By Caitlin Vincent
I recently sat down with baritone William Sharp, fresh from performing in the world premiere of John Musto’s The Inspector at the Barns at Wolf Trap. Acclaimed for his versatility and musical expression, Sharp has performed with orchestras and musical festivals throughout the United States and is particularly noted for his work in baroque music, art song, and contemporary music. During our conversation, I was particularly curious to learn about Sharp’s early career, his experience working on The Inspector, and his opinion of the early music vs. opera debate.
OP – What was your training in music?
Sharp – I went to a liberal arts college as an undergrad, but by the time I graduated, I hadn’t done anything really except sing. And so, I guess that made me a voice major. Then I went to grad school. And since I could sing well, I got in. I did what everyone does.
OP – What about high school?
Sharp – I probably started singing seriously when I was 16 or so and got interested in early music, for one thing, but also other music. I started listening to classical music because I found it beautiful, and I just liked to listen to it. I loved Bach, I loved Schubert…that sort of stuff. But I did what everyone does in graduate school. I was focused on opera singing, because everyone has the idea that that’s what you do. I guess because it’s the most visible thing, and conventional wisdom seems to be that you have to do it first, and then you can do other things. I did really well as an opera singer in graduate school, and then I found out when I got out that no one was interested in me as an opera singer at all.
OP – Why not?
Sharp – I don’t have that kind of voice. I really don’t have a conventional operatic baritone voice. And the harder I tried to make my voice sound like that, the less interested anyone was in my singing.
OP – Is this why you started to focus on other genres, such as early music?
Sharp – It wasn’t so much the obvious avenue, but because I had been interested in it more avocationally—I was just into this stuff as a hobby—I knew all about it. I went to New York and started auditioning for management and opera companies…like people do. I got an occasional job here and there, but basically nothing. But then there was an opportunity to audition for the Waverly Consort, which at that time was probably the most active early music ensemble in America, and I was given the job, which meant that I was singing 90 to 100 concerts a year. There were six singers and instrumentalists. So you sang everything.
OP – What was your next career step?
Sharp – I was working with a pianist named Steven Blier, and we were developing recital repertoire and everything else. He was basically coaching me. And he suggested that I try the Young Concert Artists auditions, which I did…and did not win, but was strongly encouraged to do it again the next year. And the next year I did win. That was a huge boost because what they do is send you out to give solo concerts, mostly at colleges and universities, and do mini-residencies for three or four days. You give a recital and then you teach master classes.
OP – How old were you?
Sharp – At that point, I was about 30. So that meant that I was doing several dozen solo recitals every season. And teaching master classes, which of course, I had no idea how to do.
OP – So many solo recitals…that’s a lot of repertoire.
Sharp – It wasn’t all different. One of the great things about it is repeating things. In school, you never repeat anything, but in real life, you do the same music over and over again. You do recital programs that evolve. But I did collect a lot of repertoire and did a fair amount of 20th century and, particularly, American music. And so, because of that, I was reading the requirements for what at that time was called the Carnegie Hall International American Music Competition. In order to enter this competition, you had to have 90 minutes of American music. And I thought…I have that. Not only could I do it, but I had that much music that I had been singing over and over again. So I did that, and I won. That was also a tremendous boost. That got me a lot of concerts. I didn’t have any of this as a goal…I didn’t set out to do any of that. It was stuff I had been interested in, and then I got interested in more stuff because I had the opportunity to do it. And that’s where it went. I didn’t lose interest in being an opera singer, but it just didn’t go that way. And I think that that was the best thing that could have happened to me. Because, if I had focused completely on being an opera singer, I think I would have been only marginally successful. Wouldn’t have been a career, I don’t think.
OP – Did you have a day job at this point? Or was singing paying the bills?
Sharp – Within a year of getting out of grad school, I got into the Waverly Consort. And that actually paid the bills. It actually paid my rent in New York. But if that hadn’t happened, I don’t know what I would have done.
OP – You’ve also established yourself in the field of contemporary music, premiering numerous song cycles and receiving a Grammy nomination for your recording of the works of American composers. And more recently, you performed in John Musto’s new opera.
Sharp – I’ve done a fair amount of John’s music because I like it a lot, and I’ve known John for many years. Some of his songs he actually wrote for me. And I find that particularly gratifying, musically-speaking. He’s one of the very best American composers, so the opera was great. I loved doing it. And I think he wrote the part with my voice in mind. I don’t know that for a fact, but I think at least to some degree he did.
OP – What was your process for preparing the role?
Sharp – I read the play first. I didn’t watch the movie with Danny Kay until after the opera was over, but it’s pretty funny. I studied the libretto and learned the music, which I found difficult.
OP – Did you plunk out the notes or use a midi file?
