In the old days, when divas of both sexes swanned from continent to continent by glamorous ocean liner, they would hold court in an operatic capital for months or a whole season at a time, running the gamut of their greatest hits. Enrico Caruso, for instance, the greatest Italian tenor of them all, made his Metropolitan Opera debut as the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto on November 23, 1903. By New Year’s Eve, New Yorkers had cheered him to the rafters in Aida, Tosca, La Bohème, Pagliacci, and La Traviata. In January, he added L’Elisir d’Amore and Lucia di Lammermoor to his portfolio.
In 2020, a star typically parachutes in for a single role, knocks off five or six performances, and rushes to the airport. This season at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, however, the versatile American tenor Brandon Jovanovich, 49, turns back the clock. In a nearly three-month residence, he tackles Gherman, the compulsive gambler in Tchaikovsky’s spine-tingling ghost story, The Queen of Spades (February 15–March 1); B. F. Pinkerton, the callow American naval officer who betrays a geisha in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (March 4 and 7); and Siegmund, the doomed outlaw in Wagner’s four-part “Ring” cycle (April 13–May 3).
“It’s a great trifecta,” Jovanovich said recently from Berlin, where he was getting his hair cut in Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila. For Jovanovich, working in the Windy City should be rather the busman’s holiday. He commutes to the Lyric from his home in Sycamore, Illinois, where neighbors have spotted him trimming trees, every inch the suburban Paul Bunyan. “I cannot tell you how excited I am to sing at home! My wife and kids, too. This will be the longest that I have been able to stay at home since having kids. It’s a godsend!”
The Queen of Spades, Madama Butterfly, and Wagner’s “Ring” cycle: “It’s a great trifecta,” Jovanovich says.
Born and raised in Billings, Montana, Jovanovich cut his teeth as a matinee idol with Gilbert & Sullivan and other light opera in and around New York. Ultimately, though, his destiny lay in more challenging fare on the starriest stages. Over the past three seasons, he has hopscotched from Los Angeles to Vienna, Paris to San Francisco, the Met to Berlin and Munich and Salzburg, shape-shifting among the heroes of Les Troyens, Lohengrin, Fidelio, La Fanciulla del West, and more.
Temptations to which he has yet to succumb include the notoriously punishing Wagner roles Tannhäuser, Tristan, and Siegfried. The role he’s itching for is Otello, Verdi’s avatar of Shakespeare’s tragically manipulated Moor of Venice. An old favorite he hasn’t reconnected with for quite some time is Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. “Damn,” he says, “I love that guy! He’s an absolute mess, and I dig it!”
An instinctual, unfussy actor, Jovanovich enters his characters’ troubled worlds naturally, voicing them with coloristic and dynamic nuance yet never shortchanging their power. “There is a lot of psychology involved when standing on a ‘big’ stage and pumping out sound to get to the back of the house,” Jovanovich says. “I find a freedom in that somehow. I like to ride the wave of sound. At the same time, I am somewhat identified with singing softly when that’s needed.” He sometimes gets heat for this, mainly from listeners who know neither the scores nor the great traditions as enshrined in historic recordings, but he doesn’t mind. “In service to the mood, text, and musical writing,” Jovanovich says, “I like to push those preconceived notions some.” —Matthew Gurewitsch