University of Kentucky baritone Jonathan Green isn't just getting another chance to sing the title role in Falstaff this weekend. He's getting to pass on some sage advice to a younger singer, Reginald Smith Jr., who is double-cast with him in the title role.
"When you think Verdi, and Verdi baritone, you automatically think of the big tragic characters," says Green, who sang Falstaff in 2007 at Opera North in New Hampshire. "You think Simon Boccanegra, you think Rigoletto, you think Renato in Un Ballo in Maschera. At a certain point, you think, 'Oh, this is Verdi. This is very serious. But you have to take it lightheartedly."
Verdi's penchant for pathos is so well known that the 1980s rockers 10,000 Maniacs once recorded a song called Verdi Cries, about a man who sits in his hotel room listening to Aida and other anguished operas.
For his final opera, though, the 19th-century Italian master decided to incite tears of laughter about William Shakespeare's bumbling knight in The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV.
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As a baritone, Smith says, he usually isn't allowed to have as much fun as Falstaff.
"I usually get to sing the father or the villains, or all of these crazy, evil people," he says. "So it's very different to play someone who is happy and kind of funny. And it takes a different approach vocally. It's been a good thing for my vocal technique and capacity to see if you are able to do it or not."
UK Opera Theatre director Everett McCorvey says the company usually selects operas based on people in the program who are ready to take on leading roles, and really, the program needs two. Almost all the operas are double-cast to give the singers more experience and to be able to present back-to-back performances.
"We thought about Reggie and we thought about Jonathan, and we thought Falstaff would be perfect for both of them," McCorvey says.
Smith, who is taking on his first leading role, says he initially was a little wary of taking on the title character, wondering whether he was ready to go with it. Falstaff is in five of the opera's six scenes, with activity that stretches the singer beyond a standard opera role.
"Eventually, I realized this was in my capabilities, and Dr. McCorvey said, 'I told you so,'" Smith says.
The extra business comes with the comedy.
In addition to singing in a comic style, Smith enjoys the way the role gets him to act in a comic manner.
"You get to do a lot of physical comedy, like me rolling around on stage," Smith says. "That's hilarious by itself, but then you add on deer antlers and it's ... you know," he says with a baritone laugh.
Green, who transferred to UK from the prestigious opera program at Indiana University, says that Falstaff is not a one-man show; it boasts nine characters with substantial parts.
"Every person has to be able hold their own," Green says. "It takes a number of skilled singers. The cast is nine people, and there aren't any small, comprimario parts. Each person is a principal in their own right. We're essentially doing it with 17 — one person is having to double up — but it's 17 extremely fine, strong singers and actors. That's very rare to find in a group this young.
"University of Opera is here to do business."
In this case, funny business.