With a towering presences and equally commanding voice, it is no surprise that Zachary James is now making his final preparations for one of the biggest stages of all. He makes his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in AHKNATEN, with the production playing November 8th through December 7th. With appearances on Broadway in productions like South Pacific & The Addams Family & television appearances like 30 Rock, James is is now poised for big things, and he took a little time to speak with me recently. From his humble beginnings on the stage to when he fell in love with opera, James’ story is one of taking your passion and running with it.
Michael Cook: Right off the bat, how did you enter the world of opera and know that you had such a gift?
Zachary James: It was kind of a winding road, but some seeds were definitely planted in college. I was getting a musical theatre degree and I did a summer stock season and was playing Coach Dunbar in Footloose. I thought to myself “I hate this, this is terrible” (laughs). I went back to school and my voice teacher did not let me quit, as I only had one year left and she suggested studying classically to see if I liked that. She took me under her wing and she and a couple other mentors encouraged me to do opera. I kind of dabbled in it, the I moved to New York and got a Broadway show within a few months. I ended up doing Broadway for about five years straight between three shows. It was while I was playing Lurch in The Addams Family on Broadway and the director Phelim McDermott got involved. He knew that a production was looking for someone to play a robot Abraham Lincoln in this new Phillip Glass opera about Walt Disney. They needed someone who could sing opera, but who could basically do the robot on stage (laughs). I had the movement and dance training and we had done some physical work together previously, so he knew that I could handle it. He asked me to audition for Phillip Glass and I got the gig. I have been kind of doing opera full time ever since.
MC: So what do you remember your first big opera gig being?
ZJ: My first big opera gig was doing this Phillip Glass opera called The Perfect American. We did it in Madrid, London, and Australia, and I realized that I “really loved this opera thing”. I gave it a good go and I pushed myself. I got the training the I was missing, like the diction training and all of that. I needed to brush up on languages and coach with my voice teacher, and I found the right management team. It’s been going really well but it’s been quite a journey. I’ve only been doing it full time since 2012 so it’s still relatively new. Everything that I do, like doing my first verdi, these are milestones. I’m just checking things off to solidify my opera roots and be versatile in that game.
MC: You have a great deal of experience on the stage prior to taking on opera full time. Do you think you could see yourself ever diving back into the musical theatre world?
ZJ: Oh yes. I would love to do musical theatre again, and I do still do it when the opportunity arises, like with Sweeney Todd, and I did a couple concerts of West Side Story last year. I have never done Les Miserables and I am dying to. I would love to do Sweeney again to, there are lots of things I would love to do. The Broadway people, they know me and know that I exist so they call me when when I am right for something. The funky thing is that opera is scheduled out so far, you know what you’re doing two years in advance. With Broadway, they’re opening the show in two months and holding auditions now. For example, SpongeBob was calling me to come in and audition for that a few times, but I knew my schedule for the next year and I had these cool opportunities that I didn’t want to miss, so I passed on it. I would love to go back to Broadway when the time is right and the right opportunity arises.
MC: The Metropolitan Opera is an amazing opportunity.
ZJ: It’s crazy, I am gagged. It’s a lifelong dream and standing center stage in that theatre…I have done the production a few times and that is something I am really grateful fo. I know the show, my costumes fit, I know the spacing, I’m ready to go. You don’t have to worry about learning something new, but to do it at The Met! It’s like “are you kidding me”? There are so many moments of that show where I am center stage screaming out to the audience by myself. I still can’t believe it.
MC: Are there any artists, operatic or otherwise, that you look up to or see as a major inference?
