Q & A: Tenor Brian Jagde on His Journey from Baritone to Tenor

By Mike Hardy
Photo: Fay Fox

Brian Jagde spent his early voice coaching years under his teachers’ misguided notion that he was a baritone. Born in Long Island, New York, and raised just outside New York City, he eventually obtained both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in voice.

Under the guidance of New York voice coach Michael Paul, he switched to tenor and went on to be awarded second prize in Plácido Domingo’s Operalia Competition in 2012, alongside other esteemed awards such as the Birgit Nilsson Prize for Wagner-Strauss repertoire and the top prize at the Loren L. Zachary Competition in 2014.

Predominantly deemed to be a spinto tenor, his roles are extensive and diverse and actually encompass roles within the lyric, spinto, and dramatic repertoires.

His upcoming roles for the 2023 season include debuts in “Pagliacci” at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, where his hero Giuseppe Giacomini premiered in the same production with the same conductor; as well as “Don Carlo” in the title role in London. A highlight of the season will be the just-announced Don Alvaro in “La forza del destino” at The Metropolitan Opera.

Brian is an Ambassador for Opera for Peace, and he serves on the vocal faculty of Vincerò Academy. OperaWire caught up with him relaxing at home after having completed a very successful run of “Samson et Dalila” in Berlin.

OperaWire: First off, congratulations on getting the role of Don Alvaro in “La forza del destino,” at The Metropolitan Opera, the Met’s first new production of the work in nearly 30 years. Who will you be singing with?

Brian Jagde: So far, the only person I’m singing with that I know is the soprano Lise Davidson. The Met’s always been very close to their chest about this kind of commission. In fact, it’s one of the opera houses I can’t find out every single detail about the cast, crew, directors, and production before I sign a contract. But I kind of make it a rule of mine to do that anywhere else in the world. But it’s a new production that’s just premiered in Poland. It’s definitely new, and it’s definitely different from what people have seen in the past. It takes place, I believe, in a post-apocalyptic time period.

OW: You just finished a run of “Samson et Dalila.” How did that go?

BJ: Oh, it’s such a great role; it’s one of those things I can do a million times, you know? It’s the first role I’ve ever sung in my career where I’ve felt like the second I started working on it, it just felt perfect, super natural, and something that I felt I could do over and over again. It was a real first for me. I loved the character; he’s a powerhouse kind of character, but there’s a lot of depth about him that’s explored in the opera, which isn’t explored, obviously, in all the historical context or “fake” historical context that exists and thebiblical context. I read a lot about him from that kind of background before I went on stage.

OW: You sang for almost ten years as a baritone. How did you discover that you’re really a tenor, and how did you make that change?

BJ: I wasn’t getting hired! You know, I’d never trained before I went to college. I’d never had a voice lesson in my whole life, but I’d always liked singing. For the first time, at twenty years old, after I’d already been going to college for computer science and business studies for a couple of years, I’d heard about a school in New York–kind of close to where I grew up–and they kind of revamped their voice program. I didn’t know classical voice or opera. I thought maybe I’ll learn how to sing right, for once in my life, with real training.

I got wait-listed into that college with no training. So I go in there, and they say only one half of one percent of you are going to have a career in opera, and I said, I don’t care; I’m not there to sing opera, and I didn’t really think anything about it. But they started teaching me the technique of singing, and there’s a lot that goes into singing opera physically that you don’t do when speaking. Including things that have to do with the larynx, and eventually, I realized there were a lot more they hadn’t taught me at the school or university.

But I was starting from scratch, and who knew what their capabilities were as teachers but also if they knew that I had the potential of actually doing this? I was creating a sound that was darker and fake, and my tongue was kind of involved in places. They didn’t really fix that. So I started as a tenor because that’s what I’d always sung in a choir. Then halfway through the first year, after I’d done my first roles on stage as a tenor, they pushed me to baritone, thinking, “Ok, you’re probably going to be a baritone, like a high lyric baritone”

And I did that for eight and a half years, and I just listened to my teachers. They kept saying, “You’re a baritone,” so I said, “OK, I’m a baritone. If the experts say I’m a baritone, I must be a baritone”

OW: So what repertoire did you study, and what baritones inspire you?

BJ: Oh, the star I wanted to be when I grew up was Thomas Hampson. It was because he’s a high lyric baritone; he sang Bel Canto repertoire, and he was most famous, obviously, for singing “Barber of Seville” As I was going through college, he released this amazing album where he sang that amazing aria ‘Vision Fugitive,’ which was also the name of the album, I believe. I was a huge fan. I just adored all the stuff he was doing at the time, and so my career goal was to emulate that. I had high notes for days, but I didn’t have low notes, which was telling. My teachers just said, “Oh, you’ll get that.”

Anyway, I switched to tenor in 2008 or 9. It was only because I was away from the teachers in the college for a long time, and I was still warming up to a high C. However, I didn’t have the low notes. I was like, you know, maybe I need to think about this. I had been auditioning as a baritone for artist programs. I remember auditioning for Peter Kazaras, who was running the Seattle Young Artists program, and he would say, “Brian, are you sure you’re not a tenor?” And I would say my teachers think I’m a baritone.

I questioned that because the color of my voice, even now as a tenor, has some darkness, some richness. So, there is a little bit of a baritonal quality, especially if I’m singing something like Samson, which actually sits lower than ninety percent of the music I sing.

OW: Now, you’re considered a spinto tenor, but your repertoire actually extends right across the tenor spectrum: Alfredo (“Traviata”), Pinkerton in (“Butterfly”), and Rodolfo in (“Bohème”). On the LYRIC side, there’s Calaf (“Turandot”), Des Grieux (“Manon Lescaut”), and Don José (“Carmen”) on the spinto front. Don Alvaro (“La Forza”), Samson (“Samson et Dalila”), and Florestan (“Fidelio”) are on the dramatic side of things. What’s next? Wagner?

BJ: Well, you know, I will take on Wagner eventually. I’ve been saying no to Wagner from the beginning because, well, just in general, I believe in having a long career and putting my career on a certain trajectory. When I started singing tenor, I did “Bohème” right away; it was my first role as a tenor.

Sadly, I wish I could go back and do a “Lucia,” but I never got to do that because it probably would have happened in my twenties when I was singing baritone. So yeah, I started with the lightest rep at the time that was right for my voice, which was “Bohème,” Don José, and “Butterfly.” Those three were all in the same kind of time frame. And then “Tosca” and I did a lot of that for a good period of time. But I’ve also sung Bacchus, which I’ve loved to sing. Florestan was supposed to happen, but it didn’t end up happening because of Covid, but it will; I’m sure we have it on the schedule for the future. “Trovatore” got missed out on because of Covid, so yeah, these are all spinto, dramatic/spinto tenor roles, and of course, I’m looking forward to going into Wagner in the future. I’ve already had enough offers for it.

In America, especially as a singer, especially in the last twenty years, it feels like you couldn’t put that on your resume, Wagner while singing “Tosca.” If they see you as a Wagner tenor, then they only start giving you that. Then there are lesser opportunities for a young tenor in a way because they think, oh, maybe he’s too young for that, or you maybe he shouldn’t be doing that. Then the offers you get, you might do. But then that’s it; you don’t get any Cavaradossi offers anymore. They like to put you in a box.

But as a European artist, I find that there are more opportunities because the countries are so much closer together, and there’s such a wider variety of cultural influences. Germany is near to Italy, and it allows you to switch back and forth between those reps. Had I been a European-born tenor, who knows what would have happened?

OW: Having established yourself as a genuine tenor, who among tenors inspired and motivated you?

BJ: That’s a tough question in a couple of ways. When I switched to tenor, I found one teacher who I was very lucky to find in New York who wasn’t associated with any university and was recommended to me. His name is Michael Paul, and he is here in New York. I still study with him today. We were so focused on technique, and he was such a believer in my ability to start working really quickly that I was literally doing auditions two and a half weeks after studying with him. It all started rolling very quickly, so I didn’t have a lot of time to think about who do I want to sound like? Although, if I had to choose one tenor who was like the epitome of perfection to me, it’s Giuseppe Giacomini. And ironically, I was introduced to Giacomini by my teacher, who played a recording of him to me to kind of explain why he teaches the way he does.

So my teacher studied with the same coach who studied with Giacomini. And so a lot of the technique I’m getting is based upon the technique used by Giacomini, which is an all-body technique, using the throat very little. In fact, when you see Giacomini failing anytime–cracking, or whatever–it’s because he used his throat too much.

I wish I could have heard him live. My teacher tells me you don’t hear the trumpety, forward sound that he cut with on videos. You hear a lot of the dark, richer sounds that he sang. But when people listen to his recordings, they don’t even get half of the point and the amount of resonance that came out of his instrument. All I can do is try and sing as legato as he does; the way he can go between words and phrases and the color of the instrument is stunning.

My favorite recording to listen to on YouTube is any one of his “Chenier” aria recordings, which are just insanely powerful and rich. You don’t hear that from anybody else. I mean, no one who sang the role sang it like that. You can go and listen to Corelli’s version of that aria or any of the greats, and honestly, you never hear that kind of beauty of tone and the beautiful legato that came with it; it’s a challenging role in the first place. Likewise, Don Alvaro. There’s an amazing recording of him from Verona singing it. I tried to beg Verona to do a production of “Forza,” but they don’t do stuff like that anymore. They only do the big sellers these days and the top six or seven operas that they can perform. They know what sells. I hope they can expand it a little in the future.

OW: Later this year, you are debuting in “Don Carlo.” How are your preparations going for this role?

