Our esteemed partner company Opera Carolina is continuing its season, and after the success of an excellent The Barber of Seville, we are being treated to another crowd favorite: La traviata. Due to prior commitments we won’t be able to attend the opening matinée but will attend the last show on January 28th to publish our review. We are doing three mini-interviews with the principal artists: in the title role of Violetta, the great soprano Elizabeth Caballero, our three-times interviewee who is already a favorite of the Charlotte public (she sang Nedda in Pagliacci and Zemfira in Aleko last season); tenor Sean Pannikar as Alfredo who commands an impressive career, and baritone Reginald Smith Jr., the 2015 National Council Auditions winner, in the role of Germont.

The opera will be given in Italian with English surtitles. The run has three shows: Sunday January 22, 2017 at 2 PM, Thursday the 26th at 7:30 PM, and Saturday the 28th at 8 PM at the Blumenthal Performance Arts Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. For tickets, click here. We’ve been covering Opera Carolina for years and the company always presents compelling productions, well sung and well conducted (Maestro Meena will be at the podium which accounts for guaranteed quality). In terms of casting, it doesn’t get any better than that! So dear reader, don’t miss it! For more information on the show, click here.

A Grand Finals winner of the 2015 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and a recent graduate of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, baritone Reginald Smith, Jr. has been praised by the New York Times as “a passionate performer” and by Opera News for his “powerful and attractive voice.” Learn more about the singer by visiting his website.

Opera Lively – Let’s talk first about the psychological arc of your character. The listener is compelled to condemn Germont for his heartless destruction of a vulnerable woman’s life, while at the same time getting some understanding of what compelled him to act like this, not to forget that at the end he tries to correct his approach to her. Please tell us what you think of the character Germont and how to best act him.

Reginald Smith Jr. – I find the character, Giorgio Germont, to be very compelling. There are several different ways to interpret this character. In the operatic setting of this story, there seems to be no real protagonist. With this interesting challenge, many have made Germont to be a very stern, militaristic, and even uncaring father figure. Contrastingly, as a way to combat the previous portrayals, people have made this character incredibly sympathetic. I believe that the truth of the character, and the real interest of the plot, lies between both of the aforementioned interpretations.

To me, Giorgio Germont should be a relatable character for his reasons and purpose, but he should also be someone who is disliked for his manipulative tactics. By the end, we see the full arc of the character and the change in this man, really starting with the final scene of Act II. Like so many of us, he looks back and realizes the error of his ways, and he tries to reconcile them. When portraying this character, I think it is important to be as humanistic and realistic as one possible can be, so that the everyday person can see themselves in the character.

Opera Lively – Papa Germont is a role I consider very essential to the success of a Traviata performance. People will focus on Violetta and Alfredo but actually the most pivotal moment of the opera’s arc is the long scene between Germont and Violetta in act II.

In the first movement, Germont and Violetta have been singing “at” each other, with no real harmony of voices or thoughts. However, after the transition into the second movement, the cantabile, “Ditte alla giovine – si’ bella e pura,” Verdi begins to bring them slowly together. When Germont understands the sacrifice Violetta agrees to make for his daughter (and the joy she feels at making it), the composer recognizes this moment by allowing them to share a cadenza. The third movement, “Tra breve ei vi fia reso”, brings them even closer as Violetta asks Germont to embrace her as if she were his daughter.

The cabaletta is what follows. Germont and Violetta no longer spar with different music; Verdi gives them the same melody and allows them to harmonize for they have reached an agreement – all this through one of the most psychologically rich portrayals Verdi ever composed. The ability to display musically these conflicting emotions is a striking example of the power and beauty of Verdi’s music.

Germont’s music is particularly expressive in this scene, beginning lyrically, turning harsh, sinister, and manipulative, and ending by being encouraging and loving. This scene must be intense for the performer, not to forget that it is long. Please share with us your feelings about it, and the challenges in singing it well.

Reginald Smith Jr. – In this scene, we truly experience the genius of Verdi’s compositional style and his keen understanding of drama. It begins rather abruptly for Germont. We experience Violetta in her home, when Giorgio Germont enters and interrupts her calm demeanor. When he notices that she will tolerate his rude behavior, only then does he change his tone, but only slightly. After the shock of her discovering that he has two children, he really begins to lay it on thick! Even in the mellifluous beauty of his music, one can still feel the undercurrent of manipulation.

The key to the scene is to never give in until you get what you want. Germont uses several different tactics, and Verdi brilliantly underscores each of them with a new musical idea, until she finally concedes. The drama and the stakes must stay high throughout the entire scene.

The same tip can apply for the singing of this scene. With so many stirring and rhapsodic melodies, you must be careful not give in vocally, or over sing, because you still have a very difficult, and quite familiar, aria coming up.

Opera Lively – Next, “Di Provenza il mar il suol” is in my opinion one of the most outstanding baritone arias in the repertoire. The opening theme, played by woodwinds, has a folk-like quality which describes the rural setting of Alfredo’s childhood home. The aria has the structure of music written a generation before Verdi, and therefore is appropriate to represent the point of view of the older generation. Verdi “lengthens” the lines by setting each as they are written but then repeating them again, this time placing the second phrase first. For example, the aria’s first line is sung as follows:

Di Provence il mar, il suol, chi dal cor ti cancello?
Chi dal cor ti cancello, di Provence il mar, il suol?

