After more than 800 performances with the Metropolitan Opera, tenor Anthony Laciura "retired" in 2008. He has continued to sing, most notably in comprimario roles (he translates this as "second banana," or one who somehow serves the lead).
He was asked to sit on the judges' panel for the 2014 American Traditions Competition— in which up-and-coming vocalists vie for cash prizes and prestige—and he readily agreed.
But then ... "When I saw the program and it said 'Judges' Concert,' I thought oh, that must be the young people doing their final concert for us," the gregarious New Yorker laughs. "They said 'What would you like to sing?' and I said 'I'd like to sing nothing! I'd be happy to sit there and drink Southern bourbon and smoke cigars!' That's what you do in Savannah, am I right? I've never been there, but I can't wait."
So he'll sing, he'll sing, along with fellow judges Rod Gilfrey and J. Fred Knobloch) on Feb. 27, at the Historic Savannah Theatre.
Laciura's fame goes way outside the Met. For 3 ½ seasons, he was a co-star on the Martin Scorsese-produced HBO series Boardwalk Empire, playing Eddie Kessler, the German butler and confidante to Steve Buscemi's Nucky Johnson (yup, as Nucky's comprimario).
Not bad for an Italian kid from the South Bronx who grew up in (of all places) New Orleans.
Now, Anthony Laciura may be a lot of things, but one thing he's not is German. And he hadn't done a lot of straight acting before Boardwalk Empire.
He wasn't going to let any of that stop him.
When he went in to audition for the casting directors, Laciura explains, "I put on a three-piece suit and dressed as close to the '20s as I could possibly do. I spoke with a heavy German accent. I kissed their hands, because they're both ladies, and they said 'Mr. Laciura, what part of Germany are you from?' I said 'The South Bronx.' And they laughed. And 20 days later I got a screen interview with Marty and (creator) Terry Winter. Two days after that I was Eddie Kessler."
A fast fan favorite, Eddie was nevertheless written out of the crime drama near the beginning of the fourth season. After the feds put pressure the ever-loyal butler, he committed suicide by jumping out a high-rise window.
He gets recognized, but not so often. "When I was younger, and all my hair was dark, people would come up to me and say 'Mr. Whitford, can I have your autograph?,'" Laciura says. "And I'd say 'I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I'm not Bradley Whitford.'
"Every once in a while, someone keeps staring. And then they come up, 'Excuse me, were you ...?' And I saw 'Did you have HBO? Did you watch Boardwalk Empire?' They'd say 'I knew it! You were Eddie Kessler!' That's so rare. It's not like Steve Buscemi and these other people who would have to walk with baseball caps down over their eyes, and keep walking down the street, bent over. No, I do exactly the opposite. I have big arrows pointing to me: 'Anthony Laciura as Eddie Kessler!'"
He laughs, loud and long. "No, I don't do that. But I enjoy all of that, because we do it for the audience. In New York, they might recognize you, but they just say 'Good job Eddie! You shouldn't have jumped!' To me, as New York actor, that's beautiful."
He's been in a couple of big-time plays since Eddie took the long walk, and has a pretty full dance card. But Boardwalk Empire—which, literally, came out of nowhere for him —remains the pride of his post-operatic career. "I've always felt I was an entertainer," he says. "So whatever I was doing, I was trying my best to entertain people. Whether it be the opera, or telling stories, or emceeing, being on the Equity stage or doing television, it's still a form of entertainment. To be on television, that's really great for me. I just love it. I look forward to waking up every day."
He's similarly excited about listening to four days of top-tier aspiring singers in Savannah.
"Here's what I've always counseled," Laciura offers. "Especially with the Metropolitan Opera auditions. If you truly believe that if you do not win this competition you are not going to have a career, you're not, because you're in the wrong field. As in any career in arts and entertainment, the career is filled with frustration. Moreso, what opera singers don't realize is that when you do acting ... I'll go to 50 commercial calls, and maybe, if I'm lucky, I get one commercial out of that.
"You're going to be disappointed, but if you have the chutzpah, if you have the will and believe in your heart and your soul that you're going to have a career, whether you win or lose a competition is irrelevant. When I would win, I took every penny and applied it to study of language, study of vocal technique, study, study, study. And that's the purpose, I believe, of these competitions."
American Traditions Competition
Quarterfinals: Sessions at 2 and 5 p.m. Feb. 24 and 25 at Skidaway Island Methodist Church
Semifinals: Sessions at 5 and 8 p.m. Feb. 26 at Savannah Theatre
Judges' Concert: At 8 p.m. Feb. 27 at Savannah Theatre
Finals: At 8 p.m. Feb. 28 at Savannah Theatre
Tickets and info: americantraditionscomnpetition.com