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Interview: Professional Opera Singer Frank Pitts is Guest Music Director of BIG FISH at Arkansas State University Beebe

BWW's Theresa Bertram gets the opportunity to sit down with professional opera singer Frank Pitts

Interview: Professional Opera Singer Frank Pitts is Guest Music Director of BIG FISH at Arkansas State University Beebe

In theatre, as well as in life, we all need a little help from our friends. This holds true for Director Ryan Gibbins at Arkansas State University-Beebe Theatre Department, who will be presenting BIG FISH this Thursday through Saturday, November 3 through 5, in the Owen Center Theatre, beginning at 7pm. Thankfully, Mr. Gibbons has extremely talented friends, and his students are blessed to be guided under professional opera singer Frank Pitts, who has graciously stepped into the Music Director position for the show.

Broadway World had the honor of interviewing Mr. Pitts in between his obligations with the students.

BWW: How did you learn of the ASU-Beebe Theatre program?

Frank Pitts: Ryan and I have been friends for probably 30 to 35 years. We met at Harding. We were in chorus together. We sang together, and when he came over here (to ASU-Beebe), he said 'hey I want you to come down and work with my students,' and so I did that, and I've been doing it ever since. So, I come down at least once a year to do master classes and coach, and some of his students and I continue to work with online. I've also come down and helped music direct for the last few shows.

BWW: What does a typical day at ASU-Beebe look like?

FP: During the day, the students come in and I work one-on-one with them, and their progress has been amazing. We work on technique, scene technique, and applying some acting technique to what they're doing song wise. Then later in the afternoons or evenings, I'm doing ensemble work with the whole cast.

BWW: What are your feelings about the show?

FP: I love this show. It's a little too close to home, sometimes, so I'm sure I'm going to have some Kleenex with me. The kids are doing a great job, which is a trigger in a good way, because when I'm watching them, especially with the ones who have maybe struggled a little bit more, and I see them pushing through their anxiety and their fear of being onstage, and they're just going for it, you know, that always tears in my heart strings a little bit. I know that I sound like a gruff old bear, but I'm really a teddy bear. It's going to be a good show. The students are really talented, and I always enjoy coming down working with Ryan's students.

BWW: Wow! That's wonderful. What do you do back home in Michigan?

FP: I teach voice coaching and accompanying at Oakland University in their music, theater, and dance department. I direct a lot of musicals. BIG FISH will be, I think, my 6th show this year that I've music directed. This year I did THE LAST FIVE YEARS, SPAMALOT and a couple other things. I've already got four shows booked for next year, and I'm also an opera singer, so, I travel singing as well. As soon as I get back from here, I start rehearsals for AIDA with the Detroit Opera and will perform that at the end of December. Then, I'll be singing BEETHOVEN NINE with the Flint Symphony in May, and so I stay very, very busy.

BWW: What made you want to pursue music?

FP: I think that it was innate in me. My grandmother said that when I was little, like two years old, I had one of those red Schroeder pianos from the peanuts, and she said 'you never banged on that, you always tried to play it.' So, she bought my first piano, and IInterview: Professional Opera Singer Frank Pitts is Guest Music Director of BIG FISH at Arkansas State University Beebe started piano lessons when I was five years old. I have been doing music my entire life ever since then.

Mr. Pitts started his first job when he was 10 years old playing for a church, and as soon as he could reach the foot pedals, he started taking organ lessons as well.

FP: I studied classical organ, and I studied piano classically, and actually went to college to be a piano major. However, because I was already married and had a child on the way, I needed to get as much scholarship money as possible. So, I also sang for my audition to try to get a little bit more scholarship money, and the people in the voice department said 'you're going to be a voice major, not a piano major.' So that's when I started really pursuing singing- when I was in college. I had sung my whole life. I sung in church choirs, sung in choirs in high school, but I thought of myself as a pianist who sang. Now I'm a singer who plays.

Mr. Pitts finished his music degree at Harding University and then did masters work in voice performance, but life didn't allow him to travel with his singing just yet.

FP: When I could have started my performance career, my wife got sick with Lupus, so I just needed to stay home to take care of her and our children. I went the teaching/coaching route and did that for years and years. She passed away in 2019.

BWW: Do you prefer singing over playing?

FP: No, I like them both. I mean, I do more playing and coaching. I love teaching, I really do, but I also enjoy performing, especially, you know, when the curtain goes up, I'm on.

BWW: When did your career officially start?

FP: I started my first show at Harding. I was the rehearsal accompanist for their show BRIGADOON in 1989, I believe. When I graduated from there, we still lived here, and I actually left music for a little while and became a nurse. I worked as a nurse for three years, missed my music, and went back and finished that while I worked as a nurse in Searcy at, what was then, Central Arkansas General.

In 1994, Mr. Pitts worked as a voice teacher for Harding, and after a year, he moved his family back to Michigan to be closer to their grandparents. He then took a job teaching at a Christian college in Michigan, and earned an apprenticeship with the Detroit Opera, all while taking care of his family.

FP: I say I worked for three years as a nurse at the hospital, and then I spent, you know, 30 years working as a private duty nurse for my wife. We had three boys and we were supervisors at one of the dormitories on the campus of the college that I worked at. So, we were parents of 50 boys plus our three every year for ten years. That was a lot of fun.

Music is a family affair for Mr. Pitts.

FP: Music is in my blood. Both of my grandmothers were pianists. My mother's mother is the one who bought my piano. My father's mother was from the Chicago area and had a performance degree in piano from the Chicago Conservatory of music. She taught piano down in Franklin parish in Louisiana for years and years and years. I think I have an uncle who's a musician, my middle child is a full-time worship pastor, and my granddaughter has started piano lessons last year. That's now like five generations of our family that are pianists and singers. My oldest grandson wants to start taking guitar lessons, because he wants to be like his dad who's a worship minister in a large, large church up in Michigan.

