Q & A: Jonathan Tetelman on Puccini, His Met Debut & Finding His Voice

By Afton Wooten
(© Photo: Ben Wolf)

Chilean-American tenor Jonathan Tetelman released his second Deutsche Grammophon album “The Great Puccini,” and made his Metropolitan Opera debut just over six months apart. He spoke with OperaWire about his recent success and the power of Puccini.

Tetelman made his Met debut in the role of Ruggero in “La Rondine,” and will be returning as Pinkerton in “Madama Butterfly” starting April 26. Later this year he performs at the Ubeda Festival with Frédéric Chaslin, the Oviedo Philharmonic Orchestra alongside soprano María José Moreno, the Festival Napa Valley, and the Margitsziget Gala, to name a few.

OperaWire: Within the last year you released an album and made your Met debut, what does this feel like?

Jonathan Tetelman: It’s a surreal experience because I’ve been singing Puccini for about six years and to have the opportunity to record an entire album for this composer, especially these days, is such a gift. You have to measure every moment and really enjoy it. To be able to sing back-to-back Puccini operas as my debut, that’s an unbelievable opportunity and I’m just trying to service it as best as I can.

OW: What draws you to Puccini’s music?

JT: I don’t know if I was initially drawn to Puccini as a singer. I was drawn to it because it was offered to me. I did “La Bohème” for the first time in Fuzhou, China, and I was able to communicate the emotions, music, and character to an audience that probably had no idea about the Italian language, yet they could feel these emotions and feel this music. It’s such a great feeling. It really means something to me that I can deliver these messages that were written 100 years ago to people and have them feel these moments with these characters.

For me, Puccini is one of the ultimate composers, because you get to be this incredible character combined with his sweeping melodies and incredible symphonic composition – it’s a challenge in every possible way for an opera singer.

OW: Do you have a preference between singing Puccini on stage or in the recording studio?

JT: It’s a bit of a challenge to record because Puccini is so performance-based in terms of how you convey the messages, and the music is so rooted in the characters. In the studio, you don’t have the set or costumes, and you don’t have the audience, all of which are really important to connect to. I actually found it a bit challenging to make this album because I’ve only had experience singing Puccini on stage, I never had any experience of singing this music in a studio before so I kind of brought the opera to me. I included a couple of colleagues for duets, trios, and ensembles, and I think that gave a nice representation of how Puccini is supposed to be heard – it’s not really for one person.

OW: Tell me more about the creation of the album.

JT: I have this platform that allows the world to hear great voices, and I feel I should use it to give people the chance their voices deserve. I made a conscious effort to include some of the ensembles. I think it fills out the album nicely and gives the audience a nice break so they don’t have to listen to me the whole time and hear some other voices. I didn’t want to include anything symphonic because I think it’s important to have an all-encompassing opera album.

OW: In your album notes you say “I immediately felt at home with the music and the character (Rodolfo). It was Destiny.” Can you explain that, please?

JT: I always say, ‘I was misdiagnosed as a baritone,’ so I was always really a tenor, I just wasn’t ready for it. It took a lot of time for me to really accept that I was a tenor, that’s the first thing. Then I started building the voice and it wasn’t easy. I didn’t have a straight, narrow path, I tried other things, but I guess God had different plans for me, or Puccini had different plans for me.

I just felt like in the beginning the tenor voice sounded thin and that the characters were kind of one-dimensional. I just didn’t relate to it. But, I took a pause for about a year, and after that began to really start delivering consistency of the tenor and building the passaggio which takes a lot of time. I had a good teacher who guided me and got me on the right way. Then I started building my technique with Rodolfo. It’s actually a great role to build with because you have a lot of time for trial and error – the orchestra is thick and you have this wonderful story that you can balance the two and build your technique.

OW: Do you think your transition from baritone to tenor has contributed to your recent success?

JT: I was always a tenor and I just had to find Jonathan’s voice. I was still trying to sound like something rather than sound like me. Puccini has been good for me to start understanding who is Jonathan and who is his voice. As singers, we’re always being inspired by other people and recordings of other singers who have done this repertoire before us and they’re amazing, but you can’t just take what they’re doing, you have to find your own way at some point. You can’t just rely on what all the great singers have done in the past.

OW: What is your advice to young singers who may not feel at home in their voice or roles?

JT:  Finding a great teacher who really believes in you and isn’t trying to push a certain sound on you is important. If you’re doing it on your own, you have to record yourself listen back, and start agreeing with yourself that your operatic sound needs to sound very similar to your speech. The sound shouldn’t deviate, especially for the tenor voice. You should always sound clear and be able to understand the text, because once you start manufacturing a sound that’s where those things fall apart. You start losing the emphasis of the text and you start losing the natural color that you have when you speak.

It takes a lot of effort for someone to accept their own voice. It’s so important for all singers, not just young singers, to embrace their individual voice because it’s individual, nobody can take it from you. When you’re an artist you want to have your stamp and if you’re emulating something else then you’re not really being a true artist. I think an artist always has to have what they’re saying come from their soul rather than from copying someone else.

OW: What was it like to make your met debut in such a special role?

JT: I’ve always dreamt of having a Met debut and I actually never expected to have one, especially in college when I was floundering as a baritone. Getting the call I was a little hesitant because I didn’t really know the piece. I decided it could be a challenge and that I’d try to bring something to this unknown opera. My first performance on the Met stage was extremely exciting, but I think it was only a sketch. It takes years of experience to bring out these characters. Every performance I’ve learned something and I’ve developed something.


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