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Preparing for Opera’s Renaissance: An Interview with John Brancy

At twenty-eight, American baritone John Brancy is a study in focus and concentration. He views his rising career with a fierce strategic precision, and he gives considerable thought to the rapidly changing opera scene and what it may look like ten years down the line. There doesn’t seem to be a moment when he isn’t pondering the next step. I spoke with him as he was preparing to take on his first Eugene Onegin for Florida Grand Opera. (Performances in Miami are January 28, 29, 31, February 3 and 4 in the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Ziff Ballet Opera House; the run continues at Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center for the Performing Arts on February 9 and 11; Brancy shares the role with Franco Pomponi.)

JB: Social media can offer young singers so much. I think the two most effective tools for singers are Instagram and youtube. And they can also go to the next level and get a consistent blog which feeds the whole thing.

BK: And you do have to feed a blog all the time. You can’t just post occasionally.

JB: That’s right. I experimented a little bit with a video blog this summer—I edited everything, and basically what it was was me traveling, showing me as an opera singer on the road: what I was eating, who I was meeting, the lessons I was taking. I got incredible feedback from everyone who saw it. If I can really find the kernel of how it’s done and how it fits into my singing career, then I know it can be a really powerful thing. People who do commit to doing something different on social media can grow their follower base and access this audience of people that you didn’t have otherwise.

BK: And it’s up to you now. No one else is going to do it for you.

JB: That’s right. And if you have the ability to be an entrepreneur, for lack of a better term, about these things .… it’s about having some eye for design and branding, and what you want to espouse into the world, and a foresight for what’s coming in the market.

BK: And what do you think is coming for you as a young singer? What are you preparing yourself for, exactly?

JB: Role-wise, Eugene Onegin has felt better and better every day throughout the process. I was a little bit scared. I’ve never done it. But my trajectory? Honestly, it’s hard to say exactly where I’m headed. I am one of the very few young artists who has never done a Young Artist program. So I don’t have an allegiance to any of the big houses, which I think is unusual in our industry, especially in the States. I’ve had guesting opportunities throughout Canada and the States, and throughout Europe: Frankfurt, Dresden, the Châtelet, Glyndebourne. Really good experiences. But by not doing the young artist programs, which I had the opportunity to do—

BK: You declined?

JB: Four times. All European. [Brancy declines to name the specific companies.] I don’t know the experience of being in a Young Artist program, so I can’t talk about it. What I have had is the experience of being a performer, and being treated like an equal in a company from Day One. They know I’m the youngest performer who’s on the stage, but my colleagues are treating me like an equal. I’m learning from my colleagues because of that; we have this open dialogue. Ultimately, by making the choice not to be a Young Artist, I’ve been able to expand my network much quicker.

BK: Was that your concern—that you would be stuck in one place for too long?

JB: It was, and it was also that I wouldn’t necessarily get the exposure that I was seeking. Yes, a program like that offers stability—but it offers a much smaller paycheck. The stability-vs.-paycheck thing is always what we balance in this career. What I was seeking was the ability to network with as many companies as I could and to learn about the way that opera was done in all of these different places. I could never have gotten that in one program in one place. I’ve gotten the same roles that I would have gotten in a Fest—Malatesta, Harlekin, Papageno, Figaro, Onegin—all of these things have happened without the Fest. And I’ve had the experience of being taught them in all these different methods and styles. It’s like having a global perspective of the market.

BK: Was there ever any confusion about your Fach?

JB: Yes. Being a high baritone and being able to pop up to As and B-flats, and also having a strong countertenor voice simultaneously.… I was offered a place at Curtis as a countertenor when I was eighteen. I auditioned for both Juilliard and Curtis. I got called back. I sang “Caro mio ben” as a countertenor, and Mikael Eliasen said he would take me into Curtis as a countertenor at that moment. I asked if I could do both and he said, “Do you know anyone who does both?” It kind of fizzled out!

BK: What an amazing combination. Can you still sing countertenor?

JB: Oh, yeah. It’s getting stronger. It’s higher and deeper. I think if I did an entire role as a countertenor and really went over to it and was doing it every day, I think my baritone voice would suffer. The production of it thins out the vocal cords a little bit, because it’s not my natural speaking voice! Onegin is who I am. Pelléas is my ultimate “want.” Someday I would love to sing Pelléas, with Gerald Finley as Golaud. That would be an amazing experience. I’m a big fan of Gerry’s, and he’s been a mentor and teacher.

