On the occasion of Opera Carolina's run of Mozart's The Magic Flute opening on January 19, 2013 in Charlotte, NC (also playing on January 24 and 27), we continue to interview cast members. This time, we talked to baritone Kyle Pfortmiller, who will be singing the role of Papageno [Opera Lively interview # 71]. For full announcement and tickets, click [here], and explore Opera Lively's North Carolina local area for the other interviews with Yunah Lee (Pamina), Maria Aleida (The Queen of the Night), and Shawn Mathey (Tamino).
The production will be sung in English, with English surtitles, and features the striking visuals of artist Jun Kaneko, who will be present for a book signing - see some of the production pictures in another Opera Lively article, clicking [here].
Questions were by Opera Lively journalist Luiz Gazzola. We particularly liked what the singer had to say about comedic roles, and his insights about La Traviata.
Kyle Pfortmiller made his Metropolitan Opera debut as the Marquis d’Obigny in a new production of La traviata directed by Willy Decker during the 2010-2011 season. He was heard later in the season in Capriccio. Also during the 2010-2011 season, he made his Gotham Chamber Opera debut in performances of Xavier Montsalvatge’s El gato con botas at the New Victory Theater in New York.
Some other of his most recent roles include Eisenstein in Die Fledermaus with Opera Saratoga (formerly know as Lake George Opera Festival) and his house debut with Chautauqua Opera as Papageno in The Magic Flute.
He has done a whirlwind summer with Utah Festival Opera and Music Theater in which he performed the roles of Valentin (Faust), Fred / Petruchio (Kiss Me Kate) and Henry Higgins (My Fair Lady).
Kyle has appeared with opera companies throughout the United States including the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, Florida Grand Opera, Tulsa Opera, Sarasota Opera, Opera Idaho, Forth Worth Opera, Lake George Opera Festival among many others.
He was born in Elgin, Illinois and currently resides in New York City. He has employed his unique talent in opera, operetta and music theatre from the contemporary to the classic. His repertoire includes the title roles in Don Giovanni and Il barbiere di Siviglia, as well Valentin (Faust), Eisenstein (Die Fledermaus), Count Almavia (Le nozze di Figaro), Silvio (Pagliacci), Count Carl Magnus Malcolm (A Little Night Music), Billy Bigelow (Carousel), Pierre/Red Shadow (The Desert Song), and Hajj, the Poet (Kismet).
Kyle made his European debut with the De Nederlandse Opera as Silvio in Pagliacci in March 2006 to critical acclaim heralded as “a voice that could give us a father Germont and other lyric roles in the great American baritone tradition of Robert Merrill.”
The Opera Lively Exclusive Interview with Baritone Kyle Pfortmiller
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OL – I just talked to Shawn, and he had nice things to say about you. He said that your Papageno is fabulous. I look forward to talking to you about the role.
KP – Very cool.
OL – So, you’ve done it before, I believe once, right?
KP – Oh, I believe this time is probably my third time around. I think I actually did it once in Germany as well, so, it’s my fourth time.
OL – Oh, sorry, my information is outdated. Is this your first one in English?
KP – No, it’s my third one in English. I did it in German once. But it’s my first time with this particular translation.
OL – Right, because I’ve learned that Maestro Meena has changed a bit the translation, it’s not just the Schirmer translation.
KP – Right.
OL – So, please tell me about the challenges in the role of Papageno. It’s often said to be an easy sing. Do you agree?
KP – The interesting thing about Papageno is that for me personally it is right in the mid of my range. A role like Figaro in the Barber that goes up to the high G’s - which I still love to do – is more challenging. Papageno is not as challenging vocally as it is physically, because you are moving around so much, all night long. Then, of course, added to all of the singing, there is the dialogue. The real challenge about the role of Papageno is to sort of match the vocal intensity, the vocality you have as a singer, to what you do as an actor because there is so much dialogue.
OL – Yes, and also the comedic aspects, right?
KP – Yes, absolutely.
OL – From the acting standpoint, are you more comfortable with comedies or tragedies?
KP – I love it all. I love both the comic and the serious roles. What is particularly fun about comedy that I’ve learned over the years from some amazing directors – and I’ve continued to work with Garnett [Bruce – the stage director for this Magic Flute] who’s been just a joy to work with – is that comedy only works if the character thinks that everything that is going on is important. If you as the person portraying the character think you are being funny you are not going to be funny.
OL – Huh!
KP – But if you enter into the character’s world and you take the choices seriously, that’s when the real comedy is released. For me as an actor I honestly don’t approach comedy any differently from how I approach tragedy. Just the outcome happens to be different, and the reactions are obviously a little different.
