SFOpera - ‘Barber of Seville’ Star Alek Shrader on Confronting Elitism and Anxiety

‘Barber of Seville’ Star Alek Shrader on Confronting Elitism and Anxiety

It was 2006, and tenor Alek Shrader was on the verge of a massive breakthrough in his career. 

In a year’s time, at age 25, Shrader would be crowned one of six winners at the prestigious Metropolitan National Council Auditions. What’s more, his victory would be captured in a feature-length documentary, The Audition, broadcast on public television stations across the United States.

But 2006 brought its own, equally important milestone: Shrader’s first professional outing as a lead performer. He had been cast in Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, in what would become one of his signature roles.

Shrader was tasked with playing Almaviva, a lovestruck count determined to marry the beautiful Rosina but too skittish to reveal his own identity. Instead, he adopts a series of disguises—first dressing as a student, then as a soldier—in order to approach her.

This was a character who loved the art of disguise, the art of pretend—and that’s something Shrader could relate to himself. “I enjoy pretending to not be me,” Shrader explains, “so I felt we had that in common on a base level.”

It was so good a match, in fact, that Shrader would be contracted to sing Almaviva on the Metropolitan Opera stage in New York City. And in Chicago. And Minneapolis. Seattle. Dallas. Baltimore.

Now, Shrader is gearing up to reprise the role once more, as San Francisco Opera prepares to unveil its first live performance since the start of the coronavirus pandemic: a new drive-in production of The Barber of Seville, held this spring in an open air theater at Marin Center.

But this will be more than a reunion between Shrader and his trademark role. This Barber of Seville is set to put Shrader back on stage with frequent co-star—and wife—mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack. She’ll play Rosina to his besotted Almaviva.

It’s the latest chapter in a love story that began right here in San Francisco, where the two met as young artists training at the Merola Opera Program. Nowadays, Mack and Shrader live in Valdosta, Georgia, where they recently moved with 5-year-old daughter Eva.

With the financial uncertainty brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, Shrader considers the Barber of Seville casting to be a “windfall” for their young family.

“It saved our whole situation. I’ll put it in no uncertain terms,” Shrader says. Still, he considers his family lucky: They were able to live off savings at a time when many American theaters were shuttered, and performers nationwide remain out of work.

But just because many stages are dark doesn’t mean he and Mack have been idle. Both are juggling side projects along with full-time parenting. Shrader, for instance, has been working on a film adaptation of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito for the Curtis Institute of Music, all while helping Eva navigate kindergarten online.

“We’re actually really, really busy. Probably busier than we were when we were singers, somehow,” Shrader says. 

He recently sat down for a telephone conversation with San Francisco Opera to talk about how withstanding the pressures of the opera industry—and how he takes a stand against elitism. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: I understand you grew up in Alva, Oklahoma, and that you were born to two opera singers. What was growing up in that household like? 

SHRADER: To me, it was totally normal. Opera was not this niche art form. It was just part of the house.

Alva was very small. And there was no opera to speak of, other than what we did at the university, where my dad and mom worked.

I stayed in Alva and I got my music education degree, but the performing bug bit me in my junior year, so we strategized where could I go. Definitely out of Alva. But where could I go that would get me closer to a performance career? So I applied for and went to my mom’s alma mater, Oberlin. It became clear that, if I was going to become an opera singer, I couldn’t be in Alva anymore.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You talk about opera being totally normal in your household. When did you start to realize the intense cultural weight that’s attributed to opera? That there’s a cultural signaling that this is an elite institution?

SHRADER: For the longest time, I have tried to be non-elite. Just the normal-est guy who happens to sing opera. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes people don’t take me as seriously, I think. And sometimes I really enjoy that. I’m a natural clown. But other times, I feel that my reputation doesn’t lend itself to those elite thinkers who want to see eliteness.

In Oklahoma, not only was opera strange and “other,” but it was also not interesting. It wasn’t appealing. So I rolled with that. I had a rock band. And my rock band would do stuff on the weekends, and then Monday through Friday was music ed, learning classical vocal technique. The normal-ness of opera was definitely only at home. 

When I started to get work, I really tried to keep the down-to-earth, “this is just fun, this is just singing, this is playing on stage” attitude for as long as I could. Maybe a little too long.

But I still believe that having the stigma of being elitist and too restrictive, too exclusive, can really damage the opera art form. I would like to see more people feeling invited, more people thinking they have access to opera, that it would speak to them. Because I truly believe that, while it might take an elite skill set to perform opera, the art form itself is absolutely all-inclusive. Everyone could gain from experiencing it.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Specifically how do you counteract the elitism that might be projected onto you?

