Tori Letzler pats her cairn terrier, Cinnamon, before hopping off the comfy red sofa in her parent’s Westport living room to check on the status of her supper. She has taken a babysitting job and doesn’t want to be late. That’s where any similarity between the petite dark-haired teen dressed in a casual black sweater, worn blue jeans and black ballet flats and her peers begins and ends. In a few days the sixteen-year-old Staples High School student will board an airplane to Dubai to begin a two-month tour with Cirque du Soleil.
The opportunity came at a time when Tori had least expected it. “I was taking a year off from performing because my life was very hectic,” she explains. Tori began singing at the age of seven in the American Classical Orchestra in Norwalk and went on to perform in the Metropolitan Opera’s Children’s Chorus. In addition to her performances at the Met, Tori split her time between public performances such as singing “The Star Spangled Banner” at the Philadelphia Phillies’ and Cincinnati Reds’ games, writing music for a demo CD posted on her web page on MySpace, taking piano and cello lessons, and horseback riding.
Tori’s mom Randy Letzler, an executive at the search company Weston Associates, and also a professional dancer, singer and actress from an early age, says that she knew from the day her daughter was born that she would be involved in theater. So when the opportunity presented itself for Tori to try out for Cirque du Soleil after a friend told Randy that the company was looking for a soprano, Randy encouraged her daughter to send in her head shot.
A response from Cirque came almost immediately. Tori was asked to record a video of herself singing. In no time she was headed into New York City for a two-hour audition with the casting crew of the award- winning show. “It’s the most I ever had to do in an audition — sing, dance, improv. It was very different. They would say, ‘You’re a flea, a dinosaur, a flea on a dinosaur,’ and I knew right away that this was definitely not the Met.”
Tori was cast as the lead female character Zoe in the show Quidam. She was sent to Montreal where she trained for four months before being integrated into a cast of fifty-six artists (including singers, dancers, mimes and trapeze artists) to perform in various places throughout the United States. After six months of touring in the states, Tori was asked to join the international tour where she would perform four to five times a week in places like Dubai, Seoul, Korea, and Shanghai, China — an offer that at first had her father, Ron, concerned.
“I was not in favor of it in the beginning because when kids grow up, they go away and don’t come back and you only have so many years and I was going to lose those years. But it’s a fantastic opportunity,” says Ron, a jewelry importer in Manhattan. “How many kids do you know who run away to the circus at fifteen? So I went along with it.”
Creating a New Reality
Quidam is one of fourteen shows produced by the Cirque du Soleil company. The show just celebrated its eleventh birthday. “The story of Quidam takes its cues from Alice in Wonderland,” Tori explains. “It’s about a little girl who is thrown into this world with crazy characters and she is the only character from reality.” In a show where everything — from the characters, to the movements and music — is wrought with symbolism, the title is no different. Quidam means “anonymous” in Latin. This is intended to be representative of the people we encounter each day, those who remain nameless to us.
In the opening scene of the show, Tori’s character Zoe is bored until a man gives the young girl a magical bowler hat. After placing the hat on her head, Zoe is launched into a place fueled by her imagination. “This whole world opens up,” says Tori. “It’s kind of like The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy gets swept away by the tornado and you don’t know if it is real or a dream.”
Another aspect of the show’s mystique is the fact that vocalists sing in a made-up language — a combination of Russian, Italian, French and other languages from around the globe. With such a combination, it comes as no surprise that the cast is also a hodgepodge of ethnicities and cultures. “You wonder how there can be so much dislike and you hear about fighting among countries and cultures. Here you don’t have those problems. You have a Russian going for drinks with a Brazilian,” says Tori.
Double the Family
While Randy says that her daughter has always been the independent type, she and Ron feel better knowing that Tori is carefully looked after while abroad. Randy and Ron meet up with their daughter when they can, but when work constraints keep them home Tori has a live-in guardian and tutor provided by Cirque du Soleil.
Tori admits that while traveling she misses her friends and family, but says that she is very close with many of the cast members who have become her surrogate family while on the road. “We eat and breathe with each other,” she says. “We have artists that have entire families with kids so it’s like ‘we will watch your kids while you go out to dinner’; ‘you have a barbeque, we will all come.’ ”
One of Tori’s closest friends on tour is thirty-year-old Cory Sylvester, who performs in the opening act of the show balancing inside a man-sized wheel that he manipulates around the stage. During each performance, Sylvester gives Tori a supportive high five before she goes on. Although it has become a tradition between the two friends, he says she doesn’t need any luck.
“I think she is talented and she makes a great contribution to the show,” says Sylvester, who has played Spiderman and Batman at Universal Studios prior to training for Cirque du Soleil. “She is definitely a pleasure to be around backstage. She spends a lot of time talking to everyone and being everyone’s friend.”
Tori got her first big break in the music world when a musician in the American Classical Orchestra in Norwalk suggested that the young vocalist audition for the Metropolitan Children’s Opera.
“The chorus mistress said she had more girls than she knew what to do with, but wanted short girls,” Randy said about her daughter’s first dealings with the Met. Two weeks later Tori had sung her way into the advanced class and was well on her way to stardom.
“The first time she went on the Met stage I asked her how it was being up on stage. She said, ‘This guy dies, there’s a lot of blood and then we come on,’ ” reports Randy; her daughter seems to maintain a nonchalant attitude, whether performing in front of classmates or an international audience of thousands.
Tori swiftly earned a reputation for being a quick study. She picked up different accents in productions of Turandot, La Boheme and Tosca, in which she sang the Shepherd Boy solo. This talent eventually helped her master the invented languages featured in Cirque du Soleil shows.
When she isn’t on stage she keeps in shape by learning the art of cerceau, an aerial hoop act. She relaxes by getting a massage from on-site massage specialists. The youngest performer on the tour, Tori also spends time with the other young actress with whom she alternates playing the part of Zoe.
“We are very close. If there’s a hot tub, we are going in it,” says Tori, who also likes to shop, but still calls home to have Mom approve most of her clothing purchases.
What’s next for the teen who has already traveled halfway around the world and performed in front of millions of people? “I go with the flow of things. I don’t have to do it all by the time I am eighteen,” says Tori in regard to her hopes to one day attend Juilliard and perhaps get a record deal. “Music is the way I express myself. I want the rest of the world to feel what I’m feeling.”