By: Jacob Elyachar, jakes-take.com
It is a pleasure to welcome one of the opera world’s brightest tenors, Jonathan Blalock, to Jake’s Take.
He has performed in countless productions ranging from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Puccini’s Turandot to Rodgers’ South Pacific and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. Jonathan’s superb performances have received praise from numerous media outlets including The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The New Yorker, Classical Voice North America, and The Washington Post.
Jonathan will portray Prince Claus in the world premiere production of Mark Adamo’s Becoming Santa Claus, at the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House in Dallas, Texas.
In this edition of A Conversation, Jonathan opened up about overcoming some of the challenges he has faced in career and his involvement in Becoming Santa Claus.
Jacob Elyachar: When did you get interested in opera? How did that passion lead into the desire of pursuing a career in the opera world?
Jonathan Blalock: Music was always a huge presence in my family. I started studying piano when I was five-years-old, and I was heavily involved in choir at school and church. My exposure beyond the world of sacred music was limited; I never saw an opera until my sophomore year of college. I attended The Barber of Seville, and it was one of the most entertaining performances I can remember. The singing was exquisite, and I laughed until it hurt. It never occurred to me that I might “join the circus” of opera until a few years later. I was working on a master’s degree in choral conducting, and I started taking voice lessons with an excellent teacher, Dr. Carla LeFevre. She suggested that I should think seriously about performing, and she signed me up to sing for a masterclass with Darren Woods (who was visiting from Fort Worth Opera) that led to my first professional singing opportunity.
JE: Who are your heroes in the opera world? How did they help you grow into the tenor that you are today?
JB: I sincerely admire scores of artists I’ve crossed paths with during the last few years, but the ones I respect the most are those who use their talents to lift up others, to champion important causes and to make the world a better place. I’ll never forget the moment when Joyce DiDonato came into our dressing room before Donna del Lago at Santa Fe Opera. A local child tragically made headlines that day. Other students in his school bullied him relentlessly about his sexual orientation until he reached a breaking point and took his life. Joyce dedicated her performance that evening to that boy and used her platform to raise awareness about victims of bullying. She invited all of us to join her in that powerful intention, and that’s when I fell in love with her.
JE: What were some of the challenges that you have faced throughout your career? How did you overcome them?
JB: Since I did not begin voice lessons until grad school, I have been playing catch-up with my colleagues ever since I started singing. Several friends of mine started voice lessons in middle school or earlier, so of course, my technique wasn’t as advanced as theirs. I was not as comfortable onstage because I did not have years of experience under my belt. Early in the learning process, I realized that talent and expertise aren’t synonymous, so I worked intensely to soak up as much information as possible. In rehearsals and coachings, I asked a litany of questions and carefully observed my more seasoned colleagues to see what did & didn’t work vocally and dramatically. The best singing actors are constantly pushing themselves to grow, and I am always on that path toward excellence. Perfection is not possible, but improvement certainly is.
JE: Let’s talk about your latest project: Becoming Santa Claus. What drove you to participate in this production?
JB: Mark Adamo’s Lysistrata is the first twenty-first century opera I ever sang, and I’ve loved Mark’s music ever since. When Dallas Opera asked if I would be interested in understudying the title role in their premiere, I instantly said yes (even though I hadn’t seen a note of the score… it hadn’t been written yet). Rehearsals had already begun when they summoned me to fly down and take over the part of Prince Claus, so I was a bit nervous at first. But the entire creative team was infinitely supportive, and they made the situation fun and stress-free. That opera was deeply meaningful to all of us, and I’m thrilled that we’ll be sharing it with the world soon when we release the DVD.
JE: How does your character, Prince Claus, grow as a person throughout this production?
JB: The story begins when Prince Claus is about to turn 13, and he’s hurting deeply; like so many of us, his pain manifests in angry outbursts. Claus embodies the struggle we all face during the holidays. It’s entirely too easy to be swept away by the commercialization of Christmas and to focus on the presents, not the people who matter most to us. Through a series of funny and touching scenes, we see Claus grow from a difficult child into an egalitarian young man. A few surprises emerge along the way, but you’ll have to watch the movie and see for yourself!
JE: Your performance in Becoming Santa Claus was streamed live to the Lincoln Center. Could you describe your reaction to my readers when you heard the news?
JB: The original idea for a simulcast had nothing to do with Lincoln Center. When the Mayer/Shea family commissioned this opera, they dedicated the project to their granddaughter who tragically passed away at an early age because of a serious illness. In her honor, they wanted to broadcast this to children’s hospitals to bring cheer to kids who needed it most. Adding Lincoln Center to the live stream happened later in the process, but it was a pleasant surprise. I was overjoyed to share the grand opera with my east coast friends who couldn’t make it down to Texas. I loved going to my dressing room during intermission to find supportive texts and pictures from my loved ones who were watching live from NY. In the past, I have sung live radio broadcasts of various operas, but this took the experience to a much higher level of excitement.
JE: Several opera singers such as Barbara Padilla, Jackie Evancho, Branden James, Chris Mann, the Forte Tenors, and the Texas Tenors received a nice boost to their careers after appearing on “America’s Got Talent” and “The Voice.” Would you ever decide to audition for a talent competition, why or why not?
JB: I tried opera’s version of American Idol; it’s the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and it is Miss America for classical singers (without the swimsuit round). These competitions can be a tremendous launching pad for those who triumph. I never got very far in the contest circuit, but I didn’t let that stifle my dreams. The SAT does not prove how smart you are; it only demonstrates how effectively you can take the test. Likewise, a singing competition does not show whether or not you are an excellent artist; it just shows whether or not you can win a prize that day. Learning and singing roles now keeps me too busy to devote much time to competitions.
JE: If you had the chance to meet with aspiring performers who want to work in the opera world, what advice would you share with them?
JB: There’s SO MUCH information that I had to learn the hard way after I began singing professionally, and that’s the primary motivation for my blog (available at ClassicalSinger.com). I want to help younger vocalists not to fall into the traps that tripped me up early in my career.
When I speak with younger singers, I do not sugarcoat the situation. This business is challenging, competitive and often discouraging. Vocalists who make a living only by performing are part of a microscopic percentile of classical singers. Does this mean you cannot achieve anything? Absolutely not! You have the power to create your definition of success. And don’t ever forget the joy you experienced when you began. Most children sing because it’s FUN, not because they are looking for validation or a contract. If we can return to that simplicity and purity in singing, the other goals will follow.
“Becoming Santa Claus” will be coming out on DVD—December 1, 2016.
For more information about Jonathan, visit his website!