Behind the curtain: Seattle Opera principal and University Place resident Barry Johnson

Longtime Seattle Opera principal and University Place resident Barry Johnson talks about what it takes to be an opera singer

Staff writerJanuary 10, 2014 

Barry Johnson as Marullo in Seattle Opera’s 2004 production of “Rigoletto.”

ROSEMARY PONNEKANTI — Staff writer

It’s noon on a Thursday, and Barry Johnson’s at work. Lounging against a scaffold, he adjusts a black eye-patch he’s wearing, and chats with two longtime co-workers. He’s just climbed a 25-foot ladder and abducted a soprano, and now he’s waiting while two Italians and an American argue politely for 10 minutes about how to pour a cup of coffee. Suddenly, he’s back on duty – and nailing his part of a tricky quartet in a rich baritone.

Then he’s off to lunch.

It’s all in a day’s work for Johnson, a University Place opera singer. A regular director and lead at Tacoma Opera (among other companies), as well as a vocal teacher at Pacific Lutheran University, Johnson’s also sung supporting principal roles at Seattle Opera for more than 20 years. This weekend he’ll be singing Marullo in “Rigoletto.” While it’s not a demanding role vocally, there’s a lot of dancing, some ladder climbing – and quite a lot of waiting behind the scenes.

“We began rehearsals December 13, and we go six days a week,” says Johnson during a rehearsal break at Seattle Opera’s South Lake Union studios. “We got three days off for Christmas. Today I’m up here 10 a.m.-1 p.m., then another rehearsal 7-10 p.m. And I get here about 45 minutes beforehand – you just can’t be late. It’s a pretty demanding schedule, and very physical.”

Marullo’s not a big role in this popular Verdi opera, but it’s a crucial one for the plot: When everyone’s busy mocking the Duke of Mantua’s servant Rigoletto at a party, Marullo’s the guy that comes in with the gossip that the hunchback servant has a mistress. Marullo then teams up with the Duke’s buddies Borsa and Ceprano to kidnap that “mistress,” climbing up a ladder and hauling the soprano off down a tall staircase on the set. He then has to face down the Duke and Rigoletto when it comes out that actually they’ve kidnapped the servant’s daughter – the Duke’s latest crush.

Luckily for Johnson and the tight rehearsal schedule, it’s not a totally new role – this is his third time singing Marullo with Seattle Opera. But the other times were in 1995 and 2004 – not exactly fresh in the memory. Plus, Marullo has to sing along with all the chorus numbers as well.

So Johnson, like all opera singers who are required to show up to the first rehearsal completely memorized and note-perfect, started relearning the role over the summer.

“In Verdi, there are so many words,” he explains. “And I’ve memorized a lot of words between then and now! I try to hit it every day for an hour or so. It’s like smacking a rock with a sledgehammer: You think you’re getting nowhere, but then there’s a crack, and it starts to break.”

Then there’s the physical part. Verdi’s tale of the womanizing Duke, the resentful Rigoletto and his innocent daughter who becomes the victim begins with a party scene, where Marullo, Borsa and Ceprano are paired with professional dancers. Verdi set his 19th century opera in the Renaissance, but director Linda Brovsky is repeating Seattle Opera’s production of 2004, which translated the vicious, oppressive action to 1930s fascist Italy.

“It’s a lot of foxtrots, that kind of thing,” says Johnson, who partners with dance captain Roxane Foster for the ballroom-style lifts and swings. “We had around 10-12 extra hours of dance rehearsal. It’s an extremely high standard. ... You have to look good.”

Johnson took plenty of dance lessons in music school, and he keeps in shape – which also comes in handy when he has to climb a 25-foot ladder up the set piece of Rigoletto’s house, climb over a railing and wrestle Gilda down the stairs on the other side in the abduction scene. The studios, built to exactly the size of the McCaw Hall stage, hold a scaffolding replica of the set, and Johnson scampers up like a man half his age.

“Last time I did it, I had to literally carry Gilda down, and that actress was 5 feet 10 inches,” he recalls. “This time, she’s walking herself.”

