Q & A: Tenor Josh Lovell on Mythology, Funding in Opera, & Opera’s Impact on Society

By Ona Jarmalavičiūtė
(Credit: Simon Pauly)

Canadian tenor Josh Lovell’s career started in his native home before shifting to Chicago and will now take its next big step in Vienna this fall.

He is a 2018 Grand Prize and Opera Prize winner at the 52nd Annual International Vocal Competition ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the second place winner of the 2018 Dallas Opera Competition, third place winner of the Marcello Giordani Foundation competition, and a 2017 semi-finalist with the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

His repertoire consists of the works of Rossini, Donizetti, Mozart, Handel, and others. In his first season in the ensemble of the Wiener Staatsoper, he will perform Lysander in a new production of Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Lurcanio in David McVicar’s production of “Ariodante,” Don Ramiro in “La Cenerentola” and finally, Ernesto in “Don Pasquale.”

He recently spoke with OperaWire guest contributor and musicologist Ona Jarmalavičiūtė about antique mythology, the impact of the opera to the society and the struggles with funding.

OperaWire: You are from Canada. Maybe you could tell something about the music scene there and your upbringing?

Josh Lovell: I am from Victoria, British Columbia. Growing up on the west coast was a great experience. Apart from playing the recorder, ukulele, and clarinet in school bands and singing in the school choirs, I grew up with very little musical study. I was always a very musical person and enjoyed singing but never took it too seriously. I instead focused my time with studying Shotokan karate for almost a decade, and it wasn’t until I was in my final year of High school that I decided to study music seriously.

I did my undergraduate degree studies at the University of Victoria. Victoria is a great place to study because there are many rich different musical cultures, and there are a lot of people that want to make music. Throughout my undergraduate degree I found opportunities to perform and with each performance I was able to grow through the music.

Once I finished there, I moved to the United States for a master’s degree at the University of Michigan. It is also a great university and has a very strong music scene there.

When I finished my master degree, I went to Chicago where I was accepted to become a studio member of the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center with the Lyric Opera of Chicago for two years.

OW: When you started your career, how did you envision it and has this understanding has changed?

JL: I chose to be an opera singer because it fulfills me more than anything else I have ever done. I found opera a little later in life. I wasn’t raised listening to opera as a child and only saw my first opera when I was 18 years old.

Once I began studying music in University, I thought that I would get a master’s degree, do a young artist program in Canada, and work mainly in Canada. Upon moving to the United States I soon realized that opera was much bigger there than in Canada, and so my plan changed to completing a young artist program in America and then remaining in order to work primarily in the North America.

It wasn’t until after completing my Master’s degree that I decided that I should move to Europe and work there and then decide where I would like to live once my career had taken off. This was the most ideal path because opera is more prevalent in Europe than in North America and being at a house like the Wiener Staatsoper would give me the opportunity to hone my craft in one of the world’s most renowned opera houses.

I am still young and my career is just as young, I look forward to see where I will be singing in the future!

OW: Let’s talk about the Vienna State Opera, where you will start working this autumn. What excites you most about this opportunity?

JL: I imagine it being different from anything I have done before. I expect to learn so much from all the things going on. It is a huge machine of art. On the outside, you see these stunning performances every night. On the inside, there are so many moving parts. This was the case in Chicago but I know it will be much bigger in Vienna.

Being in the ensemble is a big step for having an international career. Vienna will give me time to work on my repertoire, dramatic ability, singing, and being on stage. I hope to absorb as much as I can during my time there. I want to experience everything, not just in the operas, but also outside of the Staatsoper.

I am looking forward to living in the city, being in the country, becoming fluent in the language, and learning all about the Austrian culture. I would never have guessed that I would be performing at the Staatsoper so soon after finishing in Chicago, and for that I’m very grateful.

OW: You have a lyric tenor voice. What kind of repertory are you engaging with right now?

JL: I am a lyric tenor. Tenors usually are the male romantic lead in an opera, but sometimes they get to play villains too. If you think about movies, there are horror movies, thrillers, dramatic movies and then romantic movies and comedies. I am generalizing of course. The operas that I am currently singing are mainly comedies, romantic comedies, and the occasional drama, though I am slowly getting into more dramatic roles.

