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The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Chad Johnson

March 31, 2013

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    March 31, 2013
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    Opera Carolina News

The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Chad Johnson

The excellent Opera Carolina will be presenting Bizet's beautiful opera Les Pecheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers.)... The show is performed in French, with English titles.

This interesting traditional production with modern visual effects (projections) is directed for the stage by a French director (Bernard Uzan), and conducted by a French conductor (Emmanuel Joel-Hornak), making for stylistic accuracy.

Opera Lively has provided in-depth analysis of the opera (circumstances of composition, musical structure, synopsis, famous singers with video clips, etc.) [here].

We will also participate in the pre-opera events, with a table set-up (on opening night only), to sell and sign our book "Opera Lively - The Interviews" which features not only international opera luminaries such as Anna Netrebko and Joyce Didonato, but also Opera Carolina artists such as Maestro James Meena, and singers who participated in the company's productions of last season. The book author, Luiz Gazzola, will also deliver a pre-opera mini-lecture on what to listen for in The Pearl Fishers, at 7:30 PM before the opening night show.

Now, the present article contains interviews with... tenor Chad Johnson who will be singing Nadir.... Questions by Luiz Gazzola.

...We tried to keep about the same style for all three interviews - some common questions about the production and the roles to start with (it will be interesting to contrast how the three artists replied to these similar questions), then some more singer-specific questions.


Opera Lively - What are your expectations for this production of The Pearl Fishers by Opera Carolina?

Chad Johnson - We have staged the whole thing with the director in rehearsal. It's going be a very straightforward true telling of the story, which is really great. It's a beautiful production with a beautiful set and beautiful costumes. Because Bernard is French, he really understands the text, so I think it will be a very clear and concise and beautiful production.

OL - I see. I just talked to your colleague Ms. Burnett, and she said you've been working on some new concepts that the stage director is bringing to this production. She had done the role before but had never thought of it in this new way. I actually forgot to follow up on this; so, maybe you can tell me what new concepts are these.

CJ - Sure. The thing that he is focusing on is that there is really just the trio. The situation just involves Nadir, Zurga, and Leila. None of the other characters in the opera really know what is happening in our relationship. The friendship between me and Zurga, they know of; but they do not know that I'm in love with Leila and they do not know that Zurga has feelings for her either. He is really making a point to keep everyone else in the dark. Because normally the way it's played, Nourabad kind of knows about the relationship between Nadir and Leila, but in the text, in the libretto, there is no indication that Nourabad knows about it. So, that's a different take on it, because usually Nourabad just comes in and yells all the time and says, "Oh, we have to kill Nadir because of this," but he really doesn't know about the affair that we are having.

OL - What do you think of your peers, the maestro, and the company?

CJ - Oh, they are wonderful. Bernard, I've worked with him, probably ten years ago when we did a Romeo et Juliette in Miami. Janinah is a wonderful singer and she is a great colleague. It's my first time singing with her. She has a beautiful voice and is a great actress. Mark Walters the baritone and I have worked together many, many times in the past, so it's great to see him again. John who is Nourabad is brand new and he is doing a great job too. The conductor is also French. It's so nice! He has such a sense of French style, both musically and in the language. It's going to be a very authentic Pearl Fishers, because it's all French-produced, basically.

OL - Let's talk about the role of Nadir. He is a lyrical tenor role that in my opinion is rather delicate, with the important feature being in some moments an expressive delivery rather than a heroic one, but then, the role changes. Do you see special challenges in singing this role?

CJ - Precisely. Absolutely, Nadir's aria, so very famous, is extremely high. It's so exposed, and so serene; you have to be on your game for that moment to really play the way you want it to play. But then, the duet with Zurga is actually quite heroic singing, and especially the trio at the end contains some very big singing as well, so you need to be able to make the required amount of noise that you need for the heroic stuff, then you need to scale back for Nadir's aria. So, it's a particularly challenging role in that way.

