As stage entrances go, there aren’t many better than riding in on a stallion, singing one of the most famous arias in the world, decked out in Cuban heels and a glittering, traje corto jacket.
But according to baritone Michael Honeyman, who will make his role debut as the dashing bullfighter Escamillo in Opera Australia’s production of Carmen, it’s also one of the most nervewracking!
“To tell the story of the Toreador song, you have to stand up on the horse.” Honeyman says. “In stirrups. Wearing Cuban heels. So I just want to stay on balance,” he laughs.
As a self-described “Anglo-Saxon, half-Scottish, very pale, short white boy”, Honeyman is well aware that the smooth-talking, head-turning Escamillo is poles apart from his own character.
The minute he found out he would be singing the role; Honeyman enlisted the help of a Flamenco dancer to master the easy athleticism and Spanish style of movement.
“I really want to be able to fill in that Spanish sense of machismo, of living in the moment, of death and sex and life all wrapped up together,” he explains.
“Escamillo needs to walk with this sense of possessing the women in the room – but in this gallant way that’s very attractive. In this day and age, that’s a difficult line to walk! Nancy Fabiola Herrera (who is playing Carmen) is teaching me lots of things about the Spanish way of doing things.”
On the rehearsal schedule for Carmen, horse-riding and fight-training classes are pencilled in alongside the usual stage and music calls.
It’s a world away from Honeyman’s former life working at the Commonwealth Bank, where he spent many years before joining Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Choir as a hobby. When the conductor Jonathan Welch heard Honeyman sing, he instantly realised the blonde baritone had a voice worth training. “So I thought, I’m not going to sing in the choir anymore,” Honeyman laughs. “And I went back to university and got my music degree.”
It’s been far more than a change of career, the baritone says. “You get settled into a certain life and certain comfort zones. In the space of a few years, I’ve had to get used to breaking those comfort zones on a regular basis.”
He recalls an uncomfortable scene in one of his student operas where the director asked him to touch himself on stage. “I just couldn’t do it the first few times. Now if someone asked me to take my clothes off on stage I probably would!”
No one has, yet, but this year does throw up some other interesting challenges. Escamillo is a big break, as roles go, and Honeyman will follow it by playing Sharpless in Opera on Sydney Harbour: Madama Butterfly.
“Last year I was doing all of the angry roles: the demanding father in Aida, the jealous lover in Il Trovatore and covering the vengeful brother in The Force of Destiny. This year I get to play the nice guys: Escamillo, who is charming and sexy, and Sharpless, who is quite an empathetic character.”
It’s clear that Honeyman loves the character work at the heart of opera: finding the right posture, the right movement and the right expression of each new role. As his voice develops, Honeyman is looking forward to some of the darker roles in the baritone repertoire, and finding ways to avoid the “two-dimensional, moustache-twirling drama” that so often defines villains in opera.
“One of the big things I love about my job is that I can totally transform with each character. Everyone keeps telling me how different I look on stage! So I’m looking forward to seeing how physically different I’ll be as Escamillo.”
Plenty of world-famous baritones have sung and recorded the Toreador song, so Honeyman is determined to compare well, on a professional level. The other challenge is more personal. “I have to accept that at some stage, during the season, the horse is going to upstage me. It’ll poo on stage or it will try to move, and no matter how well I sing that song, the horse might upstage me.”
Carmen is on at the Sydney Opera House from February 3rd until March 29. It is on at the Arts Centre Melbourne from May 14 until May 25. For more info and tickets, click here.