As if Lincoln Center’ Theater’s upcoming revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s beloved musical South Pacific wasn’t generating enough excitement — in large part, due to the re-teaming of Light in the Piazza star Kelli O’Hara (as Nellie Forbush) and director Bartlett Sher — the show also marks the musical theater debut of the handsome, Brazilian-born opera star Paulo Szot. I recently sat down with Szot in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre before a rehearsal to learn more about this fascinating and talented performer.
THEATERMANIA: Is the rehearsal process for a musical very different from the rehearsal process for opera?
PAULO SZOT: Yes. It’s very difficult and it’s very exciting. I’ve been singing opera for 12 years, and suddenly I came to a rehearsal where I felt like I knew nothing about what I’m doing. I felt totally naked. As an opera singer, we have to come in the first day with the whole music memorized and you have to be almost perfect in the first rehearsal. But here, we spent a few days just talking about ideas and trying to approach different perspectives, and then the moment comes that you actually go and try to express that in your body — to create the rhythm, the intentions, and the music. And I am also trying to be an actor. There are many opera singers that are wonderful actors, but we are just trained to learn the music and sing beautifully. To become an actor, it’s a private process that you have to work through yourself.
TM: Had you ever heard the music of South Pacific before you walked into the audition?
PS: Yes, A dear friend of mine gave me this recording with Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras about 15 years ago. I remember so clearly that he said to me, “you should listen to this because it’s a beautiful musical.” And I’ve always loved musicals. The first movie musical I saw was A Chorus Line and that movie inspired me so much that I wanted to become a dancer.
TM: So how did you become a professional opera singer instead?
PS: When I turned 18, I received a scholarship from the Polish Government — my parents are Polish and my dad was in touch with the Polish Consulate — to go study dancing and music at the University in Cracow. I didn’t know what to do with my life; I am in the middle of Brazil and I don’t really like Carnivale or soccer, so I spent 23 days on a cargo boat and I arrived in communist Poland, which was a shock for a capitalist kid like me. Unfortunately or fortunately, I had an accident with my knees when I was 21 and I had to stop dancing. So I started to go to different voice teachers in Poland, and they said I had a good voice for opera and that I should invest in it. I got my first job as a singer in Poland in the state’s company and after that my career took off.
TM: How did you first meet Bartlett Sher?
PS: At the auditions. I was doing La Nozze de Figaro in Boston, so my agent got in touch with him, because he heard Bart was looking for opera singers for this show. When I came in, I met a lot of my colleagues from the Metropolitan and City Opera; it seemed like everyone was there auditioning. But I felt the first audition went very well, and then they decided to hire me for the role around June. Bart has very expansive ideas and an open mind, and he understands me totally because he deals with opera singers a lot. He’s very patient and he makes me feel very comfortable.
TM: Did you have a lot of opera commitments that you had to reshuffle or cancel in order to take this part?
PS: I am booked until 2011, so I had to cancel three important jobs in Europe. But I thought this would be a unique opportunity to do a Broadway show — and at Lincoln Center in New York, which I love.
TM: Now that you’re working on the show, what is your take on Emile?
PS: Emile is a great guy. He has his own ideas of morality and his own concept of what is right and what is wrong. For that, he would even get into a fight and eventually, as he did, kill a man. I think he decided to run from this conflict not because of what people thought of him; I think people were happy with what he did. But he goes to an island and he builds his world around this island, and he creates this paradise. He’s very honest and very open, and at the moment when he meets Nellie, he knows that everything now makes sense. That’s why it’s such a big disappointment when he sees that the marriage and everything that would be so perfect is not going to happen, and so he decides to go to war.
TM: Many people have the misconception that the biggest issue between Emile and Nellie is their age difference, which is about 20 years? But it goes much deeper doesn’t it?
PS: Yes, the real point is that they are from different universes. Their behaviors and their ideas are what make them so different — especially the ideas that she grows up with, which is one of the big reasons to be doing South Pacific right now. The story is basically about how we’re affected by prejudice and racism and why two people who are in love cannot be together because someone thinks it’s not right. Bart doesn’t want this to be just a musical with beautiful songs and happy notes; there is something very serious under that music and he wants us to find out what it is.
TM: I know Kelli O’Hara is very excited about working with you. Is the feeling mutual?
PS: She’s such an angel. The first time that I met her was at the audition and she was wonderful, and we felt very connected. The entire cast has embraced me so carefully and graciously.
TM: Are you going to be using a microphone, even though opera singers generally don’t need or use one?
PS: Yes. For the dialogue, it’s much better because I can find different colors in it and I don’t have to shout all the time. It’s nice just to be heard. I think a microphone is a wonderful thing.
TM: An eight-show-a-week schedule is very different than in opera. How will you adjust to it?
PS: When I was younger I could do anything, but now I have to take care of myself very carefully. Right now, we work 10 to 6 and then I just go to the gym and then I go home and die on the bed, and then comes the next day. You’re tired, but it’s a good tired. And the fact that I’ll have to sing every day — and sometimes twice a day — is a bit scary for an opera singer. But if they think I can do that, I will find a way.