Tenor Brian Jagde (photo courtesy of the artist).
From the Winter 2020 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
Seattle Weekly called him a “heroic, Italian-style tenor to the marrow,” declaring his voice, “bold, bright, resonant and effortlessly hall-filling.” He’s easily among the top tenors on the operatic stage today with a voice that is expansive, powerful and full of color and depth. New York City native Brian Jagde is a supernova among the celestial bodies swirling about the operatic universe today.
There’s no limit to the accolades Jagde has collected thus far, and as his career grows, there’s no telling how resplendent his career will become.
Wracking up 5 debut roles in a single season, to say he is prolific is an understatement. Audiences and opera houses around the globe can’t seem to get enough of him. So Chicagoans are lucky in that this winter, we’ll get a double dose of Jagde when he opens 2020 starring as Pinkerton in the poignant and powerfulMadama Butterflyat Lyric Opera of Chicago and follows that with a collaborative, cabaret style concert with fellow operatic performers in Harris Theater’s popular Beyond the Aria series.
I had a chance to sit down with the tenor this winter and found that beyond his good looks and stellar artistic acumen, there’s a genuine thirst for even more growth and, perhaps more importantly, impact – with his newly announced role as Ambassador for Opera for Peace. Its inspiring to see his work onstage and off, and audiences here will enjoy getting to know the many sides of the artist when they hear him this winter.
Who were your chief inspirations as a young artist studying opera/voice in San Francisco?
I was lucky in San Francisco to be able to witness performances by incredible artists at the highest level while I was a young artist there. I retained my teacher in New York City throughout that time, since he worked with me on my transition to tenor the year before I moved to California.
The biggest influences for me at San Francisco Opera were people like Nicola Luisotti, who helped me to understand phrasing and how a true collaboration from the pit to the stage is essential, not only in making beautiful music but letting the audience into the drama as well. The other person who was a major influence for me, even though we shared so little time together, was Patricia Racette, whom I performed with in Tosca. While we were staging all of our scenes together, I felt imbued with a real dramatic presence that I hadn’t felt before. She helped initiate an even stronger relationship to the text and staging for me than I had ever experienced. I’m forever grateful to the program at San Francisco Opera for trusting me with so many wonderful responsibilities over the years. They really thrust me onto the scene and helped jump start my career.
The role of Pinkerton is a polarizing one for many who love Madama Butterfly. From a purely theatrical, perspective do you approach the character himself from a sympathetic point of view?
We live in a much more aware and, I dare say, developed society, than over a hundred years ago when this work first premiered. Of course, there’s always room to grow and one hopes that we continue to become better people to each other through kindness and respect.
The story of Madama Butterfly is actually a very common one that, in spite of its age, still holds weight today in that during times of war or occupation, soldiers of some nations are placed in other countries and inevitably, due to human nature, relationships are bound to start. Some are in good faith and some are not. Even as recently as the conflicts in the Middle East, people from America had relationships with the people there. Many even had children, which makes things more complicated, but that’s for another interview.
My job is to interpret the role from the point of view of the character. Believe it or not, Puccini had to soften the character of Pinkerton because of how rude and harsh he was in the play, and even in Puccini’s first draft. The opera as it is now allows for an ignorance to exist in the character. That the idea of marrying a Japanese girl for a short period of enjoyment sounds awful, but was kind of what everyone Pinkerton knew was doing. At the time it was not so uncommon, and not frowned upon nearly as much as society would today. So, if we take my and everyone else’s judgment out of it, I believe he lacks a real awareness of his wrongdoing until the end of the opera.
In the meantime, there’s also an opportunity there for me as an actor. If I play him as a jerk from the outset, then he’s a jerk and has no character arc. But if I play him as a guy looking to have a good time, not understanding the gravity of the situation, then there’s somewhere to go. Also, given the nature of the scenes Puccini has given us, there’s a further opportunity to show that even Pinkerton himself is taken with Butterfly on a deeper level than even he expected. That he really does see something special in her, and then maybe at the end of Act I, it gives the audience the idea that he wants to stay. Being that he’s a soldier, actually more than that, a lieutenant, he has orders to follow. If his ship leaves he has to be on it. Again, if I take the judgment out of that first act, then I really have reason to feel guilty in the third when I return.
