Fast talk with Figaro: Jesse Blumberg, baritone
At the center of the Figaro Trilogy is Beaumarchais’ eponymous barber and jack-of-all-trades. Baritone Jesse Blumberg takes up the shears for the second installment of the trilogy: Marcos Portugal’s The Marriage of Figaro. We talked with Jesse about his favorite operatic moments and his craziest musical memories.
Jesse Blumberg as Figaro at 632 on Hudson. Photo by Rebecca Fay.
• OSO: What is your first memory of opera?
JB: I think it was Don Giovanni at NYCO, followed soon after by Carmen at the Met. I was maybe a junior in high school and had just started taking serious lessons.
• OSO: Aria that most commonly gets stuck in your head?
JB: Can’t choose one, but definitely something super ear-wormy like Bach or Handel – those guys seem to camp out in my brain more than most. Good luck with this one, for example: www.youtube.com/watch?v=6lCqosHLv58
•OSO: Is the above aria your favorite or least favorite to sing?
JB: I’ll let you know if I ever attempt singing it!
•OSO: What’s your favorite Love duet?
JB: “Pa, Pa, Pa…” from Magic Flute – didn’t expect that, did you?? There’s even a moment in this show where I hear a dominant chord and fully expect that playful intro come right in.
JB: Don’t think I can pick any favorites, but I was lucky enough to briefly work with Von Stade earlier this year, and she’s supremely lovable both onstage and off.
• OSO: What’s your dream role?
JB: Either Pelléas or Billy Budd. Probably a tie. And maybe Wozzeck, you know, for “fun”.
• OSO: Favorite cocktail?
JB: JB’s Smacked Basil Lemonade. I thought it up a few summers ago, and I’m thinking I should get back into making them, considering how often I get smacked in this opera.
• OSO: Last book you read?
JB: No comment. Let’s just say I’m good at starting books. ;-/
•OSO: Is this your first time performing Marcos Portugal?
JB: Yes! Did anyone say no?!?
• OSO: Have you performed in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro? If so, what are the differences you note between the Mozart and Portugal Figaro?
JB: Yes – my first time was as Figaro, in German, at a summer program in Salzburg, then many years later as the Count, in Italian, in what we affectionately dubbed Le Nozze di Fargo. Most of us have lots of experience with the Mozart, so it’s pretty tough to banish his ghost from the rehearsal room. Occasionally I miss certain interactions between characters or certain sublime and signature Mozartean musical moments. But Portugal, writing about fifteen years later, gives us a fascinating sneak peek of the bel canto era to come, dipping more than a couple toes into the 19th century.
• OSO: Have you ever performed in a site-specific or immersive performance before? What excites you most about performing at 632 on Hudson?
JB: Not like this, no – I was able to see both OS Opera’s Pygmalion and Barber in recent years, and thought, I really need to work with that company. I’ve been on some masterfully designed and crafted sets before, but it’s just not the same as being able to touch actual walls, run up and down real stairs, grab an actual banister. And it makes the staging process more spontaneous and explorative than usual, I think, since there’s no way to completely mimic these rooms until we’re truly in them. So the best we can do is focus on the characters’ conversations, situations, and the storytelling. 632 will only add to the groundwork we’re laying, I suspect, and force us to stay sharp and very much in the moment. Can’t wait to find out!
• OSO: The actual title of Portugal’s opera is La pazza giornata, ovvero Il matrimonio di Figaro (The Crazy Day, or The Marriage of Figaro) — what’s the craziest day you’ve ever experienced? OR What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened to you in a performance?
JB: One time in college I had to learn and perform Zuniga in Carmen on eight hours notice. That was a bit crazy. Especially trying to break up the cigarette factory fight while trying to remember what the next musical entrance was. Luckily we were in English, and I only had to make it to the end of Act II.
• OSO: What is the greatest music-related advice you’ve ever been given?
JB: Tough question! I may have to paraphrase and credit multiple teachers and mentors here… But I feel like we can never be reminded enough to “get off the page.” It’s not enough to sing and play the notes and sound beautiful. Unless we’re communicating and storytelling, we’ll lose the audience’s interest immediately. There are times of course when it’s best to get out of the way and do what the music do what it needs to do, but if I sing a word or phrase just like the one before, chances are I haven’t done my job.
• OSO: Besides On Site’s Figaro, what projects are coming up next for you?
JB: A busy month of musical and geographical whiplash, just the way I like it! A recital at SongFest in LA, Bach cantatas in Montreal, a Schubert/Beethoven recital in New Hampshire, some more Bach in Massachusetts, and Ricky Ian Gordon’s Green Sneakers in Maine. Then it can be Summer! .
Baritone Jesse Blumberg is equally at home on opera, concert, and recital stages, performing repertoire from the Renaissance and Baroque to the 20th and 21st centuries. His performances have included the world premiere of The Grapes of Wrath at Minnesota Opera, Bernstein’s MASS at London’s Royal Festival Hall, various productions with Boston Early Music Festival, and featured roles with Atlanta Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Utah Opera, and Boston Lyric Opera. Recital highlights include appearances with the Marilyn Horne Foundation, New York Festival of Song, and Mirror Visions Ensemble. He has performed major concert works with American Bach Soloists, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Boston Baroque, Oratorio Society of New York, Apollo’s Fire, Charlotte Symphony, and on Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series. Jesse has been featured on over a dozen commercial recordings, including the 2015 Grammy-winning Charpentier Chamber Operas with Boston Early Music Festival. He has been recognized in several competitions, and was awarded Third Prize at the 2008 International Robert Schumann Competition in Zwickau, becoming its first American prizewinner in over thirty years. Jesse holds degrees from the University of Michigan and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and is also the founder of Five Boroughs Music Festival, which brings chamber music of many genres to every corner of New York City. www.jesseblumberg.com