Opera singers show a passion for food and wine almost as much as they enjoy performing. They certainly have the opportunities and wherewithal to seek out the best restaurants as they travel the world’s great cities. When I have a chance to dine with singers whose work I appreciate, I get the feeling they envy my life immersed in wine and food even more than I do their ability to make the sounds they do and wrench an audience’s emotions with their sound and presence.
John Relyea, the still-youthful, powerful bass-baritone singing the role of Méphistophélès in the San Francisco Opera’s current production of Gounod’s Faust, thinks his fascination with wine has something to do with the drama in the glass. A good wine tells a story. It grabs your attention, evolves from the first sip to something different, often more complex. Over time, it reaches a climax and then echoes awhile. Not unlike a good aria, in my view.
“There’s something about the arts that heightens all the senses,” he says over the rich Jamin Côte-Rôtie 2005 in our glasses as we sat in a booth at RN74 in San Francisco. “In opera, every sense is stimulated. Some of the best meals and best wines I’ve ever had came at late dinners after an all-or-nothing performance.”
Born in Toronto to parents who were both opera singers, Relyea makes his home in Rhode Island with his wife and two sons and performs regularly at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Not yet 40 years old, he has already reached the elite class of bass-baritones. He started out hoping to play guitar and sing in a rock band, and he still dabbles in the blues when he has some down time from opera and classical music performances.
He is a big guy, standing well over 6 feet tall, and he favors similarly imposing wines. It was an Amarone, the high-alcohol Italian table wine made from partially dried grapes, that opened the door to wine for him, he admits. Performing in Italy, he was invited to a wine tasting featuring Dal Forno and Quintarelli, two of the legends of Valpolicella, the region that produces Amarone.
“I never had a big, bold wine that was so distinctive, that so commanded my attention,” Relyea recalls of a Quintarelli Amarone 1978 in that tasting. “It was magnificent. I had to learn more about wine, and try to recapture that sensation.”
These days he loves to open an Amarone with a big, rare steak. “I think that’s what drew me to the big reds,” he admits. “I am always tempted to splurge for that.” Over the years, he has found other wines with similar generosity, notably Australian Shiraz, California Cabernet and modern Spanish reds.
An opera singer essentially lives in different cities. Because an opera gig requires weeks of rehearsal followed by as much as a month of performances, he spends a large percentage of every year away from home. It’s not uncommon for their families to join opera singers after a show opens, when the star only need to work every third or fourth day. Faust opened Saturday night, and as we met last week Relyea was looking forward to his wife and sons coming next weekend to be with him for the rest of the month.
Being on the road so much, he has put little effort into a home wine cellar. “I think we have about 20 bottles,” he shrugs. “I am not a collector. I buy a lot of wines at restaurants, and I know there’s always going to be a chance to drink something interesting if I am invited to someone’s home.”
Later, as I thought about his preference for wines such as Amarone, I realized how unlikely it was that he would prefer anything more delicate. As a bass-baritone, Relyea often portrays bad guys in his opera roles: stubborn fathers, murderers, tormented kings or, in his current assignment, the devil. It’s a chance to command the stage with a powerful, deep voice and a physical presence that turns heads even as he walks through a crowded restaurant. He is a walking, acting, singing Amarone. So why not continue the partnership after the performance?
Scott Oneil — Denver, CO — June 9, 2010 5:38am ET
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