by Daniel Hathaway

Baritone Jordan Shanahan is in town to sing the role of Enrico in Opera Cleveland’s upcoming production of Lucia di Lammermoor on May 20, 22 & 23. He recently sang Horatio in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Ambrose Thomas’ Hamlet and has been featured in Opera News’ column “One to Watch”. We had the opportunity to interview Jordan at Opera Cleveland’s offices earlier this month.

Daniel Hathaway: Is this your first time in Cleveland?

Jordan Shanahan: It is. I’ve driven through it, passing back through between New York and Chicago but this is the first time I’ve spent time.

DH: We’re kind of in the way between New York and Chicago. But you’re Hawaiian by birth, right?

JS: I am! I grew up in Hawaii — on Oahu — and was there until I was 21.

DH: It must be a hard place to leave.

JS: Oh, you have no idea! Sometimes when I have two weeks off I go home to Chicago and it’s ten degrees! The weather in Hawaii is always nice, the atmosphere is good with the ocean breezes, people are friendly. It’s a great place.

DH: So you started your career as a trombonist?

JS: Actually I started as a tuba player for a year, then I switched over to trombone. I was pretty good at it. I got a scholarship to go to the university. My trombone teacher said, “you should take some voice lessons”, which led to my doing a couple of choruses with Hawaii Opera, and a couple of musicals. I enjoyed it.

DH: It’s great — the last half dozen singers I’ve interviewed didn’t start out to be singers. What was your first real “break”, as they say?

JS: The one that put me into singing — I was in the Honolulu Symphony doing Tosca and they gave me the choice of playing or singing — you make a lot more money playing in the orchestra but it’s a lot more fun to be on stage! So I turned down the money and did the show. One of my teachers was singing Scarpia and I was standing near him and after we finished the Te Deum, he turned around and said, “come see me afterward”. Then he arranged for me to go study with him in Philadelphia at the school where he was doing an artist’s residency for a couple of years. So he arranged the scholarship — I hadn’t even been a voice major. In Hawaii, I was a composition major because I wanted to write Broadway shows. Being a composition major, I could take both voice lessons and trombone lessons. So — I talked to some other people in the opera company and they said, hey, “he’s a great singer — I’m sure he’d be a fine teacher. If for nothing else, you should experience living outside of Hawaii for a couple of years”. So I took it, and I haven’t lived in Hawaii since!

DH: What was your first real solo opportunity?

JS: My first role was Mercury in the Cavalli opera Callisto. It’s a very obscure, not done very often kind of thing. But it was perfect because there weren’t any great traditions to say “this is how it’s done”. It was a lot of fun and a great way to learn how to be on stage. I got to do Pagliacci, Merry Wives, I got a bunch of roles and a bunch of stage time. Sometimes I think it would have been better to go to one of the big music schools, where there’s a lot going on, and the level is very, very high, but I think there’s also something to be said for going to a smaller place and getting more actual performances under your belt.

DH: Have you done Lucia before?

JS: I did my first Lucia with a small company in the Bay Area five or six years ago. I had done Barber of Seville for them and they said, you were a hit with the audience. We’re doing Lucia next year and will you come? All I remember about that show was that somebody in the chorus came in sick as a dog during production week and everybody got sick! The Lucias were double cast and the tenors were double cast, but the bass and I had to sing every night. And that was in the traditional keys. This production is using the higher, original keys, which is the first time I’ve done that. I was a little bit nervous when they told me about it. But it gives a whole other sort of character to the piece. The duet with Lucia becomes very aggressive just because of where the voice sits. It colors the emotion because the voice has to be a bit more pointed, it has a little more color, a bit more bite. And that colors the character and the relationship between the brother and the sister.

DH: What’s the director’s concept?

JS: The concept is sort of The Godfather, which I think is fun. This opera is all about family, and you think about popular culture and “La Famiglia de Ravenswood”. It’s all about Enrico the head of the family trying to make sure the family succeeds and he does that by whatever it takes. I’ve been re-watching the old movies and seeing things I didn’t even look for before. I was watching especially the wedding scene at the beginning of the picture and it’s a direct parallel. There are things we could just lift and use. We’re not doing that, we’re finding our own things, but Tomer [Zvulun, the director] is a genius to think of this parallel.

DH: Not a kilt in sight?

JS: Not a kilt in sight and no stockings to be seen except maybe on the girls. I haven’t had my fitting yet but I assume we’re going to be wearing Mafiosi suits with shoulder harnesses for our guns — all that stuff!

DH: Is there a surprise ending to this one? The last few Opera Cleveland productions have had some interesting twists at the end.

JS: There are definitely some things you won’t see in every production that are actually informed by the story. They’re not just out of the blue like, OK, we’re going to have Don Giovanni painted red. But there are some choices Tomer made that examine aspects that are sometimes overlooked. Aspects of the characters and how there characters might interact with each other under the set of circumstances that the production gives that I think are very interesting. I think people are going to see a new aspect of the opera that sometimes is not there. I won’t give away all the secrets.

DH: How do you get one version of a score out of your head and get ready for the next one?

JS: That’s actually a good question because I’m getting ready to do another Lucia right after this in the traditional keys. It’s going to be at the Green Mountain Festival up in Vermont. There are some differences — we’re doing the Wolf’s Crag scene in Vermont and not here and there’s obviously a different chemistry with every cast. There are a couple of moments early in the rehearsal period where I find myself singing the wrong cuts and they say, “hang on, we’re not doing that!” So I’m sure that when this is over I’m going to sit down with my score and remember — OK instead of singing these eight bars, these are out, but these other eight bars are in!

