Q & A: English Tenor Adam Smith on Finding & Following His Own Voice

By Mike Hardy

Hailed as the “tenor that the whole opera world is talking about” (Marie Claire) and a “revelation” (Bachtrack), English tenor Adam Smith is known for his voice that “overflows with dramatic conviction and heroic impact” (Opera Now Magazine).

Born in the North of England, he studied the violin from the age of four and having been accepted with a scholarship, graduated from the RNCM with a first-class honours degree in music with additional degrees from the International Opera Course at the Guildhall and a Master of Music with Distinction. He now lives in Philadelphia with his wife, soprano Corinne Winters.

OperaWire caught up with Adam in Lyon, France where he is currently debuting in that opera house as Boris in Janáček’s “Káť’a Kabanová.”

OperaWire: You’re currently performing in Janáček’s “Káť’a Kabanová” and you had a performance last night. How is that going?

Adam Smith: Yeah, it’s going very well. I have another performance tomorrow night. Funny enough, this opera is the first principal role I ever did when I was twenty-one. I was Boris, in this opera, and it’s the only time I’ve done it since then. I don’t really delve into this repertoire very much because my heart is in the Italian and French repertoire, and it’s where I speak the most. But it’s really good fun to do something out of your comfort zone every once in a while. It was an opportunity to work with my wife, as well.

It’s just one of those things that comes around every now and again. I had the opportunity to be doing a “Butterfly” at the same time, somewhere else. But I decided, in this circumstance, and also because of everything with the Covid pandemic and all that situation, it changed a couple of things coming out of it. The way you accept contracts afterwards. You want a certain stability. Also, it’s an amazing place to work, Lyon. I’ve been wanting to work in Lyon for a long time. It’s an amazing house, an amazing city and the whole package was just right.

This opera is not so strange to me. I did a dissertation in college on this opera. I did my first principal role in this opera. I’ve studied this opera back to front and written about it. So, it’s not such a strange thing. I don’t do Janáček. I won’t be doing any more for a little while. Well, for a long time. Not because I don’t like it, it’s just that Janáček wrote for soprano extremely well. He wrote for his title characters extremely well. But it doesn’t have the substance that gets me out of bed every day for opera.

I started on the violin when I was four, so I come from that schooling. That’s why I do a lot of French music. Because a lot of French music and opera has a lot of strings in it. I think I connect to that a lot.

OW: You were born in the UK, in the North I believe, and moved around pretty early?

AS: Yeah, I left the UK almost straight after college years. I left the UK because it wasn’t particularly a great place for developing my kind of voice type. There weren’t the opportunities available for what I was really going for. I found the songfest, the ensemble in Antwerp for three years. It took me a little bit longer to find my way, to find exactly where I fit into the business. And also, for people to accept me as a British tenor singing Italian repertoire. I speak French and Italian, but I was a British tenor singing Italian repertoire and I wasn’t an “Italian” tenor. I didn’t fit the mould. But my training, which I’ve mostly done myself, I trained basically by looking at the old Italian school of singing and figuring out how they did it. Basically, watching Corelli and the way he moves and the way he sings and just figured it out like that. And that’s the thing that works the best for me. I got a little bit messed up with voice in college and I had a bit of a tough time. It took me a little bit longer. I connect with all the big, romantic repertoire very much.

OW: You can’t really get more quintessentially English than the name, Adam Smith?

AS: Yeah, I know, I thought many times about changing my name. But in the end, it just got too late and I didn’t change it. I think I would have had more success to be honest, if I did, (laughing). After Brexit, I’m also struggling with a lot of things because I’m trying to figure out where my residency is going to be. I am having to get visas for everything and it’s very, very complicated. Brexit has changed things because, I’m so British. It’s been tough.

OW: Marie Claire described you as the “tenor that the whole opera world is talking about.” It’s surprising that you’re not more widely known to audiences.

AS: It’s a very simple reason. I had been on the Ensemble in Antwerp, not doing big roles, but doing smaller roles. I was getting a certain type of stage experience working with directors like Calixto Bieito, David Alden and people like that. Learning how they operate, working with amazing conductors, and it was a great experience. But then it wasn’t giving me the experience for the roles I wanted to sing. I met my wife there, doing “Otello,” and then I took a year off because I needed to figure out what was going on with my voice. I needed to have some space to really develop the voice and see where it’s going to end up.

Then I’d started to build the debuts, BIG debuts for me, into the schedule. I was about to do Pinkerton in London, at the ENO, and I was about to do two big debuts in America. It was really picking up. America had really sort of taken me on board.

