Opera Warhorses, | August 5, 2018

Rising Stars – Interview with Baritone Joshua Hopkins

by William Burnett

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Rising Stars – Interview with Baritone Joshua Hopkins

The following interview was conducted with the much-appreciated facilitation of the Santa Fe Opera and the Glimmerglass Festival.

Wm: I ask my interviewees their earliest memories of music and of opera. What were yours?

JH: My parents didn’t listen to classical music, but they were actively involved in the community music scene, so my earliest exposure must have been jazz, concert band arrangements and Christmas classics.

Wm: Where did you grow up and in what ways were your parents involved in the music scene?

JH: I grew up in the small city of Pembroke, Ontario, which is an hour and a half drive west of Ottawa in Canada. My dad was a high school teacher (who taught at my high school) and his subjects were Physics, Chemistry and, yes, Drama. The house in which I grew up was an idyllic setting for my formative years, situated on an acre of property along the shoreline of the majestic Ottawa River. There was never a dull moment.

My parents were involved in two community concert bands associated with the Royal Canadian Legion, one in Pembroke and one in a neightoring town, Petawawa. In many towns and cities throughout Canada in which the Royal Canadian Legion had local branches, there are volunteer concert bands who perform in parades and at military functions, such as on Remembrance Day. For as long as I can remember, every Monday night my family would be at band practice in Pembroke and every Wednesday night we’d have rehearsal in Petawawa. My dad played trombone and my mom played tenor saxophone, but later she switched to percussion. This was just the tip of the iceberg, though. My parents also played in a swing band, which rehearsed after the concert band rehearsal each Monday in Pembroke.

Wm: What did you do while your parents were in band practice?

JH: When I was a little boy, I would take my toys to play with during their rehearsals and my parents would leave me to my own devices. I was a really well-behaved and trustworthy kid! I would listen to the live music in the background and also be with my parents for their concerts and parades. When I was old enough to carry an instrument, I sometimes joined in and played the jingle bells (my first instrument) in the Christmas parade. When I was four I got to play the cymbals in other parades.

At home since the age of five, I played keyboards. We never had a proper piano in the house but we did have an electric Hammond organ with two registers (and foot pedals!) that had seven or eight song settings and a rhythm bank. I learned how to tickle the plastic ivories on our Hammond organ.

[Below: Joshua Hopkins at his Hammond Organ; edited image, based on a personal photograph, courtesy of Joshua Hopkins.]

Wm: When did you begin to take music lessons?

JH: I basically had no formal training, no music theory or history before my teenage years. My mom took me to formal keyboard lessons for one year, then decided she didn’t like the teacher so took me out of lessons and forced me to practice using Leila Fletcher Piano Course books at home. There were a lot of tantrums about that course of study, but I’m thankful she was so adamant, since I use the skills it taught me all the time. At age eight, it was time to find an instrument suited to join the concert bands, so I picked up the clarinet and got involved in playing live music.

Wm: Musical performance as a youth, whether of classical or popular music, seems to be a common experience that many of the operatic artists I interview share. What experiences did you have playing live music?

JH: I joined both the Petawawa and Pembroke Legion concert bands, both of which were supportive of young musicians in the community. Through my teenage years I  progressed from third clarinet to first clarinet, which meant I had more responsibility in the woodwind section and got to play the occasional solo line. I began to feel the sense of pride, camaraderie and accomplishment that comes with playing an instrument among other musicians. I also started giving public performances at school talent shows on keyboard, for which my parents actually hauled our bulky Hammond organ away from home so I could play it!

Apart from the three bands, my parents were also heavily involved in community theater and musical theater, which involved me as well.

Wm: Explain!

JH: My parents ran a local theater company called the Pembroke Little Theater and were also involved with the Pembroke Musical Society, both of which produced fully staged productions in Festival Hall, the main performing arts complex in Pembroke. These were the organizations that occupied the other nights of the week for our family and provided constant creative outflow from the Hopkins household. My dad wrote original plays and musicals, which actually got put on stage. As with attending band rehearsals as a young child, I spent countless hours watching my parents act, sing, direct, stage manage, build sets, design and run lighting and sound . . . you name it, and they did it and brought me along everywhere.

