More Questions for the Calaf: A Conversation with Brian Jagde

The following conversation was based on a meeting at the War Memorial Opera House with the much-appreciated facilitatation of the San Francisco Opera. For previous communications between myself and tenor Brian Jagde, see:  Rising Stars: An Interview with Brian Jagde.


[Below: Tenor Brian Jagde; resized image of a photograph, courtesy of Brian Jagde.]

Wm: You are currently rehearsing the role of Calaf in Puccini’s “Turandot” at the San Francisco Opera’s home, the War Memorial Opera House. Maestro Nicola Luisotti is the conductor. 

You have worked with Maestro Nicola Luisotti on several of your “bread and butter” roles [A Maestro of Music and Metaphor: An Interview with Nicola Luisotti].

These roles include Mario Cavaradossi in Puccini’s “Tosca”, Pinkerton in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” in San Francisco [House of Puccini: Jun Kaneko’s Enchanting “Madama Butterfly” Soars at War Memorial – San Francisco Opera, June 15, 2014] and at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden  and Radames in Verdi’s “Aida” [Review: Zambello’s Spectacular “Aida”, San Francisco Opera, November 5, 2016 ], in San Francisco. He also conducted Verdi’s “Nabucco” at the Reina Sofia in Valencia, Spain in which you sang Ismaele.

BJ: Maestro Luisotti and I have really started a long-term process of putting these pieces into my repertoire, working together. Many years ago, singers could spend ample time with a conductor before they even arrived at the first rehearsal, and now there just doesn’t seem to be enough time for conductors and singers to collaborate in a one-on-one setting in advance.I’m so grateful to Maestro for always taking the time to work through pieces even once we’ve already begun rehearsals. He has always believed in me, since the first time I sang for him on the main stage at San Francisco Opera.

We’re already talking about finding times in our busy schedules to meet up for our next projects – more Verdi and Puccini – and both will be role debuts for me. His expertise is almost impossible to quantify, except to say that it’s made me a better singer and performer in ways I didn’t even know were possible.

As for Calaf, it’s a role I know I will do throughout my career, and we’ve already begun shaping it and making it our version. There isn’t a conductor in the world who knows my voice like Luisotti. He pushes me just far enough to make me excel every time.

This is going to be a smash season opener with a wonderful cast of colleagues, and what else can one say about the epic sound of the chorus and orchestra of the San Francisco Opera? They are what made me fall in love with this opera the first time I heard it as an Adler Fellow, with Luisotti conducting. I remember it like it was yesterday.

Wm: In mid-August you took part in a series of concert performance of Verdi’s “Macbeth” at the Teatro Real in Madrid in which Plácido Domingo sang the title role and you sang the role of Macduff. What did that experience mean to you?

BJ: I was really honored to be making my Teatro Real debut singing alongside the legendary Maestro Plácido Domingo for the first time. It was a great privilege for many reasons. I am a proud alum of Domingo’s Operalia Competition, which has had an incredible impact on my career.

Also, to be sharing the stage with someone who has sung every role I hope to do in my career was invaluable, even to spend a short time with him. We even got to have a mini sword fight before his eventual death in the opera! These are things tenors of my generation dream about. Working with and learning from living legends.

[Below: Plácido Domingo (wearing crown, front row, third from right) gestures as King Macbeth while Brian Jagde (as Macduff, right), Ildebrando d’Arcangelo (as Banquo, left) and Anna Pirozzi (as Lady Macbeth, in red dress, second from left) look on; edited image from a publicity photograph for the Teatro Real, Madrid.]

I was also excited to collaborate with Maestro James Conlon (the conductor), bass-baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (Banquo), and so many other wonderful artists in Madrid. I’ve worked with Anna Pirozzi (Lady Macbeth) before at the Palau Reina Sofia in Valencia, Spain, when I was Ismaele and she was Abigaille in Verdi’s “Nabucco”. It was a great pleasure to sing Verdi with her again!

Wm: Earlier this year you sang the role of Maurizio in Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur” in Sir David McVicar’s production at London’s Royal Opera House Covent Garden. The  London critics can be rough, but the McVicar production, your performance, and those of Angela Gheorghiu’s as Adriana and Gerald Finley’s as Michonnet got some very favorable reviews.

It’s a gritty verismo opera, but both the soprano and the tenor have luscious melodies to sing.

