Close Window   
Achieve Spring 2006


Clif Forbis Makes Music Come Alive

Story by Rob Eisele

New York—It’s a common topic of conversation wherever young children gather: “What does your father do?”

For young Mason and Sydney Forbis, there was always a ready response to these schoolyard queries: “Daddy sings loud.”

Volume is unquestionably a part of what tenor Clifton Forbis brings to his performances in leading roles at such storied venues as Italy’s La Scala, New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the Opera National de Paris. But critics have also hailed his “ringing tenor,” his “heroic spirit” and the “sonic fireworks” of his dramatic vocal interpretations of some of the most challenging roles in the operatic canon.

Fiery theatrics are the last thing that come to mind when Forbis reminisces about his days as a student at William Jewell on a recent wintry New York morning. Over eggs and sausage at the West Side Diner, a homey neighborhood restaurant a few blocks from Lincoln Center that dishes out comfort food for his road-weary soul, a laid-back Forbis thinks back on his days on the Hill in a voice still tinged with the drawl of his native Tennessee.

“Jewell played a huge part in shaping my career,” says Forbis, who received the Citation for Achievement from his alma mater in 2003. “Growing up in that environment musically, and getting to see artists like Isaac Stern, Leontyne Price and Luciano Pavarotti along with the choral concerts at Jewell. Hanging out in Dad’s office, and being around all of those people who were so committed to music—it really formed my view of the world.”

Musical roots run deep

“Dad” is the legendary Jewell music professor Wes Forbis, head of the college’s music department from 1962 to 1981, now retired and living near his son outside Nashville. His mother, Ginger, is also a musician, so Forbis comes by his talent naturally. But his ascent to the heights of the opera world was hardly an overnight journey. Forbis took some time to find himself, notching several years at Jewell (where he sang in the choir and played football) before moving on to Belmont University and a stint at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, where he met his future wife, Barbara. He earned a master’s degree from Southern Methodist University and took master classes at the acclaimed Juilliard Opera Center. He returned to the Nashville area and worked in construction (he’s an accomplished carpenter) and a warehouse, along with a part-time job in music ministry. But singing was his passion, and he was drawn irresistibly to the operatic stage.

“It wasn’t a conscious decision,” Forbis says of his career choice. “It was something that evolved over time.”

The singer’s well-received performance in a 1994 Toronto production of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” drew the attention of critics and, eventually, the powers-that-be at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. They offered him the same tenor role in “Onegin,” and his career has followed a steady, upward trajectory ever since, with a string of performances for leading companies in New York, Chicago, Paris, Seattle and Vienna.

“It wasn’t like an overnight thing,” Forbis says. “The work has been steady, and as the opportunities expand, you take advantage of those opportunities. Singing is really hard work, but the trick is to make it look easy. It’s a very physical activity. You’re relying on two little vocal chords in your throat, but it is hard physical work to sustain the breath control and vocal stamina over a period sometimes of five or six hours. But I absolutely love what I do. To stand there feeling that orchestra—and I do mean the physical sensation of feeling it as the music hits you, and not just hearing it—there is nothing quite like it.”

Defying stereotypes

The amiable, 44-year-old musician defies the stereotype of the effete operatic figure portrayed in popular culture. Alan Jackson or Nickel Creek are more likely to be on his CD player than operatic or classical selections. “That’s like taking your work home with you,” he says of his more populist taste in music. Back home in Goodlettsville, he drives a sturdy gray pickup truck.

“If I don’t fit the stereotype, that’s fine by me,” Forbis says with a smile. “Those stereotypes come from a different era when people used to assume that only a certain type of person would be an opera singer. That’s just not true anymore. We come from all walks of life and from all different backgrounds.”

A few blocks away, in a stark subterranean rehearsal hall several levels below the velvet-covered burgundy boxes of the Metropolitan Opera House, Forbis gathers with an international cast to rehearse his role as the villainous Drum Major in Alban Berg’s contemporary opera “Wozzeck.” The singer’s easygoing demeanor dissolves into the sinister shadings of the duplicitous military man, a character that “has no redeeming qualities,” according to Forbis. He wraps his arms around soprano Katarina Dalayman and begins a sultry physical and vocal seduction of a fellow soldier’s wife, confidently vocalizing the guttural German of the libretto—one of the five languages (Italian, German, French, Czech and Russian) in which he sings fluently.

Honing vocal and dramatic artistry

The contrast between Forbis the truck-driving family man and Forbis the performer is a marked one. It’s part of what Nashville Opera artistic director John Hoomes refers to as the singer’s arresting physical presence.

