Emily Cox
Emily Cox is a versatile performer who has been seen across the nation in musical theatre, cabaret, opera and solo orchestral works. Her numerous roles ... more
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"The Drunken Tenor" with Robert McPherson

Our Developing Organizations and Audiences column features opera companies and producers who are making inroads into non-traditional opera audiences, and creating captivating art in unexpected places. This week, Emily Cox interviews Metropolitan Opera tenor Robert McPherson, whose original act, "The Drunken Tenor," recently earned him "Best of Fringe" accolades at Seattle Fringe Festival.

The summer is upon us, which means it's preparation time for the upcoming audition season. Every singer knows the pains of the process — the preparation, the anxiety, the triumphs and tragedies of the actual audition coupled with the anticipation of acceptance or rejection. With general acceptance numbers for both YAP's and resident artist positions stacked against us, an occasional rejection is a mathematical certainty for most singers. And while these rejections are part and parcel of the singer’s career, they can nevertheless be bitterly disappointing. Many singers actually report experiencing a state of mild depression during the audition season — stress, fatigue, self-doubt, and depression can inevitably bleed over into your singing, creating a sort of cycle of negativity and rejection. But this needn't be the case for every artist.

In the midst of the somewhat gloomy odds that await us during audition season, there has been something of a national resurgence of the 'renaissance artist' of late. Conceiving, producing, writing, developing, and performing their own artistic productions, these artists buck the trend of the singer helplessly waiting by phone or email for good news or bad — and endeavor to bring their artistic voices and talents to audiences without waiting on anyone’s permission. I have personally been an enthusiastic supporter/practitioner of the 'make your own art' camp for quite a while, but I am always delighted to discover other artists paving the way for their creations. I recently became interested in seeking out these artists: entrepreneurial souls striving to create their own art independently. I wanted to interview them about their experiences exploring and developing their unique artistic voices.

Robert McPherson is quickly creating a name for himself as a talented tenor with one-too-many-T&T's in his repertoire. His original production, The Drunken Tenor, has received much praise from critics and Seattle locals alike. This past fall, his production earned him the “Best of Fringe” Award at the Seattle Fringe Festival. Since that time, The Drunken Tenor has expanded into his own YouTube channel and Twitter account, much to the delight of his fans. I interviewed Robert to ask him about his experience with The Drunken Tenor, his creative process, and what inspired him to seek out his own performance opportunities.

  • First of all, tell us a little about your original show. What is the concept?

  • RM: “So, what is The Drunken Tenor? One part standup, one part sketch comedy, and one part vaudeville; a tenor and a soprano show up to give a concert of operatic music, but the tenor is drunk... What could possibly go wrong? Described as “Jack Black meets Pavarotti, join Metropolitan Opera tenor Robert McPherson as he takes low comedy to new heights."

  • That's QUITE a headliner! Can you tell us a little more about yourself? What is your educational background and/or previous experience in your field of classical singing?

  • RM: "I have a Bachelor of Arts in Music from a small liberal arts college, the University of Puget Sound. Then, of course, I'm also a student at the University of Hard Knocks majoring in Life as a Performer for more than 20 years as an operatic tenor. I started out as a working actor in the Seattle market before focusing on my opera career."

  • Do you believe your previous experience/educational background affected your creative process? If so, how?

  • RM: "Totally! I think my theater background informed my creative process. I wanted a show that appealed to as broad of an audience as possible; a show that straddles… theater and opera."

  • Where did you get the inspiration for your show? Did it come to you all at once, or did it develop slowly?

  • RM: "After singing "Ah, mes amis" four years in a row for a benefit concert, I wanted to do something different with it. I had this idea, "What if I was afraid of the high notes?” So every time a group of high Cs would come around, I'd pull out a series of drinks, escalating from a flask up to a fruity island drink. People loved it. I did the same shtick during another concert... THAT was how The Drunken Tenor was born — from a flask and a fruity island drink. I originally thought of working with a playwright and creating a scripted show, so I started thinking of sketches, different ways of taking an aria or duet and making them funny. I figured I'd take these comic chunks and then create a script around them, but then, as they say, “Things change Jo!”.

