Interview with Eric Cutler

Born in Iowa, Eric Cutler is recognized as one of the most exciting tenors in the heroic French and German repertoires before the public today.  Having studied at Luther College and then on the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artists’ Development Program, he has since appeared on many of the world’s leading lyric stages including the Metropolitan Opera, the Bayerische Staatsoper, La Fenice, the Salzburger Festspiele, the Paris Opéra, València’s Palau de les Arts, Opera Vlaanderen and the Canadian Opera Company.  Recent, current and forthcoming assignments include Hoffmann in Dresden, Roméo in Chicago, and Florestan in Stuttgart.  I caught up with Mr Cutler from his home in Germany as he prepared for his upcoming appearances as Apollo in the Hamburg Staatsoper’s Daphne

Eric Cutler. Photo: © Dario Acosta.
Eric Cutler. Photo: © Dario Acosta.

Mr Cutler you very recently appeared in Dresden as Hoffmann.  It’s a massive sing because you are pretty much on stage from the start until the end.  Tell us how you found working on the role, because it wasn’t your first Hoffmann was it?

No, my first production was the Marthaler in Madrid in 2014 and then I did some revival performances in Stuttgart last season.  It’s colossal, it’s a marathon, but I think I’ve been lucky in that I’ve done quite a few lengthy French roles lately such as Moīse et Pharaon by Rossini, Les Huguenots by Meyerbeer, La Damnation de Faust by Berlioz and Roméo et Juliette – Roméo is not to be underestimated in terms of length.  I think that with Hoffmann one must never forget that the last twenty or thirty minutes of singing are brutally difficult.  In working a role like Hoffmann, for me, the rehearsal time is essential – especially the first time you sing it.  I’m somebody who really believes in using the rehearsal time to pace the role and to figure it out.  If you’re lucky enough, you’ll get a director who allows you to run acts or to run scenes multiple times and that’s a huge gift for singers.  With Marthaler I was lucky enough to have almost a two-month rehearsal period where we were able to spend time on entire acts.

I’ve always viewed singing as a bit like athletics.  I enjoyed playing sports in my youth and training was an absolute part of what we did.  During the off season, you would still be working out.  I took a week off after this recent Hoffmann due to a cold but today I was back at it.  I’m always taking time to work on my technique.

Carmen - Georges Bizet - English National Opera - 20 May 2015 Conductor - Sir Richard Armstrong Director - Calixto Bieito Revival Director - Joan Anton Rechi Set Designer - Alfons Flores Costume Designer - Merce Flores As Don José with Justina Gringyte as Carmen at English National Opera. © Alastair Muir
As Don José with Justina Gringyte as Carmen at English National Opera. © Alastair Muir

How do you approach using your voice in rehearsal – how often do you use full voice as opposed to marking?

It depends, you can’t sing all day.  A lot of singers will get to a hard phrase and they’ll mark it every time.  I do just the opposite – when I get to a hard phrase, even if I crack it in the room that’s better than cracking in front of the public.  I know other singers want to spend a lot of time working on creating a character and I agree that it’s important.  But when it comes to a role like Hoffmann that is so demanding technically, rehearsals are 50% about rehearsing it musically and 50% dramatically.  I’ve had to reassure conductors sometimes that this is my process, I have to sing it here and if I don’t, I don’t trust myself that with my nerves and whatever else happens on stage that I can sing it when I get up there.  This is my 17th season and I was so lucky when I was starting to watch these great artists such as the late Johan Botha, who I admired immensely.  He would get there an hour before a rehearsal, warming up, doing his exercises.  That really stuck with me – you have to work at it and not rely on your natural talent – that gives out in the early to mid-thirties.

And after that you’d say it’s technique that carries you through?

I think it is.  Obviously your musicianship and gift for language are an aspect of one’s artistry.  However, the tenor voice is one of the rarest and I believe it takes the longest to mature and reach its fullest potential.  I wouldn’t say that what we do as tenors is completely naturally at the beginning.  We spend the majority of the night singing in an octave above our natural speaking register and this has to be developed over the years.  When I was young I did it quite naturally but then in my mid to early thirties, I found it really wasn’t working any more.

What wasn’t working?

For the majority of my career I was hired to sing a lot of high, lyric bel canto music because I had the ability to stretch up to C and C-sharp quite easily.  But to do that, I stopped singing on my body and my support was overly pressurized and too high.  The result was that often my throat would close and the larynx crept up causing a pinched and nasal vocal production.  I could tell around 2006, 2007 that something wasn’t right but I got on fine.  Then in around 2011, 2012 I knew that I had to take a year off completely and revamp and start working.  I was so fortunate to find a teacher, Michael Paul, who is a remarkable tenor in his own right and teacher in New York. He has been guiding me for the last 5 years in this transition and I owe him a great deal.

