Imagine doing a rehearsal in one city until 10 p.m. and then having to fly to another city, to do another rehearsal for another opera, just 12 hours later.
Well, that is what John Chest faces right now, as the baritone takes on Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd” in Berlin and John Harbison’s “The Great Gatsby” at the same time. The first performance of “Billy Budd” at the Deutsche Oper Berlin was on May 26, 2017, with the American singer then traveling to Dresden to sing Gatsby on the 29th, 30th and June 1st. On June 2nd, he takes the stage for “Billy Budd,” ending a crazy week that most singers would probably not take on.
But as Chest told OperaWire during an interview, this was not the original plan. He had agreed to do the revival of the Harbison work, but the dates were different from what they would actually become. At one point, Chest, whose busy 2017 has included becoming a father and a Richard Tucker career grant winner, was ready to just walk away from the project.
“The problem is that with ‘Gatsby,’ only two or three people know it,” he noted. So the Semperoper, where he is performing the Harbison opera, did everything within its power to ensure the baritone would be comfortable jumping between the two cities.
“It is really pretty difficult,” Chest stated, but he did note that there were a few things that made this task less onerous. “I think a few things in my favor are that they are both in the English language and both 20th century operas.”
But Chest, who is a graduate of the Opera Studio at the Bayerische Staatsoper, noted he also had experience doing this kind of trek in his training.
“The German system is like that. You are onstage the night before and then you have to wake up and do rehearsal the next day. You might do ‘Bohème’ one night and ‘Magic Flute’ the next. Sometimes you get dealt that hand.”
Of course, because the voice is such a delicate instrument and requires rest, Chest noted that he’s developed a few tricks to keep his vocal chords fresh and relaxed.
“If I have to save my voice for rehearsal, it’s something people do,” he revealed. “You learn over time that singing too much in a week leaves you fried the next week. It’s part of self-discovery.”
Of the two operas he is taking on, Chest noted a special affinity for the Britten work, which he learned all the way back in 2008 when he was in training at Santa Fe. He was a member of the chorus at the time, but his teacher suggested he learn the role because he would get a chance to see how the other singers would be coached on the lead roles.
So he opted for doing just that.
“That was some of the best advice I ever got.”
He would eventually make his role debut in the opera in 2014 and has since found ever-growing love for the English composer.
“Britten is good at is taking the language of the libretto and giving it life with the rhythm, the way he intonates phrases, the way he uses pitch,” the baritone explained. “Sometimes, you’ll go through a section. And I might not get it or understand why he set it that way or with that rhythm. If I ever think he’s wrong, after a few times of doing it, it suddenly clicks.
“Once you get the part, you can never think of the line differently. His way is always better.”
The other aspect of Britten’s music that Chest raved about was the orchestration.
“When you rehearse with piano, you get it in black and white. But when the orchestra plays, you’re seeing it in color,” he noted.
Harbison’s work has its rewards as well. Chest noted that the composer uses varied styles to create both a psychological sound world and one that harks back to the 1920s, where the story is set.
“He does a great job of incorporating the tunes from the period into the opera, but in my opinion, his best stuff comes in the psychological bits. When Gatsby is talking about the green light, all we get is that sound world. And that’s when Harbison really hits the nail on the head.”
Once he is all done with this weeklong marathon, Chest heads over to one of his big events of 2017 – the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. Chest, alongside baritone Anthony Clark Evans, will be the representatives of the US, something that Chest takes great pride in.
“It’s like the Olympics of Opera. You’re representing your country,” he enthused. “This one is actually about you being one of two representatives for the U.S. It’s right next to your name next to your voice type.”
This inspired his musical selections for the competition, particularly in the Art Song portion of the competition. In this part of the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, audiences and viewers will watch the 31-year-old sing Aaron Copland’s “Old American Songs.”
“He captures Americana. His open harmonies, his brash way of underpinning melody. It’s quintessentially American. The music is special,” he explained.
But the choice of these songs also took on new meaning this past January when Chest became a father to a baby girl with partner and soprano Layla Claire.
During Claire’s pregnancy, Chest would sing “Simple Gifts” to his unborn child almost every single day.
The day she was born, the baby would not stop crying at all.
“Layla told me to sing the song to her. To this baby that was 30 seconds old. So I did and she stopped crying and she turned to me. She knew it was me. She didn’t cry the whole time I sang it to her.
“One of the midwives got a video of it that I will never forget. I want to make that part of my experience at Cardiff.”