OL – Oh, this was a really interesting answer. So, you take Papageno very seriously, right?
KP – Absolutely. I think Papageno takes himself very seriously. He says he can be everything he says! [laughs]
OL – Shawn said that you are doing a very different Papageno. He has done The Magic Flute several times in Europe and in the United States, and he thinks your Papageno is really special. How do you make it unique?
KP – Wow! Well, first of all, thanks, Shawn! [laughs] I have to thank him for saying that! Let me say that he sings this role spectacularly, so I’m going to heap some praise on him too. I could just listen to him sing all night long. I don’t know, I’m not one to toot my own horn, but I think it comes from the fact that I really believe that Papageno is the everyman, there is a part of him that everyone can understand, and identify with; he’s not a prince, he’s not a king, he is the working guy in this opera, so my desire is to bring honesty and optimism to this character because I think that’s what he asks for, when I read him. So I keep all my reactions to what comes my way – very honest and natural. I hope it’s fun, for people. [laughs]
OL – Nice. And this is a very artistically rich production with a great visual artist doing the set design. Do you find that it might get distracting at some point, that the visuals could compete with the singing?
KP – That’s really a great question. I personally think that it is absolutely beautiful and breath-taking. I think when people enter into the theater and the overture starts, they will immediately enter into this world that Jun has created for us, just artistically, and I personally think that the visuals and the characters can live together in wonderful fashion. The characters that Mozart gave us so many years ago and we are working in portraying, are so rich and so full that they can stand with all of that wonderful visual. The visuals at times lead us into the next scene and at times react with us. When I feel a certain thing in the second act, colors start to come in, in different ways that they had before. It will be a different emotional ride than what many people have had before with The Magic Flute. I think the characters and the visuals co-exist in a way that is just really special.
OL – I see that you also have some operetta work under your belt.
KP – I do.
OL – And also music theater – can you tell us about the differences for the singer that these different genres entail? In music theater you have to use microphones, and to sing several performances in a row. And in operatta and in music theater you have more acting than in opera. How do you compare your activity as a singer in these three genres?
KP – First of all, I love to be able to go into any of those three worlds. I think they are all equally valid, and they are importantly valid for young singers today – for all singers, but certainly even more so for those singers who are in university, learning. We need to be able to do all of those things. Specifically this summer I was doing two music theater roles and an operatic role all at the same time in about four or five shows a week, and that was the trickiest time of my career. You have to keep yourself healthy, you need to sleep, and especially, if you are doing a music theater run you are doing up to eight performances a week. The challenge, if you do it long term, is that you have to keep it fresh, because the people who are watching you, many times it’s their first time. It may be your fiftieth time, but it’s their first time. The reactions and your emotional state all have to be fresh and new, even though they may be rehearsed. That’s one thing.
Secondly, I have done a lot of music theater in opera houses in which there is no amplification. So that is one set of rules in which you just sort of continue to do what you do operatically, and make sure that your English diction is impeccable. The only thing that I ever had to do when being miked in a music theater show was to know that I didn’t always had to sing at 100%. You can be much more "speaky." The beginning of the songs can be a little more intimate. But really, for my voice part, for the baritone, it’s very easy to transition between these two worlds.
OL – I think that for the spoken dialogue the microphone is very helpful, right?
KP – Now, that’s where it is absolutely true. Because if you are doing spoken dialogue in a music theater show, that’s when they definitely bump up the mikes. The interesting thing is that when they were writing shows like Carousel, those shows were originally not amplified; not the dialogue, and not the musical numbers. And we are not miking any of the dialogue in this show either. So you have to fall back onto that old style of vocal production that has to be healthy and clear to get out there. Luckily I had the opportunity to do a number of shows like Kiss Me Kate and Carousel where there was no miking of the dialogue. I’ve also done them with miking. But that’s a very good point.
OL – You’ve also done some fabulous shows, like Willy Decker’s La Traviata at the Met. What do you think of that production?
KP – I absolutely love that production. I’m happy to be a part of it. I know that that production is controversial, but I love it. And don’t get me wrong, I love the old Met production too, the Zeffirelli was absolutely beautiful. But what I find particularly interesting in Willy Decker’s is that it really shines a 21st century light on what it must have been like to be Violetta, of what her life and her struggles were, and I think in the end Willy tells that story in an unique, very beautiful, and heartbreaking way, and it works. That’s my inside view, but I know that there are people who hated it.