Sharp – That’s the great thing about the 20th century: midi files. It’s so great because you can ask for that, and composers are usually happy to give it to you. And that little robot man never makes a mistake…they don’t play wrong notes. You just have to remember that it’s playing with no talent whatsoever and at some point, you’re going to have to add talent and expression to it. People used to have to pay a répétiteur…someone who would repeat the music over and over and over again…and that’s just what you would do. It would be basically the same as having the midi-file but more expensive. So yeah, I doubt there was anybody in the cast who didn’t use that.
OP – Can you talk a bit more about the rehearsal process for the opera?
Sharp – I believe there were two days of “music rehearsals.” I think we started on a Tuesday, and on Thursday we started staging, and everyone dropped their books. Everybody was really very prepared. I thought it was kind of amazing. But I don’t think it was typical of most opera productions. We were there for a full month, and the conductor and the stage director were present at every single rehearsal. We did not have one rehearsal that the conductor did not conduct…for a month. And Leon Major, the stage director, was there always. It was remarkable.
OP – Do you feel that you use a different vocal technique when you’re singing art song versus early music versus contemporary music?
Sharp – The style is different, but that varies within every period and genre of music. Obviously Bach is not like Rameau, and Schumann is not like Fauré. I think you use your own aesthetic instincts, but I really don’t believe in the idea of “a different technique” for early music.
OP – Early music often gets a bad reputation…there’s a stereotype that weak singers end up doing early music and contemporary music because they can’t do opera.
Sharp – That’s right. But if you have bad technique or an inferior instrument or something like that, you won’t have a career. But you’re right about some people getting nudged into early music…sometimes I think, by teachers who don’t understand. We all think about this a lot because, being in the education business, we’re surrounded by people who are trying to decide what it is they want to do. There’s a pretty big percentage of people who only want to do opera. And I don’t have any problem with that, but I usually try to convince them that they are limiting themselves in what their opportunities are going to be. They’re also limiting themselves in terms of their artistic experience. We were talking about why people are encouraged to do, for example, early music, or other non-operatic music. And one of the biggest reasons is because their voice isn’t loud enough. That’s a very good reason. But the assumption is that if your voice is not loud enough for opera and you choose to go into different repertoire, you automatically have a good chance for success…just because you’ve decided to do something for “lesser” voices. And that isn’t true. The requirement for exceptional gifts in vocal quality, musical maturity, and interpretative language is really the same.
OP – Why did you start teaching? Was it for stability and benefits?
Sharp – Yes and no. As I said, I did what I seemed good at, and then it just snowballed. And because of Young Concert Artists, I started teaching right away. Within three years of getting out of grad school, they were sending me to colleges and universities as a young concert artist, and I was teaching people in public, giving master classes. I mean, I was completely clueless, but you learn really fast. You find out that you have a lot to say, and you start to learn how to say it. So I became a teacher not because it seemed like a good idea, but because I became a teacher. I just did. And I get a great deal of gratification from teaching. It’s a very different kind of satisfaction from the performing side.
OP – How do they compare?
Sharp – The teaching and the singing use completely different parts of the brain, and they really complement each other. Performing is a totally solitary activity. It’s navel gazing. You’re focused on yourself. As a teacher, the complete opposite is true: you’re totally focused on other people. And that’s a nice complementary thing going on there. I often wonder what it would or will be like to be a teacher who does not perform…I have trouble imagining what it’s going to be like.
OP – Did you ever have concerns about teaching?
Sharp – Teaching’s a big responsibility. I think about that all the time. I’ve always said that you learn more from teaching than you do from any teacher, and it’s partially because every time you say something, there’s always a little voice in the back of your head saying “Are you sure that’s true? Do you believe that? Do you do that? Is that the way you do it?” And that’s really great, because that process is going on all the time. You’re constantly asking yourself what you believe and what you think about what you do because you’re always telling someone else what to do. That’s another reason why the teaching complements the performance so well.
OP – Do you have any anxiety about the current state of the music world?
Sharp – Yes, I do. But I also feel that the anxiety most artists have is because we don’t know what’s happening. I have a suspicion that, at least in some areas of the arts, it’s always been that way. Time goes on and things change. When we moved from a Haydn under the patronage of Esterházy to a Beethoven who was just giving concerts all the time, artists must have been really nervous about what was going to happen. Socially, the world changed. And yeah, now we’re nervous and we talk about it all the time…we talk about how it’s a different world. God, everything is different. The way music is distributed and paid for and published and paid for, and how almost everything is out where you can have it for free. And you’re just thinking, “What does it all mean?” But somehow in our hearts, we believe there’s something about it that’s not wrong. We don’t know where it’s going, but great art of all kinds is going to happen. It will survive. Even the great art of the past—the Schubert songs, the Bach cantatas—those aren’t going to just disappear. It’s like Shakespeare. It won’t go away because it’s just too good.
Photo by Carol Pratt, for the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts