Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively – You previously appeared with Opera Carolina as Papageno in Mozart’s Magic Flute. Don Pizarro is, of course, a very different sort of character, and unlike many of the figures you have portrayed, there seem to be absolutely no redeeming qualities in this man whatsoever. He’s a villain, period. Do you prefer roles where the characters are more complex? How challenging is it to sing a comic role like Papageno as opposed to a more complex figure like Valentin in Faust or a basic bad guy like Pizarro?

Kyle Pfortmiller – This is a great and informed question. Let me begin by saying that, as an actor, it isn’t my job to judge a character I’m playing but to understand where he is coming from. As an external party, I might have an opinion, but if I am inside a character’s skin, I don’t have the luxury of criticism. 

I don’t believe Pizarro is one-dimensional. He is definitely evil but evil can be incredibly complex. He must have had parents. He must eat and drink. He breathes. My job is to uncover the questions and find the answers. That doesn’t mean I want to make him unnecessarily sympathetic or excuse him or to rewrite his story to be more comfortable; it is more about figuring out the whys. Why does Pizarro mistreat the inmates? Why has he kept this particular inmate in solitary confinement as opposed to killing him? Why torture him? How did Pizarro come to power? Who has power over him? Adding to that, in this production, I am playing someone who really did exist. Walter Ulbricht lived and breathed and ate and drank. What might have motivated him? 

I think Pizarro is just as profound as Papageno or Valentin – he just needs someone to dig a bit deeper to find the dimensions. One can certainly make the case that he is instrumental to the story. In fact, there wouldn’t BE a story without him. Another important consideration is that a lot of Pizzaro’s actions come down to scope and degree of power. In his circle of influence, he happens to hold the power of life and death. Papageno and Valentin do not. But who’s to say that given the opportunity to wield Pizarro’s brand of power, either would behave better? 

Certainly, neither Papageno nor Valentin acquits himself well when placed in intense and challenging circumstances. Papageno lies and turns coward and Valentin curses his own formerly beloved sister on his deathbed. This is what fascinates me as an actor and what motivates me to find more depth of character no matter what the role. In the end, the challenge is the same – find what it is the character wants and breathe in that life force.

OL – This role is sometimes cast with baritones like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, often with bass-baritones such as Falk Struckmann or Theo Adam, and occasionally even a bass like Hans Sotin. You are in the baritone tradition. How difficult does that make this part for you, and how do you deal with it from a technical standpoint? This is also a role debut for you. How do you see your voice developing over the next five or 10 years, and what other roles would you like to add to your repertoire?

KP – Every role, whether new or old will have its challenges. Il Barbiere still fits like a glove. That said, I learned Figaro’s aria, "Largo al Factotum," when I was 19. I sang it with orchestra at 20. I didn’t learn the rest of the role until I was well into my 20s. I can say that even today, after multiple successful productions, I take care none of my 20 year old technique creeps into the "Largo." Pizarro has been a pleasure to learn even though I’d never touched a note of the role until a few months ago. And technically speaking, the role does not lend itself to legato line like a Verdi or Donizetti opera does. So the challenge for anyone tackling the role is to find the ways to let the voice ring. I enjoy listening to the Walter Berry recording. He seems to capture the menace while using his voice.

In terms of what is next for me vocally, I am an open book. There are roles in the lyric baritone repertoire I have yet to sing and some I look forward to repeating. And there are many kavalier baritone roles that fit better now than ever. I also enjoy new music and as much musical theater as I can book. Billy Bigelow has always been a favorite and I’m dying for someone to hire me as Sweeney Todd.

OL – In Opera Carolina’s production, the opera’s events are being updated to 1989 just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. You received your undergraduate degree in 1992, so you may have been a sophomore in college when all of the protests were beginning that led to the end of the Wall and ultimately the end of the former East Germany. How have your memories of that time influenced your ideas about your character? Is the sort of happy ending that occurs in Fidelio possible in the world in which we live now?

KP – I remember Bernstein conducting Beethoven’s 9th Symphony at the Brandenburg Gate for the Berlin Celebration Concert during Christmas of 89. I remember the word “Freiheit” (Freedom) replacing “Freude” (Joy). My fellow music students and I were in tears as we listened (and eventually watched). It, the wall, was such a symbol of oppression. And the fact that we (the collective we), all celebrated the fall of the Iron Curtain with music was all the more powerful to a young musician. 

