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ARTIST IN FOCUS | 90 Minutes With Joshua Hopkins

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A wide-ranging conversation with the Canadian baritone on his life and his art.

Joshua Hopkins: Artist in Focus (Photo: Dario Acosta)
Joshua Hopkins: Artist in Focus (Photo: Dario Acosta)

As a youngster growing up in Pembroke Ontario, Joshua Hopkins would burst into strains of “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables while walking his dog in the evening, doing his best imitation of Canadian singer Colm Wilkinson, the famous Jean Valjean. “I was 12 at the time, and I figured nobody could hear me, only my dog!”

He told me that funny story back in 2008 when I interviewed him for a “Debut” article in Opera Canada.  It certainly didn’t take the young Josh long to have a human audience, eager to hear his beautiful baritone. Hopkins studied voice with Bill and Dixie Ross Neill at McGill University. After graduation, he joined the Houston Grand Opera Studio, a program for young artists.

Hopkins’ talent was recognized early, enjoying big successes on the competition circuit. Among his many prizes and awards were Placido Domingo’s Operalia, ARD Musikwettbewerb (Munich), the George London Foundation, the Canada Council (Sylva Gelber Foundation), and the Prix d’Honneur at Switzerland’s Verbier Festival.

He started singing professionally while still in university, as Masetto in a Don Giovanni for Opera de Quebec in 2002. But he considers 2005 as his “real” debut year when he graduated from the HGO Studio, a young artists program. Possessing an exceptionally beautiful lyric baritone that’s at once warm, smooth and virile, not to mention an engaging stage persona, Hopkins is the archetypal new generation of opera singers, combining a great voice, attractive stage presence and the requisite acting chops, all vital ingredients for a major career.

In just a dozen years, Hopkins has sung in many of the major opera houses, including the Met, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, and Santa Fe. Although has career focus is mainly on this side of the pond, he has sung Guglielmo in Cosi fan tutte at Frankfurt Opera, and made a splash as Count Almaviva at the Glyndebourne Festival. And when you are singled out by Opera News as one of twenty-five artists destined for great things, you’ve arrived!

Although now a dual citizen of US and Canada — he makes his home in Houston with his wife, mezzo Zoe Tarshis — Hopkins maintains strong ties to Canada, returning to sing frequently. He made his COC debut in 2006 as Morales in Carmen, and has since been invited back for Marcello in La boheme, Figaro in Il barbiere di Siviglia, and now Papageno in Die Zauberflöte. It won’t be his first Bird-catcher in town, having already sung it in concert with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra a few years back, also conducted by Bernard Labadie. Even in the stand-and-sing concert stage, his personality came through.

We last spoke back in 2010 when I wrote a piece on him on the occasion of the release of his highly regarded CD, Let Beauty Awake, songs of Vaughan Williams, Samuel Barber and Srul Irving Glick. It’s nice to reconnect after six years, to catch up on things.  A noisy Starbucks made conversation a bit difficult, but talking with Josh Hopkins is always fun, so the brief chat turned into a 90-minute, wide-ranging, in-depth interview on Joshua Hopkins the person and the artist:

The Magic Flute, Elena Tsallagova (Pamina) and Joshua Hopkins (Papageno), COC. (Photo: Michael Cooper)
The Magic Flute, Elena Tsallagova (Pamina) and Joshua Hopkins (Papageno), COC. (Photo: Michael Cooper)

JS: Great to have you back in Toronto! Can’t believe that it’s been six years since we last talked. Are things going well?

JH: Very well! I couldn’t have asked for more opportunities. It’s been very exciting.

JS: When we last chatted, it was shortly after you made your Met debut in Turandot. After that, you had a big success in Maria Stuarda.  What was your first Met experience like, coming in as a young artist?

JH: My first experience there was covering Franco Vassallo as Belcore in L’elisir d’amore in 2009.

JS: Did you get to sing?

JH: No… One time his flight was delayed, and I was ready to go. I was feeling pumped! It was so exciting to walk into the stage door and see all the great singers, who have been working for years in the business; see them in the staff cafeteria. I haven’t sung Belcore since!

JS: I caught your Olivier in Capriccio last summer at the Santa Fe Opera. Come to think of it; I saw your Papageno there — twice! And Sid in Albert Herring. You must like Santa Fe…

JH: I love Santa Fe! This summer will be my sixth season there.  The Papageno I did with Natalie Dessay was in 2006. I was just a young whippersnapper then. She was the nicest colleague, creative and very welcoming.

JS: I remember the Santa Fe Flute well. You were so full of energy. When was the last time you sang Papageno?

“AFTERWARDS, I GO HOME, AND I’M READY TO COLLAPSE!”

