Tenor Brian Thorsett (pictured left), well known to Bay Area opera fans, got a tenure track assistant professor position at Virginia Tech last year and subsequently moved to across the country. He is, however, still performing in here quite a bit, and will sing in the next Curious Flights concert on May 28 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
What are the challenges of being an opera singer in the Bay Area?
The Bay Area has a tremendous classical music scene, with lots of opportunities, tons of opera companies, and great instrumentalists. San Francisco audiences are very supportive and you can do opera in weird places. There were lots of times when I couldn't believe we were allowed to do certain things.
The challenges are the expense of living here and the traffic. I would perform 40 weekend a year (which is nuts), do outreach with San Francisco Opera, and teach, but still got priced out of the Bay Area. Also the traffic here is terrible, I was so happy to sell my car when I moved to Virginia. I was sad to leave the Bay Area, but thankfully there are airplanes, so I can come back to perform.
You have degrees in mathematics and piano, it's easy to see how the latter relates to singing, but does math relate at all to being a singer?
It sure does. For one thing, I really know how to count.
Seriously though, there is a sense of creativity to finding proofs in math that is not unlike being a singer. You can take 3 or 4 different paths getting to the answer. Just as when you have to come to an understanding about characterizing a certain role or even dealing with a technical issue in your voice, there is more than one way to go about it.
Math definitely broadened my horizons and fostered both an intellectual curiosity in me and an appreciation for the interconnectedness of things.
Your repertory is quite varied, spanning Monteverdi to David Lang. Do you have a favorite composer?
I don't think you can be a classical musician and not love Bach. The St. Matthew Passion is the pinnacle of Western art music, without a doubt.
I do also love working with living composers because there is a special kind of collaboration that happens. Recently I sang a Scott Gendel song cycle on love and I'm performing "American Death Ballads" by David Conte in July. So those two composers are my favorites at the moment too.
Tell me about the pieces you are performing with Curious Flights.
Well, the main piece is the Blitzstein, The Airborne Symphony, which is somewhere between unabashedly Romantic and Coplandesque. It is a fun narrative about the history of flight but goes beyond that. It is about striving, failing, but eventually being able to do something great. And it shows the downsides of this success too.
I'm also singing three Korngold songs, two from Give Us This Night and one from The Constant Nymph. Give Us This Night starred the mezzo Gladys Swarthout and the Polish tenor Jan Kiepura, it has a stunningly ridiculous plot. Weirdly enough the lyrics are by Hammerstein, so it was a Korngold and Hammerstein musical.
I don't know a single musician that isn't blown away by Korngold, but of course, he isn't performed that much. Part of it is because his music is out of print, and you have to hunt down songs if you want them. I had to call around, contacted Paramount and got someone to send me some PDFs. I did the piano reduction of the scores myself!