Sitting in the Utah Opera office, George Gray and Roy Stevens, who will sing Otello and Iago in Verdi's "Otello," bounced off each other like rubber balls, discovering many experiences in common, including their emergence to international success after years of striving.
Gray is a lionine man with a Dionysian head and solidly-built body. And from his first word - nasal and reverberant with startling projection - you know that his is a heroic voice.Stevens is about the same height, but slim and elegant; he exudes quiet confidence, and wears the agreeable but alert expression of one who has learned to bide his time.
Both refer to themselves as "unnatural singers" - with good instruments, "but like unstrung, cracked Stradivarius violins," Gray said, which needed a lot of work to whip them into shape. "We have both corrected a full slate of faults," Stevens agreed.
They have had to rise above discouragement and insults; but far from being crushed, both have taken an `I`ll show that blankety-blank so-and-so' attitude.
"A few years ago, Glade Peterson told me at an audition that I was too old, I didn't have the voice or the possibility for a career," said Stevens. "But to his credit, when he heard me again last year he reversed himself and hired me for Iago."
"Alfredo Silipigni, head of the New Jersey Opera, once told me that I couldn't sing Otello if I stood on my head," said Gray with a booming laugh. "But I am a monument to tenacity."
Twenty-five Otellos later, Gray looks back on a 1989-90 season that found him singing Schoenberg's "Gurrelieder" with Jessye Norman in a telecast from the Berlin Festival; playing Aeneas in "Les Troyens" at the opening of the Bastille Opera in Paris; and hopscotching about the world for Mahler in Milan, Kodaly in St. Louis, Tristan and Lohengrin at Vienna State Opera, Beethoven's Ninth in Amsterdam, the Verdi Requiem in Montreal, and Parsifal with the Chicago Symphony.
After Otellos with the Baltimore Opera in April, he topped off with his first complete Wagner Ring cycle in June in Zurich. Since 1981 there have been many Don Joses, Rhadames, Calafs and Canios, and a number of lesser-known roles with such American operas as Dallas, Miami and Seattle, and a flock of European houses.
Enjoying an "instant success" 10 years in the making, Stevens made his European debut in 1987, creating the title role in Tutino's highly regarded "Cirano" (Cyrano de Bergerac) in Turin. Next came a tour of France in the title role of "Rigoletto" - 15 performances in 34 days, including two at the significant Aix-en-Provence Opera. He was hailed as Verdi's "Nabucco" in Yugoslavia, and has sung several times at La Scala, notably in Manzoni's "Doktor Faustus" and Tomsky in "Pique Dame" by Tchaikovsky (1989-90). In the U.S. he's recently sung "Rigoletto" (Anchorage) the four villains in "Tales of Hoffmann" and Germont (Virginia).
Both men feel they had to go to Europe to achieve their full potential. "The young American singer is not allowed to be dramatic," said Stevens. "He is expected to come up through the light roles, to start small, and that's just not the best way for some of us. You should be all that we can be from the start, develop the necessary musculature, push yourself to the edge.
"I got my Tomsky at La Scala by singing for the director, who had no one higher to consult. He said I sounded like I could do it, and hired me on the spot."
"I got my first Siegfried in Vienna the same way," Gray agreed.
Turning to his interpretation of Otello, Gray commented, "As a dark-skinned man, a Moor in a white man's world, he has become a conscious over-achiever," said Gray. "He has had to be better than most to be equal, and do his utmost to be better. Even now he doesn't fully understand his success. He guards himself, he is open to only a few.
"He is of royal lineage, though he was sold into slavery as a youth, and that may have given him special drive to achieve the highest level. He feels that his marriage to a white Venetian woman has brought him to the top socially - though he married for love. Although he is a ferocious warrior, he feels his mortality knocking on the door. `I am falling into the valley of age,' he says.
"I think his seizure may have resulted from a brain tumor or disease. He complains of splitting headaches, and he is pushed over the edge by Iago, he sees Desdemona's actions through Iago's cynical eyes. He is a macho man, loaded with `possessionism.' Though he has accepted Christianity to rise in the society he lives in, he has a Moslem heritage, and you don't lose childhood convictions too easily."
"Iago is at once very simple and very complex," said Stevens (who finds his first Iago here "the right role at the right time.") "When he feels that he was passed over in Cassio's promotion to captain, he decides to exact vengeance. He knows he's evil as others view it, but he has his own reasons. He is `honest Iago' to everyone, he's subtle and clever; the audience knows he's evil but his peers think he's a great guy."
