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2004
An Interview with Robert Brubaker
An American tenor discusses his experience singing Jewish liturgical music for the Milken Archive

Tenor Robert Brubaker studied at the Hartt College of Music in Hartford, Connecticut. Shortly after graduation he joined the New York City Opera, where he advanced from being a baritone in the chorus to become one of the company's leading tenors, appearing at Lincoln Center and on tour in such roles as Rodolfo in La Bohème and Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly.

Since then Brubaker has gone on to sing at some of the world's leading opera houses. In 1992, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut as one of the "master singers" in Die Meistersinger, and two years later he made his European debut at the Rome Opera in the title role of Alexander Zemlinsky's Der Zwerg (The Dwarf). He has also performed with the English National Opera in London, where in 1999 he sang his first Peter Grimes to great acclaim.

During the 1980s, he sang with the New York-based, male-voice choir Schola Hebraeica, which specializes in Jewish repertoire, and as a chorister for traditional High Holy Day synagogue services. He points to the influence of those learned cantorial renditions on his own vocal development and on his spiritual approach to the genre, and he often credits the emotional impact of that experience with informing his interpretation of sacred music in general.

Milken Archive: Your father was a preacher in a church where you sang gospel music. Could you talk a little about that?

Robert Brubaker: As a young person I had this sort of natural voice. I suppose some of my first singing was when I was 12 or 13. Before long, I was singing in church, leading and singing solos. I sang for my father's revival meetings. We were a small group called the Brethren in Christ. This wasn't gospel music as some people think of it. Some people think of gospel music as the highly spirited kind, almost R&B. This wasn't that kind of gospel.

MA: What was it like?

RB: I would say that our gospel music was a little simpler and more subdued. We didn't swing with the music and clap our hands. Also, when I was young, I sang in what we called gospel quartets, which was very popular in a lot of the churches back then. I don't know if these quartets still operate, but there were a lot of these male quartets and they were popular among various Christian churches.

MA: You must have been fairly young when you sang in the quartets.

RB: Yeah, I would have been a teenager—14, 15, 16.

MA: It sounds like good training.

RB: It was.

MA: Did you also take lessons?

RB: I began to take lessons when I was about 17. I was working for my uncle on his farm and we made this deal that he would pay for my voice lessons if I didn't insist on playing on the high school baseball team. It's not that he didn't want me to. It's just that he needed me to stay on the farm rather than go to baseball practice every night. But I was also beginning to be interested in singing, especially after I had seen a professional opera singer perform at my high school. So we inquired, and I soon began my studies with this performer, Romayne Bridgette.

MA: Is that when you knew you wanted to become a professional?

RB: I'm not sure exactly when that happened. I enjoyed singing and I wanted to be good. But thinking about becoming a professional—I don't know, I suppose that really happened sometime in college.

MA: There were obviously religious influences at home. Were there also musical influences at home?

RB: Well, the religious influences were fairly obvious. My father was a minister and we were dragged off to church every Sunday, twice a day: Sunday morning and Sunday night. And then, of course, on Wednesdays, we had mid-week evening prayer services at the church. This was a farm church out in Mastersonville, Pennsylvania. But there was really very little musical influence at home—just the singing we did in church.

I will say, my mother had one of those old hi-fi sets—this was the old box version, with a handle. And it was laid on top of a chest of drawers in the living room. And when you lifted the lid, there were these extra speakers in it. It was just a simple record player. It used to play 33 rpm vinyl records. I never knew where my mother got these records, but she had these recordings of some of the Tchaikovsky ballets, some Beethoven symphonies, the Ferde Grofé Grand Canyon Suite etc. I remember listening to that a lot. I read the liner notes and imagined the donkeys. We also happened to have a recording of Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors. I had the best time with it. When I was a kid, I used to imitate the tenor singing "This Is My Box." I have no idea how these particular recordings came to be in the house, but I listened to them a lot when I was a kid. So that was an influence, I suppose.

MA: You were already a professional singer when you began singing with Milken Archive Artistic Director Neil Levin in New York in the early '90s. You were a member of Schola Hebraeica, the professional all-male chorus in New York that he founded. What is your recollection of your experiences there?

RB: I actually only did one season. It was a great experience. I've always enjoyed the spiritual passion of Jewish music and that holds over also from my experiences as a youth in gospel music. It was great fun, what we did.

MA: You must have received a lot of Hebrew experience in the course of your work with Schola Hebraeica.

RB: I did. I also worked with Dr. Levin at one of the temples in New York where he arranged the High Holy Days services as well as at other temples in New York and New Jersey.

MA: What are some of the highlights of your professional career?

RB: One of the high points was when I played the role of Der Zwerg by Zemlinsky. We played it both in Charleston (Spoleto Festival) and then the director, Gian Carlo Menotti took the production to Rome. It happened that we were all available, so he brought the whole company to the Italian festival. And that particular role in that opera was a real personal watershed, in that it showed me how much I love not just the singing but a great script. I like an opera to be a great story. It was so moving to me how the audiences were touched by this little character. Another one of the big highlights of my career came in 2000 when I did Prokofiev's setting of Tolstoy's War and Peace in Paris with international opera and theater director, Francesca Zambello. It's now available on DVD, actually.

MA: What made it a highlight?

