Joe Paur is a talented opera singer and actor known for his performances in films such as “Rigoletto,” “17 Miracles,” and “Ephraim’s Rescue.”
Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and the work you have done in music and acting?
I started late. I was at the University of Utah and doing Track & Field. I got into it because there was a ballet dancer that was a triple jumper. We all thought this guy was incredible because he was like the King David statue—very strong. Even when he lifted weights with us he had perfect form. I remember talking to him about it and he had brought up ballet. So me and another kid on the track team went and got into a ballet class. It kind of started there and went to some acting.
And then at the same time (my brother) Leo was going into that direction. He originally wanted to go into law. He started to go into writing and stuff and got into the theatre department out at BYU.
While I at the same time was going into theatre at the University of Utah. I was having problems with my last semester and the same guy told me, “You can make some money at Pioneer Memorial Theatre by doing a show for them and they’ll always take on a jock. You can be a spearholder or something like that.”
They thought my voice was fine and they liked the way that I looked so I got into chorus doing shows at Pioneer Theatre Company. From there I took some other acting classes and things like that. I really wasn’t very serious about it at the time.
Before this happened, my brother called and said, “Come down to BYU for the summer and try to do some shows up here.” They had a summer acting program. So I did. I went up and I got cast as Jigger in Carousel which was my first lead. And then did the Comedy of Errors and the Shakespeare play.
I went there for the summer and then transferred back to the University of Utah.
I just did it for that summer and it was fun and everything. But I came back to the University of Utah and I went into audition at Promised Valley Playhouse for Camelot.
There was an opera singer there named Terrence McCombs who had just come in from Zurich. He had his Masters degree from BYU and spent time in Europe. He came back and was the music director for “Camelot” and PMT, and was music director for a lot of shows. For some reason, he heard me and insisted that I get the part against what the director and everybody wanted. He also started working with me vocally.
From there, I started to learn opera which to me was a joke at the time. But then I started to get into it. He started to teach me. I started to improve. I got good really fast. Within probably five months he had me auditioning for the local Met auditions where I got into the finals.
People were saying, “Wow. You’ve got this voice! It’s really good!” Bob Peterson, who knew me, was like, “Yeah, you’re probably one of the best voices to come out of Utah.” I was starting to get compliments and I did “Camelot” and it was a huge success.
After that, I did other shows in Utah and didn’t seem to have a problem getting leads.
So when I graduated, I was wondering what to do. I thought, “Everything else that I’m doing I’m below average or mediocre at.” And this was something that I was better than most people at.
So I said I was going to take a chance. I had a kid at the time and another little one on the way, and I knew I didn’t have much time so my wife backed me and we moved to California and went to Los Angeles.
There were connections there. There was a guy by the name of Michael Seals who ran the university program at Southern Cal. Then there was Seth Riggs who was the voice teacher to all the stars. I worked with both of them and spent 20 years there.
Most of my time was not so much acting or doing musical theatre, but training to do opera but it didn’t pan out that much. I mean, I got a job with Los Angeles Opera Company which was great. But I would never get above chorus or comprimario roles there. I did local operas and stuff around town but it wasn’t in competitions and things like that. Most of the work that I did was in restaurants or odd jobs. My wife was the main supporter and she worked at a law firm there.
It didn’t pan out like I thought it would, butI had some great times and huge experiences.
There was one where I was background chorus. There were probably about 35 of us from the opera company for the Three Tenor Concert at Dodger Stadium with Pavorotti, Carreras and Domingo. That was interesting because I actually sat there and talked with Al Gore’s wife for probably 15 minutes and didn’t even know who she was.
California was really something because it’s like there was always something exciting around every corner—which you don’t get here (in Utah). But it was also very tough. The schools were awful there and rent was very high.
We were there for 20 years to call it short.
During that time, generally when I did get some kind of film or something the opera company would know I was also an actor and they would need an opera singer-actor.
The Garry Shandling Show needed a guy that looked like a football linebacker that sang opera to sing his theme song. I did that and then put like a B-flat and cadenza at the end. Things like that would come easy for me.
I also got to do some work for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I had a reputation for my work in Utah and people I met that summer at BYU remembered me, so I got to do some shows for them.
The first thing I did for them was playing the role of Brigham Young in a Restoration film in Nauvoo. Then later on they had me do the temple film. That was really weird because when I went there it was like the only people that were at the audition were me and the couple that did Adam and Eve. That was it. I thought it was really weird.
