Friday, February 22, 2013

ARTISTS CORNER: Baritone Lee Poulis

ARTISTS CORNER:  Baritone Lee Poulis, who made his Sarasota Opera debut as Don Giovanni in 2011 and returned to sing Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor last season, will make his Sarasota Opera debut as Zurga in this season's opening production of Bizet's The Pearl FishersMr. Poulis has sung all over the United States and for many years was based in Germany.  We asked Mr. Poulis to answer a few questions about his life as a singer, the difference between being an opera singer in the United States versus Europe, and what he is looking forward to this season with Sarasota Opera. 

Baritone Lee Poulis
Q.  What drew you to become a singer?  Was there a specific “Aha!” moment of clarity?

A.  I actually began in music as a trumpet player in the 4th grade.  Pretty soon I realized I enjoyed hearing the trumpet being played in an orchestra rather than in the band, which was where I played.  I began listening to the classical station and heard some opera in the mix.  I was immediately drawn to it and wanted to hear and know more about it.  I began renting opera videos from Blockbuster at the age of 12 and saw my first opera at the Metropolitan Opera in that same year.  As years passed and I buried myself in recordings and videos from the public library, I could sing along with many of the operas while reading the libretto.  I also did my first Pavarotti impression pretty early on, handkerchief and all.  When I was 15 after some long-term nudging from my parents, who knew nothing about opera but apparently had an ear, I sang for my high school chorus teacher.  The rest is history.

Q.  What are you looking forward to most about performing this particular role?

A.  I like that I’m playing the leader of everyone else in the opera.  Sounds like a lot of power.  So far it’s one fishing village, but I hope to expand my sphere of influence as soon and as widely as possible and take over all of Sri Lanka, where this opera takes place.

Lee Poulis as Zurga in Sarasota Opera's 2013 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers 
Q.  Is there something unique about your process when preparing a role for performance?

A.  I don’t know if it’s unique, but it’s how I do it!  It’s a process of singing through, translating, feeling, putting myself in the character’s shoes, singing it through with a pianist, working on it with my voice teacher, and raising the stakes dramatically and vocally wherever it’s called for in the story and the music.  Almost all of these facets of preparation are occurring all the time and in no particular order from day one of my role preparation until the last performance is over and sometimes beyond that too!

Lee Poulis as Papageno in Mozart's
The Magic Flute at Washington National Opera
Q.  Beyond the musical work, what other kind of preparation/research work do you incorporate in the learning process?  Historical?  Character study?  What sources have you relied on? 

A.  Normally I would go to the place where the opera is set but Sri Lanka is a bit far and bit expensive for that!  In lieu of that, I’ve watched movies set there, researched its culture, eaten at a Sri Lankan restaurant (I live in New York City so this was not hard), and I continue to read or do anything interesting related to Sri Lanka that I come across.  I’m currently absorbing a lot of cultural information from a memoir about Sri Lanka called Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje, the author of The English Patient.

Q.  This will be a role debut for you, correct?  How does your preparation process differ between a role you have performed before and a role you are doing for the first time? 

A.  Yes, this is a role debut and I’m very excited about it!  If I already know the role, the preparation is much quicker; I just have to reawaken the character and sing the role back into my voice.  For a new role, I have to develop the character completely anew and figure out how to sing it from square one.  In one sense doing a role I have already done before can be a more complete and developed performance for the audience whereas in a role debut, there are many unknowns that reveal themselves only in performance.  This can perhaps make performances in a new role feel somewhat experimental but always exciting!

Q.  You have performed extensively all around Europe, particularly in Germany.  How does life as an opera singer differ in Europe than the United States? 

A.  In Germany, singing felt more like a full time job, if that is even possible to feel as an opera singer.  I had a multi-year contract with Opera Bonn, a theater funded by the city.  I earned a monthly salary, received health insurance, and all the other benefits full time employees would normally get.  After successful auditions, I was often engaged simultaneously as a guest singer by other theaters in Germany and abroad.  Anytime a theater was holding auditions, I would have to go to that actual theater to sing for a specific part or position.  Rehearsal periods in Germany were much longer, sometimes two months, and performances were often spread out over the course of two seasons, with performances of a specific opera occurring anywhere from 1-4 times a month in rotation with other operas.

Lee Poulis as Enrico in the 2012 Sarasota Opera
production of Lucia di Lammermoor

In the US, I think there are only a handful of opera singers that have anything that looks like a full time job.  It’s almost completely freelance and without benefits.  You’re on your own!  There is also a lot less work in the US than there is in Europe.  Thankfully American companies will come to NYC to hear their auditions, so at least travel isn’t necessary.  But I have to say, I didn’t mind gallivanting around beautiful Europe for auditions and then writing it off!  Also auditions in the US tend to be of a more general nature, so you can find out if you got “the part,” whatever that may be, in 1 day to five years.  Rehearsal periods in the US are much more concentrated, usually two to three weeks, and the run of performances is also more highly concentrated, usually within 1-5 weeks.

Q.  Thus far, what is the most bizarre experience you have had during a rehearsal?  During a performance?

A.  I had a director one time who upon the first rehearsal told us five guys involved in a scene to get on a truck, drive the truck on stage, and do the scene.  We naturally thought: Do what scene?  We haven’t been directed yet. Well, off we went and drove the truck on stage and made up a scene out of thin air.  The director laughed, said it was very good, wished us a good afternoon and that he would see us tomorrow.  We left stunned.  What had just happened?  The scene was never really developed and remained basically the same through opening night!  The audience loved it though!

Another event in the same production: I had a small dog with me in one scene.  It kept yanking me aside during my singing and I couldn’t imagine why.  Normally it was well behaved.  My colleagues began laughing during their singing to me.  What thousands of audience members and my cast-mates saw that I did not because I was busy singing was that my dog had just pooped and peed onstage!

Q.  Do you have any pre-performance rituals?  Performance superstitions?  Good luck charms?  If yes, why?

A.  I just try to take it easy and check the voice every now and then.  I like to take a good walk, hydrate, and eat well.

Q.  How do you relax in between performances?  What hobbies do you enjoy at home and “on the road”?

A.  I like to go to the gym regularly where I lift weights and do cardio exercise.  I also love spending time at the beach and going to movies.  I try to get reading done and to work on the next role!

Lee Poulis in the title role of the 2011
Sarasota Opera production of Don Giovanni
Q.  How do you stay connected to family and friends when you are “on the road”?  Do you keep a blog?  Website? Facebook?  Twitter?

A.  I have a Fan Page on Facebook and I personally maintain my webpage at  I always love to hear from those who love to see me perform!  The internet is a great thing to keep in touch with friends and family when you are on the road.  I have video calls when it’s been too long since I’ve seen someone’s face.  I have yet to keep a blog but you never know.  It could happen!

Q.  As we have people that travel from around the United States to attend performances at Sarasota Opera, are there any towns or cities that you have a strong connection with whether from growing up or attending school?

A.  I have a strong connection with Cambridge, MA (college), Santa Barbara, CA (training) Washington DC (young artist program), and Cologne (where I spent my three years in Germany).  I’m orginally from Greenlawn, NY on Long Island and currently live in New York City. 

Don't miss Mr. Poulis' performance as Zurga in this season's production of The Pearl Fishers running now through March 22nd.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at (941) 328-1300. 


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