By Tamara Vallejos
Verdi’s Falstaff may not be one of the composer’s most frequently performed operas, but the cast of Opera Colorado’s production would be quick to point out it’s no less a masterwork. In fact, baritone Olafur Sigurdarson, who makes his company debut in the title role, cites it as one of his all-time favorites, and it shows: the title role has become one of his calling cards, and his performances are routinely praised—most recently following his North American debut with Opera Omaha this February. Now he brings his talents to Denver, and we take some time to learn why this role is so dear to his heart.
These performances with Opera Colorado are part of a string of American dates that have included your U.S. debut. Since you’re new to local audiences, tell us a little bit about your home country of Iceland, and what is was like coming up as an opera singer there.
I grew up with music all around me. Iceland is small—only 340,000 people, so it’s a tiny population—but the music scene there is surprisingly big. It’s remarkable how many world-recognized artists from Iceland there are nowadays, like Björk and Of Monsters and Men. The classical scene is not that big, and opera in Iceland is far from big, but singing is quite a big deal; everybody sings. Still, I didn’t come to classical singing until I was about 21 years old, when I was encouraged by people who had heard me that maybe I had a voice worth training.
What drew you to opera, as opposed to other styles of singing?
Although we are always referred to as “opera singers,” we are primarily singing actors. The art form is basically a combination of so many others. Opera is drama, theater, text, movement, design, etc. I was always very much interested in acting, as well, and combining the two—especially in roles like Falstaff—is a dream come true for someone like me, who enjoys challenging myself both vocally and as an actor. So when I got to know opera, there was really no turning back.
You now live in Germany, and your career has been largely based in Europe. Now that you’ve spent a few months performing in the United States, what are some of the most notable differences between the opera ecosystem here, compared to Europe?
Germany is a dream come true for opera singers, because Germany is in a unique position in the way they have supported the arts as a society. The amount of money that is allocated from public funds, from the government funding the arts, is remarkable. Hence, opera is very much alive in Germany. Most of the houses also offer singers the opportunity of full-time employment, which is also unique in the opera world.
The United States is exactly the opposite, which I find quite fascinating. You very quickly notice that the managers of companies in the U.S. have to be pretty good at getting funding from individuals and private corporations. And the U.S. has so many fantastic singers, so it’s an enigma to me why it’s not better supported. But, c’est la vie, that’s how it is. You seem to make it work! And, of course, the arts always suffer when there is a recession or a financial crisis. Arts are the first things to get cut—even in Germany. None of those houses are guaranteed a continuous line of funding.
But I must say, my experience so far in the United States has been superb. The companies are incredibly professional and welcoming, and the colleagues are of exceptionally high standard. I’m just so impressed.
You’ve called Falstaff one of your top three favorite operas, and the title role has become one of your signatures. What is it about this character that you love so much?
What do I not love about Falstaff? He is completely larger than life, and has this endless lust for living and for joy. At the top of the opera, he’s fallen on hard times, he has no money, his companions are drunk, and he himself is drunk most of the time. He can’t even pay the bill at the inn where he’s drinking. I like to say, if Don Giovanni’s life motto is, “To be fair to one woman is to be unfair to all others,” something similar can be said about Falstaff. He’s overweight and scruffy, but when he looks into a mirror, my god, he loves himself!
He’s definitely a lovable oaf. And probably a change of pace for you! Your voice type doesn’t often get the chance to perform comic roles, does it?
Not at all. The direction my voice took me, I guess in my mid-thirties, led me to singing heavier repertoire—what they call the “dramatic baritone.” And those roles happen to be more or less the baddies or the daddies, you know. I really do not get the opportunity to do comedy very often, so Falstaff is such a welcome change.
Although, this is still a Verdi opera—so while it’s hilarious, it’s not quite a stroll in the park for those performing it.
It’s a very long role, so vocally it’s very demanding. I think my goal with Falstaff is, of course, to try and sing the role as well as possible, as well as to deliver the dramatic side of it at the same time. With this role, there might be a danger to neglect the vocal part of it, because it’s so much fun and he’s always fooling around. But it’s a real serious sing for me, and for any Verdi baritone. It’s a very challenging role; you need to dig out all the different colors in the voice that you can find.
This is Verdi’s last opera, and he waited many years to compose it. But it’s fitting that he ended a spectacular career with Falstaff, which I think is a true masterpiece. When you get Shakespeare and Verdi in a room together, it’s bound to be special.