Except for an occasional break to resume his opera career briefly (Merry Widow, Carmen), Paulo Szot has been performing Emile de Becque in some form for almost two years. So my first question to Szot, when we sat down the other day for a backstage chat, had to be: Aren't you bored with him yet?
First a slight smile, a cue that Szot's brand of low-key, unaggressive charm is imminent, warms his face. "No." Then: "Really not." Finally: "Definitely not." He isn't trying to convince me, or, more important, himself, that the role is still worth his nightly worrying and daily conviction. He simply hasn't exhausted the French planter yet. "The only thing I can compare him to in my own life," Szot explains, "is Mozart. With Don Giovanni, the Count, Guglielmo, Figaro," he continues, rattling off roles he has sung on the world's opera stages, and to which he will return (he's doing a Giovanni in October in Dallas),"the libretto is so good that the characters keep feeding you."
And Emile, he adds, has an advantage over those Mozart and da Ponte creations. "With opera, you have less room for interpretation; it's really about the singing. And opera singing has more restrictions because of the technique." Whereas: "With Emile I have more room to play around with pitch and rhythm - with a lot of things."
Also important to keeping Szot engaged with South Pacific: the nature of live performance. "It changes every day and thank God for that - that keeps it alive for me." Szot says he is energized by the romantic nature of Emile. "He is honorable, just, right. He hates war and loves love. I want to believe in him every time I go onstage. And I have to work hard not to lose my belief in him. In that way, he represents something almost abstract: an ideal that can easily get broken if you let it."
Szot mentions the importance of bringing one's own life to a character. So how has his life changed these past two years? "On a professional level, I've gotten more recognition because of South Pacific, so I get asked to do things more often. I am grateful for that." On a personal level, Szot mentions that "there's not always time for everything, but I love what I do so I can't complain about that. It's a great joy to be able to go to work every night to somewhere you want to be, and being with the other actors and musicians ofSouth Pacific is a very good place to be. With them, you don't have to pretend to be friendly, as you do with some other casts."
The rest of the cast feels reciprocally well-disposed, respecting Szot's disciplined lifestyle from the start. When I mention this reputation, Szot smiles and says, "It's true that I don't go out every time I'm asked. I have to make sure I have enough rest. But my refusals have nothing to do with my love for everybody here at the theatre." When I ask Szot why the backstage vibe has stayed solid, even as other large shows devolve into cliques that barely speak to each other except onstage, he responds, ironically, "Blame the casting people for that. The theater works hard to create an atmosphere, and the casting people help to maintain it."
Another reason Szot isn't an after-hours party animal is because he keeps on learning new opera roles. At the end of January, he takes another break fromSouth Pacific, to start rehearsing a new Metropolitan Opera production of Shostakovich's rarely performed gem, The Nose, based on Gogol and containing music that draws on folk, popular song, and atonality.
"It's going to surprise people," he explains. "The story is absurd, but in a good way. I'm trying to approach my role as an actor would. Acting has become more important to me, as a result of South Pacific."
The Nose won't be Szot's first role in Russian, because he has sung Eugene Onegin in Marseille. But the singer says The Nose is extremely challenging. "It's a nightmare to memorize." Since the opera is relatively short - the Met's website says it will finish at 9:44 pm - I tell Szot that he could take his bows and dash next door to the Beaumont to sing Act II of South Pacific.
"I don't think so," he replies.
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.