A young baritone who genuinely seems to be on the verge of an exciting career. I’ve never seen him in person, just through the miracle of modern technology. He’s more than just a pretty voice & a handsome face.
And here’s another example of that voice.
In a season with the title role in a new opera (Tobias Picker’s Fantastic Mr. Fox), and Papageno with Edmonton Opera, his next stop is with Opera Lyra Ottawa as Figaro in Le nozze di Figaro. On the occasion of his “wedding” in Ottawa this weekend, I ask him ten questions: five about himself and five more about portraying Figaro.
1-Are you more like your father or your mother?
Well – I have to say I am more like my mother than my father when it comes to being a performer, but the way I live my everyday life tends to be a bit more like my father now that I think of it. As a performer, I am outgoing and charismatic – I get along with just about everyone and really enjoy being up on stage. I also have a great ability to make and keep friends (I am still in regular contact with a lot of my childhood friends – I even run a snack food company with two of them!) and this is definitely an aspect about me that has been passed down from my mom. But as I’ve gotten older I find that when it comes to work and dedication to my craft, my father really begins to shine through. My Dad is a pilot, so in a sense he had to perform at an extremely high level as well as be very dedicated and organized to make the most of his job. At the end – I’m probably just an even mix of both, but who knows who I’ll be more like when I have kids!
2-What is the best thing or worst thing about being an opera singer?
Best thing about being an opera singer for me is two things -1. Getting the chance to perform for a living and be paid for something I absolutely LOVE to do and 2. Seeing the world through a very specifically beautiful lens, all the while making new friends. I absolutely love to make new friends and some people I’ve recently met at companies I’ve only briefly worked at have become life long friends. It is a beautiful thing.
The worst thing about being an opera singer is definitely the lack of security and stability and the “on the road” lifestyle. I think if you ask this question to the majority of opera singers they will give you the same answer. After months on the road, all you really want is a place you can call your own and some basic security and stability. I guess this is what we sacrifice to have the chance to live this unique experience.
3-Who do you like to listen to or watch?
If we’re talking Opera – my favorite performer at the moment is Gerald Finley (an Ottawa native!). I first caught wind of Gerry when I began my studies at Juilliard in 2007, when a YouTube clip of him singing the Doctor Atomic (by American composer John Adams) aria “Batter my heart” began circulating throughout Juilliard like crazy.
I was so enthralled by his performance, however at the time I hadn’t heard much about him. He quickly grew to be one of my favorite artists to listen to, and watch – I feel he embodies so much of what the “singing actor” is. From his clips of singing Papageno on YouTube (when he was still in his twenties), to his recordings of lieder and song with his pianist, Julius Drake – I totally appreciate and enjoy everything he offers as a singer and artist. He is also an incredible mentor and teacher, and I look forward to any chance I get to explore my repertoire and instrument with him.
4-What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I wish I had more skills in regards to construction, artisan carpentry and home building – my Dad is definitely a “Mr. Fix it” who, when I was growing up would constantly be fixing up our house or cars when it was needed. He certainly gave me a lot of “tools” to use on my own, but since I ended up being an opera singer with no car or house, my life is so mobile and different that I hardly ever get a chance to apply and practice them. However, I do hope to someday to settle into a home somewhere (whether it be the US or Canada, I’m not quite sure yet) and really understand the inner workings of it all. I’d also love the chance to even design and build my own house – something that could incorporate a sustainable infrastructure and an indoor garden to produce the majority of my food throughout the year. This would be an ideal situation, but will certainly take time and planning to make possible!
5-When you’re just relaxing and not working what’s your favourite thing to do?
My favourite thing to do (outside performing and singing) is cooking – I love to get into the kitchen and whip up a few awesome dishes for the week or for some friends. I have found more and more that being in the kitchen is a meditation for me, where I can completely zone-out. It gives me a mental break from learning music, running my businesses, or anything else that might be putting on pressure. It also gives me immense joy to cook for people and see them enjoy what I’ve made them. I love cooking all kinds of food, but recently I’ve been focusing on eating a more plant-based diet – lots of fresh salads and vegetable curries/stews and healthy smoothies in the morning. There are certainly benefits to eating meat (high in protein), but I am very picky about where I source it and how the animals were raised. It is extremely important for our bodies and our environment as well as for the animal to know your source – so that is why I always choose grass-fed and pasture raised options when possible.
Five more about taking on Figaro in Mozart’s opera.
1-Please talk about the challenges of singing Figaro.
At first, I was afraid Figaro was going to be 1.Too much singing 2.Too low for my voice and 3. Not the right character for me. As it turns out, none of these fears have manifested, in fact I love Figaro and how similar he is to my own personality, and the amount of singing and how beautiful some of it is, as well as the tessitura of the role. Within the past year I have been exploring a more “adult” sound with my voice (without losing its bright, youthful exuberance) so Figaro was just the right role to help ease me into this space, vocally.
