Before we announce the winners of the 2011 My Theatre Awards, we’re proud to present the My Theatre Nominee Interview Series.
Iphigenia in Tauris was the first opera I reviewed for My Entertainment World, and remains my favourite. With stunning lighting design, stirring modern visuals and an alround fantastic cast, the production was one to stick in the mind. The highlight, however, was the relatively small role of Pylades, the devoted friend of Orestes who suffers alongside him. Sung beautifully by sensational Montreal-born tenor Joseph Kaiser, the role became an acting highlight of the Canadian Opera Company (COC) season as well as the heart of Iphigenia. The charming opera star called in from Berlin for his My Theatre Nominee interview, to talk about The COC, life at the opera and starring as Tamino in Kenneth Branagh’s Magic Flute film.
Can you remember your first experience with opera?
Sure, I had a very musical family growing up, they really appreciated and listened to a lot of music and I remember my mom playing Carmen and The Magic Flute a whole lot when I was growing up. I would run her errands with her, in her car, and she would play it on cassette, and I just remember being really fascinated by it, and then I think it was… maybe 1982 or 1983 that the Salzburg Marrionettes, which you know, the puppets, they did a tour of North America, and they came and performed in Montreal and I saw their performance of The Magic Flute and I thought it was the most—I just thought it was the coolest thing.
What was it about Opera specifically that made you want to pursue it professionally?
You know, I started to sing—I started taking lessons when I was ten. And everybody had said, “If you want to learn how to support your voice, either with or without a microphone, you should take classical lessons.” And I started to realize, just… to me that classical singing spoke to me more than musical theatre. That I liked the different languages, and the stories that were 200, 300, 400 years old. And there was just something about the complexity and the richness of the composition, of the text, of the librettos that I found incredibly challenging, but also inspiring.
Where did you train?
I trained at McGill and I did the Canadian Opera Company Young Artist Program for a year and then I did training programs at Glimmerglass Opera, in Cooperstown NY, San Francisco Opera, and Lyric Opera of Chicago.
And who are some of the performers who’ve always inspired you?
I knew of Placido Domingo from a really young age, and I just loved his voice, and the way that he would throw himself into roles and then lo and behold I met [him]… I made my Metropolitan Opera debut as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet and who was conducting but Placido Domingo. He is just so versatile, he’s such a gentleman, you know? And he’s just handled everything in his career—the highs, and, not even, the lows—but so many different roles, so many different languages, so many different projects, and he’s handled it with such grace and integrity. And he’s a hell of a singer, and a wonderful performer, and he still sells a lot of tickets.
Somebody who became an inspiration to me, which was a person that I actually recorded a disc with, her name was Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and she just had one of those captivating—like, a voice truly of arresting beauty. Not dissimilar, actually to Susan Graham, who I was with in Iphigenia in Toronto, and just, you know, the sort of woman where you really felt that she bared her soul when she would give a concert. And we did that recital together, outdoors, in 2004, the Spanish Songs recital, that ended up being a CD, and it was so great, I worked with her for five days. Four days of rehearsal and a concert, and then 18 months later she passed away, from her third bout with cancer, and it was just— it was such a loss to the classical world because she was just one of those people where, the minute you saw her on the stage, you were like, “I know this is going to be somebody special,” and then she opened her mouth and started to sing, and, I mean, I… just a once-in-a-lifetime talent.
Tell me about The Magic Flute. How did you land the role of Tamino?
It was a funny story, I had just gotten my second year contract as a young artist at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and I’d seen a posting for auditions for the movie, and the fact that they were coming to Chicago. And I thought, well, “I just got my second year contract and I got some really good gigs”—sorry, really good roles, I shouldn’t say gigs *laughs*—and, I just thought, “I don’t want to be disrespectful to Lyric Opera, you know, they just gave me this great contract”. And lo and behold, Kenneth Branagh came to see a dress rehearsal that I was in, the day before his auditions in Chicago and he had come to see this very, very famous Bass, named Rene Pape, and he happened to hear me sing, and I literally had a solo line that lasted 15 seconds, and he came up to me, after the first act, ’cause my part was over, and he said: “Why aren’t you…,” well, he introduced himself and he was very, very nice and he said: “Why are you not auditioning for the movie?” and I said, “Well…” I explained about the contract and I explained that I thought I was too old, ‘cause I think I was 27 at that time and they had said they wanted people in their early 20’s. And he said, “Well, go to Boston, and sing for James Conlon [the conductor for the Magic Flute film], and if he gives you the go-ahead I want you to come do a screen test,” and so…. one thing led to another, and I did the screen test, and then I was on a list of ten, and then I was on a list of five, and then I was on a list of two. And then I got a phone call, and when they told me I got the part I literally fell out of my chair. Like, actually fell. And that’s still—the excitement of getting the part was huge. And even—I said all along—“Even if I’d only worked with Ken in the screen test, that would have been enough.” But that whole experience was just so bloody hard. I lost like, almost 50 lbs for the role, and I worked my butt off with it, and it was just a wonderful group of people that really pushed one another in a good way, and I was really happy with how it came out.
