Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sunday Feature: First-Person - Baritone Phillip Addis on performing two roles (La Bohème)

(photo by Kristin Hoebermann)
Parallel Existence
by Phillip Addis

A rising star on the international stage, Canadian baritone Phillip Addis has performed in opera, concerts and recitals throughout Canada, the United States, Europe and Japan. He’s been called “a star in the making” (MusicOMH) and praised for his creamy, bright, smooth voice as much as for his spell-binding, daring, yet sensitive interpretations.  He makes his Canadian Opera Company debut in the company’s production of La Bohème this October, singing the role of the musician Schaunard and the  painter Marcello.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I can only really be in one place at a time, both physically and mentally.  While I have different roles to play in life I can only really be in one of those roles in a given moment. Normally this would be true of the roles that I play on stage as well, but I have been working with a curious predicament these past few weeks in preparation for the Canadian Opera Company's production of La Bohème.  I have had the great fortune to be given two roles to prepare; that of Marcello, the painter and of Schaunard, the musician.

I hate stereotypes, but there may be something true about women’s general superiority at multi-tasking.

There is another pair of roles in the show which are traditionally done by the same performer; Benoit and Alcindoro, who are being rendered with amazingly distinct characterization by the brilliant Tom Hammons.  However, I'll dare to say that they are an easier pairing to execute, at least in terms of who's who, because these two characters never overlap in the show.  My pair of Bohemians cohabitate, banter about and even sing in harmony with each other.  I've performed both roles before, but only ever one of them at a time. While practicing at home I've only ever had to be on one track leading to the rehearsal period.  This time I wasn't quite sure how to approach it.  Early on, I tried singing all the lines, jumping up and down between the roles as I went along.  It didn’t take long to see that this was foolish, never mind impossible when overlapping. It wasn’t helping me sing either part in a healthy way, with the proper breaths and preparation of the thought behind a given line.  So, I started alternating, day-by-day or, at least, from one session to another. 

I must mention that another colleague, Joyce El-Khoury, is taking on a similar challenge by preparing both Musetta and Mimi for this production.  I can’t say if she’s been thinking about her roles in the same way, but however she is managing it, she has remained poised and seemingly unflappable.  I hate stereotypes, but there may be something true about women’s general superiority at multi-tasking.

My co-Marcello, Joshua Hopkins, took no offence at my steam-rolling over his lines, thanking me for the brief respite.

In rehearsal I have usually managed to keep the two fairly well separated in my mind. The action and the text usually lead me along obvious paths that I can easily follow, depending on whether I've donned the painter's smock or Schaunard's top hat. However, there have been some funny moments where I've really asked myself, as Rodolfo does in his Act I aria, "Chi son?"; not as a soul-searching who-am-I, but rather to ask "what am I doing here?!" More than once I've dropped a line, thinking it was the other character's, only to realize that I was that other character. I once sang three or four consecutive lines of a dialogue, just to be sure to cover all my bases (or baritones.)  My co-Marcello, Joshua Hopkins, took no offence at my steam-rolling over his lines, thanking me for the brief respite.  We've switched between the casts with whom I play Schaunard and Marcello, sometimes so immediately that it's as if I were having a moment of out-of-body-déja-vu. By far the hardest lines to get straight are the short interjections, such as the Act II ordering of food.  I've had to create a little backstory on the reason why one orders turkey and the other venison.  And if you ever sing the Act I “Andiam” while exiting a room in the company of basses and baritones, they will complete the series without fail, like trained seals awaiting salted herring; but to know your place in the series takes a bit more presence of mind than I’ve had on a few occasions this month (note to self: the guy in the smock sings third.)

I don’t mean to suggest that this is some superhuman feat, by any stretch, it’s more a case of having to change my habitual ways of looking at the role I play within a show.  In the past I’ve probably had a heightened sense of the importance of my character within the piece.  I have seen my past productions through the lens of one character, perhaps helping focus it while remaining a bit blurry as to my colleague's place in the bigger picture. Now that I’m seeing this La Bohème from the two vantage points that Marcello and Schaunard offer, I’m becoming far more aware of all the others’ points of view as well.  I suppose that I’ve gained a bit of a director’s, or even an audience’s perspective on this production, seeing the interplay from outside the scene.  At times I’ve also envisioned this awareness as a matrix of monitors, like those at a security desk or in a TV studio’s booth, where all the cameras are running continuously and I check between parallel views within the blink of my mind’s eye.  In the past, I’ve often sacrificed this view for the sake of narrowing in on my singular line of sight. And while I’m still only able to be in one character at a time, I now feel a greater sympathy for all of my colleagues as they progress through the piece. 

Of course, all of this is really only pertinent in the rehearsal process, to gain a greater understanding of my place in the piece. When it comes time to run the show, I will have to lock into whichever role is assigned that day and channel all the work of the past month into that one path. So, in the end, my versions of Marcello and Schaunard never quite intersect, and will exist in parallel, if similar, universes.

La Bohème runs from October 3-30

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