Like a lot of us, Todd Thomas is trying to watch his weight. He’s doing a lot of juicing and working out at the gym.
But at the same time, he’s worrying a bit that he doesn’t look fat enough.
A contradiction? Not at all. The celebrated baritone is playing the title role in Opera Santa Barbara’s production of Falstaff, which opens on Friday night at the Granada Theatre. Inhabiting the role convincingly requires rotundness, but you have to be in reasonably good shape in order to have the stamina to sing it.
So he’s sitting at the Sojourner Café, enjoying a healthy soup-and-salad lunch, and recalling a recent conversation with the costume team. “I told them it’s not fat enough,” he said. “The costume adds a few inches, but it has to be excessive!”
Excess is the essence of Falstaff, a self-indulgent, amoral nobleman who devotes his life to satisfying his most basic desires: food (and lots of it), drink (alcoholic, of course), and sex (when he can cajole or purchase it).
He is, of course, Shakespeare’s greatest comic creation. But by placing him at the center of his last and arguably greatest opera — an adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor — Giuseppe Verdi made him sing.
“It’s a great, great piece,” Thomas said. “It’s economical, but the characters are so fleshed out. This opera is so text-driven, but it’s a remarkable score. Verdi was in his seventies [when he wrote it], yet the score has great energy and is full of fresh ideas.”
Thomas should know: He has been living with this opera for three decades, having sung the supporting role of Ford while an undergraduate at Oberlin University. Then, in 2001, he was invited to inhabit the title role by the music director of Florida’s Opera Sarasota.
After the singer expressed some hesitation about whether the role was right for him, “the conductor, the Verdi expert Richard DeRenzi, said, ‘Do you think you know Falstaff better than I do?’”
Thomas conceded he did not and agreed to do the role. It was a career-defining moment.
“We spent an entire year preparing it,” he recalled. “We had 10 performances of it, and by the end, I felt that my voice really fit this part. Then, right after that, I went to the Seattle Opera to do it there. It was all very rewarding.”
A specialist in Verdi and Puccini (he was Scarpia in Opera Santa Barbara’s 2006 production of Tosca), Thomas has performed Falstaff several times since, with various companies around the country. He said with a chuckle that his approach to the role “has definitely changed, in the sense that I am grayer. I think there’s a certain amount of understanding [of what this late-in-life character is feeling] that wasn’t there 15 years ago.”
Thomas, 52, was born and raised in the small upstate New York city of Elmira. “One of the first memories I have of being turned onto music was in a church setting,” he said. “I remember going to a service and hearing these guys sing ‘My Divine Redeemer’ and other warhorses of sacred music. I had goosebumps. I was told that was the spirit of God, but then I got that same feeling going to a concert. I thought, ‘The spirit of God is here, too!’ I remember listening to a singer and thinking, ‘How can a voice do that?’ The sound of his voice made the hairs of my neck stand up. I was only 9 or 10 years old, and didn’t have many hairs on the back of my neck! I remember thinking, ‘I want to do that. If I could create that, it would be a great accomplishment.’”
Growing up in an isolated area, the idea of a career as a singer seemed absurdly out of reach, and with the encouragement of his teachers, Thomas enrolled at Oberlin as a music-education major. That changed after he sang in the chorus in a production of The Coronation of Poppea.
“I had a visceral response to that music,” he recalled, “or maybe it was just being in a toga! But in any case, I thought, ‘This is great!’ I remember not being able to sleep after the first dress rehearsal. I went to my voice teacher, who said, ‘If you can’t see yourself being satisfied doing anything else, you should follow your heart.’”
Thomas describes his career as a “slow burn.” While he has sung twice at the Met (he was in the gigantic cast of War and Peace), he stays very busy working for regional companies.
“I have four children at home [in Philadelphia], ranging in age from 22 to 6,” he noted. “There are times I ask myself whether the sacrifices I make are worth it. The answer inevitably is yes. I love going into a community and being absorbed into it for three or four weeks while we put on a production. There’s a piece of me that’s empty without it.”
Opera Santa Barbara presents Falstaff on Friday, March 7, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 9, at 2:30 p.m. at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). Call (805) 899-2222 or visit operasb.org for tickets and info.