Classical Music FeaturesThe Winding Career Path of Zachary James: From Musical Theatre to Opera, Then Back Again, Then Back…Again
November 19, 2019
The Broadway alum makes his Metropolitan Opera debut in Philip Glass' Akhnaten.
Zachary James says he gets it when I tell him his résumé gives me whiplash. He entered college to continue his marching band days from high school. Then musical theatre came calling. As he studied musical theatre, opera struck a chord. While he performed opera, Broadway cast him. Once he bowed on Broadway, Philip Glass wrote a role for him.
The bass-baritone has become a 21st Century Glass fixture, so to speak, having appeared in seven productions of his operas, starting with playing a robot Abraham Lincoln in the world premiere of The Perfect American. His most recent Glass endeavor marks another milestone—his Metropolitan Opera debut—in the Met premiere of Akhnaten, running through December 7. James plays the spoken role of Amenhotep, the title Egyptian Pharaoh's beyond-the-tomb father figure. He also has to juggle.
While his feet are (for now) planted solidly in the professional opera realm, James' longstanding collaboration with Glass and director Phelim McDermott calls back to his Broadway days, most notably as Lurch in the McDermott-helmed musical adaptation of The Addams Family. In the interview below, he traces his steps and reflects on toeing the line between theatre and opera, including his surreal a cappella audition in the Glass house, how a no from Tilda Swinton meant a yes from him, and fighting the good fight on Instagram.
You started by studying musical theatre—how’d that lead you to opera? Zachary James: I started at Florida State University [studying percussion], transferred to Ithaca College, and ended up getting a musical theatre degree there. While there I was doing summerstock—Bucks County Playhouse, before it became an equity house. We did about eight shows that summer, and I was playing Coach Dunbar in Footloose, and was like, “Oh no, I hate musical theatre. It's terrible.” I went to my voice teacher and said I was going to quit, and she said, “No, you're not quitting. You have two years left, you're going to get your degree.” She and another teacher took me under their wing and started training me classically on the side while I finished my degree. I did operas, which was kind of controversial at the time because theatre students hadn't crossed over into the music school. I had to get all this permission from teachers.
No offense to Footloose, but what was it about classical rep that spoke to you in a way musicals didn’t? Classical music has just been in my vocabulary almost since birth. My dad’s a classical jazz guitarist, and he put me in piano lessons when I was four. My mom listened to the broadcast from the Met every Saturday. Musical theatre was this fun, shiny thing when I first discovered it. In high school, I heard the full recording of Ragtime and lost my mind. But the challenges in opera, to have to learn new skills like new languages, and then the really exciting music—especially orchestrally, what’s underneath you in an opera—is like riding a tidal wave.
At what point did you start exploring opera beyond school? As a junior college—that summer I got cast in a world premiere opera in Italy [Il Sogno, based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream]. It was my first huge opera, and I was singing Italian for an Italian audience. I had language training, and I had no idea what i was doing. That’s the theme of the next chapter of me for opera [including a grad school stint at University of Tennessee]: I was faking a lot of it and just using my stage skills that I did feel confident in—acting, movement, and dance, things that opera singers weren’t trained in. I ended up being discouraged by opera. I was dabbling a bit and doing some small regional things, and an artistic director of an opera company said, “What are you doing here? You don't fit. You should move to New York and audition for Broadway.”
And so you did? So I did. I got Coram Boy. I moved to New York six months before. I was singing classically—Handel’s Messiah— on stage in a choir. That’s how I got my Equity Card. That access was just gold. The first call I went to with my Equity Card was a chorus call for South Pacific. I got to be in that stunning revival for over a year, and once again singing classically on Broadway, to be a part of that show with Bart Sher directing, plus Kelli O'Hara, Danny Burstein, and Paulo Szot [all three of whom have also appeared on the Metropolitan Opera stage]. Then I did the first workshop of The Addams Family. We did two years of readings and workshops. Andrew Lippa said, “I want to write this cool song for Lurch where it spoofs Verdi. It would be like Sparafucile in Rigoletto.” So it was my third Broadway show, but still this undercurrent of classical music.
Is that how your connection to Phelim McDermott began? Yes—it’s through that I got into opera full time professionally. I’d been a huge fan of his from the Met; he was on my radar. Right after The Addams Family closed, he asked me to audition for Philip Glass. It was for this opera called The Perfect American, and they needed someone who was theatrically trained—who had movement and dance training—to play [an animatronic] Abraham Lincoln at Disneyland. It was singing opera, but like, doing the robot.
What was that audition like? I went to Philip’s house on the Lower East Side, which was so bizarre. Philip answered the door, and I’m in a suit because it was an opera audition, and he’s in jeans and a T-shirt. He’s like, “Come in, let’s talk for a while.” We’re sitting on his couch talking about theatre and music. He confessed to me, “I really like working with theatre people because they’re actors.” I thought was really cool for the father of modern music to say. Then he said, “I guess you could sing for me, but I don’t feel like playing. Could you sing a cappella?”
No pressure. Right. Like, “Yeah, Philip Glass, I’ll do that for you.” It was wild. He just sat in a chair in the corner and listened, then said, “I'm going to write this whole opera for the cast that's selected, and I’d love to work with you,” then showed me out. I got a contract a few days later and that was the beginning of that relationship. We did that show three times [Madrid, London, and Brisbane]. Then with Akhnaten, Phelim called me up and asked me, “What are you doing next week? Can you come to London—and do you know how to juggle?” I was like, “Yeah, I can come, and I will learn how to juggle.”
Why was it such a sudden offer? Amenhotep is this weird role: It’s a huge speaking role, but you have to be a musician because it’s all timed out over a huge orchestra. They asked John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton, and both of them turned it down; their only idea was to get a celeb for it. No one knew what to do, but they thought of me, and it was so flattering. I went to London, they handed me the score on the first day of rehearsal, and I learned it.
