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Brian Mulligan [Photo courtesy of Rebecca Davis Public Relations]
16 Jun 2016

A Chat With Baritone Brian Mulligan

Maria Nockin interviews baritone Brian Mulligan.

A Chat With Baritone Brian Mulligan

An interview by Maria Nockin

Above: Brian Mulligan

Photos courtesy of Rebecca Davis Public Relations


Brian Mulligan is an amazingly busy young singer. Over the last sixteen months, he performed ten new roles with major opera companies. One of his most important debuts was as Jack Torrance in the world premiere of The Shining by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec and librettist Mark Campbell at the Minnesota Opera. At San Francisco Opera, Mulligan sang Sweeney in Sweeney Todd, Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor, and the dual roles of Roderick Usher in a double bill of Gordon Getty's Usher House and Claude Debussy's La Chute de la Maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher). He also appeared at the Metropolitan Opera as Paolo in Simon Boccanegra with Placido Domingo in the title role and James Levine conducting.

Q: Did you grow up in New York or Ireland?

I was born in America, but my father was born in County Leitrim, Ireland. I got the dual citizenship mostly because I am proud of my Irish heritage and enjoy celebrating that. It took about a year to get all of the necessary paper work together which had to include my parents’ original baptismal certificates, but I finally got my Irish passport. I’ve been going to Ireland all of my life, and have a lot of family there. I grew up in upstate New York, however, in a little village called Endicott.

Q: When did you begin to study music?

I did not begin studying piano until college, but when I was a small child, my grandfather taught me to play the Irish fiddle. I was pretty good, too! I don’t play anymore, but perhaps I will take it up again someday.

Q: When did you see your first opera?

I saw my first opera in the fourth grade. We went on a field trip to see Rigoletto at TriCities Opera in Binghamton, NY. I remember wondering, who were the real people up there on the stage? Who were those opera singers in real life? I liked the music. I enjoyed the show but I remember being most fascinated by the duality of the singers’ lives onstage and off. I wanted to know how a regular person could end up on a stage making all of those foreign, beautiful sounds.

Brian Mulligan Performance Shot.png

Q: Where did you go to school after high school?

I studied at Eastman, Yale and Juilliard, in that order. I learned so much at each school, but really, it was at Juilliard where I was mature enough both emotionally and physically to blossom. All of that time in school was challenging but it was a necessary. It takes a lot to turn a regular kid into an opera singer!

Q: Who were your most important teachers?

Steve Smith is my most important teacher, he is my current voice teacher and I’ve been studying with him for over sixteen years. Steve taught me how to sing. I also learned a great deal from Ed Berkeley, my drama teacher at Juilliard. Ed taught me to be emotionally available onstage, and that principle shapes all of my work. I’ve also learned a great deal from Maestro Nicola Luisotti, Italian Diction Coach Corradina Caporello, and Vocal Coach Ken Merrill.

Q: What did you learn from your teachers that you would like to pass on to the next generation of artists?

Probably the most important thing I could tell the next generation is never to underestimate the value of who you are, as a person or as an artist. There is no one else in the entire world who has your soul, your mind, and your voice. You are truly unique, and you need to remember that the things you want to communicate to the world are of real value. You need to understand the value of your unique perspective and celebrate that every day.

Q: What competitions have you won?

While I was at Juilliard, I won a bunch of competitions in New York City from the London Foundation, the Tucker Foundation, and the Oratorio Society. But my most exciting win was at the Belvedere in Vienna where I competed with singers from all over the whole world. I was so proud to represent the United States and win. To me, it felt like the Olympics! I met so many new people in Vienna, including a few Irish singers. It was my first glimpse into opera in Europe, a whole other continent of talent and ideas.

Q: Are there any artists or musicians from the past whose work has significantly influenced you?

I’ve been very inspired by the singing of George London, Renata Scotto and the American gospel singer Karen Clark. I listen to a lot of piano music. I’ve learned a great deal about musicality from Bill Evans and Arthur Rubinstein. Today, I’m probably most artistically inspired by Daniel Day Lewis, Gustavo Dudamel, Björk, and film director David Lynch.

Q: How finished an artist should a young singer be when leaving school?

In all probability, no artist is ever finished. The journey of becoming an artist is one that lasts a lifetime. But all singers should leave school with an understanding of the importance of authentic diction and strict musicianship. Of course, a solid vocal technique is imperative for any career, but that’s something most singers have to continue working on long after they finish school. I was in the Juilliard Opera Center when I made my debut at the Metropolitan Opera, so I was already working before graduation!

Q: Do you sometimes say no to a role because you don’t think it suits your voice?

Yes, I have to do that all the time. Sometimes I feel that the role isn’t right for me for vocal reasons, and other times because I don’t connect with the character. Sometimes I feel like I’m just not ready for a role. For example, I have been offered Wotan in The Ring a few times already, and it is a role I am excited to sing someday, just not yet.

Q: Which are your favorite roles?

My favorite role is usually the one that I am currently performing! I love Amfortas in Parsifal, the title role in Hamlet and Richard Nixon in Nixon in China. Generally, I look for roles that challenge me musically, vocally and dramatically. There are a whole lot of them out there for a baritone like myself. The roles I am most looking forward to are the Dutchman, Macbeth, Iago, Wozzeck and the Traveller in Death in Venice.

