Growing up in north Jersey, I thought of life as a musical. Julie Andrews and Doris Day at the movies. Yul Brynner and Rex Harrison on Broadway. It was a big deal when I got old enough to take the bus into the city on my own and head to TKTS for discounted same-day show tickets, not caring which production it was because every marquee held the promise of escape.
Speaking with David Pittsinger, currently starring as the legendary King Arthur in the Lerner and Loewe classic "Camelot" at the Glimmerglass Festival, you get the feeling that musical theater has the same draw for him: escape. To lift the audience out of daily life, Pittsinger has to transform himself into a credible king. He makes that sound easy.
"Arthur was not a king by birth," says Pittsinger. "He pulls a sword from a stone. He does an extraordinary thing. He doesn't know how to be a king. He's just a regular person. He has no royal blood. And, yet, he tries to do these extraordinary things like the round table, like the civil courts."
Pittsinger's imagination is hardly limited to royalty. He grew up in Connecticut, near Mystic Seaport, with views of the Connecticut River meeting the Atlantic, his daydreams including sea captains, whaling, and pirates. He earned degrees from the University of Connecticut and Yale, through what he calls a most "circuitous route," from soccer to trombone and choir to international law and economics before settling into music as his major his sophomore year.
With training and performances in opera, Pittsinger has performed on opera and concert stages throughout the United States and Europe. Whether performing live from the Metropolitan Opera or in the world premiere of Philip Glass' "The Perfect American" at Teatro Real in Madrid, Pittsinger remains an artist committed to both classical and American musical theater.
"Opera and musical theater are not dissimilar," says Pittsinger. "They are more similar than not. The technical challenge is making seamless transitions in and out of the spoken work with so much dialogue to the singing."
All productions are unamplified at the Glimmerglass Festival. The productions are performed in the Alice Busch Opera Theater, a 914-seat theater with seats less than 70 feet from the stage, complete with sliding walls to the outdoors.
"A character's credibility begins with audibility," says Pittsinger. "You have to be heard, not just as a singer, but also when speaking with underscoring. If you can't be heard or can't be understood, the audience might not get the detail from just the body language or the costume."
For Pittsinger's role of King Arthur, there are the added challenges of the costumes, as well. "I was never more fearful than opening night," says Pittsinger. "It was 100 degrees, it was humid, and I was wearing armor, chain mail, a cowl-neck cashmere top, leather boots, and leather pants."
Even so, Pittsinger says "Camelot" is an amazing production that no one should miss. The orchestration is "full and complete and resplendent" under conductor James Lowe. And the director, Robert Longbottom, "has simplified it, cut certain scenes, gets the audience to the tunes, and brings out a heightened emotion through the music," he says.
"It's music for the theater," says Pittsinger. "It's meant to be performed live."
When last I spoke with Francesca Zambello, artistic and general director for the Glimmerglass Festival, she had transformed Glimmerglass from "Glimmerglass Opera Festival" and had added an American musical-theater production to the annual offerings. Each of the annual festivals offers four productions, which open one after the other until all are up and running.
This year, Zambello wanted "romantics," selecting "Camelot," Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman," Verdi's "King for a Day," and a pairing of "The Little Match Girl Passion" (Lang) with "Stabat Mater" (Pergolesi). But with "Camelot" in particular, Zambello says that there is also a notion of "questing."
"Arthur has a lot of self-doubt," says Zambello, "and we doubt our leaders all the time. We work in this production to humanize Arthur to make our own leaders real. As we come up on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, it's good to look back at something that's a classic and filter it through your world today."
Zambello is thrilled with the addition of an American musical-theater production to each annual festival. "It has brought out a lot more families, and then the kids say, 'Let's go see an opera,'" says Zambello.
Zambello also says that there's a thrill for audiences, and especially younger audience members, because there is no amplification. "People are thrilled to hear a musical acoustically," says Zambello. "They cannot believe the voices because everything else they have heard has been synthesized and manufactured."
"Glimmerglass is one consistent home run after another," says Pittsinger. "Every piece is received by the audience with awe."