Q&A: John Holland On His Work with The Prague Summer Nights And Career Development

By Francisco Salazar

Baritone John Holland is returning to the Prague Summer Nights Festival for the third with his participation this year. As an alumnus of the program, the baritone has performed numerous roles including Masetto in “Don Giovanni” at the Estates Theatre in Prague, Vodník in “Rusalka” in the Czech Republic, Belcore in “L’Elisir D’Amore,” Alberich in “Der Ring Des Nibelungen” with Toronto’s Opera by Request, Figaro in “Le Nozze di Figaro” with Opera Nuova, Peter Quince in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with Opera Nuova, and Baron Zeta in “The Merry Widow” with Orchestra London.

He has also done a lot of concert work and has shared the stage with the likes of Plácido Domingo, René Pape, Lorin Maazel, Marvin Hamlisch, the London Symphony Orchestra, and Adrienne Pieczonka.

Aside from his vocal work, Holland is also an accomplished academic who is a three-time lecturer for the Canadian Opera Company’s London Guild, a four-time judge for the Juno Awards, a music reviewer for Toronto Life Magazine and Side Street Review arts magazine, as well as a published composer.

OperaWire had the chance to speak with Holland about his trajectory with the festival and how it has helped his career.

OperaWire: How did you first hear about the Prague Summer Nights program? 

John Holland: Well, this is my third time, but three years ago, my brother who is actually, here again, is a trumpet player and he was looking for a summer program and he found this orchestral component and he said,” It’s in Prague and I love it?” And so he applied and got in and then I said, “Well if he’s going, maybe we could go together? Have a little time in the summer and hang out and do music.?” So I sent in something and said here is my resume. And John [Nardolillo] got back to me and said we are looking for a Masetto for “Don Giovanni” and asked if I wanted it. and I said, “Absolutely!” It’s only the third year of the program and it is really a hidden gem so it’s still establishing itself and the training, the faculty and the opportunities that they have is just incredible. I’ve had the chance to sing “Don Giovanni” two years in a row at the Estates Theater, where Mozart stood and conducted. It is an incredible experience.

OW: Tell me about the faculty and working with them?

JH: The voice faculty is really excellent. Even for myself, I’ve been singing for a long time, but the little things that they can find for you can change your world vocally. It’s great in that aspect. You’re not building a new technique but there are things that help free up the voice. The voice teacher I’ve been working with here for the last two years, he has this thing that has helped me free up the vocal notes and helps you sing freely. The best thing is that if someone is here and they want to rebuild their vocal technique they can do that. If someone is here who wants to tweak things, they can do it. And the teachers are so open to giving help that they don’t force any kind of vocal doctrine on you. It’s all about what can we do to help and still work with you to build stamina. The four main character of “Marriage of Figaro” sing a lot and we joke that it should it be named Susanna because she is in everything. The things that we do here help us build the stamina to do the whole thing.

OW: What has the process been like working from the rehearsal room to the tech rehearsal to the dress rehearsal?

JH: Obviously, everyone came in with solid knowledge of the role. We were given enough advanced time to work on it and get everything in working shape. And we all came to Tabor in June and the first day was a spot check to see how everyone was feeling with their parts. And then we got right into rehearsals with blocking and staging. When we’re working with Sherrill Milnes and Maria Zouves, we go through the Nico Castel translations and go to the Beaumarchais plays and we did dramatic readings to kind of look at the characters that Mozart and DaPonte were looking at. It was really helpful for character building and creating the relationship between the opera and the original plays. and the dramatic readings we do with them in our most comfortable language. So those of us who are English speakers, we do them in English. But there are people in the cast who are Chinese and Korean, so they do it in their native language with their own dramatic intent. It’s really a wonderful tool to build your character.

We then did staging right away and Sherrill and Maria said the first week in Tabor, “I think we got ‘Marriage of Figaro’ staged.’ So when we got here we’ve just been running it and getting everything set up, figuring out the dimensions of the space, getting the costumes and props together.

OW: What is the process of working with Maria Zouves and Sherrill Milnes?

JH: One thing that is really important about working with both of them is that they are both singing actors. People that are good stage presence or people that had careers as singers. Working with them is great because I remember a coach told me years ago, “If you want to perform, study with performers. If you want to teach voice pedagogy, study with a pedagogue.” For us who want to be performers, we study with performers. The great thing is that they know what we are going through as performers because they’ve done it. They’ve had to do the character work and building it. As a team, they are very good because Sherrill has a lifetime times five of experience to this day in age while Maria looks at everything from a dramatic process and the arch of the characters. Sherrill will come up with something like “Heres a little trick. If you want to talk to that person you don’t have to speak directly to them. You can cheat at them and still speak to them.” Things about certain characters, certain points, he says “When I did this, we did it this way.” So having that as part of the process is really important.

