There’s a New Prince in Town

John Lindsey aims to charm Madison Opera audiences in Dvorak’s Rusalka


John Lindsey undoubtedly cut a fine figure (and surely sang well) in his Madison Opera debut last summer at Opera in the Park. But this weekend will mark his stage debut for the company, as it closes its season with Dvorak’s luminous fairy-tale opera, Rusalka. Lindsey, a 33-year old “budding heldentenor” (as Madison Opera artistic director John DeMain describes him) will create the role of the Prince in this ever-more-popular work based on “The Little Mermaid.”

Last week I had the opportunity to sit down with Lindsey in the offices of Madison Opera, and quickly learned that what has turned into a promising and growing vocal career was almost something of an accident—twice.

Growing up in Ft. Collins, Colorado Lindsey (pictured above in rehearsal, with Emily Birsan as Rusalka, courtesy of Madison Opera), had only sung one solo as a sixth grader, and by the age of fifteen was simply enjoying membership in his high school choir. And then: “I stumbled into realizing I could imitate an opera singer’s voice. I heard a CD that had a song I just loved and I sang it for my choir director. He told me that I was going to sing it at our next performance, and then I sang it in competition, and that was where I met my first vocal teacher.”

Nevertheless, Lindsey’s original plan was to enlist in the military after high school. “But I had an injury and couldn’t go, so my teacher said, ‘why don’t you come and study voice for a year in college, and if you still want to enlist in a year, you still could.’” It was certainly convenient: the school in question was Colorado State University in Ft. Collins. Lindsey never left, finishing his Bachelor’s degree and then completing a Master’s degree at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

There was a serendipitous quality to Lindsey eventually being asked to come to Madison, that also gives insight as to how savvy general directors such as Madison Opera’s Kathryn Smith manage to consistently find these youthful gems to grace the stage of Overture Hall.

Lindsey’s first ongoing professional experience came at Minnesota Opera, where he was a three-year resident of their young artists program. A year later he found himself at Des Moines Metro Opera, “where I first delved into Czech. I covered a role in Janacek’s Jenufa. But as I understand it, Kathryn was there and heard me sing a scene from Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame. A couple of years down the road, my manager got in touch with me and said Madison Opera would like me to record the Prince’s aria from Rusalka and send it to them. I thought to myself, ‘I’m never going to get this,’ but a week after I sent it off they called and said they wanted me to do the show.”

Operas sung in Czech and Russian were a real rarity in the United States, until the last quarter of the 20th century. Yours truly was home from college in 1975, and it was a huge deal that the Bolshoi Opera was touring and came to the Metropolitan Opera—it was my first chance to see Pique Dame, because the Met could never get enough singers who could sing the language. That was the same year, incidentally, that Rusalka had its American debut—this for a 1901 work with music of exquisite beauty (there’s a good chance by now that in some movie or in concert one has encountered its biggest hit number, “Song to the Moon.”).

Once  smaller companies became adventurous with diving in to the Czech and Russian repertoire, young singers often took their first crack at it early on. Lindsey had a run-through of the Prince’s aria at Minnesota Opera (which by the way is the set Madison Opera is using this weekend) and “pronounced the Czech very badly! It’s nice to have another full crack at it. But the truth is if you haven’t studied the language, you’re essentially memorizing phonetics.” Language aside, how demanding and how long is the role? “It’s difficult because it tends to lie a little high. There are some dramatic tenors whose voices tend to the high side, but mine sits more toward a baritone. I don’t sing as much as Rusalka, of course, but the role is about three-fourths the length of Don Jose in Carmen—so it’s on the longer side, and a lot harder to sing.”

Lindsey has “totally fallen in love with the piece,” and he mentions another artist making their company debut, director Keturah Stickann. This is another area where Kathryn Smith has excelled, finding interesting directors who often bring a fresh approach without indulging in arbitrary interpretations. “The work is after all a fairy-tale,” Lindsey says, “and the libretto doesn’t necessarily provide you with as much food for thought as it could. Having a director that has a vision and a back story for the piece is incredibly helpful. I like the fact that the approach is to turn it into more of a redemptive story than a tragedy.”

Some of Lindsey’s stops along his career path have included Arizona Opera, Cincinnati, San Antonio, Austin and Pacific Opera Victoria; now that he’s adding Madison to his resume, what’s next? A move back home, as it turns out. Lindsey met his wife, Nicole, when they were both studying in Boulder. She eventually realized that teaching was a greater passion than performing, and after some time in the Houston area they are now moving back to Ft. Collins. She will teach at Colorado State while he will serve as a visiting professor, “so I can still pursue my singing career.” But somehow one suspects that we might see this charming young singer again, whatever the role. For when he’s asked about his impressions of Madison he says, “It’s just as if Boulder, Colorado had been transplanted to the Midwest!” A charming thought…and your first chances to be entranced by Dvorak and Madison Opera is Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

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