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Everyday Hero

DAVID PATRICK STEARNS talks to the unflappable tenor Gary Lehman, who sings the title role in Robert Lepage's staging of Siegfried, presented this month as part of The Met: Live in HD series.

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As Tristan at the Met, 2008
© Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera 2011
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© Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera 2011

EDITORS' NOTE: On October 19, The Metropolitan Opera announced that Gary Lehman had withdrawn from the company's new production of Siegfried owing to a viral infection. Jay Hunter Morris will sing now the role of Siegfried in the company's new-production premieres of both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. 

Though he's now at home in Wagner terrain, heldentenor Gary Lehman's initial sorties into Tristan und Isolde weren't at all welcoming. At his first Tristan, in March 2008 — it was also his Metropolitan Opera debut — his leading lady, Deborah Voigt, fled the stage in the middle of Act II, suddenly seized by illness. In his second performance of the opera, a scenery malfunction in Act III sent him tobogganing into the prompter's box head first. The performance stopped. His wife, soprano Susan Foster, arrived backstage, fearing that his neck was broken. 

"Hey, honey, how are you?" he chirped.

"Who cares about that?" she said. "How are you?"

"It's a long way back to Staten Island this time of night," he said, referring to where they then lived. "I'm ready to get this thing going." Then he finished Act III.

Lehman is like that. During a later run of Met Tristans, in December 2008, when he was filling in for an ill Peter Seiffert, Daniel Barenboim arrived at the tenor's dressing room for a pre-performance pep talk. The conductor was stopped in his tracks when Lehman asked, "Is there anything I can do for you, maestro?" He loves to zing people with his nonchalance — and he may be the only singer to do so with a zingmaster like Barenboim. Stories about last-minute triumphs often begin with a sentence like, "I was sitting down with a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, when...." Is it any wonder that he prefers the role of Parsifal, whose learning curve begins with the character knowing nothing, to Lohengrin, who knows everything at the beginning but reveals nothing?

His colleagues call Lehman "The Animal," referring to his general comfort level while performing, the near-physical transformation that takes place when he's singing and his ability to memorize his blocking in a single rehearsal. There are good reasons for his heroic stage presence: for one, his exceptionally long legs give him an imposing silhouette. Also, there is his lack of calculation: he is so much in the emotional moment onstage that separating his mid-weight tenor voice from the dramatic expression at hand is impossible. All those factors contributed to the success of his Tristans, even though the aforementioned ones were last-minute fill-ins. 

In this season's Siegfried at the Met, Lehman's title-role performances are also first outings, maybe his toughest yet. He jokes that he tries out roles at the Met before taking them on the road; according to Lehman, his outings as Alwa in Berg's Lulu went better at the Met than elsewhere. Even his fine Mariinsky Opera recording of the title role in Parsifal under Valery Gergiev doesn't show him at his very best. Lehman shines when his combination of vocal freedom and lack of calculation puts him squarely in the emotional center of any given Wagnerian moment.

Part of his easygoing manner comes from a sense of having found his niche in Wagner. Even though Foster has trafficked in that repertoire, they attended a Siegfried performance together to scout out the role's possibilities for Lehman. At the end, she shot him a you've-got-to-be-kidding look, to which he responded with gleaming, excited eyes. On a more practical level, Lehman admits he doesn't have other options. Gary Lakes used to joke that his career choices were either bar bouncer or heldentenor. With Ohio-born Lehman, it's grocery-store worker or heldentenor.

Or baritone. Many who think they're hearing Lehman for the first time may well have caught him during his ten-year career as a baritone. Though he sang Marcello in La Bohème at New York City Opera in the late '90s, he worked mostly in regional companies, singing baritone roles well but perhaps not memorably. On YouTube, there's a 2000 Opera Company of Philadelphia clip of him playing Taddeo in L'Italiana in Algeri with Stephanie Blythe, and though it's recognizably the same voice, there's little hint of his tenor charisma — a charisma that was so immediately apparent years later, when he made his debut in that Fach, that the Wagner Society of New York quickly honored him with grants and receptions.

Many singers with such voices worry about being ghettoized in that area of the repertoire. Lehman, now forty-seven, has Otello in his future but won't return to Lulu. In coaching sessions for Siegfried over the summer, his confidence was palpable, so much so that he found himself apologizing for the slightest flaw in a role that many singers are happy just to get through.

Lehman resisted his tenor potential for a long time. "When I'm singing tenor I feel like a little mosquito sometimes," he says. "When you're a baritone you've got that rumble in the chest. I wouldn't let go of that. As a tenor, you can't survive if you keep that rumble all the way to the top [of your range]. You'll kill yourself."

