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Staying Power

Brandon Jovanovich is at the top of his game. This summer, he sings Siegmund at San Francisco Opera and Queen of Spades in Salzburg.
By Fred Cohn
Photographs by Anthony Tahlier 

Staying Power Jovanovich hdl 518
Photographs by Anthony Tahlier
Fashion styling by Heather Brooks
“I’ve turned down many roles over the years that would not have set me up for my future.”
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As Don José in Chicago, 2017
© Andrew Cioffi
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Photographs by Anthony Tahlier
Fashion styling by Heather Brooks (stylistheatherbrooks.com)

AT FORTY-SEVEN, BRANDON JOVANOVICH IS FIRMLY ensconced in the front ranks of the world’s tenors. His progress has been so slow and steady that it almost feels like he has taken his place unannounced. Much of his early career was spent with small European companies such as Angers Nantes Opéra, Opéra de Bordeaux and Stuttgart’s Staatsoper. “I was lucky that I wasn’t on the main stages of the world,” he says. “I was able to try things out, work out any kinks, survive vocally and ultimately flourish. I’m sure a lot of people in the business thought I wouldn’t be around as long as I have been.” 

After two decades in opera, the Montana-born tenor’s career has never been in better shape—and neither has his brawny, clarion voice. He sings some of the toughest assignments in the dramatic-tenor repertory—Don José, Siegmund, Sergei in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Walther von Stolzing—for companies such as the Met, San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Paris Opera and Vienna State Opera. He has taken on the voice-killing role of Strauss’s Bacchus. This season he made a role debut at Zurich Opera, as Dick Johnson in La Fanciulla del West; this summer, he heads to the Salzburg Festival for his first Gherman in Queen of Spades.  

Jovanovich had early ambitions to be a linebacker, and at a beefy six feet, three inches, he still has the build. He made the team at the University of Mary, North Dakota, but midway through his undergraduate years, he transferred to Northern Arizona University, pursuing warm weather along with music. He entered on a choral scholarship, singing as a bass-baritone, but eventually moved toward theater. “He had a nice voice—but he was a terrific actor,” says director Dona D. Vaughn, who worked with him at NAU’s summer vocal institute. Jovanovich landed briefly in Los Angeles after college, with the hope of pursuing an acting career, but soon moved to New York to join his girlfriend (now wife) Cara Welch, who was pursuing a career as a lyric soprano. “She said, ‘I’ve got an apartment—what’s going to happen to us? Are we parting ways?’” he says. “There wasn’t much keeping me in L.A.—I had only been there a few weeks, and I was living with my aunt—so I thought, ‘I guess I could do something in New York.’” 

It was by no means a foregone conclusion that he would go into opera. He acted in small independent films, modeled in ads for Modell’s Sporting Goods and grabbed an “under ten” (fewer than ten lines) assignment on Guiding Light. Singing tenor leads with the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players gave him stage experience. “I got good reviews, but nothing ever happened,” he says. He started moving toward opera, spending two summers as an apprentice at Santa Fe Opera and one year as a young artist with Seattle Opera. He entered MSM, studying with Trish McCaffrey, who told him he could have a great career as a bass-baritone, but only a second-rate one as a tenor. But Marlena Malas, who took over his training, disagreed. “Here was this very handsome young man who said ‘aw shucks’ and ‘ma’am,’ and something in the sound made me think this was a tenor,” she says. In 1997, he started studying with Neal Goren, who is still his teacher.

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As Walther von Stoltzing in San Francisco, 2015
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
 

Once Jovanovich embarked on his opera career, he immediately found the steady employment that had eluded him as an actor. “I’ve always had a job available as a tenor,” he says. Even if the houses were small, the roles were big: the dramatic cast of his voice slotted him as a primo tenore practically from the beginning, and his early resumé is dotted with roles such as Pinkerton, Hoffmann and Turiddu. He confesses that when he was younger, an athlete’s competitive streak would lead him astray. “I would think, ‘I can sing louder than any orchestra,’” he says. “But then you realize when you can give more, when you can give less, and when you can balance those things out. Those smaller houses allowed me to play around with my voice and technique. A lot of experience and wisdom comes from that.”

By the late 2000s, the bulk of Jovanovich’s assignments came from A-list companies, including Glyndebourne, the Bavarian State Opera and Washington National Opera. He made his Met debut in 2010, as Don José. As Sergei in the Met’s 2014 revival of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, he and Eva-Maria Westbroek, his Katerina, set off incendiary carnal sparks. “It’s really fun to be with someone who’s such a good actor,” says Westbroek. “When you perform something like Lady Macbeth, you can’t have a colleague who doesn’t look at you, or is thinking about shopping or the next high note. Brandon and I give each other room to be free—we let each other act and act and act.”

The 2017 new production of Rusalka brought out a different part of Jovanovich’s dramatic range. No question his voice had the scale to ride over the Wagnerian-sized orchestra. But his singing in the love scenes with Kristine Opolais conveyed tender intimacy, making his betrayal of Rusalka all the more heartrending. 