I grew up backstage and the magic of the theater was infused into my veins. Whenever I stop onto a stage now, I remember the smell, the kinetic energy and the potential to create something so magical for the audience, to transport them to another realm for a few hours. Now, the familiarity that embrances me as I stand in the darkened wings before stepping out onto the lit playing space feels like a well-worn, luxurious overcoat that provides such life-affirming nourishment! Existing in the theater is literally what I was born and raised to do.

Initially, when I was old enough to be trusted with such responsibility, I was involved in backstage activities. For example, one of my earliest duties was as the child wrangler in a production of Bart’s “Oliver!”, in which my mother and father played Nancy and Fagin. Honestly, I don’t remember my parents having a spare second.

Wm: Even so, neither your success as an instrumentalist nor your experiences in theater management would necessarily have predicted a career in vocal performance. When did you discover that you had a voice?

JH: I discovered it privately. I didn’t even know I could carry a tune, but when Schönberg’s “Les Misérables” and Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” became so popular, my parents bought the original cast recordings of both musicals on cassette tape. They were played constantly in our home and I became obsessed with the music, learning the melodies and words by rote and mimicking the male singers when I was by myself, accents and all. I do a killer Colm Wilkinson impression! Then we got piano-vocal copies of both scores and I would play through the sheet music on the Hammond.

Soon, as I would walk our dog around the block late in the evening, I was belting out melodies with the aid of natural amplification from the resonant forest acoustics. The neighbors began to wonder who this wandering minstrel was with the young baritone voice.

Wm: When did you start singing solo to live audiences?

JH: The first time I sang publicly was in an awards ceremony in grade nine, at the end of my first year of high school. My music teacher, Jane Smith, encouraged me to display my talent in a solo, so I chose to sing Stars from “Les Mis”, accompanying myself on electric keyboard. My dad heard me sing for the first time at this event and was completely floored: “Josh, where have you been hiding this voice?” From that moment on I sang in public frequently and was supported very well by the community. I started out small, singing in the chorus of Ross and Adler’s “The Pajama Game” and performing a small role with bit solos in my dad’s original musical, “Joseph the Carpenter”. My big break in a leading role came when I was 16 and cast as Curly in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” for the Pembroke Musical Society.

About the same time I was preparing for Curly, I auditioned on a whim for music director Peter Morris, who was casting the solo roles for Haydn’s “Creation” to be performed by his semi-professional community orchestra in Deep River, Ontario. He was completely taken with my voice and immediately offered me Raphael, the bass soloist. Although I had no training in singing classical oratorio, I decided to jump off the deep end and test my limits. I found oratorio to be such an astoundingly different way to perform music. It was baffling to me as a vocal soloist to spend most of the concert sitting. In the first performance, I remember watching the audience watch me for much of the evening and it felt so strange.

I am so thankful I was given all of these opportunities to explore such different approaches to performance styles in my youth. They provided me with a practical application of skills and strong stage competence for my future career.

Wm: When did you begin formal vocal training and how did you select a teacher?

JH: I had no formal lessons until I was 18, in the year before I finished high school. My success in “The Creation” led to more oratorio guest soloist invitations, returning to the Deep River Symphony Orchestra for the bass solos in Handel’s “Messiah” and joining the Pembroke Community Choir for performances of Handel’s “Judas Maccabaeus”. The choir’s leader, Kevin Nieman, had also directed me in “Oklahoma!” and he continued to encourage my pursuit of vocal performance and even gave me an honorarium for voice lessons. Although I knew I wanted lessons, I wasn’t sure whether I would pursue classical training or musical theater. Kevin wisely steered me in the direction of classical training and suggested I study with Laurence Ewashko, a former conductor of the Vienna Boys’ Choir and a professor at the University of Ottawa. Every Monday I had the fourth period of school free, so I committed to driving three hours to and from Ottawa each week to study voice at his home. Laurence introduced me to some arias and songs that would be appropriate for a university audition package. I learned Papageno’s Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen aria from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”, some German Lieder and art songs in other different languages.

[Below: Joshua Hopkins as Papageno in the 2009 Opera Lyra Ottawa production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”; edited image of a Sam Garcia photograph.]

