Tenor John Osborn has created a detailed picture of the Duke of Mantua to guide him when he sings the role in Opera New Jersey’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” Formerly New Jersey Opera Theater, the company performs Friday, February 8, at McCarter Theater and Sunday, February 10, at the State Theater in New Brunswick. The text is in Italian, with English titles. In this semi-staged performance, fully-costumed singers use props, appearing on stage in front of the opera orchestra.
Michael Scarola (U.S. 1, February 22, 2006) directs the performance featuring principal singers with international performance resumes. John Keenan, whose credits include the Metropolitan Opera and Russia’s Kirov Opera, conducts. Richard Zeller plays the unfortunate court jester, Rigoletto; Eglise Gutierrez is his beautiful daughter Gilda; John Osborn is the unprincipled Duke of Mantua.
“The Duke is irresponsible, self-centered, and carefree,” Osborn says in a telephone interview during a rehearsal break. “He’s arrogant. He comes off as pretty shallow. But everybody loves him. He throws really good parties with women, entertainment, and games. What he does in the bedroom with women is pretty shameful. However, his joy and his sense of adventure are attractive. He’s uninhibited. He throws caution to the wind. He doesn’t care what anybody thinks because he knows that everybody loves him. He surrounds himself with people who revel in the same things he revels in, and he’s the best one at it. He’s the head of the government, and could call in the police if you try to rein in his parties. Everything’s good fun for the Duke.”
When I ask him if the role of the Duke comes easily to him, he says, “It’s not completely natural for me. I have to act.”
Osborn, costumed as the Duke for a publicity shot, looks sinister and menacing. “He’s reveling in an opportunity to make another conquest,” Osborn says. The Duke’s amorous adventures and their fall-out are the motivating force in Verdi’s opera, which opens as the hunchbacked court jester, Rigoletto, mocks the courtiers cuckolded by the Duke. Count Monterone, whose daughter the Duke has seduced, curses Rigoletto.
Rigoletto’s daughter, Gilda, has fallen in love with the Duke, who presents himself to her as a poor student. The courtiers abduct Gilda and take her to the Duke’s palace. Rigoletto engages Sparafucile, a professional assassin, to kill the Duke and to hand over a sack containing the dead Duke’s body. Sparafucile’s sister, another of the Duke’s conquests, persuades her brother not to kill the Duke, but to murder, instead, the next person who comes to the door. That person is Rigoletto’s daughter, Gilda. Sparafucile puts the dying Gilda into a sack and hands the sack over to Rigoletto. As Rigoletto is about to dump the sack in the river, he hears the Duke singing, and discovers that the sack contains his dying daughter.
The plot of the opera gives Osborn ample opportunities to behave as a cad. In contrast the non-theatrical Osborn, gentle and unadulterated, can be seen on YouTube, singing an excerpt from Giacomo Rossini’s “Stabat Mater,” displaying the power, accuracy, and suppleness of his voice.
Born in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1973, Osborn is the third in a family of six children; he has four brothers and one sister. His father has worked as a pressman at the Sioux City Journal for more than 40 years. His mother was a stay-at-home mom when Osborn was growing up. “It was a musical family except for my mother,” says Osborn. “She cannot sing and has a range of about five notes.” Osborn’s father sang in a choir, and all six siblings sang throughout high school; Osborn was the only member of the family who continued to sing beyond high school.
Osborn’s early musical training was meager; his first training came when he was in high school. He sang in choirs, where directors noticed his natural talent and assigned him solos. “I started as a boy alto,” he says. “My high range is in a contralto range; it’s extremely high. I can sing up to the B-flat above middle C. It’s perfect for bel canto. The Italian term for a voice like mine is ‘tenorecontraltino.’ That ‘-ino’ ending is a term of endearment.”
When he was 16 Osborn saw the Des Moines Metro Opera production of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville.” “I enjoyed it so much,” says Osborn. “I thought maybe I could do that.” After graduating from high school, Osborn attended Simpson College. Located in Indianola, Iowa, 12 miles south of Des Moines, Simpson is a small coeducation liberal arts college, affiliated with the United Methodist Church. The Des Moines Metro Opera makes its home at the college. Robert Larsen, Simpson’s director of music, and artistic director of Des Moines Opera, became Osborn’s mentor.