The unique qualities of my voice are that I can sing very fast and also very high music. My voice is still growing and I am looking forward to seeing where the trajectory of my voice will take me. I am quite happy to not be singing all of the big typical lyric tenor roles right now. This gives me time to perform the operas of Rossini, Handel, Mozart, and Donizetti before beginning to prepare the larger roles in Verdi, and Puccini.

OW: Do you have a favorite epoch or style to sing?

JL: I like baroque, classical, and romantic music. I love singing Mozart, Rossini, and Donizetti, Bach, and Handel. To be very honest, whatever I am singing at the moment is probably going to be my favorite repertoire and composer. It’s very seldom that I am singing something and not enjoying the music.

OW: Are you interested in more contemporary singing?

JL: I have always loved contemporary music; it just depends on the piece. There are some new works that totally don’t work while others are completely amazing. It’s exciting to see many new operas being composed. Unfortunately, not everything that is newly written is being revived for future performances after its debut. I enjoy singing good music that is pleasing for both the artists and the audience.

OW: What values do you uphold in your singing?

JL: The first value is to sing well by having a strong and healthy technique. Then it’s all about knowing the role that I am singing. To do this is you need to know the music that is written on the page, as well as the libretto and its meaning.

I think it’s also important to understand the historical context surrounding the opera, what things may have influenced the subject or story of the opera, and what it is really about. Was it based on a play? Was it an original idea? Is it based on mythology or historical events? You need to know and understand these things.

Then, after all of that work, we have to bring the music to life through our dramatic ability and emotions. Only after accomplishing all of these things can the piece be a success. This process is all about learning and then knowing the opera fully. By knowing the piece intimately and making it personal to me, I then can create a special performance for the audience.

OW: How do you treat your voice in daily life?

There are many things that I do to keep my voice in peak condition. There are certain things that I try not to eat. If I eat healthily then my body is healthy and thus my voice is healthy. I drink lots of liquids – mainly tea, and water. I try not to drink too much alcohol, because it can dehydrate oneself and thus dry up the voice. I really enjoy exercising in order to keep my body healthy. I am quite busy but I also try to find moments to be quiet and not to say anything, in order to relax and rest the voice. Singing can be very taxing and so it’s important to do as much as I can to keep the voice free, flexible, and in good shape. I also have allergies and so I must use a neti pot in order to keep my sinuses clean from pollen.

Do you have some daily routines?

I am always warming up and warming down and singing every day. I always like to have a nice cup of tea in the morning and then another at night. I also try to have an apple a day because they are healthy and delicious. I exercise daily as well – going for a walks, running, biking, yoga, but my main source of fitness comes from lifting weights. I think it’s important to exercise and be active.

I also try and keep up with hobbies outside of singing. I enjoy watching TV shows, playing video games, and reading. These are important to me because it gives me a chance to relax and have fun while completely resting my voice.

OW: Do you ever think about the impact to the listener?

JL: I always try to impact those who are listening, because we need listeners. If there are no people listening, we won’t be able to perform opera. I really like opera because there are so many things that the listeners can be touched and impacted by. Whether they are impacted by the production, the music, or the drama, all of these factors along with the numerous elements of the opera make it such a grand art form. But I do try to think of those things when I am singing.

I only try to share the feelings of my character and drama in my singing with the audience. I can sing a phrase in a million different ways – I can sing it calmly, or I can sing it intensely, or phrase it differently based on my subtext or word emphasize. I need a technical understanding of how to sing, but it’s vital to be focused on what I am singing about and with how I can express myself through my singing. I often ask myself, how can I make this aria or scene impactful to the audience?

OW: What is usually the process when you are creating an interpretation of a character?

JL: Whenever there is a new role that I am learning, the first thing I do is I read the synopsis before so I would begin to understand the character.

Then I go look to watch and listen for a performance, following along in the score. Then I will start singing and playing around with the music that the character sings. I do this in order to learn how to navigate the entire role in a single performance.

I don’t think I have ever found things that I don’t want to sing; the only times that has happened was because they didn’t fit my voice. Once I know the music, I then begin to form my interpretation of the character in preparation for the first rehearsal.

OW: This is your first time performing here at the Salzburg Festspiele. What is the experience so far?