Wm: I understand that you also had some experience with jazz performance.

JH: When I was 14, about the time I knew I could sing but before I revealed it to anyone, my mom approached the leader of the swing band to see if I could fill the vacant position of keyboardist. I knew the basic structures of chords, but I was not a sufficiently proficient jazz pianist who could improvise solos. I was brought on board and played with them until I left for university. When the bandleader found out that I could sing I was assigned some vocals, including an arrangement of Elton John’s Can You Feel the Love Tonight?.

Then, when I turned 17, I was hired as the vocalist in a professional jazz quintet that would travel from Ottawa for a monthly gig at an upscale hotel restaurant in Pembroke. What an education! On a regular basis I was performing completely different styles of music, in this case using a microphone and learning how to be relaxed and seductive in front of an audience of casual listeners. I even got to record a studio album with the quintet, on which I sang four numbers. It was a formative time.

Wm: Now you were ready for university. How did you decide where to go?

JH: The decision was actually quite easy. After working with my voice teacher Laurence and building some repertoire, I applied to McGill University in Montreal and other universities in Ontario. I remember one long, rainy night, after I had just given a performance as Jerry in Pinter’s play “Betrayal” at the Sears Ontario Drama Festival, when my dad drove me to one of my university auditions in southern Ontario scheduled on the next day. Those were crazy times. I’ll never forget, however, the first time I laid eyes on the City of Montreal and fell in love with its European charm.

Wm: Since McGill is where you ended up, that trip must have been a success.

JH: The audition went really well. I was made to feel extremely welcome there, and had a good feeling about the faculty and their immersive opera training program. I was offered an Entrance Scholarship from the Faculty of Music and applied for and received a comprehesive academic scholarship that was renewable for each of the four years during my Bachelor of Music degree.  These factors combined with the magic of the city – it was a no-brainer.  I was looking for a strong school and it was a great choice. I found great colleagues and friends, and met Zoe, my future wife.

After completing my Bachelors degree it felt only natural to stay and finish my Master’s degree at McGill for an additional two years. I wanted more maturity before heading out into the precarious world of self-employed singing. Originally I had been at a crossroads, choosing between the world of opera or the world of music theater, but McGill and Montreal provided limitless opportunities and experience, leading me down the right path.

Wm: Tell me about your experiences at McGill and you immersion into opera.

JH: Every year I gained a ton of onstage experience being cast in Opera McGill’s main-stage productions. Despite being a classic lyric baritone, I performed a large number of roles more suited to bass-baritones because I had a strong lower-middle register and was struggling with my high notes. These roles included Figaro in Mozart’s “Nozze di Figaro”, Guglielmo in Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” and Nick Shadow in Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress”. It was a steep learning curve to suddenly be practicing and memorizing full-length roles in addition to a full course load, but I put my head down and did the work.

[Below: Joshua Hopkins (left) as Figaro, with Christine Estes (right) as Susanna in an Opera McGill performance of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro”; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of Chris MacRae.]

I also gave art song recitals each year as part of the requirements for completing my degree. The most rewarding was my Master’s recital, performing Schubert’s Die Winterreise in my final year. Recitals did not come naturally to me like the opera roles did. I often felt stuck in my body due to the stillness of the presentation. I still struggle with these challenges to this day. I love connecting with an audience on an intimate level, but I don’t feel comfortable exposing the vulnerable part of me. There are no wigs, makeup or costumes, no score to hold in front of me as a security blanket; it’s just the act of sharing my personal emotions and opinions through honest storytelling in text and music. Being vulnerable in performance is something I strive for, but is often the hardest element to achieve. Vulnerability has definitely become easier with age, experience and confidence, but I don’t know if I’ll ever feel at home in recital like I do on the opera stage.

[Below: Joshua Hopkins as Argante (standing center) in the 2009 Central City (Colorado) Opera production of Handel’s “Rinaldo”; edited image, based on a Mark Kiryluk photograph.]

Wm: Did you have opportunities to perform outside of McGill?

