Listening to the Voice Inside : Daniel Belcher

Baritone Daniel Belcher (Danny to his friends and family) burst onto the international opera scene in 2004 when he created the role of Prior Walter in Angels in America. Since then, he has built a repertoire of over 70 roles, many of which were written for him, including the role of living memoirist Brian Castner in The Long Walk. Known for his fearless musicality and dynamic stage presence, Belcher champions works from the Baroque to the new. I recently caught up with him via Skype from his home in Kansas City.

Let’s jump right in and talk about The Long Walk. What was it like creating the role of Brian Castner?

That is a big question! How it all happened was kind of serendipity. Lawrence Edelson, who runs American Lyric Theater as well as Opera Saratoga, was preparing some workshops for some new operas at the time and had actually asked me to participate in another opera. Three or four months before we were scheduled to go, he called and said, “Danny, I want to pull you off of this one,” and I’m like, “What did I do?” And he said, “I want you to find this memoir. It’s called The Long Walk and it’s about a war veteran.” He said they were really moving it fast in terms of development because it was something special. And he said, “I think this is the right piece for you.”

Initially, when he said “Iraq war veteran,” I thought, how is this the right piece for me? I’m not a veteran. I’ve held a BB gun—that’s kind of my extent. But I ordered it and read it and I was, needless to say, astonished by what I was reading, because it wasn’t just a piece about a man and his experience of war. It was his experience about the family, trying to find himself, and trying to reconnect with the people that were closest to him—trying to return to a life that is normal, whatever that may be. So my “in” to him was via being a husband and being a father. And so I immediately called Larry and said, “It very well may be the greatest challenge of my life, but absolutely. Yes. Yes, I will do it.”

So he put me in contact with Jeremy Howard Beck and Stephanie Fleischmann, the composer and librettist. I received first the whole libretto and about 40 minutes of music. One of the pieces that was completed at that time was the scene at the end of the first act when I sit at the top of the stairs with a gun, protecting the boys, and that moment so captivated me that it really became the center of my whole exploration of the role. But I knew very early on that Stephanie’s words were so immediate for the stage, and Jeremy’s music fit me like a glove.

I’m not the normal stand-and-sing singer; I kind of like to tear into things, whether it’s comedy or whether it’s something like this. There was so much meat on the bones, musically, that it became a rather remarkably easy fit.

All of this was before I had a single conversation with the man that I was playing. And at that first workshop Brian was there, and I’m like, dear God, what do I say to the man whose life I can never approximate? What kind of emotional condition is he in? How will he react to this? How will his wife react to this? And he was the kindest, most gracious, coolest person.

He thought the whole thing was beyond the realm of reality. The last thing he ever expected when his editor called him in terms of adapting the book was that it would be turned into an opera. But our relationship, our friendship, happened really easily and has maintained so over the last three years—and I’m now very close friends with his boys, with his family. I’m very much “opera dad” to them, and Brian and Jessica and I have become very close friends.

Heather Johnson—who was the original Jessica— she and I were performing at Chautauqua this summer. Brian and one of his sons came to one of our rehearsals, and Heather and I went up to their house and had a cookout and spent the night and played games with the boys and reconnected. It’s rare in what we do to develop a relationship that you know is going to be lifelong. But you rarely play characters that are standing right in front of you, either. The whole thing has been surreal, to say the least.

When I met you last March, you said that The Long Walk was an opera that had to be written. Why do you think this story works so well as an opera?

When Brian is in the “crazy,” he is in extremes—extreme highs, extreme lows, extreme paranoia—the blur of what’s real and what’s not. The amazing thing that is opera is that as a singer in this repertoire, we demand our voices to do absolutely everything. So, in my opinion, it is the most heightened of art forms. It is completely surreal and unrealistic that we sing in life. Opera can really do something—particularly the unamplified voice—because it can be hauntingly beautiful, it can be sweet, it can be raw, it can be at the edge of breaking. And every single one of these sounds that I just listed is viable for the character of Brian.

