Allerta!: Opera Australia’s had a very successful run of South Pacific this winter. We understand that this is the musical that got you hooked on musical theatre?
James Valenti: That’s right. When I was 16 I sang Lieutenant Cable in South Pacific; it was my first principal role; until then I’d been singing in choirs. I loved being on stage and transporting an audience while sharing my passion for music and singing. I got into opera soon after that.
A: You’re singing the role of Edgardo in Lucia at the Sydney Opera House this month and at Arts Centre Melbourne in November. How did that come about?
|Tenor James Valenti|
JV: My agent contacted me and said that Opera Australia wanted me to perform the role, and I said, great! It was a chance to reprise a role that I hadn’t sung in a while; it was an opportunity to sing at the famous Sydney Opera House, and I’d get to see Australia, where I’d never been.
A:What are the role’s challenges?
JV: Bel canto is very exposed – you can’t hide behind thick orchestration like you can in Puccini. Also, Edgardo is a rash, love-sick character and you have to find a way to make him believable.
A: As a teenager you had a strong admiration for Pavarotti. What in particular was it about him that appealed to you?
JV: The beauty of his voice just bowled me over. It was so expressive, communicating joy and pain with such power. I decided that I really wanted to learn how to sing like that.
A: So this made you decide that you wanted to study music at university?
JV: Yes, on the advice of my high school choral director I decided to follow the safe route of becoming a music teacher and choral director. I nevertheless did a double major in education and performance at West Virginia University. I think in the end you have to want a performing career so much that you just wouldn’t be happy doing anything else. Because it takes a lot of dedication, discipline and sacrifice.
A: Who were some of the famous tenors you discovered as a student?
JV: Franco Corelli, Carlo Bergonzi, Jussi Björling, Beniamino Gigli, Mario Del Monaco, Giuseppe Di Stefano and Enrico Caruso – I would spend hours listening and trying to work out how they used their voices to make those amazing sounds. In my first year at College I had eight different recordings of La bohème. I appreciated what the German tenors did, but it was the Italians who really moved me.
A: Is it true that you used to go to your College recital hall late at night and perform by yourself?
JV: Yes, I’d go in there with my little recorder and five or six opera scores, and I would sing various phrases, then go back and analyse them and listen to what I was doing. When you’re a young singer discovering your own instrument and how it works in your body, you need a safe space to explore; few people have the confidence to just walk on stage and perform a difficult aria.
A: How did your career progress after College?
JV: During my College years I would spend summers singing in the opera chorus at Princeton New Jersey. This meant that in my early twenties I was on stage watching professional singers perform leading roles while having an opportunity to open up my voice, sing in four or five languages and be part of the rehearsal process. I did that for four or five years. I then auditioned for Minnesota Opera’s Young Artist program, and subsequently performed small roles in a range of operas. After that I went to the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, which offered a safe environment to sing major roles for the first time: Rodolfo in Bohème, Edgardo in Lucia, Faust, the Duke in Rigoletto. I was in my mid twenties and it was a perfect transitional position; I was ready to sing these roles, but not in major theatres.
|Tenor James Valenti|
A: Now, at age 34, you’ve sung at the Met, Covent Garden, La Scala, Deutsche Oper, Bayerische Staatsoper, Salzburg Festival, Opéra National de Paris – the list goes on. Were you ever afraid that you were taking on too much too soon?
JV: I did start young but I don’t regret it; for me it was the right thing to do. I was always careful not to take on too many roles, and I made sure that I sang roles in smaller theatres before performing them at major houses. I also held out for the right roles in the right places. For example, I waited before I sang at the Met because I didn’t want to cover; when I went in, I went through the front door, making my Met debut as Alfredo in Traviata.
A: Having sung at the world’s foremost houses at such a young age, did you ever suffer from nerves?
JV: Of course, everyone does. That’s why it’s so important to try roles in small, safe theatres when you sing them for the first time. When I came to the Met I’d already sung Alfredo several times, so I was confident that I could do it. As a young singer you don’t want to make a major role debut at a big house.
A: What career ideals remain unfulfilled?
James Valenti stars as Edgardo in Opera Australia 2012 production of Lucia di Lammermoor, coming to Sydney Opera House (28 Sep - 27 Oct). Aldo di Toro will take over the role when Lucia comes to Arts Centre Melbourne 19 Nov - 15 Dec. Click here for more information and tickets.