Opening the door of the downtown coffee shop, it’s not hard to spot Alexander Lewis. He’s the angular, good-looking fellow staring at an electronic score on his iPad and conducting along discreetly as he engages in some furtive note bashing. I’ve only been in New York for a couple of weeks, but by complete coincidence the Australian tenor, currently enjoying a run in Opera Australia’s Merry Widow opposite Danielle de Niese, has suggested we meet in what turns out to be my local. Hardly surprising, I guess, as good coffee in New York can be hard to find and an Aussie needs a sensitive nose to sniff out a decent flat white.
Alexander Lewis. Photo © Dario Acosta
Right now, Lewis is here to reprise his role as a duplicitous Confederate soldier in American rising star composer Matthew Aucoin’s powerful first opera, Crossing. But in fact, Lewis, who has lived in New York for most of the last five years since he joined the Metropolitan Opera’s prestigious Lindemann Young Artists Program, has recently resettled in Melbourne following his marriage to fellow singing actor and Helpmann Award winner Christina O’Neill (Melbourne audiences may remember she played Dot opposite Lewis’s Seurat in Victorian Opera’s 2013 staging of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George).
Not only has Lewis married a singer, he himself comes from Australian musical royalty. His father is successful Opera Australia baritone Michael Lewis, his mother Patricia Price, retiring Head of Voice at Perth’s WAAPA. Brother Ben, meanwhile, has triumphed in musical theatre, including recreating Lloyd Webber’s phantom in Simon Phillips’ revivified production of Love Never Dies. As a kid growing up in the UK, Lewis admits that opera was his first love. “I always wanted to do what my old man did,” he says, pushing back his hair with a grin. “I sang in the cathedral choir system in St Albans for five years under Dr Barry Rose as a child and that taught me a lot about music and singing in general.”
By the time the family relocated to Sydney, Lewis was thinking of himself as a baritone and headed west to train at WAAPA in musical theatre. But opera was always something he enjoyed singing on the side and winning Opera Foundation Australia’s New York Study Award gave him the chance to begin his love affair with the Big Apple. It was a bumpy old ride, mind. “I was doing Phantom back in Australia and my voice was going up,” he explains. “When I first came over here and sang for the Met as a light baritone, they were like, ‘Oh yeah, this is sort of interesting – but you’re in Phantom for 18 months, keep in touch’. Well, I did, and when I came back they were like ‘Oh, OK,’ and they took a bit of a punt on me, because at that stage I’d been singing as a tenor for all of two months.”
Layla Claire and Alexander Lewis in The Bartered Bride. Photo © 2011 The Juilliard School/Metropolitan Opera
His first Manhattan appearance came during his first year in 2011 when he played Vašek in Stephen Wadsworth’s production of The Bartered Bride as part of the inaugural Met+Juilliard series. The all-singing, all-dancing role of the hapless stutterer who runs away to join the circus played straight to Lewis’s strengths, so much so that James Levine joked with him afterwards: “Al, don’t ever let a director know you can do that, or you’ll be doing it in every opera for the rest of your career.” Clearly paying the warning no heed, he went on to make his Met debut the following year as a guard in Manon, as Borsa in Michael Mayer’s glitzy Las Vegas Rigoletto and as St Brioche in The Merry Widow.
“I do dance a little bit, which is fun,” he says, modestly. “I made the Borsa plot in Rigoletto as complicated as possible for whoever has to do it next, because there’s a little bit of dancing goes on in that. I’ve been very lucky with Barrie Kosky as well. He’s been very generous to me and recognises that I’ve got a slightly unusual skill-set for opera because of my musical theatre training. I wouldn’t call myself a triple threat, but I do like to throw myself at things quite literally, on stage.”
With a New York manager, Lewis has successfully straddled three continents of late – no mean feat when you add up the air miles from Melbourne to Berlin to New York. “I think for many singers these days – and I’m not by any stretch of the imagination comparing myself to the big guns that really do just fly in and out all over the place – home really is at 38000 feet,” he says with a modest smile. “It’s amazing, and I feel silly when I say it, but wow, it really is happening, and that’s really cool.”
“The industry is hard though,” he adds by way of a codicil. “In Europe things happen so rapidly, so I’ll never get the ‘we need someone to fill in for this job’ call if I’m elsewhere in the world. But I think the American scene does plan a little further ahead, so restaging Crossing is a great opportunity for me to come back and reconnect with the guys up the road, and say, ‘Hey, I definitely am still around and doing things!’”
Alexander Lewis with Rod Gilfry as Whitman in Crossing. Photo © Gretjen Helene
Good management aside, Lewis’s career has benefitted from its fair share of serendipity, as with his current return to New York. He first met Matthew Aucoin when the wunderkind composer was working as a repetiteur backstage at the Met on Shostakovich’s The Nose. “Matthew was standing in the wings conducting us offstage three or four stories up at the back,” Lewis explains. “He was shouting to me, telling me when to come in because I was so far away I could hardly see the conductor.”
