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Interview: Patrick Carfizzi of PIRATES OF PENZANCE at San Diego Civic Theatre

Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi will be appearing in the San Diego Opera's production of Pirates of Penzance later this month. He and I met over an informal lunch to discuss that and much more.

Although he had appeared professionally a few times before, Carfizzi's career really took off at 23 when, fresh out of advanced music studies at Yale, he auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera. I suggested a role at the Met is certainly a nice way to come out of school. "Yes, a lovely way ... But after my audition for their Young Artists Program they said, 'Thank you very much. Have a nice life.' And I thought to myself, well OK, I've sung at the Met, perhaps as much as I'll ever be allowed to. Then Lenore Rosenberg [the program's director] called a few weeks later and said, 'Do you want to make your debut?' After I picked my teeth up off the floor, I said yes." He's performed hundreds of times at the Met since then and in many other opera houses around the world.

Carfizzi sings a variety of roles, but specializes in comedy. "Your first role was in Rigoletto, which few people would describe as a comedy. How did you go from there to Major-General Stanley in Pirates?"

"(Laughs) Rigoletto's Ceprano is just a great debut role. But comedy has always suited my voice." When he explored the lyric-baritone repertoire while a voice student, he and his teachers always concluded his range and vocal quality were better suited to bass-baritone roles; and of the comic roles composers score in that range Carfizzi said, "I absolutely adore them." The complexity of the characters and the situations they get into fascinate him. And he likes thinking about what makes us laugh. "Does pain make us laugh, or seeing something that makes us uncomfortable ... or something bordering on evil ... or just something that's silly?"

Carfizzi's website is worth visiting just for the photos of him in outrageously funny costumes. When I asked if spending more time than most singers with makeup and wardrobe specialists was grueling. He said he loves working with them. It all started when he made his Carnegie Hall debut while still a voice student. His father insisted he wear lifts, pointing out that the guy next to him on stage was 6-foot three or four, the woman on the other side nearly six feet, and he was five seven. "(Laughs) So I've had alterations to my appearance from the very beginning. It's another wonderful layer to bring to characters." And he enjoys the team-feeling that comes from working with the designer, the costumer, the seamstress and other members of the production crew. "It's an ongoing joke with family and friends that if they can recognize me on stage, it's a rare occasion."

In a recent interview with San Diego Opera's Nic Reveles Carfizzi said he'd spent six months preparing for his San Diego role. He prefers at least that much time for roles he hasn't sung before, but scheduling doesn't always allow it. Much of whatever time is available, of course, will be devoted to making sure he can sing the part, but like any good actor, he also does his best to understand and become the character he will play.

Since Carfizzi sings with many different companies, I asked how he felt about the travel. "Travel is a good thing. They don't tend to build opera houses in bad places. I mean, a month in San Diego. (Laughs.) Can you complain?"

When I asked if he noticed differences in audiences around the world, or even U. S. cities, he said the largest differences seem to depend on the day of the week, the time, or how busy the city is that day. But cultural nuances do mean that jokes are sometimes appreciated in different ways, and laughter doesn't always come in exactly the same spots.

Speaking of audiences, when Carfizzi played Papageno in a Dallas production of The Magic Flute, the performance was broadcast to Cowboy Stadium (now AT&T Stadium). With the sports tie-in, during intermission Carfizzi led the stadium and opera house in the wave. I said, "But you wouldn't do it at the Met."

"Well......, I don't know."

"Would they let you do it at the Met?"

"That's a better question."

I think the wave would work in San Diego's relatively low-key atmosphere. But when a member of Opera management joined us after the interview, he seemed more than a little nervous that Carfizzi might actually try it. The singer and I believe the wave, Gilbert and Sullivan, and even Broadway musicals with classically-trained voices can expand audiences and still be satisfying fun for veteran opera-goers. Not all donors agree.

Carfizzi has played some of the most substantial roles for his voice range including Figaro and Dulcamara. I asked, "As you accumulate more experience and your voice perhaps changes a bit as you grow older, does that affect the roles you would like to do or are able to do?"

"I'm growing into my core repertoire. Most singers who sing what I do need to get to early forties (he is 43) to have enough life experience. It's always felt very much like my home ... but it's feeling even more that way now." As for new roles, he has long wanted to do Gilbert and Sullivan, and is delighted to be in San Diego for Pirates. He said it's unlikely he'd be asked to sing the dark Scarpia, but he would especially like to sing Falstaff and perhaps Gianni Schicchi in a few more years. There are also a few roles, like the boyish Papageno, he will be leaving behind. While he'd be happy to do it again, he may no longer be the choice of casting directors.

We spoke next of some of the best and worst experiences of Carfizzi's roughly 20-year career. He generalized about the best. "I've had a lot of fun over the years (laughs)!" He feels privileged and honored to have worked with so many amazing artists--to listen to, and be on stage with Renee Fleming or Placido Domingo, and gifted younger singers such as counter tenor Iestyn Davis and others. "The total experience keeps evolving and is a great gift."

When I asked about bad experiences, he laughed and said there had been a few. After some urging for specifics, he described working on a production with an unnamed director who had turned to drugs while battling a threatening personal situation. I said, "You probably felt bad both because you were sorry for him and he couldn't do his job."

"I felt bad because he was a raving lunatic-yelling and screaming!" The company let the director go after a few weeks, but Carfizzi was impressed that the situation was handled as well as it could have been, and came away feeling more than ever that he was a member of a wonderfully supportive community.

My final question was about the importance of music to him. "A few years ago when you were here for to play Kissinger in Nixon you ended an interview by saying, 'Singing has seen me through many of the challenges and trials in my life.' That seemed an odd way to end an interview. I would have been dying to ask what and how."

Carfizzi explained. He had Limes disease for three and a half years of high school, and at 23 was hit by a drunk driver while a pedestrian. In both cases music "kept him sane." Two hours after the accident, while he was lying on a gurney, to distract himself, he began singing through the entire scores of Don Giovanni and La Boehme. He'd made it a point to learn all the parts in an opera when he was practicing a new role.

Music has always helped him cope. When he got too wound up, his father would say to him, 'Why don't you go for a walk and sing something!'" He laughed, as both of us had done often during the interview, and as I'm sure I will be doing when I see his version of the "very model of a modern major-general."

"Patrick, I enjoyed meeting and talking with you and am really looking forward to Pirates!"

"I enjoyed it as well and hope to see you again."

"I know I'll see you. I'll be the one helping you start the wave at intermission."

Visit SDOpera for Pirates of Penzance ticket information and a complete schedule of this season's productions.

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