In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

Kelly and Jesus in a New Bohème: An Interview by Richard Dyer

Oct 7, 2015 12:24:00 PM
By BLO Staff

In Puccini’s La Bohème, the poet Rodolfo meets the delightful seamstress Mimì on a freezing Christmas Eve in 1830, and it is love at first sight.

In 2003, a young tenor, Jesus Garcia, met with a young soprano, Kelly Kaduce, to rehearse La Bohème. Paradoxically they haven’t ever sung the opera together until now, a dozen years later. Boston Lyric Opera has engaged the charismatic pair to appear in a new production, now playing at the Shubert Theatre through October 11.

Back in 2003, Kaduce was not long out of her graduate program in Boston University’s Opera Institute; Garcia had completed his studies at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia—and he was rounding off his run on Broadway in one of the most famous and controversial contemporary productions of La Bohème.

In 1990, Baz Luhrmann, not yet a famed film director, had directed a low-budget production of La Bohème for Opera Australia with a young and appealing cast he trained to avoid every cliché of operatic acting; he was a bushy-haired 28-year-old at the time, not much older than the singers or the characters they portrayed. The production, set in 1957 (“bring your own leather jacket”), proved a tremendous hit, and two years later it was taped for television and consequently broadcast around the world. It was one of the first operatic productions to be released on DVD, where it became an immediate best-seller.

By 2002, Luhrmann, now with the clout of popular films like Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge behind him, decided to adapt his La Bohème for Broadway. It was no longer a low-budget affair, and Rodolfo and Mimì were triple-cast because no one could possibly sing those roles eight times a week. The show was nominated for seven Tony Awards and the entire cast(s) won a special ensemble Tony Award. This version ran for 224 performances, which may have been disappointing by Broadway standards; still, it had taken the Metropolitan Opera 25 years after its first Bohème to reach that total.

One of the rotating Broadway Rodolfos was Jesus Garcia, then in his mid-20s; all the singers from the alternating casts appear on the “original cast” CD, where Garcia sings Rodolfo in the fourth act. The singers received a lot of criticism because many of them were simply too young to be performing their roles on such a demanding schedule; the prognosis for continued vocal health was not good. Garcia says he dropped out of the production before it closed because after 45 or so performances, because his voice told him to. “The color of my voice then was right for the role and the show was miked which made it easier. There was also a reduced orchestra. But the emotions were so intense that they took their toll, and my voice was tired.” But as he was leaving, he did help coach Kaduce through the staging, as the soprano had been hired to sing Mimì for a run in Los Angeles after the show closed in New York.

Kaduce had already sung Mimì, and she has continued to sing it ever since the Los Angeles performances; Garcia has also sung his share of Rodolfos, more than 120 so far. In some respects both their careers were jump-started—or hurtled ahead—by Luhrmann’s production. They are two of the brighter stars to have emerged from Luhrmann’s Bohème—among the others are the soprano Ekaterina Solovyeva, now a leading artist at the Kirov Opera in St. Petersburg, and the versatile American baritone Daniel Okulitch. Incidentally, the “swing” who sang in the chorus and was prepared to go on in most of the male roles was the tenor Joseph Kaiser, now a leading international artist, who will sing the title role in Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Massenet’s Werther in March 2016. Garcia’s two colleagues as Rodolfo, on the other hand, have taken alternative routes—Alfie Boe is now a musical theater star, renowned for his appearances in "Les Miz" and David Miller is a member of the popera group Il Divo.

Since Luhrmann, however, the careers of Garcia and Kaduce have diverged—Garcia is currently more active in Europe than in America, and Kaduce has developed into a reigning diva of regional opera in this country, a true successor to the magnificent Sheri Greenawald from the generation before her. This Bohème marks Kaduce’s third engagement with Boston Lyric Opera, where she has previously appeared in the title roles of Massenet’s Thaïs and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

Dyer, Kaduce, and Garcia (left to right) at the Boston Center for the Arts.

In a recent conversation before a rehearsal in the Boston Center for the Arts, Kaduce and Garcia sat at a long production table midway back in the auditorium—on the stage was a large raked platform, but there was no scenery on it yet; off to the side, a poster of Che Guevara stood on a stick in a large plastic barrel, ready to march again. The singers were dressed for work, Garcia in jeans and a t-shirt, Kaduce in a long blouse over stretch pants. They seemed happy to be reunited with each other and with La Bohème, and both were excited by director Rosetta Cucchi’s production concept: Rodolfo and Mimì meet on a freezing Christmas Eve as squatters during the student riots in Paris in 1968.

