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Saturday, Feb. 17, 2007 | With his liquid southern accent and easygoing manner, Clifton Forbis may not at first seem like a world-class tenor. He’s approachable, he’s funny, and without an air about him, he puts you at ease. And with a repertoire of intense, emotionally gripping roles, he’s a powerful on-stage presence. He’s played roles in leading opera companies such as the Metropolitan Opera, the Paris Opera and the Vienna Opera.

Working seven to eight months out of the year, Forbis tries to get home to Tennessee (and his wife and two teenagers) for three-week breaks between gigs.

Now, starring as the warrior Samson alongside the exceptional Denyce Graves’ seductress Delilah, he makes his San Diego Opera debut when “Samson and Delilah” opens tonight.

Forbis comes from a musical family. His father was a conductor; his mother a music teacher. When asked how opera became his career, Forbis says he has always sung and that his career just “evolved.”

We sat down with Clifton to talk about why he listens to country music more than opera at home, his favorite roles to perform and what it’s like to sing strong enough for an audience to hear you over an orchestra without any amplification.

What music do you listen to at home?

You really want to know? I listen to WSIX — that’s country. We don’t listen to a lot of opera at our house. It’s like taking your work home with you. You have to be able to turn it off. So … there are times when I’m learning a new role and during the day, I’ll block out five, six hours to work on it … like when they’re (the kids) at school … and when they come home … no more.

How do you get booked for roles? Do you pick and choose?

(Laughs) There are people in this business that are fortunate enough to pick and choose. I think that’s what every singer strives to get to. It’s a lot like being an independent contractor. You have a management company that solicits you to a specific opera company that’s doing your repertoire. If they want to use you, they hire you. Much like a builder hires a drywall man. … There’s a lot of guys who sing a certain repertoire … the goal is to do your rep to a degree well-enough and at a level where people would like to engage you. We all want to get to that part. No, I don’t get to pick and choose.

Do you have to audition?

No. I don’t audition anymore. There’s a time in a singer’s career where you have to, but after a certain point, your work becomes your audition and you build up a reputation and then people will say, “We’re going to do this opera, get me so-and-so.”

How do you learn to sing in different languages?

A lot of it is … in college and grad school you take diction, foreign diction, foreign language classes … we spend time with coaches on a particular role … to hone the pronunciation. You wind up speaking the languages after so many years.

In grad school you’re required to take languages, so consequently you begin your career knowing what you are singing about, understanding the text. … Anytime I learn a new role, I wind up coaching — you have to coach — stylistically, linguistically, all of these things. You have to coach it because you want to do justice to the music. …

How long do you rehearse for performances?

When you are redoing a production that has been done in that city before, you show up two days before, they show you the blocking, you run all the set, you work with the conductor, you have a day off and then you open. So the rehearsal time is three days.

Wow. Is that nerve-wracking?

No. It’s not, depending on the repertoire that you do, your character is dictated to you by the music and by the story. So you can’t really change the character a great deal. You can change his interpretation of moments, but to change the character, it’s something that’s intrinsic … like Otello, you can’t change Otello, you can’t change Tristan. So what you wind up doing is learning the blocking that they want … you learn the dance of the scene.

When you have a new production and you have six weeks of rehearsal, that’s a different ballgame. That can be a little stressful. With a brand new set, the costumes, they’re designing everything; you’re there for that whole process. That can be a little stressful. The rehearsal periods vary a great deal.

What is your favorite opera to watch?

I have to say “Parsifal.” Musically, dramatically, the thematic emphasis — it’s just a great show. It’s long as the day is, but it’s a great show.

Favorite role?

Tristan. (“Tristan und Isolde,” by Wagner, a signature role for Forbis.)

What’s your worst experience you’ve had performing?

Singing ill. There are times when you are not at 100 percent … no matter what you have to give, you give 100 percent of that. … As in anything, there are peaks and there are plateaus and there are valleys. And when your business is based on those two little things in your throat — maybe you have allergies, maybe there’s smog — you learn to negotiate, through technique, how to sing in those situations.