  • What was the first step you took in the creative process?

  • RM: "It all started with a simple yes... and then sheer and utter panic! When my friend Ksenia Popova, the Marketing Coordinator for Seattle Opera, asked if I’d do a 20-25-minute performance for Seattle Opera BRAVO! (SO’s young professionals’ group), all I had was the seven minute "Ah, mes amis" sketch. About three weeks before the performance, I almost admitted I had made a terrible mistake, but self-preservation kicked in. I started drawing from ideas I had done since college and pulling out my “party tricks,” like vocal impersonations of non-opera singers singing opera, or a tenor unable to remember the words to 'The Flower Song' (and so he sings every English cliché he can think of), or singing "La donna è mobile" while using “La donna è mobile” as the only lyrics– not the most sophisticated material, but enough to fill a 25-minute set. It was VERY loose, but the basic idea worked. A girl came up to me afterward and said, “I’ve never seen standup opera before!” I replied, “Neither have I.” It was my proof of concept.

  • Did you research anything (books, music, other productions, etc.) that seemed closely-related to your idea?

  • RM: "My 'Il Divo' sketch is one of my favorite bits. I took a pop song, ran it through Google Translate, and then took the bad Italian and fit it back into the song. I watched a number of YouTube videos of comedians talking about their creative process and listened to the “Jackie and Laurie” podcast to understand how they broke down the craft of comedy and their writing process. Victor Borge was also a huge influence on me; he was my gold standard for musical comedy. There’s this clip of him working with a soprano doing “Caro Nome,” which became the template for my Soprano, the ‘Long-suffering straight woman’... Until a point, then she gets payback. "

  • How would you describe the actual writing/creative process?

  • RM: After the first Drunken Tenor, BRAVO! later asked me to do a full, two-act version. That version required WAY more writing on my part, but this time, I started months in advance. Once I allowed my brain to think in different ways, comedic ideas started to come to me. I also kept notes whenever an idea would hit me, then sat down in front of my computer and filled in the void. The left side of the page is “The Concert!” while the right side of the page corresponds to the tangents The Tenor takes. The drama comes from The Soprano and The Pianist fighting to rein me in and get back to the left side of the page."

  • Let's talk a little about the editing process. Did you have one? If so, what was it?

  • RM: "Back in college my acting professor once told me, “When I look at you, I wanna laugh.” I said I didn’t think that was kind. He laughed and then replied, “No, comedy comes natural for you.” That was the first time someone had pointed out that I had a propensity toward comedy. After a lifetime of comic opera, I trusted my understanding of how to set up a joke. I did a lot of improvisational verbalizing of ideas — I'd write them down and edit, and then verbalize them again. Then I’d let those ideas sit for a week or so, revisit, and start the process again. I'd ask, "What is the fewest amount of words necessary to make it funny?" The most important tool in creating a joke is a good scalpel. "

  • Tell me about the repertoire you used. Did you seek out new repertoire, or did you use something familiar? Why did you choose the specific rep in your show?

  • RM: "The setup is a soprano and a tenor show up to give a concert of operatic music, so it follows the framework of every concert you've ever seen (having done a ton of those over the years, it helps organize things). Then there are tangents. The Tenor keeps breaking the 4th wall and talking to the audience. The music needed to serve the unwritten story. Where are we in the timeline of drunkenness? Where are we in the slow burn of The Soprano? What would a concert of this music look like without the jokes and tangents? The Drunken Tenor is also meant to be modular. I wanted the ability to switch out sketches and songs while keeping the same basic flow and narrative in the future. My hope is that when people come back to see it, it’s never exactly the same show. That said, I basically chose music that I wanted to sing. I didn’t want to do just “opera hits,” I wanted to use a variety of great music. The only requirement I had was finding the funny in whatever I chose."

  • Did you collaborate with any fellow artists in the development of your production? If you did collaborate, who were the collaborators, and what were their roles/functions?

