Tosca, San Francisco Opera
SFist Interviews: Tenor Brian Jagde
SFist | As with Rigoletto earlier this season, the SF Opera is experimenting with a double header format for Tosca, which opened last night. Namely, two casts will alternate nightly for twelve performances of the Puccini favorite. Now, you don’t want to offend anyone’s sensibility by calling them cast one and cast two, they’re like Tracy Jordan and Jenna Maroney, two equally good teams of consummate professionals.
In the title role, we have two divas, Patricia Racette and Angela Gheorghiu, two sumptuous voices with plentyof Puccini expertise. Though Gheorghiu does have a reputation for being–how should we say this?–a bit high maintenance, she sure she can sing a mean Muffintop. [Little did we know when we wrote this that the diva would leave the Opening Night performance yesterday after Act I due to some medical reasons. Quoting the program notes: “when it comes to Angela Gheorghiu, the high-profile diva who has a flair for making news, big-impact drama is more or less routine.” Indeed.]The rest of the cast mixes the experienced with the up-and-coming: Mark Delavan, last seen as a regal Wotanin the Ring Cycle, coming back as one of the evil Scarpias, and Adler fellow and rising star Brian Jagdeas one of the Cavadarossis. Adler Fellows are talented young singers in the early phase of their careers who receive a year long grant from the SF Opera to typically appear in supporting roles and gain main stage experience while honing their craft covering the big names. But Brian Jagde has paid his dues and has already made this role debut earlier this summer on a major national stage in Santa Fe, where he received some rave reviews. To wit: “the promising young American tenor Brian Jagde…walk[s] away with the vocal and dramatic gold as an uncommonly ardent Cavaradossi, nailing his arias with robust vocalism.” He’ll leave the Adler program after one last concert with the other fellows, and will take on the next phase of his career, singing Hoffmann in Beijing with Francesca Zambello, Tosca in Berlin with former SF maestro Donald Runnicles, and Carmen’s Don Jose in Lyon. We caught up with him last week during Tosca rehearsals.
How do you become a 3rd year Adler, isn’t it typically only two years long?
Brian: It’s not something that they do for everybody. It’s a combination of a few things. It’s an amazing opportunity for someone like me, having been a tenor for only four years and have a chance to grow into my voice in San Francisco. They needed somebody to sing Tosca, and it gave me a chance to perform. They have to feel you are right for it.
So you were misdiagnosed as a baritone, how did that happen?
Brian: I was a baritone for 10 years, and in October of 08, I switched to tenor. I auditioned for Merola and I got in, and that’s how I got to be here for the last three years. When I started training 14 years ago as an opera singer, I had no idea what that entailed. I got training in voice. They thought based on how I was singing at a time, that I was a baritone, but there was a possibility that I might become a tenor. Later on, I found out that I had more high notes than low notes. I went to a teacher and I asked: I’m here to find if I’m a tenor or a baritone. And he was like: “You’re a tenor”. So I was, okay. Immediately I started working and I made the switch. It was not a major switch.
It was a major switch in that I had to learn to sing high all the time as opposed to once in a while. I wasn’t singing in that tessitura all the time, up in the higher register. Once I got used to that, I grew as a singer, as an artist.
Placido Domingo is going the other way, from tenor to baritone
Brian: He started as a baritone too. A lot of tenors of the past came up as baritone. It’s easier to train without having to worry about high notes all the time. There are probably a lot of baritones that are tenors, you never know.
You did your role debut in Santa Fe, how did that came about?
Brian: I was there to cover Tosca, I was only going to be there to understudy the guy. I was also there to do another role in Arabella as well. The guy who was singing could not perform [ed: Andrew Richards] and they asked me about doing the role. I got that big chance, and incredible opportunity to get my feet under this role. And now I feel much more secure about the performances. I got to do twelve performances in Santa Fe. And now I’m doing six of the performances here.
This production is split among two casts, can you differentiate them?
Brian: In my cast, I can speak for, Pat Racette is just an incredible force of nature on stage, she really commands the stage when she’s up there. You wouldn’t find a lot of drama in my cast. It’s very powerful, Mark Delavan in consummate professional. Everyone is working together to create something here.
Other cast just started rehearsal today [ed: last week], they are working toward the same goal. Angela Gheorghiu is another powerhouse singer, so you’re going to have two great Tosca no matter what. The difference between me and Massimo Giordano, he’s an Italian tenor, he’s so natural; for me, as an American guy, it’s something I have to work at. There are a lot of differences, you’ll have to come and listen.
How do you approach the character of Cavaradossi?
Brian: He’s a complicated guy. I don’t like to play him as too naive, he’s much smarter than people think he is. He is a painter who is also a revolutionary. During his time in Italy, it goes back and forth: which way is the right way to live, the French way [ed: the Italian republic put in place by Napoleon] or the Italian way [ed: the monarchy]? It’s a constant battle. He sits on the side of the revolutionary. He hasn’t been acting much in a revolutionary way because of his relationship with Tosca. In the play, he actually moved to Rome to be with Tosca. It’s a very dangerous place for someone with a revolutionary status. He’s under the wings of the church, painting a painting when all of a sudden comes his fellow revolutionary and he changes his ways and he dies for it.
He’s just a stand up guy who stands up for what he believes in and it costs him his life, and Tosca’s life too. Tosca, this diva, her whole life is on the stage, I’m not sure how much she realizes it’s real, how much she thinks it’s a dramatic life. It’s amazing how Puccini find a way to put music in this play, it’s just so beautiful.
How about the opera itself, what makes it such a popular crowd favorite?
Brian: Bohème and Carmen are competing for #1, and there’s Don Giovanni, Magic Flute. But Tosca is very popular. It’s because of the drama with the music. How many operas can you name where all three of the leading characters die. Romeo and Juliet, you have the two leads die. Tosca, Cavaradossi, Scarpia, they all die. It has high stakes, sexy, intrigue, Scarpia takes advantage of Tosca, and she kills him, Cavadarossi get shot by all these people even though there is a possibility that they are faking it, and then Tosca jumps off the edge of the building. It gets heightened more and more. The music starts off with this huge Scarpia huge theme, which is the main theme with Tosca. Then comes this rising music, this guy [Angelotti, a revolutionary on the lam] has been running for a while, he’s tired, he’s escaped from prison, you’re in the action right away. Which makes it very intriguing for the audience.
We read you routine for jet lag and we very impressed. We found it quite obsessive…
Brian: Meticulous. Our body is our instrument. If something happens to our body, we’re up a creek without a paddle. It’s not a violin. If you break a string with a violin, you can replace it. Traveling with the jet lag, in a plane with full of all kind of germs, you have to be really conscious of your environment in a regular basis. It’s part of our job.
It must be quite stressful
Brian: We constantly monitor our environment. It does not become a scary thing for me. I feel very comfortable wearing a mask on the plane and just making sure that I’m protecting my voice, my instrument. It’s my job. I don’t feel anxious, I just feel I’m doing my job.
We heard you sing at Sōsh’s Fall Fete, do you do a lot of this stuff, with or outside of the company?
Brian: I’m not required to do a lot of things like that. With every opera company it’s different. The Sōsh event wasn’t organized by the opera for me, I organized that through my own PR people. They said: you have to do this it would be good for opera. I like to do this things which would increase awareness for opera in our society. Especially with the younger people.
I’m a big believer in music education in the country. I do a lot of events for music education. I’m trying to use my time to benefit the overall good of music and opera in general. I volunteer for one or two of these things a month at least.