Our interview with Rockwell Blake

One of the most influential artists of the recent Rossini revival, Rockwell Blake, continues to teach,inspire, and serve the community which loves him so well. In addition to being an honorary board member of the Friends of the Rossini Opera Festival, Mr. Blake was generous enough with his time to answer a few questions following his much appreciated service as a judge of the first Rossini competition in the US. We will have more about Mr. Blake soon, but we wanted to share this with you on his birthday… Jan 10. Many happy returns, Maestro!

Q. You have recently finished being a judge at the first Rossini competition in the US sponsored by the Palm Springs Opera Guild. What was that like?

It is an extension of the education I have been absorbing since my voice teacher, Renata Carisio Booth, started training me for the vocal life. I listened to and learned from her, and I listened and learned all my professional life. Being in the company of music/Opera/Rossini lovers is yet more education, and the parade of talented young people who sang for the competition was Post Grad level tutoring.

Q. The arrangers and participants of the competition were thrilled to have your participation. Were competitions important to your own career?

Every time I put my name in the hat for a competition something good came of it. The contacts I made were extremely helpful as my career carried me along. The monetary gain was always less important to me than the good word and will that was disseminated by those who discovered me among the contestants.

Q. One of the purposes was to increase the popularity of Rossini in the US by encouraging singers to study this repertory. Why do you think Rossini is not more popular, or rather popular beyond Barbieri, and Cenerentola?

This answer is a subchapter in the crisis seen by some industry observers. I often say that “Il Barbiere” is indestructible, but “Cenerentola” is vulnerable. I used to lament that Rossini’s operas were underappreciated because they were most often done with unremarkable performers. I have seen performances of “Il Barbiere” directed and sung terribly, but still survived by virtue of the rock solid theatricality of the piece. I never saw a performance of this Opera that didn’t satisfy the audience. Every other Opera Rossini wrote needs a lot more musical and vocal fuel to keep the audience satisfied. My old adage was: If a Rossini Opera fails to please, it was performed badly. My new adage is: If you are going to perform a Rossini Opera badly, please choose “Il Barbiere”. It will survive.

Q. The obvious question is what led you to becoming an opera singer, and specifically a Rossini specialist?

I was pulled out of a school chorus and made to stand out front and sing a song when I was about 10 years old. I had a blast. The rest is history….. Well, at least, it’s so like yesterday.

Q. What role did your years at the Rossini Opera Festival play in your life? It clearly was important to the life of the Festival

Getting into the inner sanctum of Rossini was not an easy task, and I knew it was where I needed to be. When I was allowed in, I did the best work I could do. The festival kept bringing me back and we grew together. I know that the Art of Opera and the Industry of presenting Opera are much larger than any singer. I like to think I did good things for Opera and for The Festival, but who can say that I was essential? I probably was not. On the other hand, The Festival was an essential magnifying lens that made my work in Pesaro seem very important. I still see benefits coming to me from our collaboration.

Q Do you have a favorite “funny” moment from your performances or rehersals at ROF?

I have lots of favorite stories I tell about my ROF work. Most of them are professional trials, but even they can be fun. At the first musical rehearsal of one of the productions I did for ROF I had one of my greatest trials. Our conductor opened the rehearsal with a little talk to let us know in most certain terms that for his taste we Rossini types didn’t know what we were doing with the Grand Maestro’s music. There were also a few words exchanged in a short discussion that seemed necessary to some of us for clarifying our various opinions which topped off the musicological tension in the air. With the different camps well demarked we turn to our scores. We Rossini types laid hands on well-worn and for one present coffee stained scores. Our conductor placed his two volume Critical Edition full score on the table in front of him. I marveled at how clean his bindings were. This conductor did not, at first glance, inspire one to think of him as fastidious. Anyway, he placed one of these immaculate scores on its spine, strategically placed his thumbs at the middle of the pages and opened it wide. My trial began! I nearly died holding in laughter the likes of which only Paolo Montarsolo or Toto could normally inspire. That act of opening that score caught me completely off guard. There was such a noise; crackles, pops, snaps, tiny glue ripping sounds and a determined rebelliousness in the pages to stay open. We observed a book being opened for the first time ever. I was convinced this conductor had never seen the interior of this Opera. It did occur to me later that he could have used a different set of scores to study, and I may never and truly don’t care to know, but the moment was perfect, and I will never forget it.

Q. Do you think the path to becoming a singer is harder today than in the past, or is it impossible to compare?

Detailed comparison is, in fact, impossible. If from the meaning of “hard” you eliminate all the specific differences between the today and the yesterday world of Opera, I could say that it is equal. With the changes impacting all of the Arts today, the “what it takes” and “how to make” a career has certainly changed. The Opera Industry generally has a new set of requirements that will also change over time. Who knows what will evolve next?