April 11 2016 06:54 AM

Metropolitan Opera’s rising stars bring ‘best of the best’ to Wharton Center

MONDAY, April 11 — Dangling, as opera singers often do, in the chasm between artifice and truth, Adam Diegel hesitated to divulge his age.

Adam Diegel
Diegel is the star tenor in an unusual roadshow recital visiting MSU’s Wharton Center Wednesday, billed with old-fashioned ballyhoo as the “Metropolitan Opera Rising Stars Concert.”

A down-to-Earth type who loves Led Zeppelin and favors full disclosure, Diegel preferred to call the program “young-ish stars of the Met” in a phone interview last week. At 41, he is the oldest of five scheduled performers.

Truth in advertising matters a lot to Diegel. He’s every inch the tall, handsome tenor, but being a show-off and a star is not his thing. At times, he wishes he were a “good Verdi baritone” so he could get meatier roles.

“The best feeling I get is when someone comes up and tells me, ‘You were so believable,’” Diegel said. “That’s my job.”

It’s not easy to cut through the artifice of opera. Diegel compared his job to watching six TVs at once and knowing exactly what is happening on each screen.
“We have the music and the words on the page, the conductor who is flapping wildly at us, our costumes and movements to worry about and the interaction between the cast,” he said. “It’s a thrilling and infuriating process.”

Diegel said he’s not inclined to hype anything that doesn’t deserve it, but finds the other three “rising stars” joining him for Wednesday’s recital very impressive.

“I’ve been in the business a bit longer than they have, going to some jobs and hearing … well, not the best singers,” he said. “But these guys are fantastic.”

The Rising Stars program, part of Metropolitan Opera poobah Peter Gelb’s strategy to appeal to a new generation of opera lovers, has deployed dozens of young uvulae around the country. Gelb is the mastermind behind a wave of innovations at the Met, including HD broadcasts that have beamed the 125-year-old institution’s recent extravaganzas to cinemas from coast to coast.

Wednesday’s batch of “young-ish” singers and a pianist with the thundering name of Brent Funderburk will serve up a banquet of music from “La Boheme,” “Tosca” and other favorites.
“It’s the best of the best of arias and duets,” Diegel said.

The music is tried and true, and so are the singers, despite their youth. Diegel has been singing opera for 14 years and has already sung four roles at the Met. Baritone David Won, also on Wednesday’s slate, has sung several roles at the Met since he debuted there in 2005.

Soprano Amanda Woodbury and mezzo-soprano Sara Mesko are younger, “but they already have substantial resumes,” Diegel said.

“Amanda is the real deal — all these guys are,” Diegel said. “Sara has one of the most beautiful mezzo voices I’ve heard in a long time.”

Opera is often an acquired taste, even for the chef. Diegel’s father was an opera lover, but the music drove him crazy at first. He hung with a crowd who liked a different era of classics — classic rock like AC/DC and Genesis.

“One of my favorite bands of all time is Led Zeppelin,” Diegel said. “They’re more operatic than any other rock and roll band. ‘Stairway to Heaven’ is epically beautiful.”

He played alto sax and clarinet and sang in the church choir, but he had trouble sight-reading.

“I would always stand next to this gentleman who was a fantastic sight singer, and just match him in pitch,” Diegel admitted.

The man told him he had a great voice and should take a solo some time.

“I thought he was crazy,” Diegel said.

His proud father recorded the solo, and when Diegel heard the playback, he thought it was “awful.”

Later, while Diegel worked at an investment company, a colleague who was involved in musical theater recommended a voice teacher.

The teacher told Diegel he had a gift and “could make a go of it,” so he went to school to study music and voice.

He auditioned for the Met and was hired almost immediately.

“I’m fortunate because I’m a tall tenor,” he said, still favoring full disclosure. “My path has been easier because of that.”

Even in traditional roles, singers today have to contend with modern directors (usually European ones) keen to transpose “Julius Caesar” to a Walmart in Ohio or “Aida” to the rings of Saturn.

Last summer, Diegel played the lead in Verdi’s “Don Carlo” at the Lithuanian National Opera in a straitjacket and a mask.

“Before David Bowie died, rest in peace, he did this video for his last album,” Diegel said. “He had this mask made out of hospital bandages, with two tiny eyeholes. That’s the kind of mask I wore.”

Diegel’s performance, and the unorthodox staging, were so successful he’s going back to Lithuania to do it again this summer.

Diegel favors multi-dimensional, complex characters with a lot going on inside.

“I can relate to the role of Cavaradossi (in Puccini’s ‘Tosca’),” he said. “Dramatically and vocally, it’s one of my favorites. Don José (in Bizet’s ‘Carmen’) is very interesting for me vocally, but it’s a very strange role, very two-dimensional. He’s either really happy or he’s really angry.”

At Wharton Wednesday, he’ll sing the first aria from “Tosca” (“recondita armonia”), a duet from “Don Carlo” and a short scene from “La Boheme.” He’ll also sing the first act duet from “Carmen.” It’s all romantic and lyrical stuff, and that’s fine with him.

“You don’t want to be all over the map,” he said.

Diegel has a come-what-may attitude about life and art.

“I get a little creeped out when people say, ‘I was born to sing,’ or ‘I was meant to do this,’” he said. “What happens if you wake up tomorrow and you can’t sing? Is your life over?”

Teaching, he said, is “the natural progression of all performing singers,” and that’s where he’d like to end up.

“I don’t think I could go into the business world again,” he said. “I’m having so much fun doing this.”

Metropolitan Opera Rising Stars Concert

7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 13

Tickets start at $18/$15 students

Wharton Center

750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing

(517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com