His gallery of vocal idols is idiosyncratic. As baritonal as his own voice is, he most admires that most tenor-esque of Siegfrieds, Wolfgang Windgassen, and doesn't care at all for the darker-voiced Lauritz Melchior. Maybe his subconscious mind has created baritone aversion therapy to make sure he doesn't again retreat from his natural voice. After all, he switched twice.

Lehman was a baritone from his early choir days in small-town Ohio (Niles), on through Youngstown State University, Indiana University and then Lyric Opera of Chicago's young artist program. At Lyric, he switched to tenor, singing roles such as Don José, but he went back to baritone in 1995 — and then emerged, almost abruptly, as a heldentenor in 2005.

Singing tenor was all wrong in one part of his life but became an inevitability later on. "I hated every second of it," he says of his first tenor period. "I'd go into a coaching, and nothing was working. So I was told, 'Come back tomorrow, and bring some of your baritone arias.' I was just turning thirty-one and was told, 'This is where you should be.'"

Maybe not as far as the Met was concerned. "I had a house audition there and didn't have the greatest feedback," Lehman says. "I was a regional house baritone. And once you reach a certain age, if your career doesn't develop into heavier repertoire, you start losing jobs to the newer kids coming out. They want some fresh blood and cheaper work. My work as a baritone was starting to dry up. I was in Boston doing Italian Girl, and Stephen Steiner [Boston Lyric Opera's then director of productions] said maybe it's time to look at the Wagner stuff. So I started working on 'Winterstürme' [from Die Walküre]."

"I thought he'd keep going as a baritone," says Foster, who has witnessed his vocal incarnations over their nineteen-year marriage. "But he was bored with the characters he was doing. Then he called me up one day and said, 'You won't believe this, but I'm singing Wagner.' He can be a little impetuous." "It felt so completely different than ten years previous," Lehman recalls. "I wasn't having the same problems. I started sight-reading the arias and going, 'Wow — this feels good.'"

Foster was singing in Der Rosenkavalier in Los Angeles, and together they began retooling his voice, though he had one last baritone engagement, as Guglielmo in a 2005 Così Fan Tutte at Utah Opera. Then, Los Angeles Opera suddenly needed a cover for Parsifal. Only a month after wrapping up Così, he landed the job and ended up going on twice. Over the next two years, he sang Samson et Dalila in Orlando and Tannhäuser at Theater Erfurt in Germany.

In early 2008, he was learning Florestan in Fidelio for Opera Roanoke when, in a last-minute contract, he was hired by the Met as the second cover for Tristan. Ben Heppner had canceled, and Lehman was brought in to stand by for the first cover, John Mac Master. It was a notoriously illness-ridden string of performances. Though critics didn't declare his characterization to be finished — the performance was the first time Lehman had sung Act III with orchestra — he clearly had the vocal goods and knew how to use them. At the first Barenboim fill-in performance, some nine months later, Lehman sang and acted with assurance and freedom, as if he had been singing the role all his life. But after all of those Tristan mishaps, wasn't he just a little apprehensive? "Nah! I'm a little dense."

That breeziness is real, but it's hardly the whole story. Audiences grasp the difficulties of heldentenor singing, so when Lehman arrives onstage, he believes listeners are pulling for him. Part of the freedom he felt in his last-minute Tristans came from the lack of advance expectations of a Gary Lehman performance. Not that he can always count on that, as shown by the intensity of his summer Siegfried coaching.

Even with such a positive sensibility, Lehman has foibles, though they stop well short of obsessive–compulsive disorder; they're more like sports-fan superstitions, manifested in a formal routine he follows leading up to a performance. Just as a football coach keeps wearing the suit he wore during the last winning season, Lehman eats the same food he had on the day of his best rehearsal. 

Such pre-performance routines are a mixed blessing when the couple sings together, which they sometimes do now that both are Wagnerians. Two singers having their own pre-performance routines at the same time can be complicated, but Lehman is simply relieved to have an Isolde he loves. Both say, independently of each other, that there's no mutual career jealousy. Lehman says there have always been seasons when one of them worked more than the other. Both know that bad performances need not be discussed afterwards. Just turn the page.

Lehman and Foster have given up their Staten Island quarters for a home base in Howland, Ohio. The location, near where they both grew up, offers a sense of stability and close proximity to their parents. And though it's a long way from Nibelheim, Lehman says revisiting his boyhood is a good source of insight into the fearlessly reckless Siegfried: "Most of the stuff I did as a teenager, I should've been arrested or died."

There still may be a bit of that in him. After all, he's singing Siegfried, which has shortened many tenor careers. Does he worry? "Everybody does," he says. "But with big risks come big rewards. You put on your blinders and just keep moving forward. It's like golfing — when you hit a shot, you can't be thinking of the next shot." spacer 

DAVID PATRICK STEARNS is classical-music critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer. 

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