BJ: The debut is in London at the end of June and the beginning of July. It’s the only time I currently have it on my schedule. It’s a role that I never knew I would do. Especially as I keep getting hired to sing much heavier roles vocally. The role has actually taught me a lot so far. You know, that’s one thing I love about taking on different roles; you learn something about your own voice. When I’m approaching Don Carlo, I’m thinking longer phrasing, much longer phrasing, even longer than I’ve heard from other people, when I sing it. It’s not about conservatively using my instrument; it’s more about the sentence structure because there are a lot of breaks in music that are written because maybe you need to breathe. Also. composers had to fill a 4/4 line. They put a rest or comma in or whatever, and they build the music within that framework.

Before I looked at the music, I looked at all of the text and the lines in their entirety. There are sometimes when almost the entire aria at the beginning of the opera is commas. There are a few sentences obviously–sentence endings–but there are a lot of times where the musical phrase could be longer and better. You see that with other characters. If you look at the most famous recording of Rodrigo’s, people trying to sing that whole phrase at once is always super impressive and beautiful, which is good for the sentence structure. So I’m looking at things in a different way for Don Carlo.

It’s a challenging opera for different reasons. It’s definitely the most music composed because of the two versions and then two versions of each version. I think I read somewhere that out of all the Verdi operas, it has the most written music by Verdi if you include all the different scenarios. But that doesn’t mean anything about the storyline. Luckily in this version, I’m doing the ‘Fontainebleau’ scene. If you don’t have that scene, you don’t see any of the possible romance between Elisabetta and Don Carlo. You’re starting in a place that’s already happened, and I feel like you’ve kind of missed out on the part that shows where they actually have a real love for each other.

Dramatically, it’s a different type of role. With all the roles I do, I try and look at a few different things (relating to the character). One of the most important are questions such as: What is the character most insecure about? What is it that’s holding the character back from getting what they want? In this scenario, it’s laid out for you quite well with Don Carlo. Obviously, it’s a complicated story; he’s competing with his father for the same woman and does not have any power to do anything about it. But he’s a weak character a lot of the time. He complains a lot about the fact that he’s heartbroken, and in almost all of the text, he sings, “I’m miserable. I’m so sad.” It’s a weak personality trait to have as a character, with no positivity at all.

When I see a character like that, my goal is to find the strength. It’s challenging, really challenging. It’s also based on a real person, but the story is obviously fictitious. I look forward to it. I want to bring in something new. What am I going to do that’s different from other singers?

I don’t really listen to other singers these days. I try not to compare and contrast myself to other people. I focus on what I can do, and then maybe after I’ve learned the role, I’ll go and listen to others and go, “Oh, that guy tried this. Maybe I should see if that’s something I want to try and put into my performance. But I don’t focus on that; I don’t focus on ideas of other people’s interpretation. Instead, I try and focus on what I can bring best bring to the piece.

OW: What are roles you’d really like to sing?

BJ: Oh, there’s so much. It’s hard because I know I’ll be doing a lot of things. I’ll be doing “Chenier,” “Fanciulla,” and “Otello,” which I think is a beautiful, amazing role. Talk about insecurity! The guy’s convinced his wife is cheating on him when she’s not. Maybe because of the way he’s treated as a person, he doesn’t think he deserves someone like her, but that’s insecurity on his own part. It’s a character flaw in almost every person I sing.

Look at Don José. He is a very insecure, flawed human being who has killed someone before the opera even starts! We always forget to talk about the fact that he’s already a murderer. He’s mentally unstable and insecure, not knowing what he doesn’t know. He doesn’t realize that he’s holding on tight to someone who’s going to push him. He just doesn’t get all that. But my knowing that helps me to dive further into that part of the character and try and show that which is possible.

But roles that I haven’t been cast in that I’d like to do? “Tannhäuser,” I think that’s something I’d be interested in. “Lohengrin” is another, as well as “Parsifal.” I’ve had offers for some of them. Right now, I have an offer for Siegmund in the future, but who knows if it’ll happen based on the cost of doing the “Ring?”

There are also a ton of verismo roles that I could dive into that are never done because they’re a challenge to stage. Another opera, a French opera that would go along the same lines as “Samson” vocally, but a little bit harder, and that’s “La Juive” (Fromental Halévy). It’s beautiful music and severely challenging, but not performed very often. It is something I’d like to look into maybe.

OW: I know you’re excited about the upcoming production of Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” in Rome. Tell me about that.

BJ: Going back to my inspirational tenor, Giuseppe Giacomini, he premiered this Zeffirelli/Rome opera production with Daniel Oren. It’s the very production I’m debuting in a month or so. This “Pagliacci” is in celebration of Franco Zeffirelli’s centenary. I’m getting to do it with the original conductor of that production in the original place it was performed, with Giacomini. It’s like a little bit of an homage for me.


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