According to legendary tenor Enrico Caruso, success with Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore is simple. “All it takes is the four greatest singers in the world,” he said.
Tenor Jonathan Burton, making his debut in the role of Manrico in that opera with Knoxville Opera this weekend, has no qualms about tackling a role made famous by Caruso and sung notably in recent years by Marcelo Álvarez at the Metropolitan Opera and Jonas Kaufman at the Bavarian State Opera. But he’s also realistic.
“It’s a tough one,” he admits. “It’s a hard sing.”
Burton grew up around lots of music in his hometown of Portsmouth, Ohio, but not opera. He began playing guitar when he was 8 and was teaching guitar lessons at his cousin’s record store by 13. He also played in rock bands and in recording studio sessions for country-music albums. When Burton was asked to audition for the local high-school production of West Side Story, his mother suggested that he take a lesson or two from a voice teacher, Stanley E. Workman Jr., who had recently moved back to Portsmouth. What started simply enough as a voice lesson with Workman became an introduction to the world of opera.
“For the next three years, I was at his house every day, sort of like an apprentice with a cobbler or a blacksmith, just learning the trade,” Burton says. “When it was time to go off to college, it felt like slowing down, going from daily voice lessons to weekly.”
While Burton spent time at Westminster Choir College and the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music, professional experience has been his real teacher. His first operatic roles came at the Southern Ohio Light Opera in Portsmouth, starting in 1994. Although he sang as a baritone for three years, he subsequently made the transition to tenor. Since then, his mature operatic experience has extended deep into the heart of the tenor repertoire: Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly; multiple
productions of Puccini’s Tosca and La Fanciulla del West, as Cavaradossi and Dick Johnson respectively; Don Jose in Carmen; Canio in I Pagliacci; Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio for Kentucky Opera; and, most recently, the title role in the original Paris version of Verdi’s Don Carlos for Sarasota Opera.
Burton welcomes the venture into his latest Verdi role.
“Manrico is a very nice role,” he says. “It’s one of those rare opportunities to play someone who is not a caricature. Manrico is not blameless or faultless, but he is a good and noble person. Many characters are complicated and messy, like Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly. Canio in Pagliacci stabs his wife. Don Jose in Carmen stabs his girlfriend. So it’s nice to be a good, solid person for a change.”
Needless to say, however, there are no guarantees for good guys in opera. “Manrico is absolutely a victim,” Burton says. “He was kidnapped at birth and raised in the woods by gypsies. But he’s a good person, an upstanding guy. Loves a lady. Does the honorable thing. But he’s certainly a victim of circumstance.”
Burton acknowledges that the role has become something of a show-off role for tenors, despite the fact that, as written, it tops out at an A. “All the Cs and B-flats have been added in by singers over the years,” explains Burton. “But it does sit higher in the tenor range, on average.”
How, then, does a tenor deal with a role that is consistently high? Burton’s approach is to remain vocally pure.
“The issue with a role like Manrico is getting so wrapped up emotionally in all the bad things that are happening to the character that you let that reside in your throat,” he says. “The challenge is to convey what the character is feeling, but to stay vocally detached.”
Alan Sherrod has been writing about Knoxville’s vibrant classical music scene since 2007. In 2010, he won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts—the Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera—under the auspices of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He also operates his own blogs, Classical Journal and Arts Knoxville.
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