At a Wednesday evening rehearsal of Rent, Johnny Dawson has just finished singing Your Eyes and wails “Mimi!” and Musetta’s Waltz, a classic tune from from La Boheme plays.
Opera is where Calkins spends much of his time as an associate professor of voice at Centre College and Berea College. Music directing Rent is Calkins’ highest profile gig since moving to Central Kentucky last year with his wife, University of Kentucky endowed chair in voice Cynthia Lawrence.
And Rent gives Calkins a much wider variety of voices to deal with than the budding opera singers he usually works with. The cast ranges from potential opera stars to rockers, capturing the full-range of the spirit of the rock show which was based on La Boheme.
“It’s just as vocally rangy as most operas,” Calkins says of Rent.
Part of director Tracey Bonner’s intent in hiring Calkins to be the music director was getting someone who would know how to care for the voices in the show, which can do a number on the throat, particularly if you add in singing outdoors amidst the foliage of the Arboretum.
Calkins points out that both the main male and female roles have singers in ranges that are not usually comfortable for their genders. So he talks to the actors a lot about how to sing to make their most of their voices, and how to take care of them.
At the conclusion of his portion of a Wednesday night rehearsal, he talks to the actors about going out as the performance dates of July 21 to 25 approach. He advises going to quiet places, not loud bars or parties, because the shouting people need to do to be heard in those environments can be really tough on the vocal chords, particularly after a performance.
“After a performance is when your voice is most vulnerable,” Calkins tells the cast. “So you really want to let it rest.”
Dawson, who plays the leading role of wannabe rock star Roger, is a rocker himself, playing lead guitar in the Lexington-based band partly cloudy.
“I can’t believe I’m working with someone like him,” Dawson says of Calkins. “He’s taught me so much in just two weeks and really sparked my interest in the show and acting.”
That is one of the added benefits Bonner has found with Calkins: In addition to teaching the actors how to sing properly, he helping shape the show.
“Mark is impressing me with his ability to help these singers know how to use their voices to get what they want out of them for the character,” she says. “I think we are very lucky to have him on board.”
In that Wednesday rehearsal, he was working to craft the last of the Voice Mail sequences where the characters parents and other associates are calling them. He encourages crisp diction and vocal balance because, “We’re swinging back and forth between these moments of tragedy and hilarity, so these little pictures are very important.”
One thing Calkins says he had to work on was the actors familiarity with the show.
“A lot of these people are great mimics,” Calkins says. “They can sing parts of the cast album back to you perfectly, but it may not be true to them and creating their own interpretation.
“I tell them, if the color of your voice is burgundy, and the Broadway singer’s voice is red, you should probably sing toward red,” Calkins says. “That’s when it becomes your performance.”
He says he understands the inclination to echo a familiar performance, as he remembers falling into that trap when he was cast in West Side Story as a young singer.
Music directing is somewhat new territory to Calkins, whose forte has been singing and teaching. And this role won’t have him on stage, and the accompaniment will be a live band on stage. Karen Thomas, who has been playing piano accompaniment in rehearsals, will be the link between rehearsals and the performance.
Calkins says he is loving the work, getting to know the cast, and getting his work out in front of his new community.
“I want them to walk away stronger,” he says. “I want every member of the cast to feel they have a new freedom in their voice and a new way of expressing themselves through it.”