Tag Archives: Madama Butterfly
When Operatoonity.com last spoke with American tenor James Valenti, he was learning the tango for The Dream of Valentino, a new production for Minnesota Opera.
Now, fresh from portraying the silent film star and marquee idol Rudolph Valentino, James enthusiastically reports that he has mastered the dance that Argentina put on the map. (Let’s hope Valentino comes east soon, so that we, too, can witness his ballroom dancing prowess. If like me, curiosity has gotten the better of you, you can watch James tangoing in this YouTube clip.)
In less than two weeks, he opens in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly, which seemed like an ideal opportunity to catch up with him.
Welcome back to Operatoonity.com, James. You’re back in NYC to prepare for singing Lt. Pinkerton for four productions on April 4, 9. 12 & 15.
It’s always exciting being close to home. I get to see a lot of my old friends–my high school friends–and of course my family.
How are you preparing for your imminent Met appearance?
I’ve seen the Minghella production, and I just sang the role for Lyric Opera in Chicago this past fall. In fact I’ve sung the role many times. Of course, every theater has a different way they operate. Sometimes withe European companies, you don’t even get an orchestra rehearsal. I feel as though I have sufficient preparation time prior to that April 4 opening at the Met.
How are you different from the young artist who sang Pinkerton in 2008, when you won New York City Opera’s Debut Artist of the Year award?
I certainly feel differently. I have been working on a new dramatic repertoire, singing more lyric-spinto. My voice now takes on new colors. I got to sing Don Carlo and Valentino–Valentino was a milestone in my career, and I really grew a lot. So I am excited to bring my new technique to the role. I have a new way of singing, and I hope that I have a huge success and get invited back for the next ten years.
You sing a great deal of classic opera. Do you prefer more traditional versions or lean toward experimental interpretations?
Definitely more of a traditionalist. However, Anthony Minghella’s production is rather modern, and it works. The little boy character is actually a puppet. Puppeteers wearing black will be onstage manipulating him. This choice was controversial when Minghella first introduced it. But I have to say, it’s a stunning interpretation.
Will you have much down time while you’re in New York?
Certainly, I’ll have enough time to see other performances at the Met when I am not rehearsing or performing. I definitely want to see Werther and Andrea Chénier.
Any other fun things you plan on doing while you’re in the Big Apple?
There’s so much going on here. Great restaurants. I’ll do things in Central Park once it gets a little warmer. I love going to those nice hotel spas. I like to let loose a little, too.
Besides a good tango, how do you kick up your heels?
My high school friends and I head to Koreatown for a little karaoke. I like singing stuff from the 80s, like “Living on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi and a lot of Journey hits like “Don’t Stop Believing.” I sing a lot of Billy Joel, too. I love all his music, dating back to his earliest album Cold Spring Harbor.
According to the the performance schedule on your website, you are getting a little break this summer. Any special plans?
I’m taking a little time off to record my first CD. All Italian and French music that will probably be available around August 1. You’ll definitely be hearing more about that project. But this is the beauty of my life. I’m not married. I don’t have children. I don’t have anything tying me down that keeps me from picking up and going to Europe. I still get to fly by the seat of my pants.
(And, to conclude, an Operatoonity Q&A staple) The Lightning Round
Cheesesteak or Cheesecake? Cheesecake (with ricotta, the Italian way)
Jeans or khakis? Jeans
Sweater or sweatshirt? Sweater
Dogs or cats? Dogs
Spaghetti or lasagne? Lasagne
House of Pizza or House of Cards? House of Cards
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You can 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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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.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I need to say that I was predisposed to write a generous review of Washington National Opera‘s ‘Butterfly’–I received two premium tickets for winning their opera songwriting contest last fall. However, I am not the most ardent Puccini fan, which I’ve mentioned on this blog, once comparing him to Nicholas Sparks, also on this blog, so there’s no shrinking from that comment.
However, WNO’s Madama Butterfly was a synthesis of beauty and artistry–the best live opera production I’ve seen this year. And I’ve seen a bunch–more shows than ever. All the elements worked this time–music, direction, design, costumes, lighting–in tandem to produce a seamless opera experience that was nothing short of transcendent.
I can scarcely describe the fulfillment I experienced as an audience-goer from such careful shepherding of all production elements toward a common end.
Credit must go to WNO General Director Plácido Domingo and WNO management for selecting to present the Ron Daniels’ version that was so successful in San Francisco, despite the fact that it’s not a brand spanking new production. It’s a luminous treatment that deserves to be seen and appreciated by audiences on this coast.
It’s no straight revival, but this version does honor the spirit of more traditional productions. All the artistic choices served the opera, and not the other way around, which, if I may say so, is becoming annoyingly common and tiresome these days.
Ana María Martínez was a brave and graceful ‘Butterfly’–her voice was as strong and supple as a nylon string. Under the lithe and lively baton of Plácido Domingo, the orchestra supported the singers as if cradled in a gloved hand. We heard every nuance of Martínez’s performance, and there were so many to enjoy–the gentle trills, the beautifully controlled decrescendos on the highest notes the role demands. Her “Un bel di vedremo” was simply a triumph. She has a pure sound–never overdone–as some Puccini sopranos are wont to do. During a question and answer session after the show, I asked her what goes through her mind at the moment before she sings one of the most famous arias Puccini wrote and she said, “Of course, I’m in character. And after that I am only thinking how much I love singing it.”
The curtain call was perfectly conceived. After the final scene, the curtain rose, and Martínez took a solitary bow. How fitting. It really is Butterfly’s show. Then the curtain fell and the traditional bows began. Though Martínez had already brought the audience to its feet, the standing ovation continued in sincere appreciation for the part that everyone played in making the production a stunning whole.
Clearly, Plácido Domingo is that remarkable hand guiding each WNO production to its artistic zenith and will be sorely missed when he steps down at the end of this season. Here’s hoping the next general director will possess even half of his talent, taste, discretion, and maganimous spirit.
Circumstances–namely a full day’s work and a luncheon engagement, followed by church choir practice–have prevented me from writing a review of the splendid Butterfly I saw at the Kennedy Center yesterday presented by the Washington National Opera (WNO) today. Instead, I’ll offer a piece of information on a tidbit from the opera program that intrigued me mainly because of its incongruity.
According to the program notes in the playbill, Madama Butterfly was not well received when it premiered in Milan, Italy, in February of 1904. Not well received? Really? In fact, it is said to have flopped.
What a surprise to learn this about the premiere of this opera, especially since Butterfly followed two great successes for Puccini in La bohème and Tosca. I consulted several of my favorites sources as to why this would have been so.
No one is quite sure why it was a resounding failure. Paul England suggests the following reasons:
- the Italians didn’t like Japan as a stage setting–too unfamiliar;
- the original cast of singers was inadequate;
- originally the opera was only in two acts;
- Pinkerton’s role was too thin–eventually Puccini added an aria for him in Act II.
Only a few months later, a revised work, slightly shorter with Act II now in two parts, was presented in Brescia, and was a resounding success, and would continue to be regarded as such ever after.
According to Opera America, Madama Butterfly is the most performed opera in North America today. With performances like the WNO’s yesterday at the Kennedy Center, it’s no wonder.