JH: Well, before he was a worldwide superstar, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin hired students to sing as soloists in early music concerts with a choral and chamber ensemble he co-founded, called La Chapelle de Montréal. I sang as a soloist under his baton several times, including performances of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” and “St. John Passion.” He also invited me to sing as a guest soloist in Bruckner’s “Te Deum” in his third season as principal conductor of Orchestre Métropolitain.

I also had a weekly job, as did several other music students including my future wife, as a chorister and soloist at a downtown Montreal church. The church would sometimes give special holiday concerts.

Bernard Labadie, the extraordinary French-Canadian conductor who really nurtured my early professional career, happened to attend one of the church’s concert performances during my senior baccalaureate year. Bernard was then the artistic director of Opéra de Québec and founding music director of his early music chamber orchestra Les Violons du Roy in Quebec City. He approached me afterward and said he would love to hear me in a private audition, so a few months later I sang the boisterous aria Why do the Nations from Handel’s “Messiah” for him. Although I messed up some of the coloratura in the aria, he immediately took a liking to my voice and artistry.

Bernard offered me my first professional opera contract at Opéra de Québec while I was still in the first year of my Master’s degree, to sing both roles of Angelotti and Sciarrone in Puccini’s “Tosca” with Bernard conducting. That was the first time I got paid to sing opera and I was over the moon. It was clear to me that this was how I wanted to spend my life, living and breathing this wondrous combination of incredible music and theater.

Working with opera professionals was truly eye-opening and living away from school for five weeks to play in the real world got me excited about what was hopefully to come. Imagine my elated shock when Bernard invited me back to Opéra de Québec to sing Masetto in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” in the second year of my Master’s degree and I got to perform with one of my baritone idols, Russell Braun!

In the same year I was performing in “Don Giovanni,” I was invited to sing performances as Pollux in Rameau’s “Castor et Pollux” with Opera in Concert in Toronto, for which Naxos Records made a studio recording.

Wm: Tell me about the singing competitions you entered during your McGill years.

JH: The National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS), a North America-wide organization, sponsored local voice competitions, so in the first year of my Bachelor’s degree I hopped on a bus with other McGill vocal students to compete in the NATS competition in Potsdam, New York. I won the top prize in my age category.

In the first year of my Master’s degree, I auditioned for the Jeunesses Musicales Canada, an organization which supports young musicians and created the Montreal International Musical Competition. Some of us were chosen to represent Canada in international competitions and I was selected to compete in the Julián Gayarre Singing Competition in Pamplona, Spain.  It was my first trip overseas alone and I was nervous as hell but I focused on the work, treated each of the rounds as a performance and actually won first place in the male division. Tenor José Carreras was the honorary President and a judge — I was star-struck when he shook my hand and presented me with the top prize.

In New York, I competed in both the George London Foundation Competition and the Opera Index Competition, receiving small prizes from both, but it wasn’t until my final Master’s year that I tried out for the Big Kahuna, the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Although the lead-up had been exciting in the early rounds, winning the Four-City District and Great Lakes Regionals in one weekend, I felt I was at a disadvantage when I finally arrived in NYC for the semi-finals.

Wm: Explain your disadvantage.

JH: My true disadvantage was that I was sick, so I didn’t sing as well as I wanted. Also, my aria choices weren’t classic competition winners. Since high notes never came easily to me in my youth I wasn’t ready to bring the flashy arias that are popular with a lot of judges, such as Figaro’s Largo al factotum from Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” or Valentin’s Avant de quitter ces lieux from Gounod’s “Faust.” (Happily, now both those roles are my bread and butter.)

[Below: Joshua Hopkins as Figaro in a 2010 Arizona Opera performance of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”; edited image, based on a Tim Fuller photograph.]

It was daunting to step onto the revered Met stage and I remember how strange it was to sing to the small crowd that was stuck in the far back corner of the orchestra level. I sang Pierrot’s Lied from Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt” and Almaviva’s recitative and aria from Mozart’s “Le nozze di Figaro,” a successful staple for me in future competitions. My Met auditions ended abruptly that day, but I learned a lot and knew in my heart it wouldn’t be the last time I would sing on the Met stage.

