia in Scottish Opera's Tosca
What is it like to return to Scottish Opera after some time away working on other productions elsewhere and what do you think is unique about their approach?
Well for me it's great because I'm based about twenty miles south of Glasgow near Hamilton, so the attraction is that I get to work at home, especially since as a soloist, you often spend so much time on the road away from family. In addition to that, I always love working here because this is where I started my career twenty years ago, I was a principal here between 2002 and 2004, and when I returned in 2011 many of the same people were still working here, including my wife. It just feels like a family company and it puts you at ease. Stuart Stratford is great fun, he and I were students together, and so if I get asked to do something by Scottish Opera I will generally do it provided I'm free, just because there's so many benefits I get from returning besides the chance to sing and to perform. It's so easy when you're away to get homesick, bored and miserable - so yes I love the emotional grounding of working here. I know the theatres, I know how the orchestra plays - how an oboist might shape a phrase for example - and many other things I'm familiar with which help me as a performer give a better performance. So yeah, I love it!
My pronunciation might be a little off here but back in 2015 you were with the Royal Opera House playing Roucher in André Chénier singing alongside Jonas Kaufmann, what was that experience like?
Yes that was a very exciting project, it was my debut at the opera house and Roucher is a tiny role, I mean you have one decent sized scene which is the duet with Chénier. But of course it was wonderful to have the opportunity to work alongside Kaufmann, who I hadn't heard live before only on the radio and on CD - the rest of the cast were incredible too. There's something about singers singing at that level that brings something unique to a rehearsal, since as big international superstars they're always flying off to do concerts elsewhere, when they are in rehearsal they tend to be very switched on and focused. It's no more intense in terms of the rehearsal process but you are just aware that everyone is so much more focused when certain people are in the room, partly because you know that they're not going to be there for another week. And then also with the more prestigious companies, there is a sense when you arrive that I'm at the Royal Opera House or I'm at the Met and I better not mess it up, everyone wants to be invited back. There's something special about the atmosphere, probably because we're all terrified, and you can't help but feel you're on trial every rehearsal, but it really doesn't hurt to work somewhere where there are singers who are on a higher level professionally to you. It stops you becoming arrogant. Then add to that that everyone was very excited for Chénier because it isn't done very often because you need to have a tenor who can sing it, and so there we were with a fantastic tenor and director, and a very sumptuous set. It was all about what was on the page and the relationships between characters. Especially because I only had a small role, there was a sense that okay so I have no reason to mess this up. It was great I enjoyed it!
So Scarpia is a pretty bad chap and as a baritone you obviously play a lot of these kind of roles on a regular basis, do you enjoy playing the bad guy?
Yeah, I think for me I don't tend to think of them as necessarily bad guys. The most unpleasant characters don't actually believe that they're unpleasant, they're just being them. Scarpia might get a bit of a kick of out of being a sadist, but he's honest about it, he doesn't believe in being charming and trying to seduce women, he sees what he wants and he takes it. He's not interested in forcing Tosca into anything, he simply wants her to submit to him willingly, and it's that act of submitting that he gets a kick out of. He's in an enormous position of power and he simply doesn't care what everyone else thinks of him, and the fact that he abuses that is irrelevant to him. Also, I think if you try and play a bad guy as a bad guy you can easily come across as something out of a pantomime, it's more to do with how the other people on stage react to you. Tosca is so well written that Scarpia is at his most sadistic when he is trying to be charming, mainly because he switches from being incredibly cold and hard to suddenly being very sophisticated and pleasant quite suddenly, and that is the terrifying thing about him - you never know where he is in his head. You can't just play Disney bad guy, that's dull and not actually scary, it's about unsettling the audience by playing what's on the page and making the character human. So yes, though it's quite mentally tiring, I think the bad guys are much more fun to play and have much more depth to them than the classic tenor roles in Italian opera. Our motivations tend to be much more multi-dimensional...
With Tosca being one of the most performed operas worldwide, is there a lot of pressure involved when playing a role which has been championed by so many other singers in the past? Is it hard to be unique?
Yes it is hard to be unique mainly because so many people have done it, that there's only so many ways to do it. There are certain stylistic moments in the music where if I don't do something, the audience will presume that it is because I can't do it. There is definitely a pressure with the very popular works to honor the performance traditions. For example the stylistic parlando sections in Tosca have been done so many times that they have become absolute convention, and mostly they that's because they really work - there's a real reason for doing it. I lot of the time singers did something and then the composers actually preferred it to what was written and that has become the accepted version. It's important to make it work and that often means following the history, but you should never be intimidated by it. As long as you are capable of getting through it vocally, you shouldn't be cowed by the past. The music is there to be sung, and the reason these operas are so regularly performed is because they're so well written and people just want to hear it. All we can do as artists is honor the justifiable traditions and hopefully bring something of ourselves to it too. If you allow the weight of performance history to bear down on you, you may as well not get up and do it. You have to give a performance. Better to be loud and wrong than half-hearted!
Obviously with things like the #MeToo movement and other important social issues which have drawn well deserved spotlight recently, the story of Tosca is perhaps particularly relevant. Does that play on your mind as a performer?
Yes it is very relevant, particularly with what is going on with Domingo at the moment say. I do however see a problem when people try to impose contemporary attitudes and talking points on historic works. For one I think opera is a great mirror for society to look into, in Tosca's case the rise of fascism and the abuse of position by powerful men. It's only a matter of time before someone does Tosca with Trump as Scarpia for instance, because you can really see the parallels, but the danger is of course that if you try to play productions and force people to draw parallels, most of the time it doesn't work and makes the production immediately obsolete. It's much better to present the work and allow the audience to draw their own parallels to modern life, that's the most effective method. All you can do is perform the work and play your role and let he audience do the rest, even when the conclusions are blatantly obvious.
Finally, why should people come to see this production?
Oh for many reasons, what is refreshing about this production is that it does what it says on the tin. I think resetting it in 1940 makes perfect sense because of the parallels between what was going on politically at the time - with the secret police there's a direct parallel - and the characters relationships stay the same. It tells the story and follows the stage instructions Puccini put in the score. It's clean, efficient, exciting story telling and that's rare in a lot of operas. It's the closest experience to watching a film that you get in an opera theatre, and on top of that the new cast brings something individual to it whilst still keeping the original production alive. From what I've seen from the floor run, I think it will hold people's interest!