NEW YORK — Spiro Malas, a charming bass whose career in supporting roles at New York City Opera and the Metropolitan Opera blossomed, after decades, into an acclaimed Broadway star turn in “The Most Happy Fella,” died June 23 at his home in Manhattan. He was 86.
His death was confirmed by his son Nicol.
With a resonant voice and sly comic timing, Mr. Malas was an operatic company man, well regarded as the kind of piquant (and often nameless) innkeeper, police commissioner, mayor, landlord, tutor, sacristan or army officer who lends scenes color and moves plots forward. He was part of the landmark City Opera production and subsequent recording of Handel’s “Julius Caesar” that cemented Beverly Sills’ celebrity in 1966, and he toured with and recorded alongside Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti.
But it was as the lovelorn Everyman grape farmer Tony Esposito in a 1992 Broadway revival of “The Most Happy Fella” — the 1956 musical considered by many to be composer Frank Loesser’s masterpiece — that Mr. Malas, who was nearly 60 at the time, was able to come fully into his own.
“I really wanted to do it,” he told The New York Times in 1992, “because this music has such heart. It’s like the music that tenors get to sing all the time. Basses get that kind of music so rarely.”
Spiro Samuel Malas was born Jan. 28, 1933, in Baltimore, where his parents, Lillian and Samuel Malas, who had immigrated from Greece, owned Duffy’s, a seafood restaurant and city fixture. When his mother died in 1999, Mr. Malas told The Baltimore Sun that she had never understood why he chose singing over Duffy’s.
“Come home and get a job in the restaurant and stop all this running around,” he recalled her telling him.
But, spurred by listening to the Met’s radio broadcasts as a child, he decided that a career in music was what he wanted. He studied at Towson State College (now Towson University) in Maryland and the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and he was a winner of the Met’s National Council Auditions in 1960, the year he made his City Opera debut.
While singing at Santa Fe Opera he met Marlena Kleinman, a mezzo-soprano who later became a respected voice teacher. The Times reported that after they were married, at City Hall in Manhattan in 1963, they “promptly journeyed back to continue rehearsals” at City Opera, where he was singing in “La Bohème” and she was singing in “Rigoletto.”
In the midst of a busy schedule with that company, Mr. Malas was cast in a Boston Opera Group production of Bellini’s “I Puritani” in 1964. The conductor was Richard Bonynge; the star was Joan Sutherland, Bonynge’s wife.
It was the beginning of a spirited collaboration with the two of them that brought Mr. Malas on a 1965 Australian tour, joined by Pavarotti, then a little-known tenor. Three of their major recordings together — Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” and “La Fille du Régiment” and Rossini’s “Semiramide” — are considered classics, with Mr. Malas particularly in his witty element as the quack doctor Dulcamara in “Elisir” and the roguish Sergeant Sulpice in “Fille.”
Mr. Malas sang Sulpice opposite Sutherland, conducted by Bonynge, for his Met debut in 1983. He went on to appear in more than 150 performances with that company.
He had had some scattered credits over the years in musical theater, but it was nevertheless something of a swerve when the producers of “The Most Happy Fella” invited him to audition for a run at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut.
Mr. Malas felt that the music, usually sung by baritones, lay too high. (In the end, a few of the songs were transposed down a third for him.) But he was a natural as Tony, the aging farmer who marries a much younger mail-order bride. Frank Rich, in his review in the Times after the production transferred to Broadway, wrote that Mr. Malas “immediately wins us over, not with a fat man’s musical-comedy jolliness but with the plaintive hunger and deep humility in his sweet, timid hopes for happiness.”
The show ran for more than 200 performances; it lost the Tony Award for best revival to another Loesser show, “Guys and Dolls.” (Mr. Malas admitted to being hurt by not even being nominated for best actor.)
His time as Tony led to wider exposure. After the Goodspeed run of “The Most Happy Fella,” he was offered a juicy part opposite Jack Nicholson in the movie “Hoffa,” but filming would have conflicted with the Broadway opening. Mr. Malas did appear on television, on shows including “Law & Order,” “Sex and the City” and “Spenser: For Hire.” He also taught at the Manhattan School of Music and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
In addition to his son Nicol, Mr. Malas is survived by his wife; another son, Alexis; his sister, Mary Aiello; and five grandchildren.
Even after a bit of mainstream fame beckoned, Mr. Malas remained modest. His longtime touring recital program, in which he talked about and demystified opera as he sang it, was called “Spiro in Spirit Gum” — a reference to the adhesive used for stage prosthetics.
Asked by The Baltimore Sun about the reason for his success in “The Most Happy Fella,” he answered simply: “Something about this character and what I have inside of me makes this work for people.”