I first met Jon in the summer of 2013 when he was singing Dick Johnson in Puccini’s La Fanciulla Del West. The titular role of Minnie is often referred to as “Turandot on a horse”. If this is true then Johnson is Calaf in chaps and nobody wears those chaps better than Jon Burton. But, what stood out to me was the fact that Jon NEVER marks. In fact, on one particular evening Jon was kicked in the ribs during staging by an over zealous chorister who was “in character”. We took a 15 minute break to allow Jon the time to catch his breath, but after that Jon sang a full voiced Ch’ella Mi Creda. When I first started this blog Jon was the first person I wanted to interview and I did. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that phone interviews are not the best. It took us some time to edit this one, but I hope you enjoy it.
Me: First and foremost I’d like to thank you for giving me your time tonight. Also, I’d like to thank you for being a major factor in making my favorite opera, La Fanciulla Del West, more commonplace in the repertoire these days.
Jon: Wow, really?
Me: Yes, I genuinely believe there are 3 driving forces for it’s revival: 1) The influx of great, young dramatic sopranos, such as Alexandra Lobianco and Michelle Johnson, who are capable of singing Minnie. 2) Adventurous Artistic Directors, such as the late David Roth of Kentucky Opera and Kostis Protopapas of Opera Santa Barbara, who understand the value of such lesser performed operas and trust their audiences are going to respond well to operas that aren’t just La Boheme, Carmen and Magic Flute. 3) And of course Johnson is a very difficult role to sing, but they have the security of having the technical god that is Jon Burton to sing it.
Jon: overly courteous laughter
Me: The other day we briefly talked and I pointed out that you never mark. I find it astounding. Of all the professionals I’ve ever worked with you’re the only one who has not marked in rehearsal. Why is that?
Jon: When I just did Radames we had about 5 weeks to rehearse the opera and then had 13 performances.
Me: Oh my god.
Jon: We were only supposed to do 12 performances, but they had to add one due to selling out every performance. But, the process I use is about dialing in the sweet spot where you’re not giving so much that you have to recover from it. Instead of giving it my full vocal capital I would rather pace it so when it comes to a performance I don’t find myself worried about. I’d just rather feel comfortable while performing. Maybe I give 5% less in a performance than other singers do. But, it’s about efficiency, it’s about making the machine run as well and efficiently as possible.
Me: So, you’re looking to get the maximum resonance with as little effort as possible?
Jon: Yeah, I’m really looking to get the appropriate resonance. This just allows me to sing efficiently and have confidence in my vocal health.
Me: Correct if I’m wrong but you began singing professionally around the age of 19.
Jon: It depends on what you mean by professionally. I was singing roles in Gilbert & Sullivan operettas then and getting small paychecks. But, singing grand operas at regional opera houses came later.
Me: But, fairly early on you tackled Rodolfo in La Boheme, correct?
Jon: That was at 23.
Me: So, you’ve been singing the harder roles since 23?
Jon: When I was 22 I had sung Camille in The Merry Widow, Alfred in Die Fledermaus, and Ferrando in Cosi Fan Tutte.
Me: Around 22 you were taking on roles that are significantly lighter than the rep you sing today, but are extraordinarily difficult nonetheless. Do you think that played a big part in knowing where you can give and where you can be efficient?
Jon: You know, it’s a really interesting thing that happened. I had done Falke in Die Fledermaus before I did Alfred because I couldn’t sing Alfred. I was supposed to sing Alfred, but couldn’t make the tessitura. But, in just being made to do Camille in Merry WidowI I just figured it out in real time. There’s just no substitute for getting in there and just doing it. It’s not about listening to a Corelli recording and saying “I have to sound exactly like him”. It’s more about putting the role in your body, in your brain, put a cast around you, a piano and just make the sounds come out of your face. Sooner or later that sort of work will tell you so much more about your voice than any other work ever could. I don’t know if the weight of the repertory I was singing then taught me about pacing, but just performing most certainly taught me what I needed to know about pacing. It comes on its own. Its something of a survival instinct.
Me: I completely agree with you, there’s no substitute for just getting up there and doing it. Once you had gotten into it when did you feel you had started hitting your stride as a performer? Because the Jon Burton I’ve seen perform is very much at ease with being a performer.
Jon: I would say it came in layers. You kind of reach several different plateaus. At one point I had done so over 10 operetta roles that I was just excited to finally work out of a Schirmer score instead of the Kalmus. You kind of just go in steps. When I had my first Boheme it didn’t worry me, it excited me. Then when you sing small roles at big companies you learn things and you find your way. You’re standing around people who are 15 to 20 years older than you doing things that you just can’t yet do and you have no idea how what’s coming out of their face is coming out of their face. The first time I sang Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly I was singing with a woman who was considerably older than me. I had already sung Merry Widow with her and when we sang together she’d just blow me out of the water. But then, when I sang Butterfly with her I could just sense that it wasn’t like that anymore. But, those things just came in stages.
