American tenor Brian Jagde has just made his return to the Royal Opera singing Maurizio in Sir David McVicar’s production of Adriana Lecouvreur. Two of his key roles in his career so far have been Don José in Carmen and Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, which he’s performed from Berlin to Munich, from San Francisco to Washington.

Brian Jagde © Fay Fox
Brian Jagde
© Fay Fox

MP: Don José and Pinkerton are two deeply flawed characters.

BJ: Don José has been a favorite because I love the idea of digging into a character with that level of insecurity. Having been insecure myself at times when I was younger, I have revisited some of the tough lessons from my past, but of course Don José has gone a lot farther down the rabbit hole than I ever did! The idea that this man is a killer from before the opera begins implies that he is not some innocent guy who is drawn to darkness by Carmen, rather he is drawn to her because she truly sees who he is. They are both deeply flawed, and they bring out the worst in each other. He solves his problems (or tries to) through violence, and initially she loves that fire within him and likes to play with his emotions.

Pinkerton is a young Naval officer who's just arrived in Nagasaki, where he’s heard of a “deal” that involves men buying their way into some "good times." He isn't inherently evil. It’s likely that he’s just one of the many soldiers on that ship who are all doing the same thing. It's the objectification of women, without being aware of its devastating impact.

Brian Jagde (Pinkerton) and Kristine Opolais (Cio-Cio San) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Brian Jagde (Pinkerton) and Kristine Opolais (Cio-Cio San)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

In David Belasco’s play, the source material for the opera, Pinkerton is written as a pig from the start, frequently using racial slurs in conversation. The original version of the opera from 1904 has more of that controversial characterization, but it was removed in the 1906 revision, which also adds Pinkerton’s aria of remorse. I like to play him as a guy who’s out for a good time, and who actually considers staying after he marries Butterfly. During Act 1 you should see him change from a guy trying to sleep with a geisha, to a man who sees the true beauty and gentle nature of Cio-Cio-San. There is a moment where she explains that she changed her religion in secret for him, and that fact is essential to this idea. It’s a moment where he thinks about her commitment to him and to the idea of being an “American” which is something he couldn’t possibly have expected. He is guilty of having fun and not knowing the consequences of his actions. “Addio, fiorito asil” gives Pinkerton chance to show his remorse, which makes it even more heartbreaking when he leaves and you see Butterfly alone with the child, completely abandoned. If you really believe that he loved her, even for a second, it’s that much more devastating.

It’s become common for Pinkerton to get booed (pantomime style) at curtain calls in the UK. What are your feelings about this?

I’ve experienced curtain call boos as Pinkerton before, and not just here in the UK. As long as the crowd is enthusiastically clapping and booing at the same time, it really doesn’t bother me. However, when I’m bowing it’s as Brian Jagde, not Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton.

Brian Jagde (Don José) and Irene Roberts (Carmen) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Brian Jagde (Don José) and Irene Roberts (Carmen)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

Where are the vocal challenges in these two roles?

Don José is more challenging vocally because I really like to go to the edge in the later acts, to a place that can cause one to sing angrily, since they’re such dramatic scenes. My technique usually allows for me to sing and not get tired in the throat, since my vocal support actually comes from my lower stomach muscles. But, in this role I can get dramatically enraged which, in the moment, can make me forget to stay down on the body when I’m singing.

How terrfiying is the high B flat at the end of Don José’s Flower Song?

As my technique has developed, I’ve started to enjoy making that B flat sound as beautiful as possible. I like to do it in two different ways, and it really has to do with how I’m feeling dramatically in each production. In both ways the approach is slow and steady, not rushed. In one ending I stay pianissimo for the whole note and just let it disappear in a true voix mixte, and in another I start off pianissimo and then crescendo slowly to forte, as if i’m choking the life out of Carmen just to hold on to her.

Brian Jagde © Simon Pauly
Brian Jagde
© Simon Pauly

Which have been the most striking productions in which you’ve performed?

I recently sang Don José in the North American debut of Calixto Bieito’s production of Carmen, at San Francisco Opera. It’s a more modern interpretation, which involves a lot of physicality such as the third act duet/knife fight with Escamillo while we were running around, jumping on the hoods of cars!

This May, I’ll make my house debut at Washington National Opera in Jun Kaneko’s Madama Butterfly, which I have previously performed in San Francisco. It’s based on his visual art, which features bold colors and patterns, so the setting is extremely different than any others I’ve done.

I am open to the idea of new productions and different ways to look into the worlds of these timeless operas. However, if there’s anything in the staging that directly contradicts the stories or the music - distracts or detracts from it - then it’s more difficult as an artist to be fully engaged in that process. In general, I'm a person who believes that if it isn't broken, don't fix it ... but I'm willing to play around with new ideas. After all, we are playing make-believe on a big stage, right?!

What has it been like returning to the Royal Opera, this time for Adriana Lecouvreur? Is Maurizio a grateful role to sing?