JH: My last was Washington National Opera in 2014. Papageno as a character is high energy. I do find that two years later, it’s now very tiring to do the entire show. Afterwards, I go home, and I’m ready to collapse! This COC Flute particularly has lots of movement for Papageno.

JS: Tell us about the COC production? 

JH: It’s my 7th staged production of Flute, and the first with German dialogue. I’ve had to learn five different English translations! That’s a challenge, as all of them stay in your brain to some extent. The concept of the COC production is that Papageno is the head servant or head gardener of the property. Sarastro owns the house, and the show is being presented as a birthday gift to his daughter, who plays Pamina. The relationships are established in the overture who everyone is. It’s an opera within an opera. I like playing up the fact that I am a servant playing Papageno, but I’m also living Papageno’s journey…

JS: Would you say Papageno is your signature role? 

JH: It’s a role I’ve done the most over the years, but also Count Almaviva in Nozze.

JS:  Do you sing the Nozze Figaro? 

JH: No, the tessitura is a little low — it wouldn’t sit right (in the voice). I sang it in McGill when my voice was sitting a little lower.

JS: I remember you sang a concert Flute with the TSO a few years ago, also conducted by Bernard Labadie. Have you worked with him a lot?

JH: Bernard was instrumental in helping me get started. He hired me in 2002 for my debut in Tosca, at Opera de Quebec. I sang both Angelotti and Sciarrone. The next year, I did Masetto in Don Giovanni. I consider my full professional debut to be 2005 when I finished the Houston Grand Opera Studio program. In 2002 I was still in the master’s program at McGill. I respect Bernard’s musicality so much. In the pieces that I’ve done with him, I mark down on the score what he would like me to do. I put the initial “BL” where he tells me to do it a certain way.

JS: He gets that specific in what he wants from the singers?

JH: Oh yeah.  He demands a high level from all his singers, and it leads to an excellent overall quality. It’s amazing how well he knows the score.

JS: I noticed that you’re singing your first-ever Don Giovanni later this season, at Utah Opera. Tell us about it. Why did you wait so long?

JH: (Laughs) You need a certain maturity necessary for the role…and I hadn’t been asked to do it until now.

JS:  Is it going to be a youthful Don, unlike the characterization of the production we just did at the COC? 

JH: It’ll be youthful because the rest of the cast is quite young. For me to try this role in a place like Utah is ideal. It’s a medium size house for North America.

JS: Do you enjoy playing the ‘bad guys,’ the anti-heroes like Don Giovanni?

The Magic Flute, Joshua Hopkins (Papageno) and Jacqueline Woodley (Papagena), COC. (Photo: Michael Cooper)
The Magic Flute, Joshua Hopkins (Papageno) and Jacqueline Woodley (Papagena), COC. (Photo: Michael Cooper)

“I lOVE GETTING INTO THE GRIT OF A CHARACTER.” 

JH: Oh sure.  I have sung Nick Shadow (in Rakes Progress) in university, although I don’t think I’ll sing it again as it sits similarly to the Nozze Figaro. I’ve sung Junius in Rape of Lucretia – he has a real negative influence on Tarquinius!  Yes, I do like to play bad guys. I love getting into the grit of a character. I also like to find some way to make the nasty character appeal to the audience. The audience needs to relate to the character somehow.  There’s isn’t a bad guy in the world that believes he’s evil, that he is bad.  Don Giovanni has no moral code. He has such disregard for rules. He truly believes everything in the world is meant for him. I’m interested in exploring that, where the character is coming from and how it’s developed. I have just started preparing for the role…

JS: Who do you coach with when you are preparing a new role? 

JH: Usually I don’t coach with anyone when I’m learning a role. I do much of the work myself.  I’ve been living in Houston for 13 and a half years now, so I’ll probably work with some of the coaching staff at HGO.

JS: Do you still go to Stephen King, your voice teacher? 

JH: Oh yeah, all the time. I’ll be working with him in March and April. He knows his stuff. He’s a straight shooter. He knows how to communicate instantly what we need to do to find the freest of lines, so the air is moving freely, and the mechanism, the jaw, the tongue is completely out of the way. This is the secret to successful singing.

JS: Now that it’s been 12 years since your debut after your HGO Studio days, has your voice changed? 

JH: It’s gotten a little higher. But it has also gotten deeper. With the height, and the understanding of how to get to the low, (the voice) has deepened significantly. More of a core to the tone. Not trying to sing deep in the lower voice, but dive into the low notes from a higher position, it makes the voice deeper and the sound more resonant in the hall.

JS: Do you do much new music?

