Playbill: Let's do talk about Rodolfo because everyone has their own romantic vision of what Rodolfo should be onstage. Does that make your task more difficult?
James Valenti: I think it's more challenging in a role like Romeo, the "storybook" romantic lead, but, Rodolfo (for me) is very down-to-earth. He's poor, he's young, he's spontaneous and I don't necessarily think of him as being a romantic leading man. As far as my own interpretation of the character, there are a lot of different singers from the past I listen to: Pavarotti, Bergonzi, Di Stefano, and I try to pull different things from each of those great artists and then make the role my own. I don't try to copy anyone but learn from the best parts of each.
Playbill: So, your vision for Rodolfo is still the poet but, perhaps, a more down-to-earth sort of poet.
Valenti: Yes, exactly.
Playbill: How does it feel to be making your debut at The Dallas Opera?
Valenti: I'm very excited, it's a great American opera company and I'm just happy to have an opportunity to sing here. And it's Texas debut, too, so it's great to see a different part of the country and bring my passion for opera to Dallas. I'm happy to be here.
Playbill: How did you step into the world of opera? Where did it all begin?
Valenti: I started singing pop music in high school, Billy Joel and things like that. Then, I heard a "Three Tenors" concert and decided I wanted to study music in order to be an educator, choral director or something along those lines. However, I had a teacher when I was about 18 who had been an opera singer himself. He really, really encouraged me in this direction and I was exposed to opera more than I ever had before and started going to the theater a lot more. I started buying recordings and eventually became a "sponge." By the time I was 22, I was really starting to find my own voice and began to think that this was something I really, really wanted to do. And these opportunities led to other great opportunities. So, it just worked out. I had great mentors who encouraged me and taught me along the way. People I still keep in close touch with: when anything happens, they're still the people I go to because I know they'll be honest with me about the decisions that I make. I was lucky to have the right people to guide me and help cultivate my talent in the right way.
Playbill: It seems like a very interesting time to be a young artist in opera. We seem to be an art form in transition.
Valenti: I agree! It's a very exciting time and it's exciting for me: as a young artist: to be a part of that because today it's much more about being the complete artist. The voice has to be there, of course, but it's about your skills onstage, being able to "sell" yourself; it's part of the whole package. It's a great experience for me when I have people come, family and friends who've never been to the opera before, and they enter with preconceived notions. They'll see something like Bohme or Butterfly or Traviata and they end up saying, "My God! I don't know it was going to be so thrilling!" And it's exciting for me to be able to break down stereotypes and (back to what you said about being the romantic leading tenor) I'm happy to get to sing roles like the Duke in Rigoletto and Romeo and Rodolfo, and it probably helps that I'm so tall.
Playbill: Onstage, that always helps. Of course, now we're back to those preconceived notions about what Rodolfo should look like and be like. What is it about Puccini that is so magical, particularly in La bohme?
Valenti: Puccini is master of melody and orchestration, a master at being able to take a text and turn it into another world. People often compare Puccini's music to a movie score. There's just something about it; it has such a unique sound that you can almost immediately identify Puccini's music. It has a captivating quality and every time I do Bohme or Butterfly it's such an honor to sing this music. It's so passionate and so exciting and has a tangible mass appeal, especially in a work like Bohme that's filled with young people, living and struggling. The music just adds so much.
Playbill: Where would you like to be ten years from now?
Valenti: I'd like to be healthy, working at the top level with great artists and great people and just continuing what I'm doing now: it's such a blessing! Maybe not travel so much [laughs] and have a little more time for myself. It's a good problem to have, that's for sure! In ten years, I'd like to have a family and be respected and be content with what I have.
Dallas Opera's La bohme plays four performances: Feb 13, 18 and 21 at 7:30 PM and Feb. 15 at 2 PM.
For tickets and information visit Dallas Opera.