Getting into Character with Bass-Baritone Alfred Walker

Getting into Character with Bass-Baritone Alfred Walker, ‘Tosca’s’ New Villain

Alfred Walker was always shy. Growing up in the Pigeon Town neighborhood of New Orleans, he stood out as an active kid, an athletic kid, but not as an outgoing one. His sister was the one with the singing talent. Walker’s interests lay more with sports.

But it was at Dillard University, a historically Black liberal arts school in Louisiana, that everything started to change. The campus chorus needed more men, and a friend suggested they apply. Walker, then 21, had done a little singing, but not that much. He stood up at his audition and announced he was a tenor.

The chorus master was skeptical. “Your voice is kinda deep for a tenor,” Walker recalls him saying. But Walker was adamant: He was a tenor, no doubt. Looking back, Walker speculates that he might have been influenced by the pop music at the time, with R&B singers like Brian McKnight reaching stratospheric high notes. He’s not sure. All he knew back then was that tenors seemed cool—and he wanted to be one.

“So I started screaming, trying to sing tenor notes,” Walker remembers with a laugh. But when his voice dipped down into the low Ds and Cs, he nailed the audition notes. And with that, his dream of being a tenor was over. His career as a bass-baritone, however, was about to begin.

“From there, I got the bug,” Walker says. “So one thing led to another. I got into opera, and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s the thing I was supposed to do in this lifetime.”

Walker’s path to success wasn’t a straight rocket to the top. His shyness held him back, especially early on. He knew he was committed to his art, but those around him didn’t always notice the passion brewing inside the young singer. One chorus leader introduced Walker to his future voice teacher, Philip Frohnmayer, by saying: “Don't worry about Alfred. He's not serious.”

Then, there was the question of his voice type. As a young artist, he wasn’t quite a bass, and he wasn’t quite a baritone. “I didn't fit into a box,” Walker explains. “If I didn't have people thinking outside of those boxes when I was a kid, when I was first starting, I wouldn't have a career.”

But Walker did ultimately find that support—and he has since built a career on major stages in the United States and Europe. Since making his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1998, he has starred in over 150 performances on that stage alone.

While Walker has performed a wide variety of roles—he made his debut here at San Francisco Opera as the avenging brother in 2018’s Elektra—villains have become something of a signature for the bass-baritone. He played the abusive lover Crown in Porgy and Bess, the four villains in The Tales of Hoffmann, and various iterations of the devil in The Rake’s Progress, The Damnation of Faust, and more.

And now, in 2021, he adds a new evil-doer to his pantheon of characters: Walker is set to make his role debut as the blood-thirsty police chief Baron Scarpia in this August’s Tosca, opposite Ailyn Pérez. It will be the first time San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House will be open for performances since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered the theater. The last opera to be performed there was 2019's Hansel and Gretel, which Walker starred in as well.

In a recent telephone interview from his home in New York’s Hudson Valley, Walker was bursting with enthusiasm for his return to San Francisco—and for his new role.

“I’m so excited. Scarpia is one of those roles that you need a lot of experience for, so you wait and you wait and you wait,” Walker said. “I’ve had chances to do it. I didn't feel I was ready. He's kind of the ultimate villain in a lot of ways.”

Now, ahead of August’s opening night, he shares his process for getting under the skin of his characters—no matter how dark, how devious, how demented they may seem.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How do you know when you're ready for a role like Scarpia?

ALFRED WALKER: You kind of never know if you're ready. I've done so many villains, partly because of the color of my voice and my voice type. There are certain parts that I have a lot of respect for, and Scarpia is one.

You need to live and to experience life—the good and the bad—to really bring all that experience to the character. I believe that. You have to live. So while I'm sure vocally I could sing Scarpia at 35, I've lived so much since 35. I’m 50 now. So Scarpia at 50 will be a lot different than Scarpia at 35, because I've experienced good and bad. I've experienced loss. I have all these experiences that I've gained. Now I feel ready.

I'm the kind of actor and singer that likes to bring my life experiences onstage. I don't like to play a character. I like to melt the character into the things that I've experienced, into who I am, and then mix it all up and then let it explode, you know? And so it's going to be a lot of fun working with the director and finding all those things in Scarpia. I'm so excited. It’s all I think about.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Can I ask about that? You talk about wanting to understand Scarpia, even respect Scarpia in a way. So many people would be just like: He's evil, period. But perhaps it's more frightening to understand him as a human. How do you do that? How do you get under the skin of somebody who is evil to so many people?

WALKER: He's so complicated. Saying he's evil is really, really not enough. A lot of people who are evil, they don't really realize they're evil.

