For the latest installment of Opera Pulse’s “Artist Spotlight” series, I spoke to Jason Hardy, a highly-acclaimed bass noted for his voice “like black velvet” (Omaha World-Herald). He has performed with companies across the country, including as New York City Opera, Opera Omaha, Madison Opera, Wolf Trap Opera, Atlanta Opera, and Orlando Opera, and has even been featured on the infamous “Barihunks” website. Upcoming performances include Don Alfonso in Cosi fan tutte with Atlanta Opera, Figaro in Le nozze di Figaro with Baltimore Concert Opera, and Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia with Bar Harbor Music Festival. To learn more, visit www.jasonhardy.net.
What is your background in music? When did you first decide to pursue a career in opera?
Growing up, I played the trombone and euphonium in band. In college I decided to sing in the Emory University Chorus. Although I was a business major at the time, I quickly became very involved in singing. During my senior year, I decided that I wanted to try to be an opera singer. My business school adviser thought I was crazy!
You have found success at opera companies throughout the United States, including New York City Opera, Atlanta Opera, Wolf Trap Opera, Cleveland Opera, and many more. How did you make these opportunities for yourself?
I was fortunate to have gotten some good experience in graduate school. While pursuing a Master’s degree and Artist Diploma at the Peabody Conservatory, I got a lot of experience performing recitals, oratorios, and opera. The combination of coursework, language studies, and performance experience helped me get into a couple of good young artist programs, which are a great way to gain additional performance experience. Many of them teach audition techniques and self-marketing skills. They are also an easy way to get heard by opera companies and artist managers. I was fortunate to land a couple of gigs out of these programs, and then signed with an agent. After that, I no longer had to send publicity packets to every musical organization that was holding auditions. At that point, my manager would set up the auditions, and I could focus my energies on singing a great audition.
How would you describe your singing process? What do you focus on first: technique, expression, emotion?
For me I strive for an equal balance of all three. Hopefully the technique has been worked out well in advance so I am able to communicate in performance. Honestly, I get bored by singers with beautiful voices that are all technique and no expression! In most compositions, the emotion is in the music. That makes our jobs as singers/communicators easier, because our subtext is given to us by the composer.
What is your process for learning a new role, both in terms of learning music and in terms of developing a character?
With an operatic role, my tendency is to jump right into the expression and emotion of the role, but that is NOT the way to do it! I literally force myself to spend weeks without singing a word of text. First I will sit down and translate the entire opera (all roles – not just my own). Then I will sit down at the piano and vocalize the role and find the parts that are the most challenging vocally. I will sing only vowels until I can sing through it with good technique. At this point it is all about sound, not character. Once the role begins to fit well vocally, I will begin to sing the text. I am very detail-oriented on phrases and word stress, so I spend a lot of time trying to make the text sound as natural as possible. This requires a lot of work in the recitatives!
From there, I think the character development comes from knowing the story of the opera and knowing the historical context of the opera. There are a lot of details to figure out, such as how your character walks or bows or fights; whether his use of language is colloquial or formal; is he a nobleman or peasant; old or young; devil or lover? There are so many resources to help you find the answers.
Many singers are told that it is impossible to have a family and a career, but you’ve managed to do both. How do you juggle everything?
I think it would be impossible for me to have a career without family. It is important for me to have a life outside of music. No amount of success in a singing career can replace the joy of having a family: not only is life much more fulfilling, but I honestly believe it helps me grow as an artist. That said, it is a serious challenge having both. There are many nights on the road where all you have to keep you in touch with “home” is a cell phone or Skype. I couldn’t do it without the support of extended family. Without them, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do, so I am very blessed for their sacrifice.
Describe a typical day.
When I’m home, the flexibility of my schedule allows me to drive my kids to school, go to the gym, shower, work in the home office (emails and such), have lunch with my wife, practice, pick kids up from school, drive them to various activities (many times with score, ipod, and laptop in tow), cook dinner, put kids to bed, then work some more in the office (if necessary) or relax with a magazine/TV program/chat with my wife, then bed. On weekends, it can be different every single day. On a gig, my life will revolve around the daily rehearsal schedule that the stage manager gives out each day.
What do you see as the next step in your career? How do you plan to get there?
There’s always the hope that the performance venues will get more prestigious and the fees more lucrative. It would be great to be more selective with my jobs at some point. Hopefully, with hard work and some lucky breaks, that will happen. In the meantime, the next step right now is just trying to stay afloat and survive this frightening economy that has put a lot of strain on each and every classical music presenter.
People are continuing to question the survival of opera in today’s society. Do you have similar concerns? Do you think that opera is still relevant?
All over the country we have seen opera companies shut down. This recession has taught us that companies need to be run efficiently to survive. That’s just basic business sense. For too long, companies have relied on a handful of big donors with deep pockets to bail them out of a jam. Since ticket sales only cover a portion of production costs, companies must seek donations and sponsorships. The role of the large private donor has changed because they are more and more difficult to find. It is much harder for a company to get 500 donations of $50 rather than one donation of $25,000, but it is much healthier! Successful companies are building audiences in a grass-roots effort that engages, educates, and entertains. The art form is relevant as long as there is an audience to enjoy it. Our challenge is to produce quality productions that are accessible in a way that the music, drama, and scenery are fresh and alive!
Photo – Jason Hardy as Leporello in Don Giovanni; Credit: New York City Opera – photograph by Carol Rosegg