by Claire Mathieson
Buffy Baggott doesn’t have a favorite opera, but her love for Don Quixote shines in her words, not only beckoning to opera buffs but also calling to the most intensely human parts in each of us. She raves about the “very complete” work’s depth, seeing in it all sorts of love, as well as the still timely struggles between idealism and pragmatism, between beauty and brutality. Baggott plays Dulcinée, the pragmatist to Quixote’s idealist, his dream love who knows her lot in life and cannot bring herself – with her status and her bevy of suitors – to defy social convention and marry an old man. Although her character is sometimes considered flighty, Baggott sees in her a woman who truly loves Quixote and who will come to regret rejecting his rare kindness for normality.
Baggott’s own background is a curious mix of pragmatic decisions and defiance of social expectations. She “fell into” singing, and after winning vocal competitions at Sacramento State’s Golden Empire and awards for singing classical music, she decided the art would be a smart path to college, a motivation that reminds her of Dulcinée’s practical approach to life. But despite this businesslike reasoning, she loves her chosen field. Her parents – one a DJ – wanted her to be a rock n’ roll singer, but although Baggott has sung with rock bands, much of her repertoire is far more classical than her mother’s beloved Stevie Nicks. Baggott began her career with the Young Artists Programs at Santa Fe Opera and in Chicago, and then, she remembers, “I just kind of followed my nose.”
One of her early projects was starring in Rigoletto opposite Bill Pickersgill, who will also be the Don Quixote to her Dulcinée. While their characters are doomed to broken hearts, Baggott and Pickersgill have a much more joyful fate in store – the costars are engaged to be married. They have worked together for decades, but it wasn’t until after Baggott moved back to the Bay Area in 2010 that they started going out. “We’ve always kind of been in the same singing circles, and at some point I guess it just occurred to us that maybe we should probably date,” Baggott laughs. She is enjoying the on-and-off-stage relationship for its fun post-rehearsal conversations and loves having someone at home with a deep understanding of her current project. “We’re each other’s biggest critics and then also biggest cheerleaders,” she says. Sometimes one of them gets a “that was a tough night” from the other, other times a “that was amazing what you just did.” Although this is a unique situation for her romantically, Baggott performed alongside family once before, when her dog was recruited to sing in San Jose Opera’s Where Angels Fear to Tread. With a laugh, Baggott proclaims it to be her proudest moment; each time the soprano sang into the pup’s ears, the dog “tilted her head straight up at heaven and just sang like you wouldn’t believe.”
Despite delighting in her pooch stealing the show, Baggott has a beautiful perspective on the humanity of singing. “It’s all of the stuff that falls in the cracks that makes it art, that makes it different,” she believes. “Perfection doesn’t do it for me – I want to hear the humanity in a voice.” She doesn’t want the “recording-quality performance” but “the blood and the guts and the tears and the joy,” and thinks that singing is such a special art form because it “comes back to people being human,” the voice our only built-in instrument.
After years of taking her voice on the road, Baggott is enjoying having a home with Pickersgill, living in a space that she can “cultivate” in a way that she couldn’t in her mobile life. She’s cooking – which was difficult on the move – and gardening, which was impossible. At home, she is also deepening her familiarity with Don Quixote, and she encourages operagoers to do the same by reading Cervantes and watching Man of La Mancha, preparing to see “a very different story” with the “same themes.”
It’s clearly the themes that make her so enamored with Quixote, and her excitement is contagious and inspiring. “Sometimes the people who are speaking the truth about the best of us are the ones that seem mad,” she says of Quixote. “He really is showing the way – I mean it’s just wisdom and kindness, that’s what we need.” She believes that sometimes kindness is “masked,” but that the ability to see it can be “transformative,” and that the Don Quixote works radiate that notion. “We probably need them now more than ever. If nothing else, the idea that kindness is ok. It’s the bravest choice.” Her love for humanity stands out in her words like a golden thread, drawing us closer to the opera and to each other. Like Quixote, Baggott is an unconventional knight, making the choice that Dulcinée cannot and reminding us both in word and deed of some of the most important things in life: the human wonder of art, and recognizing in it the lessons that make it both relevant and beautiful.