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Rising Stars: An Interview with Brandon Jovanovich

July 31st, 2010

[William’s Note: the following interview with tenor Brandon Jovanovich was conducted on the “ranch” of the Santa Fe Opera for which Jovanovich is performing the role of Pinkerton in the 2010 summer festival’s new production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”.]

Wm: You grew up in Yellowstone County, Montana and went to college near Arizona’s Grand Canyon. How did a boy of the West become interested in opera? And what was your musical preparation that led to your acceptance to the Manhattan School of Music?

BJ: Growing up in Billings, Montana there was no opera that I had ever heard of (although Patricia Racette and Patrick Summers have told me they performed Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” in Billings in 1988). I sang in the church choir. At home my  mom would play songs like Born Free (her favorite)  and Christmas carols. This was my introduction to musical performance.

[Below: Brandon Jovanovich, edited image based on a Peter Dressel photograph, courtesy of Brandon Jovanovich.]

But I did well in sports and received a football scholarship to a college in Bismarck, North Dakota.

Wm: Football in North Dakota does not seem to be a direct route to opera, nor even to Arizona.

BJ: It turned out that even though I live in Central Montana, I was unprepared for how cold Bismarck is in the winter. I really wanted to find someplace warm to go to college and applied to Northern Arizona University.

The athletics department at NAU said they would not offer a football scholarship to someone whom they had never seen play. However, they also had a music department, so I sent a tape of me performing choir music. They accepted me.

NAU’s music department had the requirement of participation in vocal performances, including opera. At that time, I was thought to be a basso, and was given the assignment of covering the designated Sarastro in Mozart’s “Magic Flute”. As it turned out, the person was unable to perform so I had to stand on stage and sing the role of Sarastro, thankfully in English. I graduated from NAU with a theater degree with a minor in music.

Wm: So, if, out of high school, you had received a football scholarship in a warmer climate, the world might have been deprived of one of the great operatic tenor voices of your generation. Then what happened?

BJ: I went to New York City, and came upon the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players (NYGASP), even though I did not know the Gilbert and Sullivan music at all.

Wm:  In this summer’s Santa Fe Opera production of “Butterfly”, the Goro is Keith Jameson. Both of you sang roles with the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players. Did you two work together there?

BJ: I think we did. He is not so sure. I think he was Nanki Poo when I was in the chorus for “The Mikado”. I would never have done Nanki Poo, although I would sing Frederic in “The Pirates of Penzance”. The first time that we know for sure we worked together was in January 2010 at the New York Metropolitan Opera, when I assumed the role of Don Jose in Bizet’s “Carmen” (following Roberto Alagna) and Jameson was the Ramendado.

Wm: Some opera companies occasionally will perform a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, although they are usually performed in smaller venues with casts that are specialists in that genre. What are your thoughts about whether the standard operatic repertory should be expanded to include Gilbert and Sullivan?

BJ: I would think so. I think it’s a fantastic way to get people into theater and then wanting to come back for more. I wouldn’t do Gilbert and Sullivan every year, but for an audience unfamiliar with most opera, it’s a great introduction to the opera world. I’ve done seven major Gilbert and Sullivan roles.

Wm: Are there any of those parts that you would wish to do again at this stage of your career?

BJ: Yes, I would like to do “Yeoman of the Guard” again. I’ve thought about finding somewhere to do that.

Wm: But how, as a Gilbert and Sullivan player, did you break into the opera world?

BJ: In New York City, I met the stage director, Linda Brovsky, who encouraged me to take the part of Giovanni in a production of Catan’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter” whose New York premiere she was directing at the Manhattan School of Music.

Wm: And subsequently your participation in the only currently available recording of that opera.

BJ: The success of “Rappaccini’s Daughter” led  to my being offered a scholarship at the Manhattan School. For the summer, I was looking to apply to a summer program. By that time I had prepared three operatic arias, but only three arias. The Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Program, at that time, only required three arias for an audition.

[Below: the Prince (Brandon Jovanovich) encounters difficulties in his domestic relationship with Rusalka (Kelly Kaduce); edited image, based on a photograph for the Minnesota Opera.]

Wm: In 1996 you were accepted to the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Program, in which you worked for two consecutive summer seasons.  Your resume lists smaller roles in Handel’s “Semele” and Strauss’ “Arabella” that you performed in your second season, but obviously you did much more than that. What are your most vivid memories of those two summers?

BJ: The first summer (1996) there was a production of Richard Strauss’ “Daphne” that was my first introduction to opera. Just being onstage with these amazing voices, hearing the size of those voices, being up close to watch them act, and to watch the conductor. It was a busy year for the Apprentices. I myself was in four of the five shows.

