Mark Gresham |28 FEB 2019
American baritone David Adam Moore stars in the title role of Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin in a new production by Atlanta Opera that opens this Saturday at the Cobb Energy Centre. The run of four performances will take place March 2, 5, 8 and 10.
With over 60 roles to his credit, Moore has been involved twice with The Atlanta Opera, both times in late 2015. First, as singer in a staged multimedia adaptation of Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise at the Bailey Performance Center in Kennesaw, Georgia. Second, as part of the creative design team in both that Winterreise and David T. Little’s Soldier Songs – the latter performed at the Rialto Center for the Arts – were produced in collaboration with GLMMR, the NYC-based multimedia art collective founded by Moore and Vita Tzykun.
Moore’s most recent performance, one month ago, was in the role of Lt. Audebert in the Austin Opera’s production of Kevin Puts’ Silent Night. He will perform as the Soldier in Soldier Songs for that same company in April before heading to Argentina to perform yet another unique lead role, as Stanley Kowalski in André Previn’s opera, A Streetcar Named Desire, at Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires.
EarRelevant recently interviewed Moore by telephone to discuss the ins and outs of portraying Eugene Onegin in The Atlanta Opera’s upcoming production.
EarRelevant: You’re playing the title role in this production of Eugene Onegin by The Atlanta Opera. It’s perhaps the most famous of Russian operas, seven scenes drawn from Pushkin’s novel, but it’s very episodic in structure and depends very much on character development. Given that, how do you approach portraying Onegin?
David Adam Moore: Anytime I’m approaching a role, my goal is to find out what the absolute, most root-level psychological urges are that motivate that character. I essentially put together a psychological profile of that character based on any source material I can find – reading Pushkin, getting some knowledge of Russian aristocratic culture in the early 19th century – so I understand the cultural frame of reference; then taking a look at how the opera score treats this material by way of the libretto and the musical language.
With Onegin, I read the novel first then took a very careful look at the score, always looking for melodic and harmonic language in text setting that gives indications about how the composer thought of the character and the story. Then I think about how that compares to my own experience as a human, to my own life story: What do I need to really work to get my head into? And what can I draw from my own past experience?
Another important part of that is finding the physicality of the character, because I obviously don’t want all characters to move the way that I do in life. That would be very awkward, particularly when dealing with the largest scale acoustic art form in the world – the great distance involved. It is so important that the character be as deep in your body as possible so that you can play it very authentically and very honestly without over-acting, but it will still read from a distance when you’re dealing with opera houses that have 3000 seats or more.
EarRelevant: To what extent does that differ from preparing for chamber opera in a much smaller venue?
Moore: It’s the same. It’s something I credit my acting teachers with, helping to develop an acting technique that works in both formats. If you’re really rooted in the physicality and in the psychological clothing of the character, then it’s not difficult to basically turn up the amplitude in a larger space. If you’re being shot on film, for instance, you know you don’t need to be nearly as large, but you’re taking the same impulses and scaling them up and down physically in a way that feels authentic.
EarRelevant: What have you found to be the salient aspects of this particular character, Onegin?
Moore: This is one of the more complex ones, which is why I’m so interested in doing it. This character profile is not simple by any means. He’s based on a character trope that was popular in early 19th-century Russian literature called “the superfluous man,” which is based somewhat on the Byronic hero. It’s basically a nobleman who has appreciable amounts of capability and is very intellectually engaged. He could be a very, very effective and beneficial person to society, but instead is trapped in a listless mode of life where he doesn’t have to work hard to survive and tends to live rather haphazardly, indulging in pleasures in such a way that often hurt people around him.
EarRelevant: That sounds in some ways like it’s not very far off from Don Giovanni, which you last performed in July with the Chautauqua Opera. Could you compare those two characters?
Moore: I’ve done Don Giovanni five or six times. In my mind, Eugene Onegin is a very different character. There are many similarities but in the case of Don Giovanni, in a straight-forward way, he is first and foremost a sex addict. He needs sex to make him feel okay. On the other hand, I don’t think of Onegin as essentially broken a person as Don Giovanni, but as someone who has been so privileged from the outset that he has to struggle to find meaning in life.
Many great characters, at the start of a story, find themselves up against circumstances that force them to muster all of their possible resources in order to survive, and they find meaning in life in the process of doing that. Onegin is not one of those characters.
EarRelevant: You’ve talked about Onegin being a personality born into privilege, but to what extent is his character also reinforced by the social structure surrounding him?
