BRIAN JAGDE: I LOVE DON JOSÉ!

In 1947 two star stars made their debut at the Arena di Verona: one was Maria Callas, the other was Richard Tucker, a New Yorker dramatic tenor, destined to become one of the greatest opera singers of all time. Today, 71 years after that legendary night, another dramatic tenor from New York, Brian Jagde, will open the season of the Arena di Verona, in the role of Don José in “Carmen”. few days before the opening night, we had the pleasure to interview him…
Let’s talk about your first experience at the Arena…
I think that this theatre is a miracle. Thousands of people on the stage, technical staff, chorus members … my first time as a spectator here was two years ago, for “Aida.” The performance had to pause a few minutes for the rain. It’s truly an amazing structure. I can stand on the stage and hear my voice just speaking, it’s incredible! When you watch movies like “Gladiator,” you see these scenes at the Coliseum and you think, “They have no microphone and they speak to the public…how is this possible?” It’s possible because the construction is so perfect, the voice goes around easily. It’s amazing!

 

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©Fay Fox

What are the risks of singing in an outdoor place?
There is always a risk. Singers sometimes prefer to hear themselves. I normally can’t hear myself when I sing anyway, because the way the resonance is produced actually makes it hard to hear but also if I listen it’s too late, the sound has already happened, so I try not to listen to myself. Outdoor venues mean no roof, no walls. Audiences want to hear you, so sometimes singers are fearful and they push. I’ve been instructed many times by every member of the chorus in this place, they tell me: “Don’t push! Trust your voice!” I sang in the past at Santa Fe Opera, and there they have a roof, so they don’t stop when It rains. It’s a unique acoustic, different than here, because the Arena has this really amazing circular sound.

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©Simon Pauly

And what about the controversial character of Don José?
I love this role! I don’t understand when people don’t take the book into consideration. If you read the Merimée you realize that this man is a killer from the beginning. Directors have different ideas, but I of course have my idea as well. The reason why he is a soldier is because he had two choices: be a soldier or go to jail. So, he became a soldier, but he didn’t want to, so he’s not a good soldier. He worked his way up in the ranks a little bit. He listens to the boss when he has to, you know, it’s funny because it depends on the version of Carmen you do. I’ve mostly done the original “dialogue version,” so It’s quite intense because you have to memorize all of the French dialogues and to speak correctly of course. This is my second time that I will sing “Choudens version” with recitativo. I always think of Don José as a man who is searching for something to make himself more secure in his own life choices, and when you research the type of men that abuse women or kill women, they have always some level of insecurity. They don’t love about themselves and they don’t believe they deserve love.  He has Micaëla, and he has a mother. Micaëla is honestly too perfect for him, so he finds Carmen and he thinks that she is more his flavour. He likes to fight, even if he doesn’t think that he does, but this is what he’s really like. It’s is his only way to resolve any conflict, to fight with people and to possibly kill them. He fights with Zuniga because he’s jealous and of course with Escamillo as well. He’s a man with an insecure nature. In the end we don’t know what happens to this man after he kills Carmen, he probably will get shot, but also, the book doesn’t tell us that! I think it’s a great and complex character. He’s one of the most intense and the most crazy and passionate in all of opera. I truly think he loves this woman, he stayed in jail for two months for her, holding a flower, thinking of her all the time … but it’s also a dangerous obsession.

2015 Teatro San Carlo Carmen Image 6
©Teatro San Carlo Napoli

And musically….what are the difficulties? 
It’s a role where one needs to be careful, especially in the third act. That act has some heavy stuff, especially if you want to really embody the nature of the character. I don’t think he needs to get more physically dramatic in the fourth act. Believe it or not, the last scene is a little bit more about him begging even though somewhere in his soul he knows he will have to kill her for her to really be his finally. Singers have to be careful, because the voice can be a very delicate thing, and you just have to make sure to not push with too much tension in the places where it’s natural to be more aggressive physically. You have to be in control of your emotions, because I think the role goes pretty much from light to heavy, in general. You start with the duet with Micaëla, “leggiero,” in a way that works more easily for a lighter tenor. In this version in Verona, they cut a big part of the duet, and I was surprised, but this is the tradition of “Carmen” at the Arena. I’ve never done this version, and I miss the rest. When I was young this duet was more difficult for me, and I thought that I must cut it! Now I understand the power of certain sentences, I think of “Qui sait de quel démon j’allais être la proie!” There is something about it that also shows the audience more of this character’s mentality. But, I think that in this shortened version, we can understand more that Micaëla is not the real thing for him. For him she was fun, but she’s maybe too young, she’s too proper, too perfect…

