By Sebastian Spreng, Visual Artist and Classical Music Writer
Helen Donath and Jonathan Michie share more than one curious coincidence. Both are American singers, he is at the start of a promising career while she is enjoying a deserved glorious sunset. Both went to Germany, made Mozart a staple of their repertoires and will sing in Miami January 26-27. Michie will perform as the irrepressible Papageno in Magic Flute and Donath in a recital that resumes her life as an artist. I spoke with both of them about their experiences and lives as musicians on the road. Read below for my interview with Jonathan Michie and click here to read the Q&A with Helen Donath.
Born and raised in Rochester, NY; baritone Jonathan Michie graduated from his hometown Eastman School of Music. He then won several awards, attended the Merola program in San Francisco, the Santa Fe Opera and the Florida Grand Opera Young Artists program – where he sang suporting roles for two seasons. Newly married to a Cuban American soprano, Michie was awared a contract with the Leipzig Opera last year and, like many American opera singers before him, landed in Germany. Now, he is back in Miami for one month to sing his first major role with Florida Grand Opera: the spirited Papageno in Mozart’s Magic Flute production (opening night, January 26).
SS: Is this your first Papageno?
JM: Actually, it’s my second; my first in America and my first big role with FGO. The challenge of Mozart’s Papageno is not in the music, but in the dialog. He is always talking and moving onstage. For this production we are a young cast in a very unique take on Magic Flute set in the 1950s in America. There is, fortunately, that fine balance between cute and modern. It’s not the stereotypical Zauberflöte.
SS: Do you have any role models for Papageno? Let’s say, the Fischer Dieskau or the Hermann Prey approach?
JM: For the authenticity and immediacy of the text, I listen to FD – “THE” Lieder singer of the last century – and then Prey. You can trust in everything both did as “role models.”
SS: How was to sing your first Papageno in German in Germany?
JM: I’d say that being in Germany for my first Papageno was like a crash-course; I had little time to prepare. We [Jonathan and Marian] just arrived with basic notions of German; it was incredibly stressful but the only way to learn. I was terrified to sing in German for a German audience. It was like going to Argentina to sing a tango. But also I could feel how appreciative they are with your effort and good intentions in honoring their art form. I feel very encouraged.
SS: Coming from a “season system,” how has the adaptation to the German “repertory system,” where a different opera is performed every other night, been?
JM: For me, it came at the right time. A lot of titles to learn; in four months I did five productions of their repertoire: Zauberflöte, Bohème, Barbiere, Ariadne and Mahagonny. Five revivals with practically no rehearsal time. You learn so many skills as a performer, it’s like a survival and making it work exercise. It teaches you how to manage your time and responsibilities. I learned how to be my own boss. The final school is to throw you on stage in a repertoire theater setting, but I wouldn’t have been ready to do this without the solid technical and stage training I received in America.
SS: How you differentiate the Merola, Santa Fe and FGO Young Artist programs?
JM: FGO is where I got more chances to be onstage in supporting roles; it was a grad school experience. Merola was also great, but a completely different practice, more a school training within the San Francisco Opera auspices. Santa Fe was an intense summer program where I had the unique experience of jumping into a production of Albert Herring to replace. It was a dream being onstage every night working alongside the top people in the business. The marvel about Santa Fe is its “no special treatment way” – everyone is treated like family, from the parking lot attendant to the general director. An incredible, essentially democratic place.
SS: Why did you go to Germany?
JM: Still today, every American singer loves the idea of training in the German speaking area where the density of work has no equal. Things happened for a reason. I was in Slovenia doing a concert and after that I got one audition in Leipzig and that was it: Right place, right time. I was incredibly lucky. The offer came and I say yes.
SS: How is the public there?
JM: Great. Opera is an everyday part of their culture, it is not held on a pedestal. For instance, the signs and ads of the company just say “your opera house” – it’s more like a family affair, it belongs to them. And the great Gewandhaus Orchestra plays for us in the pit! Amazing!
SS: Do you feel your voice selects the roles?
JM: As a very young baritone I am doing my best to sing appropriate for my age, making sure that I don’t sing too much too young. In other words, finding the roles that fit my voice, basically a “Mozart diet” is the best for now.
SS: Do you like the direction that your voice is taking you?
JM: Yes, I still feel I have five or six years ahead to fully mature. The idea is that your career is a business and you have to be the chairman of a board of directors you trust (manager, agents, teacher, etc). But we all know too many people burned out very fast at the beginning. That is the most important thing to avoid because you want to have a thirty-year career or more. For me, the biggest challenge is learning how to filter those advices and opinions and follow my nose.
SS: Understandably, saying NO to a powerful director or conductor must be very hard
JM:Yes, because you wonder if you ever are going to be invited back!
SS: What is your favorite music to sing?
JM: The silly answer is, of course, what I am singing at the moment. I don’t have a style or a repertoire favorite but, I have a natural feeling for American music, because that’s my culture. I also love the German repertoire, particularly Lieder, and now living there I feel my reading can be more authentic. Also, any time I sing Mozart it is very exciting and rewarding.
SS: Who are your role models?
JM:Fischer Dieskau, Prey, Souzay, Bastianini, Siepi and Thomas Allen. But, last summer I met one of my role models, Thomas Hampson. When in school, I didn’t know much about classical music or singing, and a teacher gave me a CD of him singing Mahler and that was it! I didn’t know who this guy was, or even who Mahler was, but there I was listening mesmerized. It was very cool to meet him, we did a master class in Santa Fe. It’s great to be coach by people you respect and to realize how genuine, interesting and helpful they are, and how they are willing to generously share their experience.
SS: What are your dream roles?
JM: Billy Budd could be one. Don Giovanni and some classical American roles that I can do authentically, I’d love to be able to do.
SS: As a young singer, what is your suggestion on how to bring young people to opera?
JM:This is the big question in the whole industry, right? In my experience, and especially when I was here at FGO YA, I loved when we had to go to schools and community centers. Going to a juvenile prison to sing for guys that probably never had attended an opera was unforgettable. That morning, I had to break the ice with Figaro’s Largo al Factotum in a small prison room with all this guys looking at me… well, by the end they were enjoying, asking us questions and insights. I can’t pretend we changed their lives but ultimately, you have to trust the power of music, if you are honestly giving in a performance something of yourself, people respond regardless of their knowledge based on the traditional culture. I certainly feel one danger we get into nowadays is either try to dumb down or to try to super impose extra stuff to make classical music more culturally palatable. I am all for updating and modernizing things but not when you destroy it by putting a gimmick on the material. I know how important is to bring your art form to places where people are forced to confront it but there is always a fine line even if you change their lives for five minutes. Everyone needs a first piece to open that door, that “Hampson Mahler CD” that worked for me!
SS: What is missing today in singing?
JM: Complete trust in the singing per se. Watching the Grammys this year, Adele for instance, she is a throwback to the quintessential pop: mike, black dress and voice. Not wizardly or gimmicks, just soul, text and voice. Regardless of genre, that’s the foundation and you definitely need that core, to go there all the time, to the essence.
Jonathan Michie is Papageno in Mozart’s Magic Flute at FGO: Jan 26-Feb 23; info & tickets at 800-741-1010 or online.