Baritone Craig Irvin comes to the Atlanta Opera to revive his role in Silent Night as Lt. Horstmayer. We chatted with him about the complex character, his favorite moments in the music, and cold brew coffee.
ATLANTA OPERA: Tell us about your role, Lt. Horstmayer.
CRAIG IRVIN: Lt. Horstmayer is a man. He’s the German lieutenant. He’s a husband. I don’t think he’s a father, but I think he wants to be. He’s a Jew. He wants to be a good man. He wants to serve his country and do what he thinks is right. He wants to protect his soldiers. He wants to keep them alive. He wants to go home to his wife. He’s a man.
AO: You’re reviving this role after performing it at several companies, including the premiere at Minnesota Opera. What have you discovered about this character?
CI: I have loved every time I’ve worked on this piece. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I feel it’s the most beautiful and important work of art that I’ve ever had the pleasure to be a part of. I’m always trying to refine the character and improve my performance of him, but if I had to pick the most important thing, it’s making sure the character has an arc. Horstmayer is the last major character that’s introduced in the show. He comes in angry and yelling. I’ve realized that I want the audience to think he’s the villain. It’s almost 30 minutes into the show when Horstmayer enters, and there hasn’t been a villain yet. He’s angry, he’s yelling, and he’s German, so it doesn’t take much to make the audience think he’s the bad guy. And if I can get the audience to think he’s the villain and then have them some to the realization that he’s just a man who is trying to serve his country and keep his soldiers alive, that just a few months earlier he would have happily sat down and had a beer with the other lieutenants, that he has so much in common with the men on the other side of no-man’s land, then I think the impact of the show is more powerful.
AO: What are your favorite musical moments in Silent Night?
CI: I would say the sunrise after the men’s chorus in the first act. I remember the first time I heard it played by an orchestra. I was at the orchestral workshop and everything sounded so great. There was a beautiful men’s chorus that drifted into a short solo by Sprink. As Sprink ended his lines, the orchestra took over. You can hear the rays of the sun breaking through the night and stretching over the frost covered grass. You can hear the birds chirping as they wake to a new day to take flight. I literally just stared at the orchestra and my jaw dropped. Then, as the sunrise orchestration ended a fugue began. A wave of terror came over me as I realized my first line in the show was coming up in about 10 measures and I had no idea where we were in the music!
AO: Where do the challenges lie in this piece, both in the music and drama?
CI: It takes a lot of energy to express the frustration, fear, and anger that Horstmayer is experiencing. it’s even harder to do that and not let it negatively interfere with the singing. Vocally, the character has a large range and often has to sing over some of the larger orchestration in the show.
AO: What do you think is the most powerful message in this story?
CI: Enemies are often more alike than they are different. We may not be able to fix all problems with just talking and time, but we solve even fewer with violence.
AO: Where did you grow up, and when did you start singing?
CI: I grew up in Waukee, Iowa, a suburb of Des Moines. I guess I would say I started singing in elementary school. You can tell I loved it, because I chose to give up one recess a week to be in a special choir. Outside of school, I started singing in my church choir when I was around 13 or so. I was easily the youngest person in the choir by about 30 years.
AO: You travel a lot. What do you listen to when you’re on the road?
CI: I mostly listen to podcasts, really. “Nerdist,” “The Moth,” “Risk,” “Fresh Air,” “More Perfect,” “Radio Lab,” “This American Life,” “Hidden Brain,” “Serial,” “Filmspotting,” “Star Talk,” “Invisibilia,” “A Way with Words,” “Snap Jugment,” “You Made it Weird,” “WTF,” “Planet Money,” “Hardcore History,” Girl on Guy,” “Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men.” That covers most of them.
AO: What is your next dream role?
CI: It’s hard, but if I have to pick just one, it’s Scarpia in Tosca.
AO: Any advice for young singers?
CI: Work your languages. Make sure you know the character you’re performing, not just the notes and words. Enjoy the process, not just the performance. Be prepared. Go to a coach at least two more times than you think you need to. Know your music well enough that you can make little mistakes while exploring the character. It’s hard to get hired for the first time at a company; it’s even harder to get hired back. Be a good colleague. You didn’t build the set, make the costumes, apply the makeup, hang the lights, call the show, or play in the pit; even when you are along onstage it’s not just you. Be honest with yourself and what you want out of life. This career is hard, it’s amazing, fulfilling, draining, painful, joyous, and it’s constant even when you have no work. Be aware of all the good and all the bad, because you get to experience both.
AO: Finally, cold brew coffee: underrated or overrated?
CI: We finally get to an important question. I love coffee. I have three kids (A 6-year-old and 3-year-old twins), so I’m not sure I could make it through the day without coffee. I also love the taste of good coffee. There is a big difference between iced coffee and real cold brew coffee, so I will take cold brew any day. However, it needs to be coffee. Cold brew can get a bit bitter, so I can allow just a touch of cream in it to smooth out some of the bitterness, but that’s it. I want coffee, not a candy bar in a cup.