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The Stuff Waiters' Dreams Are Made Of

Singing while serving meals proved valuable training for baritone Earle Patriarco.

November 26, 2000|DIANE HAITHMAN | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

You want some Puccini with that?

It wasn't quite like serving up opera instead of French fries when baritone Earle Patriarco was working his way through school as a singing waiter at Miceli's restaurant in Hollywood--but close. It's an Italian place, so it was more like a side of spaghetti.

But for Patriarco, 34, mixing opera with pasta was the best training for a young singer. "We'd get up and sing an aria, and then say: 'May I take your order please?' " he says with a laugh. "I sang there for seven years; I learned almost as much from the people at Miceli's as I did from my professors at school. It took a lot of the pretension out of being an opera singer."

For Patriarco, a native Southern Californian who holds a bachelor's degree in music from Biola University in La Mirada and a master's from USC, opera is no longer the side dish--it's the main course. At the end of this month, he will make his debut with Los Angeles Opera, in the company's revival of its production of Puccini's "La Boheme," directed by filmmaker Herb Ross. The production features soprano Leontina Vaduva and Aquiles Machado as the tragic young lovers Mimi and Rodolfo.

Patriarco plays Marcello, Rodolfo's best friend and a character who might be right at home over a pizza at Miceli's. "Marcello is a very earthy person, a very passionate person," Patriarco says. "He's one of those guys who, if you get him in bar, he's almost coarse, he'll cuss you out. But if you get to the inner person, he is probably the most conservative of all of them."

The role represents the next step in a blossoming career that already includes frequent appearances with the Metropolitan Opera and appearances with other major opera companies around the world, including Seattle Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Boston Lyric Opera, Opera National de Paris, Berlin Staatsoper and Madrid's Teatro Real. Patriarco's first major recording, the role of Lescaut in Massenet's "Manon," was recently released on the EMI Classics label.

"Listen, I sing regularly at the Met, I just made my first major recording, I'm here at L.A. Opera," he says with a modest shrug during a conversation at the opera company's offices at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. "I must be doing something right."

But even after more than a decade away from waiting tables, working four jobs at a time and trying to make ends meet with gigs as a soloist at churches and women's clubs, Patriarco still approaches his career with no pretension. He attributes his success to holding a strong work ethic, maintaining his Christian faith and keeping his priorities in order.

Becoming a father at a young age is a big part of it, he says. He married wife Kristin, whom he met singing in the chorale at Biola, at age 20, and they had their first child when Patriarco was 21. The couple has three children, Joshuah, 13; Chloe, 5; and 2-year-old Amy. The family lives in a small town just outside Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

"She is a mom, the most underrated job in the world," he says of his wife. "I go in front of crowds, they yell 'bravo' while she's trying to wipe the spit off the baby's chin. We have a really good balance, because we know what's important."

And, he adds, being grounded is doubly important when you're usually on an airplane, headed far from your family. "If you look at the lifestyle of the opera singer, up and down the ladder it's divorce, divorce, divorce," he says. "It's incredibly difficult on a family. I'm in L.A. for five weeks, and she's in New York. If you ask what most singers want, they'll tell you--if they're honest--that the thing they crave most is routine."

Christopher Harlan, who is directing the revival based on Ross' staging of the opera, says Patriarco's down-to-earth approach is reflected in his work onstage.

"It's more than just a voice for me," Harlan says. "Hitting the right notes and putting the right spin on the text, doing the musicality of it, I think, has to be a given; if you are going to be a doctor, you have to know where to cut. It's what's on top of it that I find valuable, the stage presence, being convincing onstage in what he's doing. And the sense of being a good colleague is something I appreciate--we're having such a riot in rehearsal, the camaraderie is incredible.

"And he said something the other day, which was very interesting, about growing up and maturing. He said, 'It's amazing what happens to you when you have a child.' He is much more focused," Harlan continues. "Now, for example, he's going to be singing in a production of 'La Boheme' at the Met, and he's not singing the lead baritone part, Marcello--he's singing a secondary role, the part of Schaunard. And rather than being upset and insulted and all that, he says: 'I'll be in New York, I'll get to be with my family, and I'm still earning a living.' "

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