BWW Interview: Opera Star, AARON BLAKE brings Crossover Stylings to Feinstein's/54 Below
Tenor, Aaron Blake is one of the opera world's fastest rising stars. The recipient of a 2017 George London Foundation Award, he has, in just a handful of years, earned international recognition on some of the world's leading stages. This fall he returns to the Metropolitan Opera (where he debuted opposite Placido Domingo in La Traviata) in a new production of the Phillip Glass opera, Akhnaten, about the Egyptian pharaoh.
As if the stakes of premiering a new staging at the world's most prestigious opera company weren't enough, Blake, a longtime resident of New York City, will be 'coming home' with an intimate new act debuting at Feinstein's / 54 Below on November 24th.
I recently caught up with Aaron to talk about his life, his work and what drives him as an artist.
Aaron, I just saw a photo of you in your costume (as The High Priest of Amon) in Akhnaten. My goodness! Tell me about this role and what you are wearing!
Brady to put it simply... I'm wearing "Everything"... As the High Priest Of Amon, my main character objective in Akhnaten is to keep religious order and uphold the wishes of the crowned Pharaoh. Spoiler Alert: I don't really agree with his new Sun God ideology. And in Act 3, I end up orchestrating Akhnaten's demise. Kevin Pollard has designed incredible costumes for the entire cast, and mine embodies the grandness of the High Priest and the threat he poses to the future of the kingdom, replete with an 8 foot cape and a headpiece featuring the skull of a stag. Egyptian High Fashion at its best!
And at the same time you're also premiering a new show at 54 Below. How did that happen? In the middle of this crazy exciting new opera experience at the Met, what made you want to premiere a solo cabaret act?
Well, crossing over genres has always been a passion of mine. And it has been a part of my training from the very beginning; since I was 15 years old. My first teacher, Annette Warren Smith, who is 98 now - soon to be 99, was very, very insistent that at the same time I was learning,"Caro Mio Ben," I was also learning, "How Deep is the Ocean," because the two styles of music have a profound effect on the freedom and artistic license you begin to develop as an artist. So I've kind of always sung both. And I thought that the timing of being at the Met - being in New York, and on the heels of the live in HD broadcast of Akhnaten, which goes worldwide from the Met on November 23rd - that 54 Below would be really fun.
What I didn't plan when I scheduled this concert was how moved I'd be by the process of creating Akhnaten, and by the people that I'm working with. I've grown very close to all of them on a level that doesn't necessarily always happen in opera. You know [in opera] we are the masters of getting really close, really quick with our colleagues in order to perform at the level that we need to and make our onstage relationships believable. But this process was different. It was distilled; slowed down a lot by our director, Phelim McDermott, purposefully, so that we really were able to fill time and space and get to know each other on a much deeper level. One day it hit me, 'Oh my gosh, I need to bring my Akhnaten friends and the Metropolitan Opera to 54 Below!' And so I got courageous, and asked a couple of my Akhnaten colleagues if they would like to make their 54 Below Debuts.
Wow. What was their response?
Well, I was a bit timid asking them at first because I didn't know if they'd accept. Everybody is kind of a starry and super talented, and I'm just little old me. But, much to my delight, they immediately said yes - they were so excited by the idea! So, I've invited two of the amazing women that I'm singing with from the cast to join me. Our Nefertiti, J'Nai Bridges is one of opera's fastest rising young Mezzo stars. And her name lends itself quite well to how she's impacting the world of opera. She's an advocate for educating and "Building Bridges" between communities of color and the world of opera and classical music, which I find very exciting, And my other Akhnaten co-star, the gorgeous Icelandic soprano, Dísella Lárusdóttir (who plays Queen Tye) will also be joining me. They are both incredible artists and have inspired many with their presence both on and off stage.
And did you ask them to sing opera, or were you like 'come and sing some Gershwin?'
I wanted to give them a chance to step out of our world and into another, so we have a couple of fun surprises up our sleeve. The program is varied... I'll break the ice with some Neapolitan songs made famous by Caruso, Pavarotti and Corelli, but in the next breath I'll be paying homage to the legendary Broadway singers of the past who were great influences in my artistic development like Judy Garland, Mario Lanza and Frank Sinatra. I'm also going to work in some Barry Manilow, and one of my all time favorite singer songwriters, Joni Mitchell. It's just going to be me and the piano. Very simple. I have the most wonderful musical director, Cris Frisco. This is a chance for me to get close with my audience. In the opera house, even in the 3rd or 4th row, the performers are still at least 35-40 feet away, but in "Broadway's LIving Room," it's quite different. I love connecting with people through music. I love making new friends, and what I like to do with these kinds of intimate performance is just hold everybody in the palm of my hand.