BK: How did your first chance as Onegin come about?

JB: I’m learning an amazing amount from Franco Pomponi, who is singing the role at FGO as well, and from Lyubov Petrova, who’s singing some of the performances as Tatyana. Everything she sings is like spun gold—it’s perfectly in tune. I feel like I want to bring that to the Onegin that I’m doing. I want to match her with legato. I want to have moments of “roar,” but I don’t want it to be all that. It would detrimental if I were to be blasting the whole time with my chest voice and not letting the voice spin into the room, and making it something more adult. Onegin is twenty-six. I’m twenty-eight. I don’t ultimately know how my sound will translate to audiences who have heard other Onegins, but I think it will lend a new flavor to it. I’m hoping that it is something that will be part of my repertoire for a long time.

BK: What’s the moment in Onegin that resonates most deeply with you?

JB: I think it’s the transition from non-consequence to consequence. He is so aloof and disconnected in the things he says and does, the things he thinks he needs to do to maintain his personal identity as the smarter, more worldly, more educated person. All of that is sort of gone toward the end of the opera. Because he has faced consequence for the first time by killing Lensky. I’ll try to show it with my energy, with my emotion. I think that “Kuda, kuda” is about how we all must face this consequence someday. These changes. Being a poet, Lensky is able to showcase that. And then I, as the character who is not even aware. It’s an awareness that he receives, and that’s the moment that shifts Onegin’s perspective about love, perspective, commitment, about what it means to be a person in the world. I think that is the most important part of the opera and the character.

BK: The challenge of playing such an aloof, self-absorbed character must be tremendous.

JB: It’s a vulnerability. To yourself, as the actor, and also with the character in his stately composure. It’s not written in until the second aria, but he doesn’t throw his energy around. He’s having for the first time this experience of love overtaking him, and he calls it a poison. Love plays all of these roles in our lives, right? It is the provider, the bringer of life, the bringer of calm and serenity, but it also brings moments of deep sadness and reflection, pain, solitude and longing. It can do all of these things at once. Once you commit to that feeling of love, and if it’s passionate to that degree, which it ends up being for Onegin, then you’re drinking the poison.

BK: And it’s really his story. Not Tatyana’s.

JB: It’s his story because it has to be his story. I feel like Onegin is such a general representation of men. Even now. This whole thing about responsibility, commitment, consequence. We go through these stages of men in our lives, where we’re mimicking what our fathers are doing. Then we are doing the things that we think make us special. Then our aggressions start to grow, and we get a little more hungry. We reach for attention. Success. Knowledge. And then there’s another transition, and I’m going through it right now, which is amazing. It’s happening simultaneously with Onegin—where you come to realize the frailty of life, and you come to take full responsibility for your actions and words and thoughts, and everything you have done is in the past, and you recognize it as such. And this is when you make your mark in the world. Sometimes it takes a very long time for someone to get through that. Sometimes it takes a profound experience, a spiritual experience. Love is a spiritual experience. Everything is a spiritual experience, essentially.

BK: I don’t think doing the laundry is a spiritual experience.

JB: (Laughs) No. Making coffee can be one.

BK: I was looking at your website. There was a quote from Opera News that mentioned your “bad-boy swagger.”

JB (Laughs): I think I need to do more of that!

BK: Were you surprised by that observation?

JB: Maybe it did surprise me. The number-one word that’s been used for me, in all kinds of sources, is “presence.” I’ve had it used maybe nine times. “Swagger” is a version of presence. If that’s what I’m bringing to the stage, I’m cool with that.

If we can go back a little bit to talk about where I think opera is going: I like the future. I feel like the future is going to be bold and big, if we allow it and if we embrace it. Instead of living in the way that things have been. Embracing the technology that’s coming. That’s the number-one thing for me. Embracing the millennial audience and finding out what they want. Do the data research and give them what they want.

BK: Do you have a sense of what they want?

