Artist Profile: James Callon

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James Callon with Fellowship sponsor Catherine Bullock.

“All good singing begins with the voice,” says second year resident James Callon,” but, in any real opera performance, good singing and effective acting are always intertwined.”

A Catherine Bullock Fellow, James hails from Southern California and from a musical family that lived in a home filled with music. “My dad played trumpet in high school and my grandfather sang barbershop,” he said. All through elementary school James sang in the school choir, and, while in the fourth grade, participated in a televised singing tribute to the then recently-late Danny Thomas. Only days before this event, James surprised his parents by climbing high in their avocado tree for a little practice. As he sang the lyrics to “O Danny Boy” in his young soprano, both parents turned to each other in wonder and plainly asked the other, “Where did that come from?” From that moment on, it was plain to see that music and performance would play a big part in James’ life.

As a freshman in high school he played the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, wearing a hot, furry costume and carrying a cardboard grin.“I liked being on the stage, performing. I was a theater geek, as well as a jock in high school. I played football, baseball, ran track, and even took karate my sophomore year. I had good roles in the school productions. I played a Russian dance instructor in You Can’t Take It With You, and Juror No.8 in a touring show of Twelve Angry Men. In the spring musicals, I played Doody in Grease and the title role in Bye, Bye Birdie. Eventually, my friends from the football team came out to support me. Some of them even started participating onstage. In my senior year, our team’s quarterback was one of the leads and almost all the cheerleaders took part, as well. It was a lot of fun! Playing sports has definitely benefitted my acting in the opera roles that are a bit more physical. Those are fun roles,” he said.

James attended U.C. Irvine, majoring in Vocal Performance. “When you begin to study music, especially singing, you learn a lot by ‘mimicry.’ Although it’s not necessary to share the same voice-type as one’s teacher, I find that I learn best from tenors.” He added, “Incidentally, I believe that tenors have the most fickle instruments. That is to say, because of the nature of their voices, theirs’ seem to be some of the least predictable. But, with the right teacher, hard work, and a healthy imagination, most of us can do some really top-notch singing any day of the week.”

Following graduation, James sought opportunities to perform. He spent six seasons with Orange County Opera, an outreach group that condenses a show from the standard opera repetoire to half an hour, translates it into English, adds extra humor as necessary, and travels with its collapsible sets, giving performances to elementary schools as far north of Orange County as Pasadena and as far south as Dana Point. Then, from 2007 to 2010, he sang in the Los Angeles Opera Chorus, making his LA Opera debut as Giuseppe in La Traviata and Tenor Vassal in Göetterdäemmerung. During this time, James also was a member of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, singing as tenor soloist in Handel’s Messiah and the Mozart Requiem. In June of 2008, he made an audition DVD which he sent to Tulsa Opera in Oklahoma and, subsequently, joined their Studio Artists program from 2009-11.

James has taken part in singing competitions, as well. In 2004 he won First Place in the National Association of Teachers of Singing’s Young Artist Auditions, Apprentice Division and, in 2008, took second place in N.A.T.S.’ Career Division. In 2011, he was a grant recipient of the Los Angeles chapter of Opera Buffs and, most recently, was a finalist in the Irene Dalis Vocal Competition this past May, 2013.

In 2011 James auditioned in New York for Opera San José. Last season, as a first year resident, he sang the roles of Nadir in The Pearl Fishers, Eisenstein in Die Fledermaus, Manrico in Il trovatore, and Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi. This season he sings the role of Fenton, a young lover, in Falstaff. “Tenors usually play young lovers, good guys, heroes,” he says. In Hansel and Gretel he will play the Witch, “a role usually sung by a mezzo soprano,” and in Madama Butterfly he will sing the role of Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton. “I am very much looking forward to singing this role,” he says. “I sang excerpts of Butterfly for Los Angeles Opera and Tulsa Opera during the past few years. I can’t wait to put those past experiences to good use here at Opera San José.” In Don Giovanni James will sing Don Ottavio.

The process of rehearsals and shows gets him going. He loves what he’s doing and where he’s doing it. “What’s best about Opera San José is that it gives us residents the opportunity to sing major roles in a gorgeous space with good acoustics,” he says. “The California Theatre is an awesome venue.”

To date, his favorite roles are Manrico in Il trovatore, and Alfredo in La traviata, which he sang for Rogue Opera in Medford, Oregon. “Someday I would like to sing the Duke, in Rigoletto,” he says. “It is one of the few roles where the tenor is a villain. And I think we can all agree that every good story needs a villain.”

James’ favorite male singers are Jussi Böerling, Fritz Wunderlich, and Carlo Bergonzi, all tenors, now deceased, with the exception of Mr. Bergonzi who turns 89 years-old on July 13th. The sopranos he most admires are Maria Callas and Montserrat Caballe. “Caballe did the best Norma. Her ‘Casta Diva’ is amazing. Great singers use their voices to emphasize the drama of what they are performing. However, it can be very difficult to keep the drama from taking over. It is an extraordinary balancing act for us onstage; singing and acting as beautifully as possible in order to draw in the audience for a truly spectacular, viscerally emotional experience. If the balance isn’t there the singer can be swept up in the emotion and he or she may lose the voice,” he said.
James Callon says nothing feels as good as singing well. ”It is a high without the guilt. I can feel when I’ve sung well and, when I hear the audience applauding, I know I’ve done my job. Excellent singing honors the audience, the composers, and everyone who supports us in our art. Every night onstage, we go on an emotional journey in the hopes that the audience will come along. If we all do our part, both onstage and out in the house, we will all truly have a night to remember.”