Interview with Tenor Ric Furman who plays 'Boris' in Scottish Opera's Katya Kabanova by Janáček!
Updated: Jul 15, 2019
Ric Furman is an American tenor praised by the Frankfurter Allgemeine for his “luminous vocal power” and by Seen and Heard International for a "mellifluous tone,” and is currently one of opera's most exciting and critically-acclaimed young heldentenors.
On Thursday, I sat down with Ric to ask him a few questions about his up and coming role in Scottish Opera's latest venture - Boris Grigorjevič in Janáček's Katya Kabanova.
Katya Kabanova will be and has been performed by a grand total of three UK opera houses throughout February and March this year; Royal Opera House; Opera North and Scottish Opera. What do you think Ric is the particular relevance of this opera in today's times?
There is almost somewhat of a cliché at the moment in the opera world with everything somehow relating back to the #MeToo movement and that is certainly the case with Katya Kabanova as well. The women in this opera tend to be the strongest - 'the oppressors' - and the people whom they are choosing to oppress are generally also women, the obvious exception being Kabanicha's oppression of her own son Tichon. Certainly I think the particular relevance we see in it is to a degree what happens when one person is using their position to subjugate another. This I feel is something not necessarily specific to the #MeToo movement however I do feel that it is something which is very much on everyone's mind.
I see that you were also involved in a production of Dvořák's Rusalka in the autumn of 2017. What is it like to sing in the Czech language and what are the particular challenges you associate with it?
The first Czech diction coach that I ever had said something to me which made me cringe a little inside, he said "Sing Czech just like it's Italian, it's all about the vowels not the consonants". The reason I cringed a little is because I knew that with every language, this is what they always say. The more I've sung in Czech however the more I have come to realise just how right he was! It is very much like Italian and it's fun to sing because although in a way it is really about the vowels, you do get to do a little more with the consonants than in Italian. You can use the consonants as a spring to get in and out of the vowels and it can be very kind to the voice from a technical perspective. It's not the easiest to learn though because I don't speak it but once you get into it, it's just great fun!
In the latter half of last year you were involved in productions of two Wagner operas; Die Walküre and Der fliegende Holländer. How do you feel the vocal challenges in Wagner compare to those in this opera by Janáček?
Wagner is my home, it is for me the easiest music to sing. I can relax, I can breathe and I can just live in the music. It feels so wonderful to me! That being said, if I sing the role of Siegmund many times in a row, I can tell the difference in my voice and in the way that I am singing. It's not always the healthiest and I have to be cautious! We often tell singers to stay as lyric as they can and what I love about the role of the prince in Rusalka and Boris in Katya Kabanova for example is that it is a chance for me to get back to being a bit more lyric. It is great fun to just open up and scream your face off making these huge sounds on high notes and I'm sure it's fun for the public to witness these huge moments too, it's what we live for, but it's not always the healthiest. Sometimes you have to be smart about when you give and when you don't. I love Wagner and I can't wait for my next Wagner production however I am very grateful to get the opportunity to sing these lighter, more lyric romantic roles in the repertoire.
Janáček was well into his sixties when writing this opera however he had very recently developed an infatuation for a much younger woman - Kamila Stösslová. Many interpreters of the opera have therefore drawn certain parallels between Kamila and Katya. In this way, do you feel as Boris that you are almost a personification of Janáček himself? Do you think he saw it that way?
Hmm... He may have thought "I wish this could have been me" however I don't think that he ever saw Boris as he was (though there is certainly enough of himself in it that they didn't find each other!) I think the story resonated with him in particular because he had some form of kinship with this idea of the person whom you want and you can come close too but whom you can't actually have. There is no evidence that the two (Janáček and Stösslová) ever had any real relationship beyond what was certainly an acknowledged infatuation from him to her, and though I'm sure she liked and admired him, there is also no evidence that she ever felt the same way towards him. So no I don't feel like I am channelling him I suppose in so much as I am the romance that he would of loved to of had with Kamila.
Fascinating! How important do you think it is as an opera singer to be aware of all these extra events and circumstances, such as Janáček's adoration of this younger woman for example, in order to bring more to the role? How much research of this sort do you find you personally do?
I find that I do more than many - I don't know about most because I'm not sure how much most people do - but certainly quite a lot! Some people need that kind of stimuli where thousands of things are playing into every action that they make and they just feed on that, whereas other people just keep it simple and they just wanna know 'right so I stand here and I sing to her and we're in love'. I think it's individual to everyone but what's important is what we give to the audience and for me personally if I don't have enough information like this, it feels to me kind of boring (and this must come across to the audience too!). For me it's definitely more interesting and engaging to know the backstory not just of the opera but of the play or events that it is based upon, and the extra things like in this case Janáček's love for Kamila Stösslová. It makes the piece fun and engaging and as much as many of us would love to say that we're doing it all for the audience, we are also doing it for ourselves too. It's so much fun to stand there and be filled with all of these emotions and passions and just pour yourself into it, especially in this opera which is full of just the most gorgeous, wonderful music, and the backstories and little anecdotes only feed into this even more.
