La Traviata: Eric Barry
By Kelly Maxwell
Tenor Eric Barry is a man of many talents. That phrase often gets thrown around, but he actually has the skills to back it up. Not only is he an globe-trotting opera singer, but he is also a sponsored pro golfer (you read that right!). His path to opera was not a clear-cut one, but rather a lucky accident. A business major, with an eye for practicality and detail, he planned his career with the precision and focus of an MBA. Opera Colorado audiences will remember him from his role as Edgardo in last year’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor. Barry sat down with Opera Colorado to discuss Verdi’s work, the challenges of being a newlywed on the road, and how he thinks opera improves his golf game (and vice versa).
What are your thoughts on Verdi’s work as a composer—what’s your favorite thing about his work?
In my opinion, Verdi’s music is the best written operatic music that we’ve ever had. I love Puccini as well, and of course there are a lot of wonderful attributes to Mozart and Wagner and everything within that realm, but the way that Verdi wrote for the voice is the most potent vocal music that we have access to. He’s very smart and he knew exactly what each voice type was capable of doing, and he just knew where he could push it. It’s virile, raw, and the most moving. It’s intense. Every now and then I’ll fall in love with Puccini again, but Verdi is king.
So, you’re a newlywed. Congratulations! How have your first few months of marriage been?
I should’ve done it a long time ago. I’ve known her for something like 17 years. I love being married. I’m very glad I waited. She’s a civilian; she’s not a singer. She’s actually a judge and a lawyer. She’s an incredible person, and so incredibly supportive. I’ve been married six weeks, and this is my first long-term gig to be away. Fortunately, it’s close here — it’s not Milan or Paris or something. You’ve got to have someone special who’s willing to believe in you and invest in you, so they’ll allow you to be gone.
Marriage is awesome, but this business is tough. She’s coming up every weekend and for three of the four shows. She loves my singing and she loves being married to a singer. We both have a good time bragging about each other. Her dad is actually one of the biggest opera lovers I know. He’s got laser discs, DVDs, and scores. He loves opera more than I do!
Your path to opera isn’t typical. How did you make jump from being a business major to opera?
Yeah, I started as a business major. I found out I could sing in a very roundabout way. I played the trumpet and I joined the marching band because I wanted to meet new people and new girls. One day, I was going to the fine arts building to grab my trumpet, and one of the voice teachers heard me humming down the hall. She said, “Are you a voice major? I don’t know you.” I said, “No, I’m a business major in the band.” We introduced ourselves, and when I got home from classes that evening, and I got a voicemail from her. “I’ve been thinking about you all day, and I really think you should take voice lessons.” I called her back and politely refused. But then she called me every week for about six weeks until I finally said, “Fine, I’ll at least come meet with you.”
She said, “If you take 30-minute lessons, I’ll get you scholarship money. You won’t pay for it.” I was like, “Sure, okay.” Then, of course, I loved it. Then I started my MBA and I was working with a different teacher and she told me, “You’re going to finish your degree, but if you don’t go to New York and at least try music, you’re going to get comfortable, you’re going to make money, and you’re never going to want to leave that.” So, I went to New York that fall. She sang at Carnegie Hall and I sang for her agent and two or three people, and everybody said, “Man, you’ve got the goods. Nothing is guaranteed in this business; you may flop, but you’ve got a voice.” So I figured, eh, I’ll just take the chance, and if it doesn’t turn out in two or three years, I’ll just move back and say I lived in New York for a spell. I went to a conservatory for a year. Then Yale asked me to come audition and they offered me a full ride and stipend and all that stuff. I actually said no at first, but then I ended up getting two degrees from Yale. Once I left, it was a snowball effect. Because I had the business background, I planned seasons in advance. I got an agent, and everything just kind of snowballed and kept getting bigger. Now I’m just along for the ride!
Do you ever ask yourself what could have happened if you had just said no?
