James Benjamin Rodgers is back in New Zealand for our next two productions - Tosca and Candide. We caught up with him to talk about preparations for both.
You’re playing two very different roles in two very different productions with us this month – Spoletta in Tosca, and the title character in Candide. Can you sum both characters up in a couple of sentences?
Spoletta is sinister, insane and ruthless. He is not the man in charge but God help us if he was. His love for other people’s pain makes him particularly frightening. Candide is hopeful, trusting and determined. He finds himself at the centre of a story, the last place he wants to be, because of the actions of others. What a demoralizing situation to be in.
This is a return to Tosca and Spoletta – what’s your preparation approach like for this role compared to the brand new one of Candide?
They are very different in scale so it is a tricky comparison. However, generally I would say that the prep for a repeat role is shorter and a lot less stressful. You see you have a framework to build on. Putting that framework in place the first time is a massive amount of work. Just learning the text and music is tough but that is the tip of the iceberg. I can’t play a role effectively, assuming that’s what ultimately happens...., unless I have formulated a clear point of view on the piece, the character and their function in the opera as a whole. That takes a huge amount of mental energy and sometimes forces you to face some difficult realities about the world we live in and the people who populate it. Spoletta, for example, is not a fiction. People like him really exist. To play him, I try to understand how he thinks. Frankly, that is a frightening place to be.
You’ve played many roles in the operatic repertoire as well as in musical theatre – what do you enjoy most about performing the two different genres – or are they different?
Interesting question as opera and musical theatre are at their root the same. They both set a play, adding music, song and often dance, to enhance the dramatic impact. Where they diverge is at the focal point of the performance values. This is a general statement and there are exceptions but opera’s central focus is the music. Musical theatre’s is the text. My great joy is that I love both words and music equally. That makes both forms very fun for me as I always have something to sink my teeth into, as long as the piece is good in the first place. The composers I really love in both genres, clearly love both music and words. Verdi, Sondheim, Massenet, Kurt Weill, Gounod, Sam Barber, Jason Robert Brown and Britten to name a few. I won’t go into the separation between the two industries that produce their respective art forms. That is a discussion for another day...
What have you been doing since we last saw you, and what’s coming up this year?
After finishing in New Zealand last year I was home for three days and then did a run as Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music with the Theatre Workshop of Nantucket which was wonderful; such a powerful piece of theatre. I then returned to New York where I did some teaching, auditioning and directed a production of Britten’s Turn of the Screw at the Manhattan School of Music which opens as I write. It has been a wonderful experience and a timely moment in America for that piece which deals with sexual assault and the abuse of power in many guises.
I have a Camille in Merry Widow coming up and a possible Quasimodo in Allen Menken’s powerful version of Hunchback of Notre Dame. Again, one extreme to the other... Hey, it keeps life interesting.
Are there any favourite places you’re looking forward to visiting in Christchurch and Auckland during this visit from New York?
In Christchurch I am hoping to get out to Clearwater golf course. I am a golf junkie. I also love the Christchurch Icebreaker store in downtown and always find good stuff in their sale rack. In Auckland, to keep the golf theme going, I would love to get out to Gulf Harbour. Beautiful course but I’ve never played it in the summer. Hopefully there will be time - Stuart Maunder? (Stuart is the director of Candide - Editor). In both places, pretty much any cafe. Make no mistake, New Zealand has the best coffee culture in the world. It’s always the first thing I do when I land.