Moore: Looking at the culture of the time, it was severely stratified, number one. Peasants had zero status in Tsarist Russia. Nobles were locked into their noble privilege from birth to death regardless of what happened. Even if their fortunes had been lost, they were born noble and always would be nobility.
Onegin has to work hard to find meaning in life. He’s already done so by living a very epicurean lifestyle. He’s constantly drinking, he’s constantly partying, he’s a sort of armchair intellectual. He reads just enough of just the right books and just the right journals to be able to initiate really stimulating conversation at parties and gain a lot of social credit and social status for being known as a very clever gentleman. But at the heart of it all this is his searching for meaning, and he hasn’t found it yet.
Of course he has many, many love affairs, so there is that Don Giovanni component, but I think the difference between them is that Don Giovanni literally cannot think of anything but sex 24 hours a day. For Onegin it’s just one direction in which he is grasping hopefully for meaning, but the pursuit of sensual pleasure is just not doing it for him, nor is his pursuit of intellectual stimulation of the mind. By the time we meet him in the beginning of this opera he’s over it all. He’s very, very cynical.
EarRelevant: When we get to the end of the opera, how has he changed? Or is he just the same as at the beginning, with only his circumstances having changed around him?
Moore: In Act I, having been invited by his friend Lensky, he goes to a party that he not particularly excited about. It’s in the country and it’s sort of a crude imitation of the party scene he’s already mastered and grown bored of in St Petersburg. Out of that boredom and a bit of resentment towards his good friend Lensky for bringing him there, he decides to entertain himself by flirting with Lensky’s fiancée, Olga. Lensky completely loses it and challenges him publicly to a duel. Once it became clear that Lensky was challenging him,Onegin had to accept it and engage in the duel with him. Onegin ends up killing Lensky in the duel.
After that – I think of this from a very subjective character standpoint as a post-traumatic reaction – Onegin goes traveling for years, tromping around Europe, often going to balls and probably visiting cousins and doing more of the same thing,but somehow he thinks that because it’s in a different place it’s going to make him happier. But that didn’t do it. He returns to St. Petersburg. At a ball with the absolute cream of society he sees this gorgeous woman who’s married Prince Gremin. He discovers very shortly that it’s Tatyana.
EarRelevant: Olga’s older sister, whom he had noticed but offhandedly dismissed at the party in Act I.
Moore: Seeing her in that light completely shifts his frame of reference and all of a sudden he realizes that this little spark he felt for her back in Act I, which had been years before, actually was something very, very real. He snuffed it out because he thought, “Oh this is just another a lonely introspective country girl, and she’s in love with me because of my status,” and dismissed that twinge of affection that he felt. He ultimately realizes this was real, this was his entire fate, this is the meaning of life that he was looking for.
When he comes to her with that, in the big climactic scene in Act III, he’s completely giving himself up to the possibility of this relationship. He thinks it’s just going to pick up where he left off, that she’s still in love with him in the way she was when they first met, but it turns out she’s changed quite a bit. She’s very dedicated to this new life that she’s built for herself, so she rejects him. He realizes this was the grandest mistake he could ever make, and that’s where the show ends.
EarRelevant: It’s a tragic self-awareness, that comes too late.
Moore: That’s a perfect way to put it. Onegin is the kind of person who, if he does make a mistake, just keeps going, or he just drinks a bit more that night to forget about it, then goes on and gets himself into some other kind of predicament.
EarRelevant: He keeps doing the same things over and over, thinking they will eventually produce different results.
Moore: Something that Puskin talks a lot about is how Onegin exposes himself to some of the greatest ideas of mankind but does it really take it all to heart. He does it only so he has things to talk about at parties. Onegin is very, very socially facile. He has the social game mastered, but he’s still not finding meaning in it. There’s some sort of root level vulnerability that he’s not getting in touch with in himself that keeps him from really being influenced by all of these arguably wonderful ideas, and this privilege, to find himself.
EarRelevant: Do you have any closing thoughts to offer about about this Atlanta Opera production?
Moore: The way Tomer Zvulun is telling the story as director is very interesting and very, very effective. He’s created such an amazing world for all of our characters to live within and guided how we’ve created them. I’m really grateful for that because Onegin is an easy opera for a director to misunderstand, and Tomer has really nailed it. I’m also really excited about our conductor, Ari Pelto. He speaks a bit of Russian; he knows all the Russian text by heart. This cast is absolutely world class. I’ve sung with William Burden [who portrays Lensky] several times – La Scala, Paris – and then Raquel González, who sings Tatyana, is just fantastic. She’s very easy to work with and gives me a lot to react to. ■