“Born into music” is how Zachary Altman, a first-year OSJ resident baritone, describes his childhood. The Philadelphia native knew all the words to Evita when he was nine. He performed in his high school’s musicals and at sixteen he was selected for Julliard’s weekend program for high school students. He sang an aria from Don Carlos for the audition, his first experience with opera. “Everything I’ve learned since– theory, diction, singing lessons, doing scenes from operas, all built on what I got in that program,” Altman says. “Julliard also taught me about rejection. When I was a graduating senior I applied to eleven conservatories and only Julliard turned me down.” He eventually went to the Manhattan School of Music where he earned his Bachelor of Music in 2007, and his Master of Music in 2009.
After graduation, Altman auditioned as much as he could and he sang with several companies. He first learned about OSJ from Alex Boyer, a fellow student at the Manhattan School, who was headed to San Jose for an audition. When Altman heard OSJ was auditioning baritones he applied, and was soon invited to join the resident ensemble. He holds the W. Gibson Walters Memorial Fellowship and the Don and Jan Schmidek Fellowship at Opera San José.
Although he had previously sung in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, Altman says it’s really hard to adjust to California attitudes. “Everyone is so happy.” The roles he sings this season with OSJ make him happy, too. He recently appeared as Zurga in The Pearl Fishers and Dr. Falke in Die Fledermaus, and will soon perform the roles of Count de Luna in Il trovatore, and the title role in Gianni Schicchi.
When he prepares for a role, Altman gets coaching and sets himself deadlines. “Learning the music is comfortable for me, but singing, the technical part, is hard. Every day I spend time and energy learning how to sing,” he said. A perfectionist, “I do not meet my own standards for being a good singer. One must always strive to do better, be perfect. For me, it’s a process.”
“This is true for all kinds of music. I take pop music seriously, too.” In addition to performing, he taught musical theater and pop singing in Manhattan to professional singers. He continues to love pop singing as much as opera. “Jennifer Hudson is probably the most vocally gifted pop singer I’ve ever heard. Beyonce and Adam Lambert are extraordinary,” he said.Altman’s favorite opera singers are Audra MacDonald and the late Leonard Warren, also a baritone, like him. His favorite role so far is Don Giovanni. “Acting and performance are a big part of that role, which makes it fun,” he said. His dream roles are Macbeth and Sweeney Todd in those operas. “Sondheim does not think Sweeney Todd is an opera, but I do,” he said.
“My favorite operas are Salome and Tosca. I like loud singing, fat people in big costumes, smoke. I love both old school and American opera.” He believes there is a middle ground between opera and musical theater. Two examples are The Light in the Piazza and The Wild Party.”
Altman spent a month in Germany perfecting his spoken (and sung) German for opera. “Roles in German are easier for me than Italian roles. All the people I seriously work with are in New York, and some of my lessons are on Skype. Marlena Malas, my teacher for eight years in New York, helped my professional growth enormously, and I benefited a great deal from Marilyn Horne’s program in Santa Barbara. That was an eight-week intensive and selective workshop that I did for three years,” he said.
“Opera San José is so supportive of our careers! I was able to do a show with the Gotham Chamber Opera in Manhattan, for which I’m very grateful. Opera is a great way to live!” Altman added.
He enjoys the outreach and community involvement which is part of the residents’ commitment to OSJ. He and Rebecca Krouner taught a master class at a local junior high school. “The kids were doing Beauty and the Beast and we did some coaching,” he said.
Ultimately, Altman hopes to run a company. “This profession puts us in touch with people we would never meet otherwise, and some I’ve met might become involved. The most difficult obstacle I would need to overcome is momentum, making every year more successful than the last. That is what makes a success.”