As Apollo at De Munt.  Photo: © Karl & Monika Forster
As Apollo at De Munt. Photo: © Karl & Monika Forster

You are making a very interesting transition into the heroic French and German repertoires and it’s fascinating to be able to watch it.  Your recent Stuttgart Florestan was something very special indeed.  That first entry on a single word growing the sound from almost nothing to a massive roar was just phenomenal. 

I spent a great deal of time on this outburst from the cell, ‘Gott, welch Dunkel hier’.  I told my wife [soprano Julia Kleiter] ‘every Florestan is measured on how they sing that first phrase’.  It was important for me that it wasn’t just a vocal effect or technical demonstration, but rather pure emotion and authentic.  I’ve been coming at this repertoire for a long time.  I’m a tall guy and it just didn’t make much sense, physiologically, that I would spend my entire career as a leggiero tenor.  My philosophy has been to keep my voice as high as I possibly could for as long as I could and let nature do the rest in terms of the middle voice and how quickly it wanted to mature on its own.  I wasn’t going to push that.  I was singing a concert with Muti in Chicago and he was asking for an effect or colour on a G or an F-sharp and he kept looking at me and I couldn’t do what he was asking me to do.  It was in that moment I realized that my talent had carried me as far as it could but I had no idea what I was doing technically, I just didn’t.  I didn’t know how to sing with a relaxed laryngeal position and, more importantly, on my body and with low support.  After starting work with Michael it took me about nine months to see my voice grow double in size.  I realized that it was because I had never really sung on my body.   I decided it was necessary to leave my American management and had a very frank discussion with my long-time European agent, Simon Goldstone, about what my intentions were for the future.  He was incredibly supportive of my transition and since then, we’ve never looked back.  This is my third season singing this repertoire now.  I think I was always, from the very beginning, misclassified – it’s just that I had easy high notes.  It’s taken a gigantic leap of faith, but I think when you know something’s right, you go for it.  I thought your review of the Hamburg Daphne was well put – I’m not James King, I don’t have that immense amount of baritonal sound, but I do think that I have something to bring to a role like Apollo.

Peter Rose, Eric Cutler, Christina Bock, Measha Brueggergosman, Bernhard Hansky, Sarah-Jane Brandon, Tuuli Takala, Sächsischer Staatsopernchor.  Photo: © Jochen Quast
Peter Rose, Eric Cutler, Christina Bock, Measha Brueggergosman, Bernhard Hansky, Sarah-Jane Brandon, Tuuli Takala, Sächsischer Staatsopernchor. Photo: © Jochen Quast

Let’s talk about language because your French is very good and one of the pleasures of that Dresden Hoffmann was the fact that by and large the diction was very good, which made it very easy to follow.

I’ve sung a lot of French opera and I’ve been lucky to work with wonderful French directors and conductors who have really been there to help guide my language.  I can rehearse in French but I don’t speak French.  I speak German, I live in Germany and I think there is always a level of disconnect if you don’t really speak the language.  I wish I’d learned French but instead I focused on Italian and German.  As an actor specifically, there can be a disconnect sometimes on stage even if you’ve translated every word.  Whereas in German that never happens to me.

What would you say are the differences for you between singing in French and singing in German for example in terms of technique?

There is a specific technique to singing in French that allows a tonal palette that one can access in the instrument in terms of shading, word painting and phrasing.  Whereas I think that there is a more vertical aspect to singing in German.  In French it’s easier to sing a real legato.  In German it’s absolutely necessary rhythmically that the lines stop so that you can bring out the text such as the separable verbs more.  Wagner is certainly more vertical than it is horizontal in that respect for singers.  Of course, this makes the storytelling much more compelling and it’s absolutely vital to Wagner, much more than the vocalism.  In French I don’t always feel that way and it could be because I’m not a fluent French speaker but in terms of tonal palette and colour, I think that German is a darker language.  I think of the French language a bit like watercolour in which one can introduce things such as portamenti and glissandi, as well as voix mixte, that aren’t really found in German music – it’s not a part of their style or their language.  In a lot of these French operas, we rely on a sense of emotion in the voice in the line to carry the text and I think if you try to add that on to any German text it rings false.  As an American singer I’ve been lucky enough to sing in Polish, English, Russian, French, Italian, German and in all these various styles.  It’s been a real gift singing in all of these different styles and I’m convinced that they each inform the other but being very, very consequent about not letting these styles overlap into the next.

As Idomeneo in Essen.  Photo © Bettina Stöß
As Idomeneo in Essen. Photo © Bettina Stöß

Thinking about some of the more recent productions I have seen you in, the Dresden Hoffmann and the Bieito Carmen that you did at ENO, both are very visual, quite visceral stagings.  How do you consolidate the vocal demands with the acting and get them to come together?