Brian Jagde (Maurizio) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Brian Jagde (Maurizio)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore
I love singing at the Royal Opera. It’s incredibly well-organized, and you are well cared for whether you are on stage or in the rehearsal room. You only have to focus on the art of singing and acting, which provides artists with a certain freedom. The first time I was here I was able to sing a role I’d done many times before (Pinkerton) so it was a perfect way to enter the house. Now, I’ve taken on a role for the first time and it was just as enjoyable of an experience, if not more!

Maurizio is a singer’s dream. The role has a great range of dynamics and colors. He brings a challenge dramatically, because he is not just some romantic guy. He is also constantly trying to find a way to get ahead, in politics, society, and even his personal relationships. Since the principal roles are based on real people, there’s a sense of that history that can be added. This is a sumptuous role filled with some of the most beautiful verismo phrasing that has ever been written, and it’s honestly an honor to be able to bring my voice to this classic staging, with this remarkable cast.

Next season, you return to Francesca Zambello’s Aida, which moves to Seattle. A chance to play a heroic character, but also a huge sing.

As of this point in my career, Radamès has been the biggest challenge. Not just because it’s such a gigantic role. It was also my first real leap into true Verdi style. Verdi has a way of teaching you so much about your own voice. Those lines are so exposed and given to the singer on a silver platter saying, “Here you go. Make the most of this and I’ll provide the support with a very simple underpinning of music.”

Brian Jagde (Radamès) © Susan Tripp Pollard | Bay Area News
Brian Jagde (Radamès)
© Susan Tripp Pollard | Bay Area News

What was it that got you hooked on opera? How did you discover your voice?

Essentially, opera fell into my lap. I had only experienced it in a very limited context during my childhood, which is unfortunately the case for most young people nowadays. We just aren’t brought up with that culture as much as the pop culture that has taken over the world, which is disheartening.

I sang all the way throughout high school in choir, school plays, and musicals. When I graduated, I heard about a school in my home state of NY that was re-developing their program for voice. I auditioned and was accepted by the skin of my teeth. I had no idea what Classical Voice meant, I only knew that I’d be studying vocal technique, and that maybe I would audition for Broadway one day or something like that.

I had no interest in opera when I started, but I dug in and learned the repertoire for the season which was Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. I remember vividly that I fell in love with the art form while I was singing in the slave chorus, thinking “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done!” That’s when I committed to the dream of becoming a professional opera singer – in a unitard with a shaved head (not my best look) singing in German, and dancing around in a trance!

Discovering my true voice took a long time. I was definitely a fish out of water for a while. I started as tenor but was switched to baritone. Eventually, I got into a young artist program in Virginia that took me away from home for eight months. During that time, people kept asking, “Are you sure you are not a tenor?” I started looking for a teacher and heard about Michael Paul in New York. I walked in and he told me, “You’re a tenor” just from hearing my speaking voice! Two weeks later I had management and was auditioning for tenor roles.

The beginning of my study was a whirlwind of four to five lessons per week, but I was finally working in the correct tessitura with a solid technique.

Brian Jagde © Fay Fox
Brian Jagde
© Fay Fox

How is your voice developing? Is there a dream role you’d love to take on once your voice grows in a certain direction?

At this point I’m headed down the lirico-spinto route, and while that feels like the right path it doesn’t keep me from wanting to explore all kinds of repertoire. I’d love to sing Des Grieux in Manon, the title role in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, and to revisit Werther. As for verismo rep, I look forward to singing Luigi in Il tabarro, Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut, Dick Johnson in La fanciulla del West, Turiddu in Cavalleria rusticana, and Canio in Pagliacci. In Germanic repertoire, Florestan in Fidelio will happen in the future. Czech repertoire holds a special place in my heart, so Laca in Jenůfa would be great. And one of the roles I most look forward to singing someday is Peter Grimes. It’s a dream role, and is an ideal character exploration for an actor. I’m staying away from Wagner for the foreseeable future, but I know my voice is headed there eventually.

Do you have a regular routine for performance days?

My routine on performance days varies. I treat almost every day like a performance day. I try to stay quiet when it comes to speaking in loud places, and I do my warm-ups every day. On the day of a show I wake up slowly, and warm-up numerous times throughout the day. I eat a big breakfast, light lunch, drink lots of water, and that’s it. I get to the theater a little before my call to sing and then I’m in the zone.

And finally, if you woke up and discovered you were a bass or baritone for the day (again!) which role(s) would you want to sing?

This is a tough one. As a bass I think it would be fun to play Sparafucile from Rigoletto. He’s a dark character and he has some thundering notes to sing. As a bass-baritone I think Don Giovanni seems like an ideal role to sing, because his music is gorgeous and yet he is really a detestable character. It’s an interesting contrast. Lastly, as a baritone (again!) I’d love to be Rodrigo from Don Carlo. In my opinion, that role gets the most beautiful music in the opera, and as a character he has a lot of admirable qualities. His bond of friendship with Carlo clearly means a great deal to him, and Verdi writes that into all of his music.