They did Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” that season with John Copley as director. I was in the chorus and Copley spotted me, towering above the other singers, and said, “He doesn’t look Japanese”.

When I returned in the second year, John Nelson was the conductor for “Semele”. Elizabeth Futral was one of the artists that year. I recall Nelson turning to her and asking her if she could understand my diction. She said something to the effect of “Well, maybe, for the most part”. I had to work very hard on diction that summer.

Wm: At this point in your career, your signature role appears to be Pinkerton, which you have now performed for Dallas Opera, New York City Opera, Stuttgart Opera, and San Francisco Opera, before the current engagement in Santa Fe. Some tenors like to shed this role, which they find unsympathetic, to move into other repertory.

[Below: Pinkerton (Brandon Jovanovich), finding the toy battleship of a son whom he has just learned exists, is overcome with grief; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Even so, having been impressed by your performances in Ron Daniels’ staging at San Francisco Opera (with Patricia Racette) and in Santa Fe’s staging by Lee Blakeley (with Kelly Kaduce) you clearly have a strong conceptualization of this character. Is this a role you plan to keep in your repertory, and do you continue to find things about it that interest or challenge you?

BJ: I like the role, and am not the least concerned about its lack of sympathy. In fact, I enjoy being booed by American audiences, as is their custom with the “villain” roles like Pinkerton, at the opera’s end.

Wm: Just last year, a prominent South American tenor said he would not sing the role any more, because he just couldn’t relate to the man, and seemed to worry that the audiences disliked the character.

BJ: I know some of the European artists get so upset when the villain is booed at curtain calls. At Lyric Opera in Chicago, I was Boris in Janacek’s “Katya Kabanova” and Karita Mattila in the title role would deplore Judith Forst’s Kabinicha being booed. She would say, the audience must separate the artist from the character. But in the United States this is how the many in the audiences show their appreciation for a job well done.

Wm: This is actually a fairly recent phenomenon. It seems to be a revival of the old frontier theaters where people went to boo and hiss the villains and applaud the heroes.

BJ: On the other hand, Pinkerton is not so much a villain or even a cad as just an ignorant man. But the director for the Santa Fe production, Lee Blakeley, had me look at the character’s darker side, especially the cruelty of his abandonment of her.

Everytime I perform the role – in Dallas, in San Francisco, in Santa Fe – I find other aspects of his character to highlight. I like his music and I love the duets with Butterfly and Sharpless. The first time I saw the opera was in the 1996 Santa Fe performances. Now I’m back here in this principal role. It’s a full circle.

[For William’s review, see: Kaduce’s Incandescent Cio Cio San, Jovanovich’s Injudicious Pinkerton, Emblazon Blakeley’s “Butterfly” – Santa Fe Opera, July 16, 2010.]

[Below: Pinkerton (Brandon Jovanovich) and Butterfly (Kelly Kaduce) sing of their love before their wedding night; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Wm: What a string of roles that Puccini wrote between 1900 and 1910 for a lead tenor with your type of voice – Cavaradossi in “Tosca”, Pinkerton in “Butterfly”, Dick Johnson in “Girl of the Golden West”.

BJ: I hope somebody talks to me about singing Dick Johnson.

Wm: Speaking of Dick Johnson and the GoldenWest, when you were growing up in Montana did you own a horse?

BJ: The part of Billings where I lived was pretty urban, but the family did have a horse that we kept on a friend’s ranch.

Wm: Some Dick Johnsons have been called upon to ride horseback onstage.

You have spent four seasons in the regional opera company in France that performs in the cities of Angers and Nantes. It is there that you first performed Luigi in Puccini’s “Il Tabarro” (2002), Pollione in Bellini’s “Norma” (2003 and 2004), Hoffmann in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” (2004) and Steva in Janacek’s “Jenufa” (2007) What was it like for a boy from Billings to become an ongoing attraction in these ancient cities of Brittany and Anjou?

BJ: It’s wonderful. We actually have considered moving there, or at least having a place there to be our home in Europe. We have friends that live near Nantes.

People recognize you on the street and follow you around. The musical staff is so laid back and everyone is really like a family.

Wm: Subsequently, you have sung Hoffman at La Scala (2004), Luigi at San Francisco Opera (2009), Pollione at Teatro Verdi Trieste (2009) and Steva at Bayerische Staatsoper (2009). Was Western France a favorite place for you to explore new roles?

BJ: Most definitely! The Nantes/Angers company is great place to try things out and to polish them. There is so much time to work on the musical performance.

[For William’s review of his Luigi, see: Gavanelli, Racette, Jovanovich In Rousing “Tabarro” at San Francisco Opera – September 15, 2009.]