In actual fact, Aucoin, whose talents Lewis describes as “profound”, had spotted the young Aussie tenor’s dramatic nouse a fair bit prior to that. Twice he had asked the Lindemann Program if Lewis would be free for workshops of his new opera, but to no avail. After The Nose, it turned out to be third time lucky, and Lewis landed the lead tenor role of John Wormley, a Confederate soldier trying to pass himself off in a Union hospital ward presided over by the pacifist Walt Whitman. The complex emotional relationship that develops between the gay poet and the treacherous wounded soldier is the kind of storyline that actors will kill for, especially in the world of opera where motivations are often more black and white.
The musical challenges are also pretty profound with lots of tricky time signatures and difficult vocal passages in what is a big sing for Lewis as well as the Whitman role. “My character is severely injured on the right side of his body with a festering wound that won’t heal,” Lewis explains. “When we first did the first production up in Boston we met with the head of surgery at Harvard and had a day discussing what would happen if I got a shrapnel wound here, how would that affect the use of my arm and what were the chances of survival, which were basically next to none. I spend the vast majority of the show either on the floor or falling to the ground in some way. It’s pretty brutal for a lot of us, actually.”
He needn’t have worried. A few weeks later the reviews give Crossing a critical pat on the back. His subsequent Melbourne outing as the misanthropic Count Danilo opposite Danielle de Niese in The Merry Widow (transferring to Sydney for the whole of January 2018) was similarly applauded. Lewis, who with Taryn Fiebig as Hanna Glawari opened Graeme Murphy’s new production earlier in the year for WA Opera in Perth, is a definite fan of the show. “It’s beautiful!” he gushes. “It’s some of the most stunning designs I think you’ll ever see in the theatre, and one of the most beautiful sets I’ve ever stood on – and I’ve been lucky enough to stand on some crackers. It’s full of production numbers and silly fun dialogue and things like that, but whenever we had a moment of intimacy we really tried to focus the camera in on it and give the piece as much longing and as much heartache as possible. Graeme’s choreography is just stunning, and Taryn was an absolute joy to play opposite. She’s such a beautiful dancer, so Graeme was pretty excited that he had a couple who could be pushed quite hard choreographically.”
Alexander Lewis as Danilo in OA’s The Merry Widow. Photo © Jeff Busby
After The Merry Widow, Lewis will stay on in Sydney for Opera Australia’s The Nose, a co-production with the Royal Opera House, which earned Barrie Kosky rave reviews for his high-octane staging. Lewis’s first experience of Shostakovich’s early opera came four years ago when he was asked to play the title role (ie. the nose itself) in acclaimed artist William Kentridge’s production at the Metropolitan Opera. “I remember chatting to one of my mentors and saying, ‘Oh, what’s it like vocally, will it suit me?’ he recalls. “And he said “Yeah, I think there’s this one high B in it or something. You’ll be totally fine.’ When I got the music and looked at it and was like, ‘Um, yeah, there are 14 high Cs in this as well!’”
It wasn’t just the music that was a challenge, Kentridge’s production – sung in the original Russian – saw Lewis running around the stage in a giant nose suit. For Kosky’s production OA and Covent Garden commissioned an English translation but that doesn’t make it any easier. “I love working with Barrie, but it’s terrifying at the same time,” laughs Lewis. “You can’t really prepare for day one of rehearsals. You can learn your music, obviously, but until you see his design and concept presentation you have absolutely no idea of which direction you’re going to go in or what surreal landscape you’re going to be placed in.”
In Gogol’s tale, Kovalyov, a small-time bureaucrat accidentally loses his nose while being shaved at the barbers. The next morning, the barber – in OA’s production Sir John Tomlinson, making his Australian debut – finds the nose and tries to dispose of it in the Neva. Meanwhile, Kovalyov discovers that his nose, which he comes across praying in the Kazan Cathedral, has acquired the rank of State Councillor and refuses to have any dealings with its lowly former owner. “Barrie’s created a whole other world that has its own logic,” Lewis explains. “In his production, we all have prosthetic noses, so all of a sudden someone losing his nose becomes possible. In Barrie’s world, no one’s going to talk to a man who’s just got a normal nose compared with these strange wonderland types of noses.”
Alexander Lewis inside William Kentridge’s The Nose. Photo © Metropolitan Opera
Looking back over the last decade, Lewis has regularly had the chance to create new and sometimes controversial work. Along with Aucoin’s Crossing, he was in Washington National Opera’s 2014 staging of Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick. He also covered Molqui, the leader of the terrorist cell in the notoriously picketed staging of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer at the Met – a production that featured fellow Aussie Kate Miller-Heidke and was conducted by SSO Chief David Robertson. “That was pretty weird,” he tells me. “When you’re a cover at the Met you’ve you got to be within 20 minutes of the theatre at all times, so my now wife and I would actually watch the protests from a restaurant over the road! That was fascinating, but if it went on again now it’d probably be even worse given the current environment.”
But these are the stories that attract Lewis and that he believes we should be telling. “I consider myself incredibly lucky, actually,” he explains. “I’ve been able to cross paths with certain people at the right time and be in these pieces that tell amazing stories by writers who are writing these incredible things. It then becomes about refining the story and enabling a discourse; enabling an intimacy of dialogue with an audience Even on an operatic scale you can create that sense of intimacy, I think.”
Alexander Lewis is in The Merry Widow at Sydney Opera House from December 31 – February 3 and then The Nose from February 21 – March 3