Behind the Gold Curtain
TENOR JEREMY LITTLE joined the Metropolitan Opera Chorus in 2008. He had already appeared as a soloist with many of the most prominent opera companies in the United States, and his recording of John Musto’s opera Volpone, released in 2009 by Wolf Trap Opera, had received a Grammy nomination. So how did Mr. Little get from singing solos on the Met stage to being a full-time member of the Met’s chorus? He recently sat down with the Metropolitan Opera's Kamala Schelling to discuss his training, his career trajectory, and his insights on maintaining vocal health as a full-time singer.
KS: How did you get to the Met? What was your journey to get here?
JL: I grew up on a farm in Mississippi, and I began my training there and in Louisiana before coming to New York as a student. I went to Juilliard and started pursuing a career as an opera soloist. In fact, I sang at the Met as a soloist before I ever thought of joining the chorus! I sang some small solo parts in Verdi’s Ernani and Prokofiev’s The Gambler in 2008, and then then Met invited me to come back and do some more solo roles the following year. But by then, I was getting tired of constantly auditioning and traveling, and I had some friends in the chorus, so I decided to audition. The chorus is a more stable job; it requires less travel.
When I first auditioned, they told me they didn’t have any full-time spots, so I figured I’d keep doing solo stuff until someone retired. That was in November or December; the following April, a tenor unexpectedly retired. I was invited to audition, and I got the spot. Which was incredibly lucky, because it was four or five seasons until another full-time tenor position opened up.
KS: How many operas are you performing in this year?
JL: I usually sing in around 20 operas per year. When I was a soloist, five or six different operas in a season was a lot. As a soloist, you go somewhere for several weeks at a time, rehearsing and performing a single opera. And then you move on to the next place. Also, if you get a reputation for being good at a specific role, you’ll be asked to sing that role in multiple houses. So you sing the same operas a lot.
When I first joined the Met Chorus, and I had to learn 20 different operas in a single season, it was a huge change for me. But Maestro Donaldo Palumbo [the Met’s chorus master] was very understanding. He sat down with me and explained, “There are four operas coming up in the next three weeks that you’ve never done but that everyone in the chorus already knows well. Since we’re not going to do a lot of rehearsal, you should focus on these parts in particular.” By my third or fourth season, I was getting into a good groove. I had learned how to pace myself. This is my 11th season with the chorus, and I no longer feel like I’m trying to drink out of a fire hydrant—although the work is still non-stop.
KS: Let’s turn to Der Fliegende Holländer. Do you remember the first time you saw this opera?
JL: The first time I saw Der Fliegende Holländer was at the Met. I went to a pre-show reception, sat down in my seat—and realized there was no intermission. And I began to panic because I hadn’t gone to the bathroom before the show! But the show was so engrossing that time ended up passing really quickly.
KS: What role does the chorus play in this opera?
JL: With each new production, all kinds of things—both large and small—can change significantly. For instance, last time we performed The Flying Dutchman, the men in the chorus played sailors on Daland’s ship and villagers from Daland’s hometown, while the women played Senta’s friends. There were also ghostly sailors played by supernumeraries (onstage performers who don’t sing). This time around, the new production has no supernumeraries; the director uses dancers instead. As for the chorus, we portray the various inhabitants of the land that the Dutchman comes to visit: sailors, fishermen, blacksmiths, etc.
KS: So what kind of villager will you be?
JL: I don’t know yet. I won’t find out until my costume fitting.
KS: Wow, I never realized you had to wait until your costume fitting to find out which role you play! So when is the costume fitting? How many months before you start rehearsing do you find out which character you’ll be?
JL: Sometimes you find out at the end of the previous season because the costume designer is in town. In the middle of the summer, we usually get an email telling us which vocal parts we’ll be responsible for. And then once the season starts, things move incredibly quickly.
KS: What is a typical day in the life of a Met Chorus member?
JL: Our day is divided into three big chunks of time. In the mornings, we have a rehearsal, either on the stage or in the orchestra room on C Level, three floors below the stage. The afternoon slot is less frequently used, so we often have this time off, although sometimes we have to go to another staging or music rehearsal. But we are never onstage during the afternoon, because that’s when the stage hands are preparing the sets for the evening performance. And then in the evening, we perform.
It’s a very busy schedule, and it means that our days are incredibly eclectic. For instance, you might rehearse the staging for a Rossini opera in the morning, then rehearse the music for a Russian opera and a Puccini opera and some Verdi in the afternoon, and then perform a French opera in the evening. Sometimes I have to rehearse and perform six or eight different shows in a single day.
KS: How do you make the mental (and vocal) switch from Rossini to Puccini to a Russian opera to a French opera when you have to sing them all back-to-back?
JL: I’d had top-tier training in languages and musical styles in school, but it wasn’t until I was here and working on a daily basis with Maestro Palumbo that all of that really clicked for me. After a couple of seasons, I really felt like I knew not only how each style should be performed but also how to move vocally from one style to the next. Around this time, the nuances and intricacies of the many languages we perform in also really crystallized for me. I once heard an anecdote—I don’t know if this is true, but even if it isn’t, it’s a great metaphor for learning different musical styles—that when people are being trained to spot a counterfeit dollar bill, they don’t look at fake versions. Instead, they study the real version in such minute detail that when they see something “off,” they can spot it immediately. Similarly, in the chorus, you practice refining your technique for each different musical style. And then, after a few years of this incredibly intense study, when something is wrong stylistically, it stands out to you.
KS: With so much singing, how do you keep your voice healthy?
JL: I’ve had to learn to pace myself, learn when to sing and when not to. In the chorus, we run things over and over and over, and it can be incredibly vocally taxing. So you learn when to mark, when to sing more softly, etc. I’ve learned to always keeping track of how my voice is feeling on any given day. And I’ve also learned that what really matters is the performance: If you need to sing less for a rehearsal, that’s ok. Maestro Palumbo likes to say, “Never sing beyond the point of beauty. If at 85% you sound great, but at 86% you start to push, go back to 85%. It’s easy to get caught up in the emotions and passions of singing, but backing off can actually help you sound better.”
You also need to take care of yourself physically. When the body gets tired, the breath gets tired. You start to sing, and your breath just collapses. So by taking care of your body, you can take care of your singing, as well.
KS: Is there anything you’d recommend to a student interested in following in your footsteps?
JL: The singers in the Chorus are very accomplished—we have conservatory grads, singers that have gone to top-tier apprentice programs, singers that performed principal roles at major opera houses—and nearly all of us had careers as soloists before joining. So the caliber of our singers is really incredible. It’s a very competitive position. But there are also people in the chorus who were doing something totally different, and then they came in and had a wonderful audition. Maestro Palumbo focuses on getting great voices rather than just great resumes.
Choral music was my first love, and opera happened to be where the doors opened. And there are a lot of us with histories like that. What’s interesting, though, is that we don’t have anybody who set out to do a choral career. So I would say that if students are interested in joining the Met Chorus, they should focus on their solo singing. We are a collection of soloists. Learn to sing as a soloist, develop your solo voice. And also know that people have a lot of training before they join the chorus, and a lot of singing experience. We aren’t a group of young singers. We’re a group of experienced singers who have chosen to pursue this kind of singing.
Also know that if you go to college, you don’t have to get a degree in music. All that really matters for being a performer is how well you can perform. If you love opera, give it all you’ve got. Practice so that you can continue to grow and learn. Do it for the art. The art isn’t just there to be pretty—it should be challenging. Be better every time you sing.