In my opinion, usually when people give out all this evil energy and they do bad things, it's because they're tormented on the inside, you know? And when you are such a negative person, you can only see the world as negative. You can only give off negative energy. So I try to find, in the character, the human side.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You've played so many villain roles and so many different faces to what people would consider quote-unquote evil. Do you ever end up taking that home in a psychological way?

WALKER: It's so easy to do that. So I have a process. What I do is, when I walk into the theater, the character comes with me. So I'm concentrated on the character, but not until I get into the theater. When I walk into the theater, I see people and I say hello, but I'm not super friendly. Because, especially when it's an evil character, I am in character right there. I let that build.

Also, after I get my makeup on, I spend time in the mirror. I love the make-up process because, as the makeup is coming on, I like to watch. After the makeup is done and the wig is on or whatever, I look in the mirror and Alfred is nowhere near. There's no room for him at that time. I look in the mirror and I am the character I'm playing. I’m not afraid to go there.

After the performance, I take the bow, I take the makeup off, and I leave that character in the theater. It's so easy, as you are coming home from the theater, to take that stuff with you, because I embody it. I try to. So it’s important that I have a process to leave it behind.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Does anyone in the audience ever mistake you for your character?

WALKER: Sometimes. People always say, “Oh my gosh, you're such a nice guy. I was afraid to meet you. How can you be so nice and so mean on stage?” And I say, “Well, it's not really me on stage. It's my experiences. I bring that. But it's not me, the person.” I don't bring that stuff home.

But in that moment when I'm on stage, I am that person. I am that person that I created. It's important to leave him there, though. The world doesn't need a Scarpia. He's terrible!

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: That’s so true.

WALKER: Out of all the evil roles I've done, my gosh! He is a terribly flawed person. Terribly flawed. I think he has all kinds of ego issues. I think he has trouble with what he thinks love is. I think he's consumed by his desires, and all of his desires are not sexual. I think he's really, really twisted. I think he loves to observe pain. I really do. I think he struggles with that.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Is it hard to take on this role right now, when you've got social movements like #MeToo confronting sexual violence? You also have the spotlight on police brutality, which obviously Scarpia embodies as well.

WALKER: I've thought about this, and it is uncomfortable for me, to be honest with you. But sometimes with art, to be really true to it, you have to show the ugly. I think about this, especially with the torturing of Cavaradossi and how he loves it.

My mentor, he passed away in 2013. His name is Phil Frohnmayer, and I studied with him at Loyola [University in New Orleans]. He's basically been my first and pretty much only voice teacher. And he would say: You have to be true to the character and whatever that means to you.

So I try to be true to the composer and, outside of saying notes and honoring all of the dynamics, I try to be true to the character. And the character calls for that. It is uncomfortable, but it does call for that.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Can I ask you about your first interaction with opera?

WALKER: I was 20. A pianist friend of mine—he’s no longer with us—his name is Moses Hogan and he's a composer and pretty popular with American Negro spirituals. He had a ticket to The Barber of Seville in New Orleans. He invited me. That was the first opera that I saw. And it kind of blew me away. The Barber of Seville is a pretty good first opera. [He chuckles.] I didn't think I could do it, but I remember a really, really great reaction to it.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Do you remember what you liked about it?

WALKER: It was pretty funny. I wish I could remember the cast, but it was a beautiful production. And I remember being fascinated. It was really foreign to me how you can line everything up—the singers with the conductor and all the movement that they were doing.

They were running around on stage, and still everything was together. That was really, really interesting to me. Like, how can you do that? How can you have the skill to do that? And Figaro was singing all those high notes. I didn't fall in love at that time, but I remember being really, really, really impressed.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Was there a moment when you did fall in love with the art form, something where it all clicked?

WALKER: The opera was Simon Boccanegra, and the character was Fiesco. The aria is “Il Lacerato Spirito,” and he has this full range of emotions. There’s this big recit in the beginning when he's angry. But he’s praying. He’s praying to God. He kind of goes out of control and then he realizes, “Oh my God, I have to ask God for forgiveness.” And then there’s this really beautiful second part to it.

Singing that aria—which has such a big, huge range of emotion—I just decided I want to do this for a living. I want to do this. I want to sing. There's something in me that clicked.

It stirred something up in me, singing this aria. The different range of emotions and the different things that I could do with it. It was like eating. It was like eating a perfect dinner. For my soul, it was so gratifying to be able to sing this aria and to master it.

The big challenge for me and a big part of why I do it—why I love doing what I do—is the individuality I can bring to it.

The notes are the same on the page. The tempi are the same on the page. All the markings. But how can I bring something different to it? Not by changing the music, not by changing the tempi, not by changing that dynamics, but by bringing my soul to it. As an artist, I feel like I have something to say that's individual to me—something that’s worth seeing.

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