ZJ: Oh so many, and it’s kind of a diverse range. I am really attracted to artists first, not just singers or just actors. Someone like Lady Gaga who does it all, who has a consistent voice and is just full of surprises. Renee Fleming’s book The Inner Voice, I have read that cover to cover. The autobiography she wrote is so inspirational and really sums up what it is to be in show business full time. The pressures of it what it’s like to be in a new show and learn it, and what’s it really like to fail. She talks about being booed at La Scala and its so crazy. It is also so relatable, I really look up to her. I always looked up to people like James Morris also. There are so many incredible artists that are doing really groundbreaking things right now. I love that right now the name of the game is diversity, flexibility and doing it all. Like, it’s okay to be an opera singer, but pop in on a tv show. It’s a different game now; you are allowed to do things now that you weren’t allowed to do even five years ago. You are allowed to be flexible and step outside your box. When I first got into this opera thing, they looked at me in a funny way from behind the audition table because I was from musical theater. It kind of took a lot of auditioning and convincing to get In front of the people who understood me and wanted to support that I was not a cookie cutter opera singer, it was tough for sure though. There is an incredible opera festival in Des Moines Iowa, Des Moines Metro Opera. They were the first one to take a big risk on me and cast me in a major role. I have been there four summers already and I am going back this summer. That kind of support and having a company that understands you and wants to see you succeed and believes in you, even if you are kind of a dangerous risk, is invaluable. The cool thing about the festival is that they do broadcast on Iowa public television. We did a production of Billy Budd and we won an Emmy for it. When did operas win Emmys?I love that company and it’s such an amazing experience working there.
MC: From television to theater to opera, you have gotten to work in so many mediums. What is there out there that you have not gotten to tackle yet?
ZJ: Absolutely, I have a long list (laughs). I have done everything, and I have had a taste of everything and I kind of want to go deeper in all ways. In opera, I want to do Wotan in a full range cycle. I would also love the chance to develop a recurring role on a television series and know what that’s like to participate in a story where no one knows the ending yet. I had also been doing a solo show that I really loved, about my time on Broadway and moving to New York. It’s about having this dream and really seeing it come true. I have done it in a bunch of states and I’m doing it again next year. Thats a really special experience also. In the venues that I have done it in, it has been about a hundred people, so close that I could reach out and touch them. I share most vunerabilty in that moment and I am forced to make eye contact with the audience. Telling really personal stories about my life and singing songs that are very personal to me. The intimacy of that and the experience that I have had with just starting into someones eyes while they cry while I sing or a woman coming up to me when I was done and her telling me that what I sang was their song, that is something that is really hard to get in opera. Often times, the venues are so big and the audiences feels so far away. That experience of that intimacy and getting to share that vunerabilty has been really special. It’s like “oh this is what it’s about, This is what art and music can do and what love can do. What it is to share your heart and receive someone else’s’ in return is so special.
MC: After accomplishing so much, can you specifically recall your first time on stage?
ZJ: The first time I was on stage was in Grease in high school, and I was so terrible. I couldn’t sing on pitch, I was a terrible actor, I couldn’t stand still on stage, everything was wrong but it felt so right to be on stage. The lights and being in front of an audience..I always think of my child-self when I am doing these things now, like “pinch me, what would my sixteen year old self say if they knew I that this was what I would turn into”? I come from nothing; super poor, from the woods suburbs of Florida. My dad is a guitarist and a guitar teacher, so I grew up with art in the house. When I wanted to pursue the art I had complete support from my family. No financial support, but my family wanted me to follow my dream. I must say, a lot of my family did not have that. It’s been a crazy life, and I am humbled and grateful.
MC: If you could look back at that sixteen year old boy doing Grease, what would you tell him now?
ZJ: would say believe in yourself one hundred percent. Everyone is going to tell you no, but know in your heart its right. No matter what your dream is, it’s right. Trust your instincts. Everyone wants to stop you but all those moments are just fuel for the fire to prove people wrong. Believe in your message and believe in what you have to share. There is this quote that I saw on a professors door in college; “go where you’re celebrated not where you’re tolerated”. I live by that. I have lived a lot of places and had different managers but I realized I had to go where people understood me and people believed in me. If I am not surrounding myself in people that believe in me, I am just hurting myself.