An Interview with Alexander Boyer

Alexander Boyer as King Idomeneo in the 2011 company premiere; photo by Bob Shomler.

“From earliest childhood I remember my parents’ house filled with opera and other classical music,” says tenor Alexander Boyer. “When driving, my dad would have the radio on a classical music station.”

Boyer grew up on Long Island, New York. In elementary school he played the cello, an instrument he chose because it was large. He never really listened to popular music until he went to high school. His public school had an excellent music program, occasionally offering field trips to the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, where Alexander saw his first opera, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. His school also offered a voice class and “I signed up to sing in the choir. The choir director was the music director of the student shows and I participated in the productions,” Boyer said. “They were my first on-stage experiences.”

The summer after his senior year of high school, Boyer attended Boston University’s Tanglewood Institute in western Massachusetts. That fall he enrolled at Boston University, majoring in music. “I wanted a university rather than a conservatory, so that I would have flexibility and choices in my education.” Boyer discovered that the music program at BU was so intense that it was very much like a conservatory. “I got a great technical foundation and some stage experience, such as when I carried a spear as a supernumerary in Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Don Carlos.” He also sang in the chorus of Idomeneo at BU, making him the only member of Opera San José’s cast to have been in that opera prior to the 2011 company premiere.

Boyer next enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music for graduate study, staying a year after he earned his Master of Music degree in order to get a Professional Studies Certificate. While there, he had a coaching session with Luciano Pavarotti, one of his favorite tenors.

Boyer responded to Opera San José’s call for auditions at the Manhattan School of Music; he is now a fourth-year resident with the company, sponsored in part by a fellowship grant from Howard W. Golub. He has participated in the Merola and Santa Fe Opera programs, and is a winner of the Mario Lanza scholarship award.

Alexander Boyer sings as a lyric tenor. His first principal roles were in Lee Hoiby’s A Month in the Country and Lennox Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement.  In Opera San José’s 2009 production of Carmen, he sang the role of Don José–one of his favorites, along with Luigi in Puccini’s Il tabarro. This season, Boyer will sing principal roles in all four Opera San José productions, including Canio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (opening November 12th).  “I may be a younger Canio than is usually the case, and Canio is already a complicated and difficult character to play.” It is a new role for Boyer, intense and emotional, and he is prepared to bring a physicality and violence to the role if the director wants that kind of interpretation.

When studying a new role, Boyer usually does not listen to other recordings. Rather, he reads a translation of the opera and does a bit of historical research, before plunging into the music. He appreciates the stability and constant stage time that he gets at Opera San José, saying, “It allows me to refine a role and polish my performance and technique. I keep striving to be a better performer.” Boyer does not think a good singer must necessarily have the most fabulous voice; he feels that it is more important for the singer to understand the composer’s intentions and the drama of the piece, as well as its historical context. “A good singer has awareness. One must be aware of oneself, of the performers around you, of the audience, aware of how he or she projects this art form.” He further notes that many singers do not sing well in their native language.

“For opera to survive,” Boyer says, “it is important that it not be locked into tradition.  There must be new and creative productions. Of course, these new interpretations must be ‘aware’ and the singers and directors must always keep in mind that opera is entertainment.” As the end of his time with the company approaches, he plans to audition all over the country. Let’s hope that his travels bring him back to Northern California—he likes the Bay Area, despite his observation that “There are no good delis here.”

Editor’s note: Any former New Yorkers out there who can offer Alex some tips on a good deli in the Bay Area? I’ll admit that I like the pastrami reuben at Max’s Opera Café in Palo Alto, but I suspect that true deli aficionados will not approve… ;)


Pagliacci: The darker side of betrayal

(Editor’s note: Following on the theme of lost love in Poulenc’s passionate La voix humaine, the second one-act opera in our November double-bill, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, will take us through an exploration of the darker side of betrayal.)

Leoncavallo and his dog, 1894

His life was surely eventful, and tended toward the extremes. Commissioned by kings, starved in the streets of Paris, hailed as the most promising composer of his generation, damned as shallow and litigious, Ruggiero Leoncavallo knew it all first hand, but all we know of him is Pagliacci.

Born in Calabria, in the far south of Italy to well-to-do and socially prominent parents, Leoncavallo had an excellent education and all the advantages that Naples could afford, which were many. His father was a judge and his mother, the namesake of Virginia Donizetti and the goddaughter of the famous composer, was a painter. Theirs was a cultured and well-educated family; Art was revered in their household.

As a student at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Naples, where Donizetti had been the director, Leoncavallo was able to attend performances at the famed Teatro San Carlo as well as the three other opera houses in that ancient and wealthy royal capital. He began life with advantages that Verdi, Donizetti, and many other composers couldn’t dream of.

After completing his course requirements in Naples, Leoncavallo attended the prestigious University of Bologna where he studied writing and literature. In Bologna, he was welcomed into the cream of society, not least because of his unusual accomplishment as a pianist. He composed for and performed at the most distinguished salons, and began (though never completed) a lifelong project inspired by Wagner’s Ring Cycle on significant moments and persons in Italian history. Only the first of the three operas was composed and performed, I Medici, which, well received for a time, soon disappeared. He also composed a La bohèmethat had initial success but was later eclipsed by Puccini’s brilliant work derived from the same material. Leoncavallo also wrote a number of popular operettas, which have disappeared from the repertoire over time, along with his numerous songs. The one opera that has remained, still one of the most performed operas in the standard repertoire, is Pagliacci.

Les buveurs d’absinthe (The Absinthe Drinkers) by Jean-Francois Raffaëlli, c.1881

In Paris, Leoncavallo became acquainted with Émile Zola, who, along with Honoré de Balzac and Prosper Mérimée, established a new form in French literature referred to as realism, in which the lives of the lower and middle classes were depicted, and in ways that seemed at the time grippingly, even shockingly true to life. Bizet’s Carmen was the very first opera derived from this literary genre, based upon Mérimée’s novella. Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana was the first of this style written in Italian, where the genre was called verismo; Pagliacci was the second.

Pagliacci begins with a prologue, sung by a baritone who most often enters the stage in front of the main drape, during which an explanation of this radically different style of opera is explained; it serves as a warning to the audience.

When you look on us, dressed in costumes and tinsel,
Ours are human hearts, beating with passion,
We are men like you, for gladness or sorrow,
It is the same broad heaven above us,
The same wide, lonely world before us!

This is an invitation for the audience to enter into a world that is immediate and familiar, rather than a world of imagined fantasy. Instead of seeing knights such as Lohengrin or Parsifal, or troubadours such as Manrico or Blondel, you are forewarned that you will be seeing individuals much like yourself, individuals who bleed when they are pricked. The dramatic force of Pagliacci lies as much in its tenacious determination to give us a story about very human individuals as it is in its richly, powerfully expressive music.

Stage Director Cynthia Stokes (who makes her debut at OSJ with this production) feels very strongly that the story of Pagliacci is universal. This unfortunate situation is as old as humanity and happens in all cultures at all times. To help remove the distance, to take the action out of a specific time or local, she has asked for a very clean, spacious setting that includes nothing that will define place or time. Pearl-gray geometric shapes, a ramp, an altar-like platform, a curved wall, and a blue horizon to indicate the sea, is all there is until the addition of the backdrop for the commedia dell’arte play. The costumes, however, are true to the clothes of Calabria at the turn of the 20th century. In this nebulous world the clown’s heartbreak spans time, as it could be happening anywhere at any time.

(Editor’s note: If you are interested in exploring the world of verismo opera, the Naxos Music Library has an online playlist of arias in the genre; a site subscription is required.)