BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
What would baritones do without Verdi? Until the great Italian composer began writing his operas in the 19th century, there wasn't much distinction between baritone and bass, and the characters they played tended to be predictable: older men, primarily in supporting roles to sopranos and tenors.
Mark Walters, a baritone, explained the debt he owed to Verdi.
"One of the big things Verdi did for baritones is that he often made them the leading characters and gave them a lot of interesting dramatic choices," Walters said. "This allowed him to bring out another, higher part of the voice. You have the heroic, joyful or evil high notes that he wrote, and then you also have to be able to show, vocally, a lot of compassion. You need a reasonable amount of heft throughout the range, but also the ability to bring out more caressing colors in your voice."
Walters is singing one of those Verdi baritone roles, Renato, in Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball), staged this week by Opera Tampa to open its first Florida Opera Festival at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. He plays the male secretary to Riccardo, a count who is besotted with Renato's wife, Amelia. Renato gets involved with a political conspiracy that climaxes with Riccardo's assassination at a masquerade party.
Though Renato is not at the very top of Verdi baritone roles — they would probably be the characters for the voice in Macbeth, Rigoletto, Simon Boccanegra and Otello — he does have a passionate aria, Eri tu.
"It occurs in the third act right after I've discovered, or at least I think, that my wife has been unfaithful," Walters said. "We come back to our home and I tell her that she is going to have to pay with her blood for her infidelity. Her main aria, where she pleads to see our son one more time before I kill her, comes right before my aria in which I realize that it's not her on which I need to focus my revenge but the count."
Walters is performing Renato for the first time. As he has with other roles, he studied it with one of the all-time great Verdi baritones, Sherrill Milnes, now retired, who lives in Pinellas County. He spent time with Milnes working on the role before Ballo rehearsals began.
"He sings the stuff I sang, so I can pass on traditions from the old conductors and singers," Milnes said. "We work privately at my house on the big bomber arias like Eri tu."
Milnes, who sang Renato (called Anckarstrom in another version of the opera) hundreds of times at the Metropolitan Opera and other major houses, has a wealth of practical advice for his student.
"I will say things to Mark like 'Here, swallow twice in this rest, so that you get your throat remoistened, because you're going to be dry.' Or I'll tell him to back off during a big chorus. Don't give it your max when nobody is going to hear you. Save it until you're going to need it."
The baritone is also picking up useful insight into performing Renato from Daniel Lipton, artistic director of Opera Tampa. "Daniel knows the opera inside and out," Walters said. "He said the first time he conducted it was with Piero Cappuccilli, one of the great Italian interpreters of the role. In general, Daniel likes the tempos on the quick side, which is what he has found from his study of Verdi."
Walters, 48, who grew up in Iowa and now lives in Jacksonville, N.C., is moving into heavier baritone roles. Also with Milnes, he studied the role of Jack Rance in Puccini's La Fanciulla del West (Girl of the Golden West), which he'll perform for the first time with Mobile Opera in March.
"Puccini wrote lower than Verdi for baritones," Walters said. "Scarpia (in Tosca) and Jack Rance sit a couple steps lower. They don't go quite as high for the dramatic high notes and in general the roles lie a little bit lower. If you don't have pretty strong low notes Puccini can be tricky."
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.