Gordon Hawkins, Versatile Baritone, Speaks of His Role & Career
By George B. Parous
Pittsburgh Opera will wrap its successful 2021-22 season with the first local performances of Blue, with music by Jeanine Tesori, and a libretto by Tazewell Thompson. The librettist will direct the five performances, beginning this Saturday evening, April 23, and Glenn Lewis will conduct. Blue “centers on the hopes and fears of a young Black couple as they raise their son,” and a number of singers who created the roles at its premiere in 2019 will reprise their roles for the Pittsburgh performances. Among them is Gordon Hawkins, the seasoned and versatile baritone.
Mr. Hawkins recently took the time to answer some questions about Blue, and his role in it, but it was difficult not to first ask a few questions about his very interesting career. And an obvious starting point was to verify what I’d read of his singing the title role in Verdi’s Rigoletto two hundred times.
“I’ve done over two hundred performances of that role,” came the clarification. “Early in my career, I performed most of my bel canto roles, like Rigoletto, with Speight Jenkins at Seattle Opera and Jonathan Pell in Dallas. But the sheer number of performances increased after I went to Germany because there are more houses and more opportunities to sing the repertoire. Although I was performing in Washington, Seattle, Dallas, and a few other venues in the States, European opera houses provided the experience of multiple performances that I needed in order to grow as an artist.”
“I love the music as expressed through the character,” he said, when asked how he kept fresh such a frequently performed role. “Of course, there are technical challenges – the length of the role, vocal range and other pedagogical factors. My approach to the role has evolved over the years. Most of the technical challenges can be worked out in the process of continued performances, and that allows me the freedom to focus more on dramatic intent. I am more confident in expressing a greater palette of emotional colors through the character, and this is the truth I wish to convey in my portrayal of the role. When you’re 30, you want to be note-perfect. You want to have everything exact. And that still applies as we get older – our ego has standards, but it’s more about what I say, and what I convey than just merely the notes of it. The dramatic impact of it has a greater relevance for me at this time in my life.”
“I’ve done Alberich in Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle’ quite a number of times,” he said of his leap from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera to Richard Wagner’s cycle of music-dramas. “I’ve done the role in Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berlin, in Spain, and Taiwan. With each production, my sense of the character grows deeper. Like a tailor, I continue to craft a finer suit of emotions to fit the character better. Having performed quite a bit of bel canto before I stepped into the Wagner repertoire, helped me to maintain a healthy and flexible vocal technique prior to taking on the more weighty challenges in the Wagnerian repertoire.”
But on Blue, and his character of the Reverend, in a deeply moving, human drama: “When the audience meets the Reverend, they should understand that it is common for priests to consult privately with members of their congregation, to help them address challenges in their lives. When I spoke with the librettist Tazewell Thompson, he said ‘More than likely, the wife of The Father came into the church administrator and said ‘Listen, I have a situation at home where my husband is dealing with some anger issues. He really needs to talk to somebody. Can he come talk to you?’ My character represents the Catholic church and takes his responsibility to his congregation as sacrosanct. I have a member of my congregation – maybe he hasn’t come to church as regularly as his spouse, but nevertheless it is my responsibility to tend to the emotional needs of this person so that they can move on with their life. The Father is holding onto a recent trauma, and that trauma is holding him locked in anger, he’s stuck with it. My task is to help him move on to the next step in life – not to forget it, not to whitewash over it, but to say ‘Ok, how do I digest this awful thing so that it does not destroy me and I can move on?’ My role is to help The Father in that regard.
“I sang the role of the Reverend at the premiere at Glimmerglass in 2019. We’ve done productions in Detroit, Seattle, two or three productions by now, so I’ve done a number of performances since the premiere. And numerous months of rehearsing and working through it – rehearsals are important, in terms of character growth and working through things for yourself.”
His favorite thing about Blue and his role in it? “What I am most attracted to is representing the voice of Black folks, African Americans speaking in the here and now. The sense of self-validation and empowerment one gets when speaking truth aloud within the family and displaying those truths openly. I can’t tell you how powerful it makes me feel, particularly at this stage in my artistic and personal life. It is an honor. Being able to do convey these emotions in the context of an operatic work in major opera companies like Pittsburgh Opera, and in this community, means a great deal – to a lot of people, not just myself.”
Anything he’d like his Pittsburgh audiences to know? “I respect and appreciate that audiences come to the theater with a desire to be uplifted and entertained. Perhaps they come to the theater for a few hours to escape the growing dissonance of the daily routine. Although Blue certainly possesses entertainment and artistic value, it is also a vehicle providing us with the opportunity for engagement. Over the past 18 months, this pandemic has taken a toll on communities throughout this country. The resurgence of live theater is helping to bring us back together, and to harmonize some of that dissonance. As an artist and human being, I believe we need art to nourish our spiritual appetite. Live theater is part of the public forum, an artistic/moral bond between stage and audience. My hope is that this artistic/moral contract continues to strengthen the bond of truth within our community, and as an artist, I will continue to dedicate myself to the attainment of that intention.”
For a complete synopsis, further reading, full production details, TICKETS and more, visit Pittsburgh Opera.
Special thanks to Chris Cox, Pittsburgh Opera’s Director of Marketing and Communications