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Brian Jagde on flawed characters and finding his voice (Bachtrack exclusive)

February 23, 2017

American tenor Brian Jagde has just made his return to the Royal Opera singing Maurizio in Sir David McVicar’s production of Adriana Lecouvreur. Two of his key roles in his career so far have been Don José in Carmen and Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, which he’s performed from Berlin to Munich, from San Francisco to Washington.

MP: Don José and Pinkerton are two deeply flawed characters.

BJ: Don José has been a favorite because I love the idea of digging into a character with that level of insecurity. Having been insecure myself at times when I was younger, I have revisited some of the tough lessons from my past, but of course Don José has gone a lot farther down the rabbit hole than I ever did! The idea that this man is a killer from before the opera begins implies that he is not some innocent guy who is drawn to darkness by Carmen, rather he is drawn to her because she truly sees who he is. They are both deeply flawed, and they bring out the worst in each other. He solves his problems (or tries to) through violence, and initially she loves that fire within him and likes to play with his emotions.

Pinkerton is a young Naval officer who’s just arrived in Nagasaki, where he’s heard of a “deal” that involves men buying their way into some “good times.” He isn’t inherently evil. It’s likely that he’s just one of the many soldiers on that ship who are all doing the same thing. It’s the objectification of women, without being aware of its devastating impact.

In David Belasco’s play, the source material for the opera, Pinkerton is written as a pig from the start, frequently using racial slurs in conversation. The original version of the opera from 1904 has more of that controversial characterization, but it was removed in the 1906 revision, which also adds Pinkerton’s aria of remorse. I like to play him as a guy who’s out for a good time, and who actually considers staying after he marries Butterfly. During Act 1 you should see him change from a guy trying to sleep with a geisha, to a man who sees the true beauty and gentle nature of Cio-Cio-San. There is a moment where she explains that she changed her religion in secret for him, and that fact is essential to this idea. It’s a moment where he thinks about her commitment to him and to the idea of being an “American” which is something he couldn’t possibly have expected. He is guilty of having fun and not knowing the consequences of his actions. “Addio, fiorito asil” gives Pinkerton chance to show his remorse, which makes it even more heartbreaking when he leaves and you see Butterfly alone with the child, completely abandoned. If you really believe that he loved her, even for a second, it’s that much more devastating.

It’s become common for Pinkerton to get booed (pantomime style) at curtain calls in the UK. What are your feelings about this?

I’ve experienced curtain call boos as Pinkerton before, and not just here in the UK. As long as the crowd is enthusiastically clapping and booing at the same time, it really doesn’t bother me. However, when I’m bowing it’s as Brian Jagde, not Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton.

Where are the vocal challenges in these two roles?

Don José is more challenging vocally because I really like to go to the edge in the later acts, to a place that can cause one to sing angrily, since they’re such dramatic scenes. My technique usually allows for me to sing and not get tired in the throat, since my vocal support actually comes from my lower stomach muscles. But, in this role I can get dramatically enraged which, in the moment, can make me forget to stay down on the body when I’m singing.

How terrfiying is the high B flat at the end of Don José’s Flower Song?

As my technique has developed, I’ve started to enjoy making that B flat sound as beautiful as possible. I like to do it in two different ways, and it really has to do with how I’m feeling dramatically in each production. In both ways the approach is slow and steady, not rushed. In one ending I stay pianissimo for the whole note and just let it disappear in a true voix mixte, and in another I start off pianissimo and then crescendo slowly to forte, as if i’m choking the life out of Carmen just to hold on to her.

Which have been the most striking productions in which you’ve performed?

I recently sang Don José in the North American debut of Calixto Bieito’s production of Carmen, at San Francisco Opera. It’s a more modern interpretation, which involves a lot of physicality such as the third act duet/knife fight with Escamillo while we were running around, jumping on the hoods of cars!

This May, I’ll make my house debut at Washington National Opera in Jun Kaneko’s Madama Butterfly, which I have previously performed in San Francisco. It’s based on his visual art, which features bold colors and patterns, so the setting is extremely different than any others I’ve done.

I am open to the idea of new productions and different ways to look into the worlds of these timeless operas. However, if there’s anything in the staging that directly contradicts the stories or the music – distracts or detracts from it – then it’s more difficult as an artist to be fully engaged in that process. In general, I’m a person who believes that if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it … but I’m willing to play around with new ideas. After all, we are playing make-believe on a big stage, right?!

What has it been like returning to the Royal Opera, this time for Adriana Lecouvreur? Is Maurizio a grateful role to sing?

I love singing at the Royal Opera. It’s incredibly well-organized, and you are well cared for whether you are on stage or in the rehearsal room. You only have to focus on the art of singing and acting, which provides artists with a certain freedom. The first time I was here I was able to sing a role I’d done many times before (Pinkerton) so it was a perfect way to enter the house. Now, I’ve taken on a role for the first time and it was just as enjoyable of an experience, if not more!

Maurizio is a singer’s dream. The role has a great range of dynamics and colors. He brings a challenge dramatically, because he is not just some romantic guy. He is also constantly trying to find a way to get ahead, in politics, society, and even his personal relationships. Since the principal roles are based on real people, there’s a sense of that history that can be added. This is a sumptuous role filled with some of the most beautiful verismo phrasing that has ever been written, and it’s honestly an honor to be able to bring my voice to this classic staging, with this remarkable cast.

Read the entire feature via Bachtrack

-Mark Pullinger, Bachtrack