HE'S NOW COMFORTABLE AS A LEADING MAN

By Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe Staff Date: 04/23/2004

"Baritone Keith Phares sang his first operatic role when he was a graduate student at the New England Conservatory, back in 1997. Last season the tall, handsome baritone ("6-foot-1 in shoes," he says) was back in town as a star, taking the title role in the Boston Lyric Opera's staging of Rossini's "The Barber of Seville."

"He returns to the Lyric next week as Guglielmo in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte - his third production of the opera. Interestingly, he appears alongside James Maddalena, the unforgettable Guglielmo in Peter Sellars's famous staging and video, who has moved on to the part of the senior cynic, Don Alfonso.

"Phares, now 29, seems to have formed a special bond with Maddalena. "Jim has had a career unlike any other, and that is something I would like to create for myself," Phares says, "so I have been picking his brain. I would like to use my strengths in a more eclectic way than today's opera world encourages. Jim's model as musician and actor is something I can aspire to. He has done a lot of unusual repertory and new works, and he has discovered a way of acting that is both personal and natural."

"Phares was born in New Jersey and grew up in South Carolina. He was always interested in music, and played trumpet for years. After his voice changed, someone heard him in a sing-along and suggested he try out for an all-county production of South Pacific.

"I had a crush on a girl who was trying out for it," he recalls, "so I went and auditioned too." At 17, Phares wound up in the senior-citizen role of the widower Emile de Becque, who sings "Some Enchanted Evening."

"(By a coincidence, Phares's fiancee, mezzo-soprano Patricia Risley, made her stage debut in a different production of South Pacific, singing Bloody Mary.)

"A few years later, Phares was encouraged by fellow performers to take singing lessons. He started when he was a junior in college, "although I was still thinking of myself as a trumpeter. Singing was just a fun thing for me to do; I didn't know anything about diction, or languages, or acting. I was in for a rude awakening when I arrived at the New England Conservatory. I think John Moriarty, who ran the opera program then, knew that I didn't have a clue. After I had finished singing an aria, he asked me what a word meant. I answered, `I don't speak Italian,' and everyone laughed."

"That was one of series of learning experiences that Phares doesn't consider setbacks. At 22, he was too young to take full advantage of a summer program at the Music Academy of the West (another "rude awakening," he calls it), but he did come to the attention of Marilyn Horne, whose foundation is now supporting his recital career. He still shudders at the memory of a masterclass at New York's Juilliard School with the legendary soprano Leontyne Price. "I was out of my league, and when Miss Price was trying to find the word for what I lacked, a heckler in the front row shouted out, `Feeling!' "

"During his Boston years, Phares met Boston Lyric Opera music director Stephen Lord and took small roles in the company's productions of Philip Glass's Akhnaten and Gounod's Romeo et Juliette as well as working with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. In 1998 he also won the New England Regional Auditions of the Metropolitan Opera National Council, one of the things that helped him launch a professional career that has taken him around the country - and even brought him, briefly, to the Metropolitan Opera.

"I was a cover for the Black Cat in Ravel's L'enfant et les sortileges. The day of the broadcast, Mark Oswald canceled. I was at the St. Patrick's Day parade with my fiancee, and didn't have my cellphone turned on. But I got the message in time, hopped in a taxi, and went to the Met and did my meeowing. The good part of it is that I don't have to sit around and worry about whether I'll ever sing at the Met; I already have."

Next season he will be back with the Boston Lyric Opera in the leading adult role in The Little Prince, and he has engagements with the Arizona Opera and the Washington Opera. This summer he sings in Berlioz's Beatrice et Benedict with the Santa Fe Opera. He already knows he will have to be shirtless in that production - he orders a salad for lunch with an interviewer, skips dessert, and speaks of the gym."

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