“He has an incredible voice, an incredibly polished artistry both vocal and dramatic,” Hoomes says. “Like some of the truly great artists I’ve had a chance to work with, he can turn it on and off. He can come in and joke around and talk about going out turkey shooting tomorrow morning, and then we start working and ‘bam!’—it’s a different person and a different persona. He draws focus to himself; he doesn’t upstage anyone, but there’s an intensity that is always surprising.”

Jewell’s Belcher leads PBS Great Performances cast

Baritone Daniel Belcher, a member of the class of 1992, is another alumnus of the William Jewell music department who is making his presence known in national and international opera circles.

In 2004, Belcher made his opera debut in the United Kingdom performing Guglielmo in John Cox’s production of Così fan tutte at the Garsington Festival. The performance was presented as part of the Barbican “Mostly Mozart” Festival. The baritone then created the leading role of Prior Walter in the highly anticipated Peter Eötvös opera Angels in America, based on Tony Kushner’s 1993 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning Broadway play. The opera premiered at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in fall 2004, marking Belcher’s Paris opera debut. The production has been filmed for television and is scheduled for a spring or summer airing as part of the PBS “Great Performances” series. He has appeared at New York City Opera, Houston Grand Opera, San Francisco Opera and Kansas City’s Lyric Opera, as well as with leading companies internationally in Germany and France. Belcher made his professional debut in 1997 with the Houston Grand Opera portraying Andy Warhol in the world premiere of Michael Daugherty’s Jackie O (released by Decca on the Argo label). While a member of the Houston Grand Opera Studio he created the role of John Brooke in Mark Adamo’s Little Women. His portrayal of John Brooke was telecast nationwide on “Great Performances” and was recorded and released on the Ondine label. He has since repeated the role in productions at the New York City Opera and at Central City Opera.

Forbis’s career success is gratifying to those who have watched his progress over the years, including Don Brown, professor of music at Jewell from 1967 to 2004.

“A few years ago, my wife Helen and I were listening to one of Clif’s appearances on the Saturday afternoon Met radio broadcast,” Brown recalls. “Placido Domingo, who many think is the greatest tenor in modern times, was also in that performance. He and Clif were in a scene where one would sing and the other would reply. We were amazed to realize that we could not tell who was answering whom. We just knew that we were listening to two very exceptional voices.”

Harriman recital debut approaches

Friends of Forbis and of William Jewell’s Harriman Arts Program will have an opportunity to sample the singer’s artistry first-hand when he makes his world solo recital debut on the performing arts series April 22 at Kansas City’s Folly Theater.

“It’s kind of like coming full circle,” Forbis says of his upcoming appearance on a performing arts series that has also presented the debuts of Luciano Pavarotti, Salvatore Licitra and Juan Diego Florez, among others. “Some of my earliest musical memories are of going to recitals on the Jewell series. But never in a million years did I imagine that I would one day be performing there. It’s humbling, and it’s a real honor to get to come and do this.”

Audiences can look forward to some lieder, some French songs and some full-fledged arias, although with a solo recital Forbis says “they can’t all be barnburners. You have to pace yourself. The intimacy of a recital lends itself to a more personal form of communication. You don’t have the costumes and the blocking, but you still have the character and the narrative. The spectacle is not there, so you have to make that adjustment. But it’s nice that you can sort of sit back with the audience and say ‘Let’s enjoy this music together.’”

Forbis, who made his debut as “Otello” at Italy’s historic La Scala last summer, is booked in major roles at worldwide venues well into the 2006-07 season—“a couple of ‘Otellos,’ ‘Tristan’ and the ‘Walkeries,’” he reveals. He plans to continue making music as long as he is physically able, and then may choose to pursue a career path in teaching the intricacies of vocal performance.

“The business is changing dramatically,” Forbis says. “I think this is the last of the ‘big voice’ generation. A lot of the listening audience today is CD-educated and have not been raised with live performance. They go and expect to hear what’s on the CD, which produces a different color, a different timbre and a different size of voice.”

Firing a musical passion

It’s clear that music is his passion, and that maintaining the vitality of his performance is—next to his family—Forbis’s top priority. Though he’s constantly on the road and away from home and family, he arranges for wife Barbara and son Mason (now 15) and daughter Sydney, 13, to join him whenever possible. The family spent much of the summer together in Italy last year, squeezing in trips to Tuscany and the Italian Riviera between rehearsals and performances at La Scala.

Forbis turns momentarily pensive as he reflects on his career to date: “The biggest danger is that you will become complacent,” he says. “Having done a role 50 times doesn’t mean that you know the role. There are always things to investigate and ways to discover nuances that you weren’t aware of before. The challenge is to make that music come alive every time.”

View more photos from this story




500 College Hill - Liberty, MO 64068