My hope is that I can help the audience to forget the story we all know well and let them imagine us as a couple together. A difficult task, but if accomplished it makes the heartbreak for Butterfly that much more intense and profound.
As for the score, Pinkerton is known to test the metal of a tenor's complete register. Yours has been known to remain resolute in the wake of Puccini's score, particularly since your debut in this role. Tell me about how you got Puccini's Pinkerton squarely within your comfort zone?
Thank you. People underestimate Pinkerton due to the fact that after Act I, you don’t see him until 15 minutes in Act III, and forget that from the beginning of Act I he never leaves stage until intermission. Over the years I have built up the stamina to sing longer and much more challenging roles, but truthfully it all comes down to growing in the technique as a singer. Constant work on vocal production is something that has been very important to me. As an example, Pinkerton sits right in my comfort zone, but it has the same vocal range as something like Des Grieux from Manon Lescaut, which is much more challenging to sing. So to me it’s all about planning with each role. Having a road map and following it, no matter what the staging, is tends to work really well for me. As a goal I want to find roles less challenging as I return to them, since during the time away I’ve hopefully improved as a singer.
Are there any other roles or works that come to mind that have tested your vocal metal similarly with which you engaged a similar path to master?
This past year I debuted in five new, very difficult roles. All of which had their own challenges. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever mastered any role. Even roles I’ve done many times, because as I get older and more equipped in different parts of my technique, there’s always adjustments when returning to a role. Hopefully in each case making my performance that much better than the last time I had sung it. I hope that's the same for the five new roles.
Your tone has proven particularly sturdy across your vocal range and meets the demands of most composers performed on the operatic stage today. That gives you options as an artist. With so many, how do you pair down what directions to go in your repertoire?
My favorite word to say is “no.” My team and I discuss every project and decide based on a number of factors, including what comes before and after the said period, how much time I have to prepare for that particular role, how much time I need off if the year has been an especially long and busy one, if the role is something I’d want to take on now, or maybe if it’s too heavy to wait a bit, or maybe it would never be right for me...I have a plan and almost all of the time it goes according to plan … thankfully.
You'll present some of your diverse repertoire here at Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Millennium Park when you join Ana Maria Martinez (also starring in Lyric's Madama Butterfly) and Ricardo Jose Rivera. The mode of this particular concert, however, takes audiences a bit beyond the curtain to examine performance styles, repertoire and performance modes. How fun is that for you as an artist to plan such a relaxed performance that reveals so much more of your own personality to the audience while working with other artists in the same vein?
It’s tons of fun. We each get to explore a little lighter music, a bit of variety from what we typically sing in opera, which—as you’ve mentioned—is a wonderful opportunity to show our personalities. I know Ana María and Craig well, because we’ve worked together on separate projects in the past. It’ll be awesome to see them again to make music together, as well as to work with Ricardo for the first time.
In the last few seasons, you've made some pretty significant role debuts. I realize those challenge you in ways roles deeply embedded within your repertoire can't, obviously. However, they also offer particularly wonderful revelations. Tell me about some of your most important ones when debuting a role.
Every time I sing something, I learn something new. But, particularly with new roles, especially harder ones, it shows you your shortcomings technically, which inevitably makes you a better singer once you overcome those issues. These are usually highly technical for me, but if I could give you one simple example, I’d say that during my first Enzo in La Gioconda, it was a challenge, because the piece seems to be a combination of styles. Sometimes it feels like Verdi, and others like Puccini. Anyone who sings in these styles regularly understands that usually one cannot be approached exactly like the other. This really tested my ability to switch styles so regularly. To know when to ride the wave more than drive, and vice versa, was very important for me to survive this challenging piece, but also helped make me a better singer.
Tell me about your work with Opera for Peace? How did you come to join the organization as Ambassador?
I feel lucky to have been chosen as an Ambassador for this incredibly important organization. One of the founders has known me for years, ever since she cast me for my debut role in France back in 2014. This project really excites me not only for its potential impact on the operatic community, but also for how the industry can collaborate with other non-profits that currently have an impact on important global issues like social justice, equality and promoting diversity in all fields. The sky’s the limit for an organization like this when it comes to the change it could inspire. It’s early days as the organization has just been announced, but more will be happening soon so keep your eyes peeled.
