Phil Cutlip’s baritone voice is in increasingly big demand with opera companies and symphonies all over the United States and in Europe, and we’ve been watching his rising star for some time now. When we learned he would be performing with the Seattle Opera this fall in its production of The End of the Affair, we jumped at the chance to talk with him while he was in the area.
Phil shares a career in music with his wife, mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips. The couple lives in New York City and has a 7-year-old son, Max. This interview was conducted by Phil’s old School of Music classmate Kurt Graupensperger ’87, who these days is a development officer at Puget Sound.
So, what got you into music?
In my family, music was a big part of our lives. My mother played piano, so there was always live music in the house. We all sang in church choir, and we would go as a family to nursing homes in Ellensburg, [Wash.], and sing like a junior-sized von Trapp family.
All your sisters and brothers?
One sister, one brother, and me. My mother would play the piano, and the four of us, my dad and the children, would sing. So I grew up feeling comfortable about performing. It wasn’t a daunting thing to get up and sing solo with the high school choir. It laid a foundation educationally because early on I knew how to read music, and I also really enjoyed it.
When you went to college, was it clear that music would be your major?
I had a science scholarship, so I was pretty sure I’d major in mathematics. I ended up auditioning for the Adelphians for Paul Schultz, and I sang for Tommy Goleeke, the voice teacher. They both were really impressed, and so over the course of my first three years my mindset went from concentrating on math with music secondary, to when the two started taking an equal standing. And then when I was a senior I had to choose, because I wasn’t going to apply to grad school for both math and music. I thought, what do I want to be doing in a year, sitting in mathematics seminars or doing more music and really focusing my whole life on music? Looking at it that way, it was an easy decision, and I ended up applying to three different music grad schools.
But your math and computer science background wasn’t wasted?
Definitely not. Up until six or seven years ago I had part-time office jobs. The last one in particular was highly computer oriented and analytical.
But, also, having studied mathematics and learned analysis, order, logic, and disciplined thinking has been very helpful in a music career. It helps with everything from understanding a score to memorizing lyrics written in, say, Russian or German.
It’s funny. So many singers are good with computers. We all end up in office jobs—or restaurants—when we’re starting out.
Can you tell us about the role you’re performing in The End of the Affair?
The opera is based on a novel by Graham Greene. It’s a story of a love triangle set in London during the blitz in 1944 and later in 1946. My role is Maurice Bendrix. This is the third incarnation of this opera. This version has been modified a lot in terms of the structure and also the music. In studying for the part I debated and finally decided I didn’t want to listen to a recording of previous productions because I had a chance to completely recreate the role, with no preconceptions or somebody else’s take on it.
That makes me wonder, do you have a routine you go through when you’re preparing for a role?
I first familiarize myself with the story— for The End of the Affair, I read the novel and I read the libretto [the text of the opera]—and then I go back to the basics of the music, learning the notes, the rhythms. Then, over the course of a couple of months, I sing it a lot and think beyond just the notes. I think about the character. What do I want to express? What’s underlying the drama at that point, what is my character feeling and how can I express that and still sing the right notes in the right rhythm in the right dynamic levels? And then I go to a coach. That helps to get the orchestral sound in your mind. Then I make a tape with another coach of myself singing the role and have that to work with in terms of memorization. Finally the director and conductor help you produce the finished product.
The day you walk in to the first rehearsal it’s all memorized?
What roles do you enjoy most?
I have favorites that I’ve done, and then there are my dream roles. I’ve been Figaro in The Marriage of Figaro several times. Papageno in The Magic Flute. If I’m typecast it’s more toward the sympathetic character, rather than the mean guy. Having said that, one of the roles I’d love to do is Don Giovanni. Possibly in five to 10 years I’ll get to sing Germont in La Traviata. Because of my age I think I look too young to play the father of a 30-year-old guy. Maybe some of the other Verdi repertoire if my voice grows a little more. I might never get to sing Rigoletto, but that would be really cool.
It seems like you are physically stronger than you were in college. Do opera singers have to work out?
Being in good cardiovascular shape makes a huge difference, because you’re often asked to do things like run up the stairs and then sing something very difficult. Even just walking and singing can take your breath away.
Any funny stories about working in opera?
My favorite is when I was doing a tour with Western Opera Theater out of San Francisco. It’s for young artists, and we toured the whole United States. We were in Sandpoint, Idaho, and the theater was a tiny, former vaudeville house. It was so small that there were no dressing rooms, at least none that were usable for us, so we changed in the set trucks that drove along with us. Opening night, as we were going in, a cute little dog came by, so we petted it and then we went up some stairs and in to sing La Traviata, a very heavy, serious opera. At the end of Act 2, in a big ensemble scene, the little dog just walked right out on the stage and looked down at the conductor. We all kept singing and one of the tenors went over and picked it up and stroked it, and we finished the act.
Can we talk about auditioning?
Ugh. Mostly, auditioning is just miserable. It’s such an artificial situation. You’re singing one aria from a role and in four minutes you have to show that you can sing the whole role. It’s much better when someone can see you in an entire role or at least can hear you in a recording doing a whole role. I’m a better auditioner than I used to be, maybe because my career is at a point now where there’s not so much hinging on those four minutes.
How would you describe the place where you are in your career?
I’m in a great place right now in the amount of work I have versus how much time off I have. I’m not working continuously, which would be a strain on the family.
What shows have you got coming up?
In January I have a Dallas Opera production of Rodelinda, which is a Händel opera. And Mary is actually singing in it, too. Then I have several concerts with symphonies, and after that my debut with the San Francisco opera in May and June, which is a Tchaikovsky opera in Russian called The Maid of Orleans, based on the story of Joan of Arc.