Ask operatic bass David Ward about his biggest influences and you might be surprised. Opera's great basses would typically come to mind, but instead he says some of his earliest influences are classic comedians from television, especially Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett. In fact, the whole ensemble from The Carol Burnett Show, including funnymen like Harvey Korman and Tim Conway, informed Mr. Ward's career. He is, after all, a "basso buffo" Italian for "bass clown."
"I always call myself a character bass, not one of these 'stand and sing' basses," he says, taking a break from rehearsals for the New Jersey Opera (formerly New Jersey Opera Theater) staging of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance. Mr. Ward will play Major-General Stanley, famous for the "patter song," "I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General."
We're not talking about Wagner here. Gilbert and Sullivan wrote to make people laugh, so their works are full of merry sparring and witty repartee. For certain characters, a sense of comic timing is almost as important as a solid voice.
"With these great TV comedians like Lucille Ball, Tim Conway and Carole Burnett, their comedy was character-driven and that's what I do," Mr. Ward says. "I create the characters, for example, Mikado, this bloodthirsty buffoon, in 'The Mikado.' That's what I learned from the old comedians, how to create characters and also how to keep them real. Then they will naturally be funny. That's why I like Gilbert and Sullivan so much."
Pirates of Penzance is just one of three musical treats offered in July for New Jersey Opera's SummerFest 2007 at McCarter's Berlind Theatre in Princeton. The festivities will begin July 13 with a new production of Mozart's Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute), conducted by Brent McMunn with stage direction by NJO Artistic Director Scott Altman. James Caraher will take the podium for The Pirates of Penzance, which will be directed by Michael Scarola, returning to NJO after directing a semi-staged version of Verdi's Falstaff in the winter of 2006. Steven Mosteller, musical director of NJO, will conduct Charles Gounod's Roméo et Juliette, staged by Marc Verzatt.
In addition to the mainstage operas, the SummerFest includes two concerts of operatic scenes at the Berlind "Divas on Parade" July 17 and "Mischief, Merriment and Mayhem" July 24 both featuring NJO artists and participants. The public also is invited to attend the many master classes led by opera luminaries.
This is the first summer with NJO for Mr. Ward, who knows Mr. Altman from working together at New York City Opera.
"It's also my first time doing the Major-General, which is amazing because I've been doing Gilbert and Sullivan since graduating from college," Mr. Ward says. "I've worked for years with the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players. I love the form, I love Gilbert and Sullivan. I started out in musical theater and Gilbert and Sullivan is so related to musical theater, almost like the precursor of the great Broadway musicals."
Like Monty Python making fun of the British upper classes and clueless authorities in the military, the Major-General is a parody of an egotistical officer of little talent, educated to the max with trivia that would be useless on the battlefield.
"I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical/ From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical," he sings, and it just goes on and on from there.
"They modeled the role after this famous general, low ranking but with a great opinion of himself," Mr. Ward says. "Like Mozart and Rossini, Gilbert and Sullivan were always poking fun at the upper classes, how silly and pretentious they were."
New Yorkers might have actually seen Mr. Ward walking down the street singing the words to the song, or other Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs. The only way to learn the complex lyrics is to just repeat them over and over.
"The nice thing is, once you get a patter song in your head, it never leaves," he says. "I'm sure people have seen me walking and singing and thinking I'm crazy. It really becomes like second nature, though. I love it and it's great fun."
Although the plot is a little convoluted, the players are so talented, the story should be plenty clear. Gilbert and Sullivan were experts in telling stories, which is one of the reasons their shows have lasted so long.
Mr. Ward's education in Gilbert and Sullivan was further enhanced when he had the privilege of working with John Reed, a British comic actor, famous for his Gilbert and Sullivan roles with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company.
"He was one of the D'Oyly Carte stars from the 1940s to the end of the century," Mr. Ward says. "He came to New York to perform with the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players and we did 'H.M.S. Pinafore.' He played Sir Joseph and I was Dick Deadeye, so that was a great opportunity to watch an original Gilbert and Sullivan expert perform. He gave me so many wonderful little tidbits about how to do my part.
"For a while he came over every year to perform with the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players," he continues. "He's an O.B.E. (knighted into the Order of the British Empire) and sings on many of the old Gilbert and Sullivan recordings. He's also the nicest man in the world. John is quite old now and I'm not in touch with him but he's still living, in fact he lives in Penzance (in Cornwall, England)."
Growing up in Allendale, Bergen County, Mr. Ward is technically a native of Princeton. While his father was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, young David was born at Princeton Hospital (now the University Medical Center at Princeton).
"He was also working at the Peddie School for a while, washing dishes, actually," Mr. Ward says of his father. "We lived in Hightstown until I was 3. So I have some connections here. I've had a great time so far (with NJO) and I would return in a heartbeat.
"I didn't know how NJO was run or organized but it's a delightful situation," he continues. "They have three really amazing conductors and three great directors, as well as a superb musical staff. What's amazing is that we have this great fight coordinator who's come up with all these things for the pirates to do. We also have a choreographer, one of the head teachers from American Repertory Ballet. I've never worked in a Gilbert and Sullivan production before where there was a fight coordinator and a choreographer. It's a nice touch."
Mr. Ward is one of America's leading basso buffos, and is especially well-known for his portrayal of "Dr. Bartolo" in The Barber of Seville, twice on tour with the New York City Opera National Company as well as with the Lake George Opera Festival, the Virginia Opera, Philadelphia's Academy of Vocal Arts and the Aspen Music Festival. He is also acclaimed for his Donizetti roles, especially "Dr. Dulcamara" in The Elixir of Love.
"I play all the great Italian comics," he says. "I once had a conductor say, 'I don't care how well you sing, as long as you're funny.'"
A 1982 graduate of the College of Wooster, in Wooster, Ohio, Mr. Ward lives in New York City where he studies voice with Armen Boyajian. He's come a long way from his very first job with the Light Opera of Manhattan, where he calculates that he earned about $5 per show.
"I had to have a day job as a typist with a publishing company," he says.
A huge advantage for a basso buffo is that it's age-proof. Ingenue tenors and sopranos may have their greatest success and most work in their younger years, but often fade in middle age. In contrast, Mr. Ward can look forward to more roles as he gets older.
"I'm hoping I can work into my 70s," he says.