The line that got me was, “I don’t want you to be on your deathbed and have regrets. I’d rather you have memories.” And I was like, “That’s so poetic! I gotta do it.” But for sure, the experiences that this career has brought me, the places I’ve seen, the people I’ve met, is all just so unbelievable. There are definitely ups and downs, times when it’s terrible, but overall, it’s such an intriguing craft and career.
Tell me a little bit about this golf thing.
The golf thing happened by accident. I grew up on a municipal golf course in a really small town. I played on the golf team in high school. I was decent, making regionals every year, but I never won state or anything. When I moved to the East Coast in 2006, I packed my car up and drove, but I didn’t have room to take my golf clubs. Fast forward five years or so, I’m recording Simon Boccanegra in Poland, and the bass gets sick. He gets sick days before I do and has time to heal. I get sick after that, and it falls right during the performance. And it’s only one performance, a live recording on a label being sold commercially and everything. I tell the conductor, “I can sing a page, but then…” He says, “Oh, you’re just nervous.” I was like, “No, I’ve sung at this place five or six times. I’ve been here, I’m not nervous. Something’s wrong.” So, I get on stage and I sing about a page or two, and then it’s just air, air, air.
Psychologically that is one of the most trifling things somebody like us has to deal with.
For six months or so, I had all kinds of performance anxiety. I doubted my everything. So I went to a performance anxiety specialist and she said, “You said that you like to golf, right? Golfing and singing are the same thing. When you go up for the high C, do you think about it and over-analyze it?” I said, “Not usually, but I do now.” She said, “When you go golf, do you over-analyze it? No, you just go up there and hit the ball. Actively practice this thought.” So, I started playing golf. It’s odd because there are so many parallels between singing and golfing. My singing knowledge helped my golf game and my golfing helped my singing. Soon, I start shooting low 80’s and my singing kept getting better. So I said, “I’ve got a career, I should buy myself a set of custom clubs.” So I went out and bought a set of Mizunos. I was talking about how much I loved these clubs in a golf forum and I told my story.
Somebody from Mizunos marketing team read it and called me and they’re like, “So, how good of a golfer are you really?” And I told them where I was at and they said, “Do you think you could get your score down to this in six months?” And I said, “Yeah…Probably.” So they say “We have a pro-am team, a sponsored golf membership, and we’d love for you to be on the team. We love your story and we think we’d be able to sell it, so if you can get your score down, we’ll sign you.” Then I started taking my clubs on every gig, playing five times a week. It was like a second job. I finally got my score down, and they signed me! They sent me sets of clubs and golf bags, and I got to go play with the tour pros. It was just insane! They would fly me to tournaments, and it was just unbelievable. I won the Turkish Airlines U.S. Open in D.C. and got to fly to Turkey. It has afforded me a lot of opportunities, just like opera. I still use the game to sharpen my singing and vice versa. I don’t get to play as much as I used to, and they are very cool and understanding about opera being my number one because this is my career. But if I’m ever free and you put me up for a tournament, I’ll totally play.
What is your favorite musical moment from your career?
There are moments on stage that are incredibly powerful. President George W. Bush said to me, “Do you know how many times I’ve heard the National Anthem in my life?” You can’t count them. He had tears in his eyes, and he said, “I’ve never heard it sung better than that.” And I was just like, “Thank you, Mr. President.” The gravity of that situation was humbling and incredible.
What is your all-time favorite role you’ve ever done?
I love La Bohème. I’ve done a whole bunch of them. I’ve actually done Bohème’s with Ari. The music is beautiful and it’s the one show where every time you get to the end and you hear those chords, it’s just so intense. Puccini freakin’ nailed it! Everybody on stage is tearing up. Because of that, Rodolfo is one of the most fulfilling roles. But, I’m also looking to do a Faust. That’s one I haven’t done yet and I really think I’d sing the fire out of that role. But I’m getting to the point where my bucket list of roles is getting shorter, but for realistic things, Faust would be a fun one to do next. But La Bohème takes the cake. It’ll always be my favorite.