Q & A: John Osborn on ‘I Puritani,’ Hopes & Fears In COVID-19 World

By Mauricio Villa
(Credit: Matilde Fasso)

***Note – this interview was conducted many weeks prior to the recent regulations imposed throughout Spain that have effectively forced many theaters, including the Ópera de Oviedo, to alter their schedules. 

Over the course of his 27-year career, American Tenor John Osborn has been distinguished as one of the top bel canto tenors in the world.

With an incredible vocal range that goes from low A to high F and covers nearly three octaves, a powerful dark center, and a polished technique, Osborn has been a dominant interpreter of Rossini operas like “Otello,” “La donna del Lago” and “Armida.”

But as his voice has matured and darkened, he has also become arguably the most renowed champion of the role of Arnold in “Guillaume Tell,”  one which he has performed to great acclaim at the Royal Opera House, Metropolitan Opera, and on recording with Antonio Pappano. He is also a major proponent of the French repertory and music of composers such as Meyerbeer, Gounod, and Berlioz, among others.

He recently returned to the stage after the global lockdown with a run of performances of Bellini’s “I Puritani” in Oviedo, Spain. OperaWire talked to Osborn during these performances discussing his ideas about singing, technique, and his feelings about the COVID-19 world we live in.

Opera Wire: Could these performances of “I Puritani” be considered your return to the stage after the global lockdown?

John Osborn: Yes, this is the first production I have done in six months, and I am so happy to be here in Oviedo right now.

OW: How did you react when you received the news that you would be singing “I Puritani” in Spain?

JO: I was so excited, but my first thought was to contact the Spanish embassy in Los Angeles and ask if it was even possible for an American to travel to the European Union. If it were possible, of course, singing “I Puritani” was a given. I had doubts about traveling–if I had to quarantine when I arrive in Spain or take a test in order to begin working immediately–but amazingly everything worked out alright. When I first got to Oviedo I was really shocked that everyone was wearing masks, because in the USA people only wear masks when they go indoors. They take it very seriously here and I think that is why Asturias has the lowest rate of infections and deaths in all of Spain. And we must be really careful, because if there were one infected person at the theatre it would mean closing down the show and putting all the staff into quarantine for two weeks.

OW: Was it not too much, to sing Arturo in “I Puritani” after six months off the stage? How did you manage to keep your voice in shape during that time?

JO: Actually, when I found out that I was going to Spain I was already singing a bit because I had been preparing some video recordings–like a “Romeo and Juliet” duet with my wife–so my voice was already in shape. But if I am being honest I had not been singing very much at all before then. I was quite scared and depressed when this whole situation started and felt quite uncertain about the future. I wasn’t inspired to sing. I kept wondering; what if I would never sing on a stage again? Teaching is another skill I have–whether it is voice lessons, languages, technique–but I felt it was all useless because without performing how could there be a future for us as singers? I was really hopeless. I am also concerned about other colleagues who are not working at this time.

These are very uncertain times, not only for singers who are in the middle of their careers and have gained a certain level of reputation but for young singers who are in resident programs and whose careers have not properly started: they don’t know if they even have futures at all. Lots of thoughts are going around my head, and every day things change which keeps me on edge. I have been on an emotional roller-coaster and it has not been the most enjoyable ride.

OW: Were you scared that “I Puritani” was the first opera that you would perform since lockdown?

JO: No. I had actually sung “I Puritani” in concert with my wife in Rotterdam last January, so I was already refamiliarized with the opera, and I have been singing this role on and off for more than 21 years. Besides, I was singing “Les Huguenots” when the virus outbreak began and I consider that opera much harder than Bellin’s masterpiece.



OW: You, alongside Alfredo Kraus, are one of the few tenors who have kept this role for over 20 years. How have you managed to keep Arturo in your repertoire for so long?

JO: For me the trick is spacing it out. The first time I sang it was 1999, and I did not come back to this opera until 2009 at the Netherland Opera. And I have been singing a lot of different styles. Even though I have sang lots of Rossini’s roles, I have been moving into French repertoire like “La Juive” in Munich or “William Tell” at the ROH in 2017. So it was like coming back to my roots, to the purity of my sound.

And I found myself restudying the role and thinking: what did I do 10 years ago when this part felt so easy? I even have a recording of myself from 1999, and I have been listening to it, trying to remind myself what it felt like to sing like that. I have sung it four more times since then, but I always spread it out across two or three years. And I am here today knowing that I have another one signed in the future, at the Wiener Staatsoper, so I know that I will keep it in my repertoire for a while longer yet.

