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Reaping What He Sows

When a new opera goes into production, tenor John Duykers, who's also a part-time vegetable farmer, is often on the short list.

June 15, 1997|John Henken | John Henken is a frequent contributor to Calendar

There was a time when virtually all opera was contemporary opera. Quite a lot of time, actually, like the first three-quarters of the form's entire 400-year history. Only in this century have singers been able to build major careers without doing new work.

"In the past, most singers were doing new operas," tenor John Duykers says. "Most don't now. But I think that's what it's all about--most of what we do should be new."

When a company does venture a new work, Duykers, 52, is probably on the short list for an important role in the production. By his own calculations, he's done 55 productions of 20th century operas since his 1966 debut with Seattle Opera, including 31 world or U.S. premieres. He has created such roles as Mao Tse-tung in John Adams' "Nixon in China," Enoch Pratt in Carlisle Floyd's "The Passion of Jonathan Wade" and, earlier this season, the Chief Inquisitor in the San Diego Opera world premiere of Myron Fink's "The Conquistador."

When he does sing earlier music, it is usually nonstandard repertory in cutting-edge productions, such as Pierre Audi's "The Return of Ulysses," in which he sang Iro for L.A. Opera last month. This afternoon and next Saturday evening he sings Luca in "From the House of the Dead" for Long Beach Opera, in what the company believes is only the second production in this country of Leos Janacek's final opera, a complex work that had its world premiere in 1930 after the composer's death and no U.S. staging until 1990, at New York City Opera.

"I've done quite a lot of character roles, such as Iro in 'Ulysses,' " Duykers notes. "For me, what's interesting about doing Luca is that he's a straight man. He's the person in the prison who all the other men look up to.

"Janacek's music is very rewarding, but it's difficult to nail perfectly. That is mostly to do with pulse and time. There's no sonic emphasis on the downbeat, and putting this music into the context of the character can be tough. In my big monologue, I'm telling a story, but there are long pauses between phrases. How do you find continuity there, and then when some rapid phrases come up, how do you maintain intelligibility?"

Based on Dostoevsky's "Memoirs From the House of the Dead," Janacek's large, multifaceted opera of compassion, forgiveness and redemption tells the stories of four prisoners in sweeping monologues. The score, which calls for a large orchestra, was completed for its premiere after the composer's death by two of his students, and there have been more than a few editions of it. The Long Beach Opera performances, conducted by Neal Stulberg, will use the Charles Mackerras score and an ad hoc Americanization of David Pountney's English translation.

Despite the title and setting, the work is not universally grim or introspective. There is a chain of comic interludes in the second act, and the Long Beach staging is highly physical, Duykers reports, with the prisoners actually constructing a wall onstage. The director for the production is Julian Webber from the SoHo Repertory Theater in New York, and Duykers has found him very helpful.

"He is very inventive and inquisitive--and very musical," Duykers says. "He's able to go right to a phrase and find a gesture or something that clarifies everything."

Digging into phrases and discovering how the music works is something to which Duykers can relate. In fact, it is an interest that lies at the core of his passion for new and unusual music.

"I've always been fascinated by composers," he says. "My first wife, Janice Giteck, is a composer, and my son Max is a composer. I'm always interested in how the music works. In the '70s, I had a company in the Bay Area, the Port Costa Players, and we commissioned new music-theater works from composers such as Paul Dresher and Vivian Fine."

Duykers comes by his musical interests naturally enough, if from the unlikely precinct of Butte, Mont. His father was a baker from Holland who loved to sing--his family formed its own Liederkranz, or singing society, at home--and Duykers grew up with opera records in the house. In high school, Duykers did theater as well as studied piano and flute.

"I began my formal training at Oberlin [College] as a flutist," Duykers says. "But I was never really attracted by the prospect of playing in an orchestra, where you get a good solo maybe a half-dozen times a year. I guess I have a kind of solo mentality."

A teacher had advised him not to study voice too early, so he didn't meet his first voice teacher, Leon Lishner, until Oberlin and then followed him to the University of Washington. In his early career, Duykers sang as a baritone, and it was not until the mid-'70s that he became a tenor.

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