Brian Jagde, Covent Garden's Pinkerton – 'fresh off the boat'

The American tenor makes his UK debut opposite Kristine Opolais in ”Madama Butterfly”

Brian Jagde
Brian Jagde

The Royal Opera unveils its latest star signing this week as handsome Brian Jagde takes on opera’s most notorious love-’em-and-leave-’em character, Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, in the latest revival of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. The young American tenor spoke to WhatsOnStage a few days before the opening.

How are you enjoying England?

It’s been great! The weather’s been good although I haven’t had much time to get out and enjoy it since we’ve pretty much been in rehearsal since I arrived. I’m looking forward to seeing more of London soon. I’ve sung in Europe several times already – at the Deutsche Oper Berlin and Opera Poznan in Poland, and at the Opéra de Limoges in France. But when I sang on the Royal Opera House stage for the first time it felt especially good, because I always like to sing out in a big space, and not every house I’ve played in is as big as this. To be up there with the full orchestra is a great feeling.

Have you been a tenor all through your career, or did you move up from a lower register?

I didn’t think about singing opera at all until I was 20. I started out as a baritone until I discovered that I was increasingly comfortable at the top end of my voice, even in warm-ups, so I went to a new teacher and asked his opinion. Before I’d even sung to him he answered ‘yes, you are definitely a tenor’, and that’s the way I’ve gone ever since.

I’ve only been a tenor for about six years so things have happened very fast. My favourite role to date is probably Don José [in Bizet’s Carmen] because as a character he goes through so much and his dramatic arc is so interesting.

Of the roles you’ve sung to date, which have been the most demanding to sing?

The most challenging role I’ve tackled thus far is one I covered not long ago: Gustavo in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. It’s such a big part – he never stops singing! Hoffmann [in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann] is a tricky role too, but one I’d feel ready to take on right now if it came my way. When you do the full version of the opera Hoffmann starts with a richer timbre, but when the tales begin he has to be younger and more leggiero. Then, he progresses back to something fuller as the opera unfolds.

What new roles do you have your eye on?

Sometime in the distant future I’d like to sing Manrico in Il trovatore, and also Peter Grimes. But you have to plan maybe four or five years ahead in this business and the voice can change in that time, so who knows?

I’m sure that when the time comes for me to move on from a role a company would rather I was honest and said that such and such a part no longer felt right for me, rather than going on and just getting through it.

In the romantic repertoire Pinkerton is probably the only tenor character who regularly gets booed. Has that happened to you before?

Yes! And obviously I’d like it if people would understand that when I take my bow I’ve stopped being Pinkerton and it’s me up there. But I take it in my stride because if they boo me it means I’ve been doing my job as the character. Of course, the day they start throwing rotten fruit at me it’ll mean something different…

Madama Butterfly is a revival. Have you had any contact with the original directors, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier?

I’ve only worked with the revival director so far, but I believe they’re coming into rehearsals soon, maybe tomorrow. I know that when it’s a revival you can’t bring too many new ideas because the production is already set. I have to understand the ideas behind the production, then try to bring my own interpretation to it as well.

Have you ever had any problems with directors? Naming no names…

I’ve been pretty lucky. I think, for me, as long as the director is able to give me a strong intention as to why they’re asking me to do something, especially if it doesn’t make sense to me at first and I ask ‘why would he do that?’, usually I’ll understand and be very agreeable to it. Yes, there have been situations where I’ve said ‘If I were this person I don’t think I’d do this…’ and then we’ve talked about it, but I’ve never had any real battles.

What are the chances of you making an early return to our shores?

I wish I knew! This is my debut here, as you know, so they [The Royal Opera] are going to want to hear what I sound like in the house and see me in a production before they make any calls of their own for the future. And as I’m still so fresh off the boat, so to speak, I think that’s a wise decision on their part. But I look forward to being on this stage again because it’s definitely one of the highlights of my career. The other day when we had the Sitzprobe [full company sing-through] it was my first time singing on this stage with the orchestra and it felt so great, so free. I felt really at home. Hopefully it can be a regular house for me in the future.

Puccini's Madama Butterfly runs in repertoire at the Royal Opera House 20 March -11 April