Interview: Steven LaBrie’s Star On the Rise

The Baritone On His Fascinating Start to 2018

By Francisco Salazar

The calendar year of 2018 is only half-way done, but for Steven LaBrie, it has been quite the ride.

A survey of his year has included a plethora of major achievements. He debuted a new album, stepped into new roles for the first time, shared the stage with major stars, and debuted at new theaters as well.

And he still has so much to do.

In a recent interview with OperaWire, LaBrie talked about his year to date and all the challenges he is pumped to take on.

A Debut Album

Every artist dreams of releasing his or her first album. It’s almost a stamp of approval. A milestone.

For LaBrie, this achievement was years in the making. And it was certainly something he will undeniably “Remember (the album’s title is “Remember”).”

“It was a long time in the works, almost three years ago,” he explained. “Glen Roven approached me and said he wanted to do a three baritone album with Jarrett Ott, Tobias Greenhalgh and me and that the concept of the album was to do new works by new composers or by living composers. So it was a really long journey in finding the repertoire and the works.”

When searching for the right music LaBrie was incredibly diligent in looking for works that spoke to him. He made an effort to look at all avenues before choosing the final repertoire.

“I approached composers and they sent me their music. I also asked a coach of mine and Glen [Roven] approached Lori [Laitman] so she gave us the songs,” the baritone narrated. “And then a coach of mine recommended Benjamin Boyle.

“I heard the Benjamin Boyle songs they really spoke to me,” he continued. “And they were in French, which I really liked. I loved the poetry and the music, which was really gorgeous. And when I sang through the pieces, it felt right in my throat. Each piece in the cycle also has a journey, which has a beginning and a climax and an ending. So it really feels like you’re going through an emotional journey within each number. So that’s what is amazing about it.”

The most interesting aspect of the CD is that it features three different artists. And yet, per LaBrie’s own admission, none of them saw one another throughout the process, with the exception of one recording session.

“We’re all friends, so it was mostly every once in while we would chat or we would have a discussion about whether or not we wanted to do this or that. But the three of us have been friends for a long time so it was pretty easy. We only sang one piece together and the rest of it was all separate.”

An Unexpected Debut

Following a successful launch to the album, LaBrie solidified his stance as a rising star when he made a major role debut in “La Favorita” with the New Amsterdam Opera. The work, which was being performed for the time in years in New York showcased the baritone’s strengths and for most critics, he was arguably the scene stealer.

“It was my first time singing it and I knew the aria for a long time and it was one of those arias I had in the back of my head,” he noted.

But what made the experience so rich and fulfilling was reuniting with Keith Chambers, a conductor he has known for so long.

“Keith Chambers is a friend of mine and he was the very first conductor I ever worked with. We worked in a small company in Dallas doing ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ when I was 18,” he noted. “I didn’t know what I was doing back then and I had not gone to school yet so Keith was very nice and patient. I sang Antonio, but it was very tricky because I didn’t know how to read music.”

But that obviously didn’t stop him from getting a second chance with Chambers.

“When Eve Queler heard me in a competition, she recommended me to sing in ‘La Favorita’ so they contacted me and they asked me to do it. I thought it was a great opportunity because not only is Keith a great friend but ‘La Favorita’ is an incredible opera.”

The experience with the New Amsterdam Opera was not only familial, but it was rewarding for him musically. LaBrie not only got to discover an important role but he also got to learn more about his voice.

“It taught me a lot about myself and for me, it is medicine for my voice. There is a lot of legato singing and beautiful lines and there is a lot of learning how to lead with the voice. There is a lot of dynamic range.”

Starting a New Role

Despite these great successes and acclaim, the baritone is not ready to slow down. In fact, he preparing arguably his biggest task this year – the title role in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”

“I have done the other Da Ponte-Mozart operas so this will be the third to complete the trilogy. I’ve never done it before so I am excited to dig in,” he enthused. “Don Giovanni is a really great character. But unlike Mozart’s other works, there is more recitative in the opera than musical numbers, so it is an acting piece. I think it will be very good for me because it’s done so often and the music is timeless.”

