Tenor Brian Jagde Goes Slow and Steady in the Fast Lane

October 25, 2016

The demands of the modern operatic career are many. Short rehearsal periods mean more travel, changing directorial styles mean greater theatrical demands, and the rise of televised and video performances add an increased pressure to look good on screen. It’s a tough life, and hard to imagine anyone better suited to it than the congenial, handsome, and stentorian-voiced tenor Brian Jagde. Since winning the Operalia competition’s Birgit Nilsson Prize in 2012 and second prize at the age of 32, the Long Island native has taken long strides across the operatic landscape with debuts at the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. He celebrated his marriage last year and has another love in his life who accompanies him everywhere, a long-eared spaniel mix named, appropriately, Cavaradossi.

Jagde — pronounced jade, or if you want to honor his 90-percent German heritage, ‘Yahk-teh’ from Jäger, meaning hunter — busy as he is, takes time to speak and act passionately on behalf of music education in the schools, recently joining the advisory board of Time in Kids, in New York City, and works in his ‘off’ hours to arrange performances in schools, and create other ventures to broaden audience access to opera. He has even put a personal touch on the opening night tradition of gifts of candy, giving instead donations to arts programs. Jagde completed his training in San Francisco in the Merola program after which he was chosen as an Adler Fellow, and awarded the rare honor of a third year in that fellowship. Since then he has returned to San Francisco to give commanding performances as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Don Jose in Carmen, and Cavaradossi in Tosca, a role he has also performed in Santa Fe and at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. San Franciscans now await his interpretation of one of the most demanding Italian tenor heroes, Radames in Verdi’s Aida. On a recent day with five hours of rehearsal scheduled, Jagde admitted to battling a cold, but seemed in fine spirits when he sat down in the opera pressroom for our chat. Jagde began by talking about the scene he was due to rehearse next.

I think Verdi wrote it always spacing between scenes so you could rest, but in this production they’ve decided to show the audience the torture and judgment scene. It’s mostly just the idea of torture is, because they’re using these ribbons, something very similar to the décor in that act. It’s going to be very beautiful. I’m onstage while all the Sacerdoti and other priests are judging me, which is usually just sung offstage and you imagine he doesn’t answer them.

Kind of like Cavaradossi, you’re used to being tortured offstage.

Typically, it’s very similar to that. In fact I had to be onstage, sort of, during one [Tosca] I did in Chicago Lyric. It’s the same production that’s done in Houston now. It had these boxes of the spoils Scarpia had stolen, all the fine art from the area, so I was being tortured in a box onstage, changing out of costume into another costume, and singing. This is the only little challenge in this staging that’s different, because I won’t be offstage warming up and doing little things, but I only have one scene after that and it’s the scene where Aida dies, and presumably I die after that at some point.

Spoiler alert.

Well, you never see it.

Do I have this right: After ten years of singing as a baritone, you suspected you might be a tenor, went to a new teacher, and five weeks later you were accepted into Merola as a tenor? That’s a lightening-quick transition. What arias did you sing for the audition? 

Within two weeks of switching to my new teacher, I had a manager — a good starter manager — I was auditioning for leading roles in small, regional houses. I didn’t get any of those jobs. I wasn’t really ready, but it was good to be out there singing this repertoire. I always refer to it like a bull in a china shop at that time because I had no finesse. I could just sort of sit in that tessitura and people were like, ‘oh, that’s more correct than before.’ In fact, when I had auditioned for Merola once, as a baritone, I think it was 2006, Mark Morash has told me, he wrote on the application ‘come back when you’re a tenor.’

Read the entire feature, written by Lisa Houston, at San Francisco Classical Voice