Brian Jagde "leaves the audience gasping" in house debut at Washington National Opera in 'Madama Butterfly'
Brian Jagde: Rasante Karriere (“Rising Career”)
In February he was heard in "Adriana Lecouvreur" alongside Angela Gheorghiu at her 25-year London stage jubilee. Now the tenor presents himself for the first time to the audiences in Washington, Stuttgart and Madrid. A conversation about his path to the international stages ...
In February, you were the Maurizio at the side of the Adriana of Angela Gheorghiu at her 25-year jubilee on the London stage. How was this particular experience?
It was wonderful, an experience that is very rare. Angela is a great colleague, and having someone like her by my side was a great support for me. Actually, the whole run was a singular celebration, the audience was very enthusiastic. It even “rained” flowers at the last performance. In addition, this production by David McVicar is the best staging of the work that I can imagine. It’s not for nothing that it’s been seen at various houses around in the world.
Your career has been growing rapidly. In a short time, you have made house debuts in London, Chicago and Munich, and Madrid and Stuttgart are soon to follow. How do are you feeling about this pace?
There have been moments in my career where things that rarely happen have happened. The first time was in 2008, when I switched from baritone to tenor. As a baritone I had completed many unsuccessful auditions and only got a few engagements in small houses. But as soon as I was tenor, it ran like clockwork. In just two weeks, I had an agent and various gigs. And I was having success! This was truly incredible. The second turning point came in the summer of 2012. Not only did the San Francisco Opera offer me Cavaradossi – to a member of the Young Artist Program! I also won two prizes at the Operalia Competition and was allowed to take over a series of “Tosca” performances at Santa Fe, where I was only planned as a cover. This attracted a lot of attention and resulted in exciting engagements to follow.
Do not you ever worry that sometimes things are going too fast? After all, you are already heading into very dramatic roles …
Honestly, no. Sure, for a few years it’s been going really well, but I also care not to rush the path. One or two new roles per season – I do not do any more. I also proceed slowly when selecting a role. My first Radamès was last year and Calaf is soon, which are already pointing in a more dramatic direction. And with Manrico and Alvaro further roles of this repertoire will be added in the foreseeable future. But at the same time, I would also like to keep my French repertoire in order to keep the voice supple. I would like to sing Werther again. I’ve only done it once at the beginning of my career, in a small house in Poland. And also the Massenet-Des Grieux is on my wish list.
How do you determine whether a role suits you?
I always discuss this with my two agents and with my teacher. He knows my voice and knows exactly what is right for me now and where the journey will go. If he told me that I could sing a part in two or three years, he was always right. I work with him whenever I can, when I’m at home in New York, even every day. I would like to continue to improve my technique and grow as an artist – because that is the only way I can master all the challenges of a great career.
If you look at your repertoire list, you immediately notice the wide range of your role spectrum. In addition to the classic Italian and French parts, there are also some of Strauss and even the Prince in Rusalka. Is stylistic diversity a trademark for you?
Definitely. To think of many different roles is, in my opinion, the charm of this vocation. “Rusalka”, for example, was a great experience, a wonderful part to portray with an Italian vocal technique. The moment will come when the voice is definitely developing in a certain direction. Then it will be time to say goodbye to one role or another. But I think it will take a few more years.
What about Wagner? In June you will debut in New York as Froh. Are there other plans?
Not for now. I accepted that with joy, because it made it possible to debut with the New York Philharmonic. The part is very manageable, and I’ve already studied it as a cover. I think the big Wagner roles still can wait. These parts are usually very long, and I will still need some time to work out the stamina for such repertoire. In addition, Wagner’s parts are often relatively low. Usually A is the highest note. I have secure B-flats, Bs, and Cs. And if I have these notes now, then I would like to sing them.
But at the Operalia competition, you also won a Wagner Prize …
Yes, I sang “Siegmund, heiss ich” from Die Walküre. But, frankly, I was only trying for this award because there was less competition in this field and I could therefore calculate a good chance of winning. Of course, I could sing this scene without any problems, but the whole part has to wait a couple of years. I have declined an offer for the role which immediately followed the London “Adriana.”