Simpson faculty member Anne Larson, no relative of Robert Larsen, also took a hand in fostering Osborn’s career as a singer. “She brought me down to earth and helped me become more whole as a person,” he says. “I learned the technical basics from her, and she helped me get through the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions competition.” The competition, which is held in 45 districts in the United States and Canada, has been devised to discover exceptional new vocal talent for the Metropolitan Opera and the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development program. Osborn won the competition in 1994, as a college senior, at the unusually early age of 21.
As a participant in the Met’s Young Artist Development Program, Osborn spent four years in New York City. “I got lots of coaching,” he says, “two voice lessons a week with Edward Zambara at Juilliard. I checked in with Zambara afterwards once or twice a year. He was a vibrant guy, who died unexpectedly last year after a fall. He was 81.”
“Right now, I’m voice-teacherless,” Osborn says. “So I use the tools I have, and go out and just do it.”
Osborn continues to coach with Henri Venanzi. Chorus master for the University of Cincinnati and Orange County, California’s Opera Pacific, Venanzi lives just minutes away from Osborn in Orange County. “I coach with him on new roles in French and Italian opera. I don’t do much German opera. He speaks French and Italian fluently. We work a lot on closed and open vowels. My French and Italian diction is quite good, but it needs some fine tuning. So I take it to him.”
In 1996 Osborn won the Concours International de Voix d’Opera Placido Domingo in Bordeaux, France. The competition is also known as “Operalia.” Osborn captured the first prize along with his wife, Lynette Tapia, a Bolivian-American soprano.
The couple met during the summer of 1995 at the Glimmerglass Opera Company in Cooperstown, New York. They were married the following summer, fitting their wedding arrangements around the schedule of the Wolftrap Festival put on by Washington D.C.’s National Symphony Orchestra. They make their home in Laguna Niguel, Orange County.
Their daughter Ana, is seven. She sings and is a Suzuki violinist. Osborn and his wife alternate attending Ana’s Suzuki lessons with her, or they call on Tapia’s parents who live on the same street in Laguna Niguel.
The Osborn family are together in temporary quarters at Meadow Lakes, the Hightstown continuing care community, which is hosting Opera New Jersey during its rehearsal period. In return, Meadow Lakes residents are invited to attend rehearsals or to view them on closed-circuit TV. “Rehearsing at Meadow Lakes is the most unique experience I’ve had in my entire career,” Osborn says. “Normally, about 30 people watch. Some of them know very little about opera, and they get to see all the workings of it as part of Opera New Jersey’s outreach program.
‘Sometimes, we have conversations with the residents,” Osborn says. “The people are sweet and nice. I’ve never been in a retirement community like this and seen so many happy people. Some of them go zooming around in little electric cars. They love the activities. It’s fulfilling for us to be part of that.”
Osborn welcomes responsive audiences all over the world. “I go to China, Japan, South America, and Europe,” he says. “Audiences are different. We love the ones who respond the most. I love to feel their sense of appreciation, and have no problem with people applauding, applauding, and applauding till their hands fall off. I like cheers and whistles.
“I’ve sung Mozart and Rossini in Japan. The Japanese respond differently from any other country. They love something that’s so much freer than their own culture. It’s infectious. When you’ve finished, they treat you like a rock star. You’re their hero. It’s an incredible experience for an artist. I would go to Japan any day to feel that sense of appreciation.”
Coming to New Jersey to sing the Duke in “Rigoletto” is another welcome experience for Osborn, worth the trouble of acting a character that does not come naturally to him. “I did my first Duke a couple of summers ago,” he says. “People wait for ‘La Donna e mobile’ all night.” “La Donna e mobile” is the Duke’s signature aria. In a twinkling Osborne affects a shrill female voice. “On stage, you can hear from the audience ‘Oh, yeah, there it is.’”
In a special category for Osborn is playing the romantic lead opposite his wife, Lynette Tapia. The two have appeared together in a handful of operas. “It’s great,” says Osborn. “You can be so sincere.”
Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” Friday, February 8, 7:30 p.m, Matthews Theater at McCarter, Princeton, 609-258-2787, $39 to $90, and Sunday, February 10, 3 p.m., $35 to $90, State Theater, New Brunswick, 609-799-7700. Post performance artist reception, $25 additional.