Barihunks' Jack Michaels: "We are in a golden age of baritones"Interview
If you’re a fan of opera and opera singer, you likely know about Barihunks. For nearly 10 years, Barihunks has been glorifying the beautiful voices - and abs - of opera’s smooth-voiced baritones. Any baritone who claims that he’s not tickled to be featured on Barihunks is a modest fibber; the cream of the crop even make it into the 10th-anniversary “Baritones in Bed” calendar.
We spoke with Barihunks blogger Jack Michaels, about the sultry appeal of low voices, the blog’s focus on health and fitness, and the respect and admiration he has for all working opera singers.
What is it about baritones? Doesn’t everyone love the tenor?
Composer Ricky Ian Gordon once told me that the baritone is the “voice of the everyday man.” That is so perfectly stated! It’s also the voice operatic kings, fathers, and gloriously memorable villains.
Historically, tastes in voice types shift, often due to who the current superstars are in the world. A generation ago, it was Pavarotti, Carreras and Domingo (who is now a baritone!). We are in a golden age of baritones, which is borne out of looking at who the big male stars are of this era: Bryn Terfel, Thomas Hampson, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Mariusz Kwiecień, Ferruccio Furlanetto and Luca Pisaroni. Even opera’s leading composer of the era, Jake Heggie, writes most of his lead male roles for baritone.
How does it feel to know that many baritones see it as a “rite of passage” to be on Barihunks?
We love knowing that singers view being on the site as a rite of passage. But beyond that, it’s really the only place for baritones to get exposure. Opera truly has been all about the sopranos and tenors for the last 100 years. The most common remark we hear is, “Thank you for featuring me on the site, otherwise no one would know who I am.”
We also keep the site serious and educational, as we realize that this is probably their only real marketing opportunity. The rite of passage is really about being noticed, which is difficult to do when all of the attention is on the higher voices. Moreover, in an age of diminished arts coverage, there aren’t many outlets to be seen and heard. We generally provide a short bio on singers, talk about the production and post future performances with links to tickets.
Do you ever get any criticism about “objectifying” the singers on your site?
We don’t get any serious criticism about objectifying singers, because most people understand what we’re doing. The whole beefcake side of barihunks is just a ruse to get people thinking and talking about opera and singers.
We are also very serious about the health of singers and talk a lot about fitness and diet. A healthy singer will have a longer, more successful career. Our most popular posts by far are our Bari-Chunk to Bari-Hunk features. In fact, our recent post about Lucas Meachem’s switch to a plant-based diet and his amazing physical transformation became one of our ten most popular posts within a month and was shared on fitness and health blogs. That brought opera to a whole new audience.
We get more mail thanking us for changing a singer’s life through health and fitness than anything else. Casey Yeargain’s story of being obese, having no self-esteem and being unable to maintain a relationship was another one that inspired countless singers. He now has his own fitness blog.
Lastly, you’ll see a common thread from singers when asked about being on the site, which is the advent of Hi-Def broadcasts of opera on the internet and movie theaters. Today one does not have the safety of the distance been the loge and the stage, it’s a close-up every minute of the performance. Whether we like it or not, opera is competing with Hollywood and television. Appearances now matter more than ever, although opera must always be first and foremost about the voice. The singer auditioning for Marcello in a Hi-Def broadcast of La bohème who looks “camera ready” may have an edge today over a singer of equal vocal quality.
What have you learned about opera singers through your interviews?
We have met some of the most remarkable, talented and delightful people over the 10 years that Barihunks has been in existence. We’ve learned that opera is a tough business and hard on singers, which is why we post a “No Bitchiness” statement on our main page. Singers have all of the insecurities and anxieties of the non-performer, but amplified a hundred times. Years of preparation, memorizing music, learning languages and torture from coaches goes into every singer’s main stage debut. A little love and adulation after that career path can be pretty meaningful to a young singer.
The main thing that we’ve learned is that singers do this because they LOVE IT. The passion for this art form comes through in every conversation and interaction that we have.
We must all remember that singers are HUMAN. They have feelings, hopes, dreams, anxieties, personal and family relationships, egos and bills to pay. We try to treat every singer with respect, take their careers seriously, honor their goals for living healthy and never diminish them as human beings.
Although you didn’t ask, we’d like to add that one of the things that we’re most proud of is our calendars. The proceeds from those calendars has been used to promote singers, new music, support young artist programs and assist with coachings. This year, the funds were used to commission two new works by American composer Clint Borzoni for baritone and string quartet. Our goal is not just to promote baritones, but to create new music for lower voices. Ultimately, our goal is to morph this site into a foundation to support low voices and new music for voices.
Besides baritones, what’s the sexiest thing about opera?