Hope you don’t mind Thai? I was here just the other night with a friend. It’s good and not too expensive.
I usually have take out right in my area. This is great, I haven’t been before.
Perfect. It’s a grand reopening, didn’t always used to be called Thai Kitchen…So, there are no rules. We can chat and have our food. I may bring out the note pad and jot something down, but you’re not on trial tonight.
Haa haa, ok. I didn’t think I would be.
I’ve never been to Syracuse, but I know where it is actually. There are lots of great schools up that way, especially for music.
True, but actually I went to Elmhurst here in Illinois. When I started, I wasn’t even a performance major. I studied Music Education and didn’t focus strictly on training my voice.
When did things change?
It was my junior year. I was studying in Vienna, Austria and my teachers urged me to pursue a professional career. So I followed their advice. And here I am.
And when you came back?
Once I returned to the states, I finished at Elmhurst and created my own path towards graduation, couldn’t be more pleased with how it all happened. After I graduated I actually had the opportunity to return to Austria to keep singing. The timing was ideal.
That must have felt very sudden. Were you expecting a move like that?
No, not at all but I am so glad that I had such an opportunity.
Then what? You came back. You didn’t stay overseas and hit the European circuit?
Not exactly. Although I was enticed by an opening in the Vienna conservatory. While at the same time, I got an offer from the University of Wisconsin!
That must have been a difficult choice, they are both so different and in two totally different musical arenas. How did you decide?
It was a very nerve wracking decision, but ultimately after weighing the options, I decided on UW. I wanted to study with Julia Faulkner. Also I couldn’t pass on the three roles I was offered by the university opera. So, I moved to Madison. It didn’t hurt that my family is from Wisconsin and so I was very close to many of them, my Grandmother especially. She lived about three hours north of Madison.
Your stint in Wisconsin must have been a real making experience, especially with the roles you were learning. What do you remember specifically about this time in your career and life?
I had to realize that to reach my goals, I had to understand what my voice was. I spent my first summer vacation in Madison. I decided not to audition for programs. I performed Nanki-Poo in Mikado and worked in a practice room everyday to really figure out what I was learning.
So you deconstructed your instrument…took it a part, examined some mechanics and applied a technique?
You can say that. I spent hours learning my voice; how it worked; and began discovering how I would reach my goals.... a person can take lessons his entire life, but it’s up to him learn how his voice works. This was that time for me. It’s different for each singer.
So in addition the roles you were offered, sounds like being close to family was important too. What role has your family played in your professional life?
My family is fairly traditional. We have holidays together. We talk often and we keep in close touch. My family has always been exceptionally supportive of what I do. It’s not the easiest career to take vacations and extended holidays. My family has always respected my schedule and what I do. They have encouraged me to follow my dream.
Sounds like you and your family have a very special connection. That’s important to some singers, especially when it comes to career goals. You said ‘they encourage you to follow your dream,’ ok, I have to ask, what is your dream then?
My dream is simple, to share the music that I love, and to keep it alive. There is a reason that opera has been around for so long and I try to help audiences see and understand why it’s been around for centuries. I want to bring the music off of the page, into the theater, and into real life.
I imagine being part of the Ryan Opera Center has helped you do just that. What has being a young artist with Lyric Opera taught you?
I can’t even describe all the great things I have learned as an artist with this company. I have learned so much. People are friendly, supportive, and want you to succeed. There is always help there if I need it. It’s like having a center, a place that will provide me with support throughout my career. It’s been truly incredible.
If you had to narrow it down further, what would you say?
I can say three things. This program really teaches a person about his/her voice. You rehearse a lot, so you get the chance to really learn how to work under a lot of stress and juggling several roles at one time. Second, you get to understand the business very quickly: call times, pay schedules, rehearsal conduct, everything. And last, the complete art of opera. Let’s just say there are a lot of details that, if I didn’t have this opportunity, I wouldn’t necessarily know about.
I bet you have a pretty hectic schedule from week to week, how do you prepare your roles and organize mentally for rehearsals?
