An Interview With Michael Dailey

Michael Dailey

Michael Dailey and Betany Coffland take a break from their royal duties in the 2009 production of La Cenerentola, surrounded by new friends from the Girl Scouts.

“A teacher once told me that a person doesn’t pick music, music picks the person. And in my case, that’s been true.”

Despite possessing a voice that Opera News has described as “blessed with freshness,” Michael Dailey’s career as an opera singer occasionally surprises even himself. “I am not from a musical family, and extroverted behavior was not encouraged. Children were to be polite and quiet. Opera is quite the opposite — it is all about expressing yourself.” In fact, when Dailey experienced his first symphony performance on an elementary school field trip, he asked his teacher whether the musicians were playing the instruments or playing tapes!

As a teenager, Dailey had to fulfill a fine arts requirement at Tallwood High School in Virginia, and on a whim he chose theater. “In my sophomore year they were doing the musical Pippin. I auditioned with a jazzy/soul interpretation of ‘Happy Birthday,’ and was cast as the lead.” Based on that performance, he was invited to sing with the Madrigals, “a small, prestigious group that sang classical pieces, not Broadway show tunes.” Dailey also competed for a place in the District Choir, and sang in the All-State Chorus his senior year. While still in high school, a friend invited him to see his first opera, a Virginia Opera performance of Rigoletto. He remembers getting dressed up in his Madrigals tuxedo for the occasion, and that by the end of the opera, he had been moved to tears by the drama and music.

When Dailey was a senior, his high school choral director Claudia Griffin encouraged him to sing for David Clayton, the choral director at Virginia Wesleyan College. A successful audition later, Dailey’s life had been given a new direction: “I was the first male in my family to go to college, and it was while I was an undergrad that I first studied with a voice teacher.”

It is often said that only one in 10,000 singers have a successful career in opera. Knowing early on that the odds were stacked against him, Dailey continued singing while pursuing a B.A. in Psychology at Virginia Wesleyan, and an M.S.Ed. in Counseling from Old Dominion University. All the while, he found himself thinking more about performances than his studies. “That is where music found me. I knew it had to be my life!” He finished his degrees and worked as a counselor for two years, while singing with the Virginia Chorale, in church choirs, and in the Virginia Opera chorus.

He was accepted to the resident artist-in-training program at Tri-Cities Opera (Binghamton, NY) with Opera Guild and Adele Bernstein Scholarships in 2006, and began singing opera full-time. In 2007 he toured Western Europe with New York Harlem Productions’ Porgy and Bess. “It’s an excellent company that only tours this one opera. It was my first time in Europe, too.”

Dailey joined the resident artist ensemble at Opera San José in 2008, on a partial fellowship from the W. Gibson Walters Memorial Fund. “The best thing about Opera San José is that it offers singers the opportunity to grow professionally, by doing so many leading roles. Many people don’t realize that it is the second largest opera company in the Bay Area, and that its productions are cast around the residents. Other professionals, usually former residents, are hired when other voices are needed.” In the past four years, Dailey has sung numerous roles for the company, including Alfredo (La traviata), Beppe (Pagliacci), Levin (Anna Karenina), Des Grieux (Manon), Prunier (La rondine), Don Ramiro (La Cenerentola), Don José (Carmen), Ferrando (Così fan tutte), Lensky (Eugene Onegin), Nemorino (The Elixir of Love), and Count Almaviva (The Barber of Seville) which is his current favorite.

Dailey prepares for a role by translating the score, listening to recordings in order to get the concept of the entire piece, and speaking the text in rhythm. For inspiration, Dailey’s favorite tenor is Nicolai Gedda, probably the most widely-recorded tenor in history. “He is a true lyric tenor, like me.” He also greatly admires Natalie Dessay and Joan Sutherland, because their voices are so unique. “They were never pushed to sound like anyone but themselves. Every note Sutherland sings is beautiful. ” Outside of opera, Dailey’s favorite musician is Prince. “’Around the World in a Day” was the first cassette tape I ever received — I would listen to it literally two or three times a day, and sing along.”

This season, Dailey concludes his fourth-year of residency with Opera San José. “Opera singing is a difficult occupation: a singer must have a beautiful voice, of course, but they must also be a good actor, able to draw in the audience, and able to accurately pronounce many languages. All of the resident artists at Opera San José hope to be better singers and performers when they leave, than when they arrived.”

The intersection of Dailey’s vocal talent and academic interests provide him with an array of interesting prospects for the future. “Music can hit me with its feeling and power,” Dailey says. “It has its own language. At one time I considered becoming a music therapist. Did you know some composers wrote pieces for their personal therapy, for instance, after suffering the loss of a loved one?”

In the meantime, Opera San José fans are not the only ones who see Dailey’s opera career taking off. In 2010, Dailey was invited back to Virginia Wesleyan to sing at the college’s 41st commencement ceremony, where he inspired graduates with performances of “Nessun dorma” (Turandot) and “Make Them Hear You” (Ragtime). Last summer, Dailey sang as an apprentice artist with Santa Fe Opera; he will be returning this summer as an understudy for the lead tenor in Maometto II, and sing an additional comprimario (supporting) role.

If you enjoyed Dailey’s recent performance as Alfredo in La traviata, be sure to catch him singing the title role in our upcoming production of Faust, April 21 — May 6, 2012.

Gounod’s Redemption of Faust

Polish opera singer Edouard de Reszke (1853-1917) as Méphistophélès in Gounod’s Faust

“Well, doctor, what do you want of me? 
Let us see; speak! 
Do I frighten you?”