Doing a piece like this required all of us to live at that extreme, to challenge ourselves as to how far we could color these words. You always kind of teeter on this balance of emotion and, as a singer, you can’t turn yourself into a blubbering mess, because you will no longer be able to sing. And my job—primary, number one—is to deliver the text. So in rehearsal with [Director] David Schweizer, there were many days where I just burst into tears. And he said, “Great, Danny. Continue to do that. You’ve gotta figure out how far you can go in order to live on that edge.” And I got what he meant, and that’s something that we can do with our art form that other art forms just simply can’t.

What is it like having an opera role written for you? Have you ever gotten to be involved in the process of creation before it hits the stage?

The first one where I really started from the very beginning was the creation of Angels in America. We started on it in 2001, it premiered in 2004. I was cast in 2001—and, actually, I was the last role cast. When I did the audition for the [Théâtre du] Châtelet, they said, “We think we have a project for you. We want to send you to Amsterdam to meet this composer, Peter Eötvös.” I sang an aria by Britten, I sang Monteverdi. Not exactly [Eötvös’] music, but as soon as I sang Monteverdi, he said, “Great! The way I see things, Monteverdi is the great composer.”

So, at the end of our session, he said, “I’d love to have you on board.” I said, “Can I ask what role I just sang for?” And he said, “They didn’t tell you? Daniel, it’s for the central role of Prior Walter!” And I said,
“ . . . Excuse me?” [Laughs.] Especially knowing the cast that had already been put in place—Barbara Hendricks as the Angel, Julia Migenes, Roberta Alexander—major, major singers and here was . . . me.”

So over the next two and a half years I was flying back and forth to Paris. I’d do the scenes with Julia, I’d do the scenes with Barbara. Peter was basically trying to get to know us vocally. He knew them far better than me because I was rather new to the business still. He said, “What’s interesting is you have this low range, but you also have this kind of wild top to your sound, these high notes that aren’t really ‘baritonal.’ How would you feel if we went up there some?” And I said, “Great!” We started creating this arc in the role to where the role starts lower and, as Prior ascends to heaven, the range continues to climb until I was almost at a high tenor by the end of the opera.

One thing about learning so much new music is that I’m always in the process of learning. But yet it’s my absolute favorite thing to do. I’m not going to say I don’t love standard repertoire! But I think what really gets me jazzed is the new music. Sometimes people ask me, “How do you approach it vocally? Here’s a coloratura role, and now you’re doing The Long Walk, where you’re whispering and screaming.” And I say, “Well, it’s the same voice.” I only have two little pieces of flesh in my throat; they only know how to do one thing. Whether I’m screaming or doing coloratura, I’m approaching it with the Bel Canto school of singing—engaged air, core of the sound, and using my resonators. So it’s the same vocal process, I just might take a few more risks than the average bear.

Are there any particular roles that have stuck with you, that kind of stayed in your bones?

When people ask me, “What’s your favorite role?” I always say it’s really the one I’m doing in the moment. I know that may sound so cliché, but I really do mean that. I find something challenging and wonderful in every single person I get to visit. Figaro in The Barber of Seville has probably been my best friend—him and Papageno in The Magic Flute. It’s always like hugging an old friend when I go back to singing it.

Angels in America, doing Prior Walter, was life changing. Another one that was really formative for me was one that we never staged, and that was the role of Jaufré Rudel in L’Amour de loin that I did with Kaija [Saariaho]. Getting to know Kaija through her music has really been rewarding for the last 11 years. She kind of just knows how my musical soul ticks. It’s finding those people who seem to know more about you than you know about yourself. And when they’re writing for you, when you’re developing these relationships, it’s like . . . they see something in my soul that I haven’t quite found yet.

Where do you see opera going?

We’re lucky to be living in this time where new work is exploding. I just spent the last five weeks in Philadelphia where they did their inaugural festival called “017,” and there were four world premieres. And they all sold beautifully. Audiences were captivated. They already have 10 commissions out for the future—10 new operas. And that’s just one company! So we’re in this very exciting time of discovery.

I think these “stories of now” are what’s really captivating audiences. There are numerous operas being written about the Iraq/Afghan war experience and how we as Americans deal with these men and women coming home. How do we help them? Do we help them? Or do we just say, “Thank you for your service. Good luck!”? We Shall Not Be Moved was a story that happened in Philadelphia in the last 20 years. Do they even need literary sources? Maybe not. Maybe we just need to be telling our stories.