I start with the question, “How can I make this music my own?” It’s important for me to apply who I am to what I sing. This mindset gives me a certain freedom, allowing me to perform freely.
And what about technical preparation, do you have any strategies or routines?
I like to start with melody, looking at it, learning notes and how they relate to create what I’m singing. Then a word-for-word translation is next. I like to know which words might require emphasis and how these words are set to music. It’s not enough to know what you’re saying, a singer has to become what he’s singing and be convincing too!
Words of a wise performer. Is that it, are there any other items about technique that you exercise regularly?
I don’t think the steps vary too much from singer to singer, but when it comes to my own technique I want to know that I can sing through any circumstance: if I get bad news just before a show; if I’m not feeling well; if I have low energy…etc. These are all challenges that a solid technique can overpower. Takes practice, but it’s hardly impossible.
Funny that you should mention this, someone once said that singing is a profession of living and learning about yourself. Has singing taught you anything significant about yourself?
Absolutely. I’ve had to learn that James the singer is not necessarily James the person; I am not my voice. My voice is a tool that allows me to do my job, it is my instrument but I have learned to assert control of it. My voice doesn’t have power above me the person. This was hard to learn but understanding this makes life and singing easier and more enjoyable.
Interesting. Can you elaborate?
Sure, maybe this example will help. I was in a rehearsal covering a role. It was the first time I was to sing before the stage director and conductor. I was nervous, because I was notified only a few moments before the rehearsal. I was well prepared and well coached but I got overly nervous about what I was going to have to do. During an aria, I had a flub and became completely distracted by tiny mistakes. I had to check myself, and fast! I had to separate who I was from what I was doing. In that moment I felt like I had failed, even though it actually went fine. I learned a lot from that experience. It’s hard to explain and there’s no class in school that can teach you these kinds of skills. I simply had to get over the idea of what I wanted to happen and embrace what was happening.
I think I know exactly what you mean and what you’re talking about is not always any easy chore, but it’s necessary. So what about your time off? When you’re not singing to a house of 3000 seats and siztprobing with a world-class orchestra?
I’m a foodie. I like to cook and flip through recipe books to try interesting dishes. I’m sort of a knitter too. I took a class once and I was hooked. When I mentioned that I sing opera, they went berserk with questions. I had to gently remind them, “I’m here to learn knitting,” and explain that what I do is still a job. It just happens to be on a stage.
Does this happen often, entertaining questions people have about an opera singer and what we do?
All the time, and I enjoy it! Singers have many facets to their lives. We are performers, we are singers, we are teachers, and we are also educators. It feels good when I bring the art to people in ways other than with an orchestra or in a costume. Teaching others is an important part of what we do too.
Haa haa, well maybe you recall the nine lessons throughout the episode. I jotted them down. I want to show you this list and learn if any of these resonate with you...
Ok…Hmm, I think that number 2, ‘Be responsible for the attitude you bring to a situation’ and number 6 ‘Wait and listen. What is your life telling you?’ speak to me.
…and the second?
Life tells us many things in equally different ways. We are conditioned for immediacy, wanting everything now! Very few take time to stop and “smell the roses.” This isn’t good. If we just take a few moments everyday to listen to what our own self is declaiming, we save a ton of time and stress.
Have you recently needed to follow this advice?
I have. For instance, my current situation… I’m finishing with Ryan Opera Center in March at which point my schedule becomes considerably less busy. I have had moments of anxiety, but I stop and tell myself, ‘you have come this far by letting what needs to happen, happen. Don’t force your path. It will become clear.’ I remind myself of this when I get anxious. I’m confident that my path becomes clearer each note I sing. I believe in this and in myself deeply.
Thanks James for having dinner with me tonight. It has been a real treat getting to talk with you and learn about you as a performer and person. I think I have some good notes here. We’ll definitely have to meet again, off the record.
Haa, of course! I am happy to be a part of this and always find these types of interviews fun.