Méphistophélès needs no introduction, and no one need tell you that should you see him coming, it’s best to run the other way. Faust stood his ground and lived to regret it…at least in some versions of the story.

Johann Georg Faust, a graduate of Heidelberg University, lived in Germany between 1480 and 1540. He was famed for his claim to be Satan’s son-in-law. He was famous for many other things as well, most of which were rather unsavory. It wasn’t long before his exploits at fortune-telling, alchemy, and magic were chronicled by an anonymous author and immediately published as Historia, von D. Johann Faustus in 1587. Within five years, this book was translated into English by another anonymous writer known only as P.F., Gentleman.  In short order, the brilliant playwright Christopher Marlowe added his version, The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, and this seems to be the most widely received of the versions then available. The adaptation that captured the world’s attention, however, was the great theological and philosophical work, Faust, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (pronounced ger-tuh), which has held sway over readers since 1832, when Part Two (the final installment) was completed. This dense and far-ranging argument about the condition of mankind, our relationship with God, and the possibility and conditions of our salvation became almost holy writ in Germany, and has been studied in universities across the world for more than a century. In all these years, it has inspired innumerable other books, plays, films, and operas based on the imagined life of a Medieval necromancer.

The version of Faust that has had the widest audience, however, is not the revered play of Goethe’s pen (though that is still the most performed play in Germany), but a less philosophical and perhaps more entertaining opera based on Goethe’s Part One: Gounod’s Faust. In the 24 years between its first performance at the famed Palais Garnier in 1869 (ten years after the Théâtre Lyrique world premiere) and Gounod’s death in 1893, the opera had become the most performed work in that house. Faust was also the opera chosen to open the Metropolitan Opera in 1883, and has achieved well more than 700 performances there; it has more than a thousand in Paris.

Goethe’s great masterwork, which has held the world’s attention for so long, ends differently from Marlowe’s play, which ends with Faust going to Hell as a trophy for Méphistophélès. Goethe took the opposite direction: a forgiving Gretchen (Marguerite in the opera) prays on Faust’s behalf, and at the moment that he should be consigned to perdition, God forgives him. Except for the ruin of Gretchen, Faust used the power of Hell to do good works on earth, releasing him from his bargain with Méphistophélès; he was redeemed.

Gounod’s opera does not dabble in this controversy over damnation vs. salvation; rather, it does all it can to meet public expectations and be entertaining. He was not trying to make a reputation on philosophy or scandal, but still, Gounod was dealing in a subject that can spark all manner of reactions and responses. The age-old “deal with the devil” story takes on a particular aura, no matter how the author attempts to avoid controversy.

Marguerite's Garden
Marguerite’s garden in Act 3 of the opera Faust by Gounod as presented in the original production at the Théâtre Lyrique on 19 March 1859. Set design by Charles-Antoine Cambon and Joseph Thierry.

In truth, Faust is not a man of ill intention; he might be better described as foolish rather than evil, a hot-blooded teenager eager to have his pent-up desires satisfied rather than a calculating villain out to hurt others. Indeed, he does seduce an attractive and innocent young woman, and then he leaves her when his desire is sated. Once out looking for his next exploit, he does not think to inquire after her condition. He doesn’t think at all until she is brought to mind after all possible damage has been accomplished, other than her complete destruction. There is nothing admirable in that, but nothing malicious, either – just blind stupidity. Stupidity can do enormous damage, but is it evil? When Faust does sense (through divine inspiration) that all is not well, he insists on coming to the rescue and Méphistophélès is powerless to stop him. Once with Gretchen, seeing the disaster he has brought down upon her, he does his best to save her life. He fails, but not for lack of good intentions and real effort. So, is he beyond redemption? That becomes the question in every Faust, even in Gounod’s romantic 19th-century opera. Goethe posited that those of good intention, who strive to do good, are eligible for salvation; Gretchen forgave Faust, so why shouldn’t the creator of the universe forgive him, too? Much like the deathbed confession and true regret that saves the soul of a Roman Catholic, or the transforming moment of conversion when Jesus is recognized as the Christ, which saves the soul of a Baptist, Faust is forgiven in Goethe’s version. Is this divine justice? It may be, but this isn’t why Gounod’s operatic adaptation has been so popular for so very long. This popularity rests in the richly beautiful, sensuous music.

French opera of the mid to late 19th century is particularly blessed with stunning music. Carmen, The Pearl Fishers, Manon, Werther, Thaïs, Roméo et Juliette, and so many others, are among the most pleasing to hear of all operas. Even those that don’t have librettos of the stature of Faust are still richly rewarding purely through the quality of the music. In Gounod’s Faust, the most moving music is, perhaps, the love duet between Faust and Marguerite at the midpoint of the work, but the most rousing is the Soldiers’ Chorus in Act III. That which is most transcendent is the final trio between Marguerite, Faust and Méphistophélès at the very end of the opera, which is undoubtedly among the most affecting ensembles in all opera.

The staging of Faust is being realized by director Brad Dalton, who brought you our most recent productions of Idomeneo, Anna Karenina, Così fan tutte, and Madama Butterfly, all of which were superior productions with surprisingly fresh interpretations that were both visually striking and dramatically powerful. Steven C. Kemp (Anna Karenina and Idomeneo) has aided Dalton in bringing this vision to the stage, and his designs are arresting. David Lee Cuthbert (The Crucible, Lucia di Lammermoor, The Marriage of Figaro, Eugene Onegin) will design the lighting. Costumes will be provided by Malabar, and are based on clothes of the 16th century.