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Sound Bites spotlights up-and-coming singers and conductors in the world of opera.

Sound Bites: Brian Vu

A California baritone sings West Side Story for his HGO debut this month.
By F. Paul Driscoll 

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Photograph by Dario Acosta
Grooming by Affan Graber Malik

Styling by Marlon corvera
Clothing by Genteel Men,
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Brian Vu, set to sing West Side Story’s Riff at HGO and Glimmerglass this season
© Dario Acosta

BRIAN VU takes on the role of Riff, the leader of the Jets, at Houston Grand Opera and the Glimmerglass Festival this season in a new production of West Side Story by Francesca Zambello. Vu got the news that he had won the role in 2016, when he was working as a member of the Young Artists Program at Glimmerglass. “I was having a very long day at Glimmerglass—two performances of the children’s opera, Wilde Tales, in the morning and the afternoon, and then an evening show of Bohème, where I sang Schaunard. I was very, very tired. So I was backstage, waiting to go on, and just on my phone stealing the orchestra’s Wi-Fi, trying to zone out—and I got an email from Houston offering me the role of Riff in Francesca’s show. And that was that—I freaked out!

“I’m not a dancer—I studied modern and ballet at UCLA, just as a way to fill up some units in college—but I like to move. But I promise you that I will be able to move very well by the time we open this show.”

Vu, who is twenty-eight, studied voice at UCLA and at Yale and did his first season at Glimmerglass before joining Pittsburgh Opera’s Resident Artist Program. “Pittsburgh was fantastic! I didn’t think that any city that wasn’t on the West Coast or the East Coast really mattered to me, but Pittsburgh truly surprised me. It’s a wonderful, wonderful place.” Vu names John Brooke in Little Women as his favorite role at Pittsburgh but says his run as Hannah Before in As One, the story of a transgender woman, was his “most memorable and most rewarding” Pittsburgh assignment. “The big piece that Hannah Before sings, ‘Perfect Boy,’ is written to be difficult. My overachieving self really wanted it to be perfect, but I had to let go of that idea of being ‘right’ all the time for that piece. I had to just let it be, so that Hannah could be what she wanted to be. The text and the music are challenging, but so beautiful. They mesh together perfectly.”

Vu laughs when asked if he ever had musical-theater ambitions. “Not since high school, when I was Danny Zuko in Grease, right after I started taking voice lessons. So it’s wild that my first principal guest contract straight out of a young-artist program is for a Broadway musical. I’ll get to experiment with my old Broadway singing with this new operatic classical technique. This will be fun!” spacer 

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