See this rising star on AVA’s tiny Philly stage, and in Julianne Moore’s new movie ‘Bel Canto’
Philadelphia baritone Ethan Simpson might be stolen away from the opera world just as he is emerging into it. Now in his fourth and last year at the Academy of Vocal Arts, the 27-year-old baritone has a featured role in "Bel Canto," the film version of the celebrated 2001 Ann Patchett novel about opera and terrorism that is available on On Demand and on iTunes Sept. 21.
Philadelphia baritone Ethan Simpson might be stolen away from the opera world just as he is emerging into it. Now in his fourth and last year at the Academy of Vocal Arts, the 27-year-old baritone has a featured role in Bel Canto, the film version of the celebrated 2001 Ann Patchett novel about opera and terrorism that is available on iTunes and On Demand on Sept. 21.
A big break? Or a cul-de-sac that might keep him in his first-love art form?
In Bel Canto's large ensemble cast led by Julianne Moore (with singing voice from Renee Fleming), Simpson's character (Cesar) is a turning point in the story of a famous opera singer held hostage for months by Peruvian terrorists. He suddenly bursts out from his anonymous-looking military garb, singing operatically, letting out pent-up anxiety, imitating the hostage diva but actually sounding like his baritonal self.
It's the Stockholm syndrome in action: Terrorists and hostages see each other as real people. Simpson's character turns out to be an artist trapped in the body of a politically idealistic terrorist.
"I think Cesar is a music prodigy. He only hears her sing once, and then weeks later, maybe months later, he remembers what she sang. If you sat him down and played him a complex tune, he would be able to play it back," said Simpson. "I think Cesar is a weird little guy."
Yet, the fact that Cesar generates so much audience sympathy is perhaps the movie's point. "The human condition is hard and sometimes most certainly cruel, but love never ever fails," said Simpson. "I'm truly excited for the world to see it."
He landed the role while looking through one of many internet clearinghouses for operatic opportunities. Several photos, videos, and resumes later, his charisma and rich voice won the role. He spent six weeks shooting interior scenes in Yonkers, N.Y., before migrating to Mexico City for exterior shots, where this formerly fierce Cesar is so embarrassed by his own singing that he climbs a tree in the courtyard.
Director Paul Weitz was open to Simpson's ideas. Moore was friendly (he refers to her as "Julie") and he loved talking with Ken Watanabe about his work with Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2010 film Inception.
Much of what he learned in the film underscores the dramatic values being instilled in him by AVA music director Christofer Macatsoris, and will no doubt be apparent when Simpson sings in AVA's production of Puccini's La Villi, Nov. 3-17: Though the music remains the highest priority, arias are approached almost like monologues for actors.
His Cesar also left him wondering about the chances he has had in his own life that Peruvian terrorists do not: "Would I have been like Cesar? A conflicted person who wants to create art but doesn't know how?"
Simpson took a winding road to opera starting from the church choirs he sang in growing up in Kansas City, Mo. As an adopted child, he had a packet of information about his biological parents. His unmarried mother — age 15 when he was born — sang and played guitar.
Once he was in an opera chorus during his undergraduate years at Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., Simpson was seduced by Saint-Saens' Samson et Delilah. "I just loved being in the theater. I loved the smell of it. When we were told we could go home, everybody cheered but I longed to stay," he said. "I loved that it was hard to do. I fell in love with being in the practice room, and being in this mode of discovery with different composers, stuff I had never been exposed to."
Simpson's repertoire is evolving toward Verdi baritones. He has already sung the title role of Rigoletto and will sing Germont in La Traviata Oct. 15 at the Martha Cardona Opera in New York City. On the nonoperatic front, future acting work hasn't been encouraging. "It's very, very competitive, even more so than opera," he said. "I'll travel two hours to New York by bus to sit in a room with eight other people who look exactly like me and read three lines. It's a three-minute audition. More like 60 seconds."
As an opera singer working in narrative film, Simpson is not in uncharted territory, although career-making performances don't necessarily lead to more major film roles, like with Julia Migenes (an iconic Carmen in the 1984 Francesco Rosi film) to AVA graduate and area-resident Richard Troxell (who was Pinkerton the 1996 Madame Butterfly film by Frederic Mitterrand).
Troxell enjoys a solid stage career — having just returned from Candide in Santa Fe. But Butterfly auditions required a young man's stamina, including an all-night train trip and learning the needed arias on one-day's notice. After the film's acclaimed release, he encountered covert assumptions: Opera people wondered if he could really sing outside the protected studio confines. On the film side, Troxell's acting chops were untested. In the end, the problem was timing: Opera companies put singers under contract years in advance. Film productions need participants on call at a moment's notice.
Singers can't be faulted for wanting to work in a variety of media. But that's not what Opera Philadelphia president David Devan advises: "Make it clear what the artistic brand is going to be, and invest in communicating that both in performances and outside of performances."
As much as Simpson would like to do it all, the opera world has a dearth of Verdi baritones. "I would love to be something that opera needs," he says.