The old theater cliché that "there are no small parts, only small actors" is regularly bandied about glibly—perhaps to justify scene-stealing or to motivate an otherwise unmotivated performer. In the overwhelmingly positive sense, however, this sentiment fully describes the multiple careers of singer, actor, and opera stage director Anthony Laciura. As a comprimario tenor at the Metropolitan Opera in 877 performances over 26 seasons from 1982 to 2008, and now in the supporting role of valet Eddie Kessler in the HBO television series Boardwalk Empire, Laciura has made a career out of breathing life and excitement into small parts. Now, as an opera stage director, he brings his years of experience—and the insight he has gained—to regional U.S. opera stages, and to this weekend's Knoxville Opera production of Giacomo Puccini's La fanciulla del West ("The Girl of the Golden West").
Only a handful of singers can boast of a 25-plus-year career as an operatic character performer. Such longevity belongs to those who not only sing the roles well, but who also excel in developing interesting portrayals and making them memorable, often with a minimum of stage time. One of Laciura's defining performances, vividly remembered by audiences (and still available on DVD), is in a 1985 Met production of Tosca, in which Laciura took the role of Spoletta, the henchman of the villain Scarpia. After Tosca has hurled herself off the battlements of the Castel Sant'Angelo in the final scene, the evil Spoletta spots the body below, then rushes off twirling his cape over his shoulder in the defining style of thwarted melodramatic villains. It's the last thing the audience sees and remembers as the curtain falls on Puccini's final tragic chords.
After retiring from the Met, Laciura took up private vocal coaching at a studio in Teaneck, N.J., and started a teaching position at New Jersey City University in Jersey City. A twist of fate, though, brought him his next chance at creating a memorable character: Eddie Kessler, the German valet to Enoch "Nucky" Thompson in Boardwalk Empire, drawn from the actual history of Atlantic City during the Prohibition era. The production's casting directors contacted the Met looking for performers with German accents; Laciura was recommended as one who could easily do any accent required.
"I got a call to read for [executive producer Martin Scorsese] and for [series creator] Terry Winter," Laciura recalls. "We talked for quite a bit, we laughed, and then, two days later, they called and said, ‘You're Eddie Kessler.'" After three seasons, critics agree that Laciura has made the role his own, gradually adding nuances over time, with a peculiarly droll style of comic seriousness.
Laciura says that the insight and stage experience that successful character singers and actors possess becomes a distinct and natural advantage if they decide to put on the director's hat.
"If you are a supporting character actor in opera, you generally have to learn everyone else's part so you know where you fit in the action," he says. "In so doing, you develop an understanding of the other characters, and you are in the perfect position to be able to explain them to someone else as a director—and when you have a receptive opera singer, it's a match made in heaven."
Laciura admits his Boardwalk Empire experiences have opened his eyes to some new visual and conceptual approaches—ones that, no doubt, will be a part of his Knoxville Opera production.
"'Cinematographic' is the approach I'm taking for this opera," he says. "Being on the set with wonderful [cinematographers], watching what they do and how they put people in spots—I watched all that. You know, opera is very much like that, especially when the composer, such as Puccini, gives you these changes in moods. That's my approach—showing the audience clean, distinct characters."
Puccini's La fanciulla del West, like his preceding opera Madama Butterfly, was based on a play by David Belasco, this time set in the "exotic" locale of a California mining camp during the days of the Gold Rush. The subject matter was chosen specifically to appeal to American audiences; the opera premiered at New York City's Metropolitan Opera House in 1910.
Audiences will probably remember the three leads from past KO productions—Soprano Carter Scott (Minnie) and tenor Manrico Tedeschi (Dick Johnson, aka Ramerrez) were last seen in 2008's La Forza del Destino. Baritone Scott Bearden, my Best of 2012 pick for his Iago in Otello, will sing the role of the sheriff, Jack Rance. KO executive director Brian Salesky will conduct the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra.