On Screen, a Tenor Learns to Dial Down the Opera

The Globe & Mail, 28 March 2009
By Johanna Schneller

Joseph Kaiser didn't need to star in a movie to enliven his schedule.

The Quebec-born tenor, 31, has sung a raft of juicy roles for the Lyric Opera of Chicago (where he now lives), starred in Baz Luhrmann's La Bohème on Broadway, and appeared at Wolf Trap and Glimmerglass, Covent Garden and Santa Fe.

In 2007, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Romeo, conducted by Placido Domingo, singing a duet with Juliet from a bed suspended 20 feet above the stage as a wind machine made the satin sheets billow.

He's currently playing the evil Steva in Janacek's Jenufa in Munich, followed by a European tour of Shakespeare arias and duets with the soprano Annette Dasch, and a stint in Handel's Theodora at the Salzburg Festival.

In September, he'll be back in Chicago doing Gounod's Faust, and as we spoke on the phone a few weeks ago, he was hanging out with his two young sons while his wife took the bar exam.

Also, some guys were painting his living room.

But back in 2005, when Kaiser was in the Young Artists program at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, he was intrigued to hear that Kenneth Branagh was auditioning singers for an English-language film of Mozart's The Magic Flute that he was directing, with a libretto written by Stephen Fry. Fortuitously, Branagh attended a Chicago rehearsal of Beethovan's Fidelio on a day that Kaiser was singing the role of First Prisoner. "It's one of the smallest parts in opera, maybe 30 seconds long, but it has a couple of beautiful solo lines," Kaiser said.

It was enough for Branagh, who beelined backstage and asked Kaiser - who is hailed for his tonal beauty and elegance, and also happens to be 6 foot 4, blue-eyed and classically handsome - to sing for him and his musical director, James Conlon.

"As fate would have it, I was auditioning for Conlon for something else the next week," Kaiser said. The week after that he was in London doing a screen test, and a few months later he was on a soundstage at Shepperton Studios starring as The Magic Flute's hero, Tamino.

"When I got the call I literally fell off my chair, I was so excited," Kaiser said.

Branagh set the film - which was finished in 2006, but has just been released in Canada - against a backdrop of war: Tamino and his comrade Papageno weave through trenches in First World War-style uniforms, "which sort of justifies the high dramatic level of the music," Kaiser said. "The story is a little wild, with Papageno serenading a bird woman and the Queen of the Night flying around, but in Ken's context it speaks to how the love of a man and a woman can inspire people to put down their arms."

During the shoot, Branagh positioned speakers all over the set that played the recorded score, but the singers sang "on every take," Kaiser said. "Full out. There's a certain energy that you only bring when you're really singing." Kaiser revelled in it, even when Branagh had him do 19 takes for a single line - "Wherever you are, I'll find you" - sung to his heroine, Pamina.

"Opera is like a time capsule of all the great stories in history, and Ken is one of the greatest storytellers of all time, so it seemed logical for him to do this," Kaiser said. "And when I say great storyteller, I mean not only in his acting, or in his direction, but also when he's just relating an anecdote. It's like going to Bobby Flay's house and he's made you breakfast, and you think to yourself, 'This is really good food.' "

Acting for the camera, of course, Kaiser had to dial back the kind of emoting a tenor does in a 3,000-seat opera hall. "Ken kept it simple," Kaiser said. "Each take that was real, we kept, and when it wasn't we did it again. He said, 'I don't want you to show me you're sad or angry. I want you to be sad, to be angry.' We had this running joke, he'd give you 40 things to think about and then he'd say, 'And just be natural.' " He laughed. "But by the end, I wasn't as psyched out by it. Not that it came easily, but I got the idea that I needed to find a neutral place of repose. I hope I can bring that to the work I do in opera."

Growing up in Montreal, and later in New York, Kaiser "knew I had to perform in some way. At age 8, 9, 10 I was more into Broadway stuff, but people told me that to get the right support for a voice without a microphone I should do classical training." Soon he preferred classical music, "the different languages, the stories. I'm so glad I do it," he said sincerely. "We did a little-known opera last summer in Santa Fe, Kaija Saariaho's Adriana Mater. I don't know how many times it will be done again. But the ending has one of the most poignant, heartbreaking scenes, about redemption and a real moment of truth, and I remember thinking, 'This is why I do what I do.' '

He's glad to see operas being streamed live to cinema screens, "finding a new audience, but not just for survival's sake. Or because my mom is able to see me perform so much more." He laughed. "But also because opera is good. The stories are exciting, and there's an incredible intensity to it. You can feel the pulse, you can see the breathing of someone on stage - a person, right in front of you, singing as loud as an orchestra. I feel everyone should give it a try. But if we're going to remain relevant, we've got to be really, really good. We have to promise: No more boring operas."

In Canada, however, Kaiser's most frequent gigs have been singing the anthem at hockey games. "Which I love," he hastened to add. "I put my name in for the Olympics, and I hope I'll be considered." Then he had to go - his painters were finished, and he wanted to say goodbye.

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