Jonah Hoskins, tenor, may be playing the part of Sailor in Tristan und Isolde, but he doesn’t consider himself a Wagnerian.
“It’s a small role,” he says. “I’m a young sailor. It’s a beautiful piece of music, and I have a couple of solos. But I think they just needed someone who could sing the notes and look the part.
“I don’t think I’m going to be cast as a Wagnerian singer any time soon. My voice sits a lot higher. Most Wagnerian tenors are baritones who can sing high. You have to be able to sing over a huge orchestra and still sound good. The stamina you need for a four-hour opera is insane. Almost nobody can sing it.”
He saw his first opera by Wagner in 2021. “It was Die Meistersinger at the Met, and I honestly expected not to like it. It was one of my favorite performances ever. It is very dramatic, driven by music and the text. Everything is there for a reason. It’s not like bel canto opera where they repeat the same words 40 or 50 times in one aria. It keeps moving.”
Ironically, bel canto is Hoskins’ turf, musically speaking. (“My voice likes to move.”) And in The Barber of Seville this summer, his voice is happily occupied. He is singing in the chorus and covering the lead role, Count Almaviva. (He’s also in the choruses of Carmen and Falstaff). He has been working on Almaviva with Carol Anderson, a vocal coach. “There is a melisma [musical run] in a duet with Figaro at the end of Act 1. There are all these triplets, and I find it hard to get them even. Carol taught me a little trick. You emphasize the second note in each triplet and then the notes come out right. It works!”
Hoskins, who is fortunate to already have been assigned cover roles at the Metropolitan Opera (in addition to covering, he is guaranteed one performance as Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore in April 2023 at the Met) as a member of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. He chose to return for his second year as a Santa Fe Opera apprentice because it feels like a summer vacation — with great coaching. He was excited to be offered the cover of Count Almaviva, a leading male role in Barber. “I get to really take a look at the part, to deepen my knowledge.”
Also, after two years in New York City, he was happy to be back in New Mexico. “Big cities are not really my cup of tea. Plus, I have a big dog [Ruth, an Australian Kelpie], and she loves to hike here.”
In Santa Fe, he works with the language coaches Hemdi Kfir for Italian, and Marianne Barrett for German. “I sing a lot in Italian. I like the open vowels. You can make big sounds, but it’s hard for me to get the phrasing right. ... But when I sing Donizetti, the coach at the Met will say, ‘What language was that?’ and I’ll say, ‘That was supposed to be Italian.’ It’s my worst language, but we’re working on it. It just hasn’t clicked yet.”
German is a bit more natural for Hoskins. “The way they stress words is familiar. I like to dig into the consonants.”
Hoskins studied with two teachers in Salt Lake City, where he grew up, was a boy soprano in the Salt Lake Children’s Choir, and then attended Brigham Young University. “My first teacher, Isaac Hurtado, was so excited about great voices and about opera that it was hard not to get excited with him. He made it seem alive and relevant, not some tired old form from the past. He was detailed and specific. He talked about singing scientifically. He would videotape you from the side so you could see what your throat was doing.”
At BYU, Darrell Babidge had a different approach. “He was all about metaphors. He prided himself in not being pedagogical. He believes that using scientific language does not translate into a better sound.” Per Babidge’s instruction, Hoskins would slide down a couch, hug a music stand on his knees, or walk across chairs that were slightly too far apart — all while singing. “He wanted to free up the body so that you weren’t thinking about making a good sound. You were just letting it come out.”
In 2020, Hoskins missed all his midterms because he was in New York during the finals of the Met auditions. (The Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, founded in 1954, are now called the Eric and Dominique Laffont Competition). Representing the Rocky Mountain Region, he sang, ‘Ah! Mes amis’ (from La Fille du Regiment), the aria with nine high C’s — and added a few more for good measure. He also sang “Dalla sua pace,” from Don Giovanni but wasn’t thrilled with his transition into the lower registers of his voice after living in the highest parts in the previous aria. That didn’t seem to bother the judges, however. He was one of five Grand Final Winners. So the plan to attend graduate school was derailed by an offer from the Met. “After I won, I was asked to audition for the Lindemann program and was accepted.” He is in his third year. “You don’t get a degree, but within the opera world, it is better than a graduate program: everyone understands the kind of training you received.”
Hoskins considers opera competitions valuable experiences for future auditions. “You get to pick the first aria, then they pick another one from a list you’ve given them. It’s a good way to see if your audition package is successful — if people like what you’re doing.” He traveled to Moscow in 2021 for Operalia, the international opera competition, and lost to a Russian mezzo and a Peruvian tenor but shared second place with an Armenian soprano and another tenor from Uzbekistan. The finals were broadcast on television, and his parents and family watched back in Utah. “I felt really good going into the finals, but Plácido Domingo was conducting [he is the founder of the festival], and he took it so slow that it was hard to keep the aria going and be exciting.”
He called home after and appreciated the honesty of family members who said, “We don’t think you did very well.” Still, he made it to the finals in a field of more than 40, placing highest of any American. At least 1,000 singers apply to the prestigious competition every year. “Operalia opened a lot of doors,” he says. “It helped my manager find me, and a lot of people know who I am now.”
As an American, the tenor relishes singing in English and exploring roles in new English-language operas. “The stories are more current, and the characters are more complex.” He saw Fire Shut Up In My Bones, Hamlet, and Eurydice last year at the Met, all contemporary productions in English, and looks forward to the return of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking after its New York debut during the 2020-21 Metropolitan Opera season was canceled because of the pandemic. Although it was a passion for musical theater that brought him to voice lessons back in Salt Lake City, he loves everything by Stephen Sondheim. And he once told friends that if he were ever cast to play the lead in the Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen, he would quit opera. But his “pop belt” is not what it once was. “I’m getting worse and worse at it.”