By Kelly Maxwell
Watch Cynthia Clayton on stage and perhaps you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the soprano once harbored dreams of rock stardom. Although her musical goals ultimately shifted to the classical end of the spectrum, she still offers energetic performances that prove she was meant for the stage. Right now, that stage is at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, where Clayton takes on the role of Alice Ford in Opera Colorado’s season-closing production of Verdi’s Falstaff. Today, we check in with Clayton and learn more about her thoughts on Falstaff, her life as an educator (she teaches at Moores School of Music at the University of Houston), and the funny twist of fate that led her into opera.
Verdi’s Falstaff has only two more performances left! Don’t miss your shot at seeing this masterful Shakespearean comedy. More information and tickets available here.
Let’s dive right in! What’s your absolute favorite part about Falstaff?
It’s so funny! Most of the roles I sing are the leading Puccini heroine types, and I never get to work with other women, certainly not other sopranos. What I love about Falstaff is the fact that it’s the most ensemble-heavy show, other than perhaps Così fan tutti. We all love Falstaff because it’s a team sport.
It is such a strong cast of women. Tell us a little bit about your character, Alice Ford, and what makes her stand out.
She’s the bossy Merry Wife. I look at it like a team, and I’m the quarterback. We all have our specialty positions, but I’m the one making the strategy. I’m the one with the crappy husband who’s really jealous. And I have to get Falstaff in line, too.
Verdi was brilliant at adapting Shakespeare’s work for the operatic stage—but, with the exception of Falstaff, it was all drama and tragedy. What do you think is special about what Verdi was able to do with this comedic source material?
I had a meeting with the arts college at my school, and I was chatting with a colleague from theater. He said, “What’s next for you?” I said, “I’m going to go do Falstaff,” and he looked at me like, “Falstaff?” He knew that it’s an opera, and I said, “They take some of Henry IV, and they take the Merry Wives of Windsor, and they synthesized it down. I think that it ends up being better than either of the two original source pieces.” And he said, “You know, both of those pieces need a lot of trimming. It couldn’t be a bad thing!” Verdi takes the synthesized libretto that doesn’t exist anywhere else, and as a man of the theater, he worked out the timing.
The difference between opera and theater is that in theater, you can change the timing if you want. If you want to put a big old pause in the middle of the show, you can. In opera, we can’t do that. We’ve got to work with the rhythm that’s given to us. But Verdi’s genius comes out in the timing of all the sneaky things that happen, for example, in the laundry basket scene. It’s almost foolproof. It has to be staged really well, but the timing is already right there, inherent to the piece. It’s hilarious and people lose their minds because it’s funny, funny, funny! Everyone’s talking at the same time, singing at the same time, and saying different things, but Verdi crafts the music by directing your attention here and over there, and to all this stuff happening at once.
I’m totally obsessed with the fugue at the end. It’s the very definition of epic.
Me, too! I love that fugue, and one day I’m going to feel like it’s easy, but this is not that day. I have to count like crazy because it’s so easy to get one beat off. It’s a huge double fugue with nine parts, plus a chorus. They lyrics are all of the great Shakespeare quotes: “What fools these mortals be,” “All the world’s a stage,” and “He who laughs last laughs best.” Verdi takes the Shakespeare and elevates it to a level where I think Shakespeare would be like, “Yeah, man, you got it.” It’s really good for opera singers, too, because we do take ourselves way too seriously. Every single one of us are extremely exacting; when we feel like we’re behind in something or we’re not doing something perfectly, we obsess about it. We’re perfectionist like crazy, but then we have to accept ourselves, warts and all. I think that message is really good for us.
So, what in the world made you decide to become a professional opera singer?
I grew up in California at a time when there weren’t a lot of arts in the schools, so I had choir and singing in church, but that was about it. My family listened to rock and roll, and I wanted to be a rock star. But when it came time for college, I tried to get into a better school by using my voice. So, I went ahead and auditioned as a music major with the very sneaky plan of switching to something that I considered more viable. At the time, I didn’t know anything about opera and I had never seen an opera. I knew about Broadway, and I enjoyed it, but it was never my jam. I wanted to be a rock star and also have a career of some sort.
I was pretty flaky back in the day and I missed an audition for the choir I wanted to be in, and the only audition left was for opera workshop. So I auditioned for the opera workshop and I actually got cast in a little role in Gianni Schicchi. I didn’t know Italian and I had no idea what I was doing and I still fell in love with it. I was like, “Oh, I get to play a character and be sassy!” It’s funny because that same year, I was hired to sing backup for a rock band. That was my dream, but then I started getting really serious about voice lessons and singing well so I wasn’t giving the rock band the sound they wanted, and they fired me! I was only a backup singer, but they wanted a raunchier, more husky sound. I still enjoy listening to rock and roll, but I don’t sing it. Well, sometimes I sing it, but just for fun. I’ve been known to karaoke a few times. I always go for Boston or Queen because my “belt voice” and those tenor rock star voices are kind of the same range.
So you want from rock star dreams to a professional opera singing career. And now you also have teaching the mix.
I’m a little bit older than the rest of the cast and about 10 years ago, I jumped ship from full-time singing to being a professor of voice. I just got promoted to full professor, so I’m super excited about that. I work with a lot of young, aspiring singers, and I tell them, “Think about what your second or third act in your life is going to be. Do love stage direction? Do you love design? Do you want to be an arts manager? Do you want to teach?” Careers don’t last forever.
Besides teaching, what’s your life like offstage?
I have two sons, one is a college sophomore and one is a high school sophomore. They are great. I loved them in every stage of their lives, but I think this is my favorite one because they’re (sort of) adults. I feel like I can talk to them like equals instead of subordinates. My husband’s an opera singer and our next anniversary will be our 26th anniversary. We’re one of the few two-singer marriages that have survived long-term. He’s also teaching as his side-gig too. It’s funny, when I’m teaching, opera is my side-gig, and when I’m singing, teaching is my side-gig. It’s a beautiful thing because they work so well together.