At play with the Pirates of Penzance's Roger Honeywell

For tenor Roger Honeywell, who’s mastered the heights of Puccini and the rogue notes of new opera, Gilbert and Sullivan is pure fun
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To understand how many sides there are to tenor Roger Honeywell, and why he is unique among Canadian opera stars, consider how he is spending his time here. His most immediate task is bringing to life Frederic in Vancouver Opera’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s beloved Pirates of Penzance—the hilariously naive pirate apprentice who Honeywell says he’s approaching as a sort of “puppy”.

In his off-hours, however, he’s learning a very different part—plumbing the dark depths of the lonely title fisherman in Benjamin Britten’s haunting, dissonant Peter Grimes, which Honeywell will sing for the first time in Des Moines next summer.

The Toronto-born tenor is equally known for performing new opera and warhorses. In one year, he’ll have gone from Richard Strauss’s Elektra at Lyric Opera of Chicago to Pirates to Portland Opera’s Tosca, and then back to Vancouver Opera for its much-anticipated local premiere of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon composer Tan Dun’s Tea: A Mirror of Soul in May 2013, before delving into Grimes. It’s an almost unthinkable range.

“I don’t know too many other singers who do what I do. It keeps everything fresh,” says the affable performer, taking a break at Vancouver Opera’s East Van offices. Smiling widely, with his curly strawberry-blond hair and a scarf artfully slung around his neck, he comes across as a lot closer to the boyishly upbeat Frederic than the tormented Grimes.

Compared to taking on a lead role in a Giacomo Puccini tragedy or scaling the challenging rhythms and keys of new opera, Pirates is a bit like a holiday, he admits. “It’s not like the Toscas, or the heavy operas; it’s just light and fun, you know. But it is very complicated music—or I’d more say it’s educated music; the orchestrations are really witty and filled with all kinds of heart that you wouldn’t necessarily realize when you first hear it.”

The music’s intricacies should be shown off well in this production by top opera singers and a full orchestra. Bard on the Beach’s Christopher Gaze, who is playing the very modern Major General Stanley, is directing the production. And Honeywell reports this rendition of Pirates stays true to the original comic operetta.

“We’re certainly not sending it up, but we’re really mining the comedy that’s in it,” he says. “Some people might think it’s sort of archaic and old British humour, but it’s really relevant and very funny. Their turns of phrases and turns of musical phrases are very witty. It’s lasted 100 years and it still resonates.”

He and Gaze work well together, Honey-well points out, because they “share the same language”—a background in classical theatre. And that’s one of the key reasons Honeywell may not get pigeonholed as a tenor: his first career was as an actor, in plays at the Stratford and Shaw festivals and elsewhere. Interestingly, he rarely sang on-stage in his early years, even though his mother had been an opera singer and his father was a jazz musician. It wasn’t until Honeywell gained recognition in the hugely successful Leslie Arden musical The House of Martin Guerre, in the mid-1990s, that he started to realize his gift. That led to a successful audition for the Canadian Opera Company in 2000.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” he says with a laugh. “I set up five arias in contrasting languages, and I auditioned, and they hired me in their young artists’ program—much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of people coming out of U of T. It was sort of like: ‘What on earth is going on? We’ve all been going to university for years and learning languages.’”

He’s had a busy career since then, first joining the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and then performing around the continent, including a stint in Vancouver in the role of Jimmy in the 2010 opera Lillian Alling.

Honeywell credits his actor’s training with giving him the ability to help directors and composers create new characters. But he admits it’s hard to do. “I came to music very late, at 34. And I didn’t have a musical education and I still don’t, so it’s very difficult for me when I’m doing these new pieces,” he explains. “I mean, I’m doing sort of atonal music, and rhythmically ambiguous music, and it takes a lot of work on my part and my coaches’ part to actually get this into my body and into my brain. I really sometimes wish I could just sing Carmen and Butterfly and Bohème and Tosca because it would be so much easier to know and sing 14 things and just repeat them all the time.”

But he adds there are definite pluses to creating a new role in a new opera: “The other side is that it’s really exciting and it’s fantastic because you can put a stamp on it. Nobody’s ever sung a new role before, so it’s yours. The other bonus with that is nobody can compare you. When you sing Rodolfo in Bohème, you can think of the world’s greatest tenors for the last 100 years and go, ‘Well, he wasn’t as good as…’. Doing new pieces, you’re free from that constraint.”

Asked if he sometimes misses acting, which he left abruptly when his opera-singing career took off, Honeywell admits there’s a camaraderie that builds when you do a play eight times a week over a month or two that simply can’t compare to the far-flung shows of opera. With two children and a wife who was also an actor, he’s been able to reconnect with the theatre world a bit since he moved back to Stratford, Ontario, in 2004 and made it his home base—albeit one he is away from for up to 280 days per year.

“When I think about the work of opera, the work is being away from your family and missing countless birthdays and countless anniversaries, so I honestly think that I get paid for being away,” says Honeywell, whose siblings all live here on the West Coast. “When I’m on-stage, I’m not getting paid to do that; I love what I do.”

Pirates, it seems, is a show that allows Honey-well to indulge two of his passions—both acting and the operatic music. “I love singing this, no question: it’s terrific music to sing and the character’s a joy to play,” he says. “I mean, it’s great to be in a show with laughs! Most of the time in opera it’s ‘Ohhhh go-o-od—somebody else is dead!’”

The Pirates of Penzance is at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre from Saturday (December 1) to December 9.

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