Bangor booze merchant (and secret operatic powerhouse) Eric Mihan joins the pros for the Bangor Symphony Orchestra’s production of La Bohème.
By Brian Kevin[B]efore he moved to Bangor in 2009 with his native-born wife, Christine, Eric Mihan was a fledgling operatic bass-baritone chasing gigs across the U.S. and abroad. Mihan, 37, owns the Bangor Wine and Cheese Company and Newport’s Crossroads Beverage Co., but the New Jersey native studied music and vocal performance, and after college, he spent years on the operatic performance circuit.
Today, he sits on the board of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra, and he’s the only local performer with a principal role (alongside a cast of visiting operatic pros) in the BSO’s season-concluding performance of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème — the orchestra’s first foray into semi-staged opera. Mihan plays the philosopher Colline, one of a clique of carefree bohemians confronting poverty and ultimately tragedy in a Parisian garret. We caught him before his return to the stage following a decade away from opera.
What was your earliest exposure to opera?
Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung was on PBS when I was 4 or 5. I was just getting into swords and fantasy, so it was like the tales I was growing up with. And, you know, it was the ’80s, and all the singers were like, “Waaaah!” [a high, Axl Rose–ish screech].
How did you find your way into opera as a college kid? Why not, say, musical theater?
Maybe the same reason I don’t drink gin: because it was my dad’s drink. My dad had this soft spot for Broadway, and I grew up with Dad singing me those tunes. Maybe I thought it was trite. But the other thing is that I really love rock and roll. I love cranking out distorted chords, and I’m still in a rock cover band.
Cool, what’s it called?
OneSixtyOne — I have no idea what that means. I play rhythm guitar, occasionally lead, and I sing. We started out pretty heavy — Metallica, etc. — but lately we’ve started playing more danceable, good-timey rock and roll, stuff the bars like.
Um, what does that have to do with opera?
So as a bass-baritone, the roles you get to sing, once you’re good enough, are the bad guys. And they’re the rock stars, the guys that get to come in like, “Yeaaaah! Hell, yeaaaaaah!” I mean, cool!
What are some rock star roles you’ve done?
The classic one, for me, was Kaspar in Der Freischütz, by Carl Maria von Weber. He’s basically jealous of the tenor — it’s like Iago and Othello. So he goes down to the Wolf’s Glen at night, when all the powers of darkness are around, and sings this badass aria. I mean, it’s rock and roll. It’s the sort of thing where you hear, like, Meat Loaf, and you get where he’s going. When you’re doing Kaspar, you’re like, yeah, that’s what this is — it’s the operatic version of “Bat Out of Hell.”
How did you transition from a burgeoning opera career into fine wine and cheese?
I did a festival in Italy in my mid-20s, and I remember walking on a path in Spoleto, thinking, “This is amazing, but I wish [my girlfriend] Christine was here.” I wanted to get married and settle down eventually, and with funding for the arts getting cut, I wondered, could this work? I basically decided, I don’t think it can.
But when I was in Italy, the other thing that smacked me in the face was that everybody was in great shape, they ate fresh foods, there was a bottle of wine on every table, like how we have salt and pepper. I was like, I love this!
Opera, fine wines, and artisan cheeses can all seem a bit highbrow and unapproachable. How do you demystify a great Italian opera or a French wine for us commoners?
Supertitles in opera are the equivalent of the French finally allowing clearer wine labeling — you know, most European labels don’t tell you what’s in it, they just tell you where it’s from and expect you to know. But it’s not Americans’ fault they don’t know that in Burgundy, by law, the red wine is pinot noir. It’s not part of our culture to know. So in my wine education classes, we laugh a lot. Humor is a great way to approach this stuff. Which is why a part of me is a little surprised we’re doing La Bohème, and I’ve always been amused that it’s the most performed opera. But La Bohème does have a funny streak. There’s tragedy, of course, but the reason I love Colline and the rest of the idiots is because these guys have nothing, but they can laugh about it and have a good time because of who they are.
Did you have plans to sing opera on the side when you came to Bangor?
What I’ve always said to that is like, “Do you know what it takes to do an opera? Man, I might be able to sing an aria without having gotten in shape first, but like, do you know those big fat opera people? A lot of them aren’t fat — they’re built! They have these huge damn torsos, and it’s not a mistake. If I had to sing Kaspar right now, I’d pop a blood vessel!”
So how have you prepared?
I’ve tried to be very methodical about it, doing warm-ups again. The hardest thing is getting back into singing Italian at speeds. The biggest hurdle is psychological.
Colline sings a famously somber aria before pawning a coat to buy medicine for a dying friend. Heavy stuff. You up for it?
When I sing the aria to myself, I take off the coat and I shiver. I know I’m taking off something that might keep me alive. It’s not just stuff, you know? It’s like my house, where I raise my kids. It’s such a painful moment, especially as a dad, because I find myself asking that sort of thing constantly: what is just stuff, and what’s essential?
But the other Colline part of me is that, when things are sad — if it weren’t about death — Colline would make a joke. The first part of the opera, he’s such a goof, making sarcastic little comments. These guys, they just sit around and bullshit, like a Fantasy Football draft. But they’re really good souls who know they don’t have anything, and so it’s all about sharing and comradeship. I see that around here a lot. I think it’s why I like Bangor — there’s still that sense of community that the Facebooks of the world are destroying.