Years of hard work pay off for a rising California opera star

Three years ago, when internationally known baritone Rodney Gilfry interviewed for the role of Stanley Kowalski in Andre Previn's operatic setting of Tennessee Williams's "A Streetcar Named Desire," he left nothing to chance.

With a four-day beard, faded jeans, a torn T-shirt, and enough grease in his hair to upset the Environmental Protective Agency (the Marlon Brando influence), Gilfry made sure he got the part. His voice and his acting forged the final seal of approval.

Disciplined, talented, and well-trained, here was a natural who was raised in a classical-musical family: his mother, a fine singer; his father, a conductor in high school, college, and the military. Then there was Gilfry's blond good looks, the pro-football body at 6 ft., 3 in., and 190 pounds, and a voice that could hold a note longer than the Chase Manhattan Bank.

Today, Gilfry, who speaks four languages and lives in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., is so popular with opera companies worldwide that he is often booked years ahead.

For example, when the operatic version of the movie "Sophie's Choice" has its world première in London in December 2002, Gilfry will play a major role.

Go back to September 2001, though, and you'd find him memorizing 20 pages of dialogue for a major American movie that will be shot in Turkey. Scheduled to be shown and marketed big in the United States, this could be one of those breakthrough opportunities that can define a career. That's important to Gilfry because, perhaps for the first time, he will spend a lot more energy talking and acting than singing.

"I don't want to be considered just an opera star any more," Gilfry says. "I want to do other things regularly, including films, television, and Broadway. There was a time when my wife and I weren't ready to make the adjustment for something that demanding. But as you grow as an entertainer and can budget the time, I think it's only natural to want to stretch your limits."

A husband and father first

This month, Gilfry has a cabaret-type show scheduled for Hollywood. Waiting in November is the role of Joe in "Most Happy Fella," part of this year's Reprise! Series at the Freud Playhouse on the UCLA campus.

"I've always considered myself a husband and father first, and want to spend as much time as I can with my family [a son, 16; and two daughters, 12 and 14]," Gilfry says. "And while I don't like the idea of being away from my family perhaps 186 days a year, with most of my colleagues the number exceeds 300."

When Gilfry graduated as a music-education major from California State University at Fullerton in 1980, it was with the idea of becoming a choral teacher. Even though he had built a solid but limited reputation as a soloist with the university's choir, going further as a performer didn't seem like a reasonable option.

That is, until Gilfry began to study for his master's degree under Charles Roe at the University of Southern California. Roe, a troubleshooter for the Musical Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, Calif., suddenly found himself without a singer-actor to play a key role in "Romeo and Juliet."

Saying yes to Roe's invitation was probably one of the smartest things Gilfry ever did.

It was while performing at the Musical Academy that Gilfry met the late French baritone Martial Singher, a renowned opera star with whom Gilfry would study for the next six years.

"Even though Singher's home base was in Santa Barbara, and I lived in Claremont, meaning a two-hour drive for me each way, twice a week, for a one-hour lesson, it was worth it," Gilfry says.

Mr. Singher helped Gilfry meet the demands of producing the music without strain. He emphasized shaping notes, understanding resonances, and proper technique.

"Later, I was able to learn a lot of things on my own, like the importance of establishing my personal technique, because every voice is different," Gilfry says.

"In making a role meaningful, there has to be color in the voice. You have to understand the words. You have to understand the emotion of the characters. You have to play the role mentally as well as physically.

"One of the worst mistakes an opera star can make is to play a part that doesn't fit his voice or his personality."

Beginning in 1987, Gilfry spent the better part of seven years studying and performing in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland.

Asked what advice he would give to would-be opera stars just starting out, he replies: "Go to Europe for a few years, where there is more classical music and more opera than we have in the United States. To me, it's an irreplaceable experience, essential for artistic development because of the differences in language and culture."

To enjoy Gilfry at his finest is to see him in "Billy Budd," the opera based on Herman Melville's novel about a doomed young sailor. The role calls for everything Gilfry is: young-looking, strong, gentle, and with a voice that often seems as powerful as the sea, perfect for the music he has to sing.

Gilfry used to believe that the most important quality opera casting directors looked for was the performer's voice. In other words, if a man was too short, too tall, too fat, too thin, not much of an actor, or Norwegian when he should be Japanese to play the part, the producers could handle that. But if the singer couldn't handle the vocal demands, forget it: The producers would go out and find someone who can.

Choosing music or wrestling

Today, that rationale has changed, Gilfry says. For example, anyone whose stomach hangs over his belt can forget about auditioning for the part of Billy Budd. On the woman's side, all the would-be Carmens have to watch their weight, too.

Although it's funny now, Gilfry says his high school years in Claremont as both a singer and a member of his high school wrestling team were not without their embarrassing moments. Chief among them was the afternoon Gilfry had to choose between singing at a choral festival or competing in a varsity wrestling match. He picked the choral festival.

Perhaps if Claremont High had won the wrestling tournament, his coach (after making a crack about Gilfry being off with the girls somewhere) would not have ordered him to sing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" for his teammates.

"At first, I didn't want to do it," Gilfry says. "But then I thought - why not give this everything you've got and maybe they'll like it."

It worked - his wrestling teammates clapped, hollered, whistled, and stamped their feet in approval "in front of a very unhappy coach!"

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