Daily News New York

~ by Howard Kissel - 29th August 2005~

Gilbert and Sullivan's 1881 ­"Patience" is probably the first show about celebrity, a thinly disguised satire of Oscar Wilde.

So it seems only fair that the New York City Opera should have imported an English celebrity — Michael Ball — to play Bunthorne, a character based on Wilde, for its eight-performance run of "Patience," which begins Sept. 10. When they offered him the Bunthorne part, Ball, 43, says he was "really scared." He suggested to them, instead, that he come to New York to audition for it, as he had never before done opera. "I got a measure of them. They got a measure of me." Tazewell Thompson, who has directed "Patience," admits, "I had no idea what a huge star Michael is. Fans are coming from Japan, Australia, London and Rome. But he's been a real team player."

He has certainly done his due diligence. Researching Bunthorne, Ball called his friend, English actor Stephen Fry, who told him that Wilde had loved William S. Gilbert's satiric depiction of him.

In fact, in the 19th century, Wilde agreed to do an American tour as a kind of "pre-publicity" for "Patience." (It was on his arrival at the U.S. Customs House in New York that Wilde ­famously announced, "I have nothing to declare but my genius.")

The closest thing to Wilde today, Ball thinks, is a rap star like Eminem. (At one point, Ball toyed with doing Gilbert's "sublimely funny," verbally intricate lyrics in the style of rap, but ultimately decided against it.) This is not Ball's first professional New York visit. He made his Broadway debut as the star of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Aspects of Love" in 1991. And in November, he will return to Broadway in Lloyd Webber's musical version of the 19th-century novel "The Woman in White."

In London, Ball created the role of Marius in the original production of "Les Miserables." And last year, producer Cameron Mackintosh invited him to appear in an abbreviated version of "Les Miz" at Windsor Castle to mark a state visit by French President Jacques Chirac.

"We did it in the Waterloo Room, which was hastily renamed the Music Room. Every member of the ­royal family — plus the heads of state of England and France — were a few feet away from all of us in rags singing about revolution." Despite minimal training in singing, and ambitions to be a serious ­actor, Ball's career has been largely musical. His recording of "Love Changes Everything," the hit song from ­"Aspects of Love," dominated the English charts when he returned home ­after ­"Aspects" closed here.

His 12th solo album, simply ­titled "Music," will be released in October. "I do songs that have appeared on the pop charts, but they're music for grownups," the still boyish-looking Ball says.

His pop stardom led to a BBC TV show on which he had such guests as James Brown, Ray Charles and Cher, as well as opera diva Montserrat Caballé.

Next up for Ball is the role of the pivotal character of Count Fosco in "The Woman in White," which he calls "good Victorian melodrama."

"I wear a fat suit and a prosthetic double chin," he says. "The character is almost campy. I think you can make any character as big and fleshy as can be — as long as it's based on truth."

(Ball will also be part of a NYCO Gala Sept. 8, for which all seats are $25.)

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