What’s Branagh like as a director? Is it hard to work with people whose work isn’t primarily opera?
Not at all. I think Ken is one of the greatest storytellers of our generation… you know, bar none. And he is incredibly bright, very, very easy to get along with, but also demands so much out of the people that he works with, and I think that’s because he demands a lot of himself. If Ken called me tomorrow, and said, “I want you to come, do a non-speaking role in a film that I’m doing,” I would go do it. I just think he is so talented and has such an incredible mind and he also has a way of making everybody feel very important and very comfortable and very heard. And I think that, when you can do that as a director, when you really know the story inside and out—I mean, Ken knew The Magic Flute from beginning to end, backwards and forwards—and yet he also had a way of letting us feel like we had some creative input as well, so my hat really goes off to him. Working with him has really been the highlight of my career.
What I really loved about your performance as Pylades was the quality of the acting. You didn’t just stand there and hit your notes, you really performed the part—are you a trained actor at all?
You know, I don’t know how to answer that because in opera—I mean, I guess the short answer is “No. I am not a trained actor. I never went to school to just study acting.” But as an opera singer, you really have tons of moments where if you choose to focus on it, you can learn a hell of a lot about acting. The first way is just by watching your colleagues. You know, there are people that really get up there and commit to the acting. The second is, when you have really wonderful directors, and you can sort of pick their brain, or even before that, really take on the challenges that they’re giving you. And I’ve already mentioned that I’ve worked with Ken, and I don’t do that in a name-dropping way, I sort of say it in a way where—I mean, as I alluded to before, he was just so demanding when it came to his criteria for whether we kept a take or not was if it’s real, we keep it, and if it’s not we do it again. And it seems so over simplified, but it actually, it was a real challenge to do that, because you know, you can get away with being a bit less real, I think, in opera, just because of the scope and the distance, you know in the theatre. But I also had the opportunity to work with Baz Luhrmann on La Boheme on Broadway, and he too—just a brilliant mind, and such a facility for acting, and also just explaining it, and passing on information and tricks of the trade, as it were, and technique. He was really, really good at that. So, sorry if this is a long-winded answer, but I guess that now I’ve gotten that input in, and I’ve watched a lot of my colleagues, so now every time I do a piece, I get up there and I think to myself: “I have gotten some really great training along the way. And I know that I can make this a three-dimensional character. And I know that it’s as important to me that people believe in my character as much as they like the sound of my voice.” And I think that the art-form, in and of itself, is strengthened, and certainly that the individual production or performance is strengthened by my commitment to the acting, the singing, the dancing, the – all of that. And when your colleagues are committed in that way too, it makes the whole experience better.
What’s been your favourite role to date?
Um. Well. I really really really like singing Romeo. The part is just so, it’s just so involved. There’s so many different kinds and styles of singing within it, and he goes through such a range of emotions—he’s young, and impetuous, and in love, and everything—and you sort of have to keep things reined in to sort of keep from letting things get away from you, and you have to keep on top of your emotions.
I actually just did a role in New York, in this opera called Rodelinda, with Renée Fleming and Stephanie Blythe, and I played a character who starts as this usurper, as this villain, who thinks he’s going to be able to do anything he needs to, to get what he wants. And then he realizes that he’s not willing to do whatever it takes. And then he realizes that he doesn’t even know what he wants, he doesn’t even know what he needs. And you see him, over three acts, over four hours, slowly and slowly unravel, and just become this simple… almost this boy, in a way. Not literally, but you sort of see this man-child, this person who was grasping at all of the straws, if you will, of power trying to get more and more and conquer more and more because he … he had so much within him that was unsettled and unanswered. I loved the vocal challenge of that, but also the acting. It was really a study in trust and stillness. You know, when somebody has really had the rug pulled out from underneath them, and they’re really left there feeling completely naked and defenseless, I think that it is a moment for incredible introspection, and that that is best portrayed through stillness. It’s hard in an opera to be still, but you really just have to, you really just have to trust.
Have you learned, or acquired any of the languages that you sing in? There are so many.
Yeah, my French is getting better. My German is in second place, uh, Italian is a … is a distant third, and then let’s say… I’m not medaling in my Czech, or my Russian. But I mean right now I’m in Berlin, and I’m going to be here for almost three months, so you can’t help but work on your German. Our director essentially speaks only in German, and when you go to the coffee shops or restaurants or whatever it’s also in German, so yeah, you kind of pick up a language.
Which one’s the hardest? To sing in, specifically.
Um. Gosh. Czech is tricky. I mean, Czech—we’re doing an opera in Czech right now and there were three lines, short lines that I didn’t have to sing the last time I did the show, and for the first time now I needed to sing them. And it’s taken me like three days to memorize three lines. It really shouldn’t take that long. If it was in English or Italian, I could probably memorize it in, you know, half an hour. But it’s just that the language is so different from what I’m used to, and then of course you work with a diction coach, and they’re like, “No, no! You’re saying it all wrong!” And you’re like, “All right. Well… I want it to sound authentic, so why don’t we work on this for another hour?” And it usually ends up working out.
