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Madrid City in English
Monday 19th of November 2018
Laura Stephens 22nd of January 2013 by editor 22nd of January 2013
Photo: c Teatro Real/Javier del Real
The perfect American for The Perfect American?

With a story that imagines a darker side to the character of Walt Disney, Madrid’s Teatro Real is hosting the premiere of the opera The Perfect American. Opera singer John Easterlin, who takes the role of Andy Warhol in the production, talks to InMadrid’s Laura Stephens about his experience and preparation

I arrange to meet American opera singer John Easterlin outside the Teatro Real, since his Madrid digs are a stone’s throw from the stage door. He’s in town to play Andy Warhol in The Perfect American, Teatro Real’s new opera by esteemed minimalist and classical composer Philip Glass. Standing on the corner of the Plaza de Isabel II and Calle Arenal, I scan the crowd for likely figures. It’s a slight stab in the dark since in the photos I’ve seen of John, he never looks like the same person twice. In one photo, for example, he’s a smart figure―suave even―dressed in a tuxedo, yet in another he appears as a town simpleton in dungarees. And it’s not just the make-up and costumes disguising his form, but his face too seems to change depending on the role. I tell him this later and he laughs: “Yeah, I think my face is made of rubber!” he says.

            As I wait outside Ópera metro station I see a figure in the distance wearing jeans, trainers and a heavy winter sports coat, shuffling towards the assigned meeting place. He looks like the stereotype of an American tourist and the furthest one could imagine from a world-class opera singer. As he gets closer I see his hair is coiffed and possibly tinted a reddish auburn hue, with perhaps a hint of make up on his face? Surely only an American opera singer could team trainers and make-up.


Point of change

Easterlin, a highly praised Emmy, Peabody and two-time Grammy award-winning tenor, has been a working opera singer for the past 11 years, having started his career first as a puppeteer, then later as a successful Broadway theatre actor. His rise to opera stardom came when he was discovered singing in a theatre production, and was recommended to self-proclaimed opera guru and one time artistic director of the Welsh National Opera, Matthew Epstein.

            Easterlin initially balked at the idea of opera. “My perception at that point was that it was very staid, and that the people weren’t in the best shape and were definitely not actors,” he says. “I’d been taken to the Metropolitan Opera in New York to see their old production of The Magic Flute, and was so bored that I actually fell asleep. Everybody was just sort of standing about.” He explains that Epstein did his best to convince him. “Matthew said ‘you’re right, but it’s changing, and you could be a part of that change. There are a lot of people that are coming into it now who are good actors, who go to the gym rather than the sweet shop, and who are very committed to telling the story’.”


Research and development

He accepted the challenge and was quickly treading the boards at some of the world’s most prestigious theatres, including New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and the Opéra National de Paris. How does he feel about his crossover from theatre? “In theatre you can get in a long-running show on Broadway, if you’re lucky, that plays eight times a week for years. In opera you’ll do a run that lasts for eight shows. There will be no preview period. At the first public performance, the critics will be there. It accelerates everything.”

            This relatively short running period doesn’t stop the singer from intensively researching a role, and despite only having a few minutes of stage time in The Perfect American, he found out everything there is to know about Andy Warhol. “The challenge of this role is how I can convey everything that’s needed about Andy Warhol at that moment in time, in that brief amount of time.” He read numerous biographies of the 60s pop-artist, as well as Andy Warhol’s own writings, including the mammoth 800 page Andy Warhol Diaries, and watched documentaries about and by the artist. “I really believe that you can never be armed with too much information,” he continues, “even if it’s just for a momentary reaction, it’ll make a difference to what I do on stage.”

