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Levitating the Supporting Artist

Janice L. Mayer

Magic is synonymous with the unexpected, and discovering a treasure-trove of illusionists’ artifacts midpoint between Sacramento and Tahoe was a real surprise to me. As I mentioned in last week’s blog installment, Dante’s restaurant is bedecked in period posters, one of which promotes “Lee Grabel, Acclaimed World’s Greatest Illusionist [in his] Famous Mystery Review with an All-Star Cast of Assisting Artists.”

That last phrase really caught my attention: “All-Star Cast of Assisting Artists.” In the opera field, would we ever see a three-sheet in front of the Metropolitan or San Francisco Opera houses that advertised “Placido Domingo as Canio in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci with an “All-Star Cast of Assisting Artists?” I doubt it. However, the story needs Beppe to set the stage (literally), to provide contrast to Canio and to offer the audience some comic relief through his antics as Harlequin. As tenor Joseph Frank defines a secondary role “it is there to add color and interest to the plot,” and as tenor Steven Cole adds “to show another aspect of the leading character.” He elaborates, “I know that my role is there because the composer decided that at that point in the opera they needed my character for a particular reason. I have to discover how the composer perceived the role in each situation. Is my character there to show another dimension of the leading character, to add personality or comic relief, or to hold up the action while the audience has a chance to prepare for what is coming in the next scene? For example, the Witch in Hänsel und Gretel is there to illuminate the children’s evolution as they journey through the forest.”

I spoke with three established “character tenors:” in order to appreciate the role of the supporting artist more fully: Steven Cole, Joseph Frank, and tenor turned impresario – Darren Keith Woods, who is now General Director of Fort Worth Opera. Sort of our own Ping, Pang and Pong, or well actually two Pangs and one Pong (Ping is a baritone in Turandot’s musically-tricky trio). Mr. Frank suggests that a supporting artist must “provide the foundation on which the big stars interact; you have to be someone that the major players will want around. Once you have gained your colleagues’ trust, you will heighten their ability to take chances.” Darren Keith Woods concurs, “we are there to take care of the principle cast. They are there because they are great singers. The supporting artists have to provide dramatic variety and stability at the same time – to make sure that the show goes on. It’s next to impossible what these guys do.”

All of the tenors mandated arriving at rehearsal completely prepared and “with a bag of tricks.” Joseph Frank describes that “directors don’t have time to deal with secondary players.” Steven Cole agrees “no one has time for me to make a mistake. Directors recognize that I am someone who is experienced and they assist me in determining my character’s boundaries. Once they give me my orientation in the scene, ‘they can let me go.’ For example, “when I enter the room, do I know what is going on already or not?”

Ever curious, now I want to peak inside their special ‘bag of tricks’!

Improvisational skills are stashed there, for one thing. Joseph speaks of listening as a critical skill. “I’m always engaged and listening on stage. Even if it’s not your role, watch and hear what the other characters are doing and saying.” Darren agrees “you have to be quick and respond immediately. In the rehearsal process I was always discovering what I could build-off of other colleagues and what they were doing in the scene.”

And this involves physicality: number two in our collective bag of tricks. Darren uses the role of Mime in Das Rheingold to illustrate this point. “It’s a challenge to make this grotesque character seem real. I think of his hands. Surely, they must be gnarled. How would he pick up things with his hands? On the opposite extreme, I worked with a Geisha to know how to move gracefully and operate a Japanese fan, so that my Goro (in Madama Butterfly) would be authentic.” “Artists have to know their bodies well,” agrees Joseph Frank. “I have never forgotten that the great director Jack O’Brien once said to me during Tosca rehearsals ‘Show us THE back.’ I realized then and there, that as Spoletta, I didn’t have to be looking downstage front to be a sinister character; my stance could create that impression.” However, the physical demands provide challenges to the singing as Darren describes “sometimes you have to contort your body, perhaps walk hunched over, which in-effect closes off your chest. You have to learn how to get your support mechanisms to work in order to be able to still sing.”

