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Seven American Tenors Offer an Insider’s Glimpse into Their Ascendancy

Opera fandom might be thought of as diva-dominated, but tenors often rouse the greatest passions. From Enrico Caruso to Luciano Pavarotti to Jonas Kaufmann, those heroes who thrill us with the high notes win the loudest bravos. These days, American tenors dominate the international opera scene as almost never before, and seven of the busiest—Ben Bliss, Michael Fabiano, Clay Hilley, Brian Jagde, Brandon Jovanovich, Jonathan Tetelman and Russell Thomas—recently took time to share some thoughts about their art and future plans with Observer.

While acknowledging wonderful Canadian and Mexican tenors, here “American” refers to those born and/or raised in the United States. Our sopranos rose to opera’s highest ranks beginning in the late 19th Century. Record collectors treasure samples of early prima donnas Lillian Nordica, Olive Fremstad and Emma Eames; Massenet and Debussy wrote operas for Sibyl Sanderson and Mary Garden, while Geraldine Farrar and Rosa Ponselle attained fame that transcended the opera house. It took much longer for our tenors to achieve similar status.

The 1940s saw the rise of Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker, who incidentally were related by marriage, and American tenors began to attain the worldwide prominence that their soprano counterparts had long enjoyed. Although George Shirley and John Alexander performed primarily in the United States, others like James McCracken had to go to Europe to break through. Demanding Wagner and Strauss operas found assured proponents in Jess Thomas and James King, while the bel canto renaissance advanced by Maria Callas and Beverly Sills had to wait for years to hear equally stylish tenors like Rockwell Blake, Chris Merritt and Bruce Ford. Another of that era, Gregory Kunde, who made his professional debut in 1978, gradually transitioned from bel canto to the most dramatic French and Italian roles which he still performs—without resorting to transposed high notes!—at the major opera houses at seventy. Retired from leading roles, Neil Shicoff returns to the stage as the elderly Emperor Altoum in Washington National Opera’s Turandot this month.

SEE ALSO: How Opera’s Crisis Can Become an Opera Renaissance

Of today’s pride of tenors, Jonathan Tetelman has recently been the subject of great media attention. Born in Chile, adopted by American parents and raised in New Jersey, he recently made his Metropolitan Opera debut in circumstances that recalled Roberto Alagna’s almost exactly twenty-eight years earlier. Like Alagna, Tetelman arrived armed with an exclusive recording contract with a major label—a very rare asset these days. His deluxe pair of solo CDs on Deutsche Grammophon have been greeted with enthusiasm, so anticipation surrounding his debut was high. But unlike Alagna who belied the advance hype and stumbled in his first Met appearance in La Bohème, at his debut Tetelman garnered an ardent ovation by partnering Angel Blue in Puccini’s lesser-known La Rondine

With his second CD devoted exclusively to Puccini, Tetelman told Observer that he “is perhaps one of the most challenging composers because the operas reside in between late bel canto and verismo. I consider myself lucky to have a voice that works well in his repertoire. However, planting my flag as a Puccini tenor also has its disadvantages. Representing myself as a diverse tenor can be challenging because I am often only asked for Puccini.”

The Met has done precisely that as Tetelman’s second Met role this season is Pinkerton, the cad who marries, then abandons the naïve geisha in Madama Butterfly. While the tenor will be absent from New York next season, he’ll record a new Tosca but also stretch his repertoire with a new Verdi role. “My next big challenge is coming this season at the Deutsche Oper, Don Carlo. It will be the four-act Italian version. I also believe that Verdi roles need their time, if not more, to mature. I have plans for Un ballo in Maschera, Il Trovatore, Luisa Miller and Aïda down the line, four to five years away.”

Though he missed the first Pinkerton performance, Tetelman is scheduled for this season’s final Met HD transmission to movie theaters in Madama Butterfly opposite weltstar Asmik Grigorian.

Running simultaneously with Butterfly at the Met is the return of Carrie Cracknell’s controversial staging of Bizet’s Carmen with a new cast featuring high-intensity tenor Michael Fabiano offering local audiences his Don José for the first time. Filling in his character’s backstory Fabiano believes “Don José was declining before the timeline of the opera begins, starting with a probable screwed up childhood and difficulty assimilating in his military unit. He seals his fate by punching his superior, throwing life to the whims of a woman and quickly leaving his personal and political leanings for a woman that he never thought he was capable or worthy of having ever before. His slope downwards is fast; he continues to be infatuated with a person who clearly doesn’t have the same interest in him that he has in her. Infatuation is a killer. The reason why I’m ambivalent about who is guilty is because Carmen knowingly brutally taunts him before and after the flower aria, and easily could leave.”

Fabiano has recently been moving into heavier roles like Calaf in Turandot and will appear at the Met next season in another iconic Italian role, his first-ever Manrico in Il Trovatore. But being a globe-trotting singer isn’t enough for him as he continues his close association with ArtSmart, an organization he cofounded. “I launched ArtSmart with the goal to find a pathway to income for young working artists. When I was young and studying, it was a struggle to find meaningful work that also helped pay the bills. Not only were we getting meaningful income into the pockets of working, younger musicians, we endeavored to see changes in the lives of our students because of direct, personal mentorship. I want to see our next generation thrive and to do so, we need to find access points that inspire them to greatness.”

