BWW Interviews: Chad Shelton Talks Houston Grand Opera's A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC
Houston Grand Opera's highly anticipated production of Stephen Sondheim's A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC opens this week in the Cullen Theater at the Wortham Theater Center. In addition to Stephen Sondheim's celebrated and lush score, this production proudly features sets, costumes, and original direction by popular American fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. I recently spoke with HGO alumna Chad Shelton, who is playing Fredrik Egerman, about the production and his career.
BWW: How did you first get involved with performing?
Chad Shelton: When I was in junior high and high school, I was going to this evangelical church, and they had worship for an hour and would preach for an hour. Everyone was always talking about how great a singer the guy who was leading the worship was. I didn't know anything about singing then, so I just imitated him. [Laughs] I thought, "Well, I guess I can do that." I had no clue before that that signing was even an option or that I could even try to sing. He heard me sing and then told my high school choir director. She pretty much made me be in the choir. I started doing it. People were impressed. I thought, "Oh! I guess I'm good at this." That was it.
BWW: When did you know you wanted to perform professionally?
Chad Shelton: I was in choir and I also played baseball in high school. When I was a junior, my coach kind of made me decide between the two. There was a baseball tournament that I had to miss for a choir concert-like a UIL thing. I told him, "I can't let the choir down. You can miss me on the tournament because you have a replacement shortstop. But, my choir needs me." He said, "You have to make your decision." I said, "Ok. Well, there you go. I'm going to be going to the choir concert and not playing baseball."
Then, when I realized I wasn't going to play baseball anymore, I realized that I had to go to college. My choir director said that LSU (Louisiana State University) gives scholarships. I went and auditioned. They stopped me right there-they didn't let me leave the room-and said, "Look, we want you to come to LSU. Here's the scholarship." I though, "Great! My family was definitely not going to pay for my school." So, I had to rely on my talent to get my education.
Then, when I got to LSU, I realized I was no longer the big fish in a small pond because everyone was good in college. I also was luckily pretty talented, so I made my mark there. When I finished my bachelors' at LSU, I auditioned for two or three places for graduate school. I got into Yale for graduate school-full scholarship again, which was nice because my family didn't have the money for that either.
Then, when I was leaving Yale, I got lucky, incredibly lucky, and got into the Houston Grand Opera Studio. That's when I thought, "Ok, if I'm good enough to get into the premiere young artist training program in the nation, then I might be good enough to make money doing it." That's kind of when I realized that this could kind of happen for a living professionally, not just a gig here and a gig there.
BWW: As an HGO alumna, what is like returning to Houston stages?
Chad Shelton: Well, I live here, so it's really cool. I know everyone. The fact that I live here and I go to the opera every once in a while, I'll see all these patrons that I know have known me for years. They'll always ask me, "When are you going to be in a show." I've been replying, "Well, I'm going to be in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, and I'm going to do RHEINGOLD. I'll be covering Don José (in CARMEN), and then doing a performance outside at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands in May." So, yeah, it's cool. HGO is a great company, so it's good to be working with them at all anyways. It's great! I just walk through the halls and know everyone. [Pauses] But, there's a little added pressure because, in my head, I'm thinking they're thinking, "We trained you, so you better good."
BWW: As you are preparing for this role, what is your favorite aspect of this production of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC?
Chad Shelton: I haven't done much of this kind of music, if that makes any sense. I'm pretty much a lyric tenor. I sing Pinkerton (in MADAME BUTTERFLY), I sing Alfredo in LA TRAVIATA, I sing Don José in CARMEN, and usually just standard opera. Coming to this role, I love the music first of all. It's fun. It's terribly difficult because there are so many words! The lyrics are so hard! (Laughs) I'm pretty quick when it comes to memorization and learning stuff, but it really took me a long time to get everything where it needed to be. I was rather stressed before we started rehearsals to say the least. (Laughs) My favorite aspect, I guess, was the challenge. It really took a lot out of me and a lot of concentration to get it to where it needed to be.
Then, the dialogue is new to me. There is so much dialogue in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. That was kind of cool and an aspect I was looking forward to because it really challenged me to change the way I relied on the text. In opera opera, the feeling is kind of given by the music. When you just have dialogue, you have to create it (the feeling). You think the lines are going to be delivered one way, but then another character will say a line differently than you expected in your head, so you have to react a different way. So, it's almost a constant evolution and evolving process. I find myself thinking, "Oh! I thought she was going to say it this way, and I was going to react this way. But, now, she said it that way, and I'm going to have to react that way." That's kind of fun, and kind of scary, you know. (Laughs)
BWW: What about all the songs being written in waltz times? Does that add any unique challenges to preparing for this show?
