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Florida Grand Opera brings ‘I Pagliacci’ to Broward Center, with tenor Limmie Pulliam in the spotlight

Tenor Limmie Pulliam in the iconic role of the clown Canio in Florida Grand Opera's production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci.” (Daniel Azoulay/Courtesy)
Tenor Limmie Pulliam in the iconic role of the clown Canio in Florida Grand Opera’s production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci.” (Daniel Azoulay/Courtesy)
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Tenor Limmie Pulliam has the iconic role of the clown Canio in Florida Grand Opera’s production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci” — and he agrees with the assessment of great singers before him, from Mario Lanza to Enrico Caruso to Luciano Pavarotti to Plácido Domingo, that the role is a challenge.

In this famed Italian opera, which opened in January at Miami’s Arsht Center before coming to Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center this week, Canio is the leader of a theatrical company who is driven to kill his actress wife and her lover. The character must embody many moods, from the comedy of a clown to the drama of jealousy that turns to rage. There’s the spotlight, too, on what has become one of the most recognized tenor arias and one of the most powerful and emotional songs in the world of opera, “Vesti la giubba.”

During a recent interview while in Miami rehearsing, Pulliam said there is also another challenge other tenors before him may not have faced. Pulliam is a Black singer-actor in the role, which has not been the traditional casting.

“Whether the actors are Black or white or Italian or whatever, I believe the drama remains the same. But I do think, based on our personal biases in life, the way some may look at the character of Canio, and in his moments of anger, in his fits of rage that kind of overcome him … it hasn’t strayed far from my mind whenever I am doing this role that thought of the racial stigma,” Pulliam said.

It is the stigma of the “angry Black man,” he said.

“Nine times out of 10, I could be cast as Canio opposite a white female,” he added. “To think of the racial dynamics of a Black male taking the life of a white female on stage is not lost on me.”

While his leading lady in the production is also Black (soprano Kearstin Piper Brown in her Florida Grand Opera debut), Pulliam said it doesn’t much change the dynamic he feels and that “giving into the drama” is a bit difficult at times.

“While you want to give the audience the best show possible, and present the characters in a realistic way that the style requires, there still is some hesitation there from a personal standpoint. It’s kind of a Catch-22 situation for me to not sacrifice the character for the personal feelings I’m dealing with … It’s allowing myself to take on the character, but not allowing the character to take over me.”

The son of a preacher from Kennett, Missouri, the 48-year-old graduated from the same high school as Grammy Award-winning singer Sheryl Crow, whose mother was his piano teacher. His career path began early. He sang in his church’s choir, but Pulliam remembers the moment he fell in love with opera. He recalled that, when he was 14 or 15, his choir teacher asked him to learn “Una Furtiva Lagrima” from Gaetano Donizetti’s “L’Elisir D’Amore.”

“She presented me with the sheet music and a cassette tape recording of Luciano Pavarotti singing the aria. I started by listening to that and learning the song. And then I continued to listen to other pieces on the cassette tape and the music just started to grow on me. I became enamored with it,” said Pulliam, who ended up winning a state competition for his singing of the aria.

When he saw a live performance of an opera on public television, that was it. “I had a knack for this and when I realized I could actually go to school to do this, I was so excited.”

He was accepted at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, where he studied with Richard Miller, a professor of singing and internationally known as one of the most influential voice pedagogues in history.

“It was life-changing for me to be able to study with someone of his caliber,” said Pulliam.

After venturing out into the professional world of opera for about two years, Pulliam said he stepped back for more than a decade, dropping out of the music industry in the early 2000s as a result of body shaming.

“It was after several instances where you would get from people in positions of power, complimenting you on your voice, but then making negative comments about your size,” he said. It became too much.

Limmie Pulliam as Canio and Kearstin Piper Brown as Nedda in Florida Grand Opera’s production of Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.” (Daniel Azoulay/FGO)

He thought he’d take a six-month break, but it turned into 12 years. He founded a security company, providing bodyguard services to several notables. “For most of that (time), even though I wasn’t singing, I was still involved in entertainment . . .working as a bodyguard for concert tours.” Though he doesn’t like to drop names, Pulliam did reveal Sheryl Crow and Cedric the Entertainer were clients. He also had a stint in politics (working on Barack Obama’s first campaign), and it was a chance encounter that led him back to singing.

“I was doing some events, and we had invited a local beauty queen to sing the national anthem. She ended up getting cold feet and not showing up. So, my boss looked at me and said, ‘I remember on your resume, it said you sang opera. Why don’t you sing it?’ ”

In 2009, he decided it was time to hire a singing teacher and, by 2012, he won a competition with the National Opera Association. His career has been on the rise ever since, eventually making his Carnegie Hall and The Metropolitan Opera debuts along with stints with the L.A. Opera, The Cleveland Orchestra and Fort Worth Opera. This will be his second time playing the role of Canio; in 2016, he sang it with the Vashon Opera in Washington.

The comeback has been an emotional rollercoaster. Pulliam said he is enjoying his second chapter of success, but loss has also followed him. His father passed away on May 8, 2022; on May 21, he made his debut with The Cleveland Orchestra singing “Otello.” Six months later, on Nov. 14, his oldest sister died and a little over a month after that, on Dec. 17, Pulliam made history in “Aida” as the first Black tenor to sing the role of Radamès in more than a century of The Metropolitan Opera.

“I Pagliacci (The Clowns)” was written in 1892 in a style of Italian opera, verismo (“realism”). Jeffrey Marc Buchman, director of FGO’s “I Pagliacci,” says the prologue delivered by Tonio is rich with meaning — and it’s a place for audiences to pay close attention.

“The prologue resonates with me,” Buchman said. “Tonio is telling the audience: ‘We, these actors, we feel real pain, we have real suffering in our lives and even though we put these masks on for you to perform whatever this scene is that we are compelled to have to play for you, we have our own lives that are causing (emotions) … These wonderful cast members also have their own lives that are going on, and we should be aware of that when they are performing. It’s just a reminder of the humanity that lives within the artist behind any role onstage.”

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Florida Grand Opera presents “I Pagliacci” (sung in Italian with projected translations in English and Spanish)

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 8, and Saturday, Feb. 10

WHERE: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale

COST: $25-$200

INFORMATION: 800-741-1010;

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