In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

"I never dreamed that this would be a part of my career." - Tenor, John Bellmer on his role in the Academy Award nominated film LINCOLN

Jan 12, 2013 10:00:00 AM
By BLO Staff

Tenor, John Bellemer, performing in this Sunday's Signature Series presentation Genesis: Explorations on James MacMillan's Clemency , is currently featured in the film Lincoln , nominated for 12 Academy Awards. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the film is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Lincoln and focuses on the president’s tumultuous final months in office. True to life, the film depicts a scene in which President Lincoln attends a performance of Faust, composed by Charles Gounod to a French libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré.

BLO spoke with Mr. Bellemer about the experience, meeting Steven Spielberg, what he’s most looking forward to singing next...

BLO: Tell us a little bit about your role in Lincoln. How is opera incorporated into the film?
John Bellemer (JB): I play the part of Faust in a scene where the Lincolns go to the opera. In the film, they show the Faust love scene between Faust and Marguerite [played by Mary Dunleavy]. This scene is historical; Lincoln went to see the opera with his family within the last couple weeks of his life.
BLO: Lincoln has been nominated for 12 Oscars; it must be quite a thrill to be a part of the project. As an opera singer did you ever expect to have a performance opportunity in film like this?
JB: No, and as a matter of fact, I would watch movies like Moonstruck and other films where singers are onscreen, and I always thought ‘How do you become that person?’.

BLO: How did you become that person? Was there an audition process?

JB: There were actually no formal auditions. It was absolutely random, I never dreamed that this would be a part of my career. Someone from New York City Opera, who I’d actually worked with before, was put in charge of special projects for the film. I got a call from her after she had put up a Facebook posting asking people to identify who they thought was currently singing the most quintessential Faust. She said, “You’d be surprised how many people came back to me with your name. I want to propose you to the producers of this film being shot in Virginia.” At the time, the film was under the working title ‘Office Seekers’. I thought it was going to be some kind of student project, and thought, “This is exciting, what other opportunity will I have to be in film?” Then, as I learned about the film, that it was based off of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, directed by Steven Spielberg, I was absolutely floored. I went down to Virginia for my first costume fitting – the period clothes, and facial hair - it was really amazing!

BLO: Did you have the opportunity to receive one-on-one direction from Steven Spielberg? What was his directing process like?

JB: We did meet; he introduced himself. He was very nice, and told me he’d seen some clips of my work online. By the end of the conversation he threw in, “By the way, I’m Steve.” You know, sometimes they direct these kinds of scenes separately, doing one day with those of us performing onstage in the scene, and the audience, in this case the Lincoln family in the Presidential box, on another. Spielberg directed the whole scene as one. The opera was directed by a stage director, and we spent a couple days in blocking rehearsal. On the day of filming we did between 20 and 25 takes, and Spielberg directed all of them. We filmed in a theatre in Richmond, Virginia, and he directed from the presidential box with the actors. It was amazing how close and intimate everything was in the theatre in Richmond. Most of his work was done with actors in the box, but he called all the shots for the whole scene.

BLO: Compared to the rehearsal schedule of a live production, over 20 takes in a row must have been exhausting.

JB: Not as exhausting as one would imagine. The whole scene is only a minute and a half long - it starts with the tenor line. Doing things over and over again, the biggest concern was that the continuity had to be right. We did the scene fully each time, my wife was in theatre at the time, and she was able to overhear some of pauses taken by the actors in the presidential box to work some of the lines and emotional moments.

BLO: Describe your favorite moment during filming?

JB: My favorite moment was the first time we fully performed the opera scene in front of the cast and crew on set. They all watched, and Mary Dunleavy and I, neither of us experienced in film, performed. When we finished, the room erupted in applause, led by Steven Spielberg and the actors. It was very exciting.

BLO: What was the experience like to see yourself on the big screen?

JB: I’m actually going to see it for a second time, because I have no idea what happens in the film after my scene. It was a very surreal experience. I could not tell you what take the sound is actually from. While we were filming, both of us wore an ear bud that played a recording of the music conducted by John Williams. Over the course of the different shots, sometimes the music would only come through the ear bud, so it was as if we were singing a capella. In others they played the music over large speakers and we had to lip sync while quieter dialogue was being filmed in the presidential box, sometimes it was a combination of both. You don’t actually see them in the film, but there was a full orchestra in the theatre. The orchestra pit was full of players in period costume – actual instrumentalists – who were miming playing their instruments the whole time. There was a conductor – the best conductor for a film situation that I’ve ever seen - he really knew what he was doing.
BLO: You’ll be performing with BLO at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in this Sunday’s Signature Series, Genesis, explorations on BLO’s upcoming Opera Annex Production, James MacMillan’s Clemency. What piece of music are you most looking forward to performing in this program?
JB: I love the Abraham and Isaac piece. It is one of the most beautiful, beautiful pieces of chamber music for the tenor voice. Handel’s Samson aria is such a treat for tenors as well, but if I have choose a favorite, I would choose Britten’s Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac.
John Bellemer can be heard this Sunday, January 13 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in Genesis : Explorations on James MacMillan’s Clemency , BLO’s Opera Annex Production. Mr. Bellemer has previously performed with BLO in Carmen on the Common and in the 2012 Opera Annex Production of Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse, staged at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
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