Spotlight on: James Westman Photo by Rob Harris.

Spotlight on: James Westman

Jenna Simeonov

Stratford-based baritone James Westman is one of Canada’s leading stars, performing roles like the Conte de Luna (Il trovatore), Macbeth (Macbeth), Germont (La traviata), and Horace Tabor (The Ballad of Baby Doe) on the stages of the Canadian Opera Company, San Francisco Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera, Florida Grand Opera, Houston Grand Opera, English National Opera, Vancouver Opera, and many more. Next month, you can hear him sing Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem with the National Arts Centre Orchestra on February 10 and 11. Plus, the Canadian Opera Company just announced that James will sing the role of Sir John A. MacDonald in their 2017 production of Harry Somers’ Louis Riel.

Busy schedule aside, James insists his work as a singer is easier than his growing up on a farm; he chats about advice for young singers, and the great roles still on his to-do list.

Why do you sing professionally?

I sing because I love the art form, the beautifully intimate healing between an artist and the audience. I do it professionally because they pay me! Furthermore, it is much easier than shoveling manure on the farm!

What do young singers need to do more of? What should they do less of?

Young singers that I mentor and hear today need to do two more things to even have a chance at a career.

They need to record and listen to themselves (and do this on a regular basis). If a young singer does not like what they hear then they need to ask questions and obtain skills and technique until they are truly excited about their one individual sound. A recording never lies.

They also need to study and listen to the great artists of the past from Caruso, Warren, Ponsell, Schwarzkopf, Callas, etc. A young singer needs to train their ears more than the two little pieces of tissue in their throat called “The Voice”.

Do you have any “bucket list” roles you’d like to sing?

Verdi’s Rigoletto (dying to do my first), ever since studying years ago with Mr. Rigoletto himself, Louis Quilico, I have wanted to play this role. I still have time though.

Valentin in Faust, before I am too old to be a brother…this role I must do. It is the only role in my career that has been elusive. I had an inquiry once to sing Valentin but I was already engaged at the time. To all opera companies: I promise a super-saver deal to sing Valentin! What a badge of honor that would be.

Eugene Onegin: I am finally getting the opportunity to sing this in the near future. Stay tuned to news from an opera company near you.

I love Puccini’s La bohème so much that every role including Parpignol would be a dream. I have sung two of the roles in La bohème. Guess?!?

Someday my first taste of Wagner. Although this is not my voice type or “fach”, it is every singer’s dream to do this at least once, to try on those Wagnerian costumes and wigs. “HO JO TO HO!”

How do you explain your job to non-music folks?

Well, this is a complicated question, one that I am reluctantly passionate about. It really depends on whether I or they want to become affluent in classical music. Generally, I just keep my mouth shut and ask them about the weather; or who the Maple Leafs lost to this week This is because many of the “non-music” folk that I mildly call acquaintances are either farmers or hockey players.

The lack of musical education in Ontario is quite appalling and everyone, musicians included, cares little to proliferate the art of music. A serious classical cultural investment is needed in Canada and until that happens, what I do for a living is neither relevant or appreciated by “non-music folks”. To my fans and fellow musicians, it is a religious experience to sing and create wonderful masterpieces for my own community and communities throughout the world.

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