Center Stage With: Scott Holmes

Scott Holmes with famed baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Scott Holmes with famed baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky

This month we decided to change the pace a bit and interview a former chorister from Lyric Opera. Scott Holmes was a chorister at Lyric for 44 years and has always fascinated me as an individual. He has one of the most impeccable memories and is a consummate professional. Having sung at Lyric for that length of time means he was there when the “old school” singers like Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland performed there. He has worked with every single chorus master that has been at Lyric and talks about how things have changed and developed over the years both at Lyric and in general. He was a chorister prior to the time when the Lyric switched over to having a full-time chorus and you will be interested to know that he started out as a super. Holmes is also very well known for his great sense of humor. When asked how many performances he was involved with at Lyric, his response was “millions.” Well he might not be too far off on that number. Scott is very much missed by our LOSA family but we still get to see him at all the dress rehearsals. In this article you will learn about his career, some Lyric Opera history and who his favorite singer of all time is.

Q: Where did you grow up?

Holmes:  I was born on the South Side of Chicago, but when I was 3, we moved to Kenilworth, where I lived through college.

Q: How did you end up at Lyric Opera of Chicago?

Holmes: Immediately after graduating from college, I became a super for one opera, DON CARLO in 1971.  In talking with some of the choristers backstage, I learned that they were auditioning for next year’s chorus, and so I auditioned.  I was accepted … and that’s how it all began.  My first opera which opened the 1972 season was Verdi’s I DUE FOSCARI.  It also happened that that night was Katia Ricciarelli’s American debut.

Q: What school did you attend to receive your Vocal Training and who was your voice teacher?

Holmes:  I graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in Music Education, with emphasis on Voice and Piano.  I had two voice teachers: Joseph Wilkins and Kenneth Smith.  Kenneth Smith actually sang small roles in Lyric’s early years, among them, the King in AIDA and Pistol in FALSTAFF.

Q:  What is your favorite opera and why?

Holmes:    Very hard to say, but I love the Bel Canto period and, of course, Verdi.

Q:  What was your favorite opera production/cast/performance at Lyric?

Holmes:   Again, hard to pick, but LA FILLE DU REGIMENT with Joan Sutherland and Alfredo Kraus, and MARIA STUARDA with Montserrat Caballe made HUGE impressions on me.  The Sutherland/Pavarotti LUCIA and her ANNA BOLENA weren’t bad either! Of course, one of the most memorable run of performances was the 1974 PETER GRIMES with Jon Vickers, directed by Geraint Evans.   We’ve performed GRIMES since, but never with the exact combination of genius and inspiration attached to it.  Perhaps it was because it was the FIRST time we were performing GRIMES, but anyone who was in it, (and who perhaps saw it) will never forget it. These productions were so wonderful, NOT only because of the stellar casts, but because they all were created by brilliant directors who were dedicated to being true to the COMPOSER’S and LIBRETTIST’S intent.  Sandro Sequi (FILLE), Geraint Evans (PETER GRIMES), John Copley (LUCIA) and Giorgio de Lullo (STUARDA) all created feasts for the EYES as well as the ears.  These directors (along with the legendary Jean-Pierre Ponnelle) worked with the score in their hand, often taking time to ponder how they could be as true to each measure and phrase as they could.  Don’t get me wrong, they had their OWN IDEAS how to create each operatic world, but they never reverted to what I call, a “directors’ conceit” which was totally at odds with the original intent of the geniuses to created them.

Q:  Do you speak any other languages? Did this help you as a chorister?

Holmes:  I had French in grammar and high school …. which certainly helped and also aided me in learning Italian.  German and Russian were always a challenge and required a lot of outside study and repetition.

Q:  If you could sing any role, what would it be and why?

Holmes:  I think I’ll leave that answer to another lifetime, when I come back as a dramatic soprano.  However, I will tell you that in THIS lifetime, from the very beginning, I never longed to be a soloist.  I knew what my voice could and couldn’t do ……. and being a chorister for me was enough.   I always preferred singing chorus in an important opera house rather than attempting solo roles in a lesser house.

Q:  Tell me some of your most memorable moments from your time at Lyric.

Holmes:  Oh my God, so many.  Curtain calls after particularly challenging and rewarding performances such as TURANDOT, MEFISTOFELE, NABUCCO, LOHENGRIN and even something as horrible to learn and rehearse as SATYAGRAHA.  I say SATYAGRAHA, because it was thrilling to know that at the end of the night, you really had accomplished and conquered something extremely difficult.   People always ask if I was ever nervous or scared before performances and I almost always say “no” because we are so well drilled and rehearsed.  But the ONE production that scared me every night before the curtain went up …. and you’ll think it odd … was SWEENEY TODD.   In addition to the incredible complexity of the musical challenges, we were all given so many individual things to do and sing that it was always a worry that some slip-up would occur, and I’d embarrass myself.   Luckily, that never happened.

Q: Tell me about some mishaps that happened onstage.