Me: So, these stages were very incremental?
Me: Do you believe that getting larger names behind you create larger steps in this confidence boost or was it just another small step?
Jon: Definitely so.For example, the liking Lorin Maazel took to me and the support he gave me was huge. He’s Lorin Maazel, who am I to tell him that he’s wrong about me.
Me: It’s remarkable when you think about it. He’s arguably the best conductor of Puccini since Toscanini and he entrusted you with 3 major Puccini roles in the course of 2 years.
Jon: Yes, that was huge.
Me: So, that was a much bigger step in the process?
Jon: It certainly carries a lot of weight, he’s a legend. It’s one thing to get work and it’s one thing to get consistent work. But, when someone who is one of the pillars of our operatic society wants to put his name on you it’s enormous.
Me: It’s rarefied air. I considered myself lucky when he took the time to have a minute long conversation with me. But, he could really open your eyes to some beautiful moments in the music that you didn’t know were there. We both recall that stunning moment in Ch’ella Mi Creda where directly after you sing “mio solo fiore” when he allowed the orchestra to linger before going right back in time for you to come back in with “Minnie”. Gorgeous moment. Do you think working with musicians of that caliber has enhanced your own interpretation as an artist?
Jon: Oh yes, it’s just little gestures like that or how some times he could take something very casual and make it something special. I think a great example is that aria. We started half as slow as it’s usually performed and then ended up twice as fast. Some times he’d just shake things up. Working with him has brought into place the idea that you learn all the rules so you can forget them and make your own. He was very courteous and very collaborative and so he could work on a deeper level. The great thing about him and conductors like him is you’re encouraged to take your own risks and take your own chances. That phrasing you talked about was a response to me slowing down on the “fiore” which I wasn’t sure that he was even going to like. You could see the gleam in his eyes. It was as if he was saying “I see your queen and raise you a king” and he paused and rolled that orchestra in like a prairie sunrise. To be around people who know more than you and allow you to be your own artist really escalates your artistry.
Me: You sing verismo quite well. Whether it be Calaf, Johnson, Canio or Don Jose(which I consider to be as close to verismo as French repertoire has ever come) you sing them well. The common tendency is to give too much of the emotional angst in these pieces, thus sacrificing the voice in the process. How do you find a way to sing these roles efficiently while still portraying these characters?
Jon: That’s something that Canio taught me. My very first Canio was in 2009. Something kept going wrong in a tech rehearsal during the scene right before Vesti la Giubba when you’ve just caught Nedda with Silvio and we just had to keep going back. I don’t want to start marking because i want to feel the role as a whole, and I’m singing that line “perche pria di lordarla nel tuo fetido sangue” over and over again. We stop again. I’ll never forget, I put my hands on the back of the chair and I was looking down at the table and I said “Jon, you are going to have a lung pop out of your face and onto the stage. How are you going to make it through singing the final mad scene?” So a voice in my head said “let the composer do their work and you do yours and just sing”. I don’t necessarily like the words “connected” or “support” but what I find is if you sing with completely pure vocalism you’ll be fine. But, when people let the emotion of the piece overtake them, like in Canio or Otello or Johnson, they let their voices become too disjunct or too disconnected. I found that in those moments I must treat my instrument like it’s about to make the prettiest, longest legato line you’ve ever heard. I can bounce on that thing like it’s a yoga ball. It’ll give me plenty. If you leave your instrument in it’s normal parameters you’ll excel.
Me: You’re expanding your repertoire these days. You’ve taken on two massive Verdi roles in the last two years in the form of the French Don Carlos and Radames in Aida. As you venture forward you’ve already set the precedent that you can sing these difficult roles. Where do you see yourself going now? Do you see yourself adding even more heavy Italian repertoire such as Alvaro in La Forza del Destino or Otello? And is this something that actively excites you at this time?
Jon: Yes and yes. Honestly, the heavier the rep gets the more comfortable I am. I’m much more comfortable with Radames than Rodolfo. I don’t find Rodolfo easier, I find it harder. Otello has it’s own sets of issues, I think Alvaro is going to be wonderful. Fact is, if you sat Mario del Monaco, Franco Corelli, Domingo and Pavarotti down in a room and asked them to rank which one of these roles they would have the easiest time on a Thursday night they’d all have a different answer. Otello is definitely a role I want to do. Likewise, I want to sing Alvaro, I don’t want to sing the Duke of Mantua, nor do I want to sing earlier Bel Canto works. The most comfortable I’ve ever been is in German, I hope something comes of that.