They have also shared the stage together.

Interview: Professional Opera Singer Frank Pitts is Guest Music Director of BIG FISH at Arkansas State University Beebe

FP: My oldest boy and I did HAIRSPRAY together. I have played Edna Turnblad a couple of times, and he played Mr. Pinky, so that was a lot of fun. He's also been in a couple of shows that I've directed.

BWW: What do you do as Music Director?

FP: When I'm music director, typically, I also conduct the orchestra pit and play for the show. I love doing that and have been doing it for years and years. I've probably directed over 120 to 125 shows over the course of my career so far, so we'll see if I can hit the 500 mark someday.

BWW: What have been some of your favorite shows as a director?

FP: I've directed LES MIS, and I've enjoyed that. I just did LAST FIVE YEARS, and I was the stage and music director for THE SECRET GARDEN. That was the second time I've done that, and I just love that music. It is just beautiful. When I'm directing shows, typically I don't do a lot of the comedy. I do some of the comedy things, like I've directed YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN- that was a blast, but I like the drama musicals on stage. I like to help people find their feelings, so I like to do dramas. BIG FISH gets you in your feels. Because my father and wife passed away three months of each other, there are songs in BIG FISH that remind me of them. I told Ryan when he said for me to come help direct, that he was gonna have to put me way in the back and give me a box of Kleenex, because nobody needs to hear all of the racket that I'll probably make.

BWW: So, where have your talents taken you?

FP: I've traveled to Europe four times. I sung a few operas in Berlin and taught in Italy. I've been out to California and sung out there, and I sing regularly in Detroit. I'm actually doing a new project right now. In fact, I just got out of the recording studio where a friend of mine who is a jazz musician and I have taken 300-year-old Arias and have made an album of jazz arrangements of these Italian art songs. We have had an opportunity to perform three or four times now. I performed the art song in Italian in the baroque style, and then we do the jazz arrangement of it. It's been a lot of fun and very well received, so once we get the album finished, we can send that out and hopefully do some touring with it. My experiences in Europe tells me that the European will love this, because they love American jazz. So, to mix Italian art songs and American jazz together, I think will go over very well, and I wouldn't mind if we spent a summer touring Europe. I love it over there. I always feel at home when I'm there. I spent four out of the last five years in the summers in Europe singing. Once I went as an accompanist for a choral group and spent time in France and Spain. Then I did a study abroad program and spent the summer in Austria. The following year I spent the summer in Berlin.

BWW: What are some of your favorite characters you've performed?

FP: Well, of course, HAIRSPRAY playing Edna Turnblad was just so, so much fun. I've done the voice of the plant in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS a couple of times, which is fine because you don't have to memorize anything since you're under the stage usually or someplace off in the wings. Right before COVID and everything shut down in the opera and theater world, I had played Simone in GIANNO SCHICCHI, which is a Puccini opera with Detroit opera. That was a blast, but a lot of work. It's a hard opera to do, because it's such an ensemble cast. It's constant one liners, and you just have to be ready all the time to respond to another character on stage. I love playing the Commendatory and Don Giovanni. That's fun, because I get to have a sword fight and I die the first 20 minutes, and then I come back two hours later as a ghost and finish out the opera, trying to get Don Giovanni to repent of all of his misgivings.

BWW: So, as an educator, what do you love about teaching?

FP: I love seeing the light bulb go off watching students, you know, get it and see the progress that they made. It's nice when I work with Ryan's students. I worked with some of them last year. It's a short stint, but it's intense, and just to come back and see some of the same students who have made so much progress over the last year, you know, makes me love what I do. In fact, I just recently started a new job teaching elementary music in an urban setting up in Flint. I've never taught students that young. I've always taught college level, and I have worked with high schools. I do a lot of work with high school students and high school theater programs as a music director, but never have I taught kindergarten through 6th grade, so that has been an adventure.

BWW: You're working hard for your money there.

FP: Yeah, but I'm enjoying it, and hopefully I'll make a difference. If I get one kid that decides this is what they wanna do, you know, then it'll be worth it; Or, if they find a way to open themselves up and be more confident and other things that I think music does, that's great too. This is why I believe it is so important to continue teaching music in in our education system.

BWW: What is your ultimate goal to get out of working at ASU-Beebe?

FP: My educational goals is to help the students be better than they were when I started working with them. That's my goal. I get them for a short window in an intense amount of time, so if I can leave them with the ability to take the information that I've given them and apply it in other ways throughout their theatrical or music careers, than I've done my job. So, there are times when I get to see that and other times, well, I don't know whether I've accomplished that or not, which I don't have to know. I tell my students that I'm giving you tools that you need to work with, and whether you build anything out of it is up to you. So, that's my teaching philosophy.

BWW: Sounds great! Last question. What do you enjoy doing besides music?

FP: I love to cook, and I enjoy hiking. I think my friend that I'm staying with and I are going to go up to the Buffalo River and do some hiking around there if it doesn't rain. We've been up there before, and I love it It's beautiful, so I brought my hiking boots just in case we get an opportunity. Also, I love spending time with my kids and my grandkids. I don't get to do that enough either, because my schedule stays booked.

Broadway World is appreciative of Mr. Pitts time with the ASU-Beebe's theatre department. For more information on BIG RIVER, visit their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/asubtheatre.



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From This Author - Theresa Bertram

Prior to becoming a writer for Broadway World, Theresa Bertram has had an extensive career in the media/entertainment business. Born in Las Vegas, Nevada to a professional poker-playing mother, The... (read more about this author)


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