Can Fresno State singer ace 'Barber of Seville?'

The Fresno BeeAugust 3, 2013 

Constantine Pappas, 21, stars in "The Barber of Seville."

ERIC PAUL ZAMORA — Fresno Bee Staff Photo Buy Photo

The audience knows.

Constantine Pappas loves being on stage. You pick up on it immediately when he makes an entrance. Is it something in his expression, his body language, his confidence?

Whatever the reason, Pappas has it.

And then he opens his mouth to sing, and you think: He could go far.

Edna Garabedian, whose annual summer California Opera festival serves as a training ground for up-and-coming singers, has known this for almost a decade. She's been teaching voice to the 21-year-old Pappas since he was a freshman at Clovis East High School. Over a string of summers, she cast him first in smaller roles and then larger ones, all the while immersing him in the culture of the highly competitive opera world. (One summer he appeared in five of the festival's six staged productions.)

Now she's cast the Fresno State senior in his biggest role to date: the central character of Figaro in Rossini's comic classic "The Barber of Seville," which will be performed today in Clovis. The fully staged production, featuring stage direction by Garabedian and an orchestra conducted by Geoffrey Gallegos, includes cast members George Skipworth, Jamie Bonetto, Lee Strawn, Robert Vann and Alexandra Jerinic.

Garabedian is excited to watch — and listen — to her student's big "Barber" debut.

"He's upbeat. He thinks fast on his feet. He's conniving in a jovial way," she says. "Just like Figaro. Constantine's natural personality fits the role. I thought it was a perfect fit."

When Pappas went for his first voice lesson with Garabedian, he wasn't sure he had what it took to be an opera singer. He knew he had a good voice, but to be one of those guys who can boom across a concert hall? Not likely.

One of the first things she did was adjust the way he was holding his head. Tilt your head to the right, she told him. Open your mouth a little wider.

It was like magic.

"At that point there was a different voice in the room," he remembers. "I went, 'Oh my gosh, maybe I can actually sing opera.' I didn't think I would actually be able to do it."

And now he's seriously considering pursuing opera as a career.

At Fresno State, Pappas is studying voice with opera professor Anthony Radford. Pappas recently sang the role of Silvio in a production of "Pagliacci" as part of the inaugural Fresno Opera and Orchestra Summer Academy.

Garabedian says Pappas has grown into what's called a "cavalier baritone." His voice has a very lyrical body to it with the ability to offer noticeable shadings of character, from very bright to very dark.

Music has been a part of his life since he was a baby. He spent a lot of time at church — no surprise considering his father is the Rev. Jim Pappas, pastor of Fresno's St. George Greek Orthodox Church. His family — mother Donna and two sisters, Chrysanthe and Evangelia — often joined together in song. The joke has been told more than once about the Von Pappas Family Singers.

He had a role model in his family as well: his uncle Evan Pappas, a Broadway veteran actor who originated the roles of Benjy Stone in "My Favorite Year" and Britt Craig in "Parade."

Yet opera always had a special attraction for Constantine.

"I thought there was something really exciting about people singing loudly all the time," he says. "I've been surrounded by loud all my life.

Let's just say family gatherings in the Pappas household can tend toward the high volume: Never a silent moment around the dinner table. Birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas. Especially Christmas.

That loudness extends to both sides of the family: Italian-Armenians on one side, Greeks on the other, he says. (He's half Greek, a quarter each Italian and Armenian, but "100% Mediterranean.")

His cultural heritage is important to him — and has even spawned what he jokingly refers to as the "Greek entourage." Church members and others in the Greek community often pop up at his performances.

"I love them to death," he says with a laugh. "I'll go, 'I'm performing at such-and-such.' And they'll say, 'You have to tell us about this!' And they do come."

Garabedian says he's like "the Pied Piper of Hamlin — his people come out."

If there's one word to describe Pappas, even when he's seated during an interview, it's energy. His words come quickly, with enthusiasm, but always with precision. (Once he started talking as a toddler, he says, he never stopped.) He's never been shy, but neither does he project an overbearing attitude. Politeness seems his default mode. (Preacher's kids often develop a natural aptitude for affability — I should know.)

Does he have the hunger to make it as a singer?

He says he does. But it will be a long haul.

Pappas has no illusions about the challenges facing him in terms of pursuing opera as a career. For every success story, there are hundreds of singers who fail. Garabedian often cautions her students how tough it is.

Besides his voice, Pappas has a couple of important qualities: He's fit and handsome, and he has a natural stage charisma. In an opera world in which singers are very nearly marketed as sex symbols, that can be an advantage.

On the back burner, however, he's still considering law school. (He was on the speech-and-debate team in high school, and he's always loved it.)

Garabedian thinks that's great. "I told him that was fantastic idea," she says. "Be a singing attorney."

In the end, she gives him the same advice as all her protégés — including her former students who have performed on such stages as the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala:

" 'Stay steady. Think, feel, observe and create.' These are words that keep an artist on the right path."


OPERA PREVIEW

"The Barber of Seville," 2 p.m. today, Mercedes Edwards Theatre, 902 Fifth St., Clovis. calopera.org, (559) 225-6737. Free.

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6373, dmunro@fresnobee.com and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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