2016 San Francisco Opera Carmen image by Cory Weaver
©Cory Weaver

In fact, in the novel Micaëla doesn’t exist…
In the novel we read about the mother of Don José, but the central point is Carmen, her love stories with other men as well as his journey from before meeting her until her death. When I was a baritone, many years ago, I played Dancairo, and we turned him into one of her specific former lovers. It’s so much cooler for this character to have this scratch, this mark that she left on him. Anyway, I’ve gotten to play many roles from this opera having been a baritone, I also sang Escamillo in college. It was not right, but I listened to my teachers that said, ”You’re a lyric baritone” and so I accepted it.

 

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©Catherine Ashmore

How do you felt in love with Opera?
It was an accident! I heard a little bit of opera as a child, but not much. My family listened to a lot of rock ’n’ roll, classic rock, 60s, 70s, 80s music. I always loved to sing, but mine was a fairly natural voice, I used to sing in the family car, with my whole family, harmonizing songs. I used sing in choruses, I did musical theatre when I was young, but I never thought of opera, because I always thought that was something different and wasn’t familiar with it. I went to college for two years to study computer science and business. I was still singing, and I wanted to learn how to sing correctly. I learned classical voice, but I didn’t know that meant “opera.” I only wanted to sing in a traditional way. I went to school in upstate New York, and although I was a tenor, because I have this highly-placed voice, immediately they started to change my voice. To start to learn and sing opera you have to take your time, it’s impossible to change anything in a second! My tongue was going very far back and a lot of things were wrong, but also somewhat ok, passable at least. When you’re young you feel like you can do anything. So I started to sing a little darker, a more baritonal sound. That season I did my first opera, It was “Die Zauberflöte,” and I was doing all kinds of things. I was still a tenor and I sang the First Priest some nights, a regular priest in other nights, and one of the slaves, I was also covering Monostatos, I painted and built the set, I hung lights, sewed costumes etcetera. I learned everything about the stage. It was one the most incredibile experiences I had at the school. I really learned all the behind the scenes jobs in opera. I remember that I was on stage, singing the slave, and I was looking at the audience, hearing the orchestra and thinking, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done … I’m going to do this!” and immediately I made the decision to became an opera singer. I studied for the next three years as a baritone, and more beyond that. When I was auditioning for Young Artist Programs (singing as a baritone, but with High Cs …), some people asked me, “Are you sure that you’re a baritone?” So, I decided to find a new teacher, named Michael Paul. He has a more Italian background in singing and he taught me about support, something I hadn’t really learned before. He immediately told me, “You are a tenor”, before ever hearing me sing, just by listening to me speak. I’ve been studying with him for almost ten years.

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©Fay Fox

In your career you sang also Salome (Narraboth) and some German roles…you also won the “Birgit Nilsson Prize” in Placido Domingo’s Operalia (2012) for your interpretations of Wagner-Strauss repertoire…How do you reconcile these two different repertoires?
I think dramatic music suits my voice well. I will sing more Wagner and Strauss in the distant future. I am trying to hold off, especially to the big and long roles, because I want to sing in Italian, and in this world today, especially as an American, people want to put you in a box. The moment you start to sing Wagner, they stop hiring you for “Tosca,” and I want to sing that opera for many, many years. I say no all the time to these bigger Germanic roles. Singing in German is very difficult, you have to be careful with the language, with the diction, pacing … however, I did love making my debut as Der Fremde in Korngold’s “Das Wunder der Heliane,” an incredible German piece.

2015 Madama Butterfly Royal Opera House image by Bill Cooper 3
©Bill Cooper

Also in French the diction is different…
Yes, I think It’s more lyric, and you can flow more easily. In general, I sing in an Italianate way, with a Italian background in the sound. Artists like Plácido Domingo do too. When I heard him sing Wagner, he had an Italianate approach in his singing as well. I think it’s a healthy way to sing, no matter what the language, to follow the line of the music, and the phrasing of the music.