Holmes:  The worst, of course, was when the acrobat caught fire in the last act of the MEISERSINGER dress rehearsal.  It happened right in front of me and we all really thought the poor man had met his end.  Thank God HE knew what to do and threw himself down on the floor, and the stage-hands knew what to do and rushed to his aid with fire extinguishers.  The man was injured but it could have been much worse.

Q:  Do you have any interesting stories or events you were involved in from before you started at Lyric or not pertaining to Lyric (related to opera or otherwise)?

Holmes:  Only that I came to opera via first, Broadway shows, ….then a love for Gilbert & Sullivan … and then, while singing in Savoyaires in the summer of 1967, two women in the company who knew I played the piano, took me to their voice teacher to play for their lessons.  The voice teacher, Eleanor Gardner, took me on as an accompanist and I started learning the repertoire and listening to recordings in order to prepare for what I was learning to play for each lesson.  THAT hooked me and being taken to that voice teacher changed the entire direction of my life.  

Q:  What are your favorite hobbies?

Holmes:   I am so fortunate that opera IS MY HOBBY.  Books, recordings, videos, the works!  I’ve always thought how fortunate and blessed I am to have been able to make a living at what I love best.

Q:  Tell me a little about your family (partner, children, close relatives) and their significance in your life and career.

Holmes:  My parents were always encouraging.  I started piano lessons at 6 years old …. and violin in 4th grade.  I always sang, but it wasn’t until the middle of high school that I started studying voice.  To tell you the truth, neither of them really liked opera, but were able to be talked into going to some of the “easier” ones, such as FILLE DU REGIMENT and TALES OF HOFFMANN.

Q:  If you weren’t a singer, what would you have done for a career?

Holmes:  Since Music Education was my degree, I probably would have taught in the schools. Believe me, I would NOT have been a happy camper!

Q:  Do you play any instruments?

Holmes: Piano.  I always loved accompanying and even substituted twice during chorus room rehearsals, years ago, when the pianist got sick or didn’t show up.   Years ago, of course …. such a thing would never happen now.

Q:  What kind of music do you listen to besides opera?

Holmes: Classical orchestral, some broadway, but I must admit that opera is almost always playing at my house.

Q:  What did you do in your down time backstage in the dressing room?

Holmes:  Enjoyed laughing and talking with my colleagues.  That is one of the things I miss most … is the laughter and the incredible bonds that we all had.

Q: How was the shift was from part time to full time at lyric? How did the schedule change when it occurred?

Holmes:  Instead of starting in March …. Learning music 3 nights a week (for the men … 2 for the women) all the way through the summer on hourly pay and not going on full salary until staging began in late August or early September, with the new full-time contract, we started in August, 5 days a week ……. Learning the repertoire…… all on full salary.  It meant that during the off-season and the “instruction period” you did not have to have another job to supplement your income.   You were AVAILABLE to the company more and Lyric could count on you from 11 AM until when a performance was finished in the evening.  No longer could you use “work conflict” during the day. Being a chorister was your full-time job and it was wonderful.  Life was easier for you and it was easier for the schedulers as well.

Q: What was the schedule like before Lyric had a full-time chorus? How many performances were scheduled per week during that time? Were the performances primarily on the weekends or also throughout the week?

Holmes:  In my first years, the season always ended before Christmas.  You did the same amount of performances a week, and there were almost always 8 operas, there were just fewer performances PER OPERA, usually no more than six.  There were the 3-hour evening rehearsals (the instruction period) from March until August………and then when staging began, because choristers had full-time jobs during the day, most of the rehearsals took place at night.  5-7; 8-11 was the usual time.   Many choristers had some conflicts during day-time rehearsals with orchestra, but back then almost all of the piano run-thru’s were on Sunday when everyone was available.  Missing a dress rehearsal was a no-no.  But I must say, that during my first 3-4 years at Lyric, when we signed in, one RARELY……and I mean RARELY saw a name circled in RED. Interesting and something to think about.

Scott Holmes in performance at the Lyric Opera of Chicago - 1) onstage with Luciano Pavarotti, 2) in a performance of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera, and 3) in costume as a slave in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte.
Scott Holmes in performance at the Lyric Opera of Chicago – 1) onstage with Luciano Pavarotti, 2) in a performance of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, and 3) in costume as a slave in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte.

Q: How long did you work at Lyric?

Holmes: 44 years

Q: How did you pace yourself vocally over the years to have a long-term career as an Opera Singer? What did you do differently on days you didn’t feel your best but still had to perform?

Holmes: I marked and tried to save what I had for performances.  Chorus masters often told us to hold back.

Q: How did opera productions themselves change throughout the years? Better technology? More movement? Different expectations?

Holmes:  Productions MAY have been somewhat simpler, but in NO way less impressive.  PETER GRIMES required almost constant movement, but again, it was created by men who thought like singers.  They knew that BEING ABLE TO SING AND EXPRESS was paramount.   You knew every night where your foot would be on a certain note, or measure……. because the director cared enough to make it natural.  The director would never have THOUGHT (and the chorus master ALLOWED) anything to be staged without maximum MUSICAL importance.

Q: How long did it take for us to get where we are with our contract and what were the big gains for the artists over the years?

