Capital prof enjoys role in opera Elmer Gantry

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Brian Banion, center, an adjunct associate professor of voice at Capital University, performs the role of the Rev. Arthur Baines in an operatic version of "Elmer Gantry," that continues to tour the country.

Capital University associate professor Brian Banion knows what it is like to smell the greasepaint and hear the roar of the crowd.

His rich bass-baritone voice has graced stages across central Ohio, throughout North America, and in Europe in roles as varied as the Rev. Arthur Baines in an operatic version of "Elmer Gantry" to singing the National Anthem at the finals of the 2007 Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic Bodybuilding Competition.

Ironically, despite a successful career in opera and as an adjunct associate professor in voice at Capital, where he earned his undergraduate degree in trombone, Banion’s high school career initially focused on brass musical instruments.

"I mostly played in the band, but singing opportunities came up as musical men are always in need," recalled Banion, a London, Ohio, resident and a 1990 Madison-Plains High School graduate. "By my senior year, I was president of both choir and band. One would think this was the beginning of my singing life, but I have never considered this to be the case. I never once took singing seriously and did not continue into college. Dumb luck late in college is the only thing that brought me to singing.

"I was rejected for the musical at Madison-Plains the first time I auditioned, but ended up replacing someone who could, for one reason or another, not take the part. By the time I was a sophomore or junior, I was a regular lead in plays and musicals at Madison-Plains. I never considered it to be something serious. It was just an opportunity to act like a fool in public."

Banion said his time in high school was one of freedom and creativity and he still maintains a friendship with John Wilson, his comedic counterpart in a series of plays. He credits Phil Shipley, the assistant band director when Banion was in school, with encouraging his musical development.

Last month, Banion appeared as the Rev. Baines with the Nashville Opera in the world premiere of "Elmer Gantry," an opera based on the 1927 book by Sinclair Lewis and a 1960 Academy Award-winning movie starring Burt Lancaster. The story focuses on a fictitious, womanizing evangelist and his rise from college football star and class president to his infatuation with evangelist Sharon Falconer and fall from grace as a preacher.

Librettist Herschel Garfein said when composer Bob Aldridge presented the idea of writing an opera based on the Lewis story, neither one had any idea of what was involved and, like many others, saw Gantry as a hypocritical religious figure who soars to great heights before being exposed and disgraced.

"Little by little, we came to realize that our Elmer Gantry would be focused differently from Lewis’. We were determined to be true to his biting satire of religious wrongdoing," Garfein says on the "Elmer Gantry" Web site, "but at the same time to dramatize the underlying, deeply moving power of American religion itself.

"We resolved to bring audiences to the height of both folly and glory within a single evening-sometimes within a single moment. To communicate to our audiences the emotional depths we ourselves had experienced in revival meetings (during research),

Bob envisioned not the typical operatic sound world, but one drawn from American roots-gospel, Appalachian folksong, and brass band music."

The opera was originally commissioned by Boston Lyric Opera, but a change in administration put the production on hold for about 15 years until John Hoomes, Nashville’s artistic director, expressed interest in "Elmer Gantry. Banion said he has a lot of respect for Hoomes having the courage to stick his neck out to do something no one else was willing to try.

While on break from "La Traviata" rehearsals, Banion became involved with "Elmer Gantry" following a discussion with Bill Boggs, artistic director of Opera Columbus.

"Bill was telling me about a new project he was involved with and saying it was a shame that he couldn’t get me involved, as there are so many parts for men in the show," recalled Banion. "The following week, I was being considered and it ended up happening.

"Rev. Baines is a bit of a dramatic stretch for me," admitted Banion, who with his wife, Elise, a mezzo-soprano and fellow Capital professor, and daughter Viviane, 5.

"He is quite stodgy and an older man. I actually wear a fat suit on stage, which helps the characterization a lot. This is another area where John Hoomes took a big chance-he was able to look at publicity photos of a thinnish, youngish man and cast him in this role which requires the singer to be neither."

In the story, Baines is president of Terwillinger College & Seminary and he offers Gantry a full scholarship early in the show. He recognizes Gantry’s charisma and tries to guide him to the pulpit. Gantry’s acceptance starts the wheels of the story moving towards a fire that kills all but a few fellow characters.

"I see my function in the opera as representing for the Gantry character an old way of doing things," continued Banion, "which is perhaps not as attractive to him as the revivalism of the Sharon Falconer character. I think it makes perfect sense that Elmer is so easily bored and turned off by what I have to offer him. Sharon is so tender and beautiful in everything she does, and my character is not at all."

Since the Nashville production was the world premiere, Banion said preparing for his character was quite different than preparing for a typical opera.

"There is no performance tradition from which to draw," remarked Banion. "What goes on the stage in any opera requires a deep understanding of what is printed on the page from every angle. Without tradition to draw upon, the rehearsal process becomes very important for the development of the character.

"Bob and Herschel were there early on in the process, and I found their input incredibly helpful in this regard. Who knows these characters better than the people who have been obsessing over them for so many years?

"I must say it is very intimidating to sing words and notes in front of the people who wrote them," Banion continued. "I told Bob and Herschel that in the last 15 years, there is no way on earth that I am the person they imagined in the role of Rev. Baines. They were each incredibly gracious, but this is a moment in your life where every insecurity you have comes to the surface."

The opera next travels to Montclair State University in New Jersey at the end of January where Banion reprises his role of  Baines in a trio of performances. He said he hopes to be a part of the American opera if and when it "gets (tour) legs." According to the artist, originators of bigger roles in new operas typically are considered first when the production is remounted. Banion said he believes there is talk of staging "Elmer Gantry" in Columbus, but no definite plans have been announced.

As for a career as a performer, Banion said it is far more difficult than he imagined to make a living as an opera singer, and although he is a Capital University instructor, he estimates he spends half of his time in musical productions.

"The single thing that keeps me going is my wonderful wife, Elise," commented Banion. "I never imagined any soul would feed me as much as she does. She keeps me focused as a man and artist and is the solitary reason I sing today. Without her in my life, I would have certainly given up by now-either by choice or necessity.

"Our daughter, Viviane, is in every way the result of our life together. She keeps us happy and hard working. I carried a photo of her in her Halloween costume with me in my pocket throughout ‘Gantry.’ Staring at it backstage kept my spirits in a good place when mounting pressures could have forced them elsewhere. Hearing that little girl yell ‘Daddy’ when we see each other after an absence is the most beautiful sound in the world."

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