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Published: Saturday, 11/1/2008

Jason Stearns brings booming baritone to Rigoletto

BY SALLY VALLONGO
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Jason Stearns makes his Toledo Opera debut in Rigoletto. Jason Stearns makes his Toledo Opera debut in Rigoletto.
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Baritone Jason Stearns has sung his way around the world many, many times.

Have voice, will travel has been his mantra for decades, ever since, as he said recently, My voice just popped out, at age 15.

Stearns has sung in the White House for presidents Nixon, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, not to mention their distinguished guests.

He has performed in Las Vegas casinos, aboard swanky cruise ships, in musical theater, and increasingly, in American and European opera houses and concert halls, where he s known as a vocal heavy-hitter, preferred for Verdi and Wagner roles.

His last-minute Metropolitan Opera debut was Sept. 27; his formal debut is set for April 1, 2009.

Next weekend he ll make his first Toledo Opera appearance, as Rigoletto, the eponymous title role in one of Giuseppe Verdi s most famous operas. A dark tale of lust, deceit, and power based on a Victor Hugo story, Rigoletto was, according to the composer, the best subject that I ve ever set to music.

Shaven head gleaming, Van Dyke mustache carefully shorn, and in a costume featuring a padded hump a feature of Rigoletto, the bitter court jester Stearns will unleash his big baritone in a role he has come to know well.

In productions set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Nov. 14, and 2 p.m. Nov. 16 in the Valentine Theatre, Stearns will join guest soloists who include soprano Rachel Watkins, tenor Yoonsoo Shin, and bass Randall Jakobsh.

Other featured singers some new, some returning include Valerian Ruminski, Kirsten Chambers, J. Raymond Meyers, Robert Kerr, Brace Negron, Aubrey Hagadorn, and Jim Burns. Linda Brovsky is stage director and Thomas Conlin will conduct the Toledo Orchestra and Toledo Opera Chorus.

It s all an auspicious start for the opera company celebrating its golden anniversary this season. The opening productions are dedicated to Lucille Gorski, a longtime patron of the company.

And it s a new wrinkle on retirement for Stearns, who left Pershing s Own Army Band, an elite corps of musicians, after a total of 22 years in the U.S. Army. I was always proud to be a part of it, says the singer, whose wife, soprano Suzanne Stearns, has shared most of his performing career.

After mustering out in 2000, Stearns joined the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, another elite group, and was fairly quickly tapped to cover solo roles. (Covering means learning the music, the moves, being fitted for a costume, and rehearsing operas on a separate floor of the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center.)

But on Sept. 27 this year, Stearns made history when he was tapped, 30 minutes before curtain, to stand in for Carlo Guelfi in the role of Barnaba in the Met production of La Gioconda.

I m the only chorister in Met history to move to a title role, Stearns related last weekend during a break in Rigoletto rehearsals.

The occasion is every aspiring singer s dream/nightmare.

I had never sung with the cast (which included noted soprano Deborah Voigt), never worked with the orchestra or the conductor, never been on the set, never worn the costume.

Stearns long and varied experiences in music not to mention a voice often compared to the late Robert Merrill s helped him carry the show.

Jason Stearns? wrote Martin Bernheimer for the Financial Times. He had once served in the Met chorus and undertaken tiny solos. In spite of a few pardonably rough patches, one had to admire his firm, wide-ranging baritone, not to mention his steadfast bravado.

Stearns took first prize in the 2005 Chester Ludgin American Verdi Baritone Competition and is to make his formal Met debut next April in Rigoletto, but as Monterone. Also on the horizon are debuts at Chicago s Lyric Opera and the Baltimore Opera Company and the new Norwegian Opera.

The Toledo Opera s production of Rigoletto will open at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 8, with additional performances at 7: 30 p.m. Nov. 14 and 2 p.m. Nov. 16, in the Valentine Theatre. Tickets are $29 to $95 through www.toledoopera.org or 419-255-7464.

Contact Sally Vallongo at svallongo@theblade.com.



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