It’s not often that an opera singer goes from a young artists program to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera within a few years. Stories are legend in the opera world of singers spending years – if not decades – abroad, establishing their artistic bona fides before starring at the Met. Not Frederick Ballentine. A little over eight weeks from now, he will make his Met debut on the 2019-20 Season’s gala opening night in the role of Sportin’ Life, the quicksilver opportunist in George Gershwin and Dubose Heyward’s Porgy and Bess. However, regional audiences get the pleasure of seeing Mr. Ballentine performing the role in Cincinnati Opera’s production of Porgy through Sunday, July 28th. He was gracious enough to take time out of his busy schedule to speak with me earlier this week on the phone.
Will: You’re definitely a star on the rise. You entered the Washington National Opera’s Young Artist Program three years ago and you’re making your Metropolitan Opera debut this fall, which is incredible. What was it that first drew you to the world of opera?
Ballentine: Actually, I started singing opera when I was around 13. There was a performing arts high school in my area and my mom straight up forced me to audition for the school. I had no desire to do that. I wanted to go in law from a very early age and even at 13, I knew that’s what I wanted. But my mom made me audition and the first day they started mentioning scores and I was like, “I don’t even know what the hell that is.” I had no idea it was even opera when I auditioned. I just sang two little songs that I knew and, yeah, the first day I found out it was opera and I went to tell my mom. She’s like, “Oh, that’s news to me.” But yeah, I started doing it then and kept going. I fell in love with it.
Will: I believe your this your third time singing Sportin’ Life? I believe I’d seen in your bio English National Opera and in the Netherlands as well.
Ballentine: I did it first at Glimmerglass Opera. The production that you’ll see here is a scaled-down version of Francesca Zambello’s production. And after that I did a different production, the one that’s going to the Met. I did that in the fall in London and the same production in Amsterdam in the winter. So I guess it’s so this will be my fourth time officially singing Sportin’ Life.
Will: How does your approach to playing Sportin’ Life change through the different directors, different productions, and co-stars?
Ballentine: I think that you have to figure out where he’s gonna come from physically a lot with this role. Like, I feel like this character in particular echoes back to a vaudeville style. So there’s a lot of stylized movement that I try to infuse into the character. And once you’ve figured that out, you have to go to the director and understand how they want to do it. The production that we’re doing with James Robinson at the Met, he specifically stated that he does not want the role to be a song and dance character. So I had to figure out how I could still infuse a little bit of that style with somebody that is not a song and dance character. And I figured that out with James’s production through “It Ain’t Necessarily So” because I can throw in some little movements here and there within the small space that I have to do that aria, which is like 15 feet up on a little tiny platform.
Whereas in this production, the music itself is very, very sneaky. And Francesca actually provides space and stillness around my motifs so that I can actually do something that physically echoes what the music is doing. And then after that, you have to figure out what type of person Sportin’ Life is. And I think everybody across the board understands that he’s not necessarily evil. I think he’s just more conniving and out for himself. In the end, he just wants to make sure he gets what he wants. I think if the situation hadn’t been what it was at the end of the opera, he could have gone to New York and had made a living just fine, with or without Bess. But he sees an opportunity when Bess is that a low and he jumps in. That doesn’t necessarily make him a bad person. It does make him an opportunist.
Will: And the leads sort of directly – you partially answered my third question – What is your favorite thing about a character like Sportin’ Life?
Ballentine: I like that there’s so many ways I can change it up within a show. I think that, when I do other roles, you have to get from Point A to Point B within the scope of the opera. And however you get to that Point B is usually pretty laid out for you via what the composer’s going for and what the director wants. You have a little leeway along the way, but more or less, you kind of just play the same thing throughout. And you have to figure out how to make sure that stays exciting throughout the course of a production. But I feel like with Sportin’ Life, I can change it every single time. Sometimes I can make him a little more violent. Sometimes I can make him a little more sinister. Sometimes I can make him the life of the party. You know, you can’t do that with every character. But Sportin’ Life can go, in terms of like how he’s perceived, in different ways in order to get to Point B.
Will: Stepping away from Porgy and Bess here for a minute. You are a young artist and developing and growing your repertory and tenor roles are legendary across the form of opera. Is there an opera or a particular role that you’re really looking forward to learning and begin performing?
Ballentine: I can tell you my number one bucket list has been the same since I became a tenor. I was a baritone up until grad school, but the moment I became a tenor I knew I wanted to do to (Benjamin Britten’s) Peter Grimes one day. It’s some of the most brilliant music. It’s so exciting and so difficult. But it’s something that I definitely would want to work for about five years.
Will: Looking through your bio, you’ve played some very, very diverse roles. I mean, you’ve performed in John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles all the way to very classic Mozart. What do you believe that the opera world could do to encourage more modern composers to step into the field?
Ballentine: We need to start emulating companies like Seattle and Cincinnati Opera. What they have with the conservatory here, the Cincinnati Conservatory, they produce new operas nearly every season. I think it’s maybe even more than one new opera every single year. And it’s not just a tiny opera. Some of these are full operas. One of them I just saw this weekend, it’s called Blind Injustice, that was a brilliant piece of music. Had Cincinnati not paired with the Conservatory here and actually put in the money to build up something like this, this brilliant piece of music would never have been created.
Companies that actually decide to put in money to create American opera, those are the ones that are going to bring American opera to the forefront and make it a big thing. Washington National Opera does the same thing with their American Opera Initiative. And they do three 20-minute new operas every year in addition to an hour long one as well. It’s like a crash course about for young composers and librettists.
Will: My final question, as we’ve talked about a little bit earlier, Sportin’ Life probably is not the worst of the villains in Porgy and Bess, as you say. He’s sort of an opportunist who sees a chance. Which roles do you find more fun, the good guys or the bad guys?
Ballentine: I love the bad guys. I do love the bad guys. It’s been a while since I’ve played a good guy. I’ve been doing Sportin’ Life now for almost a year. Even when he wants to be a good guy, he’s a bad guy. I forget what it feels like to play a good guy, I’ll be honest with you.
I do feel like the bad guys get the most fun. I do love – I’ve got to say – when I did Don Jose (in Bizet’s Carmen) I loved walking out onstage and people booing me. It’s one of my favorite things. It’s like, “Oh, I did it right! Yay!” I see tenors who are naturally very, very charming on stage play Jose, and at the end, I still love them despite the awful thing they did. And I was like, maybe that’s not quite right for me.
The Cincinnati Opera production of Porgy and Bess continues at the Music Hall through Sunday, July 28th. Tickets are available online and at the Box Office. You can follow Mr. Ballentine’s upcoming engagements on his website. Finally, you can see his Metropolitan Opera performance of the role Sportin’ Life on February 1, 2020 at your local cinema as part of the Met in HD series. More information on that can be found on their website.