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Gary Lakes embraces the tough role of Herod in 'Salome'

Friday, November 09, 2001

By Robert Croan, Post-Gazette Senior Editor

A few years back, Gary Lakes -- one of America's most successful Heldentenors -- got some advice from conductor Lorin Maazel. "When you turn 50," Maazel (who turned 70 last year) told him, "things change for you. Everything in your life takes on a different meaning."

Lakes, who celebrated his 50th on Sept. 26, 2000, took the venerable conductor's advice to heart. "I was burned out," he says. "I had sung in four really bad opera productions in Europe. I just stopped taking any more opera engagements. I decided to slow down, sing more concerts, teach a little.

 
 
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"I was over 300 pounds then, and I went on a strict regimen to lose weight. I watch what I eat now, I work out every day at the gym, I play a lot of golf. And I've lost more than 40 pounds.

He enumerates the traumas of those European productions. "The high point now," he says, "is not having to work with those crazy stage directors. There was [Gluck's] 'Alceste' at the Paris Opera. The boos for the director were so bad I said I'm not taking a curtain call. Maria Ewing came out and was booed, but it was really against the director. There was also a terrible 'Damnation of Faust' in Paris, and my first 'Tannhauser' in Belgium. All ruined by the stage directors.

"Then there was [Wagner's] 'Gotterdammerung' at La Scala: The stagehands at La Scala are always drunk, and one of them dropped me on the stage. I injured my arm and had to cancel some performances. You get really miserable about these things, and if you pull out you get sued. I'm happy now!"

It was Pittsburgh Opera artistic director Christopher Hahn who talked the tenor into accepting the role of Herod in the present production of "Salome" -- his first character part. Lakes resides in Allison Park (his wife, Dee teaches first grade in the Fox Chapel School District) and Hahn thought he would be a natural for Herod.

"I'm doing it because Chris and I are old friends," Lakes explains. "It's great to play a real heel for a change. I always play the heroes: Siegmund [in Wagner's 'The Valkyrie'], Parsifal, Bacchus [in Strauss' 'Ariadne auf Naxos']. Herod is a coward, a nymphomaniac, he has no scruples. They don't get any lower.

"But I didn't like this role at first. I bitched about learning it. Herod is the hardest part I've ever learned, musically. Tristan is the hardest role to sing but Herod is the hardest to learn. It's quick, fast, there's no time to breathe between the phrases, you have to get all those words out and be understood. I listened to several recordings of 'Salome' and found that most Herods didn't really sing the notes. Then, John Mauceri gave me a 1970 recording with Gwyneth Jones as Salome. Richard Cassilly, the Herod on that recording, actually sang all the notes as written. I decided to make sure that this time around, the people will hear all the notes for a change."

Lakes looks back on his career and says, "I can't believe all that I did: all the great opera houses in the world, all the major Wagnerian tenor roles except Walther [in 'Die Meistersinger'] and the young Siegfired, three Grammy awards. But the most incredible thing I did was singing at the Met. I always asked myself: 'Am I good enough?' "

With a modesty that is genuine but uncalled for in view of the facts, the singer adds, "I think I was lucky in the timing of my career. There have never been a whole lot of Heldentenors, but I came along at a time when there were even fewer."

He recently accepted a teaching position at Indiana University in Bloomington, replacing soprano Martina Arroyo, who has retired. Though he hates the commute, Lakes says he likes teaching. "It's kind of a kick when you help someone, see them progress"

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