JH: I did A Quiet Place for NYCO.  I don’t get the opportunity so much. Most of my rep is the standard repertoire, although I recorded the Glick song cycle which hadn’t been heard before. It boils down to the type of things I’m offered; I wasn’t trying to avoid it.  In these times when the classical music industry is changing, the projects on the fringes tend to be cut down. Companies are doing the mainstay operas to sell tickets. The last thing I did was It’s a Wonderful Life in Houston, a world premiere, by Jake Heggie. It’s a really strong show.

JS: He writes beautifully for the voice…

JH: He really does. He understands the voice, one of those rare composers who writes well for the voice.   Some composers ask you what your range is, and then they compose at the outer edges of it… no, no, no!

JS: That’s what another singer, whom I won’t name, recently said to me in an interview – “I’m afraid to tell them what my range is!” 

JH: That’s a valid complaint by the singers if they are asked to do something new. My first question is — have they written for the voice before and how much have they written. Then I go to listen to what they have written. Here in Toronto for the first 21C Music Festival, I sang Jennifer Higdon’s piece, Dooryard Bloom. That was in 2014. And I did The Passenger (a Holocaust opera by Mieczyslaw Weinberg) in Chicago, with Amanda Majeski.  Actually, I do a fair amount of new music! It’s just not what I do primarily.

JS: How many performances do you give a year, operas, concerts, and recitals combined? 

“I WOULD LIKE MORE OPPORTUNITIES TO SING CONCERTS.”

JH: It’s primarily operas now.  I would like more opportunities to sing concerts. I feel that’s important. Thirty to fifty — it’s around there. The productions I do now tend to have longer runs than before because I’m working for larger companies.

JS: Do you have dream roles? 

JH: Top of my list is Billy Budd — it’s written for my voice! I’ve been close to an opportunity in a big house to have done it, but it didn’t work out. Onegin is another dream role.

JS: Onegin would be a great role for you. You know, I saw Thomas Allen as Onegin, way back in the early 80’s in Ottawa?  He’s a great Onegin.

JH: I have a lot of respect for him. He comes across as a great artist.

JS: He was also a great Billy Budd. When you get a contract for Billy, you may want to coach with him…

“WORKING WITH [PHILIP LANGRIDGE] CHANGED MY LIFE.” 

JS: I already have! I got a grant from the Canada Council to go to London to work with Steuart Bedford, Philip Langridge, and Thomas Allen on Billy Budd. I had sessions with them. It was a year before Langridge died.  Working with him changed my life. What he shared with me was an entirely new approach to finding the truth underneath the music and the text. Our sessions were not easy, for he demanded the utmost in me. The type of things he taught me, in terms of asking questions about what exists in the score, where can you find the kernel of truth within it, changed my whole outlook on the work.

JS: He’s a role model for you?

JH: Very much. I didn’t get to work with him all that much, but what he did tell me was instrumental.

JS: I’ve noticed that your career is very North American-centric. Is it because your family is here?

JH: No, it’s because I keep getting work here. Probably because I live here, and I didn’t do a “Fest” in Europe. (Note: Singers who are Ensemble members in European opera houses are called “Fest” singers.) Europe is difficult to break into because there are lots of skilled singers over there. Companies that have ensembles don’t want to hire a lyric baritone to sing Papageno and the Count because they already have Fest people who can do those roles.  The last few years I’ve focused on the houses that don’t have ensembles, like Barcelona, Madrid, and Amsterdam. In Europe, I sang in Glyndebourne in 2013,  and I did a Cosi in Frankfurt. I’ve been very happy with the amount of work here in NA.

JS: Do you have children?

JH: No — it keeps it easier that way!

JS: Your wife, Zoe Tarshis, is also a singer?

JH: She studied as a mezzo in McGill. She is not singing professionally, and she works for me basically. We travel together. She’s my eyes and ears on the road.  In rehearsals, she’ll come and take notes, and if there’s anything she hears that could be improved on, she tells me.

“THE BEST PIECE OF ADVICE I’VE BEEN GIVEN IS NEVER TO STOP STUDYING AND NEVER TO STOP IMPROVING YOUR CRAFT.”

JS: A final question — what’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?  

JH: I would say the best piece of advice I’ve been given is… never to stop studying and never to stop improving your craft. There’s always a deeper level to find, in the music and the text. There’s always something new in the roles I’m repeating, such as Papageno.  And this is the reason why whenever I’m in Houston, I take two lessons a week with Stephen. There’s always something new to find with my technique, and it has kept me (vocally) healthy over the years. I’ve been working with Stephen since my late 20’s. My voice continues to improve, also my understanding of how the voice works.

JS: Who gave you this piece of advice? 

JH: (Laughs) I can’t pinpoint it! I think when I was a member of the HGO Studio, Joyce DiDonato was there to sing in Barber of Seville. She had a little sit-down chat with all of us young singers. I am certain that was one of the things she imparted to us.

For more INTERVIEWS, see HERE.

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Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So
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