By Earl Hazell for the BACKSTAGE at SFO Blog
It was cold in New York in February, 2008 but not too cold. I was alone, and loved it. The city had already turned the snow of a previous storm from the pristine white flakes of my memories into the standard and equally familiar colors of concrete, steel and muffler dirt. Those die-hard multi-colored flakes were melting away in chunks when I left LaGuardia airport, looking for the M60 bus to bring me to Harlem. After years of living in Lexington, KY, where I raised my son and worked on a Master’s in Vocal Performance with the brilliant professor and Executive Director of the American Spiritual Ensemble Dr. Everett McCorvey, I always flew into the busiest airport of my hometown for opera auditions with the romantic head of a twenty-something professional virgin from the mid-West—this, when I was anything but.
I was back in New York again on a mission: not to reconnect with the overwhelming majority of my family which still lives there; not to hang out with any number of singer/musician friends in any number of restaurants or jazz clubs; not to call any number of ex-girlfriends whose numbers I still had in my phone. I was back home to audition for a position in the Extra Chorus and the available comprimario roles for bass-baritone in the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Porgy and Bess. I had a resume that said I was long overdue for an audition with an American A-House company, particularly if they were producing this opera. That resume, however, was seemingly as conflicted as I was. A second look at it said to me (if no one else) that I was neither ready for nor wanted what would come of such a thing, while a third look was even more convincing of my pedigree than the first, pushing me to do the audition as much as the mental echoes of my voice teachers’ encouraging words were. I was caught up, once again, in a familiar romance: the romance of the endless pursuit; the endless pursuit of the young opera singer’s dream of working on the greatest of great stages of America. (A romance that is, ironically, the most passionate and entertaining when the participant is burdened with the belief that the dream it represents can never be realized.) Like that of getting on the bus to Harlem from LaGuardia airport with the pretense that it was my first visit to “Gotham,” however, it was an adolescent romance; one that I loved but had, definitively, long since outgrown. It was time, I knew, to not just dream of singing on these great American opera stages, but actively pursue the opportunity to do so like the accomplished professional I was.
And I did. A few weeks after that New York audition, while I was ironically checking my voicemail messages in O’Hare airport en route to Tulsa Opera for work, I got the call from Chicago’s Lyric. A representative for their Chorus Master confirmed that my audition was as good as it felt. They offered me a contract. I did everything to avoid looking like a flight risk while jumping straight up in the air, excited beyond belief. A phone call I had to make, however, put my joy into context before gravity brought me back to Earth. A truth had already come to mind: every voice teacher I ever had, every one of my mother’s worried heartbeats from the fifth grade Glee Club on, every corner of the world in which I performed; none of it led to the moment I auditioned for Lyric Opera of Chicago. What they all led to was the moment I auditioned for the role of Jake in War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, for the San Francisco Opera production of Porgy weeks earlier. I felt very good about that SFO audition, but my romance head was still on when I did it; the head that said finding the courage to ask out this dream girl in San Fran was enough, because there was no way she would ever say yes. I would only come out of that dream state and acknowledge what auditioning for SFO did for me after embracing what it had produced in my life with one of the few companies in America on its level of excellence. Sometimes dreams give birth to us; my dream of actually singing on the SFO stage (which of course was there) was buried deep in my subconscious while I pursued Chicago, where it could ironically work its magic on me best. That audition on the War Memorial stage, however, began a relationship with SFO that I could have never foreseen. Indeed, little did I know how that first audition would foreshadow an ongoing relationship with this great company, and the transformation of my life.
The person I had to call about booking the Chicago Porgy was Alexis, my then girlfriend who would soon become my fiancée. Immediately upon listening to my voice mail and discovering what Chicago’s Lyric had in store for me, I had to share my joy with the one person who would know how auditioning for the one and only San Francisco Opera months earlier pulled me out of an adolescent romance with a future career and into my truly adult, high level professional life right here, right now. It only made sense that I share it with the person who, in fact, pulled me out of adolescent romances in general and into the adult love affair of my life, introducing me to the man I’ve always wanted to be in the process. I fell in love with Alexis at Utah Festival Opera the year before my SFO audition, but didn’t discover just how much I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her until well after. I remember beginning this new phase of my life in 2008 by meeting the incomparable director Francesca Zambello in Chicago, the day after Senator Barack Hussein Obama became President-Elect of the United States of America. She spoke to us, on the stage of the Civic Opera House, with uncontrollable tears filling her eyes, about how doing this great American opera—in this city, at this time in America’s history—was a moment and privilege unlike any other. She was right, of course. However, my work at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2008 was merely prologue to the transformation of my personal and professional life; a transformation made possible by the love of my soon-to-be fiancée Alexis, and San Francisco Opera. And after working in Chicago and touring through Western Europe, our new lives were slated to begin: Alexis and I serendipitously became part of the SFO production of Porgy and Bess in 2009, together.