OL - Famous singers who have tackled this role have included some of the greatest ever, such as Caruso, Alfredo Kraus, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, and Nicolai Gedda. I particularly like Leopold Simeaneau with his elegant, native-speaker French.

CJ - Hm, hm, oh, he is wonderful!

OL - Have any of these, or someone else, functioned as inspiration for you?

CJ - I also love Alain Vanzo, a very good French tenor. And of course Nicolai Gedda and Alfredo Krauss are the absolute staples for this.

OL - Do you typically listen to others when you prepare for a role?

CJ - Sure, initially I go through them. I am a big opera fan, just in life, anyway. Whenever I have something coming up, I always listen to great interpreters of it in the past. Especially with things like Mozart, you can learn a lot, and say "oh, that's an ornamentation I never thought of." And if they are working with a great maestro like Colin Davis, stylistically you see what is appropriate and then you can borrow from people who've done it in the past, in ways that you never thought to do.

OL - Is it a bit intimidating to sing "Je crois entendre encore" after all those luminaries?

CJ - You always just do it with your own interpretation, with your own voice, and you hope to do Bizet justice and make him proud. That's all you can do; you can't ever compare yourself with someone else.

OL - So what are your plans to make of this role, your own, or to make it compelling or special in some way?

CJ - My own interpretation is to be in this dreamy moment and make of it a theatrical event, because the rest is so dramatic before it! With Nadir's aria, my goal is to just transport people, to make them listen to that serene moment on the beach by himself when he is just dreaming of Leila, and to kind of take everybody along in that journey.

OL - Yes, isn't that one of the most beautiful moments in all of opera?

CJ - I agree!

OL - How do you describe the psychology of your character, torn between fraternal friendship, and his love for Leila?

CJ - Well, I think he is a complicated character to play because he really does not honor his friend very well. He comes and sings that duet, and they say "we are brothers, our love for each other is greater than the love for a woman," but basically in the same breath Leila arrives on the boat, and he goes against everything that he just said. [laughs] You know, he really is not a very good friend [laughs] to Zurga, and kind of just goes for the girl from the very beginning. So, it's complicated to play because he is not a bad guy, he's just a lovesick tenor. But Zurga definitely gets the short end of the stick. There is no real way to play it differently than that.

OL - Now let's talk about your career. You were an apprentice in a number of interesting institutions - the Opera Studio in Graz, Austria, and the Young Artists Program of some of our nice regional opera companies such as the Chicago Opera Theater, Santa Fe Opera, Glimmerglass, and Florida Grand Opera. Would you please compare and contrast these experiences and tell us what you got out of them? Was there anything particular about any of these?

CJ - They were hugely instrumental in my training. In fact I didn't finish college. I dropped out of college and went right into the Young Artists Program of the Chicago Opera Theater. From there I got into Santa Fe. I was very young for all of this; I was twenty-two, twenty-three years old. They kind of recognized potential in me, so… I wasn't doing big roles; it was literally just me having coaching and understudying, and being in the chorus. Which was great, because I was already in the mix, in the professional opera world, and people knew who I was at an early age. Then I auditioned for Florida Grand while I was in Santa Fe, and they accepted me there. That was in 2004. They had already begun the kind of downfall in in their budget. All the companies have lost so much money in the last several years! The day I got there, literally my contract doubled, and I did roles in almost every show; I was on stage all the time when I was there. I was doing recitals, and I was having just constant performance experiences which was invaluable.

I also met my voice teacher there; her name is Virginia Zeani. She is very famous; she trained at La Scala; she was basically the foremost Violetta of all time; she had more than 640 performances of Violetta with every major tenor and opera company in the world. She really taught me the basics of singing technique there. I was there for several years and went to Glimmerglass in the summers. Glimmerglass gave me my first big break. At the last minute they needed someone for a performance of Pirates of Penzance. I had been there for the last two seasons as an apprentice, and they gave me the role of Frederic. I got my first New York Times review, and I got my agent from that. So, this took my career from being an apprentice to a full time managed singer.

