wilbur pauley

Wilbur Pauley sings the National Anthem last November at Soldier Field before a Chicago Bears game. 

Hyde Parker Wilbur Pauley has sung around the world, in opera, musical theater, and as a soloist with symphonies. He has voiced songs in several Disney films and occasionally takes small acting roles.

Like the rest of us, this bass — the lowest, most profound voice of all — is sheltering in place with his family, and he is currently unemployed because there is no work for someone who performs in large venues.

Over the last week, via emails and phone, Pauley spoke with me about living under lockdown, music, and life in general.

Rantala: How has your life changed because of the coronavirus pandemic?

Pauley: Well, I’m no longer employed. Personally, I was lucky to get on unemployment right away. And, since I’ll be 65 in October, I’ve been able to activate Social Security as well as my Screen Actors Guild pension. I’m still receiving residuals from my film work. And I have a couple interesting future projects if/when operas will be performed and films will shoot. Fortunately, the Hyde Park School of Dance is doing Zoom dance classes and, since my wife is the artistic director, she receives a salary and a health plan. My kids are all home, two girls 20 and 16, and our boy is 10. It has been really wonderful enjoying each day with my family; in that instance, the cessation of time has been a blessing. It’s also been a time to de-clutter, examine old photos, take family hikes, throw Frisbee and baseball, and when it warms up, we’ll get out the fishing rods, load up the canoe, maybe do some camping. Fortunately, we’re all healthy and, apart from online school, our schedules are flexible.

Rantala: How do you keep your voice in fine fettle, how do you get exercise, and how is life in a five-member household?

Pauley: Now approaching my mid-60s, I find that the less I use my voice, the fresher it sounds. Of course, each particular role has its own requirements regarding range, stamina, and technique.

I used to be a lap swimmer and would swim a mile a day every day. The day that the pool closed was the day I became a walker. I’ve begun speed walking. And I’m finding a lot of fascinating sights here in Hyde Park.

Apart from music, I’m enjoying an immense amount of free time with my relatively young family, all at home and jousting with me in the kitchen.

Rantala: What are some of the favorite roles you have portrayed in opera?

Pauley: Trinity Moses in “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagoney” by Brecht and Weill is interesting. He and the other fugitives are running the machinery, but who’s running them?

Astradamors in “Le Grand Macabre” by Ligeti is a great part — funny, sympathetic and extremely vocally challenging. [MLR: The Elbphilharmonie production from a year ago is still available on YouTube at https://youtu.be/BnScKIg791o]

I’ve also sung Sarastro several times, and they usually high-priest you up. Once I was kitted out to look like Abe Lincoln and there was an actual horse that came on stage through an armoire. The horse was mellow enough.

Rantala: When did you first sing at Lyric Opera of Chicago?

Pauley: That was in the 1992–93 season. Last year was the 20th season that I have sung at Lyric.

Rantala: I have heard you sing the National Anthem a few times and was astonished by the differences a low voice brings. Words like “gleaming” and “brave” have so much more heft and power coming from a bass. How do you prep for a performance of the National Anthem, and how is your approach different from a tenor or soprano?

Pauley: The bass voice never has to warm “up,” especially when singing something low. I prepare for the Anthem with deep breathing, lowering the pulse rate to counteract the crowd’s adrenaline. Basses usually sing in their natural speaking range. No tenor or soprano’s natural speaking voice is at Queen of the Night or “La Donna e Mobile.”

Rantala: I’ve also heard you sing Rautavaara and was impressed with your Finnish pronunciation and diction. How do you prepare to sing in a language you do not speak?

Pauley: I listen to recordings of native speakers singing the role. In college we listened to Fischer-Dieskau or Prey in Lieder, Souzay in chanson, etc. I had a gig in Finland in the ’80s and was fascinated by the language.

Rantala: Can you foresee any changes in the music business coming as a result of the pandemic?

Pauley: People are going to look long and hard at force majeure. [MLR: Force majeure is a contractual provision that sets out when one party may choose not to perform its obligation. The coronavirus pandemic has been invoked to effectively cancel the contracts of many singers and musicians without pay.]

I would guess that going forward any savvy lawyer or agent will want a contract that includes remuneration before the artist begins rehearsals. They will also work to get around any Act of God element in a contract, perhaps even saying, “My client is not going to sign any contract with a force majeure clause.”

There is such a thing as good faith, but there must be good faith on both sides. Now they know how the [force majeure] song goes. It’s a sad song, so I think things will change.

Rantala: Obviously future performances remain in doubt. But looking ahead, what are you scheduled to perform?

Pauley: As of now, Grant Park is still on, and I’m scheduled to sing there. I’m booked with Chicago Opera Theater in a Rimsky-Korsakov opera in November. And I’m in an upcoming episode of “Fargo.” The only one of these gigs I think will actually happen eventually is “Fargo.”

Rantala: Not just when you sing, but when you speak you have a deep, powerful voice. Do you deploy it strategically as a parent?

Pauley: My kids sometimes say, “Dad, don’t use your opera voice!”

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