Opera Philadelphia

Tenor Joseph Gaines Talks World Premieres, Dan Leno & Singing In a Crypt

By Aubrey Nagle

Tenor Joseph Gaines is no stranger to the Opera Philadelphia stage. Just last season, Gaines took on the role of Pong in the acclaimed production of Turandot starring Christine Goerke, and before that joined the company as Inspector Littlechild in Oscar. But this fall, during Opera Philadelphia's inaugural season-opening festival O17, Gaines is creating the brand new role of Dan Leno in Elizabeth Cree, a world premiere chamber opera by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell.

Before this crowd favorite joins us in Philly once again, we chatted about what it's like to play a historical figure on stage and what it's like to sing in a crypt (yes, really). 

What made you want to join the world premiere production of Elizabeth Cree?

After about four projects in as many years, I have a great relationship with Opera Philadelphia, and frankly anything they ask me to do at this point I'm willing to dive in head first. I'm clearly biased, but this company is in my estimation on the vanguard of American opera at this point in history, and I'm always thrilled to be a part of the fine work created by my amazing colleagues there. But of course, all they had to do with Cree was mention the names "Kevin Puts" and "Mark Campbell" and I was instantly sold.

Joseph Gaines
Credit: David Bachman

What do you know about Dan Leno’s real life? Did his history influence your decision to take the role?

I confess I had never heard of Dan Leno until this project came up. In a sense it's completely surprising that I'd never heard of him because he loomed so large in this tremendously popular "music hall" tradition. But, frankly, just as his star was ascendant (in the 1880s, around the same time as the story for Cree), this whole tradition was gradually starting to wane in popularity. Leno was in many ways its apotheosis. This whole, very specific theatrical tradition has largely faded from our collective memory, though it very much lives on in a thousand subtle ways in modern comedy, music, and theater. Regardless, Dan Leno was such an intensely creative human being—he really took this established tradition and made it his own—that that made me want to portray him and create his character in Cree all the more.

How will you integrate the historical figure into the character, if at all?

Dan Leno the person came from extreme poverty in the provinces outside London. By the time he had arrived on the London circuit, he was already a hugely successful performer, and in many ways was able to write his own ticket. Given that, in the arc of his life, he knew everything from wealth and renown to extreme poverty, hunger, and disappointment, there are tremendous riches to be found the true story of his life. It's a safe bet that I'll be mining everything I can find out about his actual experiences to incorporate into Dan Leno the character as much as possible. Frankly, the biggest contrasts you'll see onstage are already written into the text and the score by Kevin and Mark; the stark differences between his high-energy, over-the-top characterizations as a stage performer versus his straightforward but wry and often melancholic interactions as a human being are on full display during the unfolding of Cree's dark and thrilling storyline.

How is preparation for a world premiere different that preparing for a traditional role, or a role already in your repertoire?

As I mentioned in our live New York Times broadcast [of Cree excerpts from The Crypt Sessions, below], in the case of a world premiere we performers are really given a "tabula rasa" (a blank slate) when it comes to these characters. It's tremendously liberating, because frankly there are no expectations built into our opening night; there's no performance history to which to compare our interpretations. We have principally just the words and the music before us, and further are so lucky to have the composer and librettist present to guide us in their vision along every step of the way. That's absolutely a huge, huge gift and opportunity, because then our audiences will really have to respond to what they see and hear on its own merits, rather than having to decide how what they experience measures up to the other three or six or twelve interpretations they might have seen or heard in their lifetimes.  Of course, what we do will clearly be informed and refined as much as possible—but it will also be utterly fresh and new.

Is this role musically different than previous roles you’ve done? If so, how?

Actually it is, indeed! Much of Dan Leno's music in Cree is written for when he is performing on the music hall stage (a performance within the performance, as it were), and Kevin and Mark have masterfully created a number of moments that call for something more than and different from your standard lyrical singing—but also with tremendous energy, exactitude, and stage presence. Dan Leno was a true showman with as much an improvisational and intense creativity as Robin Williams, Eddie Izzard, or any of the regulars on Monty Python back in the day. He brought something completely new to a then well-established style of entertainment, which is a large part of why he was ultimately so successful. He was thoroughly unique on the music hall circuit of the late 19th-century. Think practiced silliness undergirded with both broad talent and a constantly churning intelligence, and you get the idea.  Then contrast those moments in Cree with those when he is either alone or conversing with just one other person; his vocalism and mood completely change into something more still and somber. For Dan, there's a refreshing depth of character built directly into the score itself.

What was it like to perform at The Crypt Sessions?

That was easily one of THE coolest venues in which I've ever performed. It is, quite literally, a sacred space; the crypt is an actual columbarium with people's ashes interred in the walls around us. It brought a spiritual depth to the event which made me want to honor those around us with the absolute best we had to offer. The space is all stone, and thus very live, though when we added the intimate audience of fifty or so persons it was dampened enough to become a perfect acoustic for our purposes. The crypt is set below ground, directly below the sanctuary of the Church of the Intercession—and the entrance is a set of steps descending to beneath the church from an adjacent graveyard. When the heavy, wooden doors closed, the typically busy sounds of upper Manhattan receded into silence, and we were left alone with nothing but the piano, our voices, some candlelight, and those who gathered to hear us. It was thrilling!

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