BroadwayWorld San Francisco talks with Jacquelynne Fontaine, who plays Carlotta in the current national tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s “Phantom of the Opera.” Fontaine talks about her time in Italy as an opera singer and how far she has come since winning Miss California in 2006. Check out the full interview below.
You play Carlotta, the diva of Paris opera. Every female singer likes to joke that she is a diva. Prima Donna is a sort of fun stereotype. How do you enjoy playing THE ultimate opera diva?
She really is. These costumes are about 37 pounds apiece. The music is gorgeous. And I love it because she’s really fun. I get to find different aspects of her each night depending on how the managers respond or how certain energy is. I personally think it’s the most fun character to play, besides the Phantom.
“Phantom” is not an actual opera, but its music does have an operatic quality at times. You have a background in opera, and although Carlotta is supposed to be somewhat of a villain with lesser talent, I’ve never seen a Carlotta I did not enjoy. So even “singing badly” has to sound good. What does it take to sing this kind of music?
A lot of training. I started studying voice when I was 17 or 18, right when I started college. Then I studied through college and I spent two years for my masters, two years for the doctorate. Even as an opera singer, you are expected to continue studying, even when you’re a full-on professional, because opera is so demanding. It’s like how athletes don’t just stop going to the gym once they’re professional. With this part, thankfully I was given the score months ahead of time, so I had time to really work it into my voice. Every single day I would sit down, I would sing through. I started with “Prima Donna.” And I would add on a little bit each day, so that by the time rehearsals started I was able to do that role for the six, eight hours of rehearsal and then eight times a week. As an opera singer, we get days off. We don’t have to do eight shows a week. This is very much different to that. I’m relying very heavily on my operatic training in keeping my voice healthy. A lot of times when we’re doing the opera within an opera, I sing operatically. I sometimes ask for them to take my microphone off. And the couple times that there’s been a microphone malfunction, I’ve been really excited because I get to sing unamplified.
Does your background in the opera world give you much perspective or insight into the world of “Phantom” and your character?
Oh, so much so, because I’ve worked in opera houses. I know the dynamic. I know when she’s fighting or speaking with the conductor, it’s all things I’m acutely aware of. And also, I spent some time in Italy. That really helped with the Italian side of it. Speaking Italian. The Italian gestures. Just the Italian attitude.
The world presented in this version of “Phantom” has a different aesthetic from the original Broadway production. How would you describe the look and feel of the new designs?
I would say that it’s more filmic and that the scenes really bleed into each other. The set is enormous and really exciting. There are a lot more special effects. As time is wont to do, things improve. So in 27 years special effects have really taken off, and we’re making full use of that. Just get ready for a little more realism. When you’re backstage, you really feel like you’re backstage. The walls look rusty. The dressing room has … probably bottles of liquor that they’re hiding. But when it is the opera, it’s grand. It’s enormous. It sparkles. A lot of people ask where the staircase for Masquerade is. A cool thing about it is that, in actuality, the Masquerade was held in the grand hall in the Hall of Mirrors. So, we’re holding it where it would have been held. It’s about 20 semi trucks. It’s one of the largest tours out there right now.
Have you read the book? How do it and other versions inform your work?
I always love to research a character. When I did Anna in “The King and I,” I read her actual memoirs. When I read the “Phantom of the Opera” novel, it’s very much different than the Andrew Lloyd Webber version. I felt like that early on. So instead I read it more as a fun little book to read. If anything, when the audience comes they work with what’s given to them. And so, I worked from material that’s given to me and what my colleagues gave me and what we decided on.
What makes this version so successful?
It’s gorgeous music. It’s a beautiful heart-wrenching love story. It talks about loss and loneliness. This beautiful singer, Christine, is torn between two men. What girl wouldn’t want that? Good music stands the test of time. It’s a beautiful story. I don’t think that this kind of story will ever go out of style.
You’ve been with the tour since it began. Has the show changed or developed at all since the workshop stage?
They always do. Shows change almost nightly, because if you really are present on stage, present with what your fellow actors are giving you, there are just little nuances that chance. [Director Laurence Connor] worked with us for about five weeks in New York. But then the cast changes. We get a new Phantom, or we get a new Christine. And so we base it a little off their character. It’s not 100% set. What Laurence does and the resident director in the tour does, is they see what this specific actor offers and we can mold that to make the character really shine. So, little things change here and there.
When you won Miss California in 2006, did you ever think you might end up in a show like this?
No. I wanted to when I was younger. I had the show memorized when I was young. But then I kind of gave that up. When I did the Miss America competition, I still remember them asking, “What’s your goal?” I said, one, I’d like to be an international opera singer. And two, I would love to be a professor. I didn’t think the Phantom would be involved in my future, but it’s great because I still get to sing operatically. I still get to travel. It’s really just lucky how it all worked out.
Given how far you’ve come and your Miss California background, you must have a message for youth with great theatre dreams. What would your advice be to the next generation of actors and singers?
Always remember that this is a gift, an offering. It’s a gift that you have, a talent. Remember that you are also giving. That this is a very difficult business. There are a lot of ups and downs. There are a lot of great talented folks out there. And to rejoice in that, but also to remember the true core of why you’re doing this, and it’s to share the human experience.
Well, thank you for your time. I look forward to the new production after seeing the original on Broadway in college and in San Francisco as a young girl.
That’s awesome. I think you’re going to like it. It’s so beautiful, so dark and gothic. I still get goose bumps.
“Phantom of the Opera” comes to SHN San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre August 19 – October 4. Learn more and purchase tickets at www.shnsf.com.
Follow all the latest Bay Area Theatre and Arts news on our San Francisco Facebook Page. Click here to visit the page today!