The Music Man from Iowa: John Osborn and Il barbiere di Siviglia [The Royal Opera’s Il barbiere di Siviglia – 18 January-8 February 2011]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the singer appearing as Count Almaviva in Covent Garden’s latest revival of Rossini’s popular comic opera The Barber of Seville…

John Osborn. Photograph: Greg Figge

He’s not English and there’s no ‘e’ at the end of his surname but even so the American tenor John Osborn has a flow of words equal to that of Jimmy Porter in the play Look Back in Anger. In Osborn’s case however he looks back fondly and with pride and affection, each memory becoming a story. New York’s Metropolitan Opera has played an important part in his development – he was a competition winner there in 1994 and went on to join its programme for Young Artists – but John comes from Iowa so I ask him about the part that music played in his early life while he was in his home state. His recollections come out in a flood.

“It’s pretty much the story of my whole life that I just wanted to sing and perform and thus have a good time. I always loved singing and still remember the very first song that I ever learnt in kindergarten: Hello Everybody. I just always enjoyed music, but I enjoyed people first of all and because I enjoyed being around people music was for me a very social thing. I grew up singing all the time and at Junior High chose from the curriculum to be in choir”. Music, then, was present from the start, but John goes on to reveal that opera was not something he was aware of until later. “While at Junior High I was in a musical called Being a Teen and I would imitate people like Michael Jackson, Sting and Phil Collins. I enjoyed also a cappella groups such as The Nylons and Take 6. When I got to High School my brother was already there and he was the one who had a great time doing musical-theatre productions such as Camelot. But I wasn’t allowed to do that in my freshman year: my mother knew that he would always be coming home late at night and she didn’t want me doing the same. So my first couple of years in High School I did choir but that led to me taking part in competitions in my early teens, competitions that I won.”

But when John reached the age of sixteen, something happened that put his possible future in a new light. “About three-thousand kids, myself included, auditioned for the chorus at the Iowa State High School Music Association Festival. Of those, some three-hundred boys were considered for soloist in the men’s piece which was the Negro Spiritual Roberta Lee and I was selected. So there I was singing ‘the longest day I ever did see was the day that Roberta died’: this little white boy from Iowa performing this Spiritual! I enjoyed it very much and a girl in the choir who had become a friend mentioned Simpson College to me, a place that I had never heard of. It’s a Methodist arts college in Indianola. She said: ‘You should go to Simpson because they do opera there’. But I went: ‘Opera?’. I knew nothing at all about opera, but that was the moment when I started thinking about it and began to make enquiries about Simpson. Then Christmas came up and when I switched on the television I was able to see an opera for the first time ever. It was The Barber of Seville performed at the Blank Performing Arts Center, Simpson College, Indianola, Iowa! Until then I had thought that if I was going to make a career as a singer it would have to be in musical-theatre because that was mainly what my background was. But I recognised that I didn’t have the dance training that you really need to do that. Previously my notions about opera were preconceived ones that many people have: I thought it was all large women with breast-plates and horned helmets, totally Wagnerian. But when I saw The Barber of Seville it was a revelation: it suddenly struck me that opera could be fun.”

Il barbiere di Siviglia, The Royal Opera, January 2011. Photograph: Mike Hoban

Now fired with enthusiasm for this art form, John learnt two arias for his audition for Simpson College and was successful. Robert Larsen was the music director there as well as being a significant figure in Des Moines Metro Opera where John was able to make his public operatic debut as First Guest in Menotti’s The Saint of Bleaker Street during his time in college. Looking back on Simpson, John describes it as “a beautiful learning experience.” It included working in a madrigal group which was invaluable since it involved him in singing in Italian, French and Spanish. In contrast operas done by the college were performed in English. “Very early on I was in the chorus for Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah which meant that the first opera I ever saw live was one that I was in. Then at the start of my second semester I was cast as Don Basilio in The Marriage of Figaro making that the first role I ever performed and I am eighteen years old.”

It was in the Spring of 1994 that John graduated from Simpson and that August as a 22-year-old he joined the Young Artists programme at the Met, which came about as he was one of ten winners in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, a competition that initially involves district and regional rounds and which had attracted his attention in Iowa. On getting through to the Finals held at the Met itself he had his first experience of coaching. “I’d made it, so I thought that I would pull out all the stops and sing ‘Ah! Mes Amis’ from La fille du Régiment. So that’s what I did and I popped all those high Cs. Through that coaching we had learnt how to do our presentations on the Met stage and so I won. That was when I heard about the Young Artists so the day after winning I went down to speak to Gail Robinson – God rest her soul, she’s passed but she was head of programme at that time. When she told me more about it and asked if I would be interested, I said ‘Yes, absolutely’. When I joined in the Fall, there was the further benefit that the Met pays for two voice-lessons each week and thus I got to study with Edward Zambara and that was a great, great experience.”