My teacher, Michael Paul, always talks about hitting your mark and having a game plan. Thinking about difficult moments that are coming up and focusing on where I need to be with the singing.  And that’s what I do, I sketch out a game plan and if I realize that a section is going to be really tough, I’ll talk to the director and say to him that it would be better if I’m not laying on my back for those two pages, if we could find a better position to be singing from.  I often heard at the beginning of my career, ‘you act when you’re not singing, darling!’.  That’s just no longer acceptable in twenty-first century opera stagings.  I think it probably did work quite well in the 70s and 80s.  I think I’ve been lucky in the directors I’ve worked with – I recently worked with Christof Loy who I adore – and you develop a dialogue with them over the course of rehearsal and if they’re good, they’ll see where you might be having difficulties and try to find a way to help out in those moments that are technically difficult.

Let’s look back to when you were growing up in Iowa – how did you discover your voice?

When I was 15 we had a foreign exchange student come from Mexico.  His father was a tenor and he brought all these CDs with him of great tenors.  I heard something playing in the background – we’d become good friends – and I was just absolutely taken by this voice.  I remember asking him what that was and he said ‘it’s opera’.  I began going to the public library and I would check out old recordings and I started to listen to the arias and imitating them.  I was singing things in my basement just for fun.  Then I went to Luther College, in Decorah, Iowa.  We had one of the greatest choral conductors of the last century who was there.  I spent a lot of my time there singing in choir.  Some thought that was not necessarily the best use of my time, myself included.  Now I look back and think it was because it really taught me to integrate my head voice into my chest voice.  I couldn’t just be singing full out in this choir.  I still use that when I’m on stage to mix my voice.  I really didn’t start singing operatically until I won the Met auditions in 1998.  My voice teacher, at Luther College, Ed Andereck, told me to just focus on entering the Met auditions in my junior year and we worked on getting the arias ready.  Ed was an invaluable resource to me at Luther and guided me perfectly in those early years.  I was 22 when I won and the Met invited me to join the program in that season but I had to finish college.  As soon as I finished college I went into the Lindemann Young Artists Program in the fall of 99.

And that was it.

And that was it.  I was lucky to be surrounded with a group of young singers who were very ambitious.  Another good friend of mine, Charlie Castronovo, was there with me, Russell Thomas was also there with me at one point as well as Mariusz Kwiecień.  We also had access to some of the greatest singers of the last century such as Birgit Nilsson, Régine Crespin, Renata Scotto, Martina Arroyo, Marilyn Horne, as well as the entire musical staff at the Met, not to mention the maestro himself, James Levine.  In some ways my inexperience is what enabled me to get through there at age 23 or 24 without becoming a neurotic mess, because I really had no idea what opera was; I had never seen an opera until I was in one.  I didn’t know who Ben Heppner was, I didn’t know who Debbie Voigt was, I didn’t know and I think that served me very well.  I was thrown up there and that was how the first five or six seasons went for me.  I didn’t really have a breaking-in phase.  I think by the time I got to 2006, 2007 I became aware of the fact that I needed to get out of that spotlight, I needed to go somewhere and hone my craft and I think it was a good thing for me to come to Europe when I did.

And you’ve made a fantastic career here.

I wouldn’t necessarily say I feel like a European but I don’t necessarily only feel like an American either, I’m somewhere in between.  I have two children now who are being raised bilingual and multicultural and that certainly helps.  It’s been an incredible ride and it’s been up and down, but I owe so much to this art form and to music and I strive very hard every day, every month to make sure that people know that they should take a second look at opera.  I’m not just a singers’ singer, I’m also someone who is very much like you who thinks it’s important for the theatre to be more than just singing and to find that balance of a remarkable production with remarkable singers.

And when it does happen it’s something very special.

Absolutely magical.

Justina Gringyte & Eric Cutler in Carmen at ENO © Alastair Muir
Justina Gringyte & Eric Cutler in Carmen at ENO © Alastair Muir

So let’s finish off with the question that I always finish off with.  We were due to be seeing you around now as Lohengrin sometime around now but that was called off due to the late running renovations in Brussels.  What else do we have to look forward from you?

I think we are still due to be going ahead with that next season.  I’m looking at Énée in Troyens, I think it’s going to be a good fit.

Yes, it is! I was actually thinking about asking you about that – that’s fantastic news.

I’m also looking at Bacchus, Werther, Idomeneo, Der fliegende Holländer, Rusalka, Frau ohne Schatten and Fidelio – in this direction.  French grand opera and the higher lyric helden fach.  I think I’m going to try and keep Apollo in my repertoire as long as I can, however, I’m sure there’s going to be a day when I say that’s enough.  I’d love to add Walther from Die Meistersinger and Paul from Die tote Stadt by Korngold.  I’d like to sing some of these pieces by Schreker – Die Gezeichneten and Der ferne Klang.  I think there’s something in those.  I’d like to spend the next 7 or 8 years keeping my voice as high as possible and then in my 50s we’ll see where it goes.  By that point I might start to add a Siegfried or Tannhäuser.  That’s certainly a role that’s going to come, Tannhäuser, but I just want to wait.  I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me.  In some ways, it’s almost like starting over but in the best possible way.  It’s a very rewarding and exciting time for me at the moment and a time that one day, I’m sure, I will look back on with immense joy.


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