That was an interesting role because actors aren’t always looked up to in the Church. People in Los Angeles accepted actors in the Church more than they probably would have in other place, but we were still oddballs. I had to fight that a lot. People really looked down at me for not being out there and taking care of my family like I should have. That was a hard feeling to deal with while trying to stay active.
But anyway, the Church calls me up and they said, “We want you to do Peter, but you can’t tell anybody. Nobody whatsoever, not even your wife.” When they say, “Not even your wife,” that means nobody.
So I got a call from my Bishop saying, “Why did the First Presidency want to see you?”
And I was like, “I can’t tell you.”
And then my Stake President called me up. And he was actually kind of getting angry with me that I wouldn’t tell him. I said, “I can’t tell you why they called me up. It’s just the way it is. They said I can’t tell you.”
That was kind of funny. I did it. I kept silent through the whole thing until they said, “You can tell people now.”
When the show was finished and we went and saw it at the Jordan River Temple, they said, “You can tell your wife now.” So I went and told my wife.
The Church still recognizes me and they use me every now and then. I’m up right now for King Benjamin. Whether I get it or not, I don’t know. There’s a lot of talent now in the Church.
I did “Rigoletto.” When I came back here (to Utah), I did “Whisper Island” where I was the bad guy in it. Those were really the only meaty roles I had.
In California, I did one where I was the opera singer that was kind of interesting. They called me and said, “We want you to do the Carmen aria,” the flower song. I got there and they had me sing it a capella – and it’s a difficult aria. So I did. And that one had Andy Garcia in it. I can’t remember what the name of it was right off hand.
I also did “17 Miracles,” “Ephraim’s Rescue,” and “In Emma’s Footsteps.” I had another small role where I played the sheriff for Feature Films for Families in “The ButterCream Gang.” There was another one for T.C. (Christensen) where I played a store manager. And I also had a part in “The John Tanner Story.”
I’m doing one now called, “The Fighting Preacher” by T.C. It’s about a guy that’s the middle weight champion of the world that’s called by the Church to go to go and live in the Joseph Smith home and purchase the land around the Hill Cumorah.. He’s there for 20 years, but when he gets there, there’s still a lot of anti-Mormonism. He’s greeted with a lot of hostility. He uses his fist and kind of knocks everybody out.
It’s a small role, but for a movie that basically centers around this guy’s wife and him, it’s a really nice role and an indication of how he went from that kind of hostility to friendship. So that’s called, “The Fighting Preacher.”
There is a big difference between stage acting and screen acting. Which do you find to be most natural? Do you ever have challenges going from stage to screen productions in quick succession?
Film acting is more nerve-wracking for me. It’s different. You have to be a lot more natural, a lot more subtle. Very clear on diction. It shows everything. There can’t be reservations of you guessing because it shows everything. That camera shows every little nuance. If you’re uncomfortable, it will show it. It you’re lying it will show it. If you’re not sincere, it shows it.
Stage actions a lot bigger. Plus, you have the opportunity every night to make your character better. Whereas film acting, you have to try and get everything down before you go there and make it work as if you had been doing it on stage for a long time. That’s really tough.
If I go audition one place, they’ll tell me, “Will you put up your level? Because you’re not projection enough.” So that’s because I would be used to being more subtle.
So I’d go, “Oh that’s right. I have to do that.”
And then all the time when I do a lot of stage and then say go do something for T.C., he’ll say, “You have to bring it way down and give me a lower voice, too.”
It can be tricky if you’re doing a musical theatre show and then you have to go do a film. Yeah, you have to really think to bring it down. And most of the directors in film will tell you, “Bring it down, bring it down.”
When we auditioned people for “Rigoletto,” for example, I had a lot of great talent in Los Angeles that we had come and audition for it.
Leo had lived there and knew a lot of people. I brought in some guys that had done a lot of really cool stuff, but they just couldn’t adapt. I brought in an opera singer because Gabriella is supposed to have this fantastic voice. I brought in this one girl who had a lot of musical theatre and opera experience, but had never done film before. She was very pretty and was a Zachary award-winning type voice. She was high up in the national Met auditions and worked at the opera company and in orchestras around the country, but she couldn’t cut it acting-wise.
So Leo went with the one girl who was a friend of his at BYU who also did a lot of regional theatre. She just knew how to do it. And that was the difference.
So there is a big difference.
How did you get involved with “Rigoletto”?
My brother, Leo, always had me in mind for it even though they weren’t convinced. They had made other suggestions because they didn’t know me. But I had just done the temple film and that was probably the key thing. That, and Leo insisting on me.
