'South Pacific' Music, Themes Modern despite World War II Setting

Article excerpt

When it comes to cross-over artists, David Pittsinger leads the pack.

Pittsinger plays Emile de Becque in the national touring production of "South Pacific," which opens Tuesday at the Benedum Center, Downtown, as a presentation of the PNC Broadway Across America -- Pittsburgh series.

He also is an established opera singer who has sung multiple roles at the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera and a dozen roles at Pittsburgh Opera, where he was twice honored as performer of the year.

In March, Pittsinger became what many believe is the first performer to star in a Broadway show and an opera on the same day.

After playing the matinee as de Becque in the revival of "South Pacific" at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater, Pittsinger walked next door to sing the role of the ghost of Hamlet's father in the Metropolitan Opera's "Hamlet."

"It was a very special day for me," Pittsinger says.

Although that Saturday in March might have been the most dramatic example, his appearances in "South Pacific" are not the only instance of his performing in a musical genre other than opera.

His career includes roles in musicals such as "Shenandoah," "Man of La Mancha" and "Carnival" and operas such as "Tosca," "Don Giovanni," "Faust" and Mefistofele."

"I do them for the same reasons I do concerts and recitals. It adds variety and a lot to the legacy of a musical career. We artists today have the ability to inhabit and assimilate many different stages of music through the ages," he explains. "If Figaro or Giovanni are iconic parts, this is just another one."

Besides, he says, the worlds of opera and musical theater are not all that different.

"I think opera is musical theater. It's all musical theater. It's music for the stage. ... It's just a different style and time period," he says. "I'm really not finding any difference, except the schedule, which is grueling."

Broadway or national tour productions generally operate on a schedule of eight performances over a six-day week. Opera companies typically allow one or more days between performers' appearances so that their voices can rest.

"Last year, when I sang Scarpia (in the Metropolitan Opera's 'Tosca'), I worried because I had 10 performances in 14 days," he says. "But to be honest, there's only about 14 minutes singing (for me) in 'South Pacific.' That's like a warm up in the shower for me."

When director Bartlett Sher first approached Pittsinger about playing de Becque in the Lincoln Center revival of "South Pacific," Pittsinger was interested.

" 'South Pacific' is 60 years old and still fresh and relevant," he says.

Based on James Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Tales of the South Pacific," the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is set on an island during World War II. Its story follows the romances of two couples -- the French plantation owner de Becque and Navy nurse Nellie Forbush and Navy airman Joe Cable and the young native islander Liat -- whose loves are threatened not just by the war but by their prejudices.

"Our country was at war and dealing with issues (such as) racism and May-December romances that are relevant today because we are dealing with the same things. ... We can see how far we have come and what's ahead of us."

He admires Rodgers and Hammerstein's rich score of musical classics that includes "Bali Ha'i," "Younger than Springtime" and "There is Nothin' Like a Dame."

He was particularly eager to play de Becque. …