Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Roger Honeywell: From Actor to Opera Singer

By Richard Dyer

Roger Honeywell
A couple of years ago, Roger Honeywell did the math and realized he had worked full-time as a professional opera singer longer than he had worked full-time as a professional actor. And then he tweeted, “I guess I can now stop acting as if I'm an opera singer…”

The Canadian tenor is in town to sing and act the leading male role in Boston Lyric Opera’s new production of Franz Lehár’s operetta, The Merry Widow. And he is quick to add, “I’m no Fred Astaire, but I can dance, and I’ll waltz in it too.”

The Merry Widow opens at the Shubert Theater on April 29, with additional performances on May 1 (matinee), 4, 6, and 8 (matinee).

Recently, Honeywell was rehearsing with the rest of the cast in the darkened Colonial Theater on Boylston Street; during his lunch hour he sat down at a table in the lobby to discuss the unusual trajectory of his career.

Honeywell is an affable guy in his mid-40s; he still has the charismatic looks to play a romantic lead: tall, lean, fit (he’s a runner), with an eye-catching curly tousle of red hair on his head. Several prominent opera singers have prolonged their careers by continuing as stage actors after their singing days were over, but to cross over to opera from the “legitimate” theater is far less common.

Honeywell says he became an actor because he didn’t want to go into the family business, which was music; his mother used to perform leading female roles in shows opposite the young Robert Goulet. “I took voice lessons when I was 14, but my interest was in acting, which I studied in Toronto at the conservatory and at the Ryerson Theatre School,” Honeywell says.

In 1998 he left school before graduating in order to become an apprentice at the Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival; he worked there for four years, and then spent four additional years based at the nearby Shaw Festival Theatre. His most prominent Shakespearean role was Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night. “I never did starring roles, like Richard III, but I had good parts in Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor, and the festival did a broad repertory – I was in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, for example.”

At the Shaw Festival, he acted in several plays by George Bernard Shaw as well as in several of the remarkable but neglected plays by Harley Granville-Barker, who was GBS’s favorite actor. “These plays were way ahead of their time. Of course, as an actor in Canada, you had to be ready for anything,” Honeywell remembers “I also did radio and commercials and voice-overs, roles in Canadian and American TV shows, and even some films. The popular TV series about a Shakespeare Festival in Canada, Slings and Arrows, was the story of my life in those days and all my friends were in it. I still live in Stratford, where my wife is an assistant director for the musical shows, and we have two children, a girl who is 14, and a boy who is 13.”

Honeywell even appeared in a few musicals, including Bernstein’s On the Town, a sung version of Dracula (he played Jonathan Harker) and Leslie Arden’s version of The Return of Martin Guerre. For that show, in 1997, he won the prestigious Dora Award presented by the Toronto Alliance for the Arts for the best performance by an actor in a musical. In time, this award led to his shift into a career in opera.

“Something about these musicals really spoke to me and cemented a real desire to sing. The next year, in 1998, I was invited to be a presenter at the Dora Awards because I was a former winner. One of the other presenters was Richard Bradshaw, who was then running the Canadian Opera Company. I just walked up to him and said, ‘I’d love to sing for you,’ and sure enough I did, and he offered to take me on. I had to wait for a year to earn enough money because I knew that if I made the change, I wouldn’t be able to work for a while. But in 2000, I started at Canadian Opera, singing Rodrigo in Verdi’s Otello and understudying parts in The Bartered Bride and La Fanciulla del West. I also started working with a voice teacher, Marlena Malas, at the Chautauqua Festival in New York. I was also in the young artists’ program at the Chicago Lyric Opera. All this took a certain amount of moxie on my part.”

Over the last dozen years, Honeywell’s operatic career has continued to develop and grow. At the core of his repertory are parts like Don José in Bizet’s Carmen, which he will sing with BLO in the fall, in the renowned production by Calixto Bieito, as well as roles in operas by Britten (Peter Grimes and Billy Budd); he feels especially driven to Laca in Janáček’s Jenůfa . All these roles are strongly associated with the greatest Canadian tenor, the late Jon Vickers, who Honeywell says is idol—he knew Vickers personally not through opera, but through Vickers’ son Ben, who is an actor. Honeywell is also an admirer of two other prominent Canadian tenors, Ben Heppner and Richard Margison.

