Star Baritone Discusses Singing As 'Cyrano' For Upcoming Opera Company Production

By Lewis Whittington, The Bulletin

Philadelphia - When baritone Marian Pop was contemplating a career as a violinist in Romania, he so disliked the stage that he thought he would quit pursuing music performance as a career.

That was then. Now playing on opera stages and in concert halls around the world, the singer's stage jitters have vanished. "I love it," he said in an interview last week. He will get the chance to display that love and his cinematic stage presence while debuting as the title role in the Opera Company of Philadelphia's premiere of "Cyrano." His image as the prominently schnozzled hero adorns show banners along Broad Street.

The new opera, a coproduction of OCP and Michigan Opera Theatre, had a short world premiere in Detroit last fall. Based on Edmond Rostand's 1897 play "Cyrano de Bergerac," this ariatic version is the creation of composer David DiChiera, a founding director of MOT, and librettist Bernard Uzan, who is directing the production.

The story of Cyrano, renowned for his large, unironic proboscis, has remained one of the most enduring romantic characters around, and has been memorialized in several stage and screen productions, including Steve Martin's 1987 film, "Roxanne."

This is great raw material for opera: "Cyrano's problem is that he hates himself," says Mr. Pop. "Everybody who has a complex - you say that in English, yes? - develops other things to compensate."

Cyrano overcomes ridicule about his large nose by becoming a great swordfighter, writer and poet, but gets both physically hurt while swordfighting, and emotionally bruised as the hidden suitor of Roxane. He vicariously woos Roxane by writing her beautiful letters, used by her hopelessly tongue-tied suitor Christian to make her fall in love with him. But Christian is clueless about how to win her heart without Cyrano's letters, and Roxane has no idea that Cyrano is the author of the beautiful prose.

Mr. Pop, sounding a little gravely, dashed through a Friday morning downpour to grab a bite before rehearsal, and talk about what it takes to build a convincing Cyrano. He kicked back at the Cosi down the street from the Academy.

"This is very friendly and safe place," he said with a laugh, as things bang ominously in the background. "I love this city; it's a beautiful place, and I also have some relatives here. This opera house looks like the houses I am used to in Europe."

Between productions of "Cyrano," Mr. Pop did some freelance work, taking two months off to perform concerts in Romania's capital city and other locations in Europe.

"In Bucharest, I did 'The Barber of Seville,' because they had never heard me there. In St. Petersburg, I did 'Carmina Burana,'" he said. "It's great working with different people, artists, mentalities."

Originally from Cluj Napoca (Kloozh' Nah poh' kah) in Transylvania, the baritone has a silky Eastern European accent, and once even shot an opera film in the ruins of Castle Dracula.

While practicing for the heroic role last week, Mr. Pop bruised the back of his hand, but was relishing the thought of returning for more swashbuckling and the chance to sharpen the vocal subtleties of the role.

"Cyrano is fearless," said Mr. Pop, who says he like to consider how a character arrived at a certain point in his life, which affects how he expresses himself onstage. "I like to bring as much physical knowledge as possible to a part."

Soprano Evelyn Pollock will be joining Mr. Pop on stage as Roxane and Stephen Costello, an AVA graduate who made his debut at The Met in 2007, will play Christian. "Evelyn is an absolutely great singer, and Stephen is going to be one of our best tenors. I feel honored being around these great voices," said Mr. Pop.

Mr. Pop is looking forward to this stage of the opera's development. "In Detroit, we had to do everything from scratch -from nothing - and now we are much further. The main parts are big, [but] now we are pretty much ready for it," he said. "Our director wrote the libretto and knows it by heart. He communicates to us want he wants in an instant. We are lucky to have a director who knows language. He made a point from the very beginning that we would work together to develop these characters," said Mr. Pop.

"'Cyrano' is written in a romantic style, but musically it has a rhythmic element in the bars. It's one of the characteristics of David DiChiera's composing style," said Mr. Pop. "It keeps the singer awake and gives a spontaneity to the actors. It's more like a movie style, in the opera you expect when they are going to start the musicality. Here, it feels like the action of the character starts the music. It took me a while to realize this. I love that."

The Opera Company of Philadelphia's East Coast premiere of "Cyrano" opens at the Academy of Music Friday, and runs through Feb. 17. Tickets are $7.50 to $115, and can be purchased by calling 215 732-8400.

Lewis Whittington can be reached at lwhitti284@aol.com