Bradley Smoak is a second-year member of the Ryan Opera Center, the Lyric Opera’s development program for talented young singers. He is singing the role of the First Apprentice in the current production of Wozzeck, Alban Berg’s thrilling Expressionist opera. The Chicago Maroon spoke with Smoak about the unique charm of atonality and why champagne at intermission might not be the best idea.
Chicago Maroon: I’ve heard Wozzeck described as a very difficult piece to enjoy because it’s written atonally, without traditional major-minor keys. Why do you think the public is so averse to this style of music?
Bradley Smoak: Well, I think when you go to the theatre or the opera or a musical, everyone hopes to leave humming the tunes to themselves. I think very few people these days actually go to the theatre to be moved. That’s why pieces like this are so important, because it draws in the crowd in a very different way than a piece everyone knows because they’ve heard arias on the radio.
CM: How would you describe the way Wozzeck draws you in?
BS: First you sit down, and there’s no overture to warm you up into the world. You are thrown into this world, which is reminiscent of people dealing with the aftermath of war. Everyone nowadays can relate to these characters in a way that might be harder if you were watching something done in period, [or stylized] like the Figaro we did [earlier this season]—it becomes almost operatic caricature, which is, of course, very entertaining and has relevance. But [Wozzeck] is so different because it’s so relatable, which creates a more immediate emotional response.
CM: Having both very alien music and very relatable drama seems like a contradiction. How does the piece reconcile the two?
BS: We live our lives in a world where there is not always a soundtrack happening behind us, as much as we’d like to think there is. But these real-word sounds, I think, are reflected in Berg’s writing in a lot of ways. The [opera] is not great music and powerful story and beautiful costumes all separate—it’s [all] one total piece. And the music may not be beautiful in Classical terms, but what it adds to the rest of the piece is absolutely gorgeous. [Wozzeck] is a complete piece of theater in a way which I think is absolutely unique.
CM: The idea that opera is a complete work of art, or Gesamtkunstwerk, comes from Wagner. How, as a performer and a singer, do you imbue the viewing experience with that sense of totality?
BS: I think that you have to be willing to make “ugly” sounds onstage. It’s not always about the most beautiful vocal line you can create with this music, it’s so tied into the text as well as the ambient sounds in the orchestration. It’s a desperate piece. Wozzeck, the Doctor, and the Apprentice I was singing are all written at the extremes of each voice—every character is written at the absolute extremes of its voice. I think it becomes such a complete experience because it is the complete range of every character: vocally, emotionally, and theatrically.
CM: Speaking of the vocal challenges of Wozzeck, there are four expressive modes Berg employs: singing, speaking, half-singing, and Sprechgesang (“spoken singing”). How would you describe this last one?
BS: When we’re singing Classical lines, it is hitting a note at the center of the pitch and sustaining that note, until the next note comes along or until there’s a rest. In Sprechgesang, it is hitting around about the center of the pitch, and then not sustaining that pitch. So it either falls off, or it lifts up, or it becomes a spoken sound. There are still pitches involved, but it’s very similar to how we speak normally: I’ve never met anybody who speaks completely monotone, all one pitch. It creates a very musical speech, which is the dramatic reason behind Sprechgesang.
CM: And why is Sprechgesang so dramatically necessary to the opera?
BS: I think it gives the individual performers a lot more freedom to tell the story in a way personal to them. Angela Denoke—Marie—has a scene with her child where you see how important her child is [despite the chaos] around her. There are choices she makes vocally on very high notes—she straight-tones the note to the point that it’s piercing, that it almost goes through you. It’s incredibly powerful, and you can feel the emotion coming from her.
CM: Finally, what’s one element of the McVicar production you’d change and why?
BS: I can tell you one element I wouldn’t change. I definitely wouldn’t change the fact that it’s done without intermission. That’s important for any production of this piece in particular, to hold onto that dramatic tension that’s building up.
CM: Imagine if there was a break in the middle and you went for a glass of champagne—
BS: Exactly! It’s a piece where you don’t want the audience to have that moment of introspection or relief from the work. Wozzeck is only 100 minutes long, so it’s not unbearable to sit through by any means. But because it draws you in so quickly you want the audience to sit on the edge of their seats the whole time, and then think about it later.
The Lyric Opera’s performance of Wozzeck runs through November 21. Student tickets are available for $20 for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, November 12, 7:30 p.m. Monday, November 16, and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, November 21.