Returning to the Arena … is there a role you would like to sing here?
I spoke with Cecilia Gasdia and she asked to me, “what do you want to do? I think I would like to sing Radamès in “Aïda” or Calàf in “Turandot.” I love these roles, they’re heroic! And on the sets created by Franco Zeffirelli, they’re amazing! The Turandot is very similar to the Met production. I would love also to sing “Tosca” here. I suggested “La fanciulla del West.” That one would be great, with the big fight scene …

2017 San Francisco Opera Turandot Image by Cory Weaver_2
©Cory Weaver

Or “La Forza del destino”, that you’ll debut next year…
Next year I have a lot of debuts: “Cavalleria Rusticana,” “Il tabarro,” “La gioconda,” “La forza del destino” and “Manon Lescaut” … all in 2019! Luckily this year I will only sing a lot of “Tosca” and “Carmen,” so I have time to learn new music while doing these two roles, in which I feel very comfortable.

How do you prepare a new role?
I start with the score and with the words. I read the words, but I also try to combine them with the music from the beginning. I work with my teacher on every note and every detail. Also, when I return to a role, for example, Don José, my voice has changed and I try to get better than the last time that I sang the role. I need to refresh all the aspects of the piece. I go to my teacher who is also a coach for me. I’m a very “planned” singer when it comes to my technique, I don’t improvise with the voice on stage.

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Let’s talk about your collaboration with “Time In Kids” 
Many of these kids have very little, they sometimes live in tough conditions at home. They come from schools that don’t offer any arts education. It’s a problem I’ve been trying to address and hopefully in the future I will address it in a bigger way. Making difference in kids’ lives is rewarding for me. They find a passion for things that probably they would never have found. These kids come from Harlem, the Bronx, lots of places, and opera is not in their story and in their background much like it wasn’t in my story.  At Time In, they get to leave school for a short period time and they come in, listen to opera singers, and talk with them. They sometimes make their own operas, they draw, they create art. When they finish their homework, they get to watch opera and they actually want to watch it! In America this is an idea that never happens, but they’re so excited to watch opera! It’s amazing! They’re so happy! I think that is the way to educate kids for the future, because there’s so little money to have music and art in the schools. Forty minutes of art a week is not enough! The problem with that mentality is that if you want to create the greatest new scientists or physicians or chemists, they can be really good in math and science…but in order to invent something new, you need the arts, because is that where your creativity comes from. You need this. We all need this. It’s vital! So when I’m in American opera houses or in New York, I sing for these kids. I would love to do that here in Europe, especially in Italy! I love to sing for kids!

2018_Das Wunder der Heliane_Deutsche Oper Berlin_photo by_Monika Rittershaus
©Monika Ritterhaus

The cultural and musical education in Italy is living the same condition…
It’s very sad, because when you think of Italy, or in general, European countries, you all have a great culture, a massive history and love for all art forms. It’s sad that kids can’t appreciate it. The future is challenging, so It’s important to educate kids in culture and art!

What are your dream roles?
I’m doing all of them! I think in the future I will sing more Verdi. I’m dreaming of Otello! I know it will probably happen, because I think I have the right vocal colour and stature. I have to be older in my life to portray him. I would love to sing Peter Grimes, very tempestuous and dramatic … such stunning music! I have been offered the role, but it’s too early for me. I also love “La Fanciulla del West” and Dick Johnson is a very cool character!

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©Simon Pauly

Next year you’ll sing Des Grieux in “Manon Lescaut,” a role that even Franco Corelli didn’t want to sing…
It’s strange, because he was this man with a golden, massive voice, and was an amazing Manrico in “Il Trovatore”… Manrico is another role that I will love to sing in the future! In Lescaut you have to be smart, you have to balance the crazy part of the tenor with the vocal control. It’s a tough role, but I’m not afraid. I’m very lucky because I have my teacher, who is wonderful. He has a technique that has some foundation from Giuseppe Giacomini, as well as his own development and studies of the voice and it is an incredible sound! On YouTube there is a video of Giacomini singing the aria from “La forza del destino,” and I think you can’t find a better live recording of the aria than that. The legato, the beauty of the line, it’s incredible. It’s like God speaking to you through him!

 

Thank you to Brian Jagde e Toi Toi Toi! 

Francesco Lodola

 

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