Monday, September 20, 2010

19 Aug'10

'Bass-baritone JASON HOWARD equally at home singing musical theatre or opera'


It may be a long, long way from Valhalla to Bali Hai, but bass-baritone Jason Howard certainly doesn't seem to mind the commute, anymore than he minds the commute between Strasbourg, France, and Toronto that has consumed his summer. One voyage is figurative, of course, for as any opera buff can tell you Valhalla is the legendary home of the god Wotan and his slain hordes in Richard Wagner's glorious Ring cycle, while Bali Hai is the fabled island paradise at the heart of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical theatre classic, SOUTH PACIFIC.

And as for the more literal commute, Howard has spent a major portion of his summer in Strasbourg performing in Wagner's magnum opus -- and now he's back home in Toronto, singing the role of the romantic planter Emile de Becque in SOUTH PACIFIC at the Four Seasons Centre. The touring version of director Bartlett Sher's acclaimed 2008 Tony-winning Broadway revival, SOUTH PACIFIC opened Sunday, the second offering in Dancap's first summer season in Toronto's beautiful opera hall.

Having established himself first as a dab hand in the world of Italian and French opera, before tackling The Ring's Wotan in such a way as to lead one critic to describe him as "the Wotan of his generation," the Welsh-born Howard, who now makes his home in Toronto with his wife and two daughters, might have expected his debut on the stage of the Four Seasons to be something more operatic, echoing the work that has led him to stages in other Canadian cities such as Hamilton and Edmonton. But if he's disappointed to be appearing instead in musical theatre, he's certainly masking it well.

"They didn't have to tempt me at all," he insists. "This is one of the iconic roles (in musical theatre). I'm delighted to be singing this show of all shows. It's so accessible. This show appeals to everyone."

And so what if it's not opera? Musical theatre, particularly musical theatre this good, is just fine with him. He got his start more or less in musical theatre, after all, combining it with the choral work so popular in the land of his birth. "And over the years of my career, I've kept one foot in each camp," he continues, pointing out that not only does he include musical theatre standards on his albums, "I've always included the songs in my concerts in Wales as well. I warrant and respect this piece, and this production of this piece, as one of the best shows I've ever done," he says.

There are, not surprisingly, major differences in the demands of opera and the demands of musical theatre. "You don't do eight shows a week in opera," Howard points out. "You pace yourself in a different way." Which is not to say that roles such as The Ring's Wotan are cakewalks --far from it.

"It's like the biggest, fattest juiciest steak you've ever seen," he says with a relish that indicates that vegetarianism isn't going to play a major role in his life. "Wotan is easily the hardest thing I've ever done -- but difficult challenges bring big rewards, if you get through them."

But moving back and forth between the two gives a performer a chance to stretch different muscles. "Definitely," he says. "That's one of the challenges of doing musical theatre. I get to do dialogue like a proper actor."

Regardless of what he's singing, he has discovered there's always a payoff that goes beyond dollars and cents. "Oh yeah, very much so," he says with a slow smile. "I've always had a deep love of the art form, and I've always loved the physical sensation of singing. I love thrilling people with my voice. There's something wonderful about allowing yourself to be the conduit for conveying great art."

In short, it's worth the commute.

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