Monday, February 17, 2014

ARTISTS CORNER: Bass-baritone Matthew Burns

Bass-baritone Matt Burns
Bass-baritone Matthew Burns, who the New York Times describes as possessing a "beautiful bass-baritone voice," makes his debut at Sarasota Opera this season as Basilio in The Barber of Seville which opened February 15th.  Mr. Burns career highlights include appearances at New York City Opera, Los Angeles Opera, Opera Theater of St. Louis, and Boston Lyric Opera as well as performing in concert at some of the world's most prestigious stages. 

Continue reading to learn what opera inspired Mr. Burns to become an opera singer, what he avoids putting on his cheesecake before a performance, and how a "chance" meeting on the street introduced him to the love of his life.      

Q. Where are you from originally and where do you live currently?
A. I was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia. I now live in Astoria, Queens, NYC, once home to Maria Callas, Tony Bennett, Ethel Merman, The Costanzas from Seinfeld, and Archie Bunker.

Mr. Burns as Leporello in Don Giovanni
at Boston Lyric Opera
Q. What drew you to become a singer? Was there a specific “Aha!” moment of clarity?
A. I like transient living and poverty. Maybe I should have just been a carny?
Seriously, I have been singing since I can remember. I used to sing for my extended family at Christmas time when I was a little guy. I got into choir in middle school and stayed through graduation. I was in a grunge band in high school. I decided to go to college to be a better singer but they only taught opera. So I stuck it out for a couple of years. I took up a double major in music education and performance. In 1995, I saw a performance of Don Giovanni at Virginia Opera. I laughed for the first time as an opera audience member. "Aha!" It was a combination of the character of Leporello, Mozart's music, and my cumulative training to that point, but that was it for me. I decided that I wanted to do THAT, make people laugh. I devoted myself to this amazing art form from that moment on.

Q. Did you have other career aspirations in the works before you decided on singing?
A. I loved psychology. I thought about a double major in college in Music and Psychology. This has proven useful when delving into the minds of the characters I have had the privilege of playing over the years.

Q. You have sung the role of Basilio before. What do you enjoy about performing this role?
A. Basilio sings one of the classic opera arias, "La Calunnia", the rumor. When I first started studying opera, I noticed that "La Calunnia" was on every great bass aria  compilation. I love that this role has lived in the throats and bodies of some of the greatest performers of all time.

Mr. Burns as Basilio in The Barber of Seville
at Sarasota Opera
Q. This is your chance to put Basilio center stage. What do you want the audience know about Basilio?
A. My therapist says that people drop clues about themselves all the time. You just have to be paying attention. The fun part of playing Basilio is that no one really pays attention to him throughout the opera. They are all wrapped up in their own mess. Even at the end of his big number, Bartolo immediately dismisses Basilio's idea for his own. "Do re mi fa sol" (Money makes me King)! This is a phrase Basilio mutters when he enters in the Act 1 finale. Characters reveal who they truly are when they are talking to themselves.  This line has lead many directors to make Basilio a kleptomaniac. I look forward revisiting Basilio to see how this side of his personality develops.

Q. Looking over your performance resume, you have sung both a number of dramatic and comedic roles. Do you have a preference?
A. Until last year, I would have said comedic roles, also given my answer from earlier asking about my inspiration for pursuing this career. However, I got the opportunity to sing the role of George in Of Mice and Men, an opera Sarasota Opera produced last year. It was one of the highlights of my life. There is so much meat on that bone. I look forward to delving into many dramatic roles in the future in addition to many Leporellos, Basilios and Figaros.

Q. Now, is it true that you met your wife (soprano Anne Carolyn Bird) performing in an opera?
A. No, I first "accosted" her on the street in front of Time Warner Center in NYC. We were scheduled to perform opposite each other as Figaro and Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro in Grand Rapids, MI later that month. I recognized her from her Facebook profile pic.