            He even met a couple of people who had known the artist. “I met a bar tender at a bar Warhol frequented for years. He said Andy would sit quietly in the corner, unseen. This guy would go over periodically and chat. Then I talked to someone who was part of [Warhol’s iconic 60s studio] the Factory, so I got to hear about the professional Warhol and the Warhol with his guard down.” All of this research has helped Easterlin in truly personifying the character and when the time came to try on his costume for the show, he amazed those involved. “The designer put the blonde wig on my head and the make-up artist started to cut it into that iconic Warhol look, and suddenly my face changed,” he smiles. “The designer said ‘it’s like you’ve transformed yourself already, I’m getting a chill!’ I was looking at myself, and something in my face had changed; I could see Warhol.”


Thirst for knowledge

This level of intensive research and personification is something Easterlin brings to every role. After being cast as the Magician in the premiere of The Consul at the Glimmerglass Opera Festival, he spent three months training with a top magician. “I learned 48 high-end tricks. The critics went out of their mind. It was wonderful to be armed with that knowledge.” For a production of The Marriage of Figaro, in which he played the relatively small role of attorney Don Curzio, he took self-financed calligraphy classes and researched the Spanish judicial system of the opera’s setting. He went as far as to research which items attorneys from that era kept in their desks, and requested various things from the props department. “The director said ‘the audience won’t be able to see!’ and I said ‘I’ll be able to see’.”

            Aside from this method-acting style approach to his roles, Easterlin also has to train intensively in ways more commonly associated with opera singers. To learn the librettos of the non-English language productions in which he has appeared, he visits a coach who is native in that particular language, be it Russian, Czech, Italian or German. However, Easterlin likes to dig deeper than some. “I not only have to know how to pronounce and sing, I need to understand the text so that as I’m singing these words I know how it relates to the character.” It is something he works at to such an extent that he has even fooled natives. He says, laughing, “my first Russian opera at the Metropolitan in New York was The Gambler by Prokofiev and most of the cast were Russian. In a break on the first day the man in the title role began talking to me. I had no idea what he was saying.” The man was shocked to discover Easterlin was American. Easterlin continues, “He said ‘when singing, your Russian is so perfect that I thought you were Russian!’”


Fast forward

This year looks set to be Easterlin’s busiest, and perhaps most eclectic, yet. He flies to New York immediately after The Perfect American, to start rehearsals for Neal Goren’s production of Elio Gavalo, one of the world’s oldest operas. It will be staged in the unusual location of a lower east side nightclub called the Box, a modern-day burlesque private club, normally frequented by, Easterlin says, “wealthy Wall Street types”. About the production’s director, he adds, “Neal only presents operas that are extremely rare and he’ll find the most unusual settings to put them on. They get such great press, and the opera people will come. They will travel wherever he is.”

            After that comes a turn as another iconic American figure, Larry King, in the North American premiere of Anna Nicole the Opera. With two productions in London also scheduled for this year (The Perfect American will play at the London Coliseum in June), he will see out 2013 in Lion King director Julie Taymor’s Metropolitan Opera production of The Magic Flute. “I’m very excited!” he says happily, “and it’s interesting that the very opera that put me to sleep all those years ago will now mark my tenth production for the Met.”


Madrid molestias

Having spent time in Madrid for previous productions, and been here for the past few months rehearsing this particular role, I ask him how he likes our fine city. “I can speak a little Spanish now, mainly because of a programme called Intercambio. But it’s hard to move to another city, and I think it’s been especially hard in Madrid,” he admits, alluding to the language barrier. “Sometimes I’m in the tintoria, the drycleaners, and the woman is talking to me and it’s like one long word. I envision it as this thing that flies out of her mouth, over my shoulder and hits the wall behind me, bypassing me completely!” With not a finer metaphor spoken about the difficulties of language and living in a foreign land, we leave the café and stroll out into the Madrid afternoon.

The Perfect American is at the TeatroReal, Plaza Isabel II, s/n (Metro: Ópera). Tel:
91 516 06 00.  Performances are on 22,24, 27 & 30 Jan, and 1, 3, 4 & 6 Feb. See full details

Further information & Map: Teatro Real

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