Broadway's Hugh Panaro
By: Scott Barnes
Opera News Magazine - March 2006

(Thanks to Bonnie for transcribing this)

It has taken a while to catch up with busy Broadway singer Hugh Panaro (Broadway’s Marius in Les Mis, Ravenal in Showboat, Buddy in Sideshow, and both Raoul and the title character in Phantom of the Opera).  It’s the morning after a day spent shooting the commericial of his new show, Lestat based on the Anne Rice novels, which arrives at the Palace Theatre this month.  The shoot he says consisted of “ten hours in front of a wind machine.”  Panaro is tired but in remarkably good spirits (not uncommon for him, according to colleagues and mutual friends—good spirits that is) as we chat about his early years, what it takes for a classically trained singer to crank out eight performances a week, and his upcoming solo debut for Sony.

Opera News:  How did vocal music make it’s way into your young life?

Hugh Panaro:  My grandmother was a pianist and singer, and my mom had a beautiful lyric soprano.  I started to accompany her at church gigs and, when I was twelve, realized I wanted to sing, too, and landed in the Huntingdon Valley Dinner Theatre production of The Sound of Music, as Friedrich.  Since it was hard to find thirteen-year-old boys willing to do musical theatre, I was the only child not double cast, which meant that, from the beginning, I did the full eight performances a week—a great training ground.  Now I was no wispy boy soprano.  I was a full-out belter, singing up to contralto F and G.

ON:  I suppose you did the Artful Dodger as well?

HP:  Oh yeah, and Bye Bye Birdie.  Literally grew up in the dinner theatre.

ON:  Who were you listening to at that time?

HP:  Believe it or not, the first album I remember hearing was Ethel Merman in the original cast for Annie Get Your Gun, and I modeled myself on Merman’s very forward vocal production.  The first Broadway show I saw was Annie, starring a fellow Philadelphian, Andrea McArdle.  As my voice started to change, I was in a high school band, playing keyboard and singing covers by Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, and Lionel Richie.  Also, my parents, realizing I was serious and wanting a professional to guide me through my voice change, took me to a teacher named Melanie Bowman. As I lost my belted high notes, I figured that there must be some other way to approach them, so I started to figure out “voix-mixte” – or “mix” as we call it in theatre – by playing with my falsetto down.  I can’t say that I trained it – it was really always there.  Eventually I could sing soprano high E with the same power as the rest of my range.  As a matter of fact, at seventeen, I auditioned for the role of Mary Sunshine in Chicago by singing “Poor Wandering One” [Mabel’s aria from The Pirate of Penzance], complete with the high E-flat!  I got it, but I was so skinny that I ended up wearing Lucie Arnez’s costumes from a previous show.

ON:  You went to college at Temple University?

HP:  I listened to Pavarotti’s greatest-hits CD – the one where he’s in full Pagliacci makeup – and auditioned [for Temple] at seventeen with “Questa o quella” and an art song.  They had an early-acceptance program, and I started working with a teacher who managed in one semester to shorten my range to an octave.  I felt I was learning far more in my English diction class, being taught by Robert Grooters, protégé of Hans Hotter, and threatened politely to leave unless I could study singing with Grooters.  Through the intercession of a wonderful dean named Helen Laird, the switch was made.  Robert came to all my shows on Broadway and always gave me wonderful and supportive notes on my performances.  I miss him.

ON:  Do you study now?

HP: (Sheepishly) Uhhhh, no.  You know, I feel if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  I think my last lessons were in ’97 or ’98, when I was getting ready to do Showboat in London.  The soprano had a more operatic approach to Magnolia, and I went to [coloratura soprano] Rita Shane to get my classical chops back.  I have always been a singer who puts great importance on clear words.  Nothing makes me crazier than listening to someone with a beautiful voice singing “Ohnlih mek biliv ahee lov yo,” instead of “Only make believe I love you.”

ON:  Do you do a vocal warmup when you are performing?

HP:  Not too much.  I’ve known wonderful singers who leave their best performance in the dressing room by over-singing.  I check to make sure the middle and bottom are warm, and do “lip flutters” to see that the breath is free-flowing and properly directed.  Actually, I get a great warm-up by doing twenty minutes on the elliptical machine.

ON:  How do you feel about weight-lifting and ab work?

HP:  I do it because I think it’s essential for the sexy kind of guy I’m often asked to portray, and more often than not, that means taking my shirt off some time during the performance.  I did temporarily paralyze my vocal cords doing squats – it was hysterical.  I had no bottom to the voice [he demonstrates a voice straight out of Munchkinland] and had to take a show off.  Never again.  I lift and do ab work in moderation – if it seems to be negatively affecting my singing. I back off for a while.  I always do a lot of stretching, and most importantly, I breathe.  I never hold a breath, which I think is key.

ON:  In doing my research I see that you studied with the wonderful Stanford Meisner devotee Freddy Kareman.

HP:  Oh my god!  Freddy. Yes.  When people were complimentary about my take on the Phantom, it is because I personalized every single moment.  When Christine returned the ring, I relived my divorce every night.  When I need a monologue for an audition, I still use Spoon River Anthology – “Dear Jane…dear winsome Jane.”  People often say, “But you Phantom is so different from Buddy in Sideshow and from Ravenal!”  Well…yeah!  True, my voice is my voice, but I use it differently to inhabit different characters.  A deformed man brought up in the bowels of a French opera house is gonna be different from an ageless, hot Vampire.  The Lestat score is surprisingly legit, even though it’s written by Elton John.

ON:  So let’s close with a little teaser about you upcoming debut solo album for Sony.  Quite a feather in your cap!

HP:  Definitely.  I want to return to beautiful singing – attention to the lyric.  Some pop, some theatre music, definitely some foreign-language stuff.  I guess you’d call it an album of adult contemporary art song.

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