Chad Shelton: Not really! I mean, I guess. My first "Now" is in 2, not 3. Then, the trio is in 3. So, no. It's not necessarily difficult. It just means that you have a different feeling. The audience will get a waltzy feeling by just hearing all the songs. You know what I mean? It doesn't have anything to do with the character itself, if that makes any sense.
BWW: That "Now"/"Later"/"Soon" scene and the trio reprise is one of my favorite moments in the show. The transitions between the numbers are really cool.
Chad Shelton: The two kids-I call them kids because I'm much older than they are-playing Henrik (Brenton Ryan) and Anne (Andrea Caroll) are incredible. The kid playing Henrik is incredible! He's a really great singer! He's a good looking kid. He's really strong on stage. The girl who's singing Anne, Andrea Caroll, she's really fantastic, bubbly, and perky. Those two are perfect for their roles, like it was hand picked for them to sing it. It's really great!
BWW: Do you find that you and Fredrik Egerman are alike in any way?
Chad Shelton: I hope not. [Laughs] Well, he's terribly successful and all that good stuff, so yeah. But, he is really complicated because he is so scared to take a chance. He loves Desiree. He absolutely loves her; there's not question about it, but I don't think he realizes how real it is until the very end. By the end, she even says, "I want this," and he says, "I do too, but I have this responsibility to the woman that I married." So, he turns Desiree down. Then, of course, Henrik and Anne get together and his life is completely in shambles. [Laughs]
But, then he's like, "You know what? I will take this chance and see what it's like." Then, when he gets with Desiree, he feels youthful again because they haven't seen each other in fourteen years. So, no, I don't see any connections between Fredrik and me except in the way that everyone's life is a struggle, I guess. I don't know, but I don't really feel-and maybe that's part of the difficulty for me. I mean, he's married to this girl for eleven months and they haven't had sex yet. That's crazy! You know what I mean? [Laughs] That's an impossibility. [Laughs] I don't get it. So, no!
BWW: Why do you think Houston audiences should be excited to see this production of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC?
Chad Shelton: It's really cool. The costumes by Isaac Mizrahi, the designer and first director of the show, are incredibly beautiful. I mean, when Desiree comes out, I think, "Oh well good gravy, she's beautiful!" The wigs are beautiful. The set is almost like a fusion between A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC and INTO THE WOODS or A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. It's really beautiful. There's grass on the stage like it's in a field.
Then, of course, (Stephen) Sondheim! Sondheim is a genius! The music! I mean, the moment you hear "Now," you're like, "Oh yeah! I know that!" It's so memorable and catchy. It's great.
Plus, Desiree! I mean Elizabeth Futral is beautiful, and she's a wonderful singer. But, because, there's not much to sing-if that makes any sense-you see how charming of an actress she is. We're having to rely so much more on our acting abilities than we usually do in real opera compared to this, and you'll see that she's stunningly beautiful.
It's really good. I'm really excited for it. It's outside of the box from what I usually perform, but it feels really comfortable. Everybody seems to be pleased, happy, and excited for it to happen.
BWW: Are there any dream roles you hope to play?
Chad Shelton: I have played my dream role three times in three productions. He's called Tom Rakewell in THE RAKE'S PROGRESS by (Igor) Stravinsky. I am lucky to have done it three times. It's the best opera. It's the best character. It's amazing. THE RAKE'S PROGRESS is my most favorite thing, and I'm lucky to have done it three times. Actually, next year, I'm going to be covering it at The Met, so I'm excited about that.
BWW: That's awesome.
Chad Shelton: Yeah. It's really cool. I don't wish the kid any ill will, but if he got sick that'd be fine. [Laughs]
BWW: Yeah. Just to give you a chance to perform on that stage just once, right?
Chad Shelton: That would be nice, yes.
BWW: What advice do you offer to others hoping to make a career in performing?
Chad Shelton: That's a tough one because it's so hard. It's difficult. It's a hard time financially for people right now, so the arts are suffering. To make a career singing and performing is insanely difficult, but if you love it, it's kind of fulfilling in a way that I couldn't imagine getting from any other job I could possibly see myself doing. I taught for a semester a couple years ago, and I loved that. But, it's just not the same as actually being able to go on stage and sing. It's pretty amazing. Again, it's difficult. It's frustrating at times. It's disappointing and depressing, but when you get a couple of gigs in a row, you think, "Holy crap, I'm in heaven! This is the best thing ever." I would say, if you love it, just know there are tons of disappointments, but at the same time there are tons of fulfillments and enjoyments when things do roll the right way for you and you get fortunate enough to have a bunch of gigs in a row that can pay your mortgage. It's as simple as that.
Houston Grand Opera's production of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC runs in the Cullen Theater at the Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas Avenue, Houston, 77002 from March 7-23, 2014. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.houstongrandopera.org or call (713) 228-OPERA (6737).
Photo courtesy of Houston Grand Opera.