They are also so caring about their singers and they look out for their well-being and also looking for their journey in their early process. And they will also tell you if you’re doing great or if they need more. But it’s never from a malicious standpoint or never from a detriment. They always ask you, “How can we help you on your journey?” For example, for me, this is my third Figaro. I came in knowing it fairly well and Maria came and told me “You’re doing well. What can we help you with and how can we help you get something new out of it?” And I thought that with that it was amazing that they wanted to help me create more of the character.

OW: As a baritone, what advice has Sherrill Milnes given you about managing your voice and career?

JH: Oh yeah, lots of advice. At breaks in rehearsals, there is kind of like that baritone flock that migrates over to Sherrill. For example, in previous years I was here doing Massetto and Leporello and Sherrill had done hundreds of “Don Giovanni’s,” so one of the great things is he can go, “I sang it and we did this. This is a note that you have to watch out for.” I have a wonderful video of rehearsal and Sherrill is there giving notes. So you know there is like a fanboy aspect but Sherrill is here to help people get something out of this process. He is here to help people grow as artists and grow as musicians. With things like Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini, he has role knowledge that we can go to.

OW: How does John Nardolillo help you through the process and what is it like working with him?

JH: John is a really good conductor and I wouldn’t come back if I didn’t like the conductor. John is so compassionate to the singing aspect of the opera and it’s not to the detriment of the orchestra because he works with them rigorously. But when you look down, you see that he is watching you. He’s just there and he is in tune with what’s happening on stage and what’s happening in the score.  It’s a nice happy medium and very nice for the singers. In “Marriage of Figaro,” Figaro and Susanna run around the stage all the time and you can get to a point where you run out of breath and to be able to look at him and see that he realizes you need a little time… That is nice and he is great to work with.

OW: What is it like to sing in Prague?

JH: The unique thing about Prague is that there is such a huge history of music for such a small capital city. Prague is not very big like other cities but there are three opera houses, they’re going all the time and they all have their seasons and they are all part of the National Theater. There are so many orchestras and chamber ensembles. So for me, I always think of how many jobs there are for musicians. The music in this city is held in such regard and musicians are held in high regard. It’s tough being in North America because you always get the running joke when people say that your real job is an opera singer. I look here and people can just be singers. And of course, the musicians that have passed through Prague, have kind of made it a special place.

OW: What is it like to work with singers of different ranges of experience?     

JH: The guy who is singing the Count in my cast was the “Don Giovanni” the first year when I was doing Masetto so I know him very well. I’m doing a Ph.D. and some of the other cast members are also doing doctorates. So there are a lot of experienced singers. The core of us are more experienced singers but there are some people who are doing their first big role and it’s nice because the experienced singers are able to provide a decorum and deportment of how you work on stage. One of the understudies told me that he took a lot from just watching the character. The other thing that I find interesting is that the young singers’ enthusiasm can really be contagious for the rest of the cast. For some of us who have already done the role or have done a lot of staged operas, you go through the process and we know what comes next. So you know the drill but to see first-timers sand see the raw energy and enthusiasm reinvigorates us as well. But we’re all young and we are all excited to get on stage.

OW: What has this program done for you career wise?

JH: It helped a lot because first of all, being able to say I worked with Sherrill Milnes and Maria Zouves has been a very big thing resume-wise. Singing at the Mozarteum and Estates Theater are also helpful. Just something that was interesting was that I had auditioned for the Canadian Opera Company several times and they said I sang very nice but had nothing for me. After I did Prague Summer Nights I went with an updated resume that said I sang with the Estates Theatre and I sang Masetto’s aria and it’s not very demanding and they said, “Ok you’re in.” And I thought year after year I sang more demanding repertoire and it did nothing. One of the things they said was, “We saw that you sang in Europe.” So when they see things like that there is obviously a standard that is required. And so that was a big thing that instantly helped the career. It was totally worth it.

OW: What’s next for you after this festival?

JH: I have to finish my Ph.D., I did a dissertation of 215 pages on Dvorak’s operas. And then I have to do the defense for that. In the fall I do Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with an orchestra in Toronto and doing work with a couple of small opera groups in Toronto. I am also doing a recital of Czech music and hopefully something with the Canadian Opera Company in the Spring.


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