Out of Character
Baritone Donnie Ray Albert is a figure out of American opera history, and his past with HGO predates the Wortham Theater Center itself. He made his professional operatic debut at HGO in 1975 as Parson Alltalk in a legendary production of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, over a decade before the Wortham opened its doors.
In 1976, Albert returned to HGO to perform the role that would make him famous: Porgy in George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess at the long-gone Houston Music Hall, current site of the Hobby Center. The production would travel to Broadway for 122
performances and win both a Tony Award and a Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording. Since then, Albert has been a giant of the art.
With an international career spanning almost 50 years, the baritone has been beloved for generations. And although he returned to HGO several times after his debut, it is a rare treat for Houston audiences to experience Albert’s talents these days, as prior to 2021’s Giving Voice, he hadn’t appeared with HGO since 2000.
When we called Albert for this interview, he answered from his office at University of Texas at Austin, where for the past decade he has taught voice at the Butler School of Music. At the time, he was just gearing up to prepare for his role debut as Lord Capulet in HGO’s Romeo and Juliet.
When you come back to the Houston stage, after going so far, what do you think about?
It’s different in some respects. I’ve only sung in the Wortham three times, and that’s including the Giving Voice concert. All the other times were in either Hermann Park, Miller Outdoor Theatre, or Jones Hall before the Wortham existed. Or in the Music Hall where we first did Porgy, which no longer exists. So the whole arts area has changed tremendously in 40-plus years. Jones Hall was where I auditioned in the first place, to be hired by David Gockley to do Treemonisha. I was fresh out of grad school, Southern Methodist University, had just gotten the news that I had passed my orals. So I was pumped.
Is there a lot of nostalgia when you come back now?
But of course, yes, despite all the changes. It’s a wonderful arts district. I’m always happy to come back. I also come down to see some of the other productions that you do in Houston. I come down to watch my friends and colleagues who perform in Houston. It’s a great venue. Albert shot to fame after appearing as Porgy in Porgy and Bess with HGO in 1976
Do you have a particular memory that stands out?
Well, it has to be, of course, after doing the Treemonisha, I was invited back. And I remember coming back after that to sing Jack Wallace in La Fanciulla del West [The was doing a lot of small bass roles during those days, in the beginning of my career. And then I got Porgy. Porgy was the biggie. That one pretty much set the standard of what Houston was to become, as well as what I became out of that, starting my career and having the boost of doing that production as a tour all over the United States, and in Europe. When I pulled myself out of the Porgies to do other Verdian and Wagnerian roles and Donizetti, I was doing a whole lot of different things—small roles, big roles, just a combination of things. But I think that Porgy sent me into a different genre and a different era. So I was able to move on, even though I’ve returned to Houston, what, a dozen times after that? I think I’ve performed with Houston more than any other opera company.
How are you preparing for the role of Lord Capulet?
I’ve never done Romeo and Juliet before. I’ve done French opera, but I’ve never done this one. To be truthful, I haven’t really delved yet. I’ve started looking at it, and I started reading it. I started reading what I’m saying and how it’s relating to the characters, my scenes compared to the other scenes, and what happens throughout, and who I really like, and who I really don’t like, and trying to develop some sense of what the story is telling me and how to go about studying it. I pick up on its bits and pieces along the way. Studying the French is what I’ve really been concentrating on, because the words matter.
How do you go about that?
Well, you just have to read the story and understand the French. French is not one of my strongest languages. Being from Louisiana, I’m ashamed to say that, but I really have to. As a teacher here at the University of Texas in Austin, we work on our languages quite a bit, and French is the one that I have to really concentrate on and really make sure that I’m doing the right thing. One of my best friends is Mary Dibbern, who works for the Dallas Opera and has written several books. We were in graduate school together. And she has become quite the authority. In fact, that’s who’ll be coaching this role. We will be working on this together to make sure that I’m doing the right thing, saying the right thing, getting it as musically correct as possible.
How do you get into character?
Well, being a father of two sons, I don’t identify with this at all (laughs). You usually have something in the back of your mind, but I do have three granddaughters, young granddaughters, so that’s as close as I usually get to having that father-daughter feeling. You know, you have to identify in some way that feeling in your natural life, when you’re looking at a role and you’re reading about it, and you’re seeing this father who is very adamant about being proud of his daughter and wanting only the very best. And there’s almost this pre-arranged idea of who she will marry. It’s a different role from some of the others. I’ve played. And I don’t get killed! So that’s even better. But I do get very angry at what happens toward the end.