After my Met experience, I headed back to Montreal to graduate that spring and married the woman of my dreams that summer. I was about to embark on the greatest adventure I had ever known. Without a doubt, every student leaving university is concerned with what the next step will be. The reality was, in my last year of school I was already making the transition to becoming a professional singer. What should I do next?

Wm: What did you do next?

JH: I felt it was important to join a young artist training program with a major opera company, preferably in the U.S. to help expand my opportunities abroad.

Wm: I know you ended up at the Houston Grand Opera Studio. What led a Canadian boy to end up in Texas?

JH: I was approached by Diane Zola, who was at that time Director of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, after auditioning for the program in New York. She invited me to sing an audition on Houston Grand Opera’s stage for her and General Director David Gockley. They were hearing another baritone on the same day, but I ended up winning the spot in the Studio. It was a huge turning point for me and I wouldn’t be where I am today without having been nurtured and supported by Diane and that incredible company. It also connected me to my remarkable voice teacher, Dr. Stephen King. So, my wife and I bought our first car, a compact Toyota Echo and in late August we drove from Montreal down into the Texas humidity.

Wm: There are lots of differences between Ontario, Quebec and Texas, but you obviously did adapt to Houston!

JH: Houston has grown on us. It has a certain relaxed lifestyle despite being one of the largest cities in the U.S. Having experienced a major ice storm during my first year in Montreal when close to the entire city was without power, we don’t miss winter one bit. Hurricanes, on the other hand…

One of the major reasons we stayed in Houston was so I could continue my voice studies with Dr. King. It was a wise decision.

Wm: Tell me about the impact that Dr. King’s voice lessons have had on your career.

JH: I doubt I would be where I am today had I not started working with Dr. King. He has the world’s greatest ears for fine tuning and since he is a baritone, he has an intimate knowledge of the repertoire that I sing.

His principal approach is simple. My voice is an instrument inside my body, which means I don’t hear what others hear when I sing. I had to learn NOT to listen to the sound I am hearing. Instead, I needed to identify the SENSATION I am feeling when I’m successfully producing a rich, full-bodied sound. Of course, there’s so much more to healthy singing than that, but writing about those topics would fill libraries.

When I first worked with Dr. King, he determined that I was singing with my tongue too far back and led me to a much healthier way of singing. Over time, things started to click for me and with hard work over the years, I found my high notes that I had been missing in my twenties.

[Below: Joshua Hopkins as the Pilot in the 2004 Houston Grand Opera production of Portman’s “The Little Prince”; edited image of a Brett Coomer photograph.]

Whenever I’m at home in Houston, I try to see Dr. King twice a week because I never stop learning from him. Even after 15 years of lessons, there are still miles to go in the discovery of my vocal technique, which I find extremely exciting. I never want to plateau – it’s the most dangerous thing that can happen to an artist. The advice I give to young singers is to find a voice teacher you trust, and always continue studying no matter how successful you become.

Wm: Obviously, your studies with Dr. King and your participation in the Houston Grand Opera Studio have had a beneficial effect on your career. In the past few years I have been present at your performances at the Houston Grand Opera and the Santa Fe Opera in operas as varied as those of Mozart, Gounod, Johann Strauss and Richard Strauss.

I was at the world premiere of Heggie’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” in Houston that will perform later this year for your San Francisco Opera debut as Harry Bailey.

Meanwhile, you are singing the role of Figaro in Francesca Zambello’s new production of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” at the 2018 Glimmerglass Festival. What are your thoughts on that production?

JH: I’ve enjoyed working with Francesca so much this summer because she is focused on balancing comedy with humanity. The production gives an endearing nod towards Commedia dell’arte with its charming humor. We as characters exist in a fantasy world where props that we ask for literally appear out of the blue – the entire design concept bathes the stage in a blue background!

[Below: Joshua Hopkins as Figaro in the 2018 Glimmerglass Festival production of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

Our audiences have been extremely receptive to the production, sharing plenty of genuine laughter throughout the performances, something that can never be taken for granted. Figaro is one of my favorite roles to perform, so I always love to delve deeper into his personality each time I revisit him.

Wm: Thank you for an interesting interview. Let’s plan another conversation before your San Francisco Opera debut this Fall, in which we discuss some of the highlights of your career to date.

JH: I look forward to it.