Sam Ramey and Assur
Most who heard him will agree that Sam Ramey made Assur “his own”. We asked him to share some memories of his journey with Assur. Pay special attention to the ending if you expect to take on the role and follow in his foot-steps ( check the heels on your boots) as you go on stage.
Many thanks to Sam for taking the time to do this! Viva Assur ( even though he’s a bad guy)
Q. Your historic performances of “Semiramide” at the Met were not your first outing with this role. Many remember your Carnegie Hall performance with Horne and Anderson. Apparently those were based on the not-yet-complete edition which had its debut at the Met. Were there major changes in your role as a result of this?
A. My first performances of “Semiramide” was the very famous (in Europe anyway) Pier Luigi Pizzi production which was first done at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 1980 and remounted by the Paris Opera at the Theatre des Champs-Elysee a year later. My role in this production was not complete—mainly because there were no orchestra parts for the missing sections of music.
I remember when I was offered this role at the time, I knew Marilyn (Horne) had already agreed to do it so I asked her about the role of Assur. I remember her saying, “Oh Sam! That role is all black notes!” I soon discovered that to be the case. When we did the performance at Carnegie Hall the missing orchestra parts were found (or re-constructed) so my role was complete. The only difference in my role was the repeat of the cabaletta–the orchestra parts for that were there for Carnegie and later for the Met production. My role was at last complete.
Q. In an interview with “The Opera Quarterly” in 1993 you responded to a question about staged vs. concert versions by saying “In general, I would say that one should try to keep the staging of Rossini’s operas at a visual minimum , so the people can put all of their attention on the highly ornamented music. The audience should be focused mostly on the singing.” This same thought ( or versions of it) have been expressed by other great singers. Do you still feel it is true this many years later?
A. I know that productions of an opera like “Semiramide” can look a bit like a concert performance in costume and make-up. The reason for this (in my opinion) is that these operas are so difficult to sing that there is little the singer can do on stage that won’t have an adverse effect on his,or her, vocal performance. I think I would still feel that way today.
Q. “Semirmaide” is not really Assur’s story ( one could even say it is really Arsaace’s) but the opera certainly depends on a strong Assur. Is there something specific in Rossini’s music that demonstrates to you Assur’s importance ( to the story).
A. I think just the fact that Assur has major scenes with Semiramide and with Arsace and a very important “mad scene” towards the end of the opera demostrates the importance of Assur’s character.
Q. How did who you sang with affect your performances. Were you a different Assur for Anderson than for Cuberli?
A. I sang performances with several great Semiramides–Caballe, Anderson, Cuberli, and Gruberova. I don’t think having a different soprano had any effect on my performance. I was always concentrating on all those black notes.
Q Were you to be taking up the role of Assur today would you have a different spin on it?
A. I don’t think I would take on the role today but if I did I’m sure I would see the role in the same way.
Q. Who has the better mad scene? Assur or Attila?
A. Assur or Attila? That is a difficult question. They are both great mad scenes. Maybe I would lean toward Assur’s simply because it comes toward the end of the opera–makes a greater impact on the audience.
Q. Does Assur have any redeeming qualities?
A. I don’t know if Assur has any redeeming qualities. In the cavatina of the mad scene he seems to be asking for forgiveness but then changes his mind.
Q. Finally, do you have some specific memories of the preparation and the debut of this production at the Met in 1990?
A. I remember it being great fun putting this production together. I had worked a lot with all the other singers and with Maestros Conlon and Copley, so we were like a musical family. I do have one memory from a performance. At the beginning of the mad scene I made my entrance walking down a staircase. I was wearing boot with very high heels. About half way down the stairs one of the heels caught on a step and came off the boot. So I was forced to hobble around the stage without the heel for the rest of the scene. Not fun–what with all those black notes!!
RossiniAmerica would like to thank Sam Ramey for sharing these memories. Sam Ramey is a member of the American Rossini Society and a member of the honorary board of the Friends of the Rossini Opera Festival.