Rod Gilfry, who is playing Emile de Becque, grew up in a musical household. He has sung Curly in “Oklahoma” and Billy Bigelow in “Carousel” (twice). He sings “Some Enchanted Evening” in his cabaret-style, one-man show. But Gilfry had never seen a production of South Pacific until he signed on for the tour.
“It’s true,” Gilfry said recently after an afternoon rehearsal in New York. “I only saw it after I got this job. I went to see the show at Lincoln Center Theater, and I was really stunned by it – the beautiful designs, the singing, how real [director] Bart Sher kept everything. I’m deeply affected by greatness, and I was deeply affected that night.”
Gilfry, who grew up in southern California and who still has his home base there, in Rancho Cucamonga, feels that his combination of qualities suits him well for Emile. “I’m the right age,” says Gilfry. (Emile is 44; the performer is a young-looking 50.) “And I speak French. For six years, I had a teacher who was French, so English spoken with a French accent is pretty natural for me.”
Gilfry has sung those Rodgers & Hammerstein roles, and he met his wife while they were doing a musical in high school, but his career has been identified primarily with classical musical and opera. “I didn’t want to be an opera singer at first,” he says. “I wanted to be a soloist in works by Bach and Handel and Beethoven. Then I decided that to be really successful I needed to do well in opera.”
Gilfry had three small roles during the Los Angeles Opera’s inaugural season, in 1986, then spent several years based in Europe, singing standard baritone roles like Don Giovanni. He has originated new work at home and abroad: as Stanley in Andre Previn’s opera “A Streetcar Named Desire,” for example.
“I enjoy singing in Europe,” Gilfry says. (He’ll be taking a break in the middle of the South Pacific tour to do “The Sound of Music” in Paris; his daughter Carin, who just finished her master’s at Juilliard, will sing Liesl.) “But I’m excited about being able to tour with an American musical in the United States.
I’ve never done that before.”
Asked about the differences between singing a musical-theatre role and an operatic role, Gilfry comments, “The vocal demands are less in musical theater. I recently sang the title role in an opera in Amsterdam that was five-and-a-half hours long.” (It was Messiaen’s “Saint Francois d’Assise.”)
He continues: “In opera, there is less flexibility allowed for interpreting what the composer has written. With Verdi, for example, it all right there in the score. You have a lot more latitude in musical theatre, and I enjoy that.”
Gilfry, though, is quick to point out that musical theatre has its own challenges. “Going from dialogue to singing can be tricky. You have to make sure the transitions are logical. It helps a lot when the composer and lyricist were aware of that when they created the piece. That’s certainly the case with South Pacific.