But then COVID hit. So, whereas there were a couple of really good tenors who got their break just before COVID, and everyone knew about them. I lost literally everything just before I was about to do the stuff that I’d worked really hard for, to get. You know?

So that’s possibly why you didn’t know particularly too much about me. I mean, it’s all building back up now and it’s all fine. It’s just taken a few years to get back. On top of that, in those few years, my voice has grown considerably. So now I’m getting to the point where, I’m thinking, I’m thirty-five, I’m not getting any younger. One has to think about these things (laughing).

OW: There’s no doubt in my mind that it is important to be physically strong and fit to be able to properly perform an opera. Would you agree with that?

AS: It really is. I would say that doing heavy muscular exercise is not particularly great for certain body types. The longer your neck, the greater strain you’re putting on your vocalism. I know that might sound weird, but I have a long neck so my larynx is up here, high.

Whereas, for people with shorter necks than me, their larynx is closer to their chest. Therefore they’re not putting so much strain on the muscles that support the larynx. If you see what I mean, from a physiological perspective. The physiological thing for me was the most important thing for me to figure out because I’m a tall guy and I had to figure out why my voice didn’t work the same way as other peoples, and why I had to work harder at certain things in order to make it consistent every time, compared to other people.

OW: And of course, speaking of Corelli, he employed a lower larynx technique.

AS: Yes. Weirdly enough, we have the same physiology. He was exactly the same height as me. He had a long neck, and he had a large head. And, when he was younger, he was either a swimmer or a volleyball player. He was very strong. He stopped doing that, later in his life once he got really into singing. But it is necessary to be strong, absolutely.

OW: Are you very academic? Music obviously has played a prominent role throughout your life. I understand you studied violin from the age of 4 and you graduated from the RNCM with a first-class honors’ degree in music. Tell me about your upbringing. I assume your parents were musical?

AS: Funny enough, I’m not remotely academic. I used to love Maths, but I was really a physical person. I have three brothers, so I was always about the physical side. But I did have to become academic in order to figure out my voice, and one has to be academic when one’s trying to learn languages because it’s complicated.  But yes, I started violin because my mother put a violin in my hands. All my family were musical. My grandfather was a baritone, on my father’s side and I think my great-grandfather on my mother’s side was also a singer. Violin was always a part of my life up until I was nineteen. In fact, it became part of my opera life in 2019 when I did a debut in Bordeaux. I did my first “Hoffmann” in Bordeaux.

The director found out I was a violinist and it was a new production. The amazing French director, Vincent Huguet, called and asked me: “Do you want to play the violin solo in Act three with Nicklausse?”

I was like, OK, I haven’t played the violin for 10 years but let’s see how it goes. In the end it worked out OK. It worked out so well that a reviewer said: “He sang well but he faked the violin, badly!”

Apparently, I sounded like the orchestra, so I’ll take that any day! I did not sound that good.

OW: So, violin from the age of four and a history of singers in your family, when did you decide to turn to opera?

AS: Well, I was always a singer. I was a singer, apparently, running around singing when I was in violin classes at seven, eight and nine. I was always singing the tunes. I could always, apparently, hold a tune. I find that young children can either hold a tune really well, or they cannot hold a tune at all, remotely. So, I obviously had that ear, maybe from the violin, maybe, something like that. So, I was always a singer, I was doing musical theatre up until about seventeen or eighteen, in school, in musical theatre roles.

Then I auditioned for a musical theatre school in London, the Mountview Academy, the Central School of speech and Drama. You know, all those places. The Mountview have a famous audition at Mountview because I sang well. They liked it. I acted well and they liked it. Then, they give you a ballet audition. I mean, well, let me tell you, this body don’t do ballet! So, I laughed all the way through it because I was, like, so insecure, so uncomfortable and I was laughing, like: “This is crazy. Why would I be doing this?”

And they really did not like that. In the end, I didn’t get in anywhere. And it was a blessing because my mum said: “Why don’t you train classically and then you can see what you want to do because you can train properly and figure it out?”

So I did.

I auditioned for the Royal Northern College of Music, the Royal Scottish Academy, as it was known then, and the Birmingham Conservatoire. In the end, I went to the Royal Northern College of Music. Very quickly I got involved in the operas, and I was like: “Whoa! No microphones. Ok. Let’s see then.”

Then I figured out I had a loud voice. Well, I knew that already. But there was something there. It just sort of happened very organically. I just fell in love with opera, and I just started listening to old recordings of Freni and Pavarotti singing “La Boheme” and I was like, “how can you not love this? This is insane. So beautiful.”

