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BWW Interviews: Angelina Réaux Compares Opera, Animals, and Bernstein

Angelina Réaux has enjoyed an international career in opera, theatre, concert and cabaret, was hand-picked by Leonard Bernstein to sing Mimi in his Grammy nominated La bohème and performs Bernstein's works world-wide. She has done opera, musicals and straight plays, has premiered works by Bernstein, Tony Kushner, Ned Rorem, Ricky Ian Gordon and Kurt Weill, and performs with pre-eminent orchestras, conductors and directors. On July 18 at North Coast Rep (, Réaux opens the season's final production, Side By Side by Sondheim.

EM: Let's begin with your background.

AR: I was born and raised in Houston, Texas, to a Spanish mother and a French father, went to Northwestern University as a voice major but transferred to the theatre department because I was in so many plays. After I graduated in Theatre the Hal Prince organization came to Chicago auditioning for Side by Side by Sondheim, which had just opened on Broadway.

EM: How did that go?

AR: You had to be 30 or over to audition, so I just put my hair up in a chignon and wore a black dress. I wouldn't tell them how old I was. They had me sing several things but tricked me when they asked when I graduated from school, and I said, "Oh, this year." They said, "Listen, young lady, here's our number. When you move to New York, which you definitely should, please contact us." Within a year I moved there, contacted them, and they were good on their word. I was immediately up for Evita, the last three people, but didn't get it. At the audition they said, "Did you bring in an opera aria?" I said no, but ended up singing Massenet's Manon. Paul Gemignani, the main conductors, who'd done all Sondheim's works, said, "You should be an opera singer." I thought my life was over. I knew I should be Evita.

EM: And afterwards?

AR: They were doing the first national tour of Sweeney Todd and were interested in me for the part of Joanna. The only female role available was the beggar woman. So I did that on tour with Angela (Lansbury). Hal (Prince) directed, and Steve (Sondheim) was there everyday. I was blessed to work with them. But on the 13th performance at Kennedy Center Opera House, with 15 minutes left to go, my legs got caught in the trap door after my throat was slit. You could hear my feet and ankles breaking on the way down. Angela was with me, took my wig off and gave it to my understudy. I kept saying, "Drag me on stage." She said, "You can't get up, you can't go on stage." They didn't stop the show. My ankle had practically been torn off my leg, every bone in my foot broken, and ankles as well. I spent two years learning how to walk again, going to opera classes in a wheelchair. Stephen Wadsworth had just started being an opera director and he taught this class. I went in a wheelchair and then crutches. It really changed the course of my career. I auditioned and got into Santa Fe. I was very lucky I made the transition quite easily.

EM: And Bernstein?

AR: I'd replaced Barbara Cook on a celebrity recording series for the Painted Smiles label - Sondheim, Kurt Weill, etc., and songs that were cut from two of Lenny's shows. When I went to a screening of Zeffirelli's Traviata with Stratas and Domingo, and Adolph Green, Lenny and Zeffirelli were sitting behind me, carrying on. I was like The Exorcist. I didn't know whether to look at the screen or at them. Afterward Lenny invited me to his apartment at the Dakota and coached me in some roles. Lenny and Adolph sang "Some Other Time" around the piano. Lenny said, "I know you, you're the girl who sang the songs on that record. The tempi were all wrong." I said, "It's not my fault, the track was already laid down. I had to match the track." The next thing I knew I got a call that he had chosen me to be on his West Side Story recording with Te Kanawa and Carreras, as one of the "I Feel Pretty" girls, Francesca.

EM: I've seen the video of that recording.

AR: I'm the girl in the white dress in the middle [Laughs]. That was my first introduction to Lenny. My very first trip to Europe, the next year, Lenny chose me for the chorus and as the understudy in his opera A Quiet Place. Stephen directed. I performed the lead in the third act in Milwaukee with Stephen conducting when Lenny offered me Mimi in his La bohème." It's the only bohème recording Lenny ever conducted. I did so many things with Stephen - La Voix Humaine, Three Penny Opera. I did the show he wrote, Bernstein Reviewed, which Lenny came to see.

EM: That's amazing.

AR: It was televised for RAI TV in Europe, recorded on DG and was up for a Grammy. There was a big hoopla in New York that I got cast. It was supposed to be Te Kanawa or Jessye Norman. I had never even sung opera in Italian. Here I was in Rome with Santa Cecilia Orchestra. Oh my God. Thomas Hampson was Marcello, Jerry Hadley, Rodolfo, Barbara Daniels, Musetta, and Paul Plishka Colline. An incredible cast. I did many things with Lenny afterwards. He and I had a really close relationship. Right before he passed he called me to his apartment, he had one of my reviews from the Boston Globe, from Richard Dyer, who helped make my career. After bohème was released - nobody knew who I was, really - I sang a Kurt Weill concert for Christian Steiner, the photographer, in the Berkshires, my one woman Weill show, I'm a Stranger Here Myself.It was so successful I did it again Off Broadway. Joseph Papp of the New York Shakespeare Festival saw it. He produced it at the Public Theatre. It was sold out, extended forever. I did that at concert halls and opera houses all over the world from then on.