Why should Iago, so clever and dependable, have been passed over in the first place? Perhaps because of the demands of the job, or because Otello hated to give him up as his ensign. "Iago was the only one he felt he could really turn his back on in battle," said Gray. "Cassio was popular with the people, a party man with social graces, and very efficient, whereas Iago was aloof, a loner, one whom Otello saw as a kindred spirit."
Three people Otello had at heart, said Gray - Desdemona, Iago and Cassio, and Iago destroyed his love for the other two.
Born and raised in Red Bank, New Jersey, Gray attended Westminster Choir College, Mannes School of Music and Temple University. In 1980 he went to Connecticut Opera of Hartford as a resident artist, and there made his debut as the messenger in `Aida." "The conductor was Dean Ryan (now music director of Utah Opera), and the stage director was David Morelock," he said, noting ties with the present production.
"I was always musical. I sang every year in the boy choir of the Episcopal church, and I taught myself a variety of instruments by ear - bass fiddle for the school orchestra, and five-string banjo and other pops instruments to play bluegrass band. I also tried the flute and piano, but I never thought of music seriously. We lived by the river, and I was always on, by or in the water.
"Not until I was almost 30 could I handle my voice," he said. "It was thick and ugly, I didn't like it. My choir teacher said I sounded like the Staten Island ferry on a foggy night, and my gym teacher called me cannon-mouth!" Breath Gray always had. He can swim two lengths of an Olympic pool before coming up for air.
He began his career as a bass-baritone, singing "tons of Elijahs" and every Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. "When I sang the Pirate King I finished it off with a high C, though," he recalled with satisfaction.
"At Temple I went around for a long time trying to imitate guys like Joseph Schmidt and Jussi Bjoerling. Then one day I passed a little Korean voice teacher in the hall, and he said (falling into singsong Oriental accent) - `You peacock among chickens, trying to be chicken. Be peacock.'
"What a shot in the arm! I tore down to a practice studio and sang for a long time. I finally understood the connection between `Ah!' (barked from the diaphragm) and a projected singing tone."
Roy Stevens was raised near Modesto, Calif., the youngest of six children, in a house surrounded by five acres of nut trees, and he recalls a golden, unhurried childhood. "While George was playing on the river, I was roaming the orchard, or harvesting the nuts," he said. "I went to a county school with 100 kids in eight grades. I had no interest in music, I loved science and math. But the family sang together, my father played jazz piano, and I was in chorus all through high school, though I claimed to hate it."
When he was 11, his sister dragged him to an audition for "Oliver," and he spent his teenage summers in the chorus of 14 or 15 musicals. The biggest part he ever got was Chief Sitting Bull in "Annie Get Your Gun."
"I wasn't much of a soloist, but the summer stock company gave me a kick toward what I wanted with a $50 scholarship for graduation, which must be spent only on fine arts training. My oldest sister (now my personal representative) took me to her teacher in San Rafael, and I did some recitals, but there was much to be desired - I had a small range and I was seriously flat.
"Among graduation requirements at World College West, a tiny experimental school I attended (12 students) was to spend a year in a third world country, and I chose Mexico. After four months in the Sierra Madres, I sat up in bed one night and said to myself, `I will be an opera singer, a Verdi baritone.' Since that night I have gone like an arrow for that goal. As soon as I started to trust my intuitions I got somewhere, but the things I decided by rational thought alone have come to naught."
Intuition or not, he endured many such comments as "Poor Roy, he's talented but he has no voice." "Then when I was 29 I found the teacher who solved the problems of my instrument," he said, "Edna Garabidian of San Jose. She has been wonderful, I still return to her every chance I get."
"Let me acknowledge the same sort of teacher - George McKinley of Philadelphia, who used to be head of opera at Temple University," said Gray. "I also study with him whenever I can."
Both singers have respect bordering on awe for Anton Coppola, the conductor of "Otello." "He is totally for the music, he doesn't let anything get in the way of that," said Gray. "He's of the same tradition as Toscanini - all the words, all the orchestral parts are in his head. It's an honor to work with that guy. He doesn't go for the glamour bit, but he's sterling. I was overjoyed when I knew Coppola would be here; I love Otello, and I know I will find new things in the role with Coppola.