In addition to his work in the standard repertory, he has also done parts in new operas, a process which he particularly enjoys because nobody is going to compare him to anybody else; it isn’t easy to sing Rodolfo in La Bohème when audiences expect you to sound like Pavarotti. Honeywell has sung in Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain, Paul Moravec’s The Letter, Lewis Spratlan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Life Is a Dream, and Silent Night by Kevin Puts; he has understudied Captain Ahab in Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick and is eager to perform the role. Recently he appeared in Sondheim’s Passion in Paris; Natalie Dessay headed the cast. Right after The Merry Widow he goes into rehearsal for the world premiere of Ours, by John Estacio.

At the beginning, he says he took nearly every role he was offered, refusing to be bound by any system of expectations. “If the character makes any sense to me,” he says, “I will try it. I try bring myself into every role.” But he’s not eager to repeat every role he has tried. “I sang Rodolfo in La Bohème pretty well, I thought, but it is not in my wheelhouse anymore.”

His recent schedule has found him singing Richard Strauss (Salome, Elektra, Ariadne auf Naxos, Daphne), Puccini (Tosca and Madama Butterfly), additional contemporary operas (Tea by Tan Dun, Lillian Alling by Estacio, The Inventor by the conductor Bramwell Tovey) as well as three operettas (Die Fledermaus, The Merry Widow, and The Pirates of Penzance). For the future, he is interested in Wagner’s Siegfried (“It lies right in my voice and I want to do it before I get too old”) and two more Vickers roles, Samson in Samson et Dalila, perhaps Verdi’s Otello, although he worries about singing it in blackface. “And, of course, I want to do more operas that haven’t been written yet.”

Danilo in The Merry Widow is a part he has done often, and enjoys performing; it gives him a chance to have “so much fun” onstage because the work is so well-written and well-crafted, and he thinks director Lillian Groag’s ideas for the BLO production are so interesting.“The piece is full of froth and fun, as it always is, but this time it has a real core to it.”

The leading characters, Hanna and Danilo, have a past together in the operetta’s fictional country of Pontevedro. They were once in love, but he was a aristocrat and she was a farm girl, and the difference in their social stations made the relationship impossible; he broke it off. Then she married the richest man in the country, who soon died, leaving her the richest woman in the country—the titular “merry widow.” The couple meets again in Paris, and government officials want them to marry to keep the fortune in Pontevedrian hands.

“[Hanna and Danilo] are both witty and smart, and they constantly spar with each other, like Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing,” Honeywell says. “Danilo has thrown himself into the playboy world, and he is leading a frivolous and flippant life as his way of forgetting. But beneath the surface there is a deep root of pain and loss, a tragic loss of love. At points all the old problems surface—they get together again, then fall apart again. The other couple in the story, Camille and Valencienne, is playing games; Hanna and Danilo want to give the appearance of playing games, but they are not.

“Also this is the very end of the Belle-Époque; the characters don’t realize it yet, but life as they know it is about to end. They are waltzing on the brink of World War I and their world is spinning out of control. Everything audiences have always loved about The Merry Widow is still there, but we are viewing it from a different angle.”

Many singers are terrified of spoken dialogue in operas like The Magic Flute or operettas like The Merry Widow. They don’t know how to project it and bellow instead; they find it tires their singing voices. Honeywell says this doesn’t bother him. “The answer is never to push anything. Danilo has to roar, but he doesn’t have to shout, and he has to be able to sing beautifully and with a good line. The answer is never to push it, either in speaking or singing, and then anything you do feeds into anything else that you do.”

Honeywell speaks with Dyer in the lobby of the Colonial Theatre.
Honeywell says he sees no technical difference between acting in opera and in spoken plays. “It isn’t even a question of tempo,” he says, noting the differences between speaking and singing, “especially in classic theater, where there are long thoughts—and long speeches. You have to stretch your thought over long sentences, and in opera, you have to convey the thought across stretches of music. This is what I do, just the same way as people do what they do in their office—I am in my office, so to speak, when I’m on the stage; I’ve been doing that for so long that it has become second nature. Yes, you do have to think about your vocal technique and about the conductor and things like that—onstage you can do anything you want in a play, you can make it completely yours, but in an opera you have to do everything within the line of the music. But you don’t stop acting when you stop speaking or singing; one of the most important aspects of acting is the skill of listening to what other people are saying or singing to you, and responding or reacting to it. Maybe in opera you have to listen slower…”

At that moment in our conversation, a group of grisettes and a coven of chorines and can-can girls makes its way into the lobby, and they begin their stretching exercises on the floor. It is time for the interview to end, and soon Honeywell will be up on the stage in the auditorium, speaking, singing, dancing—and listening.

Richard Dyer is a distinguished writer and lecturer. He wrote about music for The Boston Globe for more than 30 years, serving as chief music critic for most of that time. He has twice won the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Award for Distinguished Music Criticism.

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