A Conversation with Christian van Horn

Bass Christian Van Horn has spent the last 20 years performing in opera houses around the world, including the Metropolitan Opera, the Paris Opera, the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, and the Stuttgart State Opera. We discuss his experience in performing since the pandemic and some of his favorite characters. On Sunday, October 10th, WHRB broadcasts Joseph Summer’s The Tempest, in which Van Horn performs as Prospero, the protagonist of the bard’s play-turned-opera. Tune in to Sunday Night at the Opera at 8pm on October 10th to hear our interview with Van Horn, followed by a complete of The Tempest, along with other programmed selections.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Marcus Knoke: How are you doing? How's your pandemic been?

Christian Van Horn: I’m doing great, I'm in Chicago right now doing Macbeth with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and I guess I've been back to work full time since January. So it is starting to feel somewhat normalish now.

So were you doing anything like virtual performances or singing to a camera or anything like that?

In January, I did some of Verdi’s Atilla highlights, and they filmed it to put online. I don't think it streamed live, I think it just played later. That was the first thing I did. I refused to sing to my computer at home.

How has the return to the actual stage felt, then? I'd love to hear a little bit more about that and how that's gone for you.

You know what I learned is that I didn't miss people clapping at me. Now, it's very nice, and I like it and we need it but it's not what I missed the most. I missed the process. I missed walking into the room and seeing my road family and and beginning the process of building a show, from day one you walk in and and everybody's just got their music in their head, nobody's really put it together with other musicians, maybe a pianist or a voice teacher, but you haven't really put it together yet. And so I found that I missed the process of building a show starting from nothing and ending with a live audience. Getting back to that felt great, walking into the room and once again doing what we do to me was the most rewarding part. Now, I love the audience and we need them but it wasn't what I missed the most.

It's so wonderful to have everyone in their parts again. And speaking of that, I would love to hear about your experiences in your career. You've worked in many different opera houses all around the world and I would love to hear how it is to go from group to group and how you build those relationships in those shows? And are there things that stay the same throughout all of these different places? And what changes for you as you're moving around?

It's actually an interesting question you know, the opera business is very incestuous, and so there's a lot of a lot of familiar faces. I've been doing this for almost 20 years, so it never happens that I walk into a room and don't know several people, it just never happens anymore. In the beginning everybody was new, but now after this long it's just like your family, so we try not to say goodbye we just say see you next time and usually that happens. As far as the opera house, the standard pretty much stays the same across America. We have union rules here that maintain a lot of the similarities from one house to the next, but if you go to Europe, things can change drastically. The German opera houses can be very efficient, they use their time very well. It starts when it says it's going to start and ends when it says it's going to end. If you work in Italy it's just the nature of the people to be a lot more laid back. Those things are interesting to walk in on, you know, learning the differences country to country. As far as America goes, whether you're in San Francisco or Los Angeles or New York, the standard at which we all operate is a very high level.

I'd love to hear just personally your favorite role that you've performed or even maybe if that's too specific, a favorite opera that you have that you have performed?

I loved playing the bad guys. For a bass, for the first 10 years of my career, I often sang very old men. If there was a priest it was going to be me. That's just the fate of a young bass. You really can't skirt around that. And so you know, in the last few years where I've moved into a much more interesting repertoire, I find that I love the bad guys. I love playing the devil's. I love playing the reason the baritone is dead. You know all of those things, that's what I find most interesting. If I had to, if I had to pick one. I might say it was Claggart in Billy Budd, that was probably my favorite thing. Yes, yes. Ultimate bad guy.

Yeah, that's one of the worst bad guys that I was thinking of.That ties into what I wanted to ask you about next. For our Sunday Night at the Opera program, we are playing Joseph Summer’s chamber opera, The Tempest, in which you play Prospero, who is a nebulous character. He's our protagonist in the opera, but he's definitely hard to sympathize with in a lot of ways.With those like moral complexities, I'd love to know more about how you captured that as a performer.

You know, he's flawed for sure. That's obvious, but the challenge with Tempest is the text. Shakespeare is not something that you can just hear once and follow the thing all the way through, it's very, very difficult. And you couple that with Joe Summer’s music which can be very challenging at times, and there was a unique set of challenges to not only understand it yourself, but to tell this story. And then on top of that, I was well determined to make Prospero sympathetic. Now Joe did a lot of that for me. And I think you'll be able to hear that in the recording, a lot of his music can be very, very sympathetic. And I found that I was endeared to Prospero, by the end of it, by the time I had gone through my own personal journey of discovering his character, and doing what I thought I needed to do to prepare, I think I found a path towards him being a flawed, yet sympathetic, character.

How is making a recording different from touring the opera?

Well, in recording, there's freedom in that nobody knows. There's freedom in the composer standing right next to you, or is in the sound booth. So to that end, if something's not working, it can be talked about. You can do it again, you get a second chance and a third chance and a fourth chance and a fifth chance. So you know, the recording process, while incredibly exhausting, physically and vocally, you can sort of relax because if you really messed up, you can just stop and go back. And so if you're going to make a document, if we're going to document the maestro's score, I wanted to lean towards getting it as close to what he wanted as possible. And so when you're looking at the score, and some of these rhythms can be very, very tricky, and you find that you're just counting, it helps to have the composer right there to say, you know what, don't think about this. Just feel it this way, you know, he had to notate something he had to notate a feeling, which is hard. So I found freedom in having him nearby. It could also be very intimidating, you know, I'm trying to create his work for him. And I bring all of my energy and my voice to it but at the same time it may not be originally what he intended. And so we had to find common ground and and more often than not, I found his presence very helpful.

Right? Of course, because with live performing and touring there is a benefit to not getting to redo it, because you know that once the show is over you are done for the night.

Yeah, the live show is so exciting. And then if something goes haywire, that's just part of his just part of it. No, no sense beating yourself up. You just get the next one.

My last question is kind of an open-ended one. Is there anything you think that I missed that you want to bring up?

I think when people hear The Tempest, I think it's important to highlight the technical difficulties involved in singing Joe Summer’s music. It’s incredibly tonally beautiful. Oftentimes, it can be heartbreakingly beautiful. And then there's other times where you're just trying to count to stay with the group. And so when you hear this finished product, it should be known that an incredible amount of time went into doing this well. There's nothing easy about this music and to get what he wants to get to the final product. And those moments of just sheer beauty will bring you to tears. An incredible amount of work went into this score. I put three times as much time into this score than any other thing I've recorded before. I say that without reservation. And so this product was put out by Albany, who gave us a lot of time to get this done right and my memory of it is one of incredible hard work and satisfaction when it was completed.

Marcus Knoke is a producer for the Classical Music Department and the host of Sunday Night at the Opera on Sundays from 8 PM-midnight.