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Cheryl North Interviews Russell Braun

ANG Newspapers Classical Music Column, Lifestyle Section, Thursday, December 2, 2004

Can a genuinely dedicated family man be a major world-class opera singer?

If it's baritone Russell Braun you're talking about, the answer is an emphatic yes.

Perhaps it helps some that almost everyone in Braun's family is musical too. His late father was Victor Braun, one of the leading baritones of his era. His mother, Eraine Schwing-Braun not only teaches at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, she is also a language coach for the Canadian Opera Company.

Braun is married to a fine musician, pianist Carolyn Maule, and their two children, seven-year-old Benjamin and three-year-old Gabriel, are already exhibiting musical tendencies. Even his younger brother plays in a rock band.

"There was always music in our home when I was a child in Cologne, Germany. Singers and musicians often gathered at our house for parties and music-making," said Braun during an interview he sandwiched between all-day rehearsals at the San Francisco Opera house last week.

However, our interview was delayed a few minutes as Braun took a call on his cell phone. As he clicked his phone off, a huge grin covered his face as he explained, "This is the time my boys usually call to say good night. It's about their bedtime in Toronto."

The younger edition of the Braun family continues the family tradition of music making at their present home on an acre of land near Georgetown, Ontario, northwest of Toronto, Canada. Young Benjamin is about to begin piano lessons and both he and his younger brother enjoy singing.

Russell himself plays the piano a great deal and is quoted in an Canadian Opera magazine article as saying, "I love playing four-hand piano arrangements. Sometimes I sit down and play one part and then the other. Then my wife feels sorry for me, and joins me." She also accompanies him in a number of recital appearances, as well as other of their singing colleagues, such as tenor Michael Schade and his mezzo-soprano wife, Maureen.

At age 39, Russell is 6'2" tall and is built like a football player, although he swears that he has never played the game "is not a jock." Instead, he loves hiking about in the snow, painting and sculpting, as well as music. He has a shock of dark curly hair, a friendly, relaxed manner, and a face that seems as though it could never frown.

"I love Toronto's cold snowy weather," he said. "Last January and February there was tons of snow on the ground at home. I went out in the thick of it and started building a huge igloo. It was around 20 degrees below zero Centigrade, but I loved it. I even went out on a midnight run to gather snow from neighboring yards for my building project," he said as he flashed an ever broadening smile.

As a kid in Germany, he loved the rock group "Queen," the Beatles, and Cat Stevens. During his college years at the University of Toronto, he often turned pages for the accompanists during recitals by Kiri Te Kanawa, Pinchas Zukerman, Isaac Stern, and Jesse Norman. Norman's performance of Schubert's song Der Erlkonig, in fact so electrified him that he became one of her most devoted admirers. "In 2006 I'm scheduled to sing Dido and Aenas with her at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris," he beamed. "What a thrill."

He noted, that in Lieder singing, "you really have to TELL the story. You can be either deeply involved as one of the story's characters or you can be somewhat detached as an observer-narrator. Singing Lieder is always challenging."

Braun usually sings at least 10 recitals a year in addition to his operatic roles. In fact, two nights before our interview, he had traveled up to the Napa Valley with Maestro Donald Runnicles to perform Schubert's Die Winterreise with Runnicles accompanying on the piano. He also loves performing songs by Hugo Wolfe (the Heyse translation of Wolfe's Italienische Lieder), by Schumann, and by Mahler.

He explained that earlier, he had shied away from performing Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). "But then, after having my own children, I realized the importance of telling the stories involved in these songs. Now I can sing them with depth and understanding."

He described this past year as being a "dream year" as far as operatic roles are concerned. "I have been able to sing three of my dream operas -- Pelleas et Melisande in Hamburg; Eugene Onegin in San Francisco; and The Pearl Fishers in San Diego."

"But, I'm interested in singing all kinds of repertoire," he emphasized. He has sung the title role in Billy Budd at the Vienna State Opera with Donald Runnicles conducting; the role of Wolfram (who sings the beloved "Evening Star" aria) in Wagner's Tannhauser; Guglielmo in Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte and Gounod's Faust at l'Opera de Paris; and Figaro in The Barber of Seville at the Met.

In San Francisco, Braun is currently singing the title role of Tchaikovsky's great opera Eugene Onegin, based on the story by Alexander Pushkin. While he has most often been associated with "good," sympathetic characters, he says he is starting to play some "rotten ones too -- like Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor. And, I'm finding the Onegin character to be very complex and a little difficult to play sympathetically."

But he is thoroughly enjoying working with Johannes Schaaf, the great German director. "Opera, with its music, reveals far more than theater alone. Musical communication continues far beyond the words," Braun explained. "As a result, Schaaf considers every move and expression we make. He will accept no excuses for opera, because he considers it the highest of all the art forms."

The new-to-San Francisco-Onegin production is designed by Peter Pabst and lit by Manfred Voss and Andreas Frank. Israeli-born Maestro Ilan Volkov will conduct. Other members of the cast will be soprano Elena Prokina as the naive Tatyana; mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy as Olga; and tenor Piotr Beczala as Lensky. It will be sung in Russian.

I asked Braun how he would like to be able to summarize his career 40 or 50 years into the future. "While I want to feel pride and accomplishment with my ability to make music come alive for others, I hope most of all, that my sons will still love me, and that my wife will have both love and respect for me."

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