Opera Louisiane scrambles to replace lead in upcoming performance
By GREG LANGLEY
News Features editor
November 14, 2012
When Opera Louisiane set out to produce Falstaff, a three-act comedy by Guiseppe Verdi based on a character, the fat knight Sir John Falstaff, from the William Shakespeare plays Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, they had no idea that they would lose their principal singer just a month before the performance. Things unintentionally began to resemble another Shakespeare play, A Comedy of Errors.
“Basically, the Falstaff that we had backed out. This happens pretty rarely with companies, that you’ll have a major role like that and someone backs out, but it happens. Another offer will come along that is a better offer than he had, and that’s often the reason,” said Leanne P. Clement, executive director of Opera Louisiane.
“I found out, last week, last Wednesday, (Aug. 22) our performance being a month away from that, we’ve already sent out all our publicity and things, and I of course had that moment of ‘Oh gosh, where am I going to find a Falstaff on such short notice?’ So I started calling in to all of my friends and peers in other companies to say, ‘Do you know anyone who already knows the role who would be interested in coming here to sing it in Baton Rouge?’
“I’d already gotten a couple of leads and all of them had fallen through. People had other gigs going on. You know a lot of opera singers are booked years in advance. For us, we usually book about a year ahead of time. I knew it was going to be a hard thing to find. That’s what led me to talk to Kyle Marrero, who is a good friend and runs Pensacola Opera. He said, ‘I think you should call Todd Thomas,’” Clement said.
“And I said, ‘Well, that would be wonderful, Kyle, but Todd is, number one, way out of our price range and way out of our league. He’s an A and B house singer, and we’re barely a D house.’
“And Kyle said, ‘Todd is a good guy. You know him. I think he will do you a favor. He has done the role. He loves the role, and I think he’s available.’”
Thomas was available. He will sing the role. He’s happy to be coming to Baton Rouge, even though it’s his first trip here. He has sung in New Orleans before.
“I was in New Orleans shortly before Katrina hit, I think the spring before Katrina hit, doing La Traviata in New Orleans,” Thomas said by phone from his Philadelphia home on Sept. 1. “I had a great time there, but who doesn’t have a great time in New Orleans?”
Thomas has sung with companies in Florida, New York, Tennessee, New Hampshire, Seattle and many other places.
“The opera has been my life for a long, long time now. I’m 51,” Thomas said. “I have a 30-year relationship with this.” Falstaff is one of his favorite roles, one he has reprised many times.
“I spent most of my career singing the operas of Verdi. This is his only comedic opera. It was his last opera that he wrote, so (by that time) he was a master in terms of writing for the stage and writing for the audience,” Thomas said.
“I think there’s more of a challenging element in comedy.”
“I’ve done this (Falstaff) in like four different cities, maybe five. Most recently I was artist-in-residence at Ohio State University this past spring. I was Falstaff, of course, but also doing some teaching of master classes and career discussion with graduate students there,” Thomas said.
A family man with four children (Olivia, 21; Gabriella, 16; Samuel, 13; and Noah, 5), Thomas tries to spend as much time at home as possible, but the itinerate career of an opera singer sometimes makes that difficult, he admits.
As a singer you’re not associated with just one company. The market doesn’t bear that.
“Economically they just can’t afford, to pay somebody,” Thomas said. “I’m not really exclusively to the Philadelphia (Opera) or the Met. The Met is really the only place that can sustain singers associated with one particular company.”
So he sings the same part time and time again in different cities. Here, he will perform just one night.
“Small operas can offer only one or maybe a week of shows,” he said. But he is also motivated by a higher concern. “Part of the process is for you to help keep these companies open and benefit communities like Baton Rouge,” he said.
“I’m looking at this and thinking, ‘How fortunate, because we’re going from a singer who this was going to be his first time singing the role of Falstaff — he’s a great performer, the man we had contracted, I think he would have done an excellent job — but to have someone with Todd Thomas’ experience and his calibre, that’s really spectacular. Also, to get to hear him perform this role, it’s almost like this role was written for him. The role of Falstaff is the only comedy that Verdi ever wrote. Todd has the ability to take on this role and make it something special. People are going to be blown away by Todd’s voice. I’ve heard him sing many times, and every time he moves me. He digs into the character. It’s something you only get from experience. And he’s had tremendous experience,” Clement said.
The production itself will be a shortened version of the opera.
“What we do is have our orchestra, which is a smaller orchestra because of the smaller space (nine-piece orchestra), the arrangement is an abridged arrangement, so it is only going to be two hours as opposed to the original three and a half (hours),” Clement said. “There will still be three acts. We’ll take one intermission. It’ll be in Italian. You’re going to get all the main parts of the opera. What our musical director Michael Horowitz has done is he has cut a lot of the repeats that happen. In opera, they’ll tell each other that they love each other a million times, back and forth.
“There is a lot of repetition in opera, so he has cut those out. Then he’s also taken out some of the parts that are just conversational, which we call recitative. You’re still going to understand the story. We’ve left all the beautiful melodies in and all the great moments in the plot.”
In addition to the three-act opera, the company has scheduled some special events around Falstaff. The first, A Feast With Falstaff, involves eating.
“It’s basically a party. I’m not originally from Louisiana, but I learned very quickly when I moved here that when you have some sort of performance you have to have food. It’s kind of like the tailgate before the opera. It’s going to be kind of like an English pub. We’re going to have lots of different kinds of beers for people to choose from. We’re going to have traditional English food,” Clement said.
According to Opera Louisiane’s website, “In an environment reminiscent of Falstaff’s ‘Garter Inn,’ guests will dine upon British cheeses, crusty bread, fresh fruits and sumptuous pork tenderloin catered by Heirloom Cuisine. Sip on fine wine, ale or specialty drinks resembling Falstaff’s favorite hearty mead. A cash bar will also be available.”
The second event is the Second Annual Passion for Fashion Accessory Contest. Competitors are encouraged to accessorize to the theme of “Knights and Ladies.” Local fashion connoisseurs will judge contestants on their creativity, how well their accessory complements the entire outfit and their level of passion.
The winner will be announced at the beginning of the performance.
“We want people to be creative. They could be knights and ladies as in Sir Lancelot and Guinevere or they wear a hat that reminds them of a princess. Last year, everyone had such a good time with it. We’re really looking forward to this again,” Clement said.
In addition to baritone Thomas, the cast of Falstaff includes soprano Kathleen Halm, mezzo-soprano Erin Roth Thomas, mezzo-soprano Beth Lytwynec and baritone Joshua Jeremiah.