JB: Yeah. Yeah. They want prestige. They want something that is post-worthy. Snapchat-worthy. They want an experience with the thing they’re going to. They want to be inspired. And that is a word that needs to be thought out in our industry, much more. How do we inspire people to want to see more of what we do? Because inspiration comes from motivation, and then we have to think about how we motivate people to get inspired. This experience is going to change your life. The whole of North America has to come together. Met HD is doing it, but its purpose is not to expand all the companies together. Its purpose is to focus on one brand: the Met. That’s it. But as an industry-wide vision, what I’m saying is that inspiration and motivation to get people to realize this is something that will change their lives and perspectives. I am talking about an entire re-branding of the experience of opera. It’s not about the fur coats and the luxury. It’s about the music and the stories and the depth.

BK: But the fur-coat breed was beginning to die out not long after I came to New York in the early 1980s.

JB: These things are happening with Loft Opera and with Atg in Toronto. These companies are starting to splash this new flavor. It will take some time and it will take some professionals who can focus on this and get the data. It’s possible to get it now from analytics—putting out research into what exactly people are looking for in their experiences, ages twenty-four to thirty-eight. That is the most important age group for us to access right now. As far as technology goes, are you familiar with AR? Magic Leap is located in Fort Lauderdale. And Magic Leap is one of the top-funded new tech companies coming up right now. They have a technology that they’re building right now. Facebook is going to be building one. Google is going to be building one. The thing that makes this unique for our industry is something called “mixed reality.” You get both VR and AR in the same experience. You can be in a place, wearing their glasses, and there’s a module, and whatever you’re looking at can become something completely different out of thin air. What we do as live artists—we are the arbiters of this technology in an artistic way. Because it’s live and experiential and it’s not a movie that you sit and watch and has to be edited—we as an industry, if we embrace this full-on and bring it into what we’re doing, it’s going to change everything that we’re doing. All visualization will change. The whole experience, from entering the theater to sitting down in your seat, to the first moments of the opera. As someone who is a native to video games, the Internet, it blows my mind the potential that is here. Our art form is going to have a renaissance because of it.

BK: How do you respond to the argument that the HDs are cannibalizing the theater audience?

JB: Well, they are, because they’re taking people from the theater and putting them in another theater. The reason why what I’m talking about is better is because it’s experiential. And you want to pay more to go to the theater that has the live experience, which has the equipment—which is just a pair of glasses. That’s the mind-blowing thing! Just a pair of glasses. The Met HD had to happen.

BK: Sure, it did. My biggest quibble is that as a way of developing new audiences, I think it’s been an abject failure. It’s still predominantly older people who are going to the HDs in New York. I can’t speak for anywhere else.

JB: Sure. Look—we need to have the classic costumes, the traditional performances. This is a traditional performance of Onegin at Florida Grand Opera. But it’s how we talk about them, how we communicate what those traditions are. The biggest barrier that the industry has in America is that it has nothing to do with my generation. Nothing. The only connection that my generation has to it are Sesame Street, Andrea Bocelli and Looney Tunes. There’s a growth problem—fewer performances, companies closing. If some of these smaller companies start grabbing the younger audiences, they aren’t going to funnel them to bigger institutions. They themselves are going to become the growth. I believe that most of our industry should move over to becoming B Corps—a for-profit entity that has a non-profit arm. TOMS Shoes is a B Corp. Where they sell the shoes and then make the shoes for people who need them. We make the art and then we give it back to the community. That’s the thing.

BK: You’ve performed at Opera Theatre Saint Louis, where opera is done in English translation. Was that a difficult transition for you?

JB: I think it’s super-smart. I think it’s a very simple, effective tool that companies in middle America should embrace. Maybe not in middle-America—I think the bigger companies should consider it from time to time. You want people to come to The Barber of Seville and understand the story and all the subtleties.

I’d love to do a filmed version of Così Fan Tutte in English. I’d like to get a sexy modern cast. I’ve already cast it: Ben Bliss, myself as Guglielmo, Wallis Giunta as Dorabella, Layla Claire as Fiordiligi, Julia Bullock as Despina, and Evan Hughes or Davóne Tines as Alfonso. Or maybe an older man for Alfonso. Maybe Rod GIlfry or someone. I think about it a lot.

photo of cast of Florida Grand Opera's production of Eugene Onegin

Entire company of Florida Grand Opera’s Eugene Onegin; Brancy in front row, white shirt. Photo: Lorne Grandison

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1 Comment

  1. Very stimulating post.

    As to whether doing laundry can be a spiritual experience, I recall P.D.Q.‘s Four Next-to-Last Songs, which included “Gretchen am Spincycle,” about the relationship between
    God and a young maiden doing her laundry.

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