Sound Bites spotlights up-and-coming singers and conductors in the world of opera.
Sound Bites: Zachary Nelson
Photographed by Dario Acosta in New York
Grooming by Affan Malik
Shirt: Van Laack / bracelet: Baldessarini / tapestry: ABC Carpet & Home
© Dario Acosta 2013
Zachary Nelson makes a number of significant role debuts in the coming season. This summer, he takes on the title character in Le Nozze di Figaro at Santa Fe Opera. Nine days after his final performance in Santa Fe, he'll be in Figaro again, singing the Count at Semperoper Dresden, where he's under a one-year fest contract to sing six roles, five of them for the first time. Apart from the Count, he'll be doing Guglielmo in Così Fan Tutte, Figaro in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Marcello in La Bohème, the Speaker in Die Zauberflöte and the Mandarin in Turandot. It seems a sensible path of progress for this baritone, whose robust, thrilling sound might naturally lead to too-much-too-soon syndrome.
Nelson is from Annapolis, Maryland, where, as a high school student, he turned in a melodic dictation of Traviata's "Libiamo." "I brought it to my teacher, and he said, 'What's this?'" Nelson recalls. "I said, 'It's opera — it's cool,' and my teacher said, 'Opera's cool?'" At Catholic University, Nelson juggled music and medicine until music won out; then he was accepted at Philadelphia's Academy of Vocal Arts, where he still studies with Bill Schuman. "I came in not having the most even of voices," he says, "and Bill has helped me with singing legato and breath control and lining up my vowels. I owe so much to that man."
Nelson began entering the major voice competitions. After the first few tries, he received encouragement awards and a couple of second-place victories. Then he found the aria that really worked — "Nemico della patria," from Andrea Chénier — and he racked up top victories in the competitions of the Licia Albanese–Puccini Foundation, the George London Foundation, the Liederkranz Foundation and Opera Index. "I sang 'Nemico della patria' once for a competition I won't name," says Nelson, "and one of the judges harassed me about it, in front of all the other judges, saying, 'You're too young to be singing this! You're going to hurt yourself!' I ended up doing very well in the competition, so I guess the other judges didn't feel the way he felt. I sang the aria with my own voice, and it never taxed me. It was always an aria I could pull out of the hat and do at 10 A.M. For competition arias, you want that. You don't want one that's insanely difficult that you're going to do well one out of three times. No one wins with 'Non mi dir.' It's too long, and it's too slow. Keep it under five minutes. At a couple of auditions, the soprano singing before me was always singing 'No word from Tom,' and I was always thinking, 'This is the looooongest aria.'"
Nelson swears that he has no immediate plans to sing Chénier's Gérard onstage. "I've been offered it, and I turned that thing down so fast," he laughs. "I would love to, but I'm only twenty-six. Let me get some grey hairs."
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