'Madama Butterfly' at Lyric Opera of Chicago
BWW Interview: Brian Jagde of MADAME BUTTERFLY at Lyric Opera of Chicago
The first thing to know about Brian Jagde is that his name is pronounced "Jade," like the jewel. He is definitely sparkling, in personality and in talent. Though the prizewinning tenor's earlier education included computer science and business, Jagde seemed destined to be an opera singer.
The first thing to know about Brian Jagde is that his name is pronounced “Jade,” like the jewel. He is definitely sparkling, in personality and in talent. Though the prizewinning tenor’s earlier education included computer science and business, Jagde seemed destined to be an opera singer. With a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel mix named Cavaradossi as a traveling companion, what could he possibly be but a tenor?
After switching from baritone in 2008, Jagde has made numerous debuts as a tenor–5 of those in quick succession in 2019–and is returning to one of his most frequented venues, Chicago Lyric Opera, this month in one of his favorite roles, Pinkerton, in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Not limited to the opera stage, Jagde will soon make his debut in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. I caught up with Brian between Butterfly rehearsals in Chicago.
Erica Miner: What was your journey from Purchase College Conservatory of Music to the opera world?
Brian Jagde: I was born in Plainview, Long Island. I’m a New York guy. I went to State University for computer science and business and wasn’t enjoying it very much. I’d always sung, and I’d heard of one school that was starting a new program. I didn’t even know it was opera, I just wanted to learn how to sing. I auditioned and got in somehow, so I started all over as a freshman. I’d always sung tenor in chorus and in high school musical theatre. So I went as a tenor. They switched me to baritone about a semester in. I had just started studying opera, not knowing it was something I would fall in love with [Laughs]. It was kind of shocking to them, I guess because the color being created by me, within the technique I was being taught for the first time in my life, had a darker, rounder sound; so they made me a baritone. That stayed with me for the next 8 years. I had done some young artist programs while in my Master’s program at Purchase and continued to do young artists programs afterwards, mostly just tiny roles that were really high [Laughs]. I went to Chautauqua and Virginia Opera that way. My first gig in college was Opera Iowa, part of the Des Moines Metro Opera Program. My job was to audition, that’s all I did. I had to make my own spreadsheet to find them, everything in a 400-mile radius that I could drive to [Laughs], whether a leading role in a really small company or a young artist program. Meanwhile at these auditions, people were like, “Are you sure you’re not a tenor?” I always said, “Well, my teacher says I’m a baritone.”
EM: But not necessarily.
BJ: It turns out that’s not always the case, but I didn’t know any better. After a residency in the Virginia Opera program, my voice kept getting higher. I was able to sing up to a high “C.” And I still had no low notes to speak of [Laughs]. No natural bottom. I thought I should look into this. I found a teacher in New York–I was living in the City on and off, mostly waiting tables to pay rent and study voice. (My mom’s a chef, so I’d been in the food industry since I was a kid.) The only three things I did were sleep, study voice and work in restaurants Anyway, I walked into him (the teacher) and he said, “You’re a tenor.” [Laughs.]
EM: Without even hearing you.
BJ: He’s very familiar with singers’ anatomy. He did a residency to study all the body parts of the voice and bodies of singers. He just heard my speaking voice and could see from the shape of my neck, “I doubt in any way that you’re a baritone.” [Laughs.] We worked a bit and I understood what he was trying to do. It was stuff that I never heard before about technique. After a week of lessons he said, “I’ll work with you as a baritone, but I don’t think it would serve either of us.” 2 weeks later I was doing my first audition for a manager, got one and sang tenor arias for all the auditions I had set up as a baritone. 5 weeks later I auditioned for Merola and got into the young artist’s program, my first year as a tenor. It was all a little scary [Laughs].
EM: What was that experience like?