Do you have any dream roles?
I would love to sing the role of Pinkerton, in Madama Butterfly, by Puccini. That’s always been a role that I’ve loved. I’d also really like to sing the role of Lohengrin by Wagner, again it’s just a tour de force beautiful beautiful role. But I kind of just want to keep doing what I’m doing. I wanna keep working, and I wanna keep pushing myself to get better and if that’s in New York, or Chicago, or Toronto, or Montreal, or Paris, or London, or Berlin, or wherever, I just want to keep doing this. Because it’s a really hard career, and it can be really hard to be away from family and the people that you love, but it’s worth it. I love the way that it challenges me, and I feel really lucky to be doing it. I know that can sound a bit cheesy, but, you know, any time I arrive at a new opera house—and more power to the people that are in the chorus, or that are singing a smaller role, because I was in the chorus, I did sing small roles, and you know, it’s good and it’s fine, and in some ways it can be a step, or a building block, and in other ways it can be your choice, ‘cause you wanna sort of be based in one place. But I feel really lucky to do what I do. [Right now] I’m playing the character completely differently from the other production that I’ve done. And that’s awesome, you know? In sports, if you’ve played for 10 years as a righty and now you’re switching, and now you’re left-handed. And that’s literally how differently this character is being done. And I love it. I love the way it pushes me and challenges me.
I probably said “push” and “challenge” 40 times. But those are my key words.
Do you have a home base, or do you bop around to wherever the role is?
No, I’m in Chicago. Chicago and Vermont. Chicago is where I have two beautiful sons, and they love music, and love coming to see the opera too. And Vermont is… just a place where I can get away and just sort of …. it’s just a lot calmer. A lot of the places I go, a lot of the cities I go to are bustling and busy and there’s pressure and such, and there’s something about—there’s no pressure in Vermont. There’s Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, and maple syrup, and beautiful, beautiful, beautiful terrain and countryside and wonderful people and it’s just a little bit more chill.
So you’re in Berlin now, what do you have coming down the pipe?
I come back to Berlin in April to do the role again. I have a Carnegie Hall concert, April 12th. I’m singing with Renée Fleming again, in an opera called Arabella, by Strauss, at the Paris Opera, and I’m also returning to my old music camp in Oakland, Maine. The New England Music Camp. And I’m gonna go there and teach for four days this summer, which is a real, real break for me.
Do you teach often?
No, not really. But I’m less going as a voice teacher, and more going as a singer and talking about the business, and maybe hearing some of the kids, I don’t know. I find it very intimidating. I have confidence in what I do, but I don’t necessarily have confidence in my ability to explain what I do to someone else, or to hear someone and say, “Well, you should do this, or you should do that” and so forth.
Of all the places that you’ve performed, do you have a favourite opera house?
I think, acoustically, that the COC at the Four Seasons Centre is the best hall I’ve sung in.
It is. It’s just… it is phenomenal.
And if you can’t get excited about singing at the Met, then there’s something wrong with you. *Laughs*. Sorry, I probably could have said that in a less offensive way. I love singing there. I really love singing in Chicago, too, just ‘cause I live there and it’s close to home.
I sang at La Scala in Milan last year, and that was just insane. It was such a dream come true. But I mean, there are very few ugly opera houses, you know? I mean, Berlin has three, at least, they’re all beautiful. Munich is beautiful; Salzburg, gorgeous; Santa Fe Opera, you know, also, just beautiful. There’s a lot of really good houses out there.
Do you have any foreseeable plans to come back to the COC?
Not right now, but we’re working on it. And I’m working on it, ‘cause I really want to perform in Canada. You know, if there were a way that I could perform in Canada once a year, or once every other year, that would be so awesome, because I love it. It’s home. I’m still a Canadian citizen. It’s for a reason. I love Canada and I consider myself Canadian, so I hope I can continue to find opportunities there.
Is there anything that you’d like to add?
Nope. Just that I’m really honored to have been nominated for this award. And I know David Lomeli [also nominated for Best Opera Performance]. And he’s a phenomenal singer and a really great guy too. I’m not familiar with the other candidates or nominees, but I wish them all the best. Any positive recognition you can get for your work is a real thrill and it can be very validating. And, especially, I’ll just say, I mean, this came completely out of left field. I never thought that somebody would be coming to the show and then might be nominating anyone in it for anything. But, you know, to be sort of singled out, for work that I did on a production, that frankly, I was really proud of—not solely my work, but the work that we all did—from Robert Carson, who directed it, and Susan [Graham, who played Iphigenia] and Russell [Braun, who played Orestes], and everyone else that was in it—the dancers, etc. It was a good show. And it’s always really exciting when you commit 5, 6, 7 weeks of your time, to feel like you were part of something that was really good.