Picking up special skills quickly and learning the material as you rehearse it—that sounds more like musical theatre than opera. Everything has been trial by fire and piecing together a career, but with the skills and knowledge coming from musical theatre. I just went in for a TV audition yesterday. The whiplash kind of remains, and I like that, but it's also a challenge.
Occasional TV work is also more of a musical theatre performer trait than it is for opera singers. Why is it important for you to hold onto that? I think staying flexible and versatile in this age is necessary for every artist. We don’t just have pop artists; pop artists are in movies and doing whatever they want. Look at Lady Gaga. We have these examples of the best entertainers, and they’re doing everything. So why can’t we as opera singers also do TV and film and musical theatre? Renée Fleming has been on Broadway a couple times now. We have these people who are doing it, but it's not mainstream. It’s all kind of the same skills; it's all telling a story.
What’s the bigger leap for you: stage versus screen acting or musical theatre versus opera singing? The musical theatre singing versus opera singing requires more diligence and focus, because you just can’t sing them the same way. I really miss eight shows a week.
Wait, really? Everyone thinks I’m crazy when I say that. It’s the comfort level of eight a week. I remember both South Pacific and The Addams Family. Six months in I was like, “This is so cool and relaxed. I’m just at work, but we're on a Broadway stage.” But with opera, every single night feels like opening night because you have days off. I’ve done operas where we do one performance only. We rehearse for three weeks for one performance in a huge theatre. The pressure of that was insane. The pressure of opera in general is over the top. We really couldn’t do eight performances of Akhnaten a week. We had one last night, and I feel like i was hit by a truck.
When you’re revisiting the same opera over the years or doing eight shows a week, do you find it an opportunity to evolve and explore different choices or as a practice in maintaining what you’ve already established? Physically it's a maintenance thing, especially Akhnaten, because the show's so physical. When I'm looking at three months before the show, I’m like, “OK buddy, you gotta stretch every day starting now.” I was 34 when we first staged the show, and I’m going to be 38 next month. My knees are like, “Hey, are we still doing this show?” But that’s the maintenance side of it. There is an evolution to the music with others on stage. Only Anthony Roth Costanzo and I from the principal cast have done every show, so we are challenged by new colleagues each time we do it. That really deepens the connection to the material and to the community on stage. That’s kind of a Broadway skill. When covers go on or replacements go in, you’re used to being flexible and remaining alert. So I’m thankful for that. That’s a little rare in opera, because you do have to come in memorized. A lot of people come in with their full performance ready to go, and they’re trying to just plug into each other and it’s not working because they’re not flexible. It’s a little less collaborative.
With the turns your career has taken, how do you balance feeling artistically fulfilled and taking things out of professional necessity? There’s this quote: “Go where you’re celebrated, not where you’re tolerated.” That always guided me. That was on a professor’s door at Ithaca. I had just arrived there after transferring from Florida State, and I felt that deeply when I read that. It’s been back and forth of looking for a challenge and emotional fulfillment, and also “Who’s going to hire me? Who’s going to get me through this year?" Sometimes it’s meant musical theatre; sometimes it’s meant stringing together many many regional operas. But it’s also about exploring all the territory to find what I like. I did a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan, and going into it I was like, “God, this is so hokey,” but then I loved it so much and had a wonderful time hearing the audience laugh with classical music. Then I went into Verdi and realized it was more challenging than fun—it was very stressful. So I’m overturning these rocks and seeing what’s there.
Are theatregoers overturning those rocks with you? How can opera get new audiences? I think the opera world really needs to embrace the digital age. A lot of companies are doing it, but a lot aren’t. We have to engage. The primary message anyone in opera needs to put out is it’s affordable and accessible. You don’t need to know the language; you don’t have to dress up. I had some people at Akhnaten the other night, and it was their first time in the Met. They go to every Broadway show and it’s like, “Guys! How have you never been in this building?” There are these stereotypes. A lot of people think you need to dress up and study the show beforehand. Nobody has time to study a three-and-a-half-hour opera, so you should be able to show up to any opera not knowing anything about it, wearing whatever you want. And we have to reach out and find people where they are.
Beyond this institutional change, what are you doing on an individual level to ensure that? One of my favorite things is just connecting with new audiences on Instagram, because they find us there and they’re eager to touch the process and know more. Also, I think it’s really important when there's a dress rehearsal and we get free tickets, I try to reach people who otherwise wouldn’t go. When people come in the doors and experience it, they usually like it. I have a younger brother; he and his fiancée had never been to the opera, and they flew out to see me in Iowa in Rusalka. They went home to Florida and said they bought tickets to see something in Tampa. It made me so happy, like, “Oh, we did our job. You touched it, you like it, and now you're going out and finding it in your own community.” When I’m with opera companies regionally, I strike up conversation in the grocery store or whatever, and people are like, “Oh, I didn't even know we had an opera company in our town.” Come out and see it, check it out!
What advice would you give to those who find themselves at a similar crossroads as you were? So many people told me no at every crossroad. From the moment I said I wanted to do anything on stage, people said no. My first voice teacher told me I’d never be an opera singer. The first person I told I wanted to be an actor told me to do something more realistic. You have to trust your gut and heart and go where you know you’re supposed to be. And when people say no, use it as motivation to get over that hurdle and keep going. It’s hard, and there are so many sacrifices along the way, but you have to find your people and those who want to dream with you and support you and believe in you. And sometimes you have to be your own best friend because a lot of days it’s just you and your audition book. It’s hard, but to be a part of an artistic community and to share such extraordinary work with an audience, there’s nothing like that.