Holmes:  I think the full-time contract started in the early or mid 90’s after Donald Palumbo arrived.  HE wanted it, MOST of us wanted it and so it happened.   The gains were more guaranteed weeks of pay, vacation and bonus weeks, HEALTH INSURANCE, which began with a certain amount each year (covering only so many months) and ended up as FULL health insurance coverage.  Daily limits on our rehearsal time (and double and triple time for going over those limits), extra service fees and in general, better working conditions including safety clauses in the agreement which have greatly improved over the years.

Q: Did you receive more rehearsal time for productions after you switched to full time?

Holmes: Not necessarily.  Staging previously took place at night.  When we switched to full time, Lyric was able to schedule staging as early as 11 AM.  Daily and weekly overtime regulations were still in effect and very little changed in that regard. 

Q: Was Donald Palumbo, the previous Chorus Master at Lyric, involved with negotiations at all?

Holmes: I don’t believe he ever attended a negotiating meeting but had A LOT of input behind the scenes.  Donald was the one who pushed for a full-time chorus: a group that was available to rehearse more hours.  He wanted the choristers to be dedicated to full-time employment without outside conflicts. NUMBERS were also very important to him of course, because he wanted his chorus TO BE HEARD and he knew what a house the size of Lyric required.

Q: How many chorus masters did you work with at Lyric over the years?

Holmes: I am proud to say, ALL of them:  Michael Lepore, Herbert Handt, Douglas Robinson, Giulio Favario, Phil Morehead, Donald Palumbo, Donald Nally, Michael Black (1 year), Martin Wright and Michael Black (permanent).  So, I think that’s 10.

Q: I hear so many people mention the name Ardis Krainik in which our theater was named after. Can you describe her and what it was like to work with her?

Holmes: Ardis had a rather long “reign” as general manager and I was Chorus Men’s union rep for almost 9 years of that reign.   She was an incredible fund-raiser and used her incredible personality to re-mold Lyric into a solid A-house, both artistically and financially.   You may not wish to publish this …… but I saw her in a totally different light, dealing with her in various union “moments of friction”.  While always saying that she was “for the chorus” (as she WAS a chorister in the early years), there were several times where she behaved quite ruthlessly and heartlessly which resulted in her relationship with us being severely damaged.

Q: How did things like stage/safety/sensitivity issues change over the years?

Holmes:  All of the above had improved significantly.

Scott Holmes poses backstage for a photo with Lyric Opera of Chicago soloist Bryn Terfel, and onstage with the legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti
Scott Holmes poses backstage for a photo with Lyric Opera of Chicago soloist Bryn Terfel, and onstage with the legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti

Q: How did working with artists like Pavarotti, Sutherland and Caballe etc. influence you? What was it like to stand onstage with them?

Holmes: When you worked with singers like them, you were aware that suddenly you were hearing singing on an entirely different level.   A wonderful example of this was when we were staging MARIA STUARDA.  Caballe was famous for arriving late to the rehearsal period and for the first few weeks, another singer stood in for her.  She was a very fine singer and the chorus was quite taken with her singing.   One day, we took a break in rehearsal and were told that Mme. Caballe has arrived and that we would begin with the famous prayer of Maria toward the end of the opera.   When Caballe began singing, almost everyone’s jaw dropped to the floor, not believing what they were hearing.  Sheer beauty, phrasing, pianissimo’s, use of words and breath control that was almost superhuman.

Lyric Opera of Chicago Bass Scott Holmes presents Dame Joan Sutherland with a birthday cake, backstage after a performance
Lyric Opera of Chicago Bass Scott Holmes presents Dame Joan Sutherland with a birthday cake, backstage after a performance

Q: Who is your favorite singer of all time that you have worked with?

Holmes: JOAN SUTHERLAND

Q: Do you have a favorite conductor you have worked with over the years? Why are they your favorite?

Holmes: Bruno Bartoletti, Christof von Dohnanyi, Zubin Mehta, Emmanuel Villaume, Carlo Rizzi and Ferdinand Leitner.  These conductors not only had a clear beat that was easy to follow (except perhaps for Bartoletti!), but they understood the problem of distance from the chorus when giving a downbeat or a cue, …. they were also interested in having the chorus HEARD as well as seen.

Q: Did you have any performances rituals to get you ready for a show?

Holmes: No, not really.

Q:  Do you have a remedy for a sore throat?

Holmes:  I discovered rather late in my career that at the first HINT of a sore throat, gargle with VODKA. It kills everything ……. Oh …… and SWALLOW!!

Q: Do you have any advice for younger singers on how to maintain vocal longevity throughout their career? And do you have any advice for someone thinking of becoming an Opera Singer?

Holmes: No…… not really, just know when to mark or save yourself…… and realize that you are part of a group.  You are being paid to blend your voice with others.  Blend with your section, blend with your colleagues.  Leading more with your BRAIN than your VOICE will give you a much longer and more successful career.

Q: How many performances total did you perform at Lyric over the years?

Holmes:  I wish I knew………MILLIONS!  HA HA