Fort Wayne native Joseph Beutel continues building a career in opera
Literally standing in the right place at the right time, Fort Wayne native Joseph Beutel received the cell phone call in Yellowstone National Park that led to what he calls a “life-changing” involvement in a contemporary chamber opera about a difficult aspect of life in Hong Kong.
Beutel was visiting the park late last year with a friend. He happened to be in one of the few areas where he had cell service when he received the call from the conductor and artistic consultant for the opera “Mila.”
“I had one bar of service,” recalled Beutel, who told the composer he was available for the show and agreed a week later to take the lead male role.
A deep-voiced bass baritone, Beutel, 35, spoke with News-Sentinel.com about his work in “Mila” and his career while in town last week to visit family in Fort Wayne.
Now a New York City resident, Beutel performs full time as an opera singer in productions around the United States and overseas, mainly in Europe.
TELLING AN IMPORTANT STORY
After receiving the call at Yellowstone, Beutel received the official offer of the role a week later and then had two weeks before he had to be in Hong Kong for a workshop on the opera being presented by the Asia Society Chamber Opera. He later returned to Hong Kong for a few weeks of rehearsals and the performances of “Mila,” which took place Jan. 18-21.
The opera focuses on a Hong Kong family that includes an American expatriate father, a Chinese mother, their approximately 10-year-old son and their domestic helper, Mila, who is from The Philippines.
In many Hong Kong families, both parents work, so they hire domestic helpers from The Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia to help with child care, meals and cleaning, Beutel said.
The helpers typically come from poor families, receive minimal wages and sometimes are treated badly, but they stay because they still make enough money to send some back to help their families at home, Beutel said.
“Everybody in the family is stressed,” Beutel said of the characters in “Mila.” One of the characters jokes that they can see their high-rise apartment building’s swimming pool many floors below, but they never get to use it because they are so consumed with work and school.
Both parents work as executives in the financial world, he said. Their son attends a top school and struggles with the high expectations of him. Mila, who still feels guilty because her daughter died back home while she was away working in Hong Kong, worries the son may commit suicide by jumping over the apartment balcony.
In the end, it’s Mila who jumps over the balcony after a disagreement with the son.
“I felt it was an important story to convey, and I wondered how the opera would convey that story,” Beutel said of his interest in the role.
The opera doesn’t “demonize” anyone, he added, but it offers an intimate view of the struggles facing both Hong Kong families and their domestic helpers.
One of their performances set aside a large number of seats for real-life domestic helpers, he said. Performing for them, “It was exhilarating. It was life-changing,” he added, noting the helpers gave him a better understanding of the opera’s dark humor.
Hong Kong residents generally also enjoyed the opera, Beutel said.
“A lot of people were very appreciative of the story,” he said. “There were some people who it maybe hit a little too close to home.”
There has been some talk the opera could be presented elsewhere, such as New York, Singapore and Manila in The Philippines, Beutel said. He’s hopeful that happens.
Right now, he is focused on his upcoming performances in productions that are part of the New York City Ballet’s Robbins 100 Festival, which will be presented May 3-19 in New York. The series of productions celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of the ballet’s co-founding choreographer, Jerome Robbins.
He also performs as a church musician at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York.
Beutel, who attended school locally in Fort Wayne Community Schools’ fine arts magnet program, credits teachers and performance opportunities he had here for laying the foundation for his opera career.
The teachers included Laura McCoy at Weisser Park Elementary, Donna Sevcovic at Memorial Park Middle School and private voice teacher Fred Meads.
He went to Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo to study jazz, but a teacher suggested Beutel try opera. After watching a performance of the opera “Elektra” one day in class, he was hooked. He focused on opera while earning a master’s degree in music at Indiana University in Bloomington, and he has been performing opera professionally since 2010.
While classical music audiences have been shrinking, Beutel voiced optimism about opera’s future.
Younger people seem to like more intimate, smaller opera productions, he said. They also seem to value the way operas, such as “Mila,” can present new ideas in an old form.
Opera productions also are evolving, adding video and electronic music, he said.
“People doing opera feel really strongly about keeping the art form going,” he said.
To see stories about “Mila” that appeared in Asian and other media, go to:
To view the Asia Society Chamber Opera’s video featuring interviews after the performance of “Mila,” go to https://asiasociety.ent.box.com/s/8apalo2f2x6ofw0my4puj4ljgya4sedw.