Learning Italian in the college, we had these Italian lessons once a week and we were learning. I remember the first time I heard Pavarotti sing a high ‘C’ on a recording. I was like, because harmonically on the violin I understand these things I know how they work. You know, a fourth, a fifth, a perfect fourth a perfect fifth, and how a resolution to a chord will happen. So, I’m listening to “O Suave Fanciulla.” I’ll never forget it. I can remember exactly where I was sitting in the class. We were listening to “O Suave Fanciulla,” and they were singing, at the end, “Amore, amore…….”

I was thinking: “The resolution is a ‘C’, he’s not going to go up to the ‘C’, is he?”

And then he (mimes singing high note). I was like, “Whoa, that’s cool!”

This is before I ever had sung a high ‘C’ of course. I was just, like, “Whoa, that’s crazy!”

I always was a tenor, but I didn’t really know how to go there (points upwards). I could get to about a ‘B’ flat. Then I didn’t really know what was going any further.

But yeah, it was music college and then it just sort of made me love opera and then we did “Carmen” and then we did all these other operas and I was “Okay, we’ll see how it goes.”

Then I auditioned for the Guildhall in my final year in the Northern and I got in so I thought, “Alright, I’ll go there.” And it just sort of snowballed and I started to fall in love with it.

OW: You mentioned Luciano Pavarotti as a great influence, and I think he probably served as great inspiration to most young tenors. But who else were your greatest influences, operatically. Which tenors do you most seek inspiration from?

AS: Well, the main British tenor that I was always interested in was Charlie Craig. Charles Craig, he was my favorite, you know, I’m not the kind of person who is that interested in listening, listening, listening. Because I’m a mimic. And if I listen too much, I’ll copy. And I don’t want to copy. But my main inspiration, overall, throughout all these years has been Franco Corelli. Because he sings like a violin. He sings like a violin but has the voice of a trumpet! Thankfully, we’re listening mostly to recordings of him in his forties and fifties. Every now and then you can find an early recording of him online and it’s really interesting to hear the difference. However, you can never know the full difference because they were recording on analogue recording devices back then and not digital.

Digital is the destruction of opera. Because it makes small voices sound enormous and it can’t properly pick up big voices, and it’s a real problem. So, for example, I’ve done various online relays, online live broadcasts, where I’m wearing a microphone here (points to face). They didn’t do that in the old days. They had microphones up there! (points skywards).  This is an acoustical art form, it’s not a muscle art form. It’s an acoustical art form and the microphones should be over there picking up the sounds that we pick up. It’s very difficult because, I won’t name names, but I’ve had some really bad quality audio from my broadcasts. On the one hand I’ve seen some really good stuff, but I’ve seen some unfortunate stuff. It’s just one of those things that you have to deal with in the business, nowadays. But it’s doing so much damage. The Met has really suffered from doing so many online broadcasts. It gets to the point, I was doing “Tosca” in London, in October and November. I had various people writing me saying “Oh, are you doing a live broadcast because it’s a bit too far for me to come from London to Coventry!”

And I was like “what? No……what?”

I also think it’s COVID. People are a lot more insular.

OW: I was particularly impressed recently with a recording you made of Puccini’s “E lucevan le stelle” from “Tosca.” Sung in English.

AS: You know, singing in English is really hard. I won’t be doing any more translations. It’s not how I see the art form. I love the English repertoire, one day I look forward to singing “Peter Grimes” and things like that. It’s not that I dislike English. It’s that I can’t do translations because I’m so much about being the musical line, maybe from being a violinist, that when you’re doing an English translation it utterly, totally, and completely changes the musical line. I really enjoyed doing “Tosca” because it was a very special time and doing that recording of “E lucevan le stelle” was so cool because one of the big positives of doing it like that is that you connect with the words because they’re your mother tongue. You connect with them in a different way. It’s funny because I put a little clip of that recording on my Instagram profile and it’s one of my videos that’s gone viral. It was crazy, it built my profile like crazy and it was just amazing how that affected people, even though it was in English.

OW: Speaking with you today, and reading about your previous comments on the art, demonstrates to me that you have a very good academic knowledge of the mechanics of the voice and I think you show great knowledge of teaching. What are your thoughts on that?

AS: Well, I think the greatest tenors of all time were smart in who they took advice from. You know, Corelli took a lot of advice from Lauri-Volpi. There you’re talking about two amazing tenors, one after the other. But nowadays, who do we…?

