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The American Precedent

Baritone Dwayne Croft may be playing the title role in 'Don Giovanni,' but his theatrics and fame are home-grown.

April 18, 1999|JAN BRESLAUER | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Dwayne Croft, one of the rising stars of the Metropolitan Opera, is a prime exemplar of the new breed of singer. He's got the right stuff, that is, for a world where "stand and sing" declamation has gone the way of Feodor Chaliapin and Rosa Ponselle, and a production isn't really considered a hit unless it crops up on TV.

Tall, trim and photogenic, Croft is clearly ready for his close-up. He is as often praised for his naturalistic acting as for his opulent voice. And although his star was already in ascent at the time, it was last spring's telecast of the Met's "Billy Budd"--in which he sang the title role--that really brought the singer national name recognition.

All artists, of course, are a product of their epoch--a fact not lost on the baritone. "A lot of that has to do with what opera has become," says Croft, referring to the fuss that's been made about his thespian skills. "Since television's become more important, it's become more of a media event. The acting has become more important, and the way you look physically has become much more important. I think that also draws in a bigger audience too, because people can start to get into the drama of it as well as the music.

"Opera used to be more for the [live] audience and making these big gestures so that the people in the family circle could see what's going on," he continues. "I used to sit up there [in the highest balcony] when I was in college. You can only see this little figure down on the stage. You can't see their facial expression. I know that what I do now on stage, without binoculars, you wouldn't be able to pick it up."

You would certainly be able to hear it, though, as Los Angeles audiences can attest. The singer is making his company debut in L.A. Opera's most recent revival of its Jonathan Miller production of "Don Giovanni," which opened last week.

Nurtured in the Metropolitan's Young Artists program during the early '90s, the 38-year-old Croft has triumphed in that much-vaunted house in the title roles of works as varied as "Eugene Onegin," "The Barber of Seville," "Pelleas and Melisande" and "Don Giovanni." This fall, he appeared in the Met's starry "Marriage of Figaro," featuring Cecilia Bartoli, Renee Fleming and Bryn Terfel, among others. And next season, Croft will create the role of narrator Nick Carraway in the much-anticipated world premiere of John Harbison's "The Great Gatsby," based on the 1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, also at the Met.

"Dwayne is one of the most beloved artists at the Met and a great favorite of the audiences here," says Metropolitan Opera assistant manager Sarah Billinghurst. "He has a wonderful voice and is very elegant on stage. He's always had a beautiful voice, but he's become more confident, and his presence on stage has grown. He really is one of the best young American artists around."

What's striking about Croft's connection to the Met, in fact, is the extent to which he's built his career there. While common wisdom still holds that a young singer must put in time in Europe to launch his career, Croft has made his mark largely on domestic soil. "He's really a home-grown product of the Met--an artist who really has made his career in America and whose career in Europe is just starting," says Billinghurst. "It's unusual for a singer to be as totally American grown as this."

*

Croft may have the nerves of steel it takes to sing on the Met stage, but he's not one of those performers who's comfortable in a constant spotlight. Indeed, he was full of jitters as he sat for an interview in an office in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion one recent morning. Polite and congenial, he nonetheless appeared surprisingly ill at ease for a seasoned performer.

Shifting in his seat and looking around the nearly empty room, Croft peppered his speech with false starts, "you knows" and "ums." When answering questions, he would often look away, as though being watched made the task all the more difficult.

Hours later, however, a different Croft appeared. Striding into an evening rehearsal, he was composed, confident and friendly. Even in the stop-and-start context of an Act 1 work session, it's easy to detect the magnetism and dulcet tones Croft brings to "Don Giovanni." Playing off the charismatic antics of Richard Bernstein's Leporello, or wending his way through a bevy of fan-fluttering maidens, Croft's Don is as assured as Croft the interviewee was uneasy. He has an effortless camaraderie with his fellow performers and seems ever the gentleman--whether lifting a dancer here, whirling two more there or engaging in boisterous musical repartee with Bernstein.

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