OL – I share your views on this. I love that production as well. I think it concentrates the focus on the characters and the drama. The bare sets with the curved wall are kind of claustrophobic, closing down on Violetta, with that big clock ticking away the time that she has left to live. Yes, I have colleagues and friends who hated it and wanted the old settings and costumes with all the ornaments, while Verdi himself said that he wanted La Traviata to be a current topic – un sogetto d’attualità – and to have resonance with the audience so that the public could identify themselves with the characters, including that the characters had to be dressed in a way that was contemporary to the fashions that were then current for the audience. I think the right thing to do is to update La Traviata to whatever time the audience lives in.
KP – That’s what I think. And I believe that Verdi wanted it to be a controversial piece. She is not your typical heroine.
OL – Right, yes.
KP – So, what I love about it that Willy brought his own take on it. I haven’t found anyone in the middle. I’ve only heard that people either don’t like it, or love it. And that’s what I think art is about. That’s our job as artists, to make people think. Not everybody is going to love what you do, but as an artist, what is exciting is to get people thinking.
OL – This will be your third time with Opera Carolina. You previously did here Love Notes and The Marriage of Figaro. What is your impression of the company?
KP – I love coming here. I love working with Maestro Meena. It’s exciting to come to a place where everybody comes together to work for the greater good of the piece. I find that Maestro Meena is able to hire people who are extremely talented, but I’ve never run into a diva or a divo here. They are always ready to dig in and get to work, and egoes are outside the door when they come to work every day. That’s what is really exciting – the camaraderie, the ability to work together with people who are extremely talented on a day in, day out basis. It is really special. I know that people are here and they are ready to work, and are excited about whatever the production is.
OL – I’ve asked this same question to all of you, about the English versus the German version, but I will ask it to you in a little different way. I was just thinking about what some opera companies have done regarding the Magic Flute: the dialogue in English (or whatever the local language is) to make the jokes more accessible and all, but the musical numbers in German. Often with the phonetic distortions of operatic singing, people won’t understand the text of the musical numbers even when they are sung in their idiom; they would need surtitles as well, and often opera companies will project English surtitles for operas sung in English, anyway. So what is really the advantage of singing the musical numbers in English? Why not take advantage of Mozart’s skillful vocal writing that takes into consideration the sounds of the German language? I once read a funny comment about a video recording of Hänsel und Gretel for children, that was done in English. One of the producers said, “Well, to prevent the need for the children to have to read English subtitles to understand the libretto in German, we translated it into English, so that now the children have to read English subtitles to understand the libretto in English.” [laughs] So what is the real advantage of the translation?
KP – There are lots of different ways people can do the show. But you know, this was the people’s opera, when Mozart wrote it. He wrote it in the vernacular for them, so I think that translating it into English is true to the style, is true to maybe what Mozart wanted. We are bringing this 200+ years old European work to 21st century Americans, and we are going to put it in English. Yes, there will be the titles so that everybody will be able to get everything, but I don’t have a stylistic objection to doing it all in English. I’ve done a Fledermaus like this before, switching from German for the music to English for the spoken dialogue, and there are folks who do The Magic Flute like this. But the downside of switching languages is that it might be jarring. You are hearing the lyrics in German and then suddenly you switch to English for the dialogue, it puts off the audience ever so slightly. It works, certainly it can work, and you are right about the vowels, but particularly for this production with the visuals behind us, I think it is important for us to do it in English.
OL – Hm, hm, interesting, OK. So, what is next, in terms of how you see your career evolving? In what houses will you be singing, and what repertoire?
KP – At this point I’m glad to have some more work this year at the Met; I’m back to do Traviata again, and I’m also doing some covering and understudying in there. I’m always ever hopeful that my role will expand there. I love singing in that house, it’s an honor to be there. But with that, it gives me the opportunity to only get out to the rest of the country and elsewhere internationally, once or twice a year. I’m happy to sing anywhere, anytime, because I love doing what I do. I think my voice is still growing, so, who knows what sort of repertoire is next? I’d love to grow into some bigger roles but right now I think I’m hitting my stride with the lyric baritone roles, and I’m moving to just a little heavier roles.
OL – OK, great. I wish you good luck. I’ll be there watching the opening night.
KP – Excellent, I hope to see you after.
OL – I have really high expectations for this show. Thank you so much, thank you for your time.
KP – You’re welcome. Take care.
Let's listen to the baritone. Here, we have him in the duet from the third act of Don Pasquale, "Cheti, Cheti, Immantinente," together with bass-baritone Stephanos Tsirakoglou, both of them displaying not only excellent singing, but also nice acting skills - a very enjoyable video clip (they really charmed the audience!):
And here, he sings "Avant the Quitter Ces Lieux," from Faust:
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