OW: Seeing as you have moved into heavier repertoire like Gounod, Berlioz, Meyerbeer, it appears nothing short of a miracle that you can keep your extremely high register intact. How have you managed to preserve your voice?

JO: Maybe it’s due to my Bel-Canto background and my experience with Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. I was able to grow in this repertoire, get stronger, develop more stamina so that I was able to facilitate something like Berlioz’s “Benvenuto Cellini.” But I had already sung “Les Huguenots” before “Cellini,” and to me Raoul is the most difficult tenor part. It is so high and lyrical in general; it is far more difficult than Arnold in “William Tell.”

But the trick is that I am singing Bel-Canto style with more body; I am singing with my voice and not like a heldentenor. There are moments in those operas that are heroic, but I have to find ways to facilitate such an epic moment in such roles. And I think that ‘la dolceza’ (the sweetness) is essential in every role and repertoire, even in Verdi. I think that there are lots of details written into the score that are simply overlooked, probably because of tradition. For example, big voices tend to sing roles like “Les Troyens”–so heroic all the time–but the tenor has to have ‘dolcezza’ as well, such as when he is The Duke in “Rigoletto” or Alfredo in “La Traviata.”

If I had to sing “Il Trovatore” I would find the ‘dolcezza’ of the role. When you have this, combined with the experience and maturity that I have, you can always sing louder, but the real trick is finding where and how it is appropriate to sing in full voice or in the cord of the voice and be able to sing a true mezza-voce. I try to use this in every single role I sing. Because I see the necessity of it, I find it stylistically correct. I can incorporate my Bel-Canto style into the sweetness of the French language.

With “I Puritani” I am going back to Bel-Canto, and I have a “Sonnambula” in the near future which is a role lighter than “Puritani”, and I must return to the pure thin legato singing with good breath support. I think that so long as I keep this quality to my voice, I will have a long career; at least fifteen more years. I think the central register is the core of the voice: you have to match all your register to the central one. If you do this you can sing the same way during the whole register and you don’t have to push. I use energy and breath support to create more volume because everything rests upon the Bel-Canto school. Aside for this current crisis, I haven’t stopped singing for more than two months in all the 20 years that I have been working. My voice has had a chance to mature and develop without losing its essence, and I am therefore able to keep my whole range intact despite including heavier roles into my repertoire.

OW: How was your work with Emilio Sagi in this production?

JO: Emilio Sagi has a special way of showcasing the voices, especially for Bel-Canto. I had only worked with him once before, in Bordeaux in his Botero production of “La Fille du Regiment.” He focuses a lot on and relays a lot to the singers, always respecting the music. When a director give you a whole bunch of direction that is in no way connected with the music and makes no sense, it simply becomes action and makes it very difficult to us to say anything of significance. You are just on stage doing stuff. I think some directors don’t trust that the singers can communicate enough while they are singing, and I find this slightly insulting. Sagi, on the other hand, gives a lot of freedom to put your ideas into the role, and he never imposes actions; rather he suggests them, ensuring that the singers are comfortable with them.

OW: Do you have any role premieres in the near future?

JO: I was supposed to be doing “Carmen’s” Don Jose right now in Paris, but it has been postponed. I will debut Eleazar in “La Juive,” after having sung Leopold, in Geneva next year. We are discussing Ricardo in “Un Ballo in Maschera” but that won’t be any time soon. I would also like to sing “Jerusalem” and maybe Berlioz’s “La Damnation di Faust” in Amsterdam next season. I have already sung one performance of Puccini’s “La Boheme” four years ago, and this is a role that I would like to sing more and keep on my repertoire. Honestly, who knows what might come next! Look at my friend, Gregory Kunde, who comes from the high Bel-Canto tenor repertoire and who is very successfully now singing the spinto and dramatic roles with such a dark and heavy centre to his voice.

OW: Is there anything else you would like to say before finishing our interview?

JO: I would like to say that as I sit here with you, in Oviedo, taking coffee, I feel I am one of the luckiest people in the industry right now. As you know there were many hoops we had to jump through to make this happen; I had to sort out a lot of papers with the Spanish consulate in Los Angeles and the government of Spain to let me travel on such short notice and allow me to work in Spain. Having survived that process and made it here, I can say it is a privilege to have this opportunity.

I am very proud of what Oviedo and other companies are doing to enable classical opera to remain relevant during these times. I earnestly believe that the arts are an essential part of our humanity, even while most governments consider them nonessential right now. I understand being cautious and taking measures, but now that we can see it is possible to put on a performance, I find the early cancelations of entire seasons–as some companies are doing–fiscally irresponsible, disrespectful, and career suicide. So I want to say that with the right regulations and cautions it is all possible.


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