Gay Filipino-American tenor Rodell Rosel would be the first to admit that his comic costume is not at all flattering as the lascivious lackey Monostatos for the Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of Mozart's The Magic Flute. Rosel has to sport both messy hair and a padded paunch.
But at least Rosel, a self-described "gym mouse" on social media, didn't have to smear on green face paint like he did when he played the same role five years ago in the Lyric's final revival of the late German director August Everding's 1986 production.
"In other productions of The Magic Flute, they always try to paint Monostatos black, green, orange or different colors," said Rosel, commenting on how some directors skirt around some the politically incorrect characterizations and views toward minorities and women in the 1791 opera.
For gay Australian director Neil Armfield's new take on The Magic Flute for the Lyric, it's to present it as if a group of kids living in a progressive Chicago suburb in the early 1960s are staging the opera in and around a family's house. Visually it's clear that Disney animated films have influenced the homemade-looking costumes to illustrate the fairytale aspects of Mozart's opera.
"In this production, I have really bad hair and a mask on. So they portray that anyone who has a mask, we should be cautious with," Rosel said, noting that The Queen of the Night and her Three Ladies also sport veils of sorts.
"So it has nothing to do with color of skin," Rosel said. "The kids show that if you are not true to yourself or if you're going to deceive people, you put on a mask and that represents being a villain."
Originally from the Los Angeles area, Rosel and his husband make their home in Chicago's Buena Park neighborhood. Rosel says they like experiencing four distinct weather seasons, and also the fact that they don't need to drive everywhere.
Living in Chicago has also been particularly beneficial for Rosel's jet-setting career as an opera singer. Being centrally located in the Midwest with two major airports has been great for flying off to auditions and performances around the country.
But in particular, the Lyric has been very good for Rosel since he has performed 21 roles for the company starting in 2005. That was the same year Rosel joined up for a two-season stint in the Lyric's Ryan Opera Center for young artists and also when he was named a Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Grand Prize winner. Most recently, Rosel played the dwarf Mime in the Lyric's season-opening new production of Wagner's Das Rheingold by British director David Pountney.
Although Rosel possesses a lirico-spinto voice suitable for leading tenor roles, he has strategically steered his career toward what are known as "character tenor" roles that often have a more nasal sound. This decision was made largely on the advice of his long-time singing teacher Timothy Mussard.
"In the current climate of opera, what also matters is presentation and how you look or match with other singers they consider," Rosel said. "Because of my size and even my ethnicity, and the combination of both, I would have a very challenging path if take the path of leading tenor because I would be competing with other tenors who have the other qualities of what might be a 'leading tenor look.'"
So Rosel augmented his vocal skills by working on things like stage presence, acting and dancing to make him more hirable as a character tenor. The fact that Rosel has jobs booked as far in advance as 2020 is a sign that he's in demand.
Yet Rosel stresses that he maintains his leading tenor voice by doing repertory selections in recitals and concerts. He will also take on leading roles for smaller opera companies when given the chance. For example, he made his role debut as Don José in Carmen for Center Stage Opera in Los Angeles County.
"I'm waiting for that opportunity for them to take a chance on meto hear me sing the non-character repertoire and see if I'm capable of it," Rosel said. "Once they've heard you mostly sing character roles, they assume that it's the only thing you do. But I'm one of those character tenors who has always been reviewed for my singing."
Rosel also makes a point to collaborate strongly with makeup artists so he isn't just pigeonholed in operas that call for Asian characters like Madama Butterfly or Turandot.
"I have one of those faces where they put something on and I transform into different looks. People don't even recognize me," said Rosel, noting that he's played Italian characters in works like Der Rosenkavalier and the world premiere of Great Scott by gay collaborators Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally. "I'm thankful that I have those features and bone structure to go from one character to another."
In terms of dream roles for the future, Rosel would love to tackle Herod in Salome or Nemorino in The Elixir of Love. He would also love to take on the challenge of donning drag to play The Witch in Hansel and Gretel.
"I love being able to fully access my vocal ability," Rosel said. "But of course I always love doing character roles. We make the leads look good and make the audience sympathize for the leads. That's our goal."
Eight performances of the Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of Mozart's The Magic Flute remain at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 6, 14, 17 and 27 with 2 p.m. matinees Jan. 8, 12, 22 and 25. Performances are at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr., and it's sung in German with projected English translations. Tickets are $20-$299; call 312-827-5600 or visit LyricOpera.org/Flute.