EM: Can you describe the show?

AR: I strung three periods of Weill's music together - French, English, German - starting with the Berlin Requiem, no spoken words whatsoever, with a complete set and a plot. When that came out I was primarily a Mozart singer. The only opera companies I'd sung with were Santa Fe, Washington Opera, Boston Opera with Sarah Caldwell, Opera Omaha, Connecticut Opera. I never sang at the Met. I ended up mostly with (Kurt) Masur and the New York Philharmonic, with Charles Dutoit, Philadelphia and Montreal. I worked in St. Louis Symphony, Ojai, Caramoor, every festival, with wonderful conductors. I recorded Weill's Street Scene and Blitzstein's Regina with Scottish National Orchestra. I came from strictly straight theatre background. When I moved to New York I'd done plays Off Broadway. Because of my connection with Wadsworth, who did straight plays as well as opera, I did Berkeley Rep, Greek plays, a new Tony Kushner play - I premiered a part written for me. I've had a very strange career [Laughs].

EM: How did you connect with North Coast Rep?

AR: In the last 5 or 6 years I've directed a lot, and costumed a lot - I've always had that whole vision. I worked with Christopher Alden, who directed I'm a Stranger Here Myself. He and Stephen have had the biggest influence on my careers. My husband Michael Sokol, an opera singer who sang at the Met for two seasons, went back to school, became a professor, and now directs operas and teaches voice at San Diego State. We've only been here for two years. One day last summer, I saw a newspaper ad that said, "Words by Ira Gershwin" at North Coast. I went, "Oh, my gosh, there's a place that does musicals. And it's not even about George, but Ira. It sounds really interesting." I called up David (Ellenstein) and said, "You don't have any idea who I am. I'm from New York, a singing actress, I've done it all, worked with incredible people, and I'm feeling really lonely and displaced, not in an actors' community right now." He said, "Why don't we get together?" He took me to lunch, and we just hit it off. He told me he was doing Side by Side by Sondheim and I said, "I know this sounds really brazen, but I want to be in the Sondheim show." [Laughs] He said, "You do?" I went, "I've done the show before. I have such a connection, it would just be so interesting for me now to do it at this point in my career and life." He called me in to audition and I got the part.

EM: Of course you did.

AR: David also decided to give me a Monday and Tuesday night for a Kurt Weill cabaret concert like I did at the NY Philharmonic, in a couple of months. So I'll have the opportunity to do both, which will be incredible. The cast of Side by Side is wonderful, really strong. The conductor, Alby Potts from L.A., is wonderfully structured, strict but kind and discerning, patient. It's different from opera, though. In opera I'm required on the first day to know all my music cold and my diction and languages have to be perfect, and the conductor is the god. In musical theatre you don't even have to know your music when you first come to rehearsal, which completely shocked me.

EM: It shocks me, too.

AR: [Laughs]. It's fun and much easier. You have a longer rehearsal period for everybody to bond, which makes it a much closer family. In opera - you know how it is - usually it's the other way around. A much quicker process, unless it's a new production.

EM: Describe the connections that make Side by Side so meaningful for you.

AR: It's not only my connection with Sondheim but because West Side Story's in it, too. Sondheim is a brilliant lyricist and composer, but when West Side Story comes on in Side by Side and you hear that music, you just go, "This music is a class apart, just unbelievable."

EM: I totally get that. I worked with Lenny at Tanglewood, Carnegie Hall and the Met. You couldn't say anything too glowing to me about him.

AR: I always try to show Lenny's sensibilities. Here was this man who was so decadent and sensual and alive and volatile and contemplative - but still stuck in his sensibility that being married, having three children who he was an incredible father to, his whole life he couldn't be completely himself without being judged. Once he sat me down and said, "Never ever let anybody tell you who you are. Always be true to yourself. I don't care what kind of reviews or critiques or what the critics say." People would say, "Oh, Bernstein's not a real conductor, a real classical writer, the only thing he ever wrote was West Side Story." He made a point of telling me, "You can do everything you're doing, Angelina. Don't let anybody tell you any differently." So powerful.

EM: How do you like San Diego?

AR: Wonderful. We rescue animals and live out of the city limits so we can have lots of them. So I wouldn't have to drive and hour and a half everyday, North Coast put me up with a lovely woman on the Board. It's much more convenient for me.

EM: Opera and animals. What a great combination.

AR: Really? Sometimes people look at me and go, "Are you crazy?"

EM: Not at all. I have enormous respect for people who rescue animals, like those who did a few years ago during the fires.

AR: I've brought them home from anywhere we sing - stray cats or dogs, foxes, seagulls. You name it.

Side by Side by Sondheim at North Coast Rep has been extended through Aug. 15 (

Photo credits: North Coast Rep/Aaron Rumley

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