The first time I went to the opera, I was in my early teens. My father wanted his offspring to have a well rounded cultural education, so he purchased season tickets to the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center in New York. The plan was that my father would take my sister to one opera, me to the other, and my mother would accompany us each to the other two selections.
My first opera was "Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg." Now, for those of you who are unfamiliar with Wagner’s opera, it’s a popular piece – a comedy in three acts that is sung in German and its plot centers on a love story and a singing contest. It also clocks in at about five hours.
I made it through Act I by looking at the costumes and the elaborate sets, and admiring the obvious talent of the singers, but during Act II, I began fidgeting, and we never made it to Act III. A noble idea from Dad, but Die Meistersinger’s did not ignite a love of opera in this pre-teen girl.
Lyric soprano and New Jersey Opera Theatre rising star Amy Butterworth’s first experience of opera was almost the complete opposite of mine.
The 30-year-old Butterworth fell in love with opera right from the start. She will be singing the role of the Countess in Mozart’s "Le Nozze di Figaro" (The Marriage of Figaro) in NJOT’s season opener Friday, August 12; Tuesday, August 16; and Saturday, August 20 at McCarter’s Berlind Theater.
Butterworth was raised in a small town about 20 miles south of Richmond, Virginia. Her father owns and runs a furniture company that was started by her great-grandfather in 1927, and her mother is a nurse. "No one in my immediate family likes classical music," she says. "My brother likes country music. He’s country music all the way."
But Butterworth’s paternal grandmother liked classical music, and when she began exposing her granddaughter to it, she ate it up. "Saturday afternoon’s we wouldd sit together and listen to the Met broadcasts [on the radio]. When (the film) "Amadeus" came out, I was about 10 and she took me to go see it. When it was over, I said I wanted to be an opera singer. She asked why; I answered that I wanted to wear the pretty costumes."
Butterworth’s fascination with opera continued long after the attraction to the pretty costumes became an afterthought. "Luckily," she says, "I had the voice to pursue the career."
After graduating from Lynchburg College with a bachelor’s degree in music in 1996, she went to Florida State University for a year to pursue her masters degree, but she says, "I wasn’t ready. When I was 22 my voice hadn’t developed enough." From FSU, she followed her then-husband to Roanoke, Virginia, where he was working behind the scenes at a small opera company. Butterworth was working administrative jobs and paying her dues in the chorus of the opera. Eventually, she was asked to do some solo work in concerts. "I was in Roanoke for five years, working on my voice, getting used to working in the theater. Because my husband worked for the theater, even if I wasn’t in the production, I could go to all the rehearsals. I learned a lot."
In 2001, the couple moved to New York, and shortly after, they divorced. Butterworth stayed in New York and began to follow her dream of making it as an opera singer. Like most people working in the performing arts, the odds are great and the road rough. "Once you’re in New York, you have to move into the circle of opera people and that takes time. It’s extremely hard to build a network; I’ve been at it in New York for four years now, and my network is still tiny."
Butterworth gives a lot of credit to the two-year-old New Jersey Opera Theater and artistic director Scott Altman for helping her get on stage and build a professional resume and network. "A coach of mine suggested that I audition for New Jersey Opera Theater’s Singer Circle – the name of their young artist’s program. I auditioned for Scott in September of last year, and I heard back in three days." The Singer Circle, Butterworth says, is a group of about 20 rising opera singers. "We met in Princeton about twice a month from October to May. The
whole purpose is to help singers bridge the gap from student to becoming a professional."
She says she has also learned a lot from the master classes that NJOT offers to both members of the Singer Circle and the public. This season’s offerings have included classes with master coach Martha Gerhart; Julliard teacher and diction coach Kathryn LaBouff; tenor Jonathan Green, who performs regularly in character roles with the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, and San Francisco Opera; and Allan Glassman, who has appeared in over 200 performances on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.
This past May Butterworth was chosen to sing a small role in NJOT’s professional concert performance of Verde’s "Il Trovatore." "All of the singers were established singers," she says. "And three of the secondary roles were sung by young artists. That’s another step in bridging that gap. It was a wonderful opportunity; I learned so much."
Her role as the Countess in "Le Nozze di Figaro" is Butterworth’s first leading role in an opera. "It’s a big boost for my career," she says. "The Countess is a huge role that I’ll be able to sing forever."
Now that she is starting to get some solid credits on her resume, Butterworth says, she’s in the market for a manager. And here’s another place where her affiliation with NJOT has provided her with a big boost. Allan Glassman, who sang the lead in "Il Trovatore," has offered to "check out" one of the people who she is thinking of signing with. "I’m getting some great inside scoops," she says. "The contacts that Scott Altman has – the networking – is just great."
The only thing about opera that seems to frustrate Butterworth is its reputation as "stodgy." "I think what people find intimidating about opera is that it may not be in English, and they think they won’t understand. I think they think that before you go to the opera you have to be a trained musician – that you already have to know it. But if they get there just a little bit early they will get a program and they can read the synopsis, which gives the basic story."
Butterworth says you would be surprised at how much you’ll be able to follow without understanding word for word what is going on on the stage. "And if you get lost at all, you have supertitles above you." (That’s right, supertitles. Opera goes high tech. Hanging above the stage at the Berlind, a large light box scrolls the English translation of what is being sung onstage.)
And there is nothing stodgy about the stories that are taking place on the stage either. "The stories are human," Butterworth says. "In ‘The Marriage of Figaro,’ when you first see my character, her maid has just told her that the Count wants to have sex with her (the maid); apparently he cheats on the Countess all the time. He has practically abandoned her; it’s human and totally real. The audience will see something of themselves in one of the six main characters. There is love and death and humanness on a heightened level."
This reporter, the once gun-shy operagoer, can concur with that assessment. Years after the Die Meistersinger’s debacle, a friend convinced me to go see "Aida" (the original opera, not the Elton John/Tim Rice Broadway version) at a small, professional opera company. After years of thinking that opera was boring and hard to understand, my head was turned. Why, this was vibrant, over the top, and yet completely accessible. I suddenly realized why soap operas were named after this art form. Underneath the big drama, there was a very human heart.
But the life of the artist is far from high drama. Butterworth is determined and focused. New Jersey Opera Theater is giving her a start and for this, she is grateful. In five years, the singer hopes to be doing regional opera in the United States, touring in Europe. "I just want to work. I love this," she says. "If I make it to the Met, that’s great. If I don’t, I just want to do the work." Perhaps one day she’ll be giving master classes to the next generation of rising opera stars at NJOT.
Le Nozze di Figaro, New Jersey Opera Theater, at the Berlind Theater at McCarter Theater. Fully-staged opera with orchestra. Saturday and Tuesday, August 12 and 16, 7:30 p.m.; and Saturday, August 20, 8 p.m. 609-258-2787.
Also, Il Barbieri di Siviglia. Sunday, August 14, 2 p.m.; Wednesday, August 17, 7:30 p.m.; and Friday, August 19, 8 p.m.
Also, Cherubino, Thursday, August 18, 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, August 21, 2 p.m..