September 25, 2015 — Coral Gables, FL — While meeting with character tenor John Easterlin, B.M. ’84, at a café near Lincoln Center in New York on a rare day off, the mild-mannered Miami native seems a far cry from his larger-than-life roles as the arrogant Adolfo Pirelli in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, the lustful Monostatos in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and the colorful Andy Warhol in Philip Glass’s The Perfect American, a role he premiered to critical acclaim at English National Opera.
Hailed for his work in “comprimario,” or supporting roles, the amiable Easterlin traces much of his singing success to the early 1980s with the UM Chamber Singers under the direction of late music professor Lee “Doc” Kjelson.
“Vocal versatility was mandatory,” Easterlin recalls. “Doc insisted his students adopt the motto ‘We do it all, we do it well.’ We had to learn how to produce completely different sounds with our voices. We performed every style from madrigal to pop, rock to jazz. We not only performed, but we did all of the marketing, publicity, set design, scenery, load in and load out. We produced the show.”
Today Easterlin traverses the world performing in major venues and productions. “It’s like watching a great film actor who is also a world class opera singer,” said Marco Bebreda of El Mundo in a review of Easterlin’s performance as The Shabby Peasant in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at Teatro Real in Madrid.
When Easterlin was cast as The Magician in a Glimmerglass production of Menotti’s The Consul, he took character preparation to a new level. He learned and incorporated 54 David Copperfield-level magic tricks, garnered a Guinness World Record for the most magic in an opera production, and was inducted into the professional magicians’ Circle of Magic.
UNDER THE FINGERNAILS OF A CHARACTER
John Easterlin’s interest in the theatrical world started at age 5, when Met opera star Joy Clements, ’56, took the young boy to a Greater Miami Opera dress rehearsal of Hansel and Gretel. (Clements had studied voice at UM, where she was a best friend of Easterlin’s mother, Virginia.)
By age 7, puppetry had become his passion. When he was 10, he presented a series of puppet shows for the children’s ward at Baptist Hospital. His kindness came to the attention of Miami Herald writer and senior editor Jean Wardlow, who featured him in a front-page story titled “The Spirit of Christmas.”
Easterlin and his family moved to Richmond, Mississippi, after his father became a preacher in a local church. Easterlin took elocution lessons with a teacher there, Lola Barrett, who discovered he had the ability to pick up dialects easily.
“She introduced me to a book, Life Studies by Tom Powers, which contained published radio monologues depicting various regional dialects of the United States,” recalls Easterlin, who entered and won a national talent show as one of the Tom Powers characters. “It was Mrs. Barrett’s love of language, her love of a character, that helped me ‘get under the fingernails’ of a character. Because for radio monologues, the vocal has to evoke an entire character, you can’t see the character.”
The family returned to Miami during Easterlin’s high school years. When he completed his studies at UM Frost, Easterlin toured with the professional choral ensemble Fred Waring and The Pennsylvanians. When Waring passed away unexpectedly, Easterlin moved back to Miami and landed a job as an advertising exec at Fox-TV then at A & E. Six years later he was asked one Sunday to sub as a soloist at church. “Out came a voice way beyond college!”
He subsequently sang for friends at a dinner party where Robert Wright and George Forrest, composers of “Stranger in Paradise” were in attendance. They strongly encouraged him to consider moving to New York and turning pro. Easterlin decided he had nothing to lose. “I bought a one-way airline ticket on Delta that departed at 10:10 a.m. on Saturday, September 15, 1990,” he recalls.
While making the audition rounds in New York, Easterlin discovered he had a countertenor extension, meaning he could sing higher than most tenors. He landed a part as radio gossip columnist Mary Sunshine in the musical Chicago. It earned him rave reviews and a quick succession of bookings. His debut at The Metropolitan Opera came 14 years later in a production of Richard Strauss’s Salome. He also appeared on PBS’s Great Performances and Live from Lincoln Center, as well as a telecast, CD, and DVD of Los Angeles Opera’s acclaimed production of Kurt Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, for which he received 2008 Emmy and Peabody Awards and two 2009 Grammy Awards for Opera Recording of the Year and Classical Album of the Year.
PEOPLE PERSON ADAPTS TO THE ROAD
As much as Easterlin is drawn to the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd, he quietly shares that the hardest part of life on the road is “the loneliness factor.” Staging and blocking a new opera production can take three or four weeks, and singers often end up rehearsing the music for only a few hours a day.
He busies himself on the road with focused study about his characters. When preparing for the role of Andy Warhol, for example, he read seven books, watched five documentaries, personally interviewed Warhol’s brother and friends, and studied hundreds of still photos and video of the enigmatic man. He went to the gym every day, “to exercise, sit in the steam room and sauna to sweat and drain every drop of water weight from my body” in order to fit into a body suit that was part of the costuming.
To bring some balance into his touring schedule, Easterlin recently developed a solo show entitled, What a Character: John Easterlin, which he enjoys tremendously. “I love to sing in the ‘pops’ format in concert work. I love John Williams, especially the piece he wrote with Alan and Marilyn Bergman, “If We Were in Love.” It taps into something core, the song transports me, lifts me out of myself.”
Easterlin ends the interview saying, “The School of Music is a big part of who I am. I want to pass it forward. I’d like to come back and talk practically to singers, and to perform on the Gusman stage again.”
He’s getting his wish at Festival Miami 2015, accompanied by pianist Mitchell Cirker.
“You Have to Jump Right In”
While John Easterlin, B.M. ’84, shared his insight on the art of character roles, Score asked other Frost School alumni and faculty members to chime in. Here’s what they said.
“It takes a good actor to play the comprimario roles,” states Assistant Professor Tony Boutté, a renowned tenor who also premieres new roles frequently. “When you step on stage, you have to immediately connect. When you play the lead, you can pace yourself. But for character roles, you have to jump right in.”
“Character parts are usually most often associated with tenors, but sometimes with mezzo-sopranos,” explains Assistant Professor Robynne Redmon, who has performed at The Met and other major opera companies for decades. “The goal is to be able to make a career and a living with our voices. In my experience, most every singer starts out wanting to be a ‘star’ or leading singer. There are many jobs in opera, but not so many stars. If a singer has the ability to make it on the international opera circuit, the singer usually will start out singing supporting roles, though not necessarily what is considered to be ‘character’ parts. Some go on to bigger parts, some drop out, and some find the path of being a character singer.”
Sarita Rachelle Lilly, M.M. ’01, performed as Sister Rose in the New England premiere of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking and for an extended run as The Strawberry Woman in both the Tony Award-winning Broadway production and the First National Tour of The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess. She advises recent graduates to “take time to fall in love with your artistry again. It's surprising how critical and comparative we become in academia. Musicology proves that you have to embrace your own contribution to art even while paying homage to those that came before you.”
This story by Julia Berg first appeared in Score, May 2015, published by the Frost School of Music.
Featured photo of John Easterlin shown above is by Kevin Rawlings, a make up artist at The Metropolitan Opera and publisher of Stars of the Opera which feature John Easterlin as Monostatos and other top opera stars. Used with permission.
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