Baritone Sidney Outlaw on Playing Don Giovanni with Boston Baroque

// Photo courtesy of Kia Caldwell

We recently had the pleasure of speaking with baritone Sidney Outlaw about his upcoming role debut for the title role in Boston Baroque’s production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Sidney Outlaw, a Juilliard alumnus, has been praised by the New York Times and was nominated for the 57th Annual GRAMMY Awards in 2015 for the Best Opera Recording category.

Boston Baroque, led by conductor Martin Pearlman, will present Don Giovanni on April 25, 26, and 28 at The Huntington Theatre, a venue that is new to the orchestra. Educators may receive a 20% discount on tickets, and students may sit in any seat for $25 (both educators and students must present school IDs). Click here to learn more about these performances.

The transcript below has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

WHRB: How did you first get introduced to opera?

Sidney Outlaw: Oh, back in the 1900s, we were exposed to… that's an inside joke. My students ask me about what it was like in the 1900s. I was exposed to all different types of music outside of the church, which is where I, like many people, get their start. I sang in my mom's choir. She's the head of music there, along with some other members of our family, even now. I came to opera by way of anthems and things that you would sing in church like the Fauré Requiem, the Brahms requiem, and things like that.

WHRB: What is a common misconception about opera that you'd like to dispel?

Sidney: A lot of people think that opera is boring because it's not in English. First of all, everybody's welcome at the opera, and you don't necessarily need to be dressed in a tuxedo or gown to go. I’d like people to have the chance to come in and get into the story the way they would if they were watching a foreign film on Netflix or Hulu. They would stick with it. They would watch the subtitles, you know. Even in the TV show Shogun, which is on Hulu right now. They have subtitles, and it's the number one streamed show right now on Hulu. And so I like to tell people, especially younger folks, to think of it that way. That's something that I would like to dispel so that they could get into the storyline and not think that it's old fashioned. Back in the day, opera was their pop music. It’s like us going to Broadway.

WHRB: Who are some of your favorite opera singers, and why?

Sidney: The great and powerful Leontyne Price is the first person that I would say. She's the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega. She's the common denominator. She's numero uno, and many of my students at the Manhattan School of Music would be laughing right now, because that's the spiel that I always give with Leontyne Price. So I put Leontyne Price at the top of that list, and everybody else is equally important. I studied with Marilyn Horne; she's one of my favorite opera singers. Montserrat Caballé, Elena Obraztsova, Lucia Popp, Kathleen Battle, Jesse Norman, Simon Estes, Rod Gilfrey, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Leonard Warren ...

WHRB: Are there any characters from other operas or forms of media that serve as an inspiration to you as you’re bringing Don Giovanni to life?

Sidney: What's interesting is that personally, I'm coming full circle with this project because I've been studying Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, and Le Nozze di Figaro now for about ten to fifteen years. I had known about these operas, but I was really introduced to them while at Juilliard for grad school, studying with my Italian teacher, Corradina Caporello. She said, “Sidney, you will sing all three of these operas.” They were all written by Mozart, and the librettos were written by a man named Lorenzo Da Ponte. So in my eyes, I am finishing the circle of learning what I call the Da Ponte trilogy. That has been a big inspiration to me just from a Mozart/Da Ponte point of view. I've always been fascinated with Mozart, and I've also been fascinated with Da Ponte, who many people don't know started the first language department in the United States at King's College, which is present day Columbia University. Now he is buried in the United States, out by LaGuardia Airport. Those types of little things always fascinate me. Those little trivia facts. And so I’ve been having a good time closing the circle around these three operas, and that's been a big inspiration to me, because they are, in my opinion, connected musically and dramatically in that way. They’re not, but they are.

WHRB: I saw on your resume that you have played the role of Leporello, Don Giovanni’s servant, in the past. Has this influenced your preparation for the role of Don Giovanni at all?

Sidney: It has. We speak in the opera departments or in young artists programs all the time about learning everybody's part in the opera. The way that things actually happen in the industry is that you usually don't have time to do that. A lot of times, you learn their part on the fly when you're putting the piece together. But for this piece, as well as some of the others like Le Nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte, I’ve done multiple roles when I was coming through the young artists circuit and had a chance to study them, and some of them I did in school just because they would be used for exams. So it was very influential for me while learning the part of Don Giovanni because I would sing Leporello’s part, and then my part, and that would help me learn my part.

WHRB: What are the main challenges of playing Don Giovanni?

Sidney: Comedy is hard, and a lot of people think of Don Giovanni as a serious, intense opera. And it is, but it is a dramma giocoso. It is a comedic tragedy. Finding the balance between the two can be tricky, and playing comedy as a stage actor can be tricky as well. This opera changes course very quickly in a short time span in the world of Don Giovanni and the people that he's trying to deceive, or convince, or persuade. Don Giovanni is a privileged man, and he’s used to getting his way. And usually that happens, except on this day when he can't seem to get what he wants. Because of that, the tide turns very quickly. Just when he thinks he's got it under control, boom! It happens again.

WHRB: Boston Baroque gives quite a prominent role to the orchestra in its opera productions, which have the orchestra at the center of the stage. How does this setup impact your preparation and performance as an opera singer?

Sidney: First and foremost, I'm a musician; that's how I identify. So I love the fact that they are centering the orchestra, and it makes sense to do that because they use period instruments and they do performance practices. That’s something that I personally think could be very interesting to new opera goers. Not only am I going to go see this piece that's over three hundred years old, but they've modernized the storyline while using period instruments, and they are also playing at baroque pitch. So this might be what it sounded like during Mozart's time. We get to have one foot pointed toward the future and one foot planted in traditions. I do think that there is room at the table for both of those things.

WHRB: Are there any other ways in which working with Boston Baroque is different from your past experiences with other orchestras?

Sidney: I've worked with Boston Baroque before; we did Handel’s Messiah together. What I noticed about this particular orchestra is that obviously it's not a big orchestra like the New York Phil or the LA Phil. I was just with the Colorado Symphony. That's a huge orchestra. I'm able to be more of a chamber musician with Boston Baroque, whereas a lot of times we pay attention to the conductor, who is designated to hold everything together: the choir, the orchestra, the brass, and the singers. With Boston Baroque it's more intimate because they're smaller, which means we can look around at each other during the performance and make eye contact and make music together like chamber musicians. I think it frees me up a little bit to be more spontaneous because of the nature of how Boston Baroque rolls.

WHRB: Lastly, is there any aspect of the story of Don Giovanni that you find particularly meaningful, or that you hope the audience will carry with them after the performance?

Sidney: I hope the opera understands that the opera explores love, mortality, and the consequences of people's actions. Those are things that we deal with today as a society as well. The story revolves around Giovanni's escapades, and his shenanigans lead to a series of different consequences with these women that he's trying to deceive.

// Hillary Jean-Gilles ’25 is a producer and staff writer for Classical Music.