BWW Interviews: Brandon Jovanovich Finds the Humanity in LADY MACBETH's Bad Boy
"To be blunt, Sergei is not a nice guy," says tenor Brandon Jovanovich, talking about his current role at the Metropolitan Opera in Dmitri Shostakovich's LADY MACBETH OF MTENSEK. "He's the kind of fellow who's jovial and friendly one minute...and then you hear he's robbed a store. He uses and abuses people--we all know someone like that, don't we?" he adds, laughing.
How do you make such a despicable, unsympathetic character bearable for an opera audience--particularly when you're not dealing with the gorgeous melodies of Puccini but with the dissonance of Shostakovich? That is one of the challenges of doing LADY MACBETH OF MTSENSK, which is on stage at the Met through November 29. The lady of the title is pretty much a what-you-see-is-what-you get--she even resorts to murder in her quest for happiness--but the leading man is something else. It's possible to find some humanity in the character of Sergei, but you need the right tenor to do it. For the Met, Jovanovich is that singer.
Seeing a transition
"I think that if you see the transition of someone from here to there, it's more appealing to the audience, even if he's not the most likable guy," says the native of Billings, Montana. "I'm not the kind of person who likes the 'park and bark' style of singing. That's not me--I have to move as a character, to show his journey. The result is that I feed off of it and better reach the audience." (It also helps, of course, if you have the naturally easy-going charm of Jovanovich.)
One of the reasons that he's a good fit for the role at the Met is that this isn't his first time at the dance: He first sang Sergei about eight or nine years ago in Austin, Texas, where it was done in English and then did it last year in Zurich, where he had to learn it in Russian, a language that he doesn't speak.
"It's funny working in a language like Russian, where there's nothing to grab on to, nothing even slightly familiar," he admits. "In Zurich, I remembered what the action was like from Austin, which was helpful. But I had to work with a translation to get a sense of what each phrase means and then translate some key words. I'm sure it's easier for people who know it word for word, but I didn't have that. I know the basics of what I'm singing and how to phrase it."
Slightly bombastic but lyrical, too
Did he find anything surprising about going back to the opera? "It was rather shocking that the role is rather musical for me--there's a lot of lyricism in parts of it--because it's not how I think of Shostakovich," says Jovanovich. "Yes, it's slightly bombastic--Shostakovich wasn't the best composer for the voice, by any means--because of the writing and orchestration. But the only ugly thing that I have to do with my voice is in the rape scene.
"It's a garish way to be introduced to Sergei: He screams a lot over the crowd, going up to an A, but it works okay for me. I've found a path for it vocally and I stick to that," he explains. "There are some angular, 12-tone-ish sounding things but Shostakovich covered them up pretty well. In one place, there's this kind of aria and, if you'd look at the notes, you wonder how is this going to be done. But I've found that if you sing it with some line, at a nice pace, I don't think the audience is aware of how dissonant it is."
Retooling by the original director
His co-star in the opera is Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, who he has worked with a number of times before and finds "simpatico," which makes working on this difficult piece much easier to do. "We had about three-and-a-half weeks of rehearsals, including a week with Graham Vick, who did the production's premiere about 20 years ago," says the tenor. (For those not familiar with life at opera houses, when a new production is not involved, that's a huge block of time.) "With this piece you really need to have that much rehearsal, because it is complicated, with the chorus, the supers, and so on. Graham came in and also retooled some of the things he originally did, so we had the chance to feel more comfortable with it."
The Met is doing six performances (Jovanovich is only doing five) and, frankly, he admits, "I could do another five. We've put so much work into it, so much time and energy into it. While it's not CARMEN, it's not LA BOHEME or AIDA--not something that people are familiar with and that's always a barrier--for the most part I think the audience will enjoy it, even though it is a dark, dark story. That's been my experience with the last two productions (I interviewed him after the well-received dress rehearsal at the Met) I've done."
A rare type among America voices
Granted, you need to separate the performer from the role, but, offstage, Jovanovich is about as far from Sergei as you can get. He's a hardworking professional and family man with a wife and three children (9, 11, and 13), who jumped into several performances of CARMEN during his LADY MACBETH rehearsals when a colleague fell ill.
Jovanovich is one of those rarities among American voices these days: a spinto to dramatic tenor ("some people call me a lyric dramatic tenor"). How does Sergei role fit in to where he thinks he's going as a singer? "Well, obviously, this is a heavier role and that's what I seem to be doing," he says. Of the 'greatest hits' operas, he's known as a Pinkerton in MADAMA BUTTERFLY, Don Jose in CARMEN and Cavaradossi in TOSCA, among others. ("I love Puccini," he says, mentioning the possibility of Dick Johnson in LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST.) But he's on his way toward the heavier repertoire. For example, he's done his first LOHENGRINs, as well as Siegmund in DIE WALKURE and Bacchus in ARIADNE AUF NAXOS. He also has a MEISTERSINGER on his schedule.
Can more Wagner be far behind? "I've already been asked to do Siegfried, but I pushed that off. One, I'd rather not have to learn it right now and, two, it opens the 'Wagner' door. You get painted into a corner, 'oh he's the Wagner voice'--and I'm not ready to be perceived that way. I still have OTELLO on my mind."
The most difficult thing
What's the most difficult thing about being an opera singer for Jovanovich? Learning a new role? Not enough rehearsal time? Working with difficult colleagues? "Hands down, the hardest thing in this business is being away from my family. It was easier when my kids were younger and we could travel all together, but now there's school, friends, and their own lives. We've lived in New York, outside of Brussels because I was working a lot in Europe, and Billings, my home town, but I was always gone because there aren't opera houses around there," he explains.
"Then in 2010, I said that we needed to move somewhere near a city where I would work, and the best option turned out to be near Chicago, where we have a farm (!) about an hour from the city. Still, I'm away from home a good part of the year. I even thought about quitting, to be closer to them." What would he do, I asked. "I have no idea. Opera is what I do," he admitted.
And, from the looks of it, it's just the beginning.
Photo: Brandon Jovanovich as Sergei and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Katerina
Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Photo: Brandon Jovanovich
Photo by Kristen Hoebermann