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Joseph Kaiser Takes on the Riverboat Gambler Role in the Houston Grand Opera's Show Boat

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This January 18 will be opening night for Houston Grand Opera's production of Show Boat, a somewhat risky, untraditional choice for an opera company, and one that Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers has promised to replicate in other ways.

Joseph Kaiser will be singing the role of good-looking riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal and it helps that the Canadian tenor, who debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 2007 as Romeo in Roméo et Juliette, is a fan of musicals and of Jerome Kern, who wrote the music for Show Boat with book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.

The musical set in the years from 1880 to 1927 is adapted from an Edna Ferber novel and tells the lives of people working along the Mississippi River. Themes of racial bigotry, poverty and spousal abandonment dispel any notion that life on a riverboat was a pleasure cruise.

Kaiser, who has bounced back and forth between Canada and the United States for years (born in Montreal, then the family moved to Scarsdale, New York, then Connecticut, then Montreal for college and now lives in Chicago), says he loved to sing starting when he was a young boy. It was how his first grade teacher defined him for his class, and although he resisted it initially, he grew to embrace it because it was true. (He also grew up playing drums and piano; his brother and sisters also sang and/or played instruments.)

"When I was ten, I started taking lessons and the people who advised me said if you want to learn to be able to support your voice without a microphone, you should take classical lessons," he says. He did, and watched the master classes of older kids on the side. It didn't matter to him that opera was a career that would take awhile.

"For me it's not like the payoff was I only got to enjoy the opera when I got to sing in places like the Met. I've been enjoying it the whole time and I didn't need someone else's recognition to let me know, to validate my experience."

He sang as a baritone for several years, but judges in competitions urged him to switch. "Look, we really like your singing, but you're probably a tenor," he says he was told. He decided to try it for six months and found out, "Yeah, they were right. "

Initially, he had signed on for another production with HGO but that got dropped and Show Boat offered in its place.

"I've always loved musical theater. I've always hoped to have a couple of opportunities, even though I selected opera as the focus of my career, to have a chance to do a musical or two, especially such a famous and revered show as Showboat."

And he'd also hoped to get to Houston Grand Opera. This is his first trip to the city and when we talked with him, he was in the early stages of rehearsal, awaiting the arrival of his sons ages six and eight, and accompanied by his two Brittany Spaniels, Misty and Striker. "My dogs love it here. They love the Webster dog park. It's a great way to meet people. Because when your dog is sniffing their dog's butt, nobody's going to want to watch that -- 'So where are you from?' "

Like most smart tenors, Kaiser, who'll be doing the War Requiem by Benjamin Britton later this year, is protective of his voice. "Don't go out late, don't drink too much, never fly in on the same day as a rehearsal, never fly in on the same day as a performance. And don't take on parts that you shouldn't sing yet. Naturally over time it [a voice] develops a little more size, a little more weight, good weight and a little bit more of a timbre that allows it to sing larger, more heavily orchestrated parts. "

With a schedule that takes him all over the world in the next year, Kaiser says he'd like to someday sing the Don Jose role in Carmen. "The Carmen you see in act one is basically the Carmen who dies in Act IV. The Don Jose we see in Act I is basically just a guy who's following orders. He's fine; doesn't show any signs of being deranged. Then as the story goes on, you realize this person is becoming unraveled."

Getting back to the task at hand, Kaiser says that even if you've watched the movie or seen earlier stage productions, and know the lyrics to "Ol' Man River" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" by heart, this is a Show Boat not to miss.

"Why do people go to see something they've seen before? Why have I eaten chocolate cake at probably 700 different restaurants? Because I love it and because I can't wait to find the one that's better than all the rest, or I can't wait to have a bite of one that I know it's not better but I am so in the mood for chocolate cake. We want to be surprised," Kaiser says.

"One thing that's really great about doing this in an opera house is that you have operatic voices doing it. I can't wait for people to hear [American mezzo-soprano] Sasha Cooke's Magnolia and [Atlantan] Morris Robinson as Joe; goodness gracious, I think they've put together a really great team."

"There's no doubt that the opera industry in the last five years has had to look at itself and companies have had to make some hard decisions. I think that one of the best things we can continue to do is to reach out to the community and to really let people know, hey, we're still relevant, we've got great stories, great music to share with you, great experiences to share with you.

"These are wonderful pieces of music that have been performed for 250, 300 years. There's a reason that we're still singing them and performing them. Their stories still carry weight and the music is still just as beautiful."

Showboat performances at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Avenue, are 7:30 p.m. January 18, 26 and 30 and February 1, 6 and 9; 2 p.m. January 20 and February 3. For ticket information, go to the HGO website or call 713-228-6737. $15-$354

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