"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). Singers realize they simply have to try harder--ours is such a visual age. It strikes me, too, that we face the reverse of what so devastated silent-film actors when the talkies came in. Many stars were gorgeous to look at and possessed great silent-film acting technique. But when they spoke, audiences laughed at their squeaky little voices or unsettlingly foreign accents. For most opera fans, however, appreciation began with recordings. We never had to see the often dumpy, aging, homely men and women who were thrilling us with their glorious singing, with their actorly singing, with singing that made us believe they were young and beautiful. But now we do, increasingly, see them. We have to believe what we see. Which is why there is such a demand for singers like Blancher. And Gerald Isaac.
I met Isaac at the stage door of the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto, where he is appearing in The Lion King as Zazu, described on a Website as "a prim and proper hornbill with a strong sense of personal dignity." Which perhaps does test his acting skills, since "prim and proper" he most certainly is not, taking control from the moment we meet, bustling us in and out of a Second Cup coffee shop, claiming a sidewalk table and laughing as he tells me he was one of 12 winners in the 1979 duMaurier Search for the Stars program--hardly a conventional precursor to an operatic career. But then that wasn't what he was looking for. "I used to make fun of opera," he says, "used to make my friends laugh at it. Acting was my first love, and my training was in straight theatre." He worked at Stratford under Robin Phillips, had always been musical, had met Lotfi Mansouri and, like any actor who'll try anything to keep working, decided to audition for the Canadian Opera Company. He can't remember what he sang, but thinks it was a song from the musical Chicago. Whatever it was, it worked. He was soon cast as Njegus in Die Lustige Witwe, was spotted doing it by someone from Lyric Opera of Chicago, they wanted him, and--classic theatrical success story--was before long performing the role on stage with Joan Sutherland in San Francisco.
At almost 50, and with a long list of performance credits to his name, Isaac no longer makes fun of opera (except perhaps in the way every fan does). He talks instead of the respect he brings to the text (his mother was an elocutionist), of bringing a fully theatrical approach to a role and building a solid, layered character. As for the big lyric roles, "I'll never do them. I don't fool myself. But I love what I do, and the roles I get to play are often way more interesting. A beautiful voice is a beautiful voice, but I've had singers come up to me and say, 'God, I wish I could do what you do.'"
What he does probably couldn't be done by a lot of singers who have not received extensive training in movement and dance as well as voice. He recalls one production of Die Zauberflote where, as Monostatos, he had to skip double-Dutch when Papageno's magic bells turned the guards' whips into skipping ropes--and that particular bit of business was his idea. "I'm a package," he jokes. "I have high energy, l can dance, sing, act, do handsprings and skip double-Dutch. I can stand still. Sit still. Be real. And character roles go on much longer--I'm just getting to the age of really juicy stuff."
In fact, if you keep yourself in training, character roles can go on for a very long time indeed. Can even, as in the case of baritone Cornelis Opthof, extend the career of a singer who began in the majors. At 74, he can't expect to sing Scarpia any longer, though he jokes that he's done the role so many times, he could do it tomorrow. Meanwhile, he'll have to spend some time preparing the small role of the Jailer in Tosca for next year's COC production. He's philosophical about the change. "Younger people come up, and you have to make way for them. Pride doesn't pay the bills." He keeps in shape, both physically and vocally, walking and swimming every day and singing through a complete role in his studio most days. And, he says, singers with lead parts can learn a lot by watching the singers in the smaller roles. "There are some fantastic actors in those roles," he says. "They have to do so many things at once, and appear natural doing them."
Sonya Gosse would agree. Freshly 40, she feels her acting skills--along, of course, with her vocal prowess--have created a particular niche for her at the COC: the in-house character mezzo. Speaking by phone from her parents' home in Newfoundland, where she spent the summer, Gosse talked of how, when she was starting out, she did want all the big roles, "but I can't imagine that any more. This work is so satisfying and uses so many aspects of me. I will always love the music in opera, but there is something so satisfying about the acting. If I'm complimented on an acting job, it's almost better than hearing it about my singing." She echoes Blanchet's assessment of the particular challenges of acting in opera. "So often you have only a short period of time to bring it to the audience," she says, "so you've got to be right on the money. Acted, but not overacted. You've got to make an impression, but not leave a sour note. I remember appearing as Giovanna in Rigoletto, a very small role. And one of the critics wrote that he wished he could have seen and heard more of Sonya Gosse. When I read that, I think, 'Hey, I've done my job.'"
It's a job, they all agree, with considerably less stress than they would encounter as a lead, particularly as a star. As Blancher puts it, "You're not carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. When someone like Domingo steps out, his every note is scrutinized. I can take more chances artistically. I may get a bad review. But it won't kill my career." As for Gosse? "I prefer this fun, interesting, not-so-pressured life."
I know whereof they speak. Two years ago, I auditioned for Toronto Opera Repertoire, a community based, amateur opera group, and won the role of the Sacristan in Tosca. Had I fantasized singing Scarpia? Oh, yes--ridiculous as the fantasy was for someone who had never sung any role on stage before. What I hadn't realized at first was how lucky I was to get so perfect a comprimario role as the Sacristan. You get the stage to yourself for a period. You interact with the principals--as a grumbling old reactionary with Cavaradossi, as a terrified, shivering cleric with Scarpia. You get to chase the choir boys around the stage. And, having made an impression, you get to shuffle your aged bones off stage, leaving all the really hard stuff to the over-taxed principals.
People do notice. Months later, I was sitting outside a cafe, having a coffee, and a stranger came up to me. "I saw you in Tosca," she said. "You were great." Just like the maxim says. Sure, it may have been a small role--but, hey, I wasn't a small performer.
Gerald Hannon is a Toronto-based writer with a passion for opera…