(Cucchi is an interesting figure who began her career as a concert pianist after studies with two great artists, Sergio Fiorentino and Jörg Demus. Then, a few years ago, she abandoned the keyboard for the clipboard and has since staged operatic productions in more than a dozen Italian cities as well as in Switzerland, Germany and Ireland; this production marks her American debut.)

Both the tenor and soprano have appeared in versions of La Bohème which have been set in various historical periods—the story of young lovers, idealistic and doomed, is universal. They say they sometimes enjoy transposing periods because it enables them to make a fresh start on familiar material, but they do not particularly enjoy the process when the director has “no focus” and they find themselves doing the same old thing, except with different costumes, shoes, and hair. On the other hand, they agree that Cucchi is exceptional. “Everything has been worked out in detail—nothing has been left unattended to or unexplained,” Kaduce says. “Rosetta has taken the text seriously, and everything in the production makes sense. There is no inn at the city gates in the third act for example, and both the words and the surtitles have been changed in a few places.”

Garcia grew up in League City, Texas, near Houston; his ancestry is Aztec, Mexican, Italian, French and Spanish. He is a very dashing young man who probably hasn’t gained an ounce since his Broadway days. He has been performing since he was a child in daycare. “I made my debut as Baby Bear in a little show about Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I also put together a show about Amelia Bedelia, got my friends together, cast it, and directed it. I had a solo as Alfie the Elf, and sang in choirs as an alto until I was in sixth grade and became a soprano, but before long my voice changed, which was a good thing because I felt so much peer pressure to sing as a tenor. I would say that choirs in school and church were the reason I sang classically and took voice lessons. I was extremely offended by people who I thought didn't know how to sing, but when I started to take lessons my teacher said I didn't know how to sing! I did begin to learn—records of Luciano Pavarotti made me want to know how—and then I won a scholarship to attend the University of North Texas in Denton. I sang Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly in English there and spent summers at the Seagle Music Colony in the Adirondacks. Then I wound up at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia and the rest is history.”

After Broadway's La Bohème, Garcia was a prize winner in Plácido Domingo’s Operalia Competition and developed a good career on the American regional opera circuit as well as engagements in South America and Europe. But by 2010, Garcia decided to interrupt his operatic activities career to pursue an equally strong interest in songwriting and in popular music. “I did continue sing a few operatic engagements, but I had started writing poetry in 1999 and composing music in 2001. My creative juices were stirred up by working with Baz Luhrmann—rehearsing for a show on Broadway, and watching his creative process, learning to become an actor, creating commercials, storyboarding, and watching how everything come together. I wanted to become a creator but it just wasn’t possible to do that on a part-time basis any more than it was possible to relax the vigilance and discipline that being an opera singer requires. So finally I took three years off. By now I’ve written about 35 songs, including 10 for an album I call ‘Manifest Destiny.’ In the songs I address some of my personal battles, religion vs. spirituality, and confront such other issues as stereotypes and prejudices. So the songs for the album move from a dark place into a holy and enlightened one. I would describe my music as avant-garde soul/rock and pop, or modern alternative rock, and my major influences were probably Bjork and Radiohead. I’ve done a lot of work on writing and recording the arrangements and orchestrations I’ve made for the album, but haven’t done my own vocals yet—I use a completely different voice and technique for popular music, so now I won’t for a while, because I have come back to opera full-time. Through this process I developed a deep desire to sing in opera again. Because I had been absent from the American scene for a while, my agent convinced me it would be better to start all over again in Europe where there was the potential for full-time work.”

A year ago Garcia accepted an extended contract in Karlsruhe, Germany, where this season he sings four roles, including Rodolfo; he has also sung in other German cities, in Luxembourg, and in Finland, concentrating mostly on Italian bel canto roles and French operas. He seems poised for another career breakthrough, and already he is singing in America again. “I am performing roles that are appropriate for my voice, as it is now, and that primarily means bel canto. I have used this time in Europe to get back into the zone vocally, and I record and analyze every single one of my performances.”

Kaduce has had little trouble with finding full-time work here because she boasts such a winning combination of attributes and abilities—a versatile and attractive voice; secure technique and musicianship; acting chops; and personal glamor—she looks like a golden-age Hollywood star even in rehearsal clothes and without makeup.

