“You can’t guess what an audience is going to do,” says Iestyn Davies, sitting in a back corner of the lobby at the Algonquin Hotel. He was reflecting on the first two weeks of preview performances for Broadway’s “Farinelli and the King.” The show, which originated at the Globe Theatre on London, opened at the Belasco Theatre on Sunday.
“I do think the reaction is similar in a way, because they’re coming to expect the same thing. A lot of them are coming to see Mark Rylance,” Davies continues. “So they’re not necessarily knowing anything about the kind of music I sing, or knowing about me.”
Rylance stars as King Philip V of Spain, while Davies, a renowned countertenor, carries all of the singing in the show as Farinelli, an 18th-century castrato. The play was written by Rylance’s wife Claire van Kampen, who intended it to be performed with an onstage gallery audience; the format promotes interaction, with the cast occasionally addressing viewers, particularly those seated onstage, directly.
Although not classified a musical, the musical elements of “Farinelli” are far from incidental; the plot hinges on Farinelli’s ability to soothe the king’s madness through his unnaturally high-ranged singing. While not hitting the same notes as Farinelli, Davies sings in the highest male range.
While one of the titular characters, Davies shares the role of Farinelli with a stage actor, Sam Crane, and only comes onstage to sing the show’s various arias while the actor stands by as if in stop-motion. “I’ve had people come up afterwards and say, ‘Do you do opera?’ I’m like yeah, that’s what I do,” Davies says, offering a chuckle. “I’m here by accident, in a way.”
The two men look similar: both are in their late 30s, brunette, of a similar height, and when appearing onstage together are dressed in the same costume.
“Seeing two Farinellis for me makes total sense,” he adds. “And I think it is quite a good representation of what it’s like to be a singer as well. Lots of singers feel like their life is dictated by their singing, and their singing is dictated by their body. It’s not like picking up a trombone or something,” he continues. “In a way, we’re constantly living with these two things in our heads, thinking, ‘Oh, do I think about singing, or do I think about life?’ And trying to be a singer first or a person first, and all of those things with relationships and families and time off. And I envy other musicians, I envy actors who can sort of I think switch that off — maybe not actors as much, but with pianists, they have another instrument which they can put away.”
Davies, who lives in York, England, with his wife, has been in New York since September; earlier this fall, he performed in “The Exterminating Angel” at the Metropolitan Opera, based on the film by Luis Buñuel. He had seven shows spanning three weeks, whereas “Farinelli” demands eight performances a week over a 16-week span.
“You have to be a bit like an athlete,” Davies says of the challenge of back-to-back performances. He holds up a water bottle; other tactics include sleep, avoiding shouting and loud restaurants, not drinking, and occasional rest. “It’s like running or something. Your body misses the habit of doing it.”
When the show concludes in March, he’ll retreat back to England for one concert performance in London, followed by a brief holiday.
“I’m looking forward to the shell-shock of being somewhere completely quiet again,” he adds.