SHRADER: Well, there’s the question of appearance I guess. You see someone, and we all make judgments. So I try to wear things that don’t necessarily look fancy. I wear my Converses and my old jeans. That’s me. I’m not trying to be anyone important.

And then conversations inevitably come up where people wax on about the geniuses who composed these great works that are standing the test of time. I try to be light-hearted about it and also make the case for reinterpreting work that has survived this long. We can all agree that there’s a reason it survived, but I’m not so sure that we want opera to be a living museum. I think it should continue to be alive and to evolve with the times.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You were 25 when you won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and also starred in a documentary about being in the competition. Was there a lot of pressure coming off that win, with your subsequent appearance in the documentary—and how did you deal with it?

SHRADER: There was pressure. But I wasn’t aware of it. Maybe this is to my detriment. I was still focused on: “Let’s enjoy this moment. Let’s enjoy singing. Don’t take it too seriously.” I think that helped me in the competition.

But immediately following, I found myself presented with all of these opportunities that seemed really, really good, that I probably wasn’t ready for and should not have accepted. It was a little too much, too soon.

And then, when I turned 30, on my birthday, I suddenly had some vocal difficulties. Stress was getting to me. I had anxiety. I was traveling constantly. I was verging on a burn-out. Thankfully I’m married to Daniela, and so we talked about it. We came to terms with what I wanted out of the career. And in a way, I found balance. 

I think it’s a pitfall that all young singers seem to think that the goal with the career is to reach the top of the mountain. But nobody tells you that that mountain doesn’t actually have a top. You just keep going. You just keep climbing and climbing and working forever, until you retire.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What did the mountaintop look like, before you realized it wasn’t there?

SHRADER: The mountaintop, in my opinion, was appearing at the Met and San Francisco and Chicago and Houston. And those being regular venues. Or in Europe, with Paris or Covent Garden or Munich. You just would have that circuit of absolutely top-tier houses.

You want to be Renee Fleming. You want to be Juan Diego Flórez. He was one of my initial role models. I’m a perfectionist, so I felt, if I wasn’t doing that, well, I should just quit. I should just walk away. I should do whatever I can be perfect at. And I no longer believe that.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Do you ever get tired of getting questions about your marriage when you and Daniela are co-starring together? 

SHRADER: No. It is a frequent question, but I’m happy to say that I met Daniela Mack when we were in the Merola Program singing Cenerentola [Cinderella] together and we’ve been together ever since. There are very few things better than that story in my life. When our daughter was born is one of them. When we got married is one of them. But our history is probably the greatest thing that has come from my career. I can say that officially. To the mountaintop.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Apparently you asked her out in the parking lot?

SHRADER: That’s right.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Did you know you were going to ask her out after the final performance, in the parking lot? Can you tell me the story behind that?

SHRADER: They had industry experts give panel discussions to the Merolini [a term for the participants in the Merola Opera Program], and one of the things that was mentioned was to never, ever have a romantic relationship with a musician, but also to never ever ever have a relationship with another singer, because it can only go wrong. One of you will be more successful than the other. You’ll resent each other. And it’ll just make you perform badly. It’s bad for your career to be romantic with another singer. 

But already there was chemistry between us in rehearsals. The director, Jose Maria Condemi, took a lot of credit for his directing prowess. [Shrader laughs.] He thought he was getting these performances from us, when actually we just liked to look at each other and liked being close to each other on stage. “Oh, should we do the kiss one more time? Let’s do that one more time.”

So all of these little cheats were happening. But neither one of us wanted to cross that line professionally, that taboo of the “showmance.” We didn’t want to do that. So yes, it was after the final performance. I waited until we were out of the building.

Since I grew up in Oklahoma, I’m very old-fashioned. Some things are good in an old-fashioned way, and some things are not so good at adapting to the times. In this particular case, I asked her if she wanted to go steady. I thought that was how you did it. And she laughed at me! But she said yes.

And that was that. We knew that we had been told that we shouldn’t get into this relationship, and we at least waited until we weren’t performing together. But I have to say, it’s some of the worst advice that I’ve ever been given from a panel of experts, because no one could understand me the way that Daniela does.

Catch up with Alek Shrader on Twitter, and see his performance this spring in The Barber of Seville. Tickets go on sale to the general public March 23.

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