A lot of young singers will probably be reading this article, looking for inspiration and ideas of how to build a career like yours. What advice would you give someone who is just getting into the business?

Keep listening to yourself. I was one of those singers that wasn’t supposed to have the career. I was always the cover or the second cover. I was lucky enough to have a couple of people in my camp who saw something more in me and helped me identify that little voice inside that was always there—I was always too quick to dismiss it. Whatever you choose to do with your life, you’re telling yourself what you want to do. It’s all in there—we all have these discussions with ourselves every day. It depends what you need to be happy with your music, what you need to survive financially, if you need and want a family—and that any time along the journey you can reidentify anew.

We get pigeonholed very quickly and very young. You’re bombarded by advice. You’ll have seven coaches telling you seven different things. Your manager’s telling you something. Your voice teacher is telling you something. Impresarios are telling you, “This is where I see you going.” And yet at the end of the day, there’s one person that gets to make the choice, and that’s you, the artist. Whether or not that pleases everyone, you’re the one at the end of the day who has to look in the mirror and you’re the one who’s exploring and sharing everything about yourself.

So, know who you are. Know what you do well and know what you don’t do well. And know that you’re not going to do everything. I’ve had people say recently, “When are you going to start looking at Verdi?” and I’m like, “I’m not.” I know so many singers who can do that better than I could ever dream of. But I know other things that I can do that I think are a lot better than other singers. So I kind of know my product, and that’s taken a long time.

Treat yourself as a commodity, as a product that will be bought and sold and negotiated over. If your work lines up with the product that you want to be and that you think is marketable, then stick to that and don’t apologize for it. Take all of the advice. Take every note that anybody ever gives you and say thank you. And then it’s your job to assimilate the information and say, “This clicked, this clicked . . . this was so far off!”

Knowing what you need out of the career all goes back to “Who does Danny want to be?” I love being “Dad.” I’ve sacrificed a lot of time away from my wife and my daughter to do what I do, and I’m lucky that my wife is in the business and we’re both empathetic to what each other does. Our daughter, although she doesn’t always like to share us, she knows it’s what makes us tick. She knows our art is what makes us who we are, and I think that’s why she’s gravitating as well to the theatre.

The last thing I would say is enjoy the ride. It goes by in the blink of an eye. I made my professional debut 25 years ago this coming summer, in ’93. Did I ever envision doing what I’ve done? God, no. Are there still things I want to do? God, yes! I haven’t said all I want to say yet!

For young singers, we get so wrapped up in minutia and what everybody thinks about us. The thing we forget the most is ourselves. It’s very, very easy to lose yourself in this process. I once asked Gayletha Nichols [executive director of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions], “You listen to thousands of auditions. How do you do it?” She said, “I walk into the audition wanting to be moved by every single singer. I want everyone to tell their own story.” Always tell your own story, not what you think someone wants you to tell. Not “This person likes this and this person doesn’t like that. How can I gain the system?”

I always started with the same first aria to audition even though some people felt I shouldn’t. They said, “You don’t start with an aria where someone is dying.” I said, “You know, if I don’t sing this, every presenter has missed out on something and they don’t know who I am. This is the one thing that identifies me the most. And then they can either choose to buy or not buy my product, but I feel that I would have left on the table everything I have.”

Some people might think, “Gee, Danny, that’s easy for you to say—all you’ve done for 25 years is sing.” And they’re right! But I’ve also had a ton of rejection at times. I’ve been told I have literally nothing to offer, I’ve been told I should be replaced. I’ve been told there’s no voice. But you know what? I’ve had enough people that saw something in there. And that’s the way you put a career together. Not everyone will like your product. But if you have enough people that like your product to cobble a career together and you’re happy with it, what more can you ask?

Emily Nelson

Emily Nelson is a soprano and teacher based in Salt Lake City. She teaches voice at Westminster College and World Music and Survey of Jazz at the University of Utah. She is a founding member and executive director of Utopia Early Music. She holds degrees in vocal performance, early music, and music history from Indiana University and the University of Utah, where she recently completed her doctoral studies in voice with Julie Wright-Costa.