Being a native New Yorker, debuting at The Met has to have been a major accomplishment for you. Tell me about that experience.
Yes, absolutely. Growing up in New York I actually had my first ever operatic experience at The Metropolitan Opera. It was a class trip during high school, where we saw a final dress rehearsal of Billy Budd. At that time I loved to sing but hadn’t caught the opera bug yet. I remember thinking how amazing it was that people could sing so loud, to be heard in a house so large, without microphones. Then, when I was in college for singing and had caught the bug, I know it was the dream of myself and my classmates to be on that stage at some point. I really enjoyed singing in that house for my debut. To this date it’s the easiest place I’ve ever had the opportunity to sing, acoustically speaking.
And you return this season as Cavaradossi in Tosca, which is featured as part of The Met’s Live in HD cinema season? I imagine this is one of your schedule's personal highlights this season. How important is this for you returning to The Met in a role that is very personal for you and in such a high profile series, seen in theaters around the globe?
Singing on that stage is a dream, and with such an amazing group of colleagues it will make it that much better. I’m very much looking forward to being back there. It’s a pleasure for me on so many levels. To be home, which is rare for me these days, it will be nice and the opportunity to sing for most of my friends and family. As for the HD broadcast, I try not to think about it too much. I’ve been on screens before, but not so many at the same time! I will sing for the public in front of me and hopefully that will translate to the audiences out in all of the theaters. My hope is that they will feel as if they are in the Met with us.
When you're away from the stage and the performance studio, where do your interests lie?
Lately, it’s been hard to think of anything else but singing, however I like to do certain things—a bit of a routine—no matter where I am. I love lifting weights, so I like to hit the gym as often as possible. In my down time I watch a lot of TV shows and also like to sightsee in any given city. Growing up with a chef as a mother, I love to taste all the different cuisines around the world. And lastly, long walks with my dog, Cav.
What would you describe as your guiltiest pleasure?
As I mentioned earlier, I have a love for food that started as a child watching my mother create dishes. I was fascinated by what pairs well together and how to make certain dishes. It’s an art, really. My guiltiest pleasure is seeking out some of the best restaurants in the world with Michelin Stars, despite the cost, to try amazing food. I don’t do it often, maybe a few times a year.
With such a massive schedule ahead (and behind you), you've got to have a favorite venue. Tell me about it?
It’s really hard to answer this question. As I mentioned earlier, the Met is the easiest place to sing in so far for me when it comes to large houses where the voice flies. However, I could say the same thing about a much smaller house physically, such as Opernhaus Zürich. They have an incredible acoustic and it makes you want to play with pianissimos that much more. I really enjoyed making my debut at the Lyric Opera of Chicago back in 2015, for me it’s also an ideal acoustic and it’s a stunning theater. Also on that list, I have to mention the Royal Opera House - Covent Garden. But really when you love to sing, it doesn't matter where.
And your favorite production in the last season?
That’s another tough one. I’ve gotten to work with one of my favorite conductors, Nicola Luisotti, twice this year in my first La forza del Destino for my debut at Opéra national de Paris, and my debut as Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut at San Francisco Opera, and they were both huge highlights for the year. I’ve also gotten to work with directors like Olivier Tambosi in San Francisco, and Robert Carsen for a new Cavalleria rusticana at Dutch National Opera, with the incredible Anita Rachvelishvili as Santuzza. To be honest, I can’t choose between any of them. They’re all special to me in some way.
And your favorite city (as a tourist)?
My favorite city in the world is still Rome. I can’t get enough of the Italian culture, the food and just the way of life there. I hope to have a place there someday. There aren’t many cities in the world where you can be walking down a street and see a 3,000 year old building next to one built yesterday. Truly a beautiful sight to see.
Tenor Brian Jagde will star this winter as Pinkerton in Puccini's Madama Butterfly on stage at Lyric Opera of Chicago February 6 - March 8, and he'll take the stage with other Lyric Opera artists in Beyond the Aria at Harris Theater February 11.
Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
LUMINARY: Q&A WITH ACCLAIMED TENOR BRIAN JAGDE
Jagde will pull double duty this winter in performances at Lyric Opera of Chicago and Harris Theater for Music and Dance
By Fred Cummings