Of course, Mozart definitely presents challenges that LaBrie feels he did not face with “La Favorita” and other Bel Canto roles he has performed.

“Sometimes Mozart is more angular in his writing style and the challenge for me is to find the freedom in that strictness. Whereas in Donizetti, those lines were really freeing to me and I like to add more rubato and sing more long phrases. My voice likes to sing long lines,” he noted. “But just because Mozart is a little more square doesn’t mean I can’t be free. I try to approach Mozart in a vocal way that is freer and not to undermine the music to make it suit me.”

Starting a new role is always an exciting and scary process for any artist. It is the equivalent of opening a door and stepping into a completely new world that you might have some knowledge of, but with the understanding that anything can happen as you step through the door. To help find stability along that journey, singers tend to establish a process for themselves that they turn to every time they must step through another door.

“My process is learning the words first. So what I do is learn all the recitative in a dialogue kind of way so I am saying them speaking. But not just my part, but everyone involved so I know how it goes. Also in the musical numbers, it’s a lot of dialogue so its kind of learning the dialogue and making sure that it is ingrained so then I can put the notes in.”

Using recordings is a unique aspect of many singers’ process. Some singers love to bath themselves in tradition and learn more about how their favorite artists approached a work. This helps them dive deeper into the work as a whole and informs the artist of his or her own interpretation. Some singers go to the polar opposite and avoid recordings altogether. They don’t want to “contaminate” their own approaches with that of other interpreters. LaBrie’s approach tries for a balance of these perspectives.

“I do a little. I listen a little to see how it goes and hear the orchestration but I try not to so it does not influence me,” he noted. “So I listen to the recordings to see other interpretations and then I work with a coach and a pianist and just myself in a practice room.”

The learning process doesn’t stop with the music and the notes. LaBrie finds it important to work with a coach, especially when it comes to the style of the music. For example when he learned “La Favorita,” he made sure the coach he worked with knew the style of the work.

“I worked with Rachelle Jonck on the Alfonso in ‘La Favorita’ and she is a Bel Canto expert. She helped me understand the musical phrase and the appoggiaturas and she helped me write cadenzas. For the repeats, she helped me write different ornamentations. She also helped me understand the style because the music is written in a certain way with a lot of it written as eighth notes,” he explained. “But that does not mean you just sing eighth notes. That means you express the text in a way that is spoken. And an inflection the way you would say it. She came to a lot of the rehearsals and she was like ‘I think you can have more freedom here and I think you can do this or that there.'”

One of the most gratifying parts for LaBrie is that he doesn’t spend much time memorizing so he has more time to practice and that also allows him to plan ahead if he has to learn a new role.

“I spend more time practicing and just by that I learn. And when I need to learn a new role, I learn the next role while I’m there and then I go to the next job and learn that one there. It’s easy to do that because when I’m in rehearsals there is so much structure to my day that I don’t have to figure it out myself. I have pretty much six hours of rehearsal and around those six hours I practice and I go to the gym.”

The Future 

The opera world is filled with numerous challenges and as a young singer, LaBrie is aware that these obstacles will never get any easier. With an overemphasis on social media, image, and publicity, the baritone has to balance numerous factors, in addition to his singing.

“Ideally, we like to think as an artist. But that is not the case with me,” he emphasized. “I am my own publicist, manager. I make my connections and I have to sing for the right people and constantly be putting myself out there. I have to put up videos and need to know what I am doing. That is the hardest part.”

Despite these challenges, LaBrie remains focused on doing everything necessary to build up his career as an artist.

“I will be doing ‘Il Barbiere di Siviglia’ and a role debut in ‘Elixir of Love’ in Omaha and I’ll be doing a role and company debut in San Diego with the opera ‘Three Decembers’ with Frederica Von Stade. I love the piece after I listened to it before I accepted. It’s a gorgeous piece with a great story and great writing.

And after those engagements, LaBrie has another mission.

“I want to open my doors in Europe because I want to sing in Europe and of course to be at the top of my career. I really want to be one of the greatest singers in the world with hard work and dedication and constant self-motivation.”


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