Rod Gilfry Makes a Pacific Choice
The renowned opera star returns to musical theater as Emile de Becque in the national tour of South Pacific.
THEATERMANIA: Have you ever done a tour like this before?
ROD GILFRY: I never have. I did a cycle of Mozart operas based on librettos by da Ponte for a short tour in Europe, where we did about seven European cities.
TM: As someone who has sung some of the world's most beautiful opera music, how does South Pacific stack up?
RG: It's on the same level as the masterworks of opera -- the pinnacle of achievement of that type of writing. But it's not just the music; the book is fantastic. What Josh Logan did is amazing if you read Tales Of The South Pacific and see how he condensed that. When I saw the production at Lincoln Center, I thought it was the best production of a musical I'd ever seen. Perfection is the wrong word, since that's not something we should strive for, but it is of such a high level of quality and a deep sense of truth. You see it and you never forget it.
TM: Is singing in this musical a relief for an opera singer?
RG: It's not so bad with opera because we perform three or four times a week with time to rest the voice in between. Vocally, this show is less demanding, because we have amplification, and the songs aren't screaming, as compared to what we do in opera. I remember an interview with David Pittsinger [who has played Emile on Broadway] and he said he sings more in warming up than he does in this show, and it's really true. I only have 18 minutes of music.
TM: Had you worked with the director, Bartlett Sher, before this show?
RG: I've never worked with Bartlett before -- but the guy is just the best director I've ever worked with. He'll take one of these big musical numbers like "Honey Bun," and just watching it I'll be bowled over. And then he gets in there -- "don't cross there, this time do this, don't look at him there" -- and he takes a scene to another higher level of genius than what I just saw that I thought couldn't be better.
TM: Did he talk with you much about the character of Emile?
RG: We talked a lot about where Emile comes from, what his obstacles are, what's at stake for him, his views toward racism, and how he deals with finding that in Nellie. I have never gotten so much direction from a director. He's truly an actor's friend.
TM: Why do you want to perform in musicals?
RG: In opera, we sometimes have dialogue, but in a musical like this there is a lot more of it, and because of it there's the opportunity to do more acting. Hopefully, when I am singing I am still acting as well. That's the goal, of course, to make it blend. I've asked the most accomplished singers I know, "When you're singing, how much do you think about technique and how much do you just let it go?" Most say that they are monitoring their voice, but one very famous woman tells me she thinks of every note, every breath, every tone. And yet she comes across as very serene and in the moment as an actor.
RG: Amplification helps just to be able to do soft, natural levels of spoken dialogue but other than that I don't think about it. I don't need it to sing. Honestly, I've done dialogue in operas in 3,000-seat houses with no amplification. I can still make it sound expressive and as natural as it can be.