Q & A: Adam Smith on Gounod’s ‘Roméo et Juliette’ & His Washington National Opera Debut

By Francisco Salazar
(Credit: Vimagazino/Nikos Kokkas)

This week the Washington National Opera is set to present a new production of “Roméo et Juliette” with a cast of recognized singers, including rising star Adam Smith.

Smith has gradually made a name for himself in the opera world with his passionate singing reminiscent of the golden age. The tenor has performed major roles in both French and Italian repertoire. Among those are Don José from “Carmen,” Mario Cavaradossi from “Tosca,” and the Duke from “Rigoletto.”

Now, he is performing Roméo for the first time, and Smith spoke to OperaWire about this new role and the challenges of it.

OperaWire: What does it feel like to make your Washington National Opera debut?

Adam Smith: This debut in particular is special for me, because it is a role that I have been wanting to sing since studying it in college. I love singing French repertoire, and this role is particularly spectacular. It certainly isn’t an easy role – Roméo is on stage a lot! – but I am ready for the challenge. I am also based close to Washington DC, so I can partly work “from home,” which for opera singers is very rare and a nice bonus.

OW: What does this house mean to you?

AS: Washington National Opera is a fabulous company that is part of the Kennedy Center, a special home for the arts that shows diverse programming to over two million audience members, and has an outreach program that works with 1.4 million students per year. While there are many special opera houses around the world, the Kennedy Center is very different both in terms of its atmosphere and audience, making this experience unique.

OW: You are performing a lot of verismo. How does Roméo compare and how do you change from something like Puccini and Mascagni to Gounod?

AS: This has been an interesting journey. There are some changes I have to make mentally as well as physically to approach a role like Roméo, especially having just sung Turiddu. Verismo repertoire requires the sound to be open, wide, resonant and full throated most of the time. A lot of the time Roméo requires the complete opposite. It requires grace, never-ending line, control, and youth. What used to be easy for me 10 years ago is now more difficult, and what used to be difficult for me is now easier. Furthermore, it doesn’t really matter how much you coach it beforehand, the rehearsal process is crucial to me in finding the right color in the sound for each moment. As this is a role debut, I will continue to get to know this character, and how to transition from one type of repertoire to another as I go along.

OW: How do you see Roméo and how do you interpret him?

AS: Firstly, I’ll say that I don’t see Roméo as being 14, like in the Shakespeare play. I think with the opera version, it is difficult to embrace this idea because of how mature a singer’s voice needs to be in order to sing the role. I also think that 14 was a lot older comparatively in the time of Shakespeare. I see Roméo as a young man. Maybe 19 or 20. He’s a deep, full-hearted, intense, artistic type. Someone who builds strong bonds and strong relationships with the people around him. From a vocal perspective, there is so much opportunity in the role for color and shading of sounds. This is the part that gets me most excited. There are various moments of, what I like to call, “vocal gymnastics,” including big diminuendos, long lines, and added high notes that I have been preparing in particular. I believe this only adds more depth to the music, as well as to the character, who was so wonderfully gifted to us by William Shakespeare.

OW: What is the biggest challenge of this role?

AS: Simply, the emotions involved. It is a complete emotional rollercoaster. The biggest challenge is trying to keep that emotion and some of the physicality of the role from disrupting the vocal mechanism. For example, the “challenge scene” in Act three can become very animated, after which you have a very intense moment of singing. Managing these moments is the most challenging aspect of the role as an actor as well as a singer.

OW: You may say this opera is an extended duet. How do you pace yourself from the amount of music that you sing?

AS: That’s a very good way of putting it. It really is an extended duet. In my view, the opera is written very well with regard to the flow of it. I think as I said before, managing the more dramatic moments is the most important thing in order to pace the voice. As singers, if we start thinking about singing less or saving the voice in moments in order to pace ourselves, the majority of the time we end up doing ourselves more damage – we tire quicker. So on the contrary, my process is to stay fully engaged mentally as well as physically, the whole time.

OW: What is your favorite moment in this work?

AS: This is a really tough question. As I said, this opera has been part of my life since I became an opera singer. I started music on the violin when I was very young. Gounod’s music is so full of strings that I have always connected so much to it on a very deep level. I think if I am really pushed to nail down a moment that is my favorite, I would say it is the duet of either Act four or the aria in Act five. In my opinion, this is the most mature music that Gounod wrote for Roméo in this opera. It has pathos and lyricism yet it is stentorian and bold. It’s deeply emotional to sing, and so perfectly written, to tell the story of where Romeo and Juliet are in their lives at that point. All the while including motifs that give the audience a clear direction to where things may end up.

OW: Have you worked with Rosa Feola? And what are you looking forward to while working with her?

AS: I have never worked with Rosa, but have been a fan for a long time. She has a stunningly beautiful voice and is a great actress and stage partner. Her technique is deeply “old school” Italian, a technical style I have based my own voice on, so I can relate and appreciate. The relationship between the characters of Roméo and Juliet is obviously very intimate in this opera. Having the right stage partner for it is very important. It can often make or break the show.

OW: Do you plan on singing more lyric roles?

AS: Absolutely! My voice will always be lyrical. I believe everyone’s voice should be lyrical. The sheer nature of some voices makes them capable of other things as well. I work hard to have a voice and technique that can sing many different types of repertoire. In the 20th century many well-known tenors sang a whole range of repertoire because it’s very healthy for the voice and the mentality to change and adapt to the different requirements of different repertoire. It keeps the voice fresh and young, despite the fact that age and strength will develop other parts of the instrument. I would love to sing Faust, or Massenet’s Des Grieux to name a couple. These are roles that require youth but also fullness of sound to do justice to the music.


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