Can happy endings happen in today’s world? It is my belief that yes, happy endings can occur in this lifetime. But Hollywood endings certainly don’t happen all the time and certainly not to everyone. No one can negate that there is much pain and suffering and injustice in this world. We live in an amazing and challenging time. Disparity is great and we still need to fight oppression and cruelty as in Fidelio. This world is full of victims of greed and evil and power hungry madmen. What do we do with that knowledge? In the end, either we are made in the image of something bigger or we are simply dust. If we are simply dust, what does it matter? This life is all we have and we have to grasp whatever we can. But my view is that not only is there beauty to be found in the here and now but that also we have been created and put on this earth for a purpose. I believe that there will be justice for the forgotten and respite for the downtrodden – if not now then in time.

OL – Oh wow, this qualifies as one of the best answers I've encountered in my 185 interviews! Bravo! Given that Opera Lively is very interested in contemporary opera, we were pleased to notice that you were part of Two Boys at the Metropolitan Opera House. That opera was a bit controversial with some people criticizing it for being a bit rough on the edges (without giving the composer a pass given that it was Nico Muhly’s first one) while others said it was hard to convey the online dialogue and text messages in a theatrical form. Personally I think it was a remarkable effort. What do you think of it? Please tell us about its merits, and whether or not the criticism is justified.

KP – I personally loved the opera. I had the best seat in the house every night for the breathtaking finale. I think it was an amazing production as well and that the scenic design and technical aspects were both innovative and effective. But I am not a critic. I am not paid for my opinion. I am paid to tell a story. I believe that is what we did. We told a compelling, difficult and modern story very well every night. Everyone on the stage was committed to telling the story and that commitment came at a cost. Many of my colleagues suffered during the production. We couldn’t get away from the fact that we were telling a true story. As macabre and as surreal as it was, the story happened and happened recently. There’s no pretending that it occurred “years ago” or “to someone else.” Many of us are parents of kids who are similar ages to the kids in the opera. These events involved people just like us. That probably made a lot of the audience and critics uncomfortable. 

OL – We’ve interviewed you before, Kyle, but surprisingly, we never asked any personal questions, which we like to do, to give to our readers a flavor of the person underneath the artist. So, let’s correct this oversight. How do you approach life? What’s your personality like? What do you like to do?

KP – I am husband, father and artist. I don’t know who or what I would be without my wife and daughter and even our rescue, Annie (who sometimes tries my patience no end). They ground me. I remember working on the dialogue for the Pirate King in Pirates of Penzance several years ago. I was struggling with a particular line reading and asked my wife what she thought. Out of the blue, our then six year old daughter looked up from whatever she was doing and nailed the line reading. I mean it was perfect. Needless to say, I incorporated it into my performance. But what is remarkable about that moment to me is that she was simply listening and reacting. Exactly what I, as an actor, am called to do.

I’d love to give some profound answer to how I approach life. The honest truth is there are days when I am grateful to remember: Inhale, exhale. Repeat. Our world moves at such a rapid pace that many times the simple reminder to breathe is a lovely (momentary) oasis. And as difficult as it may be, I look forward to that happy ending you asked about earlier. Without that kind of hope, I don’t think I could get out of bed in the morning. 

It isn’t always easy. This lifestyle isn’t for the faint of heart and it’s taken a toll on many a relationship. I fly out to Charlotte on the day of my 19th anniversary. My family has made huge sacrifices so that I can work and perform and I don’t take that lightly. So I suppose to describe my approach to life, I can turn to two J.R.R. Tolkien quotes. The first is “Little by little, one travels far”; the second is “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a much merrier world.”

In terms of my personality, you’d have to ask those closest to me… so I did it for you. My wife says I am a people pleaser – probably to a fault. I don’t like disappointing people which can be a lot of pressure. But, I’m also fairly easy-going and generally find a lot about life to enjoy. I am competitive but fair, an introvert and rather shy but I can pass as an extrovert.

My hobbies include cooking, baking, running, fantasy sports and reading. I believe everyone should be reading at least three books at the same time: One fiction, one biography or historic book and something technical. My current books are: 1) Sevenevens by Neal Stevenson 2) A biography of Ted Kennedy (which I promised my best friend I’d finish years ago); and 3) a third go-round with Nick Malgieri’s How to Bake. Oh, and Miracles by Eric Metaxas. 

I also love to travel. In an ideal world, I’d live in Paris and take monthly trips to Amsterdam, Florence and Barcelona.