The first time I sang in a production of Hoffmann was 2007 in Vienna where I played the four servants. It was a reductive, bizarre, but very enchanting production. I fell in love with the show at that point because it felt like a dream from which I did not want to awake; especially the last act with its gently rocking barcarolle. It’s not an easy show to put on because it’s a big cast and finding someone who can sing the title role can be a struggle, but it’s one of my favourites and I would hope to hear it for the rest of my life.
In that production, Olympia, the doll, was touted as a rock star with a glitter brazier, go-go boots and an electric guitar to serve as her “harpe.” As a Karl Lagerfeld-costumed Cochenille, I was to “wind her up” by serving her a dose of “cocaine” (represented by powdered sugar), a pile of which I carried on a silver platter.
This summer, I am again winding up Olympia (in a more traditional manner), but this time as Spalanzani, the doll’s creator. He’s a mad scientist who has financed his project through a shifty deal with Elias and in turn, twists the financial responsibility through fraud onto Copellius – the eyeball supplier who returns extorting more money. Copellius discovers Elias’s bankruptcy and exacts revenge by decapitating the life-like mechanical Olympia, with which Hoffmann has fallen in love.
Lately, I’ve been telling others when they ask how the show is going, that these comic roles are too difficult. I’m not complaining. It’s simply the truth.
Firstly, at the beginning of each preparation for a comic role, I always struggle to find the importance of my character within the context of the opera. After all, Spalanzani has a total stage time of maybe fifteen minutes in a three and a half hour opera. How can I serve the story or even hope to make an impression when my contribution is so incidental?
[Glenn (as Spalanzani) tells Hoffmann (Matthew Polenzani) about Olympia. Photo by Cory Weaver.]
Secondly, the nature of comprimario roles is generally difficult. There is no room to spread your wings. Musically, every entrance is a change in tempo and one must strongly connect to the conductor and orchestra to accept those changes. Vocally, the roles are usually low and require restraint and strategy as to not push the voice. Dramatically, entrances are scenic interruptions and so, comic characters have to know everyone else’s part in order to know where to fit in. Also, the most bizarre make-up and costumes go to the comprimari, which can, more often than not, help define the character, but otherwise, create discomfort.
Finally, comic characters are metamorphic and dynamic – running about, dancing, laughing maniacally etc., to contrast the leads, who stand and sing beautiful arias. They must find a gestural palette to communicate their character: a walk, a posture, a twitch, a face, and often all of this must change during their stage time. Rapid changes are the name of the game because comedy demands perfect timing.
I didn’t think that Spalanzani would be a big stretch for me. Much of the role is spoken, but my French was not a challenge thanks to my education in public Canadian Schools and my days as an LDS missionary in Marseille. I knew the part well from my previous experience of the opera and I had many ideas for the character that I was eager to share with the director.
But I neglected to remember that every show has a concept and that all my desires had to be tempered by the will of the director. That, plus all of the comprimario responsibilities listed above were brought immediately to reckoning. Looking ahead at the month of work to find the character, I groaned inside.
I had help, but through a confluence of differing opinions. We first started rehearsals with the assistant director, Christian Räth from Geneva. It was his direction that Spalanzani be quite severe and obtuse. Then, in the week of production, the director Laurent Pelly arrived from France and instructed that not only must Spalanzani be more enthusiastic, but that his voice should be uglier and more crazed; that I was singing it too beautifully. Honestly, I didn’t like any of those directions, but I had to make some compromise to fit the concept.
Luckily, I found support in our conductor, Patrick Fournillier and his assistant Joseline Dienst who respected my innate, lyric vocal production but helped me create character through phrasing the music in clever ways. That was a big help. Additionally, the dialogue coaches, Agathe Mélinand and Patricia Christoph Moy helped me see that the <<ruptures>> or beat changes overlap one another at the phrase ends and make a much cleaner and exciting performance.
Every member of the production staff is an expert and I rely on them earnestly; they inform my interpretation. But, in the end I’m the one walking on stage. All things considered, Thomas Glenn has to choose how to satisfy the demands of this role.
I believe that what attracts people to comedy and all theatre/film for that matter, is truth. When an actor is able to answer all of the questions behind a character; where they live, what they do on a daily basis, what they want, how they were raised…etc., they can make the character not only believable, but attractive and even, funny when required.
What makes Spalanzani hilarious is his background. People become crazy through solitude. I imagine that he has worked his whole life to create Olympia and that he’s recently locked himself in a garage to finish the project. He’s dirty. He smells. His perception of propriety and manners is way off. What he terms, “physics” is really robotics. Despite his dishevelled and filthy appearance, he thinks that simply running his fingers through his almost nonexistent hair and straightening his tie will make him look presentable. When he invites the crowd of scientists to eat dinner, I imagine that he is serving them all the leftover instant noodles that he’d been feeding off to fuel his demented mind and keep him in the lab.
[Spalanzani (Glenn) and Cochenille (Steven Cole) present Olympia (Hye Jung Lee) to the invited guests. Photo by Cory Weaver.]
When Olympia is beheaded, Hoffmann is angered that he’s been duped and the chorus laughs at him. Meanwhile, Spalanzani is horrified that the robot he’s come to believe is his “daughter” has been slaughtered before his eyes and melts in a puddle of tears over the dismembered body. The more earnestly I play that, the more entertaining and enjoyable the contrast to the other characters onstage. ‘Very funny.
Usually things that happen in my personal life have a way of showing up on stage. Two months ago, I was lifting my four-year old son and damaged the cartilage in my wrist. Since then, I’ve been wearing a splint on my right hand. When I animate Olympia on stage, I flip an electric switch, which ignites a small explosion. The splint on my right hand plays into the absent minded professor aura wherein he forgets the electric shock EVERY TIME, even though he’s wrapped his wrist to remind himself and prevent injury. I think that’s hilarious!
[Glenn's wrist bandage was incorporated into the disheveled appearance of Spalanzani. Photo by Cory Weaver.]
Playing this sort of role can be frustrating and the work behind it is not evident to most people. But the virtuosity required to do so occupies an equivalent volume as that of any leading role. I look to Steven Cole who plays the four servants in this production with great admiration. He’s been doing this sort of role for decades and does so with deft precision and consistency.
Indeed, every person in this show is a master. I am grateful to work at San Francisco Opera and to be part of such a wonderful production as this.