Did you know you always wanted to be an opera singer?
Well, the first instrument I ever studied was the violin, from the age of 5. Music was always present. My mom was very musical. She was always playing music of all kinds around the house. The first time I remember hearing opera it struck a chord with me, and I suppose there was no turning back. I've just always been a "little bit different." Like an old soul. Or from another era. The first opera I ever saw was La Traviata at the LA Opera. I was maybe twelve or thirteen, and I was in tears by the end. I also remember hearing the Three Tenors concert at Dodgers Stadium, and recognizing that my voice was more that kind of voice. So the way Opera found Me and I found Opera is that we chose each other and there really was no looking back.
What was it like going to Juilliard?
A dream come true. My mom took me on a trip to visit the East Coast conservatories - it was fall, right after 9/11. We'd just gone down to see the World Trade Center, and it was still smoking and it was very cold. There were no taxis around and my mom (concerned about my voice) struck up a conversation with a policeman, and he ended up driving us up to Lincoln Center so we wouldn't miss our scheduled tour. We got in the back of this canine unit and he dropped us off right in front of Juilliard on 66th Street. I had no idea what greatness was harnessed within those walls - I was so green. I remember walking into the lobby and it there was an instant recognition inside of myself. I felt an energetic connection, and knew in that moment this was where I needed to be... I was home. I decided to put all my energy into getting into Juilliard. So I set myself to work and fortunately the dream come true. It's an incredible conservatory and I know my time there has helped me become the artist I am today.
What is it like having a viable career in the opera world? Is it like the theatre or film worlds where you have people saying, ' you can't ever play certain roles because you aren't this certain height,' or 'you don't look this certain way?'
Well, yes it is. However, there is nothing that is set in stone, right? In opera, singing still does come first, and it takes time to "get there"... I really had to learn how to "get out of my own way" in order to allow my voice to find its happy place. It was the realization that I needed to focus my attention inward as opposed to looking out in the world for the answers and approval. There was a time when I tried to change myself physically to suit what I thought I needed to "be" or "Look Like" in order to play certain roles: Taller, Thinner, More Masculine... That kind of thing drives you crazy because it ends up being inauthentic, and you don't allow who you truly are to shine through. Inner beauty, soul, is what people want to see and hear coming through your sound.
When a singer truly connects to what they are singing and takes a leap of faith to own a character in an authentic way, physicality no longer becomes an issue; it just is. We need time to develop this kind of self awareness and one must be patient. That's the most important skill to develop as an artist in any discipline... the ability to be okay with just letting "now" happen when "now" is ready to happen. If people had pushed me out onto the stages of the world at 22, my career would have come and gone. I needed time to develop as a person and artist. Time to develop the skills to handle the demands of the operatic lifestyle. So I kept working. And then I had this opportunity to play a character on stage that made it all come together - a character that I resonated so deeply with...
What character was that?
Timothy Laughlin in Fellow Travelers ( composed by Gregory Spears to a libretto by Greg Pierce, based on Thomas Mallon's 2007 novel). It was a new opera inspired by a real life events. The Lavender Scare during McCarthy era Washington DC, to be specific. I had also been told by a very important vocal coach, when I was a young singer, that I didn't have the skill set to successfully perform difficult contemporary works. She was basically saying I was not a very good musician. So when this opportunity came along, I made sure I had honed all of the skills necessary to make it a success. Being a part of this world premiere ended up being a huge gift both personally and professionally. Through creating the role of Tim, I learned so many things but most importantly how to finally allow myself to be "real" on stage.
What is the discipline of being an opera singer? How is it different from, say, a Broadway performer?
Broadway performers I admire so much. They have to perform eight shows a week and they are in amazing shape. I have no idea how you guys do it. Seriously in awe. Truth be told - seeing Broadway shows is one of my favorite things to do. The performers and performances are just so incredible. Opera is a little bit of a different beast, but not so far from our friends on Broadway. We have to train our bodies in slightly different ways. We engage our breath a little deeper, and we use a bit more soft palate space in our singing- mainly to help us project into those large halls we have to sing into unamplified. We also have to be physically fit, but we keep certain parts of our body a little bit more "soft"- for example we can't have as taught of a core as a Broadway singer/dancer would. We have to keep our core a bit more flexible so that we can release our breath a bit deeper into our bodies.