Influential people clearly agree with Fabiano’s goals as earlier this year arts patron Maria Manetti Shrem pledged one million dollars in support of ArtSmart’s activities.

Often the tenor’s role is to fall in love with, then lose the soprano, but Carmen’s Don José is just one example of the malevolent personae that tenors are sometimes asked to portray. Veteran Brandon Jovanovich has become known for his searing portrayals of tortured souls like Hermann in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, which he portrayed earlier this year in a new production at Munich’s Bavarian State Opera. Jovanovich relishes those roles’ dramatic challenges.

He finds that “one of the joys of singing the tenor fach that I do is being introduced to a myriad of psychologically complex characters. A “drive” or “obsession” that keeps this constant propulsion to the journey, this victimhood mentality that is buried in layers of rage, hate and indifference. These are just some of the traits I try to explore and highlight in my performances. Delving into the psychosis of each character is such a journey. When coupled with a great director and conductor, it seems almost transcendent to me. Plus, anytime you pull apart these deeply flawed characters you inevitably learn something about yourself.”

Next season, Jovanovich will star in the Met premiere of Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick as Captain Ahab, one of the most famous characters in American mythology.  “With Ahab, this idea of vengeance to the point of death seems so foreign and extreme, but in extrapolating these larger ideas and honing in on the underlying obsessive qualities that we each wrestle with to some degree, I can start to understand and “live in his skin” to some extent. It is this work that I absolutely love!”

Another exciting new role for Jovanovich will be yet one more obsessive, Paul in Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt which the Boston Symphony will present in concert in January 2025. “It is one of these rare gems that comes along only every once in a while. The score…oh my…it is just glorious. This thick, lush carpet of sound that washes over you. Korngold’s music satiates one’s soul in such a satisfying way.”

It was in another Die Tote Stadt during the 2019 Bard Summerscape that I last heard Clay Hilley who has in just a few years risen to become one of the world’s most in-demand heldentenors.

After his gloriously sung Korngold performance, I expected to hear much more of Hilley, but then the pandemic hit. “In retrospect, Covid was, if anything, a catalyst for my career.  Because of so many cancellations at American companies, I was available to say ‘yes’ when Deutsche Oper Berlin called in February of 2021 to ask if I could take over Siegfried in their new Ring. The rest is history.”

The next year, the doomed hero Siegfried once again proved to be Hilley’s lucky role when on one day’s notice he stepped into the internationally televised premiere of a new Gotterdammerung (replacing the late Stephen Gould, another heroic American tenor) at the legendary Bayreuth Festival, which invited him back the following summer for Tristan und Isolde. Hilley will make his first appearance at the Vienna Staatsoper next year starring in a new production of Wagner’s Tannhãuser.

Once you’ve proven yourself in the heavy Wagner-Strauss repertoire, you may only be offered those operas, but next season in Berlin, Hilley will take on “a role I’ve yearned to sing for at least fifteen years: Calaf. Singing Laca in Jenufa this past January was a very rewarding experience—such great music, but the singing isn’t as strenuous as in Wagner/Strauss. Samson is another I ADORE, and I would love to do sometime Otello, Don Alvaro and Dick Johnson, as well as Les Troyens and La Juive, and also there’s Massenet’s rarely-performed Le Cid.”

Russell Thomas, best known for his sterling Verdi and Puccini portrayals, is lately beginning to also embrace heroic German and French tenor roles. Earlier this year Thomas sang the title role in Wagner’s Parsifal for the first time with the Houston Grand Opera where he’ll return in April 2025 for his first Tannhãuser. Richard Strauss beckons for his return to the Met in November’s long-awaited revival of Die Frau ohne Schatten in which Thomas stars as the Emperor. He follows that new role with another in Seattle when he tackles Énée in a concert performance of Berlioz’s epic Les Troyens à Carthage.

To my surprise, Thomas said, “Actually, performing Wagner was never really a goal of mine. I never thought it was a realistic option for me. Most of the tenors that sing this rep are white and heldentenors. I’m neither. I believe Tannhäuser is the perfect opera. It just works. The aspect of the role that give Heldentenors trouble is the higher tessitura. That is where my voice does its best work. When I was offered the role,  it was an offer I couldn’t refuse: the opportunity to sing a dream role. These last couple of years Tristan has been on my mind and every chance I get I learn a few pages.”

Having starred in the Met’s four-act Italian Don Carlo in the fall of 2022, Thomas relearned the role in French for Hamburg’s Don Carlos. I was impressed by this devotional act: “I love Don Carlo(s). I think it’s a perfect opera in all its forms. I don’t feel like a singer has truly conquered the role if they’ve not performed the five-act French. My experience prior to Hamburg was only with the four-act Italian. I’m often called a great Verdi tenor, but because I had not climbed that mountain, I believed the accolade was premature.”

But Thomas hasn’t abandoned his core repertoire, as he recently sang Aïda’s Radames in Chicago and will soon correctly answer Turandot’s riddles for the Los Angeles Opera where he serves as Artist in Residence.