One major plus was being able to work with a master such as Tom Diamond, our director; he has been an extremely educational, commanding and fun personality throughout the entire process. He is a seasoned director and has worked on the Marriage of Figaro now five times. It has been such a pleasure to discover the character with him and all of my wonderful, super talented colleagues.
2) The Marriage of Figaro is a mix of comedy & class-struggle, with a hint of romance & heart-break in the mix. Where do you like to place the emphasis in your portrayal?
Our production is based on the BBC show “Downtown Abbey” – the set, the costumes, and of course the time period (Right around WWI) in which it takes place. The themes I most connect to in this show are the class struggle mixed in with a dash of comedy and a dollop of heartbreak and romance. At this point in the play Figaro has already done so much for the Count and Countess to help them along in their love story together, so it comes with major surprise when he finds out about the Count’s intentions towards Susanna, his wife to be. I think setting it during this time period makes a lot of sense and really lends itself well to the upstairs downstairs theme, which is so clearly evident in Downtown Abbey.
When I’m playing Figaro, I constantly need to shift between scheming and playing the role of the servant, buttoned up in my tuxedo tails, ready to serve “my lord”. It’s a balancing act, but having these elements helps bring an extra layer of insight and color to my character. However, right before the Act III finale, I lose my temper and cannot hold in my frustrations any longer; after all, the Count is delaying our marriage and in a sense ruining what should be the best day of our lives.
3-Do you have a favourite moment in the opera?
Musically, my most favourite moment is when Figaro sings the line “Tutto e tranquillo e placido…” – Mozart really tapped into something special in this music and for me it is the first time in the opera where the audience sees the more tender side of an otherwise witty and willful character whose music is very rhythmic and sharp edged for most of the opera.
Dramatically, from the moment I enter to the moment I leave in the Act II finale I am having an absolute blast. This is where Figaro really gets to play front and center and become a more integral role in the opera and the plot. The scene embodies the genius of both DaPonte and Mozart, giving each character their moment to shine and also playing with the all the elements of the story in very different and imaginative ways. It is just so much fun to sing!
4-As Opera Lyra reinvents itself this season please talk about opera in the 21st century.
I am excited to see what happens with Opera Lyra in the coming season – I think their choice to expand their season’s offerings and explore new types of repertoire in different venues is a very smart move, both financially speaking and in order to bring in a more diverse audience. I believe Opera companies and Opera in general need to embrace this flexible and creative mindset when it comes to programming and community involvement in the 21st Century. I believe one of the key factors in future audience growth lies with performing for students and kids.
My involvement with the company does not end with Figaro this season – Operation Superpower (a Superhero Opera for young students and their families) is going to be making its Canadian premiere with not only Opera Lyra but also the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto in fall of 2015. I co-wrote Operation Superpower alongside composer Armand Ranjbaran, baritone Tobias Greenhalgh and pianist Peter Dugan while we were all still attending the Juilliard School in NYC. It took several years to put the program together, but in 2013 we toured it to over 100 schools for upwards to 20,000 students in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania and had great success. Now Operation Superpower is making it’s way into Canadian schools and I couldn’t be more excited and proud. I think this show has the ability to do a lot of things for the companies that are able to present it. It engages the students on a much deeper level than just the music – it inspires the students to discover their very own superpowers (their talents!) and incorporates core curriculum and character building elements as well. It functions as equal parts opera and motivational program and requires a very special type of artist to perform it.
The opera singers required must have a keen sense of what it means to perform for kids and also feel a strong innate social responsibility and want to bring classical music to schools. Operation Superpower has been a major success for us in the past, so I know that these highly professional companies are going to make it into something that much more special.
5) Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
There are several people in my life, who have been influential and special to me as a developing artist, but one woman has been specifically special and that is Mezzo Soprano Wallis Giunta, my partner of five years. Wallis has been supportive and understanding in all facets of my life – when it comes to my aspirations in and outside of music and in the everyday. She is a sounding board for all of my crazy ideas and she really enjoys my cooking, which is important. I am most happy when I get to share the stage with her in a show; so naturally I have Opera Lyra to thank for giving us a chance to do exactly that, as she is playing Cherubino in our current production. Wallis is a supremely talented artist and I look up to her in so many ways. I feel like the luckiest guy to have found such a partner and I treasure every minute we have together, even when we are on opposite sides of the world (Thank God for Skype!).
Aha, now I begin to understand some of the chemistry in this photo—between Wallis Giunta & John Brancy..! It’s coming to the National Arts Centre this weekend, opening March 21st and running until March 28th.