In preparing for my lunch with Phoenix-based lyric baritone Jeremy Aye, I asked friends if there was anything they wanted to know about opera but were afraid to ask. For many of these clods, their knowledge of opera is limited to "Mighty Mouse" cartoons, and all of their questions seemed to deal with the same theme: "Why are operas so long?"
Clearly, among the uninformed, opera has a bad rep.
As many operas are in Italian, we met at Lombardi's for lunch alfresco. I thought at the very least Aye would come in handy for pronouncing anything difficult on the menu. Calling to mind every stereotype I could envision, I wondered if he'd arrive in a Viking helmet with horns, carrying a spear, or at the very least with his throat wrapped in a scarf, atomizer in hand, poised to spritz at the least sign of vocal distress. I was prepared for a petulant prima donna given to tantrums. I was pleased to meet a regular guy in shorts and a tee shirt who turned out to be a lot of fun.
Over bruschetta I got the background. Born of a Burmese father and American mother, Aye grew up in a typical household, with no particular musical slant other than piano lessons he dreaded. In the fifth grade he was dragged kicking and screaming, by his mother, to an audition for the Phoenix Boys Choir. He made the cut, realized he enjoyed singing, and a young career was born. He continued to study with vocal coaches and began to listen to a record he discovered in the family collection, Puccini's La Bohème.
In high school his vocal coach set him to work on an Italian song, and at the time it seemed kind of cool. How many Brophy boys can claim they can sing in a foreign language? Aye continued to study, won first place in a national voice competition, and eventually ended up studying music at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He holds both bachelor's and master's degrees in music with an emphasis on vocal performance.
I was able to order penne with grilled chicken and sausage without Aye's linguistic assistance, and he went with the risotto, substituting chicken for shrimp. In 1999, Aye auditioned and was selected for the chorus of the Phoenix Opera's production of La Bohème, and the next year landed his first compromario role as Silvano in Un Ballo in Maschera. A compromario is a supporting role -- bigger than the chorus, but smaller than the principals. It may have a few lines of solo singing. This season he auditioned for and won his first featured role -- Masetto, in Arizona Opera's second production of the season, Don Giovanni.
So why are operas so damn long? I remember my first opera -- applauding madly at the end of Act II and congratulating myself on having remained awake, only to learn that there was still an entire act to go. Act III involved trying every trick I could think of to stave off a narcoleptic attack. By his own admission, Aye owns a tee shirt that says, "Life is short. Opera is long." At the time when many operas were written, people expected to be entertained for an entire evening -- in those days you didn't rush home to catch the latest episode of Temptation Island.
So many people find opera intimidating. Aye advises friends to read everything they can about an opera before attending, and to read the synopsis in the program before it starts. That way you won't have to spend the entire evening reading the subtitles, trying to figure out what's going on.
Taken by themselves, many of the stories are silly, and Aye cites in particular Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, which is like a situation comedy of misunderstandings. The music legitimizes the story, making it "ridiculous, but so ridiculously fine," he says. If you familiarize yourself with the story, seeing the production with the music, staging and costumes takes the experience to the next level.
Most productions can be cast up to two years in advance, and the principals are usually brought in from other states. Once all roles have been cast, everyone gets together with the conductor for the first rehearsal, where piano is the only accompaniment. It is during this time that egos can flair and heads can butt. "Singing is very personal," says Aye, and this first meeting is important in many ways. You will meet the people you will be working with for the first time. If your character has a love interest within the story, you hope you click with your onstage significant other.
An entire production will actually rehearse for only two to three weeks, for up to six hours a day. Rehearsals are about the technical and dramatic details. There are only three opportunities for the company to rehearse with the full orchestra, in costume and with the full set before opening.
Is it glamorous?
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"I wish my friends could trade places with me so they could experience the magnificence -- both the good and the bad," Aye says. "When I am on stage in costume, wearing a wig, with makeup running down my face, it doesn't feel glamorous. But this is what I do. It's my job. Sometimes it feels like a job, sometimes it doesn't." But being a part of that creativity can be transporting.
In addition to performing with Arizona Opera, Aye teaches voice both privately and at Scottsdale Community College. Next up: a gig with the Austin Lyric Opera.
Over dessert (it's such a pleasure to meet someone with an appetite that matches my own) Aye revealed another talent. He is able, with alarming authenticity, to quote entire passages from the cult film Mommie Dearest. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end when he did the wire hanger scene, complete with going slightly cross-eyed at its climax. Even our waiter steered clear of our table for this interval.
I have been speculating on the possibility of turning it into an opera. It certainly has all the over-the-top ingredients of an epic. If I have the part of Joan Crawford written for a baritone, I'll have the lead already cast. Watch for it next season: "Jeremy Aye IS Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, the Opera."