Alexis and I reflect on the magic of our new lives together beginning at SFO often. In 2010 we started our own production company, Jazzoperetry (“Jazz-OP-ruh-tree”), Inc.: the realization of an ancient dream I had of producing concerts that combine my love of jazz, opera and poetry in performance. In 2011, we established the flagship recital series of our company by performing Earl & Alexis: AMERICAN SONGS in The Elks Opera House in Prescott, AZ—one of the historic concert halls in the state of Arizona—while we lived near Arizona State (where Alexis is completing a Doctorate in Music). In 2012 and 2013 we continued our great relationship with Arizona Opera. Most of all, we fell in love—over and over again. We built, with blood, sweat (a few arguments) and tears, a life together, and gave birth to a marriage. We can’t help but reflect on SFO, however, because, though our romance began at Utah Festival Opera in the summer of 2007 and our engagement began while I was in Chicago of 2008, the facts remain: romances come and go, and lots of people get engaged without ever making it to the altar. The marriage we gave birth to was conceived at San Francisco Opera in 2009, during Porgy and Bess, where we discovered who we are. In fact, it was officially born a week after Porgy closed, as we were married in Arizona on July 3, 2009.
There was a lot going on during that production of Porgy. Laquita Mitchell, the Bess, had made a name for herself as the quintessential Clara in Chicago. In fact, after her acclaimed performances of Clara in that production, the anticipation surrounding her debut in the title role was palpable whenever she walked in any room of War Memorial well before opening night. (She lived up to the expectations like a pro, every single performance.) Karen Slack Blackwell’s Serena was practically a Master class every performance, only to be outdone by our Porgy, Eric Owens. Before the close of the production, however, Eric provided some drama and excitement beyond his stellar work. In the final show of the run, he momentarily panicked in the first act when his magisterial voice, recovering from the flu—or some such: the singer’s life—made him question whether he would be able to sing the title role to completion. (By virtue of a schedule conflict affecting the first few days of the rehearsal period, SFO hired Lester Lynch as his cover, and me—as Lester was the powerful villain Crown for this production—as Lester’s cover. Lester was the perfect Crown and the perfect cover for Eric, having done Porgy himself on several occasion to great acclaim, but no one expected this fail-safe for the rehearsal period [which included me] to be used during the actual run of the production.) For about twenty minutes, as the house lights came up during the first act of this final show, Lester, who was ready to assume the title role if Eric was going to declare he could not sing any more of it, went to his dressing room and got in the zone…while I went to mine, took off my Jim costume and prepared to make another debut on the stage of San Francisco Opera in the principle role of Crown. Even though Eric felt fine after a gargle and few moment’s rest and all things continued as normal, my readiness to do my part to save the show (and Alexis, as a part of the show, could see it) made it the greatest day of my professional life. It was the best of times.
It was also the worst of times. Alexis’ mother, whose health had been in rapid decline throughout our entire time in San Francisco, succumbed to colorectal cancer literally days before we were married. I paid for Alexis to fly round trip to Philadelphia, where she was raised, several times in between rehearsals and performances; to interface with doctors and nurses, communicate with family, and spend some of her mother’s final days with her before returning to sing in the Chorus of our production and preparing for our wedding soon afterwards. We look back on that time, the good and the bad, and marvel at how it showed us what we were made of—as singers, as people, and as soon to be husband and wife. You could honestly say, in fact, that the SFO Porgy, where our marriage was conceived, did not encourage or reveal us so much as it gave birth to us.
And it was hot in Tempe, AZ on a late night in spring, 2014 when Alexis and I packed our grey Ford minivan for a twelve-hour drive from our apartment to San Francisco, but not too hot. I was not alone because I was with her, and I loved it. When Chorus & Dance Manager Jim Meyer told us that Maestro Ian Robertson, Chorus Master decided to hire us for the SFO production of Show Boat weeks earlier, the poignant memories of the past flooded back as our excitement when thinking of the future flooded in. Not only would we get to see Jim and Ian again. Not only would we see Francesca (who was directing) and Maestro John de Main again (who masterfully conducted the Porgy and would also conduct this Show Boat). We would do this while returning to the company whose significance in our lives is only surpassed by its venerable history in American opera. In Porgy and Bess, Porgy’s almost adolescent romance with his community, hiding a tragic belief that intimate love would never find him, reveals a seed; a seed planted by Bess in the center of his heart; one that takes root, grows and transforms his life—so powerfully, in fact, that he leaves his entire community behind without regret, to chase after intimate love when it leaves him. In Show Boat, the tragic loss of love and family causes a naïve, impressionable Magnolia to fall from euphoric newlywed heights like a bird with a broken wing falling from the sky—only to make her raise her true woman’s voice in song and rise again, like a Phoenix from the ashes. In Phoenix, AZ, where Alexis and I continued an illicit “show-mance” born in Mormon country Utah, we experienced (as the oracles of Chicago foretold) tragedy & triumph, elegy & celebration, magic & mystery, and rebirth through love at San Francisco Opera; enough to make us want to be man & wife more than anything in this world. And as groups of young people in caps & gowns flooded the streets of San Francisco this May, we, with every rehearsal and every performance, will celebrate our own graduation: from an adolescent romance with the career and with each other, to sharing one of the great stages of American opera with Patricia Racette, Morris Robinson, Heidi Stober, Harriet Harris, Bill Irwin, Francesca Zambello, John de Main and more world-class masters of their craft in the SFO Show Boat, 2014. What a way to usher in our fifth wedding anniversary.
A truly transformative, adult and intimate romance—with SFO, love, and life itself—continues for Earl & Alexis. After finding our spirits’ voices here in 2009, who knew that, five years later, two New Yorker and Philadelphian singers living in Arizona, filled with visions and dreams, would cross the Golden Gate Bridge and find themselves, once again, home?