Being an American citizen John was able to complete three years as one of the Young Artists and had notable success as a winner of the 1996 Plácido Domingo Operalia competition, held in Bordeaux. Once again there’s a story behind it, one that goes back to 1994. “Believe it or not, when I did the Met competition Domingo was there and after we singers had returned to our dressing rooms Plácido came back. He asked me if I was doing his competition and I said ‘no’. But he said ‘talk to my agent here and he’ll give you an application form’. So I took it, but I was still in school that year so I put it to the back of my mind for a couple of years. It was during my second year as a Young Artist at the Met that I started doing a lot of auditions and one of them was to sing for Washington Opera. So I went there and among the people I sang for was Domingo. I did arias from Don Pasquale and L’Elisir d’Amore and he was like ‘Bravo, John! I see you’re doing my competition: I guess I will be seeing you in Bordeaux’. That year I was able to sign up for it. He said: ‘You should start with the aria from Don Pasquale so that’s what I did. So not only did that audition get me the role of Nemorino with Washington Opera but it was also a re-connection with Plácido Domingo. That year, 1996, was also a great year for my wife, the soprano Lynette Tapia, who won several awards including the Met competition and we both got selected to go to Bordeaux to compete in the Operalia. At the time of the first round Plácido did not know that we were married. But he did know it by the time that we both made it to the finals. We ended up tying for first prize and my wife won also the people’s prize in which the public vote for their favourite singer. And because it was in Bordeaux we won ten crates of Bordeaux wines specially selected by the president of the Academy of Bordeaux Wines.”

Bring their story up to date and both John and Lynette are combining operatic careers with the nurturing of a daughter Ann Lynette who is ten years old. It’s a situation that is not always easy to handle. “I don’t believe that there’s any relationship that doesn’t take some work and in our case there’s this question of long distance. That’s difficult because communication is key and when the best that the Internet offered was through slow-speed dial-up our phone bills were horrendous. Thank goodness for the incredible development over the last ten years in the way the Internet can be used for communications: now with Skype we have video-calling all the time. It can’t replace the physical connection important in any relationship if it is to be sustained and strengthened, but it’s a great help. After Ann Lynette was born we were together for the first four months, but then I was in France where we all met up two months later and from four months to six months my daughter had changed so much. Travel is crazy and taking aeroplanes is not cheap so you learn that there are certain things which you must sacrifice in order to be together to make it work. Now there’s the need to mix into the equation the requirement of our daughter’s schooling. My wife has been home-schooling her because we have a wonderful programme in Southern California where we live which sets up a curriculum enabling materials to be brought home, gone through and then sent in with a monthly deadline. So that’s helped us to have time together. Then again when my wife has gone on the road she has taken her mother with her to help take care of Ann Lynette.”

Despite a repertoire centred on Italian and French opera and on Mozart which has taken him all around the world, it is only recently that Covent Garden came into the picture for John. The House magazine which appeared just before John Osborn’s Covent Garden debut last October commented on the strong impression he had made on Antonio Pappano (Music Director, The Royal Opera) when the latter had conducted him in a concert performance of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell in 2007, a factor no doubt in John being invited to come to Royal Opera. “Originally I was slated to make my debut in this house as the Count in Il barbiere di Siviglia, but I feel so fortunate and thrilled that my first appearance turned out to be in two concert performances of Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles. To be making a debut here was nerve-racking, so thank goodness that it was being done in-concert because having never done the role of Nadir before it meant that I could have the music in front of me. Actually some people criticised me for that, but concertgoers if not opera-goers regard using a score in that way as totally normal, so what can you do?”

In contrast to Nadir the role of Count Almaviva in Rossini’s light-hearted masterpiece is one with which John is very familiar, but that fact did not preclude an element of surprise occurring when he arrived to rehearse under Justin Way who is preparing the latest revival of the production by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier first staged in 2005. John sings in the first six performances before yielding the role to Luciano Botelho. “I believe that this is the nineteenth time I’ve taken up the role and I must have done over 120 performances of it. However, this is the first time that I’ve been involved in a staging where we are really being encouraged to play to the situations in the plot rather than being invited to bring our own shtick into play, all the little hand gestures and stuff that I’m used to putting in. Instead we are being sincere to the situation, letting it be funny in itself rather than playing it up. That’s in the hope that the audience will in consequence be drawn more strongly to the characters and to the artists.” John indicates that in taking this path Justin Way is being true to the approach that Leiser & Caurier brought to the piece originally – to capture the high spirits of the piece rather than treat it as an excuse for gags.

The Count’s first aria ‘Ecco ridente in cielo’ illustrates the demands of the role as it moves from lyric legato to typical Rossini pyrotechnics. “There are little coloratura flutters even early on in the aria and then come those ornamentations that you have to toss off. It’s part of being a Rossini specialist that you have to possess that ability, but I think too that it’s always important to have a beautiful legato.” More unusual when this tenor role is compared with those in other Italian comic operas is the fact that although the Count is the lover who goes a-wooing, his ploys, as instigated by the helpful barber Figaro, involve him in comical scenes of disguise in which he has to pass first as a drunken soldier and then as a music teacher. Even as a lover the Count hides his real identity and he presents himself to the heroine Rosina as a poor man named Lindoro. “There’s this element of playing a part that comes in more than once. With the music master you have to decide exactly what the sound is going to be and then make a clear contrast when going back to your normal voice. But I think that the Count is immature, not well seasoned but a youth who in the beginning wants to believe in himself as a Lindoro, a romantic type, but is actually playing the role. Only later when he gets closer to Rosina does he become the true romantic. With Rossini every single part is virtuosic and that’s a demand made on all the singers, technicians who have to be ready for all the embellishments, the fioritura which sometimes turns your throat to hamburger. Physically you need to have a lot of stamina, and vocally too. But you can’t think too much about that: you just hope that by the time you get to the dress rehearsal you’ve done enough and will have no problems.”

  • Il barbiere di Siviglia – Nine performances at 7 p.m. from Tuesday 18 January to Tuesday 8 February 2011
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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