Operatic Clown Has Serious Side

Bass-baritone Francois Loup sees comic opera as serious business. But, although the Swiss-born singer has made his musical mark as an adept basso buffo , he cannot help but absorb the societal second-class stigma that brands the comedian.

“When I sing a comic role, I have to fight against the feeling that I am just a clown in life, because the comic part is often the mirror of somebody who was not successful in life, somebody society makes fun of,” he said. “But, when I sing some serious role, I feel more important.”

Saturday at Civic Theatre, Loup will sing the title role of Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” in San Diego Opera’s production of this classic opera buffa . His local debut two years ago in another typical comic role, Dr. Bartolo in Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” brought him both critical acclaim and a return invitation to San Diego.

If operatic comic roles do not have the cachet of serious roles, they are still harder to bring off, according to Loup.


“It is easy to make people cry--I know, I do serious roles,” he said. Before his arrival in San Diego last week, Loup had sung the role of Schigolch in Alban Berg’s bleak Expressionist tragedy “Lulu.”

“I’m always surprised that just by opening my mouth and singing a serious role, I can reduce people to tears,” he said.

But to make people laugh is another thing. Loup compared his task as a comic singer to telling a joke to friends. They may laugh the first time, he noted, but, if you tell the joke again, there’s usually no response. The trick in singing a comic role is to get the audience to laugh every time, even when they know what the joke or the comic situation is.

In “Don Pasquale,” among the last of Donizetti’s 66 operas, the composer’s wit and dramatic skills make the singers’ task easier.


“Usually, when you have early 19th-Century music, even Bellini, you can foresee much of what is going to come,” Loup said. “Donizetti, however, is much less predictable. When I revived the role of Don Pasquale, I had forgotten that we go from one surprise to the next, which keeps the opera alive for the listener.”

Politicians have given Loup unintentional models for his comic characterizations.

“I like to watch political characters,” he said. “When I sing, sometimes I take things from them, although someone like Francois Mitterrand is a bit too humorless to be much of a model.”

According to Loup, it is the politician’s calculated sincerity that is the most applicable trait for the comic opera singer.

“Politicians have to please the public,” he said. “They cannot become too involved; they need some distance and a certain amount of objectivity. If you are too sincere, you don’t know what you are doing with your hands and eyes. The politicians watch themselves and their words.”

“I am happy and proud to be a comic basso,” he said. “I have worked years in front of a video camera to develop my attitude, my looks, my reactions to comic situations.”

Among the 40 roles Loup performs, his comic roles are nearly all from the 18th- and 19th-Century opera repertory. The successful comic opera, he noted, is rare in this century.

“It’s a typical modern attitude. They do not want to laugh anymore--everything has to have a philosophical bent,” Loup said.


Contemporary musical styles have not been particularly conducive to the comic muse, either. Loup cited Frank Martin’s 1962 opera, “Monsieur de Pourceaugnac,” which the noted serial Swiss composer based on a Moliere comedy.

“It is a well-written opera, but, when I sang it, I felt no comic feeling coming out of the opera. Whenever Poulenc is comic, for example in his ‘Les Mamelles de Tiresias,’ his style is tonal.”

Loup comes from a long line of educators. His father, writer and educator Robert Loup, founded the school Francois attended in his native Estavayer-le-Lac, Switzerland. Although Loup’s performing prevents him from carrying on the family pedagogical tradition, he does run an informal summer school for singers at his home in Bourges, 120 miles south of Paris.

“During the summer, I have five or six students who come and live at the farm. Completely abandoned from the rest of the world, they can concentrate on singing. They sleep well and eat well, because I like to cook,” Loup said.