In what is sure to be a hot ticket, Philadelphia Theatre Company presents the world premiere of the latest production by legendary gay playwright Terrence McNally, who has won almost every major award the theater world has to offer and penned classics like “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” and “Love! Valour! Compassion!”
“Golden Age” uses the glamour and glitz of Paris circa 1835 as the setting for one of the most anticipated events of the day, the world premiere of Vincenzo Bellini’s latest opera, “I Puritani. ” The production follows the action and drama behind the scenes with the composer and the four greatest singers in the world, the legendary Puritani Quartet.
While “Golden Age” is an ensemble piece, the central character is undoubtedly Bellini, portrayed by out actor Jeffrey Carlson.
Carlson, who calls himself a big fan of McNally’s work, said the production finds the playwright working in a world he has great affection for.
“Terrence is a big lover of opera,” he said. “He knows a great deal about it. It’s clear from his work and his master class.”
Carlson added that the excitement of working on a McNally play is all the better because it’s the debut of a new work.
“It’s always fun to premiere something, to go through the process of birthing a new baby,” he said. “As an actor, you look forward to going through the rewriting process, the discovery process, finding out what works and what doesn’t. It’s also fun originating the character.”
Carlson said he prepared for his role as Bellini by immersing himself in the composer’s work.
“I dabbled in as much of his world as possible. I have listened to a lot of his music. I’ve done a lot of research. I have a lot of books on him. I found out a lot about who he was as a young man. When you find out some facts about a person, it’s easier to create an actual person. There’s no freedom without structure. I used my research as a building block.”
Carlson admitted while he thinks he got Bellini’s frame of mind down, some of the facts about the composer’s life were fudged in the name of dramatic license.
“Historically, he got sick after this opera was a huge success. We sort of messed with time a little bit and made him sick from the beginning of the play.”
Despite the changes, Carlson said “Golden Age” captures the complexities of Bellini’s life at the height of his career.
“He was very successful but he wasn’t as prolific as a lot of his contemporaries and I think that bothered him a lot,” Carlson said. “He was a romantic and he was very stressed out by this play. It has a lot to do with the anxieties of being an artist and putting on a new opera — the anxieties, the stresses, the adventures and the relationships between the four greatest singers in Europe at that time. It ended up being his last opera. He died when he was 34. It’s about the legacy and the mortality of what you’re going to give to the world. Is that enough? Do people really understand you? So there are a lot of themes in there. It really is the four greatest singers in Europe going on and off, with the opera actually happening in the background.”
Carlson added the play explores Bellini’s relationships beyond just those with the stars of his play.
“It does revolve around Bellini and his relationship to each one of these singers and the two other non-actors on the opera: One is a best friend and lover of Bellini’s and another is an extraordinary singer and a lover of Bellini’s. There are those relationships as well. You have a little bit of both, a man and a woman.”
Playing LGBT characters is nothing new for Carlson, whom most people probably recognize from his groundbreaking role as the first transgender character to appear on a soap opera — Zarf, who later became Zoe, on “All My Children.” The role won Carlson a GLAAD Media Award, but he said he’s unsure how much of an impact the role has had on his career.
“There have been times when I thought it did [have an impact],” he said. “I have to say I would not trade one day of being on ‘All My Children’ and playing that character. I had a terrific time. I worked with fantastic people. I think they did a great job in that medium of telling that story. I learned a great deal about the transgender community. In a way, it became something that I’m known for. It hasn’t stopped me from going out for classical roles. It’s one of those businesses where people have their opinions, and you can spend your entire life saying don’t you dare put me in a box.”
LGBT characters are often headline-grabbers on soap operas but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to be long-term additions to the cast. Most usually are written out of the show soon after breaking some new ground in the soap world. But Carlson resists categorizing such moves as gimmicks.
“I can only speak for the soap that I was on,” he said. “Having Bianca as a lesbian and Zoe as a transgender character, I thought they did it with dignity. I hate to use the word ‘educational,’ but they can reach a large audience with those stories. And if it were a gimmick, I wouldn’t support it.”
He added that the show’s writers sometimes aren’t the catalyst for those characters getting written off the show.
“There are a lot of different factors that go into that. It could have been Eden’s [Riegel, who played Bianca] decision to take time off and not be on the show. We get contracts that are for a limited amount of time. People make decisions to stay on and off. With Eden, you don’t want to get too much of a good thing because she’s fantastic.”
Carlson said that although he’s most famous for a role on television, he prefers working on the stage.
“Language is important for me and language is sometimes diminished for the screen and television,” he said. “I love diving into language and I love doing something every single night because it’s always something different.”
Carlson said it was the search for something different that made him decide to relocate to the West Coast.
“I just moved back to Los Angeles after living in New York for 12 years. Three weeks after I got there, I got this job so I had to come back. I think I’ll continue my adventure in Los Angeles because I always said I‘ll give it a try for a couple of years. I’m going to give the industry a try out there, which is television and film. I was just trying to shake up my life a little bit. But I’ll never stop doing theater. That’s the life of an actor. What happens next is what happens next.”
“Golden Age” runs Jan. 22-Feb. 14 at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. For more information, visit www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org or call (215) 985-0420.