“Opera is addictive to sing.”
And Strauss? There are a lot of parts for high-altitude tenors …
From Strauss, I have already sung Bacchus, Narraboth, and the two tenor parts in Arabella. These are very demanding, but also shorter parts, so you do not overwhelm yourself. Perhaps one day the Emperor in “Die Frau ohne Schatten” will be added. But now there is another challenge in this repertoire: in 2018 I will sing The Stranger in Korngold’s “Das Wunder der Heliane” at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. This is a rather strange story. There’s even a striptease scene, and in the end I get to come back from the dead. But the music is great. It’s a better part than Paul in the “Die Tode Stadt.” Of course, at the end of the first act Marietta’s famous “Glück das mir verblieb” is known to be beautiful. But before that, there is a lot of loud parlando yelling, music we call “barking” in English. And I do not feel mature enough yet for the German bark-y roles.
Let us look back a little. What brought you to sing and to the opera?
I had nothing to do with opera until I was 20 years old. There is less connection with it in the US. My only operatic experience was a school trip to the Met. We saw “Billy Budd,” but that did not particularly impress upon me. I think I slept most of the time. On the other hand, I’ve always sung. In high school, I was in a madrigal ensemble and in the school choir, where we did the classical choral works and also a little musical. Even during my college years – I studied computer science and business for two years – I continued to sing. When I heard that at another New York University there was an opportunity to study singing, I thought, “Why not? You’ve been singing for so long, but you do not have a clue about classical singing. You can surely learn a lot.” What I did not know was that they would do opera there. And suddenly I found myself in a production of The Magic Flute. I was only one of the slaves, but the whole thing was so much fun that I immediately realized that I wanted to do exactly that for my life. So, I put the computer science on hold and concentrated from then on completely on singing.
How did it go? You said you were a baritone first.
At the university, I was classified as a baritone, and I also sang as one for eight years following that. In the beginning, the teachers said that the depth would come with age. But there was nothing. The top of the voice was getting better and better. So I thought slowly about whether it would not be time for a change of fach. I changed teachers, and lo and behold, I became a tenor. And what happened after, I have already shared.
How did you manage to implement this decisive change in such a short time?
I believe the explanation is based on the fact that I have always been a tenor. Suddenly I sang in my natural voice. But of course it all sounds easier now than it really was. To study a few tenor arias was one thing. I had to work out a whole opera role in this situation. I was also only able to sing loudly at the beginning. The flexibility and the ability to nuance even in higher registers has only been added over time.
Your tenor career began with Young Artist programs. At the San Francisco Opera, you have completed two such training programs, the Merola Opera Program and the Adler Fellowship. How do these programs differ and how important were they to you?
The Merola program is a three-month summer course, with 24 or 25 students per year. It is connected to the San Francisco Opera, but independent of their schedule, and consists mainly of singing and coaching sessions with renowned teachers from all over the world. In addition, the students are involved in two productions and have the opportunity to participate in a major orchestral concert at the end of the program. The five or six best artists will then be included in the Adler Program. And that was the good fortune I had. This program resembles the operatic Fests, as they are known in the German-speaking countries. The participants take singing and language courses, sing small roles on the big stage and learn a lot more than covering. I’d been doing this for two years, learning a lot. In the end I was even taken on for a third year to sing Cavaradossi, my first leading role on the big stage. And here we are again in the year of fate, 2012.
If you reach even more in a few years, what would you like to see from the future?
I have to say, I would never have dreamed in my life that I would have a career as it is already going. To sing at all these houses, with such incredible partners – that is a very, very great privilege. But singing opera is also addictive. At this point there are already new hopes and dreams. I have not yet sung at La Scala, in Paris, or at the Vienna State Opera. And there are still so many great roles waiting for me. But I have made an effort to be cautious and go one step at a time, so that my whole career may have a solid future.