Me: I’ve said this before, I’d love to hear a Jon Burton Lohegrin. I’m sure you would too. As your schedule has less Rodolfos or Pinkertons and more Calafs and Radames is there any future role you look at and say “that’s going to be really hard”?
Jon: The things that scare me are things like Manon Lescaut or Bacchus. Bacchus is really a sprint.It’s about 17 minutes of singing, but, man it’s difficult. I have one coming up in 2018.
Me: I’m sure you will sing that with aplomb. I might have to make a road trip to hear that one. I believe in this era young artists have more of a pressure than they ever have before, more pressure to be told that you have to sing show stoppers and have that “perfect” five aria package. What would you say to us young artists to really encourage us along in this process?
Jon: I’d say try to carve out a place for yourselves. It’s not about singing show stoppers, but rather proving yourself to be valuable somewhere, somehow. It’s not only sing what you’re comfortable with, but sing something that shows you as a singular artist. Why are you special? What’s good for you? A lot of young tenors ask me about advice getting their audition packages together and they come to me with the greatest hits, all of the most difficult rep you can sing. I say that you could potentially sing 3 of those back to back to back in any audition. Do you think you can handle it with no trouble? Don’t set yourself up for those situations. That’s the worst way to go about it. Show what’s invaluable about you. Companies are always looking for someone who brings in something new or something special. Not everybody has a fireworks voice, not every soprano is Joan Sutherland.
Me: So, for a young artist is it crucial to say “here I am and this is why I’m valuable”?
Jon: Absolutely and it is possible to say that without singing for the repertory fences every time and “pulling it off”.
Me: I’ll admit that was somewhat of a self-serving question.
Jon: To a certain extent it’s about what can you do and get paid for. If you’re, for example, a heldentenor, then you are not going to be comfortable sing Rodolfo, forget it. Don’t try to grow tomatoes in the desert. I think people these days get too caught up, and I’m as guilty as anyone, of trying to figure out exactly where their face is. It might be that you overlap them in uncommon places. Sing what works for you, not what you think or have heard ought to work for you.
Me: One thing that is somewhat of an anomaly with you is that you don’t have a bachelors degree from a name brand conservatory. These days there seems to be quite a premium placed on that for young artists. What would you say to someone who looks at schools and says “Maybe that’s not the best option for me.”? How would you advise them on starting their careers?
Jon: I’d say stay away from situations where there’s a lot of pedigree sniffing. In some situations people can’t help but hear things with their eyes. They see someone went to Juilliard or Curtis and then there’s a guy who went to nowhere or doesn’t even have their degree and they’re kind of afraid to trust that singer. Try to hit the grassroots circuit where a product matters more. You have to make some noise and you can do that by getting to know people like coaches or accompanists on a personal level. There are coaches and accompanists who are very connected to companies. Find out who plays what gigs for what companies and contact them and ask for a coaching. They’re around when decisions are being made for casting for the following season. They say “we’re looking for a Don Jose” and that guy speaks up and says “I know a guy who can sing that really well”. The next thing you know you have an audition and then you get a contract. That’s how it happened for me.
Me: I only have two more questions for you. Thank you for being so gracious with your time. You and Corey Crider(whom I’m interviewing in the coming months) both have these great family lives. You’ve both built beautiful homes with your wonderful families. How do you manage a family life with your hectic singing career?
Jon: He and I kind of cheat because our families travel with us. We home school our children so they can travel with us.
Me: Do you feel getting to have your family with you makes you less distracted as a performer?
Jon: Of course it does. I don’t have to worry about my family. There are complications that come with your family being there, but they’re far better than the complications you have without them there. But, before they were with me, that was absolutely the worst and hardest thing about this business. Maintaining lasting and meaningful relationships.
Me: I’ll say, during that Butterfly we were in together you looked more tired than had during the Johnson, but you looked exponentially happier during the process. I’m guessing that’s because your family was there with you and it certainly didn’t effect your singing. Last, but not least, if you have one piece of wisdom you could impart upon people trying to start their career what would you say to them?
Jon: It’s great to have coaches and teachers you trust. But, when you’re on stage it has to be you that takes control of your voice. The other thing I’d say is be the nicest guy in the room. Don’t complain and make sure that company likes having you around. If you can do this you’ll thrive.
These are great words to live by for all of us invested in the art of singing. You can’t find a nicer guy in opera than Jon Burton. You might ask yourself how good was Jon Burton’s Fanciulla that I mentioned at the beginning of this article. It was so good that Neil Shicoff(who was on faculty at the festival that year) came up to him after a performance one night and said he couldn’t have sung it better himself. I’m truly thrilled to have him as my first artist interview. I’m truly lucky to call Jon a colleague and I’m even luckier to call him a friend.