What are one or two of the first memories that come back to you when reflecting on your time on “Rigoletto”?
The other cast were saying, This has been going really well. Please don’t screw it up for us.” That was one.
The other one was the night scene where I had to get Georgie out of the river. It was cold! We were soaking wet out in that town. I remember just how uncomfortable that was. And then it was my trial and they were wondering, “How is he going to pull this off?” Because all of the rest of the cast had been working this time and I had been in Los Angeles. That was going through my mind.
Leo probably never told you this, but he’s a brilliant director for actors. He gets the best out of all of these guys.
He was also funny. He would say things like, “Okay, I want you to get on the ground. Okay, now go over on your back. No, that doesn’t work. Go over on your belly.” Of course, this was an inside joke for everyone else. And then he’d go, “Okay. Now bark.”
Who is Leo Paur?
Leo’s my older brother. I actually got to play football with him. He was a year ahead of me in football, but I played high school football with him for at least two years. So we were close in a lot of ways that brothers aren’t.
Leo’s extremely smart.
Leo was one of the toughest guys out there and is the kind of guy that people would seek out to get in a fight with for reputation back then. He usually always came out on top. There was one time he took on four guys and he beat them. He won! He was a tough guy. He didn’t know karate or anything like that. He was just a tough guy.
I was like a guy out of a Stephen King novel that everyone picked on. I didn’t like the status I had with him back then – the little brother type of a thing.
But he was always very respectful of my talent, of me.
Tell us about your mother, Bonnie Paur.
My mom was the best. She was the mother that gave everything for her family until the end.
She loved “Rigoletto.” She loved everything that we did.
I was bemoaning myself once because I was like, “I could have done this or that. I could have done other things like the other kids that I went to high school with. They’ve got really nice homes. They’ve been very successful.” And things like that.
My brothers, Steve and Dave – they don’t consider themselves, because they weren’t pro-basketball coaches or whatever. But I see them as very successful and steady. I’ve never seen that in myself.
So I was bringing that up with my mom and my mom just looked at me and said, “Oh, what you did was better than anything that there was for me. I enjoyed it more than anything.”
That helps, but it doesn’t. But that’s the way that my mother was. They gave up everything.
Leo and I tried to open a theatre out at BYU called BYU Academy. It was an old high school theatre. My dad took what money he had left. We had all these dreams it was going to be something special. We went in there and worked out butts off. My dad and mom went in there and we tried to make it work.
Our first show was going to be “Dracula.” Leo had it all scoped out. It was freaking going to be awesome and it could have been. But the city gets in there and they start putting limits. They start making you spend more money. Two nights before tech rehearsal, they say, “You’ve got to put a 30-foot wall up in the attic as a firewall.” We just went throughout and gutted the rest of the building and put one up. My dad was a carpenter that has done everything, a contract carpenter and stuff. He was like a supervisor for union jobs. And so he was up there on his tip-toes getting the last nails while we’re thinking he’s going to die.
We put everything we had into this but opening night was kind of a disaster.
There were so many things wrong that happened that it became a comedy. It’s so weird. The special effects recorder goes out. On cue, these three guard dogs outside start howling during “My Children of the Night.” We had wind coming up through the rafters making it sound like (ghost sounds) It was crazy, and people were laughing because of it. Then I fell off the perch. Leo had me up there. It broke and I fell off and you could see me in the background crawling off. And then I have to come back on three lines later, and say, “I’m often told I have a light footfall.”
If we could have done that every night we’d have made a fortune.
We did about as good as somebody could have done. We just overestimated ourselves. Then the winter came and the heater was out and it just kind of ended us.
But my parents gave everything. That’s what they were like. They gave everything to us. Always did.
What is “Rigoletto” about?
Leo explained it to me once from his perspective. It was a Christ-like character. His “Rigoletto” was based on that.
Most of the people that give me letters—and I’ve had thousands of them, not just from Mormon Utah kids, but from the Bible Belt and places where it’s been watched a lot—they’re kids who have never felt special. And when they see the show, they feel special. They feel like they have hope to be special.
And that’s my mother. That was my mother. She had a very good voice and always wanted to be a singer. Her sister, Lela, was an accredited singer but somebody had taken care of her and trained her. My mother was always in the background having to figure it out herself.
A lot of people that write to me say they are looked down on for some reason as being different. And then in their letters they say this show just rings true to them because it makes them feel better about themselves. I get that over and over and over again. It rings for them.
Why do you think “Rigoletto” still resonates today?