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As Sergei in the Met’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, 2014
© Beth Bergman
 

PREPARING TO TALK TO JOVANOVICH, I asked several of his colleagues about him, and more than one told me, “He’s the nicest guy in the business.” Sure enough, during our phone conversation, he is unerringly pleasant and polite and seems sincerely grateful for the opportunity to talk to opera news. The “aw, shucks” manner that Marlena Malas noted twenty years ago is still very much part of his makeup. But as he tells me about his childhood, it becomes clear that his affability has been hard-won. His family led a hardscrabble life in Billings, Montana. He and his mother’s two other children all had different fathers. He first met his birth father when he was twelve and saw him only a handful of times thereafter. The man he calls “my dad” was his stepfather, Gary Jovanovich.

“My dad was a very violent man,” he says. “Eighty percent of him was a horrific human being. Twenty percent you loved. He had a gregarious laugh. He could be crazy fun to be around. But there literally were times when we thought he would kill us. He was a drunk—well, not so much drink as drugs. He had stints of selling drugs, I’m sure, although that’s something we never sat down and talked about. Later in life, there was always a con of some sort. He got caught robbing a silver mine in Nevada and spent a few years in prison for armed robbery. When he got out, he married some other gal, and the two of them ran a brothel until he died in 1997.”

The twenty-percent lovable side of Gary Jovanovich manifested itself in steady support for his stepson’s ambitions. “He always believed in me,” Jovanovich says. “He came down to see me when I was an apprentice in Santa Fe. I think he thought it was some little program run out of a high-school auditorium. He said ‘This is a fifty-, sixty-million complex down here! I’m so proud of you.’

“All of the three siblings have scars from him, although I’m the one who’s relatively unscathed,” Jovanovich says. He attributes his perseverance to his work ethic, inherited from his mother, who kept the family together by working as an AT&T operator and now is a cosmetics saleswoman at Dillard’s department store. The gentleness of his manner is in part a reaction to the elder Jovanovich’s brutality. “I’ve always been easygoing,” he says. “I’m a big guy, but I try not to be intimidating. My dad weighed around 300 pounds, some of it fat, but mostly muscle and intimidation. I was always aware of how physically scared I was of him. Because of that, I try to be quiet and respectful with other people.”

In performing, he has found an appropriate outlet for the violence of his upbringing. “When I do roles like Don José, colleagues will say to me, ‘You can get scary onstage,’” he says. “When you have these hardships in life, it’s easy to tap into them.” 

My chat with Jovanovich comes during a rare respite for the tenor—a little more than two weeks on the farm in Sycamore, Illinois, where he and Cara are raising their three adolescent children. Afterward he will be back on the road for six months, with scant contact with his family. “They’re going to spend a little bit of the summer with me in Europe,” he says. “But it’s tough. All the stuff that normal people do on a daily basis, I try to cram into the two weeks I’m at home—and on top of it, memorize Parsifal. If I didn’t have a great wife, this would be a hell of a lot harder.” (Jovanovich was preparing for his role debut in Zurich but had to withdraw before the premiere because of illness.)

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Photographs by Anthony Tahlier
Fashion styling by Heather Brooks
 

JOVANOVICH AND CARA, who were married in 2000, realized early on that they couldn’t sustain two careers and raise a family as well. “We had the conversation right after we got married,” Jovanovich says. “We knew that we wanted kids, so we had to plan. I said, ‘I’m a tenor, I’m going to ultimately make more money.’ That’s what it boiled down to.” Cara now runs a small voice studio out of the farm, sixty-eight miles west of Chicago. 

During his downtime, Jovanovich likes to work on his house—a converted one-room schoolhouse, surrounded by cornfields, that was a true fixer-upper when he and Cara bought it. “I like physical labor,” he says. The family raises ducks and chickens and tends beehives, selling eggs and honey from a roadside stand. “It operates on the honor system,” Jovanovich says. “I figure if somebody needs the eggs and doesn’t pay for them, there must be a reason.” 

A weight-lifting routine keeps him physically fit and psychologically centered. Directors know that they can assign him athletic bits of business that would be outside the capabilities of a more sedentary tenor. “Exercise helps me think more clearly. It’s a kind of stress release,” he says. “Onstage I feel more engaged, more relaxed and more free when I’m able to do anything that’s asked of me physically.”

Jovanovich will sing Samson in 2019, and he has a contract to tackle Otello in an upcoming season. “I’ve turned down many roles over the years that would not have set me up for my future,” he says, “but in another few years, I think Otello would be perfect.” He is also exploring the idea of Tristan, a few years hence. “That’s the one I’m most apprehensive about,” he says. “I want to make sure I have the stamina, and that I’ll be able to traverse the tessitura.

“I’ve built my career by singing on the interest rather than the principal,” he adds. “Ten years from now, I hope I’m excited to still be up there singing.” spacer 



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