RB: Oh, it was just a great production. I wasn't originally scheduled to do it. I was scheduled to make my debut in Paris as Boris in Kátia Kabanová by Janácek, and I was just going to cover [understudy] the role of Pierre in War and Peace. But something happened that caused the original Pierre to withdraw from the production, and Francesca decided to give me the role, in spite of the fact that I'm not really the correct physical type. Pierre is described as a big bear of a man and I'm exactly the opposite. I'm probably the smallest tenor on earth! But she persuaded the Paris Opera to let me do it and it turned out to be a big success.

MA: So you were able to maintain that role, which you loved.

RB: Yes. And there again, I loved the role for its character. I loved the role for all that it meant. Tolstoy put a lot of himself into that character. So that was a great moment. It was also great because Francesca decided to take a chance on me—I wasn't completely a known quantity. That was a wonderful moment in my life.

MA: What do you think of Yizkor Requiem?

RB: I think it's a great, wonderful, interesting piece in that it has a variety of styles and it combines many elements of the Jewish and Catholic funeral services. It was really quite amazing. It's a beautiful combination of styles and ideas—very ecumenical. I found that very interesting.

MA: Had you ever sung a similar work?

RB: No, other than the occasional Catholic requiem, although I hadn't really sung that many of them. And the other piece that I sang for the Milken Archive was a Friday evening service by Berlinski [Avodat Shabbat]. That piece was equally wonderful, but it was a little different. It has a little more of a traditional Jewish structure. So I guess I really hadn't done a piece quite like the Yizkor Requiem before.

MA: Because a piece like it doesn't exist?

RB: Not something that tries to bridge the styles between the Jewish service and a Catholic requiem mass.

MA: Was it difficult to sing?

RB: There were moments! Thomas Beveridge threw in some really challenging moments, as I recall.

MA: How was it learning the Hebrew?

RB: Well, I had Dr. Levin's transliteration, and his expertise for teaching non-Hebrew-speaking singers to sing in Hebrew. His transliterations are fantastic—very easy to understand.

MA: People will say Italian and French are such wonderful languages to sing. Hebrew is very different. Do you think it's a musical language?

RB: I love singing Hebrew. It's a great language to sing. I know the first thing that singers think about are the various consonant situations and the slightly uvular or guttural sounds in the language. But they needn't destroy the singing. I mean, Jewish cantors are great singers and they grow up on this language, so how can it be a bad language to sing? Likewise, many singers are afraid when they first look at Czech; they get nervous, but actually, once you master some of the consonant combinations, Czech is very, very pure. And, as I recall, a lot of the Jewish vowel sounds are basically very pure, too. You don't have all these schwa sounds and other odd sounds as in English, French, and German. Hebrew is really quite a pure language in terms of the vowel sounds.

MA: What is your attachment to Herman Berlinski's Avodat Shabbat?

RB: I loved it. It's wonderful music. Right now as we are speaking, I happen to be in the same city where I recorded it; Berlin. I love that piece. I've always enjoyed the passion of Jewish sacred music, and this gave me a chance to experience a little bit of what cantors experience every Friday evening.

MA: Was there a greater significance to recording this work in Berlin? Let's say that this same work, Avodat Shabbat, had been recorded in England or in the United States. Would that have made a difference to you?

RB: No, it doesn't make any difference to me. What was a wonderful experience for me was that we were recording in a church where many other wonderful artists and groups and orchestras have also recorded, so that was very special. And, of course, Gerard Schwarz was fantastic. It was such a great pleasure to work with him on the piece. I'm aware that for some, the idea of recording this service in Germany, in Berlin, had an obvious significance.

MA: Did you have a chance to speak with Herman Berlinski at all?

RB: Yes, he was a very sweet man.

MA: Did the two of you talk about his piece?

RB: There again, it was interesting. Herman was there but he didn't really have a lot of comments. Once in a while he would say, "You can stress this word here" or "stress that word there," or "I feel this phrase going here." But many times he seemed to be happy at my appreciation for the language, my feeling for the music, and my attention to the words which I learned as a child singing religious music. When you sing religious music, you're trying to communicate. So the words are very important. I think he appreciated that.

MA: He must have been pretty pleased with your singing.

RB: I hope so. I think so. He was very supportive.

MA: How have your own beliefs influenced your perspective on the Christian-Catholic/Jewish interplay of Yizkor Requiem and Avodat Shabbat? Have your beliefs somehow influenced how you look at those two works?

RB: I don't think they did, because I think I took each piece for what it was and what it was supposed to be. And then as best I could, I tried to do what the music called for. I can appreciate the spiritual passion that comes from various religious experiences. I've been a professional singer in many different types of churches and synagogues. And it's my job as a professional to experience and deliver what's wanted at that moment. And for my own spiritual experience I can tap into what I need to tap into to capture the emotions of what's going on in these various works. In the Friday night service (Avodat Shabbat) and in the Yizkor Requiem, when a prayer is calling out to God for guidance or to bless the day or bless our people, I can tap into that. And my own personal spirituality can tap into that. But it's irrelevant what I think about the specific doctrines. Otherwise, an actor, for example, would say, "Well, I'm only going to do plays or play characters that only agree with what I do, with what I believe or what I think as a human being." And then you're not an actor, you're not a professional anymore. You're completely personalizing the art form.

MA: What was your experience recording with the Milken Archive?

RB: It was great. I love working with Neil Levin. He's terrific. It was an amazing project to gather together all this beautiful music, and record all these many, many works that had been composed and performed but maybe not recorded. I also enjoyed, from a professional point of view, that it was completely well-organized. It was incredible that they managed to pull together such wonderful orchestras and choruses and conductors from all over the world to do this. I was, and am, proud to be part of it.