But when you are ill and you have to sing, all bets are off. If you are in a position where you have a cover, you let them go on. But there’s not always one and sometimes you have to put yourself out there when you’re not in the best of shape and put your mind out of it and let your body take over.

For me, personally, if I can get out of the way, my body will know what to do. … Let the body do what it has done hundreds of times and not second-guess every time a phrase comes up that’s questionable … just sing it. Sing. Sing. Not think anything other than technique. Those are the difficult nights.

Best experience?

When the audience is happy … as a singer, you would be lucky in your lifetime to count — well, you can’t, there’s never a perfect performance — count five performances that you were really satisfied with. Because … as a responsible musician/singer/artist, you are constantly trying to improve. …You’re always trying to find ways to make it better. Otherwise it becomes static. If you become complacent or satisfied, I think at that point you need to take a step back. It’s an evolving thing.

Now, to enjoy a performance is a different aspect. I enjoy performances, whether they’re an eight or a 10; you have to enjoy it because the audience picks up on that. And if you’re not having fun; they’re not having fun. All those things are intertwined.

What is the most intense, exhausting role for you?

Tristan. When you do it uncut, it’s … whoa! I mean, not just vocally, but emotionally — it’s such a long evening, but it’s never an evening that you don’t look forward to. It’s incredibly hard, incredibly difficult. But it’s one of those “oh yeah I get to sing Tristan tonight!” things … phenomenal show, it really is.

My pet peeve is rude audiences — do you notice that (onstage)?

Oh yes! But, you know, I think that falls under the heading of etiquette. I guess I feel like you extend the same courtesy to others that you would want extended to yourself. But, you gotta remember, years ago (at the opera) … people were leaving, coming in and out, talking … it’s almost like we’ve shut down the freedom for the audience. And I think they need to have that freedom. If they feel trapped, they’re not going to enjoy it.

Now, if a cell phone rings in a performance … I’ve never had that happen to me.

You haven’t? Would you just stop and look?

(Laughs) Well, the temptation would be really strong to just quit and walk over and go, “Answer the phone.”

I’ve always wondered why the performance runs are short. In San Diego they run four to five nights. Why is that?

The reason behind that is that with opera, and I’m not taking away from the Broadway-type musical, … when you’ve got to muster up enough sound to carry over one hundred and some-odd piece orchestra without amplification, that’s fatiguing … which is why we often have days between performances, to rest the voice. With the heavier repertoire, Samson, Wagner stuff, you need a couple of days in between. Three is perfect, but four? Nuh-uh, ’cause the voice goes to sleep after three days. If you wait any longer than that, then it’s like trying to crank up an old car.

Have you sung with Denyce Graves (Delilah) before? Why are you laughing?

Because she’s such a sweetheart! She’s a great colleague, wonderful artist and she’s fun to sing with. … This cast is a great cast. It’s a small family, you keep running into everyone. And everyone in this show can sing.

So your job is to give all of yourself — put it out there for people to take or leave what they want without letting it affect you too much?

Exactly. You have to … remain even. You know, you have to remain mindful of what it is you’re doing and that not everybody is going to like it every time. It’s like in baseball, if a guy gets up to bat, hits three out of 10, he’s batting .300. That’s Hall of Fame!

We’re expected to step out there and hit that homer every time. The odds are, that’s not gonna happen. … I think if you let yourself realize that’s not gonna happen, it’s liberating in a way.

That doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility of every time trying to hit the home run. … You don’t accept, you still strive for it, but somewhere in the back of your mind you know it’s not gonna happen every time.

Favorite singers from past generations?

Lauritz Melchior, Mario del Monaco, Jon Vickers … then you get current with Domingo, Pavarotti, Ramon Vargas — what a singer — those guys let it hang out there. They walked that tightrope and if they crashed and burned, I didn’t care — because I’d rather hear them right on that edge all night long than play it safe. And when they crashed and burned, there was no doubt. No doubt.

Interview by MOLLY BETTIGA

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