up close and personal with American tenor James Valenti

James Valenti, American tenor

James Valenti opens in ‘Madama Butterfly’ at Lyric Opera in Chicago on October 15 | photo by Dario Acosta

He loves ballroom dancing. He’s a talented athlete in multiple sports. He was a lifeguard, a chorister, and even a baritone at the very start of his musical journey.

He’s learning to tango. He wants to learn to ride a horse so that he can play polo.

He’s East Coast. He’s Chicago. He’s Palm Beach. He’s Milan. He’s Sydney. He’s Zurich and Munich.

His Tweets often include snippets of his worldview from his (well) considered vantage point, condensed within 140 characters: “If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough,” he tweeted on October 4. And once he’s befriended you, it seems you’re his friend for life.

Who is this multi-talented, multi-faceted, loyal, hardworking, world-traveling, philosophical, lifelong-learning, all-American, Type-A, 6’5″ Jersey boy who also happens to be an internationally acclaimed tenor?

None other than the opera star James Valenti. And he’s opening in a new-to-Chicago production of Madama Butterfly on October 15, a coproduction of Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and Grand Théâtre de Genève.

I spoke with James on a sunny afternoon during a bit of free time from rehearsing the role of Lieutenant Pinkerton. I asked him every question I could think of, all of which he graciously answered for your edification, dear readers.

Welcome to Operatoonity, James! It’s a pleasure to talk with you today. You’re a tenor, but your voice has the resonance of a baritone’s. Can you describe your voice for my readers?
It has a warm, Italianate color–sonorous, it’s been called. It sounds like a full baritonal voice in the lower and middle registers. I call myself a lyric spinto tenor. It’s not really something I cultivated in my voice. It has always leant itself to being like that. When I started formally studying at 18 or 19, I actually sang baritone. It takes time for all the muscles, used properly, to develop. Sometime in my early twenties, I found my tenor register.

Franco Corelli headshot

The late great Franco Corelli, the Prince of Tenors, is someone Valenti’s often compared to because he also cuts a tall, handsome figure on the stage.

You’ve been compared to Franco Corelli. Yes, not just because of the voice. Also, the height and the looks.

Now that we’ve stumbled onto the topic of your appearance, how do you process all the attention that’s paid to your looks? A recent review in the Chicago Reader called you a ‘heartthrob.’  I’d be foolish to not sort of use what I’ve been given. I look nice. I work hard to look nice. It makes my performances more believable. I look the way a leading man is supposed to look. That being said, I don’t want people just to focus on the looks. I don’t want people to be distracted by that. I want them to hear me. If you go to my website–I have a new website–before you even see what I look like, you hear me singing.

How do you mentally prepare to sing a role like Pinkerton?  In some ways, Pinkerton is a man of his time. Do you bring a modern sensibility to the role? I’ve sung the role many times–I like to say I’ve been booed all over the world. I try to get into his head. He’s a young guy in a strange culture. He doesn’t really understand the significance of what he does to Butterfly. When he returns to Japan with his new family, he does feel genuine remorse once he realizes what he’s done. He does care for Butterly. I try to convey that.

James Valenti as Pinkerton

James Valenti starring in City Opera’s ‘Madama Butterfly’

You sang this role for New York City Opera in 2008 and won City Opera’s Debut Artist of the Year. How do you feel about their current woes and likely demise?  They were a great company that offered a great platform for debut artists. They had such a wonderful reputation. In fact, I just saw Anna Nicole–fantastic production. It makes me sad to think about it.

When did you know you wanted to do this? I started singing in high school. I did show choir and musical theater. When I went to hear The Three Tenors, something flipped a switch. It was incredible. It really affected me. So I began listening to a lot more opera. I also have to say how important my teachers were in encouraging me, in high school and college. I’m still close to my high school teachers–they are responsible for helping me become what I am. I do know that had I not had their encouragement, had I not seen The Three Tenors perform, I would have found this life, eventually. This is my calling.

Do you have a favorite house to sing in? Coming back to the Met is always a joy. My family actually gets to see me sing when I’m in New York. They can’t come hear me when I’m performing in Europe. But there’s a lot of pressure that comes with singing at the Met, too. I like the slightly smaller companies like Minnesota Opera and Palm Beach Opera (where I live). I feel as though I do great work there because I am more relaxed.

James Valenti

James Valenti was born in Summit, New Jersey and comes from a “big, amazing Italian family.” He’s a graduate of the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia | photo by Dario Acosta

Now that you’ve mentioned Minnesota Opera, tell us about The Dream of Valentino, the new opera based on Rudolph Valentino, opening in March of next year. Valentino had a very tragic life. He died at age 29. He was the first really big victim of Hollywood. Discovered and destroyed by Hollywood. [Valentino was a dancer in a Broadway dance palace at the start of his career.] I’m taking tango lessons, and I love it. I have a good instructor who said I’m a natural.

James, learning the tango  for Dream of Valentino

James, learning the tango for ‘The Dream of Valentino,’ in which he’s playing the title role

So you like trying new things? There’s a big polo equestrian scene in Palm Beach where I live. I have a friend who’s really into it. I’m going to learn how to ride a horse, so I can play.

How do you like the itinerant life? It has its advantages. Wherever I go, I actually do try to make the most of what this lifestyle has to offer. If  I am performing in a strange city for two months, I really try to get plugged into it, to get a feel for that city. Of course, I always worry about getting enough rest, but there is something great about having the opportunity to share my talent with the world.

How do you stay healthy? It’s hard to have a routine when you travel as much as I do–two-thirds of the year I’m traveling. But I stay active. I do yoga. If the hotel has a pool, I swim. I play beach volleyball when I’m at home. Here in Chicago, I’m going bike riding on Lake Shore Drive. The day of the show I lay low; I sleep in. I suck on raw ginger which is good for the immune system. I guess it boils down to hydration and sleep. I have to get enough of both of those to perform.

When one visits your website, you can’t help noticing that you are devoting a significant amount of your life energy to charities you believe in.  I became a sponsor for Children International back in 2006 and am now an ambassador. I’m happy to be part of it and really passionate about it. I’m in a point in my career where I can get more involved. I’m anxious to give my time as I can, and through my career and my travels, I want to raise awareness of what they do.

James Valenti

James Valenti won the Richard Tucker Prize in 2010, awarded annually to an American singer poised on the edge of a major national and international career.

Ready for the lightning round of questions? I’ll give you a prompt and you answer in a couple words, okay?

Favorite opera: La bohème; Werther
Favorite role: Don Carlos (recently); Rodolfo
Favorite leading lady(ies):  Angela Gheorghiu and Anna Netrebko
Dream role: Andrea Chénier
Massenet or Mozart: Massenet
Beef or chicken: Beef
Mountains or beach: Beach
Guilty pleasure: Swiss chocolate, dark chocolate; hazelnut and pistachio gelato
Bacon or tofu: Bacon
Football or basketball: Basketball (though there’s a lot of big football fans in my family)
London or Paris: Paris

* * *

If you are an East Coaster like me, you’ll be delighted to know that James is singing Madama Butterfly at the Met on April 4, 9, 12, 15, 2014. You can also follow James on Twitter @James_Valenti or become his Facebook fan at https://www.facebook.com/jamesvalentitenor, where he regularly posts content and photos from around the world.

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, artists, Classic Opera, Italian opera, North American Opera, Richard Tucker prize winners, tenors

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