When we were in Grand Rapids rehearsing The Marriage of Figaro, (which should really be called Figaro's wedding) is when I fell pretty hard for her. I kept my feelings hidden as we were just colleagues. But as fate has it, while we were there rehearsing, she got a last minute replacement job to sing Rosina in The Barber of Seville in Dayton, Ohio, where I was scheduled to be Basilio. We had three weeks off between The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville. The first day of rehearsal in Dayton I knew I was toast. We started "datin' in Dayton", were engaged four months later, and were married four months after that. We had the chance to perform Susanna and Figaro at Virginia Opera last season. It was a dream to revisit the roles that brought us together.
Mr. Burns wife, soprano Anne Carolyn Bird, in rehearsal while Mr. Burns and their son Henry watch from off-stage.
Q. It must be exciting being married to another successful singer but I imagine it poses some unique challenges?
A. It is exciting and boring and everything else in between, just like any other marriage. We are the proud parents of a wonderful three and a half year old boy, Henry. That does complicate things a bit. I won't get into the logistics that is required to do…well, anything. Let's just say, my next career should be in air traffic control with the amount of logistical planning I have to go through on a daily basis.

Mr. Burns as George in Of Mice and Men
at Utah Opera
Q. Why do you think people should come and see this opera?
A. Why should people go see the Mona Lisa? Why should people go see the Grand canyon? Because when you have access to something as great as this in your hometown, you have to experience it. Opera is an always changing art form. So even if you have seen The Barber of Seville before, you have not seen this one. Operas are like great cuisine. The basic recipes are the same, but the amounts of the ingredients, the quality of the ingredients and the way it is presented will change with each chef. We, the artists, bring our years of experience and training with us making this performance unique. No two will be the same. So, Don't miss it!

Q. Thus far, what is the most bizarre experience you have had during a rehearsal or performance anywhere you have sung? 
A. I was just out of music school working with an independent producer at Brooklyn Academy of Music on a Handel Opera called Siroe. I was the only American in the cast. The agreed upon language to speak in was French. I took French in high school so I felt pretty comfortable but was certainly not fluent by any means. At the intermission of the final dress rehearsal right before the first entrance, the director sees me backstage and asks: "Ou est la salle?" To which I replied, in French "follow me". I remember well that one of the phrases you had to know in high school if you wanted to go the restroom was "puis-je aller à la salle de bains?". "May I go to the restroom?" Clever me, I take him, an older, heavy set man with very slender legs down two flights of stairs and point into the dressing rooms. I gesture in and say, "D'accord, la salle" He looks at me and says something to the effect of "pas la salle de bain, la salle de Theatre" ("Not the bathroom, the hall to the theater")!

Q. Do you have any pre-performance rituals? Performance superstitions? Good luck charms?
A. I don't have any superstitions but I do have reflux. So eating cheesecake with bacon covered with Sriracha the night before the show is not happening.

Q. How do you relax in between performances? What hobbies do you enjoy at home and “on the road?
A. I eat Sriracha covered cheesecake with bacon. Not exactly! But, I am a foodie and an oenophile. I will be seeking out amazing food in and around Sarasota. I love finding holes in the wall that only locals know about in addition to exploring chef restaurants and trying new foods. I am not big on the chain restaurants.
So if anyone wants to take me to somewhere amazing, I'm game. I love cooking too. I bring a spice kit and a chef knife on every gig. I anticipate many cast meals.

Mr. Burns as Taddeo in Rossini L'italiana in Algieri
Q. How do you stay connected to family and friends when you are “on the road”? Do you keep a blog? Website? Facebook? Twitter?
A. With Anne-Carolyn and Henry, we Skype at least once a day usually at breakfast.  For the rest of the family, I am on Facebook. I treat Facebook like a living photo album for the sake of my family. Some of my extended family don't get to see us except once a year. I like to keep them updated. I try to keep Facebook to actual friends, people I would stop to chat with on the street if I saw them. But the list grows every year.
I have a twitter feed but am not very active. You can find me at @baseberrytone on Twitter.

Don't miss Mr. Burns' critically acclaimed comic timing as Basilio in Rossini's The Barber of Seville opening Saturday, February 15th and running through March 21st.  Tickets are available at or by calling (941) 328-1300.

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