Bass-baritone Robert Osborne is a veteran performer of contemporary opera, known for tackling challenging roles from the title character in Harry Partch’s Oedipus to François Mignon in the Robert Wilson-directed Zinnias. Currently, he will debut the role of Baron Peel in the world premiere of David Lang’s anatomy theater. During rehearsals, we sat down with Osborne to discuss his work in anatomy theater and what makes Baron Peel tick.
How did you get involved with anatomy theater?
I joined the cast of anatomy theater in 2006 for a workshop of the piece at MASS MOCA. I am the only cast member from that early workshop, which was also directed by Bob McGrath and Ridge Theater. In the decade since the workshop, I have also done some other work with David Lang, and have been a fan and follower of his music all these years.
To be honest, I am not quite sure why David approached me for the original workshop, except that we were colleagues at the Yale School of Music. I’ve known David since 1980. When this project came around, I knew that he was writing the role of Sarah Osborne, the female character in the show, for a mutual friend of ours (this was before Peabody took on the role this year), and she and I were extremely good friends and performed a lot together. I also have a reputation for being someone who can do and does do a lot of contemporary work and new music, and I know that David has seen me in other productions.
Why are you so drawn to contemporary and new music?
I am very much intrigued by the fact that people will go to see a brand new movie, they’ll read a brand new novel, they’ll go to a rock concert, and they’ll want to hear everything new. They’ll even go to art museums and want to see things new. But that had not, until recently, been true of new classical music. Happily, there’s been an increase in audience interest. The whole world is flourishing with companies like LA Opera and Beth Morrison Projects championing these new works. As much as I admire music from the centuries before and have sung it, I am intrigued by the fact that what’s being done now is moving the art form forward and continuing to keep the art form vital.
What makes Baron Peel tick?
Baron Peel is an anatomist. He’s one of the four characters in the piece—all of whom have flaws. Peel is the most conservative of the characters. He believes intensely in his own moral constructs about how the world is set up in the historic period of 1750. He also believes that one can find evidence of evil in a person’s organs. When you dissect the human body, he believes that you will see scars or cankerous sores in the body that prove someone has led an evil, amoral or sacred life.
Does Baron Peel evolve throughout the piece?
Most of the characters do not change considerably from the beginning to the end. Only Mr. Strang has the potential for realization.
On a plot level, Peel is the most verbal and the most incessant advancer of this theory of evil being located in the body, and the character is very intense. The arc for the character requires an extraordinary amount of concentration. It is a large arc and a complex arc and I am hoping that people will not see me as simply a villain.
Even though he sets out to prove there is evil in the body of Sarah Osborne, he is unsuccessful in doing this. In the end, he has to back track and cover his failures, while claiming that there is still more to learn and that this is just one possible process towards knowledge. He must make it look like it was a success—a step in the right direction.
Why do you think anatomy theater is relevant to modern audiences?
One can see anatomy theater entirely as a picture or dramatization of an action, which happened in the middle of the 18th century. However, this piece—and David Lang and Mark Dion have also said this—was written during a period in our history when we were starting a war in Iraq that was highly controversial. In many ways, Baron Peel is supposed to represent the side of politics—the right-leaning side of politics—that was considering their actions justified by religion. That is an aspect of my character that I hope will come through when people reflect why we are doing something set in 1750. Regarding what relevance this piece has today, I think people will hopefully see that it is certainly in the airwaves now with certain political candidates that are moving forward towards elections—and the transfer in power that is happening in our American democracy.
What do you want audiences to take away from anatomy theater?
I suppose one thing I am hoping people will do is follow the story simply, as we tell it, but upon reflection they will question a little bit more deeply, what their feelings are and why they’ve sided with a particular character, and if their personal agenda is causing them to choose one character over another, in terms of sympathy. That’s a very important thing for people to think about—it could be seen as misogynistic, but it is there to show the distance we still need to travel. I would like people to question the validity of either the religious or the scientific approach to explaining things. I think we are in a world where there’s quite a divide between people who think in either of those two terms, and I think it’s possible there’s a way that we can include both of those in people’s viewpoints.
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