BJ Ward Opera Beginning Special

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The following appeared in the Chicago Tribune. The citation is Dretzka, Gary (1996-09-11). "SHOWING HER FACE VOICE-OVER SPECIALIST B.J. WARD STEPS OUT OF THE SHADOWS TO SING OPERA". Chicago Tribune.

Unless you're a diehard opera enthusiast, with a generous sense of humor, you probably aren't familiar with B.J. Ward.

But even folks who have a hard time distinguishing "Rigoletto" from rigatoni likely have encountered the gifted soprano's high, light voice somewhere. It could have been on her "Stand-Up Opera" CD, or, perhaps, on taped greetings at the various Disney kingdoms or as Betty Rubble on "The Flintstones.

This month, Ward begins a new tour of recitals and can be heard, as well, doing Iris the Computer on the animated "The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest" television series, as diabolical divas on the animated TV series "Casper" and "Bruno the Kid," and as Paul Hogan's girlfriend, assorted dolphins and island children on a "Flipper" CD-ROM.

In Hollywood's booming voice-over business, actors--some well-known, many others anonymous--are paid to be heard and not seen. Now, however, Ward hopes fans of her singing and comedy will want to come out and attach a face to the vocal cords.

To get an idea of where the spirited brunette is coming from, first think of Victor Borge, Peter Schickele, Anna Russell and, perhaps, "Spinal Tap." Then, throw in the many bizarre plots and skewed passions of the great operas.

Between her capable interpretations of popular arias, Ward provides amusing discourses on the history of the music, as well as anecdotes about tenors and divas, troubled composers and dangerous trends in the repertory. When she isn't, for example, comparing male librettists to Dr. Kevorkian in their willingness to kill off sopranos, she might be suggesting that Dvorak's "Rusalka" is "basically Disney's `The Little Mermaid' with a Quentin Tarantino ending . . . `Pulp Mermaid,' `Reservoir Nymphs.' "

In her attempts to take some of the starch out of the stuffed-shirt atmosphere that pervades modern concert halls, she also affords some laughs at her own expense.

"I think I've suffered for my music," she tells her audiences, by way of introduction. "Now, it's your turn."

In fact, Ward's road to the stage has been filled with several unusual twists and turns.

"It really came up kind of sideways," the coloratura explains over lunch. "In the '70s, I had a nightclub act, and did assignment singing. I wrote material for people I used to back up in Vegas--Ann-Margret, Raquel Welch, Burt Bacharach--and worked in lounges and with Dick Clark's `Good Old Days of Rock 'n' Roll' shows."

In the early '80s, having tired of touring, she began looking for other ways to use her musical and comedic talents.

She joined the Groundlings--L.A.'s answer to the Second City comedy troupe--and performed with such soon-to-be stars as Phil Hartman, Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman), Cassandra Peterson (Elvira) and Edie McClurg.

In between those gigs, Ward became a much-in-demand voice-over specialist, a job that requires great versatility and stamina. In the last 15 years, it has become a highly competitive business, in which many of today's top actors--including Demi Moore, Robin Williams and James Earl Jones--have lent their dulcet tones to various cartoon characters or commercials.

"I started attending Joan Gerber's workshops because they were fun," said the Delaware native. "I followed her around to recording sessions and watched all these great performers playing scenes against themselves . . . doing all the voices and never stopping."

The first animated series Ward got was Hanna-Barbera's "Janet of the Jungle," playing the energetic leading lady, who speaks to animals in their own tongues.

From `Jetsons' to Disney

In the last 10 years, she has also been Wonder Woman, Scarlett on "G.I. Joe," Butch and Waldo on "The Little Rascals" and a few dozen other characters on various syndicated series. She does the singing for Judy on "The Jetsons," too.

In her corporate work, she has plugged banks, cars and other products, and has admonished countless visitors to Disneyland, Disney World and Epcot Center, with courteous words of advice. Ward also contributes her voice to the parks' Carousel of Progress, singing fish and possums of Bear Country Jamboree.

During this productive period, Ward kept in touch with her music by performing live and recording an album of cabaret songs.

Eventually, she admitted to her voice teacher that she was bored.

"He said, `Why don't you try this on for size?,' and pulled out something from `La Traviata' and `Aida,' " Ward recalled. "It was so damn hard. So, I started doing it to keep my interest up.

"If someone had offered me tickets to the opera, I probably wouldn't have taken them. I didn't know anything about it."

She used her skills as "a belter" to adapt to different vocal techniques, then focused on amplification. Her range, nurtured in voice-over work, made the transition to opera easier to accomplish.

"Then, I started reading the stories behind the songs and became fascinated," she continued. "A whole world opened up to me that I didn't know anything about. I didn't think I'd make a living from it, or have to learn a role."

Then, Ward started pulling back on jobs that could harm her throat.

"If I was doing the bear-down voices or witches--and several sessions going from voice to voice--I could get hoarse by the end of the day, and certainly not ready to sing opera," she said. "Little by little, I cut back my auditions, because I already was singing two hours every day.

No horns on her head

The standup-opera concept grew from a monthly salon held in the San Fernando Valley home she shared with her husband, director Gordon Hunt (father of Helen, star of "Twister" and "Mad About You"), who she met doing voice-overs at Hanna-Barbera. These "Opera and Omelettes" sessions, with accompanist George Hern, became so popular that she moved her act to a Hollywood nightclub before taking it out on the road.

"I wanted to share my arias and acting, and what I thought was funny," said Ward. "I'm not taking liberties with the music. It isn't satire and I don't come out with horns on my head."

Her fall and winter schedule includes stops Sunday at the Civic Center in Madison, Wis., and a Nov. 2 benefit in Milwaukee for the Florentine Opera Company.

Much of her routine will come from the Dorchester Classic CD released earlier this year, but a lot of it will be fresh.

"Since opera was invented about 400 years ago, around 40,000 have been written, of which 100 remain in the popular repertory," she points out. "There was a wealth of music. It was their television . . . in their language, so it wasn't as highfalutin as it is now."

Some of Ward's most waspish observations are reserved for the tenors and divas who are the music's superstars.

"Everybody wants to be a tenor, even sopranos," she quipped. "There's always the jokes: The reason he can sing that well is because he has nothing in his head to obscure the sound. And there's the rivalry between the sopranos and bad-boy tenors who hold the note just a bit longer than the females expect.

"There's just something about the male voice in that register, which is absolutely thrilling. But whenever you mention tenors, you get a knowing laugh.


PHOTO: ``I wanted to share my arias and acting, and what I thought was funny, says B.J. Ward.



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