JL: Being here at the Festspiele in Salzburg, the experience has been great. It is a huge festival and it’s like nothing I’ve been a part of before. At the moment I am getting lots of lessons and coachings in and preparation for my music for the festival and also for my upcoming season in Vienna. I have had time to just walk around and explore. I love the city. With the Mozarteum and international summer academy, there are so many instrumentalists in the streets.

There is so much art, and not just with the Festspiele– it’s all over the city and you can just feel it. The city is really vibrant. It’s such a beauty with the river and nature as it is. One exciting fact is that there are so many famous singers here; I am extremely excited to be working alongside Anna Netrekbo and Yusif Eyvazov. Just seeing so many famous opera singers from all over the world is inspiring and exciting. It is so cool to be here.

OW: What are the main differences between the Salzburg and Chicago?

JL: I think the biggest differences are the amount of nature, and the size of city. Chicago is a really large city, unlike Salzburg. That being said Salzburg has a much greater range of Mother Nature than Chicago. We are now in the city center of Salzburg and it’s full of trees, grass, and a river.

In the center of Chicago, you can only see huge buildings with the occasional tree. Here in Salzburg there are so many people walking or biking, and not so many cars. Don’t get me wrong – I love Chicago as a city for many reasons, but being here you can take your time. In big cities, you never stop moving. I can really enjoy being here and taking my time.

OW: What are you the most excited about from the Festspiele this year?

JL: I am in the young singer’s project, along with twelve other singers. Our final concert will be on the 24th of August and I am super excited to perform with the Mozarteum Orchestra.

OW: The theme of this year’s festival is antique myths. Maybe you have some insights about how to perform a mythical repertoire?

JL: I’ve thought about it a little bit. The one thing that is always difficult about myths is that you want to share the myths of these very godly characters, but also make it believable. Nowadays audiences are getting more and more intelligent and they want to experience realistic stories and characters that they could really resonate with.

When I was in Chicago, in my first year, we performed Gluck’s “Orphée et Eurydice.” Instead of the original mythological story, where Orfeo literally goes to the underworld and brings Euridice back from the dead, the production was centered around a ballet studio. Euridice was a principle ballet dancer who died in a car crash and the whole opera focused on Orfeo’s journey through his guilt and grief.

In the end Euridice never came back to life like she did in the myth but instead became something that Orfeo was able to treasure and always remember. Through this journey got past his pain and moved on with his life and created an amazing ballet that he dedicated to her.

I think many people were touched by this production because the opera was performed in a realistic believable story that was based off of the principles of the myth. Originally, myths were written so that people could look at these characters and be inspired by them for the better.

Nowadays people are looking towards celebrities and idols for connection as well as for motivation. I enjoy watching operas about mythological stories and I think it’s great that directors are finding success in retelling the same myths that have been around for so many years.

OW: Do you think that music is a language and has some kind of verbal message?

JL: I think music is a language. I think music is so vital because it can say so much more than words can. For example, you can go and watch “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” the Shakespeare play, but you can also watch the opera by Benjamin Britten and it tells the same story, but you get something different, because of the music.

Both are great pieces of art but the opera is a very different art form because of the musical language that is intertwined with the play. I think it is a very powerful language and it really touches people. For instance, you can hear someone say that they are sad, or you can go listen to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for strings” and it would have a different and possibly stronger way of telling the same feeling. In that way, I think music has something to say. It is in-depth and simple yet complicated, beautiful, extravagant… We are still trying to figure out how it works and why music touches us so.

OW: What do you think about the future of the opera?

JL: Opera is an expensive art form, and it takes a lot to run it. There are the many people behind the stage, the entire orchestra, the chorus, and the soloist themselves, and sometimes a children’s chorus and or ballet is also needed. I think in Europe there is a good situation in terms of funding – there is funding from the government and country.

I think this is important and I think North American opera companies would benefit from this style of funding. Most importantly we have to find a way to make opera relevant to new and younger audiences and I think there are companies that are very successful at just doing this because they found ways to impact their viewers. If an opera house is successful in affecting an audience and making a connection with them, then the audiences will return to listen to more opera.

Unfortunately opera is expensive because it is so splendid. There are opera houses and companies that are adapting to the expensive costs in creative and thrilling ways and more and more people are becoming aware of the beauty of opera. Ultimately, I am not worried because I think that there will always be opera because there will always be those who want to experience it.


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