I have people that get a hold of me on Facebook and stuff. They’ll call me up or they’ll get a hold of me. They’ll say, “I just found this in a thrift store and watched it again and watched it again because it was so much a part of my life. I just watched it over and over again. And it’s been 20 years since I’ve seen it. All I did was cry as I watched it.”
And then they’ll say, “I remember all of the songs.”
“Phantom,” “Beauty and the Beast,” had those effects on me. When I saw George C. Scott in “Beauty and the Beast,” before I was ever in theatre, it had that effect on me. I was like, “Whoa! This is crazy good!”
The “Phantom of the Opera” the movie never did and the musical didn’t really either, but the “Beauty and the Beast” cartoon — I was like, “Whoa! This is awesome!”
Again, it entails sacrifice. It entails loves, acceptance with understanding, compassion. It’s got all of those things that just make people feel better about themselves. The music. Not a lot of it. (“Rigoletto”) is not a musical. There are only a few songs in it, but people have wanted to make it into a musical.
What song from “Rigoletto” would you most likely be found to be singing around the house?
“The Curse.” Because people want to hear it. But my favorite is “April’s Child,” because I went on my mission to Italy.
Did you have any opportunities to participate in the composition of “Rigoletto’s” music?
Sam Cardon asked me if I could go in and go over “The Curse” which was unfinished. “April’s Child” was set. That was Chance Thomas’s. Leo insisted on that one. They were a little unsure whether they wanted to use somebody else music, so Leo kind of insisted on that. So that was set.
We went in with “The Curse” and this is what we had for the curse: (singing). And that’s all they had. They didn’t know where to go with it.
We were going to use Nessun Dorma for this but the Puccini family owned the rights to it and it would have been difficult. This particular song would have been like an aria.
I said, “In an aria, you build up and then it goes up and it goes down passionately and ends with a primeval scream of some kind of pain on a high note.”
That is all I said, and Sam Cardon goes right to the keyboard and asks, “How’s this?” He knew exactly what to do with it. It took him one try.
I said, “Yeah! That’s freaking awesome!”
He played some more and asked, “How about this?”
And I said, “Holy cow, that was great!”
That’s all I remember. They let me say what I felt and then they adapted and finished it.
What message do you think “Rigoletto” holds for us today?
Hope. I think it inspires understanding of others. I think it inspires people not to jump to judgment.
Could “Rigoletto” have happened without Leo Paur?
No. This is Leo. This is what his heart’s like. Behind all the gruff, this is what Leo’s heart’s like.
What was it like when people would approach you for autographs at restaurants but entirely overlook Leo Paur?
I think it killed him. Personally, I think it killed him. He was like, “This show happened because of me. I wrote it and got it done. And nobody really cares about that.”
Even the music in it. I worked with this guy who worked with Les Miserables and stuff in Los Angeles that did the music and played the pianos and everything. A fantastically talented human being on the piano. I took him “The Curse” because I had to learn it. He just was like, “This song sucks!” He hated it. He goes, “That’s not a very good song.”
I said, “Could you just play it for me and then I’ll learn it?”
He didn’t know anything about it and asked, “What is this for? It’s nothing.”
He was one of the very few people that I knew that actually watched the show when I gave him the tape. When he came back, he called me Ribaldi. He could see where it went after that.
I thought the same thing with Phantom of the Opera. When I was listening to that for the first time, I was like, “What is this? This is not very good.” But once I saw the play I thought, “Whoa! Because Michael Crawford was so amazing.” But on the album, I was like, “This guy can’t sing very good.”
Is there anything else you would like to say about Leo Paur or your time on “Rigoletto”?
Leo was always the guy that would do the right thing when it needed to be done—when it was needed, without fear.
I remember there was a time when he was telling me there was a woman whose car rolled over and it started on fire. And everybody was standing back because they were afraid it was going to blow up. Well Leo was the guy that went over and jumped on top of the car, reached down to the lady and pulled her out of the car that was on its side.
Back before we were active in the Church, my uncle came out and said, “I want to take you guys to Las Vegas and show you guys a real nice time.” He was a great guy but he was a lecher.
In my head, I’m going, “I’m curious.”
Leo was the kind of guy that said, “Nope.”
He was the kind of guy that was like, “Nah. That’s trouble.” Even though he used to get in trouble a lot, he was strong enough to say, “No, I ain’t gonna let nothing like that happen around here.”
Selections from this interview and “10 questions with Kurt Bestor” are used in the Deseret News article, “25 years later, the surprising parallels between ‘Rigoletto’s’ writer and its main character.“