Arts and Entertainment

Dialogue with the Devil

Freshman Zoe Buff interviews 2018 Richard Tucker recipient Christian Van Horn about his roles in the critically acclaimed Mefistofele and in La Bohème at the...

Reading Time: 6 minutes

A shirtless, scarlet red, tuxedo-dressed figure emerges from the dark orchestra pit, a violin in his right hand and a violin case in his left. Immediately, this unusual entrance captivates the audience of the Metropolitan Opera. The scarlet red figure is the devil, and he has come to search for his next victim.

This is the iconic role that American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn plays at the Metropolitan Opera. Van Horn is a principal singer at the Met and the recipient of the 2018 Richard Tucker Award, which is as prestigious to singers as the Pulitzer Prize to journalists. This season, Van Horn makes his debut at the Paris Opera in “Les Troyens” and sings title roles at the Bayerische Staatsoper and San Francisco Opera. He returns to play Colline in the opera “La Bohème” and makes his Met Opera title role debut in “Mefistofele,” based on Goethe’s “Faust.” My friend Ella Solarino and I sing in the Children’s Chorus at the Metropolitan Opera, and we were lucky enough to be cast in “Mefistofele” and “La Bohème.” An hour before the children were called backstage for a performance of “La Bohème,” we met with Mr. Van Horn to ask him some questions.

Zoe Buff: “Mefistofele” has been a critically acclaimed production of the Met this season, and the last time it was performed was in the 1999-2000 season. How did [bass-baritones] Norman Treigle and Samuel Ramey influence how you became “Mefistofele?”

Van Horn: Well, I learned the entire thing by listening to Norman Treigle, who is by far my favorite bass. And Sam Ramey is a friend of mine. I’ve known him for a long time, so I told him I was going to do this. He said they were going to have to build me new costumes, because he’s a lot shorter than I am! It’s kind of intimidating, because it’s not done very often, so to be in that lineage of guys who did it is very important to me.

ZB: What was the most challenging aspect of taking on this role?

VH: The physical part. I knew I could sing it. It’s a whole other level when you have to start climbing ladders and running around the stage with no shoes on—I don’t do it very often. And the costumes are very tight-fitted, so I’d be climbing up and down ladders in these pants that are incredibly tight! It can be a little scary.

Ella Solarino: Before you got into opera, was there any other musical path that you wanted to go on? For example, was there any other type of music you had to perform, such as Broadway or musicals?

VH: I was in Broadway musicals in high school, and I liked it so much I just wanted to keep going. But, my voice was much too big for Broadway, so I naturally gravitated toward opera. I also played the saxophone for 12 years.

ZB: I learned in a Broadway interview that you went to Yale for voice and opera. How did your college experience affect your development as a singer?

VH: I went to Yale for three years, and it was pivotal. I would never be here had I not done that.

ES: Earlier this year, you were awarded the Richard Tucker Award, and you got to perform in the gala concert last October. In the action, you said, “I find myself thinking: ‘Wow, I’m in that club.’” This was when you spoke of singers such as Renée Fleming, who had won the honor before. Elaborating on this, how did you feel when you got the news?

VH: I wasn’t expecting it. I had expected it a few years earlier, and then I thought it had passed me by. At some point, you’re a little old for it. In 2016, I thought, “Okay, maybe this will be my year.” It didn’t happen, so I forgot about it. I was very surprised when I got the call, and it felt great.

ZB: As singers in the children’s chorus waiting behind the scrim, Ella and I can see you perform your first aria “Ave Signor” all seven nights, and we noticed that every time there was something different. For example, one night, you cleared your throat before addressing the audience. I really liked that. Do you plan these variations, or are they spontaneous?

VH: Well, I planned that one, I thought it would be funny, but the maestro didn’t like it, so I stopped. Everything that you saw different happened in the moment. They didn’t put any constraints on me. They said, “Start here, and end here.” What I did between those two things was up to me. And the light stays with you, so wherever I went or [whatever I] did, they made sure to stay with me. Everything you saw was spontaneous to how I was feeling that night.

ES: Have you ever done the same role in different opera houses or productions? If so, which role? How did different environments or sets affect how you performed the role? Are there different personalities, or do you always try to make it the same?

VH: For example, take “La Bohème” tonight. This is my ninth production, and it’s the fifth time I’m doing this production. I’ve done 16 productions of “La Bohème,” and nine of them are completely different. The basic character doesn’t change, because the text doesn’t change. The director might have an idea of this way or that way, so that might vary a little bit. But mostly, the structure is there within the text. I like to be on a different set. We’ve had sets with staircases; once, we had to climb ladders to get up into the garret. I like when it changes. It creates a new challenge.

ES: In an interview, you said that you had no Plan B. Plan A was your only focus. How has this mindset affected you and your career? Are you happy with where you are now?

VH: I really don’t think this would have happened if I had something to fall back on. Both my parents told me to find something to fall back on if singing didn’t work. It was probably good advice, but I didn’t take it. I thought that if I had no chance to do anything else, I would make this work, and it was what I wanted. I do like singing songs for a living, and it’s not as easy as you think it is, because most of the year, I’m away from my family and home. There is a price to pay for this, but I am happy that I’m here now.

ES: If you could choose any role in any opera that you would like to try one day, what would you choose?

VH: King Phillip in “Don Carlo” is my dream role. I keep putting it out into the world and hope that it comes back to me. It’s already being talked about, so I think I’ll get it soon.

ZB: There was an overlap of “Mefistofele” and “La Bohème” for one week, in which you had to switch between two drastically different roles. Ella and I watched you transform from a red tuxedo topless devil (“Mefistofele”) to a Bohemian philosopher (“Colline”), and sometimes, we wondered if you were going to take the soul of Rodolfo (sung by tenor Michael Fabiano). How did you shift between these two roles?

VH: (laughs) Vocally, there’s no shift. “Colline” is a much easier night for me, because I wear one costume, and I’m only in three of the four acts. I’ve done “Colline” so many times [that] it’s like flipping a switch, so when the music starts, we flip the switch, and we do the show. We don’t really think about it. I will say it was a little bit of a letdown to go from “Mefistofele.” The three hours went by in five minutes, because I was onstage the whole time. Going from that to “Colline” was a little sad—in a way. I love it, but it was a hard transition.

ZB: Ella and I can relate with you; we’ve both done “La Bohème” so many times that we don’t even think about it. Thank you so much, and have a good show!