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Bob Bernard's Corner: A Born (Operatic) Loser

By Bob Bernard

First he got “stiffed” for the rent. Shortly thereafter he was dumped by the gorgeous Musetta while getting stuck with the bar bill at Café Momus.

This was bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos in the dual roles of landlord Benoit and aging admirer Alcindoro for LA Opera’s 2012 production of La bohème. Phil has been an audience favorite here ever since his initial turn in this Puccini favorite. He returns here for the season opener of Gianni Schicchi in the role of Betto di Signa.

For many of us, our first experience of enjoying the art of Phil was during the April 1990 Met telecast ofDon Giovanni. In that he was Masetto, paired with the Zerlina of Dawn Upshaw.

 

            

In Act One: Contentious                     In Act Two: Cuddly

This role followed from his being a winner of the 1985 Met Audition competition. Phil’s recollections of that occasion remain vivid. His opening aria was Don Basilio’s ‘La calunnia’ from Il barbiere di Siviglia, sung with his kneecaps operating much as independent pistons in an engine that was misfiring. In fact, after exiting the stage at aria’s end, he was unable to recall a single note which he had sung, yet retained the clear memory of his malfunctioning kneecaps. Gathering himself during the two-hour break before his second aria, Phil adopted a career-enhancing attitude. Eschewing nervousness, he willed himself to simply enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience. So, in singing Osmin’s aria ‘Wer hungrig bei der Tafel sitzt’ from Mozart’s Zaide, he projected the aria’s celebration of the enjoyment of food so well that the judges later cited this as being a decisive factor in their rendering of the awards.

In January 1992 we got to see Phil once again, this time as the English Ambassador in the telecast of the world premiere of Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles. An experience from one of the technical rehearsals for this premiere remains as a sweet, treasured memory for Phil. The rehearsal for act one’s finale had been progressing haltingly, with a series of starts and stops: This chaotic scene, involving, as it did, Figaro in drag, Turkish musicians, a vagrant Wagnerian singer, and a circling five-member group of eight-foot-high paper mache heads (yes, Julie Taymor was the Artistic Consultant), repeatedly came to a halt because of the many collisions which occurred. While everyone was picking themselves up from one of these accidents, Phil, with his positive attitude, was lying back, smiling and relaxing, when the now-sainted  Charles Anthony (he of what-came-to-be 2,928 performances over 57 seasons), delighting in finding someone who was enjoying himself, joined Phil, coalescing newbie and patriarch in a ‘just happy to be here’ moment.

We have seen Phil in Met HD telecasts as Billy Jackrabbit (La Fanciulla del West, January 2011) and as the Innkeeper in the 2012 season’s Manon. Here is a photo montage of Phil in the above roles, along with his roles for LAO as Baron Douphol (La Traviata), Antonio (Le nozze di Figaro), Zaretsky (Eugene Onegin), and the Duke of Verona (Romeo et Juliette):

More recently for LA Opera, he sang the roles of the Sacristan (2013 Tosca) and Suleyman Pasha (2014 The Ghosts of Versailles).

Sir Thomas Allen once declared, “Every major singer has one role which has a special relationship for them; one role they must continue to explore; one role which has gotten under their skin." That role for Phil is Leporello, the role he has performed more than any other. He has analyzed how it plays against the Don, as well as how the other principals relate to this master / servant pair, bringing his interpretation to regional opera companies from Calgary (on CBC) to Opera Pacific to Atlanta.

Being a bass-baritone, it has fallen to be Phil’s lot to take on many roles of operatic “losers." Recognizing, specifically, in addition to the Benoit / Alcindoro duo:

  • As Baron Douphol (La Traviata), he loses both a stack of money while gambling and, ultimately, an (offstage) duel.
  • As Betto (Gianni Schicchi), he is one of the several relatives who lose out on Buoso’s estate.
  • As the gondolier Zuane (La Gioconda), he loses a race on the Grand Canal.
  • As Hermann Ortel (Die Meistersinger), he is one of the losing Master Singers.
  • As Masetto (Don Giovanni), after almost getting cuckolded on his wedding eve, he gets sucker-punched by the Don at the start of act 2.

These circumstances, coupled with his popularity with the Artist Services Committee’s volunteers, provided the inspiration for Phil to receive one of the committee’s ‘Nice Guy’ awards. Accordingly, he was presented with the committee’s first (tongue-in-cheek) Wozzeck Award (so named when an ad hoc sub-committee concluded that this opera was the prominent example of unrelenting hardship and exploitation). His award took the tangible form of a personalized DVD of the film A Day at the Races. Here below, when presented with this award by committee member Stella Leontsini, Phil reacted with characteristic good humor.

          

Phil operates as a free agent, negotiating his roles one by one with regional and national opera companies alike. This arrangement has worked well here in Los Angeles: LA Opera values his undiminished vocal skills and naturalistic stage presence; Phil relishes the artistic depth of the casting and the commitment of his colleagues, both on and off stage.

Phil still dreams of new artistic challenges, such as adding Leporello to his list of roles at the Met, or adding the roles of Dr. Dulcamara (L’elisir d’amore) and Don Pasquale to the seventy-six already in his résumé. An itinerant medicine man and an elderly bachelor await their opportunity to come on stage.

Acknowledgements:

  1. Photos from LA Opera productions by Robert Millard
  2. Photo montage by May Wang
  3. Award photo by Bob Bernard
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Author: Judy Lieb
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