Real Characters: If You Think the Secondary Roles in Opera Are for Secondary Singers, Think Again. to Get Them Right, Those Comprimario Roles Demand Very Special Talents

Article excerpt

"THERE ARE NO SMALL ROLES--ONLY SMALL PERFORMERS." THIS snippet of theatrical wisdom is generally offered, along with a condescending little smile, by those performers who have very large roles indeed. The most irritating thing about that rather tired observation, of course, is that it's true--though "stars" seldom mention its equally true corollary: that there are large roles, and they are sometimes filled by very small performers. We have all attended a performance where the faithful servant or the aged retainer or the pert little servant girl upstages the park-and-bark tenor with the glorious voice. We have all seen performances come theatrically alive when singers lower down on the cast list make their entrances. We have all attended performances saved from mediocrity by the comprimario.

Which it at least classy sounding, as names go. Better than, say, "the guy who always gets the bit part," or "always a duenna, never a diva," or "the little people." The Italian term simply refers to those people who perform with the leads--though the men and women who consciously build careers by cornering the market on such roles tend more often to refer to themselves as "character singers."

Peter Blanchet is a forty-something tenor who has made his living as a singer since 1982. Personable, chatty, bright-eyed and sporting a trim goatee, he projects an almost theatrical vivacity even over coffee at a cafe near his home in Toronto's Cabbagetown. He's telling me that he'll never sing Rodolfo. That he'll never sing Don Jose. And that's just fine. Very early in his career, he says, "I thought that the best way to market myself was as a character singer. Partly because of my body size--I'm not very tall. Partly because of the quality of my voice. Partly because I'm good at acting and movement. Plus," he adds, "I wanted to earn a living. I wanted to sing in the big houses, and I had to ask myself how I'd be marketable in those. The answer was as a character singer. I thought, 'Why sit around and wait to be cast as Rodolfo? And starve?'" An eminently practical approach. But I wonder whether there weren't just a few regrets, a few fantasies unfulfilled, any lingering disappointment? "Oh, I suppose there's an ounce," he says. "Rodolfos make more money. Character singers don't make as much, but we have the same expenses. And sometimes you feel you're getting overlooked--that people aren't appreciating the artistry you bring to creating a character role."

But that's just sometimes. Mostly, Blanchet feels he gets the audience response--laughter, rapt attention--that signals success. The critics have also taken note. Among his favorite roles are the four servants in Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann. After performances in Dallas, the critic for the Times-Herald felt moved to comment, "The parts are so different and Blanchet is so versatile you'd hardly know he was the same artist."

Which is the mark, of course, of a singing actor--with the emphasis on actor. As Blancher says, "If a character singer is not a good actor, you don't have a career." He remembers discussing this with composer Stephen Sondheim, who claimed, at a party they attended, that he couldn't bear opera because most opera singers were such terrible actors. Ah, but the challenges, the difficulties, countered Blanchet. A stage actor paces his performance through his own sense of the developing drama, but a singer? "The composer dictates your dramatic choices most of the time," he told Sondheim, "and you might have just an eighth-note rest for a dramatic pause even if you think it should be longer. You're tied to the music. And if you see an opera singer who can make that work, you have one terrific actor on your hands."

These days, as Blancher points out, we are seeing more singers at every level "who can make that work" (though we all have favorite instances to the contrary, mine being a recent Tristan und Isolde at the Met, where the principals were of such monumental girth and stodgy deportment that the director chose, wisely, to stage the love duet in almost impenetrable shadow, thus sparing the audience a scene more reminiscent of a coupling in Jurassic Park than passion in mythical Cornwall). …