DH: And how are you enjoying working with Dean Williamson?

JS: You know, this company is lucky to have a very gifted opera conductor, because there are a lot of companies that have — something else to work with. Conducting opera is not the same as being an orchestral conductor or choral conductor. It’s an art in and of itself because you’ve got to be a wonderful orchestral conductor — you’ve got to be able to balance the instruments and tell the oboe, “this is your moment, bring it out”, and you’ve got to be able also to be on top of the singers, and in a house like this without a prompter, you might have to be able to say to the tenor, “now!” without losing a beat with the orchestra. You’ve got to be able to think about the balance, which is very hard to gauge from the pit, especially in a house like the State Theater. Someone who’s a chorus master who’s done well for himself, or an orchestral conductor, or a coach who’s just making sure that there’s somebody on the podium — there’s nothing wrong with that — some of the best opera conductors in the world were coaches in prior incarnations, but to have somebody’s who’s practiced and skilled in all these disparate acts… I’ve been in very high profile productions with very serious companies where you’ll have a conductor who varies the length of the show by twenty minutes over the course of a run. And that makes it hard for the singers — they can’t pace their breaths, they can’t pace things dramatically. Dean is much more generous than a lot of conductors are in saying, “I think right here I’m going to give you a moment of silence so you can execute this dramatic moment”, and you can do something at the time when dramatically it seems right. As opposed to the school of conductors who say “I think that we need dum-dum” and you need to fit everything to that.” So it’s much more of a dialogue.

DH: This company has moved to a new production schedule — from Friday night, Sunday afternoon and the Saturday night a week later to Thursday night, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. How will the new, more compressed schedule affect you?

JS: It’s a little bit rough on the singers, but it’s do-able with the proper rest and pacing. All the cast are good singers so I think it’s going to go well. But it’s a tricky situation. Companies that only do three shows ask themselves, “can we only sell it on the weekends?” I’ve seen companies that will do things like Friday, Sunday, then wait another week like they previously did here. Even to the extreme that “we want six shows but we can only afford the theater on weekends, so we’re going to do Friday, Saturday, Sunday, take a week off and come back and do it again”. That’s very challenging. It’s obviously not the typical house that can do a show three times a week over the course of a month — that’s a luxury that very few have. I’ve worked quite a bit at the Met and the Lyric in Chicago, which poses a different challenge — you have to remember when to show up! But in a big house like that, it’s nice — they’ll do four or five shows at once and you never have to sing back to back so you can have two or three days off between performances. So you’re really, really fresh.

DH: What do you do to relax?

JS: I read a lot on the road. I like to research source material. I have Pique Dame coming up so I have some Pushkin in my bag, and popular fiction. I like to keep my mind challenged. I was involved with two productions of Doctor Atomic and when I was doing my research for that, I really got interested and I tried to follow a couple of science journals and pretend to do the things that physicists do. I understand the principles, and it’s fascinating. I also like to get out in nature — I’m hoping to have some time to go down to the Lake.

DH: Do you ever pick up the trombone?

JS: The trombone is not the most portable instrument. I knew a bass who was an oboe player, and he would take his instrument along on the road. But the trombone — in a hotel, your neighbors won’t appreciate it.

DH: What’s up for the next six months — besides another Lucia?

JS: In July I have some concerts in Europe and some auditions. I’m going to be spending some time at Tanglewood with my wife, who’s a coloratura — I’ve never been before and so many amazing artists come through in the course of the summer. After that, I’m doing Pique Dame, it’s a spectacular role–you sing one very famous aria and one or two very small scenes, and that’s your evening. I’ve covered [Eugene] Onegin in Russian but I’ve never performed in Russian, so I’m looking forward to that. In the fall, I’ll be back in New York. It’s nice to have your calendar full, which is unfortunately not the case with a lot of my colleagues this year, so I’m very blessed, as is my wife. Our problem is finding a time when we can be in the same city!

DH: Tell me, how was Dr. Atomic?

JS: Dr. Atomic is an amazing score. There’s not much more you can say! I was in both productions — the Peter Sellers production in Chicago and the new production in New York. Working with Peter was a thrill because he’s such a cerebral guy. He wrote the librettos so he was inside and out of every character in every scene, and there were levels of symbolism that were so dense that it was fascinating. It’s a wonderful piece of theater; it’s gripping in a way that very few operas are. Musically it’s got some absolutely spectacular moments. It was fascinating in New York to see the contrast. They brought in an outside director who had a totally new take on it for the Met which was interesting for a whole new set of reasons. Alan Gilbert was conducting — he’s an absolute genius. I’d done the show, but he brought things into the score that I had never thought of. New colors to the orchestra and new ways to phrase things that just opened it up in a different way. The production brought out different aspects of characters and different points became more important dramatically. It’s a great piece. It’s challenging to produce because it’s a big cast, and it makes a lot of technical demands on the theater, but I hope that it stays in the repertory because it deserves a place. Aside from finding other orchestras that can play it, which is an issue, I think it’s a piece that will work both in America and Europe. You can’t say that about a lot of contemporary operas. You’ve got Europeans saying that Henze is God, and we’re only going to do his pieces or a couple of other European pieces, and those don’t get played in America. And vice versa. How many pieces by Carlisle Floyd or Philip Glass or John Adams get produced in Europe? Not enough. So I think that Dr. Atomic has the potential to bridge the two sides of the opera world.