Another American making his mark in Verdi is Brian Jagde who earlier this year scored his biggest Met success so far as Don Alvaro in the new contemporary updating of La Forza del Destino. Earlier this season he had a similar Forza triumph at London’s Royal Opera.

Immediately following the Forza run, Jagde flew to Milan to make his long-delayed debut at La Scala as Turiddu in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. He offered: “I’m excited to finally make my debut. I’ve been fortunate to sing in so many of Italy’s legendary theaters, but I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time. I find Turiddu to be certainly “quintessentially Italian” in the music and the story, but also at the same time he is like many men hailing from that period. Singing Turiddu at La Scala is a dream scenario, especially following so many great tenors who’ve performed the role before on that historic stage.” The unpredictable Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca was Santuzza at Jagde’s debut, but she withdrew from several of the following performances including the livestream.

After he returns to the Met next season as Radames, Jagde will introduce a new role there as Hermann, the desperate gambler in The Queen of Spades, his first Russian role which he’ll try out in Berlin. “I think my process in taking on anything new has always been to follow the trajectory of my voice and its natural path, with inspiration from tenors who had similar career trajectories from the past. Of course, I will continue to sing mainly Italian and French roles for a while—hopefully for my entire career! I’m not too surprised that my Hermann debut is happening soon, as many people over the years have asked me when I will sing this particular role. Hermann is a role I feel I can really sink my teeth into, with his powerful motivations and of course the beautiful arias and duets. The role sits in a range that is still comfortable to sing in as it’s not very low, but it also presents challenges I feel I’m now ready for in my development as an artist.”

Not every American tenor tackles the heavy 19th- and early 20th-century repertoire. Over the past decade, Ben Bliss has risen to the top ranks of the world’s Mozart tenors, especially at the Met where he starred in new productions of Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni. He’s only performed Tamino there in the Met’s brutally abridged, but widely popular English-language The Magic Flute. but next year he’ll finally get a chance to do a proper Die Zauberflöte there when Simon McBurney’s wildly inventive production returns. Bliss also excels with another 18th-century composer—Handel—in whose Semele the tenor will appear in 2025 as Jupiter in a new production, first in Paris, then in London.

But following his shattering Tom Rakewell in The Rake’s Progress at the Met several years ago Bliss will continue venturing more often into operas of the 20th and 21st centuries. During the Bavarian State Opera’s summer festival, he will be Pelléas in a new production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, a role most often taken by lyric baritones. “Luckily for me, the lower part of my range seems to be ample for a role like Pelleas. I look forward to using this slightly different, deeper palate of colors to paint our picture in Munich. Interestingly, Debussy himself actually wrote a few augmentations for the role when it is sung by a tenor. They are little known, but I look forward to offering them to our conductor and music staff. I’ve never heard them in a recording so it could be interesting to explore them.”

Bliss opens the Met’s 2024-25 season with Grounded, an opera by Jeanine Tesori that had its world premiere just last year in Washington DC. The tenor offered that “as interpreters of an operatic repertoire that is largely ‘antique,’ it is a unique opportunity and challenge to give voice and life to a new piece. Not only because it is new itself, but because it will be an important piece in the patchwork of 21st-century opera defining itself, laying out a musical and dramatic landscape and language for the genesis in our living artform. Also, how fun to play a ranch hand instead of a prince!”

I’m grateful to these seven men who spoke to Observer, but they are far from the only Americans excelling on the international scene. The Met lately mostly offers just Puccini roles to Matthew Polenzani, but he shone as Florestan in Fidelio last fall in Hamburg, while next season he adds to his huge repertoire Mauricio in Adriana Lecouvreur for Madrid and Anatol in the National Symphony Orchestra’s long-awaited revival of Barber’s Vanessa starring Sondra Radvanovsky. When Stephen Costello appears in the Met’s Moby Dick as Greenhorn, he’ll be the only cast member recreating the role he originated at the opera’s very first performance in Dallas in 2010. It’s puzzling that Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra have programmed the widely performed La Bohème in June, but Costello will be their Rodolfo.

Sometimes tenors even team with each other as Lawrence Brownlee and Michael Spyres did on their recent showstopping all-Rossini CD “Amici e Rivali” in which the pair trade comradery, insults and showers of high Cs!

Brownlee returns to the Met next year once more as Almaviva in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, the role in which he made his company debut in 2007. Spyres, on the other hand, has joined others in plunging into Wagner with his first Lohengrin in March in Strasbourg. He’ll continue that journey this summer with his Bayreuth debut as Siegmund in Die Walküre, a role he shares with Eric Cutler, a fellow Mozart/bel canto specialist who has graduated into more dramatic repertoire. Cutler will be yet another American to take on Die Tote Stadt when he stars in a new production of the Korngold next year in Zurich.

It can’t be an accident that the Richard Tucker Award, one of opera’s most prestigious and lucrative prizes and one bestowed by the foundation founded by the late tenor’s family, has been given to Polenzani, Cutler, Brownlee, Jovanovich, Costello and Fabiano. The next winner is due to be announced next month! One more tenor?

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