Q: What important performances do you have coming up this season and next?

Next year I have my debut at the Vienna Staatsoper as Balstrode in Peter Grimes, I’m making two role debuts at Oper Frankfurt: Golaud in Pelléas et Mélisande and Count di Luna in Il trovatore. Plus, I’m singing Yeletsky in The Queen of Spades and Valentin in Faust at the Zürich Opera, which is one of my favorite places on earth! I’m also really excited to sing The Wound Dresser by John Adams in Los Angeles next season. It’s a chamber piece I’ve admired for years and this will be a first for me.

Q: I understand you are cast in the world premiere of Paul Moravec's The Shining at Minnesota Opera. What kind of an opera does it make?

The Shining was great fun, and very scary. The music is incredibly atmospheric. I sang Jack Torrance, Jack Nicholson’s character in the film. Kubrick’s movie is probably my all time favorite. But this opera is definitely based on the book! I read this book and most of Stephen King’s books when I was a kid. This was definitely a dream project.

Q: Can you tell us something of Mieczysław Weinberg’s opera, The Passenger? I understand you were in the production at the Theater an der Wien. I sang the role of Tadeusz last year in Frankfurt in a very moving production that we took to Vienna in May. Every performance was heartbreaking, I think it’s a powerful, important piece. At Houston Grand Opera in 2006, I sang the title role in Der Kaiser von Atlantis, another opera about the Holocaust that is equally powerful.

Q: I notice that you are taking on the role of John Proctor in The Crucible at Glimmerglass for the first time. What is your interpretation of it?

I’ve wanted to sing John Proctor for years now, and I’m incredibly excited to work on the role with Francesca Zambello. I play villains so often; it will be wonderful to portray a classic tragic hero, and an American one at that. I find Proctor’s dilemma fascinating and so relatable. I cannot wait to lose myself in that role.

Q: How do you feel about the emergence of the stage director as a major force in opera?

I love good directors, and collaborating with them is one of my favorite parts of this profession. I like directors who are risk takers, and who challenge me, but are generous with their time. All that being said, I like directors who want to collaborate with me too! Happily, that is usually the case, and I’ve had some incredible experiences. Just a few months ago I worked on Sweeney Todd with Lee Blakeley at San Francisco Opera. It was one of the most challenging and rewarding collaborations I’ve ever had with a director, I loved it. We really built that character together.

Q: What recordings do you have out? Are you making any for future release?

I recently finished recording my debut album, which consists of two song cycles by Dominick Argento: The Andrée Expedition and From the Diary of Virgina Woolf. It should be released soon! This is music that I have loved for years, music that speaks to me, and I’m so happy to have given these pieces my own interpretation. The brilliant pianist Tim Long and I worked on this project for months, and I’m hopeful we’ve produced something full of emotion and beauty.

Q: What do you see yourself doing five years from now?

Well, I already have a few contracts for five years from now, so I can tell you definitively! In 2021 I’m scheduled to make my role debut as Rigoletto in the United States and there’s a new production of La forza del destino in Europe, which will be another Verdi role debut for me. I’m also singing Amfortas in a new production of Parsifal in the United States in 2020/21. And there’s another world premiere that’s supposed to be happening in 2021 too! Essentially, I’ll be doing much of exactly what I do today, just new repertoire, new houses and new collaborations.

Q: How much modern technology do you use in your work?

I use Mac products such as the iPhone, MacBook and iPad. What is most useful to me now is having my entire music library in the cloud, so I can access any recording I want anywhere in the world. I’ve downloaded much of my music collection onto my computer at home, so it’s always available to me as long as I have an internet connection. However, I do still lug a small suitcase of scores around the world with me! I don’t think I’ll ever switch to using an iPad instead of sheet music.

Q: How do you feel about downloads replacing compact discs?

I think it’s the best! Since I’m on the road constantly, it’s a real relief to have all of my music available online. In all honesty, I’m still old school about it mostly, and purchase actual compact discs from Amazon. They usually come with an immediate free download anyway, and then I file the actual disc away into my library at home when I finally get there. That allows me to have the best of both worlds, really.

Q: Do you have any interesting hobbies like cooking, painting, or reading in three alphabets?

When I am home, I do like to cook for family and friends, or sometimes just for myself. It’s a great joy to plan a meal and prepare food in my own kitchen. I’ve had many visiting colleagues over at my place in San Francisco. Never underestimate the healing power of a home cooked meal! I’m also a big video game nerd, always have been. I have a pretty great collection, including an original Super Nintendo from the nineties! I’m an avid hiker too; I’ve hiked all over the mountains of Colorado and California.

Q: What kind of music do you listen to for relaxation?

I usually listen to music all day, every day. Because I travel and am alone much of the time, it’s a great comfort to have music playing in the background. I use Pandora to discover new music, and I usually listen to a piano jazz station if I need to stay quiet. If it’s a time that I can afford to sing along with the radio, I’ll listen to eighties R&B stations for DeBarge or Whitney Houston. My favorite current recording artists are Janelle Monáe, Marina & the Diamonds and Daft Punk.

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