Wm:  You sang the role of Sam Polk in Floyd’s “Susannah” in a couple of smaller venues earlier this decade. I am aware of at least one major opera company that is planning a revival of that opera. Do you see the role of Sam returning to your repertory?

[Below: Susannah Polk  (Cynthia Clayton) with her brother Sam (Brandon Jovanovich); edited image, based on a Tom Bacon photograph, courtesy of the Festival Opera of Walnut Creek, California.]

BJ: I like that opera and enjoy playing Sam. It’s a fun role.  I like the relationship with his sister Susannah and I like singing Sam’s arioso. It’s too bad it’s not done more than it is. I would be interested in singing it again.

Wm: That information might be of interest to certain opera administrators.

In 2007, you won the Richard Tucker Award. In a recent interview with John Relyea, a previous recipient of that award, he said that people notice such things. Did your agents begin to get telephone calls from people they had not spoken to previously?

BJ: No question about it. I think it was a day or two after the Tucker prize was announced that I received the offer from the San Francisco Opera to perform Pinkerton in December 2007. [For William’s review of the San Francisco Opera Pinkerton, see: The Remaking of San Francisco Opera Part III “Madama Butterfly” – December 8, 2007.]

BJ: And it was after that award that the New York Metropolitan Opera started taking notice.

Wm: Your Metropolitan Opera debut was as Don Jose in Bizet’s “Carmen”. Did you find satisfaction in having your Met debut in a new production in one of the iconic roles of the operatic repertory opposite Olga Borodina?

BJ: It was really great – hearing Olga, standing onstage with her. Her voice sounds like a million bucks. I was strangely calm the first night. It was surreal being on that stage.

I can’t think of a better introduction to the Met than to sing the role of Don Jose for my debut. The new production is fantastic. There are some things that are really great in it. I love the role of Don Jose. I have it coming up a lot on my schedule.

Wm: Up until now, you have not assayed the heldentenor roles of Wagner, but now the San Francisco Opera has announced you as the Froh in “Das Rheingold” and Siegmund in “Die Walkuere” in the three performances of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” in June, 2011.

Obviously, the decision has been made that your voice is ready for these two Wagnerian roles.

BJ: My vocal coach is Neal Goren, whom I’ve known since 1996. He and I have been talking about this direction, and so has my agent, Matthew Horner from IMG, who has heard me sing for so long. We all think the time is right. I think Siegmund is going to fit me like a glove.

Wm: Is it your intention to explore other Wagner roles, particularly the title roles of “Lohengrin” and “Parsifal” and Erik in “Flying Dutchman”?

BJ: The role of Erik has never worked out for me. But I’m scheduled to sing Lohengrin in 2012 and again in 2014.

Wm: I think I can guess the company and conductor for at least  one of the Lohengrins.

BJ: I think you are probably right. I am also discussing the possibility of doing the title role of Wagner’s “Rienzi” in Italy.

Wm: And will you preparing some other new non-Wagnerian roles?

BJ: Two other new roles will be Florestan in Beethoven’s “Fidelio” and Sergei in Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtensk”.

Wm: My reviews of Francesca Zambello’s “Die Walkuere” in Washington DC and San Francisco had great praise for the Siegmund-Sieglinde-Hunding combinations of Placido Domingo, Anja Kampe and Gidon Saks in Washington and of Christopher Ventris, Eva-Marie Westbroek and Raymond Aceto in San Francisco. In fact, I suggested that the Ventris-Westbroek-Aceto acting performance should be used as a case study, not just for operatic acting classes, but for acting classes for stage and cinema as well.

You are scheduled to perform Siegmund with Kampe’s Sieglinde and Daniel Sumegi’s Hunding. Having seen your performances as Pinkerton and Luigi, it is clear to me that you have the innate acting abilities that a Zambello production expects. Are you preparing for the role even now, and do you see the San Francisco “Rings” as having the potential of being a career milestone for you?

BJ: To be performing my first “Ring” at the San Francisco Opera definitely will be a milestone for my career. Right now I am preparing with a German coach, who is picking apart my singing. I am not yet working on the acting.

Wm: You have built a career that spends parts of each year in Europe and North America. What do you call home, and how often do you get to spend extended time there?

BJ: We live in Billings, Montana. We lived out a suitcase for the years 2003 to 2007. Then we ended up renting a home in Brussels, but my wife’s mom needed ongoing care, so  we moved back here. We’ve been in  Billings with my mom, brother and sister. I have three kids.

We are just now looking at a suburb of Chicago, with a little bit of land attached. It’s easier to get in and out of Chicago than Billings.  I will be able to work at home and coach. But I wouldn’t mind having a place in Europe. We like France a lot. We’ll have to see what the future holds for us. I think Chicago will be our new home.

Wm: Thank you, Brandon.

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