Broadway World Interview: Baritone Gabriel Manro Bridging the Slim Divide Between Opera & Musical Theatre
Southern California's Verdi Chorus will cap off their 35th anniversary season with their Fall 2018 concert PASSIONE! OPERA! The two performances at the First United Methodist Church in Santa Monica on November 10 and 11 will feature four guest artists: soprano Julie Makerov, mezzo soprano Janelle DeStefano, tenor Todd Wilander and baritone Gabriel Manro. I had the chance to quiz two-time Grammy Award-winning baritone Gabriel Manro on his love for singing, the technical aspects of singing opera vs. musical theatre and his recent onstage proposal.
Thank you for making time for this interview, Gabriel!
How did you come to join creative forces with Verdi Chorus?
I was recently attending a concert given by the extraordinary metropolitan opera tenor Todd Wilander, who I have sung with many times in opera productions in Europe and New York. When visiting him backstage, he introduced me to Anne Marie Ketchum, Music Director and Founding Artistic Director of the Verdi Chorus. This put me on her radar. I'm very grateful that she found a place for me on her program for the upcoming concert.
Do you know what you will be performing already?
Yes! I, along with the Verdi Chorus and three other fabulous soloists Julie Makerov, Janelle DeStefano and Todd Wilander, will sing opera highlights from some of the grandest operas in the repertoire, including Don Carlo, Mefistofele, and The Tales of Hoffmann.
When did you realize you wanted to make singing your career?
In high school, I was selected for the California All-State Honor Choir and found myself performing great choral works like Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms with full orchestra. It was an experience I'll never forget. At this same time, there was a dramatic shift taking place in the musical theater world toward a much more operatic form and style, with works like PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and LES MISERABLES. My formal training as a violinist and choral singer had given me a somewhat classically-bent musical taste which found a welcome home in the likes of these musical spectacles of the 80s. I knew at that time that I wanted to sing on the musical stage.
Verdi Chorus' Founding Artistic Director Anne Marie Ketchum strives to mentor young aspiring opera singers. Who were you early idols and mentors?
My idols in my formative high school years were Michael Ball (Marius: Original Cast LES MIZ, Alex Dillingham: Original Cast ASPECTS OF LOVE, etc.) and Mandy Patinkin(George: SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE). My step-brother and I would regularly travel to Los Angeles or San Francisco to see the touring casts of these musicals, andMandy Patinkin on his Dress Casual album tour. As my musical tastes expanded in college, I began getting more into opera and my greatest mentor became my voice teacher, the legendary Elisabeth Parham. She was a great believer in me and her certainty has been an inspiration throughout my life and career. She also had a superior understanding of vocal technique which resulted in a myriad of her students becoming well-known opera and music theater singers. Ed Dixon was one of these. Another of Parham's students became a huge idol and mentor of mine, baritone David Pittman-Jennings who made recordings of the most eclectic music imaginable, from Wagner'sFlying Dutchman to Schoenberg's Ode to Napoleon (Grammy-nominated Boulez recording).
Is it more challenging, or less challenging for you to perform as yourself, as opposed to as a scripted character?
These are an equal challenge. Whether performing as myself or as a character, there is a story in the text to be communicated. As I sing mainly opera or musical theater, I often have a scripted character. For instance, in the upcoming Verdi Chorus concert, I will incorporate as much as possible the overall story of the opera through the single excerpt that I'll be singing. This communication of the story through music becomes even more crucial when singing languages in which much of the audience is not fluent. My body, my inflection of tone, my musical choices etc. become that much more crucial to the communication of the story.
You sing quite a few of your roles in Italian. Are you very fluent in Italian?
I've worked in Italy and have been quite proficient in conversing in Italian professionally and socially. I do get pretty rusty when I haven't been back for a while, but I know the meaning of every word that I sing in Italian. I approach it in the same way as I do when taking on a role in English and run across a word in the script that I don't know: I look it up and practice using the word until I'm fluent with it. It's the same in doing a role in another language--there's just a lot more words to look up!
You have been singing in a number of musical theatre productions. Do you have to adapt your singing technique performing musical theatre vs opera? Or do you have to exercise completely different vocal muscles?
It's very similar for me. The crucially functioning muscles of the voice are exactly the same. When you hear a great musical theater singer, there is a very fine coordination of the voice that is also present when you hear a great opera singer. The big difference is that the opera singer generally uses much more of their body as a resonator to amplify the sound. This is not totally necessary for musical theater as the microphone amplification is already doing this for the singer. There are all different degrees of this now with "popera" singers like Bocelli, who is a great example of someone who uses the most divine, perfect fine-muscle coordination of his voice, while at the same time not fully using his body to amplify the sound. And I don't think that this is a detriment at all. In fact, I am reminded of when I sang with Patti LuPone on The Ghosts of Versailles(Grammy: Best Opera Recording 2017). There were many world-class opera singers in that cast, but I consider her just about the best singer on