La Traviata: Malcolm MacKenzie
By Kelly Maxwell
While on the road, baritone Malcolm MacKenzie is a powerhouse performer. A seasoned professional, he accepts the challenges of old and new roles alike, with open arms and the laser-focus that comes from decades of practice. Of course, having a family and some rather exceptional hobbies waiting for you at home makes a career in opera an easier pill to swallow. Another familiar face, Opera Colorado audiences will recognize baritone Malcolm MacKenzie from his previous role as Roger Chillingworth in the 2015 world premiere of Lori Laitman’s The Scarlet Letter. Take a deep-dive into MacKenzie’s intimate knowledge of Verdi’s career, his past experiences singing La Traviata with soprano Cecilia Violetta López, and how Star Wars and opera can indeed mix. MacKenzie tackles the role of Germont in Opera Colorado’s upcoming production of Verdi’s La Traviata.
Rumor has it that you have some serious hobbies, outside of opera. What dorkdom gets you excited?
I have two layers of dorkdom going on. I was nine when Star Wars came out, so as a result it was a really big deal for me. I’ve been a lifelong Star Wars fan, though it’s been rough to be a fan for the last 20 years or so. I was also a big Marvel and X-Men fan. I still have my X-Men comics from when I was 12, although they’re probably not worth anything. It’s been a fun bonding experience with my daughters because they’re kind of geeky now, which is awesome. Today, it’s hip to be into comics. Back then, people made fun of you if you were a comic book person. I am totally enjoying the new geek renaissance.
Can we talk about your R2D2 project?
Since I was a kid, technology and electronics have been a focus of mine. My dad got me into it. We used to build radio controlled cars. You couldn’t buy them, so you had to build them from parts. That got me started, so by the time I was 30 years old, I was building computers. Like many artistic type people, I can’t stop moving. So when I go home, I need to have things to keep me busy or I quickly go insane. I have a life-sized completely functional R2D2 that I built myself. I’m part of an international club of people who do this silly thing. It’s been very rewarding because he does a lot of charity work and I get to go along with him. He shows up to children’s hospitals in the Sacramento area and he tries to brighten the patient’s day, going from room to room and entertaining small children who aren’t feeling well. He’s basically a big puppet, so I get to puppeteer him and have him interact with the children. It’s really rewarding and almost more fun than singing. Sometimes, it drives my wife nuts because I spend so much time on it, but she actually likes it too. I used to restore old arcade games, like Atari. I was really fascinated by the technology of it and I did that for about 10 years. I got a big kick out of that, but it wasn’t as emotionally rewarding and it drove my wife nuts. This is a good switch.
So since you’re a dad yourself, how is it playing Papa Germont in La Traviata?
He’s an interesting guy. He is one of my favorite characters because of how he relates to me. I’m the father of two daughters, and it means a lot to me to watch him go from characterizing Violetta in a very narrow way when he first sees her to, by the end, he’s ready to throw propriety out the window and welcome her into the family. That’s a pretty big transition to make. A lot of it happens offstage, but it’s such an interesting character. A lot of operatic characters have a smallish arc, or it all happens in like an aria. You’ve gotta get that done in four minutes. But this duet than he and Violetta have is so totally unusual, and there’s such a large arc to it. I find it endlessly fascinating after 20 years of singing it.
So you’ve worked with soprano Cecilia Violetta López before on another La Traviata. What’s it like singing this role with her again?
I’m trying to remember if I’ve done this twice with anybody else. I don’t think so, which is saying something because I think this is my most-performed role in 20 years. One of the nice things about being an older guy doing a part like this is I don’t have to pretend I know how this guy feels. I knowhow this guy feels. It’s not something I have to think about. But back to your question, I suspect it’s going to be hard because Cecilia is so moving on her own. I have to tell you, it was a struggle working with her last time, not because it wasn’t good, but because it was so good that I had to be very careful and resist being sympathetic right off the bat. Getting through the duet without getting choked up is a difficult emotional experience to get through. It’s a tough sing for both of us. She’s younger enough than I am that I can feel immediately fatherly toward her. She’s obviously older than my daughters, but it’s super easy for me to fall into that role. She is one of the more giving artists that I’ve ever worked with, so I was ecstatic to work with her again.
Have you worked with tenor Eric Barry before?
No, which is strange because, just like me, he’s been around. But one of the nice things about this job is you get to meet new people. He’s funny and he cracks me up. It’ll be fun to bounce things off of him and be his dad. We’ll see how that goes. That relationship is always different and it partially depends on the direction. In the past, I’ve been directed to be a jerk the entire show — and that doesn’t work so well. I just find that less workable. The relationship with the son can easily end adversarial, “Look what you did to her, Dad. This is your fault.” Or, we both can be devastated together and be connected by her death.
What’s it like coming back to Opera Colorado?
It seems like a completely different company because you’re in a new place and there are all these people I’ve never met. It’s kind of funny, because I’m in a different hotel than I stayed in before. Which totally messed me up. When you travel around as much as I do, you forget you’ve been places. Somebody just asked me if I’ve sung in Minneapolis and I had to go, ‘Uhh… no?’ because I forget. But as far as coming back, it’s nice to see Ari again. I love the Denver area, we have friends here, and it’s a beautiful city.
So, since you are so familiar with La Traviata, do you have a favorite musical moment in the show? What about Verdi’s work stands out for you?
It’s hard for me to pick a moment in Traviata, which is not the case with a lot of operas. If you asked me about Figaro, it would be the Act II finale. Or in Tosca there’s a spot in the duet that’s sublime. It’s really interesting that I have trouble isolating a single moment here. Verdi had a very long career and a very enviable artistic profile. How many people, when they’re 87, are not only still writing full operas, but writing game changing, genre transforming opera? That’s just the kind of guy this guy was! Later in his career, he absolutely embodied change and the musical abandonment of a lot of convention, embracing a style that he did not have the freedom to do early on. Not only that, but by the time he was older, he was so much more politically and artistically free; he started to say, “screw it, I don’t care what the censors say, I’ll write what I want.” That’s why Falstaff is so great.
La Traviata, on the other hand, was not so late in his career. It was solidly in the middle of his career. Somehow, he managed to write an opera about a prostitute! When you look at the music of this opera, it is through-composed in a way that very little music was at that time. The big duet between Germont and Violetta has these aria-esque moments, but in the context of a giant duet. The duet is so interesting in its abandonment of the previous style and embracing of the musical looseness that came after. I know why he did it that way; he bowed to a certain amount of convention, and he also wanted to show how Germont is a man of the past. It’s very old-school in the way.
Why do you think Traviata would be great for a first-time opera goer?
There’s a reason why he brings her to see La Traviata in Pretty Woman. He doesn’t bring her to just any opera. Of course there’s the parallel in the story, but Verdi was early in his embrace of what I would consider to be the modern attention span. A few of his operas, including La Traviata, that are movie-length. They follow the movie three-act structure. The story is one that the average modern person can relate to, even now, even not even knowing what a courtesan is. As far as I’m concerned, there are like three perfect first operas: 1) La Traviata is probably top on the list. 2) Tosca because it’s an opera about an opera singer with a good guy, a bad guy, a love story, and everybody dies. Classic. 3) Carmen for the same reason — it’s a story that people can understand. You’ve got a powerful woman who can’t be tamed, and unfortunately what happens to her because of it.