Talking with singers: Matthew AnchelInterview
By anyone’s account, American bass Matthew Anchel is having a stellar 2021-22. He’s settling in for a New York-based season, a string of contracts with The Metropolitan Opera that include covering in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Don Carlos, and making his mainstage debut in Laurent Pelly’s production of Cendrillon, sharing the stage with Isabel Leonard, Emily D’Angelo, and Stephanie Blythe.
“I love working at the Met so much,” Anchel says. He acknowledges the more unsavory news stories about the Met, “But I have only ever been treated with professionalism and respect whenever I work there.”
This season will be Anchel’s Met debut, but not his first season spent at the company. Since 2013, he has covered bass roles in Die Zauberflöte, The Exterminating Angel, Der Rosenkavalier, and more. He even sang in the the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus at age 6. For Anchel, the Met is synonymous with opera’s history, and should always be a place to put up works from the traditional canon.
“It’s really this most the most amazing feeling if you learn how to sing with ease.”
“They have this enormous proscenium stage,” Anchel says, contrasting the Met’s output with the wave of small and scrappy opera companies, producing black-box-inspired chamber opera. “I think it’s important that if we’re going to keep doing this art form, there are institutions that do opera the way it was meant to be done.”
It struck me in our most recent conversation, that Anchel has one of the healthiest relationships with his singing that I’ve observed in a professional singer. His devotion to the art form is clear, even hereditary, if we point out that he was born and raised in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, to two opera singer parents, Julia Heyer and David Anchel.
And it’s not just nature, but lots of nurture. Anchel’s path is almost classic: a performing arts high school, the Manhattan School of Music, LA Opera’s Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program, the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and private lessons with Trish McCaffrey. As a result, he’s arrived, prepared, at that crucial moment of a 30-something bass’s career where the instrument catches up to the demands of opera’s most coveted low-voice roles.
And for all his skill and operatic pedigree, Anchel has that thing that evades so many professional singers: balance. If you surveyed a slice of his social media following — either the 16,000 people who follow him on Instagram, or better yet, his 831,000 followers on TikTok — the majority would likely vouch for Anchel’s sound advice as their “TikTok Gay Best Friend”. Dating woes, makeup queries, and certainly some miniature singing lessons — Anchel has the time and expertise for all of it, and has even picked up a solid line-up of students through his online presence.
But the source of it all — be it Anchel’s impressive social media output, or his first-rate singing — lies in body positivity.
“I really try not to be insulting,” Anchel laughs, pointing out the irony of his YouTube series, Angry Fat People, which he started in 2018 with his friend and fellow singer, Tracy Cox. “I try to be as sympathetic as possible, so that someone who might be triggered by some of the things that I’m talking about can actually just listen and not just instantly turn off.”
Within the opera world, the idea of prima la voce comes up against the same problem that has, until extremely recently, plagued the more mainstream performing arts: only thin bodies can be used to tell stories. And as a devourer of his content myself, I can say that Anchel’s take on body positivity is equal parts awesome-bear-hug and thought-provoking-lightbulb-moment.
“What I think happens a lot, is that you have people who are maybe more stereotypically attractive in thin bodies, who maybe have medium voices — not the best voices in the world.” These singers are well promoted, Anchel says, and they get opportunities to work with opera’s best. “So they get really good at singing, even though maybe their voice isn’t that amazing.”
“Then, you have fat singers, who maybe have these unbelievable voices, and never get better at singing, because they’re not given the opportunities that the thin person was given to improve, and then become, you know, this amazing artist.”
It all reminds me of that other big conversation that surrounds the classical performing arts, about privilege. It takes a certain kind of exposure (read: good schools with music program, parents with an interest in classical music) and money (read: private lessons with the best teachers) to appreciate opera, let alone pursue it professionally. And it’s sad to consider that even among the thousands of incredible singers out there, we’re only able to hear from those who have cleared those early hurdles.
“I think that opera is like, probably 10 to 20 years behind everything,” Anchel says. “It’s so funny that opera still stuck in like the early 2000s, where was like I think was sort of the height of sort of like, you know, blonde, good looking thin people. And then the culture has changed a little, and opera is just always a little bit behind. So, hopefully it catches up and then appreciates the diverse community it has and features them in shows.”
He may be amused at opera’s cultural lag, but for Anchel, singing is one of life’s great pleasures. “When you’re doing it, well, it feels good,” he says. “It’s addictive, you love the vibration in your body. You love like the release of it, it’s really this most the most amazing feeling if you learn how to sing with ease.”
A self-proclaimed overthinker, Anchel’s onstage psychology is well-honed and drama-free. His go-to image is a big barrel (his sound) and a tiny bird sitting on said barrel (his text). “I always try and bring like two ideas onstage with me,” Anchel says, preferring these days to think of singing dark, and forward. “For whatever reason that was working for me because the darkness kept me from spreading. And the forward it wasn’t that I was singing in my nose. It was that the foreword energy of like, say the words, don’t be in your head, don’t place, don’t like try and create a sound.”
And a bit like that balance he strikes between singing, teaching, and TikTok-ing, Anchel responds most to voices that gather together all of life’s extremes. Good singing, he says, is “Dark and bright, released and held, open and closed, and deep and high. I think when a singer finds the balance of all those things, it’s really exciting.”
During the pandemic, Anchel had a revelation about leading roles — an evasive thing for many basses — and what’s on his wish list of characters to perform in his career. With his friends, Anchel did dramatic Zoom readings “of all the things I ever wanted to do.” Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, Cleopatra in Caesar and Cleopatra, Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter, all the goodies.
“What I learned,” he says of his foray into leading-lady-land, “is playing roles like that is really hard. I was so exhausted by the end of that reading.”
Now, answering my question about his bucket-list roles to sing, Anchel has new criteria. “Dream roles now — which is so silly — would be to play a deliciously campy villain on a sci-fi show. I just think that would be the most fun thing ever.”
“Women in my life have always supported me… and I feel like I’m there for them.”
Anchel strikes me as a singer who gets it. He gets the work required to step anywhere near the Met stage, gets the Game of Donors, gets the niche place opera has in the mainstream world. And as a result, he fits the bill of a modern opera singer: an unquestionable instrument, a balanced professional life, and a hunger to use his notoriety to put good back into the world.
“I think on TikTok, 95% of my followers are women, which is crazy when you think that’s like probably 700,000 or so people,” Anchel muses. “Women in my life have always supported me. And I think the women that follow me, a lot of them are people who are want a connection, like a friendship connection, and I feel like I’m there for them.”
And I’m here for him, in this clip of him singing Banquo’s aria from Verdi’s Macbeth: