Adam Diegel has made a home for himself with opera companies around the world. He’s performed in Wagner’s Das Rheingold at the Metropolitan Opera, sung Don José in Bizet’s Carmen with San Francisco, and will appear with Nashville Opera this weekend, starring as Lieutenant Pinkerton in the season opening production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.
Will: Singing Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly has become one of your signature roles. We regularly see mature caucasian actresses sing the role of the 15-year-old Cio-Cio San. But even as we live in an era with colorblind casting, there’s something unique about being a half-German / half-Korean artist singing a role that embodies the worst of American / Western imperialism. Is your approach to the role made any different by your heritage or is it simply a matter of playing the part?
Diegel: A little bit of both. It’s funny… the irony… my father is American-German and my mother is Korean and they met while he was stationed in Korea. I’m the youngest of two and we moved to the states when I was two years old. There’s not a lot of my life that can relate to Korean culture, although I obviously know so much about Korean culture.
I don’t, for better for worse, see myself as Korean, mostly American. And it is, especially these days in opera and other art forms, not requisite, but kind of ‘heavy air quotes’ preferred that the person look like the role.
My only answer or rationalization for this is that the voice has to speak before the aesthetics, the physical aesthetics. Puccini is known for a really, really deep and full orchestra sound. And you need a voice that can carry over 70 instruments in the orchestra pit. There’s a lot of brass, there’s a lot of winds, they’re all doubled, which just intensifies the sound. And if you don’t have a voice with the quality to really carry through the orchestra, it seems a little lackluster.
Pinkerton is a lieutenant and he’s supposed to be this strong character type. And, for me, the voice has to match that. So there’s that aural aesthetic, if you will, and then there’s just the sheer physical prowess of someone’s voice. It’s a really tough position for companies to be in, but that’s how I approach it.
Will: You’ve played Pinkerton in the Metropolitan Opera’s Anthony Minghella production of Madame Butterfly and with at least six other companies around the world. What it’s like to rehearse a role you’re so intimately familiar with for a new company? Do you find something new in him or is it more molding the character to a new director’s vision?
Diegel: I like to learn something new on every production. Rarely do you get to work with the same director or the same conductor even twice in two or three years. So it’s always interesting. I always look for something new that I haven’t experienced or heard from a director or a conductor. And it helps me to bring something new to that production and in those performances. Even if I didn’t do that, there’s always someone in the audience who’s never heard Madame Butterfly before. It’s my job to present Pinkerton or whatever character it is to the best of my ability and to the best of the storyline’s abilities for that audience member.
Will: You spent much of your young life in Memphis, Tennessee. Can you pinpoint what made you fall in love with opera? Was there a composer, a singer, or a work that made you think “Yup, that’s for me”?
Diegel: Well, I wasn’t actually exposed to a lot of what Memphis is known for: the blues. My father was in the military. Before moving to Memphis, we lived in Germany for two years in Virginia for two years. He was a big classical music fan and my mother was a classical ballet dancer. So there was always an emphasis more on the classical side of music. She was a big opera fan and he always had the CDs or cassettes back in the day that just had opera hits, certain duets or certain arias.
He bought one of the first Three Tenors recordings – Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras. I just remember hearing that music and just thinking that it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard in my life. And with their ability to communicate that music, it just really spoke to me. I remember hearing the Butterfly duet, “Bimba, dagli occhi pieni di malia,” and playing that over and over and over and just thinking, “I have no idea what these people are talking about, but it’s gorgeous.” And so I think, even if I was exposed to other types of music, it’s the one that resonated, no pun intended, the most with me.
It’s interesting that this music has lasted and survived 300 years in some cases. It’s timeless. The themes are timeless, harmonies are timeless, and the resolutions, I mean, everything. I think that’s where it just kind of everything kind of clicked.
I never had an ambition to sing music or opera. I started really, really late, when I was 24, with an appreciation for opera. I met a teacher in Memphis who heard the potential and she said, “You know what? You can definitely do this.” So we gave it a go.
Will: Is there a production or performance you recall just standing in the wings and hearing a castmate sing and pinching yourself while thinking “Damn, I’m actually here and doing this”?
Diegel: Probably Wagner’s Das Rheingold at the Met. The cast was Stephanie Blythe, Bryn Terfel, Dwayne Croft. Every single night. It was so kind of surreal. And even the first day of rehearsal. You’re standing there amongst Wagnerian gods. It’s one of those moments where you remember it like it was yesterday. And you kind of questions like, how did that even just happen? You dream of certain things happening and then that realization happens and you’re just like, wow, you hope that you say the right things.
Will: You’ve stated that you look forward to singing weightier tenor roles, including more Wagner. Is there a bucket list you’ve got going? Perhaps a top three of the operatic Everests you’d like to summit in your career?
Diegel: Well, I’m actually going to proverbially summit two of those this coming season. I’ve always wanted to sing Manrico in Il Trovatore and I’ve always wanted to sing Radames in Aida, and I’m doing both of those later this year. I’m over the moon. I also really want to do Otello and I really want to sing Siegmund (in Wagner’s Die Walküre). Parsifal is really interesting to me and Lohengrin is as well.
I think it’s kind of where my voice wants to go – the more Germanic route. Oh, and also Florestan in Fidelio would be a really, really interesting role for me. Probably that one more than anyone, especially given kind of the times we’re living in? Being imprisoned unjustly.
It’s really an exciting adventure. I’m learning those roles right now, Manrico and Radames. When you do a deep dives into those roles, into the music, it’s just unbelievable how you have one composer writing two different – almost completely different – musical structures for Manrico and Radames. They’re completely different roles. It’s fascinating.
Will: Finally, opera can be intimidating for newcomers who aren’t familiar with the form. They think it will be difficult to understand, that the music isn’t for them, or that they don’t belong. Do you have any advice for opera novices?
Diegel: I don’t want to speak for the company, but I would think that they would say
Come as you are and dress how you will.
I think the best approach, if you’ve never heard an opera before, if you feel compelled to, go to YouTube and look up whatever particular opera you’re going to. Just type in whatever opera name and then add “full opera” and there’s at least five or six examples of that opera being performed in different venues. That way you can kind of get an idea of what you’re in for.
But I think the most important is to come with an open mind and an open heart. I think once we place stereotypes or have a kind of preconceived idea, you know, “It’s not over till the fat lady sings,” it can jade our experience a little bit. Come to it and just say: “I’m going to let the music and the story speak to me, and I’m going to be open to it.” I think opera has an ability to transform lives. And I don’t mean that in a facetious, overly dramatic way. It can be such an amazingly beautiful experience.
Madame Butterfly is one of Puccini’s greatest compositions. There is a reason why Madame Butterfly is one of the most performed works in the entire opera repertory. So I think that’s probably my best advice: be open.
Madame Butterfly will be presented by the Nashville Opera at 7 p.m. on Thursday, October 10th, and at 8 p.m. on Saturday, October 12th. Tickets are available at TPAC.org.