Samuel Ramey: Opera's Favorite Bad Guy

Bass baritone opera star Samuel Ramey has made a career out of playing demonic characters on stage. But he tells Scott Simon that in his early years he listened to the likes of Elvis Presley and Pat Boone.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Samuel Ramey takes the stage tonight for the final performance of an emotionally dissonant double bill at the Washington National Opera. First comes Bartok's bloody Duke Bluebeard's Castle, then Puccini's satirical Johnny Skeeky. Talk about range. It's like an actor doing Macbeth, then The Odd Couple after an intermission. Villain and comedian in a breath of a single evening.

(Soundbite of opera)

SIMON: Samuel Ramey grew up in Colby, Kansas listening to Elvis Presley and Pat Boone. But in the course of a career that now spans three decades, Mr. Ramey has performed with all of the world's great opera companies and become perhaps the most recorded bass in history. His particular forte is playing the devil in all of his guises, the devil's guises, not yours, Mr. Ramey. Samuel Ramey, who doesn't look at all like the devil, joins us in our studio. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. SAMUEL RAMEY (Opera Singer): Nice to be here. Thank you.

SIMON: We mentioned you grew up listening to Pat Boone.

Mr. RAMEY: Right. Oh, I was - he was my idol. Right down to - I even bought a pair of white buck shoes.

SIMON: Did you write love letters in the sand?

Mr. RAMEY: On occasion I guess.

SIMON: And when did you first hear opera?

Mr. RAMEY: Actually I first heard opera when I - my last year in high school I decided I would go to college and study music with the idea of becoming probably a music teacher. And my first voice teacher in college decided I should work on this aria from The Marriage of Figaro, Non piu andrai. And he suggested that I maybe find a recording of it to listen to. So I went out to a record store and I found an old LP of Ezio Pinza singing various operatic arias. I don't know, it just sort of struck something inside me.

SIMON: Well, you know, I think, through the magic of superior production preparation - I think we have a clip from the first opera that you ever heard. This is Ezio Pinza singing in The Marriage of Figaro.

Mr. RAMEY: Oh.

SIMON: Can we hear a little?

Mr. RAMEY: Awesome.

(Soundbite of "The Marriage of Figaro")

SIMON: What did that set off in you, do you think, looking back on it, or to hear it again?

Mr. RAMEY: Well, its great to hear it again. I haven't listened to it for a long time. But you know, I was just, I think, struck by his voice and I got very interested in it and started listening more to opera. And then one summer I was told about the Central City Opera in Colorado. So I sent off - went out to my local radio station and made a tape and sent it off. And lo and behold, they tool me. And so I went out to Central City that summer to be in these two operas, Don Giovanni and Il Trovatore, never having seen an opera in my life.

SIMON: Oh my God.

Mr. RAMEY: The first time I saw an opera I was actually in one.

SIMON: We have another bit of music we want to listen to. Your voice, and one that you still sing, Dr. Miracle in Tales of Hoffman.

Mr. RAMEY: Oh yeah.

SIMON: This is from a recording in 2000.

(Soundbite of "Tales of Hoffman")

SIMON: How many times have you sung Dr. Miracle?

Mr. RAMEY: Well, the first time I did it was at Wichita State University, the opera workshop program. Then I went on to sing, you know, all four of the villains in Hoffman and I - I don't know, I've done it all over the world, so - probably 150 times maybe. I don't - just guessing.

SIMON: I want to ask you about this, where you're playing the Duke Bluebeard and then the comic rogue and fixer, Johnny Skeeky. What do you do between acts to make the transition from devil to clown?

Mr. RAMEY: Well, I just open my score of Johnny Skeeky and start going through it and thinking about it, you know. It's not so hard - it's not so difficult to go from the serious to the light, you know. I think it would be much more difficult to go from Johnny Skeeky and then have to do Bluebeard after that. You know, I love doing Bluebeard. It was an opera that I came in contact with when I was in college. I just - I went to a record store one day and was just going through the bins and came across - I didn't even know of the piece - and came across this old recording of it with Jerome Hines and Rosalyn Delias(ph) with the New York Philharmonic, and so I bought it. I bought it primarily - I saw Jerome Hines's name, because I was a big fan of his as well, and started listening to it and just thought what a fantastic piece this was.

And I sent off for a score, and it's the same score I use today, and this was more than 40 years ago that I bought this score.

(Soundbite of "Duke Bluebeard's Castle")

SIMON: What else do you see yourself taking on at this stage in your career?

Mr. RAMEY: Well, I see, you know, some parts like Skeeky, because, you know, my - you know, I'm 64 years old now and I've been singing for almost 40 years and so, you know, one's voice changes as one gets older and opera fans and critics are more than happy to point out - to point that out to you. And so you have to look for new repertoire. You have to sort of reinvent yourself, as it were. And so I've got - I have things like Donneci's Don Pasquale(ph). I have that coming up that I'm going to do in a couple of years.

And there is still parts in my repertoire that I've done for all my career that I'm still able to do. I think I'll know when I can no longer do performances to the level that I want to do them. So I'm pretty sure I'll know when that time comes. I don't think it's come yet.

SIMON: You've made such a specialty, if I may, about portraying evil characters. Has it given you any insight into the nature of evil?

Mr. RAMEY: Well, I don't know. I think I enjoy them so much because they're so much - I mean, I like to think that they're so much opposite from my real character, of the way I am as a person, I think. So they're much more challenging to perform and much more rewarding than, you know, the - I wouldn't want to be a tenor for anything in the world. Oh, sure they always get the girl, but you know...

SIMON: Yeah. Do you have a favorite villain?

Mr. RAMEY: A favorite villain? I don't know. You know, I've done so many villains that I love. I suppose if I was really forced to pick a favorite, it would probably be Mephistopheles in Gounod's Faust. He's not a real dark, devilish part. He's more of the - he has fun, more of a bon vivante. He's the more of the devil in disguise than anything. And that's what I love about his character. I mean he's - he turns a little nasty on occasion, but by and large he's very - he has a lot of fun.

SIMON: Mr. Ramey, thanks so much.

Mr. RAMEY: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Samuel Ramey in our studios.

(Soundbite of opera)

SIMON: Bravo. Bravo. And our particular thanks to NPR's Michael Schweppe(ph) for the recording of the Washington National Opera's performance of Duke Bluebeard's Castle and Johnny Skeeky. This is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Scott Simon.

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