I mean, this is a dangerous topic to go into now, but if I’m looking at old school Italian style tenors, the only one I can think of is Martin Mueller. Have you heard of him? He’s the only one that really has that kind of old school. You really need to be able to find a mentor, someone who understands the way it works and can give advice. That’s really, really hard to find which is why for the last nine years I’ve not had a teacher. I’ve just figured it out myself because it’s once bitten twice shy. When I was in music college, I just didn’t have a good time with teaching. Well, I had some good times but the majority of it was difficult.

There’s an old Italian lady called Laura Sarti who lives in Lewes, near Glyndebourne and she helped me in my last year in Guildhall. Bless her, she’s going to be 99 in two weeks. She was wonderful. But they’re few and far between. I also had a little help from Dennis O’Neil in the year after college in 2013. He was a great artist in general. He’s also a really, really nice guy. I have a vocal coach, my main vocal coach who comes with me on gigs quite often. He’s a French-Canadian guy who lives in Philadelphia. He travels with me sometimes to ensure my voice is speaking the way I want it to speak and that my language is good because although you have the usual staff in the theatre. They’re looking at the general overview. They’re not looking just at me. In the same way a tennis player travels with a coach, as an opera singer you’re on your own. Especially when you’re doing the iconic tenor repertoire of the 19th century. You can’t really afford to be, at least, not doing your best.

OW: You’re debuting in Cincinnati as Pinkerton in “Madama Butterfly” in July. How are you approaching this role?

AS: In July, yeah. I was supposed to have done three already. I lost two, in the first year of Covid, the one I’d been rehearsing in the ENO. I was four days away from my opening and that went! I was supposed to do another one in Detroit, which incidentally is coming back this year, to Detroit, which I was supposed to do but couldn’t because I have a conflict because I’m singing “Romeo” in DC which is a very exciting thing for me because I was also worried about the way my voice was going. Reviewers now are starting to use the word “Spinto” and I push those things away because I’m thirty-five and I want to keep going with as much Lyric repertoire as I can. But you know, the business pushed you, as other roles get lighter and lighter, like Alfredo and other things like that. I want to do Alfredo. I want to do things like that. But they keep getting cast very light, a lot lighter than they used to be cast. So, as they get lighter, I have to get slightly heavier, because my role also has to shift with it.

So, Pinkerton is, I’m very excited for this. I’ve been singing the Act one love duet for years, and I still haven’t done this role. It’s ridiculous, you know?

OW: Plácido Domingo is wont to say, if you don’t get booed at the end, you didn’t sing it well.

AS: I totally disagree. Puccini added in “Addio, fiorito asil” because he didn’t want the tenor to have a bad response like that. You know, even back then the tenor got a bad response. He wanted the tenor to show remorse. If you think about it, it’s like a twenty-year-old Navy Officer in the early 1900’s. Going to Japan on a boat and anyone can watch things like “Band of Brothers” to know how it works when the Navy goes to these places. They meet a girl, and they can’t stay there. But this was a tradition. This was a Japanese tradition, like of Geishas. Yes, he says the odd, nasty thing but everything is an inflection. And inflection is a big, big part of language.

So, I am not of that school. I am of the school that I genuinely believe he was taken by her, but that he had to leave, and he couldn’t easily come back because he was in the Navy. He couldn’t just abandon that. He’d be a deserter. So, he was a young, immature guy, which we’ve all been at some point and he made some dodgy choices. And then he came back later on, three years later, and he realized how bad his choices were, how much he’d ruined the life of certain people and he was desperately sad about it. Now, when I say it like that, how does it sound?

OW: What do you aspire to do in the future? What roles are on your dream list?

AS: Well, my aspirations are where my voice is going. Going towards the “Chenier’s” and the “Manon Lescaut’s” and things like that. I’m hoping that, you know, I have a “Romeo” on the books. I have the potential of a Massenet “Manon.” I still haven’t done that and it’s something I really want to do. I want to do “Werther.” I want to do various things like this. So, it’s just a case of, over the next year I think, it’s going to be the year for me because I’m going to have a lot more exposure at the right particular level. I have a lot of exposure in South America for various reasons, and in North America, but hopefully now I’m going to get more exposure in Europe.

OW: Finally, what do you like to do outside of singing?

AS: Well, I’m doing a yachting course in Croatia, in June, for five days with my father. I play tennis, I play a lot of sport. I am hoping to get back on the ice when I go back to Manchester, to just have a skate. I used to play ice hockey a lot.


InterviewsStage Spotlight