Johnson’s part is complicated by the fact that he’s only using half his vision at any time: In this production, Marullo (recast as the publisher of the local fascist newspaper) wears a black eye-patch, and for the abduction scene, all three men wear carnival-style masks. Though the patch is technically opaque, things still look black and cloudy through it, and the mask cuts off all peripheral vision.

“It’s ridiculously hard,” says Johnson, who’s constantly adjusting the patch in rehearsal.

But as well as memorizing volumes of Italian, singing to fill a 2,900-seat hall, sashaying gracefully in a tuxedo, and climbing heights with limited vision, part of the opera job is waiting around – especially if you’re not the lead artist.

As Johnson puts his golden mask away in the props tub marked “Johnson,” Italian conductor Riccardo Frizza leads the rehearsal pianist into Act II. Francesco Demuro, who’s singing the Duke in the lead cast (a secondary cast plays two of the shows in the 15-day run), suddenly stops halfway into the “Parmi” aria. Clad in smoking jacket and singing thoughtfully before his breakfast table, he’s supposed to be pouring a cup of coffee from a vintage silver pot. It’s not working with the timing of the song. Linda Brovksy stops the music, comes onto the studio stage and begins suggestions in halting Italian. Demuro doesn’t agree. Eventually Marco Vratogna, another Italian who’s singing Rigoletto, steps up and translates, throwing curt suggestions of his own into the fray. Frizza sighs. The third Italian singer – Andrea Silvestrelli – looks on.

Offstage, Johnson shares raised-eyebrow glances with his longtime colleagues Glenn Guhr and Doug Jones, who play Ceprano and Borsa – they’re all waiting for this to be sorted out before they can make their entrance.

“Marco’s English is good; Francesco’s, not so much,” explains Johnson. “Back when we did ‘La Traviata,’ I was the only person who knew a bit of Italian. I think they hired the other Italians to keep Francesco company.”

In McCaw Hall on Sunday night, there’s even more waiting around. It’s the piano tech rehearsal: There is no orchestra, but the cast, chorus, dancers and supernumeraries (volunteer walk-on roles) mark their way through the opera so that things like blocking, grouping, sight-lines, props and set can be fine-tuned.

After a smooth run of the party scene from Johnson’s first pool shot (his plummy laugh is the loudest on stage) to his final twirling with a golden-gowned Foster through falling confetti, the cast freezes as Brovsky walks on stage. She discusses placement of a lamp with the props master while the choreographer gives Johnson and Foster notes; the assistant stage manager gives instructions about how to exit and where to put props while Brovksy wanders into the audience seats to discuss exactly the same thing with the designer. Finally the curtain comes down, the set is changed and Johnson goes down to take a cup of coffee to his shared dressing room. After Sunday’s piano tech, he’ll have run-throughs Monday and Tuesday night, followed by dress rehearsals Wednesday and Thursday before Saturday’s opening. For most of them, he’ll show up a couple of hours early for a hair and make-up call, and to warm up.

But Johnson enjoys the work.

“I like Marullo, because he’s different from the other guys,” he says. “He talks tough but deep down he’s a nice guy.”

The Seattle Opera folks are also happy.

“Last time Barry played Marullo more of a light-hearted playboy,” says Brovsky during a break. “Now there’s gravitas ... he’s more of a businessman. The character is stronger. And his voice has a little more richness. Barry’s a delight to work with.”

The biggest challenge? Staying healthy.

“We’re using hand sanitizer all the time,” Johnson says. “One little cold can derail all the work you put in.”

‘Rigoletto’ by Giuseppe Verdi

Who: Seattle Opera, directed by Linda Brovsky, conducted by Riccardo Frizza

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday plus Jan. 15, 18, 22, 24, 25; 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: McCaw Hall at the Seattle Center, 321 Mercer St., Seattle

Tickets: $77-$231

Information: 800-426-1619, seattleopera.org

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568
rosemary.ponnekanti@thenewstribune.com

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