Zak Nelson Exits AVA At The Top Of His Game
Zachary Nelson recently performed a pair of the most demanding baritone roles as part of his guest artist residency at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philly. Previously Nelson, only 27, performed such mature leads as the lover Michele in Puccini "Il tabarro" and the aged libertine in Verdi’s "Falstaff." This year so far, he has had back-to-back successes in two stylistically different lead roles: first as the big hearted, sousy, side-kick Sancho Pansa in Massenet’s "Don Quixote," then as Renato, the bitter jealous husband Verdi’s "Un Ballo de Maschera."
Meantime, Nelson has also racked up opera competition prizes in the last two years including the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation International Vocal Competition and George London Award, George London Foundation Vocal Competition for 2012 and he was just awarded the 2013 Sarah Tucker Grant.
Sipping decaffeinated Passion tea at Starbucks last week, Nelson reflected on residency at AVA, he credits working with the masterful team of conductor Christofer Macatsoris and opera director Tito Capobianco.
In the moment
"Tito is a director who drives us on believing what we are saying and doing in the moment. I always feel it’s harder to be funnier than serious, but he showed me that making the moments genuine is the same. Finding the intent of those dramatic moments in ’Ballo ’is just as difficult as coming up with slapstick comedy in ’Quixote,’" he explained.
Renato is one of opera’s most vocally challenging roles, with lengthy scenes where the character emotes anger and passion that have to be calibrated not only for the character, but as to not blow out the voice. Renato is a gentleman officer who unravels with jealousy when he discovers a tryst between his wife and Gustav.
While this classic story can played as grand soap opera. Nelson goes for something deeper.
"I started preparing Renato last fall, and he and Sancho are not that different. For two acts Renato shows heart and humility, everything he says to Gustavo is very genuine and he really cares about him. It’s not until the double betrayal. He’s a broken man after that. (But) I didn’t want the emotion to get a hold of my singing. I need to stay cool and collected," he said.
Nelson said he didn’t really train as an actor until he got to AVA. "My first acting coach, was Tito, my first year here, with ’Falstaff,’ he showed me that these stories are already ridiculous, the moment you make operatic gestures, it’s meaningless. You have to be natural and in the moment, no matter what the situation."
On opening night in ’Ballo,’ there was only one misfire in the otherwise flawless performance: when the gun Nelson wields in the denouement, didn’t fire.
"I think it’s the sixth baritone part I’ve had when I get to shoot the tenor," he joked, "but we had to pretend for this one."
Nelson girlfriend is 3rd year resident AVA soprano Alexandra Maximova and their romance is operatic. "When she came here, I asked her out. She didn’t know any English, but she knew ’no,’" Nelson laughs. "Flash-forward and now we’ve been together a year."
The couple has a no singing rule in their apartment, but they do watch The Voice, " It’s kind of trashy, but we love it." Nelson said that outside of opera he likes Willie Nelson and bossa nova tunes.
"And I love to cook listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. They are still amazing, if you don’t love Ella, you don’t have a soul," he observes.
When Nelson finishes the run of ’Ballo’ and his AVA senior recital this weekend, he is heading to Santa Fe Opera, where he will sing the title role in ’Le nozze di Figaro.’ Then he will be in Germany singing six roles in a year at the famed Semperoper Dresden.
For remaining performances of Un Ballo in Maschera and AVA recitals go to www.avaopera.org