Tosca star Brendan Collins on tackling quintessential 'bad boy' of opera

As Northern Ireland Opera prepare to stage Puccini's Tosca at the Grand Opera House in Belfast, Gail Bell caught up with Cork-born baritone and soloist Brendan Collins, who has been waiting a quarter of a century to play opera's chief villain, Baron Scarpia...

Brendan Collins in action. Picture by Michael Burch
Brendan Collins in action. Picture by Michael Burch Brendan Collins in action. Picture by Michael Burch
Brendan Collins. Picture by Michael Burch
Brendan Collins. Picture by Michael Burch Brendan Collins. Picture by Michael Burch

WHEN baritone Brendan Collins dons his costume for Northern Ireland Opera's upcoming production of Tosca, he says that will be the moment he truly becomes "the villain of all villains".

He has been waiting 25 years to become "*the* bad boy of opera", so a little booing – which tends to be the case come the final curtain – will just be part of the melodrama for the seasoned baritone and soloist, who is soon to be cloaked-up as Baron Scarpia in Puccini's "intense political thriller".

Directed by Cameron Menzies, Collins joins the principal cast comprising award-winning soprano Svetlana Kasyan in the lead role as Floria Tosca, tenor Roman Arndt as Tosca's lover, Mario Cavaradossi, and former winner of Northern Ireland Opera's Festival of Voice, Aaron O'Hare, as Scarpia's sidekick, Spoletta.

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It is all set to be a dazzling display of operatic drama, mystery, murder and music to be staged at the Grand Opera House, with energetic Brazilian conductor Eduardo Strausser making his Belfast debut by leading the Ulster Orchestra.

"I can't tell you how excited I am to be singing in this role – I have been waiting 25 years," enthuses Collins from his home in Dublin, where he has been sitting at the piano all morning, preparing not just for Tosca, but for several other performances booked into his diary for this season and into next year.

"There are some villains who have redeeming features: not Scarpia. The only thing you could say is that he might have good taste in wine – that's about it.

Brendan Collins. Picture by Michael Burch
Brendan Collins. Picture by Michael Burch Brendan Collins. Picture by Michael Burch

"He is the police chief of Rome and uses the front of religion to get his way, not just with prisoners, but with women – which is the crux of the plot. Everyone in Rome fears him: he has no mercy. I wouldn't want to meet him, but he is certainly a great character to play."

Collins, whose repertoire includes almost 70 roles in iconic venues across the globe, is gaining something of a reputation for playing 'baddies', but places the blame squarely on his voice:

"I was involved with NI Opera last year when I played another 'baddie' – Baron Douphol in La Traviata, he says.

"When I was walking into the venue on opening night with my parents, my Mum asked me why I always end up playing 'baddies'. I thought about this and it's true, but it is a voice-type thing – it's just the voice tone.

"Baritones are either the best friend or the baddie: we are never the hero or the lover, and when we are, it is very, very rare."

Not that the personable Cork and Brussels-trained singer and musician (he also plays piano) is complaining: his powerful vocal has led him to hallowed stages across Ireland, Britain, Europe, the Middle East, China and America – among them, favourites like the Royal Albert Hall in London and Glyndebourne opera house in Sussex.

"I love what I do, I love the music and I love the drama of opera, but there is a lot of travelling involved and that means being away from my wife [Joan O'Malley] – luckily, she works in the industry, too," reveals the performer, who sings predominantly in Italian, English and French – although he is currently learning a piece in Russian.

Brendan Collins in action. Picture by Michael Burch
Brendan Collins in action. Picture by Michael Burch Brendan Collins in action. Picture by Michael Burch

"We actually first met while performing in the chorus of Tosca together with Opera Ireland in 2004. So, Tosca is a very important opera for me for many reasons.

"Also, the very first time I ever worked for Northern Ireland Opera, it was for a Tosca performance, and it was their first production back in 2011 in Derry, when each act was set in a different place.

"The audience had to move about – from a church, to state rooms, to a 'prison'. It was such a fantastic way to start."

With each act of Tosca set in a real place in Rome – Basilica of Sant'Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese and the Castel Sant'Angelo – together representing the three facets of the city's power, Church, palace and prison, what better way to get your head into the story than an actual visit?

That's exactly what Collins and his wife did on a recent trip to Italy, creating their own "little Tosca tour".

He has also been gaining inspiration for the role by reading up on Italian baritone, Tito Gobbi, "the Baron Scarpia of the 20th century" who wrote books on opera, including his autobiography where he talks about his approach to the role.

"I try to do as much research as I can and I like to read original work when possible," explains Cork-born Collins, who started his career as a dancer and actor before being asked to join the chorus of an opera being staged by Opera South in his home city.

"I thought, 'Why not?' – it was something different. That was my first experience of opera and I completely fell in love with it.

"We did La Bohème the following year, and then I decided to study opera properly – first at the Cork School of Music and then I had a chance to study in Brussels with the famous Belgian baritone, José van Dam.

"No-one in my family knows how this has happened. There are no big singers in my family – I am the only one. They still, to this day, say: 'We have no idea where we got you'."

With opera undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment, Collins is passionate about attracting new audiences to the art form and bringing it "out into the community" even more.

"The work that companies like Northern Ireland Opera are doing, going out into the community, is just brilliant," he enthuses.

"I did a piece with them back in February and March when we performed in Crumlin Road Gaol. I think when you mix it up like that, you are helping dispel any lingering myths about opera being elitist.

"It did start off that way, in the court when your duke or your prince would want to show off to his friends and give money to a composer and say: 'Write me an opera'. But since the 1700s, when it went into the theatres, opera has been for the people.

"There are times when you do need to dress up a bit, but I saw Plácido Domingo at the Royal Opera House in London for £14 and I just went in normal trousers and jumper."

He will be singing his Tosca role in Italian, but isn't too concerned about the use of surtitles mounted above the main stage.

"You can always look up and see what the performers are saying, but the music in opera is always doing the work for you," assures Collins, one of only 12 Irish singers to take part in the first Wexford Festival Young Artists programme in 2005 under world-leading Welsh tenor, Dennis O'Neill.

"The great composers get it across – the emotions and the story – through the music, and that, for me, is what is so great about opera.

"I love the movies, I love plays, but the music in opera brings it to another level. It is just another way of telling a great story."

:: Tosca opens at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, on September 9, running until September 16. Booking at goh.co.uk