She was born in Winnebago, Wisconsin, and sang her first solo in church at the age of four: the spiritual “This Little Light of Mine.” She continued to sing in church—her mother was the organist—and always had the support of her parents and teachers, all of whom believed she “had something.” She attended St. Olaf College, then came to Boston University, where she studied with Penelope Bitzas. In 1999 she won the Metropolitan Opera National Council New England Regional Auditions. Always interested in musical theater, she appeared in shows in high school and later spent two summers with the College Light Opera Company in Falmouth where she appeared in Gilbert & Sullivan; Anything Goes (she learned to tap dance for this); Kiss Me, Kate; and Into the Woods. In addition to opera at BU she sang in Britten’s War Requiem in Symphony Hall and made early appearances with Opera Aperta (now Boston Midsummer Opera)—with them, she appeared in a program of staged scenes from Mozart (“Mozart in Love”) alongside the baritone Lee Gregory, who became her husband. They now have a four-year-old son, Colin, named after the eminent late stage director Colin Graham, who was a favorite colleague. As it happens, they now make their home in Houston, not far from where Jesus Garcia grew up.

(Asked about his private life, Garcia grins and says only, “I am in a relationship.”)

Kaduce considers her formal professional debut to be La Bohème with Opera Delaware in 2000. Since then she has appeared in a large number of leading roles in repertory operas—everything from Pamina in The Magic Flute and Gretel in Hansel and Gretel to Salome, from Donna Anna and Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni to Madama Butterfly, from Violetta in La Traviata to Manon Lescaut and her next new role, Tosca. Her French roles include Micaëla in Carmen, Marguerite in Faust, and Juliette in Roméo et Juliette, in addition to Thaïs. Some of her roles she has sung both in English and in the original language, often Italian, and she considers this to have been an especially valuable experience. “When I sang Butterfly in English, I found myself acting more internally, and singing in my own language enabled to accentuate the words with more natural nuance, and with more feeling, and this was an experience I could then carry over into singing the role in Italian.” She sang at the late lamented New York City Opera, with the Minnesota Opera in her native state, and with a wide range of other American companies, establishing close ties both with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis Opera and the Santa Fe Opera; in one season she had more than 50 performances of 17 roles in 19 cities, one of which was in Australia!

Less predictable, perhaps, is the way she has become a go-to soprano for contemporary operas. She has sung in Nixon in China (John Adams), Jane Eyre (Michael Berkeley), Anna Karenina (David Carlson), Silent Night (Kevin Puts), Margaret Garner (Richard Danielpour), Tea (Tan Dun), The Shining (Paul Moravec), Madame Mao (Bright Sheng), The Passenger (Mieczyslaw Weinberg), The Grapes of Wrath (Ricky Ian Gordon), and Wuthering Heights (Bernard Herrmann). She has also sung older American classics like Blitzstein’s Regina and Floyd’s Susannah.

She considers performing operas like these a “fantastic experience through which I have acquired a whole new set of skills. Now when anyone sends me a new score, I go through it at the piano to see if I have all the pitches. If I do, and I'm free, my response is ‘I'll be there!’ I have a good ear and can pick things up quickly, and I especially love new work because I can go in with no preconceived notions about how I am expected to sound. And acting-wise, the experience is always fresh.” She is especially fond of Carlson’s Anna Karenina opera, which proved a huge personal triumph for her both in St. Louis and in Florida. “But no one has picked it up since. I loved it, and the music is very Straussian.”

She has dipped her toe into Wagner now, as a Valkyrie in Wagner’s Ring Cycle in Houston (she claims it was “fun” to be suspended from a crane 15 feet high above the stage), but the direction she is most interested in now is Czech opera. “I have sung Dvorak’s Rusalka a few times now, and now I really want to sing those great Janáček roles, particularly Jenůfa.” Garcia has his own dream roles: the Duke in Rigoletto, Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, Nemorino in L'Elisir d'Amore, and now that he has been working so much in Germany, he would like to sing Tamino in The Magic Flute in the original language. “I won't be singing Calaf in Turandot or Dick Johnson in La Fanciulla del West anytime soon,” he says with a laugh.

For the moment, La Bohème is all-absorbing for the two of them again. “I don't sing Bohème the way I did a dozen years ago,” Garcia says. “I have undone my old way of doing things and worked out the kinks and the old habits, a process that was both challenging and rewarding. The opera is new to me again, and the role is now finally an appropriate one for me. My voice is still on the lighter side for Bohème but I feel lots better about it.”

“I always love the chance to return to a role I haven’t performed in a while,” Kaduce says. “It is never a question of working up what I did the last time around. The challenge is to approach an old role in a new way, both musically and dramatically, to bring it to the place where I am now.”

RICHARD DYER is a distinguished writer and lecturer. He wrote about music for The Boston Globe for over 30 years, serving as chief music critic for most of that time. He has twice won the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Award for Distinguished Music Criticism.

Topics: 2015/16 Season, behind the scenes, Boheme, BohemeBLO

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