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Wells Takes The Bold Path

July 07, 1985|MARC SHULGOLD

In conversation, bass-baritone Jeffrey Wells is charmingly outspoken and fearless--qualities befitting his role of Don Giovanni in Los Angeles Opera Theatre's season-opener Tuesday night at the Wiltern.

"Yeah, this is my first 'Don Giovanni,' " he admits with a Southern drawl. "I swore I'd never do Mozart, and actually, this is the only one I'll consider doing. This one has some meat on it. The others are too wimpy for me."

The 32-year-old New Orleans-born-and-bred singer is non-apologetic about his lack of formal musical training: "I have a natural voice. I've only had six formal lessons in singing technique," he boasts. "The only voice teacher I ever studied with worked solely on artistic interpretation. He told me I was good and I told him I was going to sing at the Met. So I packed my bags and went to New York."

This was in 1980, the year of his professional debut. No, not at the Met.

"When I got there, I decided to start with (New York) City Opera," Wells recalls. "So I called (general director Beverly) Sills' office. By a fluke, she answered the phone. Well, she thought I was a bold son-of-a-gun, so she arranged an audition." That season, Wells went on tour with the company, singing Dr. Grenvil in "La Traviata."

While his three "Don Giovannis" with Opera Theatre this week will mark his local debut, Wells has garnered enough roles--and attention--during his brief career to back up his unbreakable faith in himself. Appearances at Washington Opera led to a meeting with composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who took the young singer to Spoletto, Italy. There he sang in Menotti's "Consul" and was introduced to the role of Anthony in Samuel Barber's "Anthony and Cleopatra." A subsequent recording of same won a Grammy and, Wells states flatly, that really launched his career.

In recent years he has sung contemporary or standard Italian operas almost exclusively. ("No German repertory," he says. "Absolutely zilch. It'll probably stay that way, too.")

All in all, not a bad start for a fellow who traveled the Deep South for six years as a Southern Baptist evangelist before becoming, for a spell, a practicing chiropractor. ("I still do a little manipulation and acupuncture on my colleagues," he notes.) He did , however, study music at Louisiana State for three years. Nonetheless, Wells insists that most of his singing education has come on stage.

"One season I did 13 'Sonnambulas' in Washington. Each night I tried something different. I just let my instincts carry me. At the end of the run, people told me how much my voice had improved."

Wells was hired earlier this year by Johanna Dordick, former head of Opera Theatre. To this date, the two have never met. "I swear I've never sung for that lady," he says. "But she called and told me she'd been watching me and wanted me to sing Don Giovanni. Which is fine with me, because there are no decent singers in that role these days. That's one of 10 roles I'd like to have so perfect for me that I'm known for them.

"I believe I've got everything it takes to be potentially the best there is." And Wells' thoughts on the role of the classic lover? "I'm going to act the socks off this thing, to make him (Don Giovanni) more real. I think he doesn't want to hurt a soul, but he's not scared of anything."

Sounds like a certain singer from New Orleans.

BOWL OPENING: In an unusual coincidence, the Los Angeles Philharmonic officially opens its summer season at Hollywood Bowl the same night L.A. Opera Theatre opens its season at the Wiltern.

On Tuesday, Leonard Slatkin will occupy the podium for the first of four concerts in Cahuenga Pass this week. The program lists Schuman's "American Festival" Overture, Saint-Saens' Piano Concerto No. 2 (with Andre Watts as soloist) and Dvorak's "New World" Symphony. Slatkin returns on Thursday, with pianist Yefim Bronfman as soloist. The agenda: Glinka's "Ruslan and Ludmilla" Overture, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5.

Dame Kiri te Kanawa will appear in recital and in concert this week: Wednesday, with pianist Martin Katz, in a program of songs and arias by Handel, Mozart, Strauss and Duparc, plus folk song arrangements by Canteloube and Gamley. The latter includes a ditty that will be appreciated by those occupying the benches at the Bowl: "Can Ye Sew Cushions." Over the weekend, the New Zealand-born soprano joins Slatkin and the Philharmonic for an evening of instrumental and vocal music of Vienna. The Friday and Saturday concerts mark Te Kanawa's Philharmonic debut.

"SEEHEAR" TO BE SEEN AND HEARD: First, there was "The Way of How" in 1981. Then came "are are" in 1983. Finally, in the spring of last year, the Paul Dresher-George Coates collaboration known as the "How" Trilogy was completed with the premiere in Berkeley of "Seehear." On Friday and Saturday, the final installment of the music-theater trilogy will receive its local premiere in Royce Hall, UCLA, site of the Southern California premiere two years ago of "The Way of How."

The Bay Area-based George Coates Performance Works will present the piece, with Coates directing and Dresher providing the music. Soloists include tenors John Duykers and Rinde Eckert (the latter a member of Dresher's chamber ensemble), soprano Thomasa Eckert and mime Hitomi Ikuma. Roger Nelson will conduct. Though the composer prefers the term pre-maximalist to describe his music, some pigeonholers describe it as minimalist. Others prefer to label his theater pieces as merely ungrammatical.

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