the Key of Z
by Rob Felton
Richard Zeller aspires to be more than a world-class baritone
Illness visited the Zeller household this spring, spewing nastiness on Richard Zeller, is wife, Saundra, and their four children. Pinkeye, the flu, and a sinus infection all took turns afflicting Zeller. Now bronchitis is triggering forceful coughs.
It's a hard season for a professional singer with a family to feed. In four days, he needs his beat-up vocal cords back at full volume for a three-concert series in Portland with the Oregon Symphony.
"If you don't sing, you don't get paid," he says.
Since graduating from George Fox in 1983, Zeller has caught the ear of the classical music world, landing lead roles at the Metropolitan Opera and singing solos with major symphonies at concert halls around the world. New York Times reviewers describe the 6-foot-4, barrel-chested baritone’s voice as “expansive” and “rich-toned.” The Boston Globe music critic labels it “world-class.” The review from Matthew, his seventh-grade son: Dad’s voice is “big and loud.”
Few high-level singers raise families during their careers. Most adopt dogs. A benefactor who invested money in Zeller’s graduate school education fumed after he married Saundra Conant, his George Fox choir sweetheart. A colleague advised Zeller to get a divorce if he wanted to reach his full potential. Family life roughs up vocal chords. “A lot of what I do is recovery time,” he says. “I come home to a wife and family who need to be talked to.”
With most performances far from his Milwaukie, Ore., home, Zeller must work to fill the father role for his three teenagers and 10- year-old. During a typical six-to-eight-week opera job he’ll fly back on three-day breaks to attend his kids’ basketball games and recitals. When he spent a month in Scotland playing the title role in Macbeth, the family joined him as a homeschool field trip. “We’re trying to be a normal family in an abnormal lifestyle,” he says.
At home, Zeller helps coach his kids’ sports teams. When a son played in the state junior baseball championships, he volunteered to sing the national anthem. Officials encouraged him to use a microphone. He declined, explaining he would blow out the small portable speakers. After “the home of the brave” boomed off the outfield fences, they believed him.
At their church, Oregon City Evangelical, people turn and look if Zeller joins in during congregational singing. Now he stays silent, making Sunday his day off.
Two days before the concert and Zeller’s vocal chords are still irritated from last week’s coughing. There’s no miracle remedy but rest. “It’s not like an instrument where you can say, ‘I need to fix this valve,’” he says. He is limiting his talking, using steam to clear his congestion, and downing antibiotics and heavy-duty cough syrup.
The Oregon Symphony Web site is promoting Zeller as “one of America’s leading baritones." Technically, he’s a bass-baritone with an extra-wide singing range descending nearly two and one-half octaves, from high A to low F. That’s 29 piano keys, both black and white. Most amateur singers strain beyond a range of a dozen notes.
It’s not easy being baritone in the typecast world of opera. “The baritone loves the soprano," says Zeller. "The soprano loves the tenor, and the tenor gets the girl. I’m always the bad guy, and I never get the girl. Sometimes, I get to kill the tenor and that’s fun."
While tenors may get the glamour and some earn millions, Zeller says he’s happy to make a living making music. Of the 7,000 members of the opera singers union, Zeller says fewer than 5 percent make $50,000 or more annually. Many work part time at other jobs.
After hesitantly providing the amount of his best-paying single performance (enough to purchase a modest used car), Zeller offers context. A 20-percent cut goes to his manager, and Zeller must cover his own insurance, retirement, and some travel expenses. And he can’t perform every weekend.
Zeller launched his musical career at age 4 with a brother-sister duet at church. He joined the all-girls’ choir at his grade school because there was no boys’ choir. He remembers no teasing. “I was a big hit," he says. “I still played sports, so I was OK."
As a member of the touring Zeller Family Singers, he grew comfortable on stage. He, his parents, and three sisters spent more than a decade singing at churches and community events across the nation. Zeller sang tenor and his father, Dick, sang bass.
Zeller inherited his large physique and voice from his father, a 37-year teacher and coach whom Zeller says may have had the best voice in the family. “He wanted to train more but made choices to have a family and not take the risk of a classical musical career."
Days after his father died in 2001, Zeller was scheduled for a PBS Live from Lincoln Center production of Mozart’s Requiem. As he sang Mozart’s musical mass for the dead, he feared he might break down on live national television. “I put my brain in neutral," he says.
That’s hardly typical. After one rehearsal of Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah in the early 1990s, Cleveland Orchestra conductor Jahja Ling asked Zeller, “You sing with such conviction … like you really believe the text. Do you?" “Absolutely," answered Zeller.
They discovered a shared faith. Zeller prayed with the conductor and three other soloists, “Lord, take us out of the way and communicate the truth of the life of Elijah, a flawed human being you were still able to use."
Zeller says the nationally broadcast radio performance became a worship service. Later, he received a call from a woman who said she recently had been diagnosed with cancer and that the music had lifted her spirits. “That’s how we’re made," says Zeller. “That’s why there is music in church. It can touch us deeply. It can happen if we allow the Holy Spirit to move. That’s what’s most rewarding."
The morning of the first concert has arrived. Tonight, Zeller will sing the German Requiem, a comforting piece written by Brahms after the death of his mother. Zeller doesn’t often perform in Portland, but he feels pressure because of the many who will know him. “They come expecting great things," he says.
Expectations rose for Zeller after he won the Oregon high school state championship as a bass soloist. He was encouraged to apply to The Juilliard School, perhaps the nation’s most respected music conservatory.
Instead, he chose George Fox because of its “good focus on classical music" and its Christian education. “I wanted to get a good spiritual base," he said. “I was following the Lord’s path rather than my own."
Attending George Fox allowed Zeller to perform a broad repertoire of substantial and not-so-substantial works. He remembers Nobody Nose the Trouble I’ve Seen, a piano piece he played with his nose for the school’s annual Music Comedy Night. Another year, he borrowed high- and low-pitched hair driers to play Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind.
“I wouldn’t have gotten that at Juilliard," he chuckles.
As he neared graduation, he considered his options: accept an invitation to tour with a contemporary Christian singing group, or pursue advanced training in opera and classical music. Music professor John Bowman counseled him to start with classical training: “You might have the goods. Shoot as high as you can."
Bowman’s alma mater, College Conservatory of Music at University of Cincinnati, provided a full scholarship for Zeller. After earning a master’s degree and an artist’s diploma in four years, he was accepted into the Young Artists Program at the Metropolitan Opera. At age 27, he signed a contract with the premier opera company in the nation. “I skipped a lot of steps," he says. “I didn’t have to slog around like a lot of people do."
The symphony’s dress rehearsal takes up most of the morning. Zeller compares singing with his swollen vocal chords to an athlete performing with a strained muscle. Although he won’t be at 100 percent, most of the time people don’t notice.
He heads home to rest. Quietly, he waits.
Zeller says his artist’s temperament fuels a desire to create, even during downtime.
During graduate school, he befriended an antique dealer who taught him to refinish historical furniture. Pieces picked up in Scotland and the East Coast now fill the nooks of his 5,000- square-foot, century-old home where he grew up and now lives.
Zeller’s travels and interest in antiques and books merge into a profitable eBay hobby. “If I didn’t sing, I’d do that full time," he says. On the road, Zeller collects items at auctions and author book signings. eBay ranks him a PowerSeller, a person who averages at least $1,000 a month in sales. His recent online offerings included a 1950s bobblehead basketball doll and signed books by Tony Bennett and Jimmy Carter.
Arriving at the performance, the Zeller kids are impressed when they read “Richard Zeller, Baritone" on the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall marquee. “Thumbs up," one says. Orange cones reserve a parking spot in front of the stage door for their white Chevrolet Blazer. The family unloads.
Dad wears a tuxedo. The children are in their Sunday best. They ask for money and set off in search of the backstage snack machine. As the performance nears, the symphony manager shoos the family toward the ornate hall. After hugs, Zeller tells them, “Pray for me." He hums and coughs occasionally as he walks the halls to his small private dressing room.
“I’ll give what I have tonight," he says. “I hope 85 percent will be good enough."
Tonight, he must sing to an audience of 2,700 over an orchestra of 80 and a chorus of 100. No one will offer a microphone.
On stage. Zeller sits, serious and brooding. The moment arrives. He stands. His voice fills the hall, strong and clear. He nearly spits the German phrases from 1 Corinthians: “For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed."
Tomorrow, The Oregonian music critic will review the symphony’s “flawed performance." He will describe the soloists as uneven, criticizing the technique of the soprano — but savoring the “clean-cut intensity" of Zeller’s solos. “His sound was robust and focused."
Zeller will take most of the next month to rest for a high-profile concert in Carnegie Hall with the Dallas Symphony. It’s heady stuff, but Zeller says he doesn’t want to look back and measure his success with yellowed press clippings.
“I’ll be successful if my marriage stays together and my kids turn out normal."
The applause dies. The audience exits. Zeller walks through empty hallways to the auditorium lobby where his family waits. His wife greets him with a hug. Father and oldest son slap a high five. As they embrace, that single clap sounds a lot like success. GFJ
Catching some Zs: upcoming performances
Portland Opera: Macbeth
Feb. 4, 7, 9, 11, 2006
Around the country
Performances with the Cincinnati Opera, Minnesota Orchestra, Kentucky Opera, San Diego Symphony: dispeker.com/page/zeller.html
Oregon Public Broadcasting:
Brahm’s German Requiem with the Oregon Symphony June 3, 2005, 9–11 p.m.