BJ: I was shocked at all the transition happening so fast. It’s only considered the best year-long young artist’s program in the country. But it all worked out. I kept studying and waiting tables. The next thing I know, they offered me an Adler-ship. I was shocked. It’s always somewhere I would have wanted to go, whether as a baritone or a tenor. As an Adler I got tons of stage experience on one of the largest stages in the world, physically and on the spectrum of how big opera can get. My experience with coaches was helpful, too, especially since I was still learning all this repertoire, having just switched to tenor. It was all really new, super exciting. I was gung-ho. It’s the only way you can be, you have no choice, as to “making it.” [Laughs.]
EM: Where was your first big debut?
BJ: I had some tenor roles in some regional houses. In my third year as an Adler they offered me Cavaradossi in Tosca. That was a pretty big deal. Previously I’d found a really great cover job in Santa Fe, Cavaradossi. Then my big break came. I’d just come off winning Operalia that summer and at Santa Fe the tenor who was supposed to sing the role was released from his contract. They asked if I would sing the role a week and a half before opening. I was like, “Okay.” [Laughs.] It was kind of shocking, but I really went for it. You don’t have much choice in these matters. I was just a nobody [Laughs] walking in just trying to cover a role to have it under my belt. Here I am getting 12 performance chances to sing for people who travel to Santa Fe from all over the world, a big deal. That whole season all of a sudden people started to know who I was as opposed to just this guy singing in Upstate New York.
EM: Now you’re singing Pinkerton in Chicago.
BJ: for the first time in 2 ½ years. When I made my debut here it was sudden. Again, another tenor was unable to perform, and they needed a Cavaradossi. That seems to be one of the roles that introduces me to houses [Laughs]. That was 5 years ago. Chicago famously casts far into the future, so this is the first gig they could offer me. Here I am, finally back. I’m so happy to be here. It’s an incredible house. I love singing here. And with Ana Maria (Martinez), who is just one of the gems of our business. She has this spirit around her, so pleasant and humble. Just a lovely person to work with. It makes me want to be a better singer, even more than I always do. I’m pretty hard on myself [Laughs] and it’s nice to work with people like her.
EM: You seem to be doing a lot of Puccini. What are some of your other favorite roles?
BJ: This year is mostly Puccini, all roles I’ve done before. Last year was kind of crazy, all brand-new roles. Sometimes we have to take hard, challenging new roles, but it’s nice to come back to a role that you feel very comfortable in. Puccini was always a natural love for me. When I was a baritone all I wanted to do was sing the heavier Puccini roles. Unfortunately, because I was “a light baritone” I couldn’t sing them [Laughs]. Here I am now, singing a lot of Puccini. My favorite exciting role I’m going to be doing that I got to do last year is Cavalleria. I truly loved doing it. Such a different challenge for me vocally. I did it twice last year, once for recording and once for another video of a new production by Robert Carsen. I did 10 performances of Don Alvaro in Forza. That was my true Verdi debut lead. I had done Traviata, Macduff, smaller roles like Ismaele in Nabucco. But this was another thrust into the heaviest realm of Verdi. All of a sudden my voice felt so comfortable. It was a big challenge, of course. We take all kinds of roles as singers. Some are more serviceable, some are where we thrive. Pavarotti sang everything under the sun, but can anybody claim that Nemorino wasn’t the best fit for his voice? It’s not only about being the “right” voice that people have in their heads. It’s about making it you, within your voice. Forza felt so comfortable. Like when you find the right pillow, you know? It’s really important for your neck support throughout the night [Laughs]. I had 2 debuts with Luisotti last year, one was Forza. To have somebody in the pit who worked with me so much, it makes all the difference. We did Lescaut in San Francisco last year. More Puccini, of course [Laughs]. Seems like there’s a need for tenors who have that kind of weight in their voice and are able to sing really long nights. I sang 3 roles last year that were over 3 hours long. Lescaut, Forza and Enzo in Gioconda, which is a whole other ball of wax [Laughs].
Read the complete interview via Broadway World.
Photo Credit: Simon Pauly