And how do you maintain your body in order to do that? I think about the classic images of Pavoratti and his passion for pasta and rich foods.
The image of opera is changing - people who sing opera now are definitely more physically in touch with their bodies than singers of previous generations. But what makes the art form of staged opera fun is seeing "real" people representing all of the different body types on stage. I can assure you that every singer you see on an operatic stage is an athlete, and has trained their body to do what we do best - make amazing sounds. In talking with my colleagues, I feel that everybody pays attention to diet slightly differently. I personally have the added benefit of a mother who does natural medicine for a living and is really, really talented at it. So she has given me a number of wonderful tips and tools to keep my mind and body healthy. For me, it's about general health and wellbeing, and making sure that I maintain a status quo so I can successfully execute all of my performances. The most important thing is to keep the inflammation level low. This prevents the body from having to detox or "get sick". In order to do so, I've eliminated grains from my diet, and have been reflex tested for all of the foods I eat. This ensures that I'm only eating or drinking things that make my body happy.
So you don't have any vices?
(Laughing) French fries. I am a true connoisseur of french fries! But you know what I think about singing across the board, whether it be Broadway or opera, is that what we do as performers is a lifestyle choice. And it does come with certain concessions, whether you're performing 8 shows a week at the Winter Garden or 8 performances of an opera a month at the Met. I feel like the people that are most successful are people that don't look at those choices as concession, but as lifestyle choices. We are just so passionate about the work that we do that we're really willing to do almost anything in order to achieve our greatest potential as artists, and we make sure that we're capable of giving the most to the audience every time we perform. Onstage or offstage: living cleanly is about living life in a purposeful way.
Now in the opera world, do you ever have any of those classic show biz stories where someone gets plucked from the chorus and overnight becomes a star? Does that ever happen?
There's a fun story right now circulating around the Met about an usher [Tshombe Selby], who has ushered there for years and recently made his Met debut in Porgy and Bess. And there's Morris Robinson, who was on the path to becoming a professional football player. Somebody heard his voice, recognized his outstanding talent, he pursued it, and now he's a star singing the leading opera houses all over the world. But I really think what makes a career is persistence, dedication, and discipline. And that's really the truth behind it for most people.
Who are your favorite non-opera singers?
What is your opinion of Judy Garland from the viewpoint of a classically trained vocalist?
I think she's incredible. She was such a natural singer. I loved her as her career progressed as well, but if you listen to some of her earlier studio recordings, it's just such glorious, easy, natural legit singing. I love that. Even nowadays where both musical theater and Broadway tend to be more "pop centric", there's still so much good singing within the genre, and it inspires me so much to see hear that taking place.
Of the current singers on Broadway, who have you been most impressed by.
One of the people that I was absolutely blown away by in recent seasons was Cynthia Erivo in THE COLOR PURPLE. I just was floored by her performance. The first CANDIDE I did with the New York Philharmonic was with one of my idol-icons, Patti LuPone who is so fantastic. I love her 'unconventional conventionalism' and how she just fully is able to give her whole being to a performance.
Would you ever want to do Broadway?
I would LOVE to do a Broadway show. Recently there have been a number of crossovers from Broadway to Opera and vice versa, from Kelli O'Hara and Renee Fleming to Paolo Szot. I'm definitely putting it out there into the universe. I have so many friends singing on Broadway, and I love how the shows and productions I see them in allow for such sincere and moving performances. It must be a really special thing to be a part of a company that performs and gets to know each other at that deep level over such lengthy performance runs. Sign me up!!!
After Akhnaten and your gig at 54 Below, what's next for you?
I have a holiday concert with the LA Symphony. I'll be singing both holiday music and opera arias. And then I'll be back on the road to Rome, Tel Aviv, Montreal and Cincinnati for some exciting debuts and fantastic new productions.
Do you like holiday music?
I actually can't wait until the day after Thanksgiving for the Christmas tunes to start in stores and on the radio. It just makes me really happy. I mean who's Holiday season doesn't start the moment they hear the genius first chord of Mariah's "All I Want for Christmas." Suddenly your smiling and you know there's some mistletoe nearby.
Later this year, Aaron will make his Israeli National Opera debut as Il conte Almaviva in Barber of Seville as well as his debut with Opéra de Montréal as Tamino. He will close his season by celebrating the Cincinnati Opera's 100th Anniversary with performances of Il Barbiere di Siviglia opposite Mezzo Soprano, Isabel Leonard.