BJ: It’s a great role. Maurizio has so many sweeping melodic lines and it’s a chance to show technical skills in extreme ways, with pianissimi high notes and big, heroic and dramatic phrases. I really enjoyed this role and hope to do it justice again soon.

I absolutely love singing at the Royal Opera House. It was quite an experience to have this role debut take place there, under the baton of Maestro Daniel Oren and singing with Angela Gheorghiu. I was determined to come really prepared and was pleased by the reception.

Both Maestro and Angela were incredibly supportive, which also made it that much more fun! And to work with Gerald Finley for the first time was a pleasure. He’s a consummate artist and lovely guy.

The audiences in London are great, and all of the creative and administrative forces at ROH inspire us to do our best every single performance.

[Below: Maurizio (Brian Jagde, right) admires the actress Adriana Lecouvreur (Angela Gheorghiu, left); edited image, based on a Catherine Ashmore photograph for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.]

Wm: The San Francisco Opera has performed “Adriana Lecouvreur” in two previous seasons, and I was fortunate to see both illustrious casts – one in 1977 that paired Renata Scotto and Giacomo Aragall and one in 1985 that paired Mirella Freni and Ermanno Mauro.

One hopes that “Adriana”, especially in the McVicar production, will be brought to San Francisco. 

BJ: Wish I could have been in the audience for any of those performances! I’ve heard that’s a possibility, that the production would be coming to San Francisco. One can dream! If they do I’d hope to be considered. Maurizio is a role I’d love to sing again, whenever I have the chance.

Wm: As a tenor specializing in the Italian repertory, you’ve now had the experience of performing in Italy. How did that go?

BJ: Last fall I was in “Madama Butterfly” in Palermo, Sicily at the incredible Teatro Massimo. For my first time singing an Italian role in Italy, I worked hard to get all of the Italian phrases I sang on point. Whenever I come back to a role, I learn new things about it. Whenever I sing a role where I’ve been coached by Maestro Luisotti, I try to employ all the “Luisotti-isms”.

It was also fantastic to collaborate with the young, up-and-coming conductor Jader Bignamini who is making quite a name for himself all over the world. I hope to sing with him again in the future, he’s a great collaborative partner.

[Below: Hui He (front left) is Madama Butterfly and Brian Jagde (front right) is Lieutenant Pinkerton in the Teatro Massimo production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”; edited image, based on a production photograph for the Teatro Massimo, Palermo.]

The Teatro Massimo’s sound is incredible and immaculate. When the theater was empty, a colleague sang from the Teatro Massimo boxes and the sound whipped around the theater.

I love Palermo and its gorgeous beaches and exciting markets. I’ve also had the pleasure of performing at the Teatro di San Carlo under the baton of the great Zubin Mehta, and I’ll return there next summer for a new staging of “Tosca”. Italy as a whole is my favorite place to be thus far! I travel there every year.

Wm: I’m a great admirer of director Francesca Zambello’s work, and looked forward to your creating the role of Radames in her new production of “Aida” [Zambello’s Spectacular “Aida”, San Francisco Opera, November 5, 2016 ]. What was that experience like?

BJ: We had a great time working together. As we began discussing the opera, she said to me: “Are you aware that in your very first aria, Celeste Aida, that you are committing an act of treason? You are revealing that you are so beholden to a slave, captured from an enemy nation, that you would want to make her your queen.”

I thought “Wow, nobody thinks about operatic plots in that way”. But it would illogical for Radames to think that everyone would be fine with such a sentiment.

[Below: Radames (Brian Jagde, standing center) is the hero of the Egyptians triumph in war; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

There are two distinct cultures at play, Egyptian and Ethiopian, and Radames and Amneris have been raised as Egyptians. Radames is a youthful dreamer who would choose love over wealth and power, he would have the latter if he marries Amneris.

Yet Radames has the hubris to believe that he can reject the King’s offer of Amneris’ hand and instead marry one of the enemy’s citizens, and expects that everyone will go along with it.

Wm: You will return to the Zambello production of “Aida”, performing Radames at Seattle Opera in May, 2018. 

BJ: I’m excited to make my debut in Seattle, especially in such a great production!

Wm: I look forward to hearing your Calaf, and trust that you will correctly answer Turandot’s three questions in each of your scheduled 12 performances. 

BJ: Thank you, and let’s hope so! We know what happens to the guys who get the answers wrong …