Baritone Robert Hayward has already gained a loyal Opera North following due to his appearances as, amongst others, Jokanaan (John the Baptist) in Strauss’ Salome, troubled husband Frank Maurrant in Weill’s Street Scene and, most recently, Amfortas, ruler of the kingdom of the Grail, in Wagner’s Parsifal.
This season, he returns to the role of Baron Scarpia in Tosca which he first performed in 2018. We spoke to Robert about what it’s like to play the baddie, particularly one as unpleasant as Puccini’s!
What was your first experience of opera?
The first opera I actually saw was La bohème when I was at university in around 1976. I’d listened to opera a bit, but it hadn’t really been part of my world as I was previously a countertenor (a high male vocal range at the opposite end of the scale from a baritone). I didn’t change until I was 26, so all I did before then was early choral music from the 16th and 17th centuries. I was also working very hard for a science degree!
When I discovered I was a baritone, it obviously meant I could get into lots of different music. Within 18 months, I was studying opera and singing it on stage at the Guildhall School of Music. I was completely green, not having a clue about what I was doing. It was a big shock to the system, but a very enjoyable one, and I’ve never looked back.
Tell us more about the role of Baron Scarpia in Tosca
Scarpia is the archetypal baddie. From my point of view, however, the most interesting thing about playing a baddie is trying to work out why they’re like they are.
With Scarpia, I’m intrigued by the more positive bits which people often miss out in their characterisations of him. For example, I think Scarpia’s completely in love with Tosca, not just in the sense of ‘I want to have her’; I mean that he absolutely adores her. To my mind, he’s not particularly good at his job and doesn’t actually enjoy it. I also think a lot of his behaviour comes from the fact that he thinks he’s been given the evil gene and the person he blames for that is God. That’s a fascinating side to his character: he blames God for making him who he is.
While there are definitely times when I think he shows his extraordinary love for Tosca, he ultimately gets obsessed by the fact that she rejects him because she wants Cavaradossi instead. That’s what turns him into the monster we see.
Alex Banfield as Spoletta, Robert Hayward as Scarpia and Mykhailo Malafii as Cavaradossi © with members of the Chorus of Opera North © James Glossop
Does it bother you that Scarpia gets booed at the curtain call?
Not at all. Every time I’ve done Scarpia I get booed, but that’s fine. Perhaps it’s even a compliment as it shows the audience has really bought into the role!
One of the things I’ve learned is is not to give everything to audiences on a plate. You can’t just dish it out, otherwise you might as well play a CD. What we do in this production (which I think is fabulous) is draw people onto the stage and into the character. Hopefully that means they understand a little bit more what Scarpia’s all about. Some will think they should boo him, but perhaps others will be sympathetic and feel that actually he’s not had the best of luck in life and that there are reasons for the way he is.
Why should people come to Tosca?
Tosca’s got everything – blood and guts, tears, power, sympathy and grief – and obviously some of the most fantastic music you’ll ever hear on stage.
This is a wonderful show with a fantastic cast and, of course, the Chorus of Opera North (my favourite) and a top-class Orchestra. It hits you in the face. I think that’s the thing about it. If it doesn’t make your blood pressure go up a bit, I don’t think you’ve got it properly.
Do you have a favourite moment people should look out for?
The ‘Te deum’ at the end of Act I as I have the Chorus singing behind me which is so stimulating – it’s a masterpiece of the theatre.