This setting effectively makes the poetic lines sound longer. It also gives the aria a particularly “stable” or “square” sound: each line, composed of half phrases, perfectly balances the other. Dramatically, Germont is the father who attempts to re-establish balance in his son’s life, persuading his child by repeating his arguments with the slightest of variations. The aria continues to give this idea of the old-fashioned “square” person, by continuing to employ the structure above described.

It is also arguably the signature aria for Germont, the one the public is waiting for. This likely puts some pressure on the performer, not to forget the weight on his shoulders of all the outstanding predecessors he’s likely to be compared to while he sings this wildly popular aria. Please tell me about this moment for you, as a singer on stage.

Reginald Smith Jr. – Speaking of the familiar and difficult aria, it is always an immense honor to sing such glorious music. When I perform this piece, my goal is never to think about the many outstanding predecessors that have performed this aria. Instead, my goal is always to express the musical and dramatic intent of the composer and the librettist.

I wish that I could say I have one set way of performing the piece, but the interpretation can change based on the direction of the show, the musical intent of the conductor, and even, how one is feeling physically that day. So, I guess if you want to know how the piece will truly be interpreted, you would have to come to each performance! 🙂

Opera Lively – Sure, but I can only attend one of them, unfortunately (I don’t live in Charlotte and I’ll travel to the city especially for this). But which singers who took up the role of Papa Germont in the past and/or present do you consider to be have been most inspirational to you, and why?

Reginald Smith Jr. – There have been so many tremendous performances of this role, that it is hard to narrow down the list to a few. For me, I love listening to Robert Merrill and Cornell MacNeil sing the role. It is stunning, full-bodied singing that you really can’t teach. One can only aspire to be as great some day. Of course, I enjoy the singing of Sherrill Milnes in this role, but I also love the edge that he brings to the character. Ettore Bastianini is one of my favorite singers, and his legato and style of delivering the language is mesmerizing.

The recording that I listen to most often is from a live broadcast in 1957 from the Metropolitan Opera with Leonard Warren as Germont (and Renata Tebaldi is amazing as Violetta in that recording!). The sensitivity to the music while delivering a warm, rich sound throughout the emotional and vocal dynamic ranges of this character is nearly unparalleled! Nevertheless, after it is all said and done, one must take those nuggets and wisdom and beauty and learn from them. You can admire others, and even learn from them, but at the end of the day, you have to develop your own interpretation of the character.

Opera Lively – You won the 2015 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, arguably the most prestigious award in all of opera in the United States and among the world’s most prominent contests. Please tell us about this special moment in your career, the likely nerve-wrecking step-by-step survival rounds, and the jubilation of winning it all. What doors opened up for you after you were granted this outstanding recognition of your talent?

Reginald Smith Jr. – I consider myself to be very blessed and fortunate to be one of the winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. It is a truly wonderful and humbling experience. Some might have thought that I only applied and moved on in 2015. Actually, I participated in the MET Auditions 5 or 6 times. I made it to the Regional level twice before, but I did not make it to New York until 2015. (To clarify, there are 4 levels of the competition: District, Regional, Semi-Finals, Finals. The Semi-Finals and Finals both take place in New York City, on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera; the latter with the MET Orchestra.)

After making it past the Georgia District, in Atlanta, and the Southeast Regional, also in Atlanta, I went to New York to sing on the stage at the Met! I had seen performances there before, but it doesn’t compare to actually stepping on that stage. It was exhilarating and terrifying all at once. I just kept in mind one of my favorite mantras from my undergraduate professor, “Reggie, you must always sing to Express; never to Impress.” I still believe in that phrase, and I try to abide by it no matter where I am.

I could go on and on about my experience during the auditions. Everyone was so welcoming, I had amazing support from so many people, known and unknown, and I was blessed to have my family and friends in the audience cheering me on.

Since the auditions, I have definitely been busy. Fortunately, I won the auditions as I was leaving the Studio at Houston Grand Opera. So, I was able to take advantage of upcoming performance opportunities. Winning the auditions is sort of like having a magnifying glass put on you. People seem to know who you are all of a sudden! I don’t worry about those things though. I strive to work hard, be humble, and trust that God will open the doors that need to be opened and close the ones that need to be closed. So, as I continue along this journey, we will see where the path leads.

Opera Lively – What a nice answer! Now, please, to finish, tell our readers and public a bit about you as a person. What made you embrace an operatic career? What’s your personality like, and take on life? What do you like to do when you are not engaged in studying, rehearsing, and performing opera?

Reginald Smith Jr. – You know, I am a pretty chill person. I love to kick back and have fun. I truly love opera and this career, but sometimes it is good to just relax with friends. Most people who know me will tell you that I love to laugh and make others laugh, I unashamedly love animated Disney movies (Robin Hood is my favorite), and I love to cook. When I am not rehearsing or studying, you will most likely see me trying out a new recipe, relaxing with friends, or enjoying my family.

As for embracing an operatic career, I like to say that opera chose me! I begrudgingly saw my first opera in high school. We attended a final dress rehearsal of this happy piece called Tosca. I didn’t know anything about the show. I just knew that I would get out of school for most of the day. What more could a kid ask for, right? Well, after seeing this show, I was hooked! I looked up each singer, the show, the composer, and all things related to what I had experienced. I had officially been bitten by the opera bug, and the rest, as they say, is history!

View this interview on Opera Lively.