Ahhhh singing. These characters appear in operas, after all. Mr. Frank, who teaches voice at San José State University along with continuing his international performing career states “you can’t bark your way through character roles.” ‘Comprimario’ does not mean compromises are allowed; “the Tanzmeister (in Ariadne auf Naxos) has to have a B flat – PERIOD.” Mr. Woods agrees, “You have to have a beautiful sound.” Interestingly both Steven Cole and Joseph Frank came to opera from the concert world, and both continue to perform in concert and recital. “It keeps the voice fluid” according to Mr. Frank. Today with the increased popularity of Baroque opera, the catalogue of supporting tenor roles that require vocal flexibility has grown enormously. And a high level of musicianship can often open the door for a young tenor as it did for Steven Cole when he stepped into a concert-version of Eugene Onegin on 48-hours notice with Seiji Ozawa while still a student of Phyllis Curtin’s at Tanglewood a number of years ago.

Ariadne is traditionally sung in German, Tosca and Butterfly in Italian. Languages, yup they take up a big part of the bag o’ tricks. Joseph Frank makes fluency a priority. “First and foremost a supporting tenor has to have a great ability with languages. Often the words in our parts are sung fast and with accents and colors. For example, Valzacchi in Der Rosenkavalier has to sing Strauss’s score with bad German because he’s actually Italian. Steven Cole admits that if he had his education to do over again, he would have studied languages, languages and more languages. “One of my first engagements was in Aix-en-Provence and I found myself singing a role in a Russian opera in rehearsals that were being conducted in French!” Yikes, I imagine that was quite a mind-bender for this American.

Speaking of American artists, what advice would these experienced artists share with a young tenor beginning to pursue supporting tenor roles? Darren Keith Woods remembers sitting on a bench in Central Park for two or three hours at a time simply observing people and how they walked. “I would also suggest finding people who have done these roles for a long time and get them to be their mentor. I covered Joseph Frank in three roles while I was a Santa Fe Apprentice and I asked him to coach me. I wasn’t shy about asking the great ones if they would help me with my character development. Not only did it help my art, but my first five or six jobs trickled down from the senior guys.” Continuing in the practical vein, Joseph Frank suggests learning to do your own makeup. “These days most regional companies cannot afford to import the level of makeup and wig companies we had when we were coming up, so learning to make yourself up is perhaps more important in these roles than in the leading roles.” Steven Cole also encourages young artists of all types to realize that they are a small business – each and every one- and that they have to understand the practicalities of finance and branding, just like any other small business.

Neal Ferreira, the 2009 recipient of Boston Lyric Opera’s Stephen Shrestinian Award for Excellence, is one of these emerging tenors exploring the supporting tenor category.

Joseph Frank cautions that “you can’t back your way into character roles.” Steven Cole agrees that “you don’t become a character tenor by default.” Neal takes this advice to heart, as does Darren Keith Woods’s protégé Jamin Fabliano. Neal shared his story that he started as an actor in and around Providence (RI) and was reluctant to get into opera because “it was not about real acting.” Former BLO General Director Janice DelSesto Mancini and the director of their Les Contes D’Hoffmann production (Renaud Doucet) “recognized my dedication the theater in opera. They suggested that I explore character roles and I am grateful that they have opened this door for me by giving me my first major role, Spalanzani. I approach my characters as an actor and these parts, such as the Monostatos that I just took on in Boston’s Magic Flute educational outreach program, allow me to play a lot more. Of course I continue to study voice and to stretch my instrument. I’m just twenty-eight now and it has taken a while to get my voice up to my acting level.”

Neal’s questions for the experienced supporting tenors were about handling auditions and repertoire choices. Steven humorously describes his repertoire as “hit it and quit it” roles. Joseph Frank elaborates that “character roles are the molecules of the operas. They are mini-operas. You only get one crack at them.” Darren Keith Woods concurs “character actors have to develop in five minutes what soloists develop over three hours on stage.” Auditions are a lot like that, so they’re great practice for character tenors. That mindset could really take some of the psychological pressure off of the audition situation. And their audition repertoire reflects the breadth of the roles they portray. Steven Cole always used the Witch for his auditions, but that might be too big of a sing for some young performers. Aside from the Baroque repertoire, Joseph Frank suggests Pedrillo (Abduction), Tanzmeister (Ariadne), Arbace (Idomeneo), Triquet (Eugene Onegin), Shuisky (Boris Godunov), Hauk-Sendorf (The Makropolous Affair) AND the Magician in The Consul.

Interesting isn’t it, that a character tenor role brings the magic into Menotti’s opera and Beppe brings the comedy into Pagliacci? So remember the next time you hear Canio exclaim the famous operatic phrase ‘La commedia e finita’ - that there would have been no comedy without a dedicated supporting tenor crafting the role of Beppe!