  • RM: “The Drunken Tenor's creative process was absolutely collaborative, and yet immensely solitary. I took in a lot of ideas, but realized that I had to be the final arbitrator. We brought in a fight choreographer so The Soprano could sing the Queen of the Night's aria while kicking my ass. It stops the show. My fiancé was a great sounding board. She would constantly point out when she thought my general audience member might not get a reference. Not so I would dumb down a joke, but that I'd thread the needle for my audience to keep things constantly as relatable as possible. When we finally performed in front of an audience it was incredibly rewarding to have my methodology work and my instincts validated. One thing I’ve learned after more than two decades of performing: Surround yourself with the best people, and great things will happen. The Soprano, Jennifer Bromagen, and The Pianist, David McDade, always bring their A-game. and I’ve loved watching them take “ownership” of their characters. I brought in a stage combat director, had a friend write an Elvis arrangement of “Di Provenza,” and another friend helped me with some prop creation. Trust what you can do, but know what you don’t know! "

  • Was there ever a moment during your process that you doubted yourself or your production?

  • RM: "Before performing the two-act version, I placed a few of the weakest bits on an Opera On Tap show in Seattle. The singing was good, but the comedy fell sort of flat. That TRULY rocked my foundation to the point where I doubted EVERYTHING. I went home that night and wrote an extremely personal monologue that became the heart of the show. I then had a room run (at 10 AM... Ooooof!) and invited a friend that I trusted to sit in. It went ok, but she completely didn't get my show. She sent many pages of notes, and while she wasn’t wrong per se, she tried to conform it to a more traditional, scripted show. After curling into the proverbial fetal position for a day, I was finally able to defend my vision and articulate what the show was when corresponding with my cast."

  • Please discuss the venue that you used for your production. How did you contact and contract the venue? Did you find the process to be difficult, or relatively easy?

  • RM: "I was incredibly fortunate to have Seattle Opera BRAVO! underwrite my first two shows. When I took The Drunken Tenor to the 2017 Seattle Fringe Festival, I had to pay for a slot. But if I didn't believe in the show enough to put my own money behind it, why was I doing it?"

  • Please tell us about the advertising and promoting tools and tactics that you used for your production. How did you decide what your audience base would be/how did you build an audience base? What did you find was the most effective method of advertising?

  • RM: "The first two shows connected with Seattle Opera BRAVO! came with a built-in audience, so there was very little stress. For the Seattle Fringe Festival, however, promotion was the most difficult part. I used the “everything but the kitchen sink” approach including social media, email lists and postcards. But word of mouth was a big thing; performing two weekends really helped, and the last two shows were fuller once word got out."

  • Please tell us about the production itself. How was it received by the public? Did you make a profit from the production, or did you find it to be financially- shortcoming?

  • RM: "The one thing I’m most proud of is the audience response to The Drunken Tenor. I had many people tell me they were not “opera fans”, but they loved the show. Several people told me their favorite moment was the tenor aria from The Pearl Fishers. That aria is the one moment in the night with no shtick. It was always important to me to have a REAL moment in the show. Having people react to that moment was rewarding. The show works for opera fans and novices alike. It was a hit for Seattle Opera BRAVO! but I was surprised and overwhelmed when I was voted “Best of Fringe” by audience members. This was not an opera crowd, but this is the audience I was trying to reach. Up until this point I’ve made enough to cover my costs, pay the other performers and end up with a little pocket change. But I’m creating something with an eye toward the future and these are my startup costs."

  • Based on your experiences, do you foresee any revamping or revivals of your production? Would you create or produce any other shows in the foreseeable future?

  • RM: "Being voted “Best of Fringe” means I get two more performances this Labor Day weekend at the 47th annual Bumbershoot, a giant music, comedy, arts and culture festival in the heart of Downtown Seattle. I'm actually writing new material for it. I’ve also been in conversations with some opera companies about booking The Drunken Tenor as a special concert in their season; my ultimate dream is performing this with an orchestra as a comic night of opera."

Without question, the world will be seeing and hearing more of The Drunken Tenor! I for one look forward to following his hilarious hijinks as McPherson continues to grow and develop his hard-hitting hero.

You can keep up with The Drunken Tenor on social media/the web! Please visit:


Emily Cox
Emily Cox is a versatile performer who has been seen across the nation in musical theatre, cabaret, opera and solo orchestral works. Her numerous roles ... more