So, they were all instrumental, they were all a stepping stone to prepare me for a full time career which I'm having now.

OL - What about Austria, when did you go there?

CJ - Austria, I did when I was very, very young. I was probably nineteen when I went there, maybe twenty. That was wonderful too, but I was so young! I was still a student, but it was a great summer. We studied with Eva McCorvi who is a teacher at the University of Kentucky and we did make some great progress under her - but I was a baby! [laughs]

OL - Especially interesting was the fact that you were in a production directed by Renata Scotto. I didn't know that she had directed opera. Can you tell us about it, and also, tell us if there was something special or different in being directed for the stage by such a famous singer? Did she have a bigger advantage over other directors, for knowing so well what singing is like?

CJ - Actually her directing style is quite similar to most directors'. I did La Traviata with her at Florida Grand Opera but I was just Gastone. But she really knew exactly how to make the role of Violetta really play. All three roles, even; Violetta, Alfredo, and Papa Germont, she really knew how to make the connections between these roles. She put the soprano on stage in positions to really make her shine, and to have the easiest of vocal productions. That would have been her advantage, from having done or interacted with all these roles, now, directing, she knows where the pitfalls are, and how to avoid them, from the singer's standpoint.

OL - Your career has focused mostly on the Italian and French repertories. What are some of your goals for the near and distant future, in terms of career planning?

CJ - I really do enjoy singing the French repertoire, I'm trying to expand my French roles because they lend themselves to my voice quite well. They sit a little bit higher and there are some fairly dramatic parts, but you can also, like in Nadir's aria, scale back and do voix mixte singing , with different colors. I really enjoy the challenges of that, and also because so much of the French operas are so text-driven, and with texts that are really interesting. You can't just go there and make a whole bunch of noise; you have to really be immersed in the French style and language. I am very much looking forward to do Romeo, and Werther, and to adding more French roles into my repertoire.

OL - How did you become an opera singer? How did classical music came into your life?

CJ - I've always loved classical music. I remember seeing Marilyn Horne on TV when I was just a boy, back when she still had black hair, that's how long ago it was. [laughs] Opera, I don't know why, but I remember being interested in it since I was maybe five or six years old. It was always something in the back of my mind. I wanted to be an actor, first; then I started taking voice lessons when I was seventeen, in high school. Then I got a scholarship to college. I did my first opera in college. I had been going to the operas. I'm from the Western part of the State of Michigan, and we had an opera company there called Opera Grand Rapids which is not far from my hometown, and I'd go to the free-for-students final dress rehearsal in almost every opera that they produced, while I was there. So I really always appreciated the art form, and I went by and started singing it. I found this unique challenge to learn vocal technique, and the languages, and the styles, and it was fascinating; there was never a dull moment. So that's kind of how I got into it.

OL - Was your family into it as well? Did they have a musical background?

CJ - No, I was the first professional musician in my family, but now my brother is a professional musician and my sister is a musician as well. So, there is some hidden gene… [laughs], just waiting to come out.

OL - [laughs] That's right! Interesting. So, the last question. How are you as a person? Would you describe a bit your personality, likes and dislikes, and interests outside of opera?

CJ - The great thing about this singing career is that it involves so much traveling and so much meeting new people, which is something that I just love, anyway. Being on the road and traveling and singing in places, is something that I always enjoyed. So now I'm paid to do it, mostly, which is great! [laughs].

I live in New York City and I have a great group of friends there; they are like a family to me. When I'm home, I enjoy what we call staycations, a time to just stay home in my apartment and see my friends. I'm usually studying for my next opportunity, my next engagement. But yes, that's it, just catching up with friends and spending time with them - I'm a very social person. When I'm away from them on the road for a long time, I like to go back and reconnect.

OL - Thank you so much for your time.

CJ - Absolutely!

OL - I'll be watching opening night and I wish you the best.

CJ - Fantastic, enjoy the show! Thank you so much! Take care!

By: Opera Lively To read the original article, click here.