The biggest difference between Houston Grand Opera and many other companies is that Houston doesn't rely on one outstanding singer to carry a production, says tenor Eric Cutler, here to sing the Earl of Leicester part in the Donizetti opera Mary Stuart.
"The main thing is, with all of these Donizetti operas in what people call the time of bel canto singing, is to come with the expectation of hearing just remarkable singers. They are really vehicles for these singers. Houston continues to put together casts that are just phenomenal. They get the best singers they possibly can for this repertoire. People in Houston should appreciate that because it's not always like that in other cities They'll get a big star but don't put together a remarkable cast.
"From the great diva, Joyce DiDonato, to Cecil, the smallest part, you'll hear some of the greatest singers in the world. It's such a joy to be part of. "
Cutler has a lot of experience singing the role of the Earl of Leicester. "I sang it in Toronto, I've sung it in Geneva, I've sung it in Flanders, in Antwerp. This is my fourth production." And he says: "The singing is very difficult.
"It's incredibly high," he says, explaining that the tenor part in Mary Stuart lies a full step higher than the tenor roles in other operas Donizetti wrote. "It's possible he was writing for a specific tenor or he was wanting a specific sound." Cutler says he has another production of it next year in Berlin and "after that, I will probably retire it. There are other things I'd like to do."
He just did his first Faust, "which I loved."
But he jumped at the chance to sing it in Houston because it gave him the chance to work with Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers. "He gave me my first professional job as a leading man in 2002 when I was still in the Met program. It was a really big benchmark in my career."
And he calls this the best cast he's ever been involved with for Mary Stuart, and praised the singing of Katie Van Kooten who plays Queen Elizabeth. "I think people are going to be blown away by the level of singing they're going to hear."
Known for specializing in French and Italian operas, Cutler says, "as an American I've sung in Polish. I've sung in Russian. I'll sing anything they pay me to sing. The parts that I shine in the most seem to be the high lying roles of the Italian composers Donizetti, Bellini and some Verdi, and mostly French parts."
Cutler is another member of the club of didn't-get-to-opera-by -a-straight-path. "I was at Luther College studying biology. I had lessons as a part of my scholarship package. My teacher said 'Why don't I try to enter the Met auditions just to have something to aim for?' and I ended up winning my junior year when I was 21."
He was asked into the program but he decided to finish college first, although he changed his major to music. "I decided I guess this is where I'm going to go." The next year, when he was 22, he started the Met program.
"I was straight from Iowa and did not know what I was getting into. I could not have been any greener or wet behind the ears. I'd never really sung with an orchestra before. I'd never even seen opera till I was in one. It was a blessing. I didn't have the same sort of nerves and expectations as my colleagues as a young artist. It served me very well getting through those three years. "
Nowadays Cutler lives in Germany with his wife Julia Kleiter, a German, who also sings opera. "She has a relatively large career. We met while doing The Magic Flute in Edinburgh in 2006." They have a 2-1/2 year old son named Henry, who Cutler said sings Twinkle Twinkle Little Star with perfect pitch. " I tell my wife I hope he's an engineer or something that keeps him in one place."
"For us, it's just easier to live there,"Culter said. "I don't sing mainstream standard repertoire and there's just so many more opportunities for me to work in Europe than in my own country. I see more Americans working in Europe than I'll see in my own country."
He describes his character as amalgam of a few people. "He manipulates both women to get what it is he wants. I wouldn't say he's a bad person. I think everyone in this opera needs and wants something from the other person, especially from Queen Elizabeth. Ultimately he's trying to do the right thing and he's trying to help both women do the right thing - which ultimately does not happen. "
Performances of Mary Stuart are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on April 21 and 27, May 2 and 4, and 2 p.m. April 29 at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For ticket information, go to the opera's Web site or call 713- 228-6737.