Talking with singers: Clay Hilley Photo: Bethany Davis Photography.

Talking with singers: Clay Hilley

Jenna Simeonov

This weekend on Saturday, January 6, the Wagner Society of New York presents tenor Clay Hilley in recital, after awarding him their Top Prize, the Robert Launch Award in 2015. Among young tenors, Hilley has stepped into the exciting worlds of Heldentenor repertoire, taking on hefty roles like Siegfried, Calaf, Parsifal, and Samson.

We spoke with Hilley about the fun challenges of Heldentenor repertoire, and what it’s like to study closely with fellow tenor and mentor Jon Fredric West.

Why do you sing professionally?

It chose me, I think. Before I was born my dear grandmother - my “NayNay” - used to pray for a musical grandkid. When I showed up, it didn’t take long for me to get my hands on a cassette tape of Peter and the Wolf. It’s alleged that I would carry a child’s battery-powered boombox all about, listening to the piece over and over and over. This instilled both a great appreciation for classical music, and an all-consuming fear of wolves. The latter I’ve been able to shake somewhat; the former not so much.

I started band in elementary school, piano shortly after, and voice lessons in high school. Music has been a constant my whole life, and I love the thrill of live music performance. It’s incredibly cathartic to have all that sound going through you. But mostly the reason I sing professionally can be traced back to the prayers of my NayNay. It’s my purpose and my calling.

What advantages and challenges do you find come with singing in a rarer voice type like Heldentenor?

Every day I am thankful that my throat was designed to fight loud battles with Wagnerian orchestral forces. There just aren’t many of us around, as your question implies. I benefit from a small supply and great demand - a huge advantage.

The challenges are many.

The music is often so strenuous - even for voices appropriate to the repertoire - a solid technique is the sine qua non bare-minimum requirement, and one not easily or quickly acquired.

Another temporary obstacle is youth. For the longest time, the toughest thing for me was evading debt collectors long enough to absorb as much as I could about style, language, and technique to eventually earn enough coins to appease them, however temporarily. Impresarios are justifiably skeptical of 30 year old self-proclaimed “Heldentenors.” It takes a while to prove yourself to the casting crowd.

Can you tell us about your work with Jon Fredric West? How have your careers compared thus far, and what have you learned from a mentor with a similar voice and trajectory?

Francesca Zambello, my Patron Saint and Guardian Angel, introduced me to Jon when I was an apprentice at Glimmerglass in 2012. At that point I’d been aware of Jon’s phenomenal career for a while. We worked a little bit that summer, then kept up with each other on Facebook for a few years until Jon reached out to me saying “I think you are on the verge of a big career, but there are just some things I’d like to tweak, and you will be ready.”

So I went and lived for a week with Jon and his wife Sharon in Utica, NY. Every day we’d wake up and have lunch together, work a few hours, talk business and strategy and trajectory, have dinner, and go to sleep. In the first two days I felt like a brand new singer. My first engagement after spending that week with Jon was Siegfried in Götterdämmerung with Union Avenue Opera. Friends and colleagues who already knew my voice well were stunned with the change. Jon helped me find a more mature, full-bodied and noble sound.

I still try to get up to Utica as often as I can. Nowadays it’s all about coaching complete roles with him vocally and dramatically. His well of knowledge is bottomless. I trust him implicitly, and count his presence in my life a true blessing.

As to comparisons of trajectories, a few interesting parallels come to mind.

In May of 2009, just as Jon was singing his final Siegfrieds at the Met, I was singing my first Wagnerian role ever - Froh in Das Rheingold with Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. My Wagnerian debut coincided almost to the day with Jon’s retiring the role of Siegfried.

Another career parallel is our respective debuts with Virginia Opera in the same role, but separated by 40 years. Jon sang Canio for the company’s 1976 production of Pagliacci, and I sang the same role for Virginia in 2016.

That’s all at the moment. Some day we will sit down and make a list of more of these things as they take place.

Right now our biggest wish is to share the stage in a production of Siegfried, with me as the title character and Jon as Mime, my guardian “father figure.” The brilliance of this plan should be clear to enterprising opera producers - Clay the youthful simpleton and Jon the world-famous Siegfried in his day, now turned sinister father figure. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the passing of the Helden torch.

What do you know now about the career that you wish you knew 10 years ago?

That you shouldn’t blindly believe every piece of advice you hear. That no one has a completely reliable crystal ball regarding your future. That regardless of what an Expert might say, you are the only person who can fully know how certain repertoire feels to your voice. The Experts could be completely right - and you should take this possibility very seriously. But the Experts might also be incorrect. Sometimes you have to stand athwart an avalanche of incoming pessimism, and forge your own path.

If you didn’t sing for a living, what would you do instead?

Law or stand-up comedy. I’m a TRIP.

For details about Hilley’s January 6th recital with pianist Abdiel Vásaquez, Good Shepherd-Faith Presbyterian Church 152 West 66th Street, New York, click right here.

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