When Brendan Tuohy strides into the party scene in the opera rehearsal room at Tacoma’s Urban Grace Church, he dominates the room – literally. His six-and-a-half-foot frame overshadows the men of the chorus, his gestures radiate power, and the tenor barreling from his chest like a waterfall makes the walls ring. He looks like a linebacker who can sing really well – which is kind of what he is.
Tuohy is the guy from Bellarmine who was too busy playing sports to sing in the musicals, the guy who combined a music degree with track team. And now he’s back in Tacoma after 12 years of study, singing the lead in Tacoma Opera’s “La Traviata.” This weekend is just one step in the long process of becoming a professional opera singer.
“Lots of young singers ask me ‘how do you get a foot in the door of opera?’ ” said Tuohy, 31, chatting before rehearsal. “There’s no set answer. It has to be the right time, the right moment. It’s all about luck.”
It also obviously is about having a great voice. But Tuohy is proof that to succeed, you don’t need to be on the opera track since childhood. Growing up in Tacoma with a librarian mother and a father who owned a moving company, Tuohy would sing along with oldies in the car. His mother, Marilyn (who still is on the board of Tacoma Opera), had Tacoma Opera connections and took young Brendan to see his first opera – “The Magic Flute.” He auditioned and sang in the children’s chorus a few times.
But his first love was sports.
“Running, baseball, football – that was always more fun,” Tuohy said. From Annie Wright School, he went to Bellarmine Preparatory School, where Marilyn made him join the choir.
“I threw a fit about it,” Tuohy said.
And he was far too busy playing sports to sing in the musicals, though by then he had the beginnings of a fine tenor.
“Brendan was this big, talented high school athlete going off to play football at the UW,” said Bellarmine principal Chris Gavin. “The surprise was that in that body was a voice that could move you emotionally. He had a gift and shared it selflessly.”
“I was the jock who could sing,” Tuohy said.
Even at the University of Washington, Tuohy was convinced he’d major in sports medicine and switched to music only when things weren’t going so well. He stayed on the track team for three years, finally quitting when his vocal coach told him to get serious about singing.
Fast-forward a decade: Tuohy has three prestigious study gigs under his belt – a masters at Cincinnati College of Music and stints at Young Artist programs at the Portland Opera and Houston Grand Opera. He spent last summer covering roles in the Aix-en-Provence festival and has been hired back to sing in a rediscovered Cavalli opera during the next few years. He’ll sing solo in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with the Seattle Symphony this year and has professional gigs lined up through 2015.
Now, he’s back home in Tacoma, debuting with the lead in “La Traviata” – every Verdi tenor’s dream.
Tuohy shines as Alfredo, the young gent who falls for former courtesan Violetta only to have his father interfere and finally to lose her to tuberculosis. (No apologies for the spoiler. If you haven’t heard of the plot of this most famous of operas, you should have.) He deftly portrays Alfredo as a mix of burly, impulsive hothead and sensitive lover with an Italianate tenor that’s effortlessly smooth and powerful over the whole register.
“He’s the real deal,” said director Noel Koran, who was first told about Tuohy by local supporters and chose him for Alfredo after hearing a recording of the tenor covering the role in Houston. “He has a good, clear, beautiful sound. His vocal technique is impeccable.”
But it’s not just a good voice that will make or break a young singer’s career, Koran said. “Brendan’s intelligent, he looks good on stage, he’s a good actor. That combination will do well for him.”
The many friends and family will love applauding him on the Pantages Theater stage tonight. However, Tuohy has a long path ahead to full operatic success. Now that he’s had on-the-job training at two Young Artist programs, where singers learn roles and perform alongside big names, he’ll work his way through smaller companies such as Tacoma’s, into concert gigs with the Seattle Symphony and on to bigger houses. He’ll work both America and Europe, possibly doing competitions for more recognition and auditioning everywhere. It’s a long, hard road, and many don’t make it.
“It’s very, very difficult,” said Koran, who had a successful singing career himself in Europe before switching to directing. “Conservatively, I’d estimate a five-year career (for most singers). There are so many well-trained young singers coming out of universities these days. The competition is fierce. It was easier (during my time).”
Koran also said that some voice types find it harder than others to succeed, soprano being the most difficult. Tenors are “more of a rarity,” which gives Tuohy an instant edge.
Other principals in this “La Traviata” – which Koran is setting in the 1920s, as the best compromise between Verdi’s wishes for modernity and the old-fashioned social mores of the plot – are on their own career paths. Violetta is sung by another TO newcomer, Jacquelynne Fontaine, who’s as slight as Tuohy is tall, yet who projects with the vocal and emotional maturity of an established singer. Like Tuohy, she’s been singing with smaller companies such as Oregon’s Rogue Opera and using her operatic talent to place in Miss America competitions along the way. Anton Belov, singing Alfredo’s stern father Giorgio in a deep Russian bass, is a little further along the road with Carnegie Hall recitals, competition prizes and even scholarly books to his credit.
“These three leads are absolutely fabulous, vocally and dramatically,” Koran said. “I’m blown away.”
Tuohy is thrilled to be singing back home, but he has no illusions about the future.
“Companies are struggling ... there are fewer jobs, fewer shows, budget cuts. I know a lot of talented singers who aren’t working. It can be really discouraging, actually,” he said.
But it’s worth the struggle. “For a long time, I kept getting people asking me, ‘Well, you sing opera, but what are you really going to do?’ This is what I want to do.”
Will Tuohy make it?
“He certainly has potential,” Koran said. “You can’t tell about anybody. It’s a crystal ball. But he’s got as good a chance as anyone.”
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568