A Conversation with Baritone Edward Nelson
By Sean Martinfield
This Friday, December 2 at 7:30, San Francisco Opera Center presents The Future is Now: Adler Fellows Gala Concert. The ten artists from the 2016 opera training program will present arias and scenes from a wide variety of works accompanied by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra led by Resident Conductor Jordi Bernàcer.
I met recently with second-year Adler Fellow, baritone Edward Nelson who will be singing the duet from Pagliacci, “Nedda! Silvio? A quest’ora!” with soprano Toni Marie Palmertree and the aria from Billy Budd, “Look! Through the port comes the moonshine astray” with an assist from bass Anthony Reed.
During his two terms as an Adler Fellow, Edward made a number of impressive appearances with SFOpera, among them the world premiere of Marco Tutino’s Two Women (as John Buckley); Carmen (as Moralès); The Magic Flute (as Second Priest, with English libretto by David Gockley); Debussy’s La Chute de la Maison Usher (as L’Ami); Don Pasquale (as Malatesta); and Madama Butterfly (as Prince Yamadori). At the June 16 farewell concert for General Director David Gockley, Celebrating David, Edward was the first to sing. Following the Overture from Porgy and Bess and opening remarks, came the huge digital projection of the in-flight plane used in John Adams’ Nixon In China and the opening measures of the aria, “News”. The sound felt massive, the scene required Edward to be on microphone – the effect was magical. “It was important to have the aria on the program,” he said, “because it is so integral to the narrative of David Gockley being one of the great commissioners of new opera.”
“In one of the speeches at the after-party was a mention that David Gockley had commissioned more operas than any king, any Tsar, the Esterházys or the Prussian Empire. Nixon In China is one of the most successful of those commissions. It was the first opera by John Adams who has since become one of America’s most treasured composers.
“When I look back on my time in the Adler program, I will never forget that concert. I saw Renée Fleming, Frederica von Stade, Thomas Hampson and René Pape standing in the wings – artists I’ve admired for years – and I’m the one opening the concert! I see the video of the plane, I hear the music that precedes my entrance, and then the stage manager saying, ‘And–go.’ It was one of the most exhilarating moments ever. I’ve never felt the need to deliver more than in that moment. I understood what that moment required.”
“As a person growing up listening to recordings of Robert Merrill and Leontyne Price – having fallen in love with opera through the classics – there is always going to be a part of me that wants to have a ‘legitimate career’ – one that has the classics in it. It’s not often you wind up doing a Madame Butterfly with someone such as Lianna Haroutounian – who really makes it sound like you’re hearing the opera for the first time. It’s not tired, not worn out. That’s one in a million. How many other Madame Butterflies are going on in the world right now? You’re not going to come across sopranos like Lianna very often.”
“I think there is tremendous merit to the idea of making your mark on something new and reaching a new audience and perhaps cultivating new fans of opera who are not going to like the classics but only come to hear a new piece by Nico Muhly, John Adams or Jake Heggie because it appeals to our modern sensibilities. The way a living composer is going to construct a narrative has an inherent connectivity to modernism and modern society. So, of course, as someone who wants the art form to move forward, to succeed, and be sustained – I absolutely want to lend my voice to any modern composer who will have me. But I also find a connection to modern music. I feel I have a good ability to make sense of modern music where others are sort-of confounded – that is, being accustomed to very classical forms, melodies and metric structures. I think the contemporary works just fit in my brain a different way – and I am drawn to them.”