You play a very desirable male character in this opera and you have had a lot of success in these types of roles before as Mario Cavaradossi in Tosca and Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly for instance. Do you enjoy playing and singing these romantic roles?
The short answer is yes. Each character is different and therefore I don't enjoy them all, for example Pinkerton I feel is kind of a whiny baby, and an ass! He's just not good at life! He makes so many bad choices, tries to blame everybody else and then says 'fine it's my fault' and runs away. I don't enjoy those characters so much. However, characters such as Siegmund in Die Walküre I enjoy much more because they are genuinely good human beings and therefore live within you to some degree. When I get to play somebody good I just like myself more I guess... whereas when I play someone who I feel is not such a good person... well it does affect me, it's not the easiest. You can turn a bit dark if you're not careful!
I hope my questions aren't summoning any beasts Ric!
At the start of Katya Kabanova you - Boris - are receiving a lot of abuse from your uncle Dikoj, but you must put up with this torment in a way because you are relying on him to collect your inheritance. Is there anything different about your stage presence and general demeanour would you say when playing these rather dejected and oppressed characters as opposed to playing an all powerful character such as Pinkerton?
Yes, I find being oppressed or dominated very difficult to play, just personally it is something which is just not my strong suit I think. There is always a part of me which just wants to fight back... maybe that part of me comes from the fact that I have three older brothers! If somebody is coming after me then I'm coming right back at ya and it's hard for me to just take it because that is what is naturally my reaction. The thing I have to remember with Boris in particular is that yeah he might want to fight back but I also have to look after my sister too who has already been put away in a monastery and is dependent not just on the inheritance of our dead parents, but on me personally inheriting that so that I can support her. If I'm disrespectful to Dikoj then he has an excuse to keep all the money and at that point not only is Boris screwed but so is his sister! Maybe this is why Boris refuses to take Katya away with him to Siberia too... He has to consider how he will take care of his sister also.
Touching stuff! So who then do you feel is responsible (if anyone) for Katya's tragic end and how much responsibility do you as Boris personally feel you have?
I think if you're going to pick one person to blame then much of the world is going to say that if someone commits suicide then they're the ones to blame and I'm not going to argue that. However if we're going to blame someone other than Katya, I'm certainly going to say that it would have to be Kabanicha (her mother-in-law) because she spends so much time putting her down. The only peace or absolution she really finds is in church, until she finds Boris of course, and then she has this affair which lasts just 10 days before Tichon returns. The only solution or way out she can see at this point is just to confess everything and then things start getting really bad. She simply says you know what, I just don't want to do this. She's been worn down so much that at this stage she just can't bounce back and the question would always be that if Kabanicha had not been how she is, would Katya have made the decision she did.
To move onto your second question - does Boris feel any responsibility? Yes, I think so. You can view Boris in two ways, either as a very empathetic person or as a not so empathetic person. I personally view him as being very empathetic. He is going to feel horrible about this even if he never finds out that she has killed herself and in my opinion, he certainly knows she is going to. She even says to Boris, 'every beggar you see, ask them to pray for me', which was a very common dying ritual which many people observed at the time. Too me there's no question, he has to know. But then again, if he knew she was going to kill herself would he leave? I'm not so sure... This is what makes it so interesting for directors, singers and audience members alike.
Katya Kabanova is not necessarily an opera of big glossy arias and impressive high notes and so perhaps the full potential of this cast, including yourself, is not shown as openly here as in other operas. What then is the musical appeal of this opera for a singer and what personally are your favourite moments?
I think much of the musical appeal comes from the orchestra, we are on the stage just bathing in this sound and it gives us so much to act and play with. Everyone speaks with their mouths but they say so much with their bodies and their eyes as well. In this production though the audience perhaps may not always see our eyes and so we hope that we do justice with our bodies! Generally we find our motivation for what we do on stage and the real emotion of what we're really intending to say in the orchestra. Wagner of course is famous for that! This piece is relatively short but just filled with the most gorgeous orchestral music and our vocals just get to gloss over that. Sometimes the lines we share with the orchestra are four pages long, with each person on stage and the accompanying orchestra each playing some part in that long line. When it comes to my favourite moments in the opera, of course, the joyous duet I share with Katya at the end of the second act would be the first thing I would mention!
Finally then Ric, as Katya Kabanova will be performed by a total of three UK opera houses in the coming weeks, what then will Scottish Opera and this cast uniquely bring to the table in this production?
I haven't seen the other productions so it's tough to say that what we are bringing is unique however what I can do is name some of the strong points! We have a really good cast - yes you want a good Boris and you want a good Katya (and I mean if you haven't heard Laura who will play Katya sing yet then when she sings you will see that that is just a gorgeous instrument!) - but we also have incredible talent in the smaller supporting roles as well. Everybody is so good! Stephen has been directing for forty something years and he certainly knows what he's doing - he's not just a pro, he's an old pro! He's the kind of person who can take any situation and make it work. I think that alone is worth coming for. Then of course you have Stuart and the orchestra! Stuart loves his job and he loves this music and that's just so clear to us - working with passion is contagious. So I think any of those things, though I certainly can't speak for whether they are unique or not, would be a reason enough to go. I think we have something which is certainly going to be worth anyone's time to come and see!