Recently, BOF Marketing Manager, Lisa Andersen, had the good fortune to sit down with five-decade singing legend and bass-baritone John Cheek, who will perform the role of the Commendatore in Berkshire Opera Festival’s production of Don Giovanni this August. Right from the start, the depth and power of John’s voice was apparent, prompting questions about how he developed his talent as an opera singer.
John, it's so great to meet you and to learn more about your upcoming role as the Commendatore in BOF’s production of Don Giovanni.
Don Giovanni is probably the most fascinating opera that exists. The story is so real and so ambiguous, just like human beings are. You can say that Don Giovanni is the devil, but he's also an attractive fellow, you know, like, women like bad boys [laughs]. And he is a really bad boy. The story is filled with ambiguity and disturbing yet real ideas of humanity, and that's what makes it so endlessly fascinating. Mozart goes back and forth in the blink of an eye from high drama to comedy - there is simply nothing else in opera quite like it. In one instance, they're all vowing vengeance against Giovanni, and this comes on the heels of all this carousing and carrying on in the final scene of the first act. Mozart manages to conjure up the mood with music in miraculously simple but incredibly brilliant ways.
There is the graveyard scene where Leporello is terrified and this statue starts singing, accompanied by trombones. Leporello is absolutely trembling. But Don Giovanni's reaction is, "ahhhh, this is really funny," or, at the very least, "this is kind of curious." And you get this back and forth between utter terror and Giovanni's laissez-faire attitude. And then at the end when the Commendatore comes back to life and is invited to dinner, the music changes again. It takes on this elemental power instead of a lightness that was there before. Everyone loves Don Giovanni.
Opera itself is such a complicated art form. Having any one element missing could throw the whole production off. You have to have a great cast, a wonderful director and a solid concept, and you have to have a really fine music director. There are so many facets that have to “click,” and then all these people have to come together for a fairly brief but intense amount of time to create a show. But we are lucky; we've always had a great time working here with Berkshire Opera Festival. Jonathon [Loy, BOF Co-Founder and Director of Production] and Brian [Garman, BOF Co-Founder and Artistic Director] get wonderful singers, mostly young singers who are on their way up, and some of them have really gone on to reach great heights of success, so this is a truly special space to perform in.
We are excited to see BOF’s presentation of this classic opera. How do you think it will differ from when you portrayed the Commendatore in the past?
Jonathon's take will undoubtedly be different from my performance, say, in 1985. Every production has its own take on it, but the music is the common thread that weaves the story. I have sung both Don Giovanni and the Commendatore over the years. The Commendatore from the production you see below with all the worms coming out was in Paris in 1985 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées with stage director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.
I did three Mozart operas with Ponnelle - Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, and La Clemenza di Tito. Jean-Pierre knew all the Mozart operas in his head, not just the piano score, but the full orchestra score. He was very brusque, and he could be quite cruel, but he was also incredibly brilliant. I consider myself lucky to have worked with him. He taught me so much about being comfortable on stage, mainly because his very loud attention to detail could make you so incredibly uncomfortable in rehearsals, that by the time you got to the performance you were completely at ease.
John, let’s step back a bit. Who were your primary influences that brought you into the performing arts?
Well, way, way back in the dark ages, in the time of rotary phones, my parents were language teachers of French and Spanish. We had records at home, one of which was Ezio Pinza singing, "Some Enchanted Evening". Pinza was a great operatic bass who sang all over the world. I played the piano and the flute, and I sang in choruses when I got into high school, but it was my senior year in high school before I really kind of got the idea about singing. I had been at a band camp the summer after my junior year when I sang for the chorus director who pulled me aside and said, “John, you have a wonderful voice, you should really consider vocal study.” So, I took his advice to heart and began taking voice lessons. Singing captivated me immediately, and straight away I knew that's what I wanted to do.
I auditioned for the North Carolina School of the Arts and was admitted. For the first time in my life I was with people who shared my passion. That was a huge experience for me. From there I was offered a summer program in Siena, Italy, where I spent three summers, which were some of the most glorious times I can recall. I heard people sing arias in the streets - it was really amazing. Our orchestra and vocal performers gave concerts all over that part of Italy.
The second summer I was there, I attended the Accademia Musicale Chigiana, which was a music school founded in 1932 and set in the 14th-century palace of Count Chigi Saracini. I studied with the great Italian baritone Gino Bechi, who was an opera and film star. I learned so much about style from him. His voice was like a volcano, huge but warm. In opera, your career depends on your ability to project your voice and amplify in a large space, and his influence was transformative. He gave what I would call master classes, where the students would come and sing, and he would offer comments about voice, but also about style and language.
In addition to Bechi, I also worked with many legendary artists like the great Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi, soprano Renata Scotto, and baritone Cornell MacNeil, who made some of the loudest sounds that have ever come out of the human body. I mean, he was a force of nature. He had a stupendous voice and a stupendous range. He had the low notes of a bass and the high notes of a tenor. His high A-flat could practically take the top of your head off.
What else can you tell me about those early days? It seems like you got off to a pretty incredible start.
Well, my singing career took an unexpected turn when I suddenly found myself drafted. I had the remarkable misfortune to be selected for service in the first lottery. I talked to a friend of mine at school and he said, “You know, I was in the Army Chorus, you should go audition.” And so I did, and as fortune would have it, they accepted me. I went through basic training in Fort Jackson, SC and then reported to Fort Myer, VA, right across from Arlington Cemetery, where I remained a member of the US Army Chorus for four years. We were a favorite of the Nixon White House, and very soon after I got there, I inherited a big solo which was one of Nixon's favorites - "The Road to Mandalay," by Oley Speaks. We had to perform that every time we went to the White House. In fact, one time we were doing a big concert for the Press Corps and we weren't planning on performing it, but all of a sudden an aide came over and handed Captain Crowell, our conductor, a note that said, "The President would like to hear 'The Road To Mandalay'.” When your Commander-In-Chief gives you an order, you say, "Yes, Sir." But our pianist didn’t have the sheet music, so we quickly improvised and performed it a cappella. At 23 years old that was quite a heady experience being six feet away from the President. From that time on, I more or less earned my living as a singer.
I managed to secure an agent, and in 1975 I moved back to New York City, which was a terrifying experience. I took the train from DC, got out at Penn Station, and there I was in the middle of a garbage strike. Piles of stinking garbage, 10 and 15 feet high, prostitutes sifting through the garbage along with homeless people, and I'm thinking, “John, what the hell have you done?” But I got an apartment and it wasn't too expensive. I had a little bit of money saved, but those were difficult times.
I had a few jobs here and there in New York. I did a two-month bus and truck tour of Naughty Marietta with the great Cyril Ritchard. If you ever saw the old NBC television production of Peter Pan with Mary Martin, he was Captain Hook. He was Australian and very campy. He would stage productions at the Met and he actually came to my Met debut the following year, I was very honored.
The Metropolitan Opera?
That’s the one. Two years after landing in New York, I was at the Metropolitan Opera. Which was...well, it was terrifying. I was 27 years old and auditioning for Maestro Levine, replete with a fever. In retrospect, I probably should have canceled the audition, but of course I didn’t, and fortunately for me, it went all right and I got the offer. I was there at the Met doing mostly small roles and a few larger ones for the next several years, and then began to branch out into other things. I also did a lot of oratorio work and concerts with orchestra.
That same year, 1977, I made two other debuts. One was with the New York Philharmonic and the other was at Tanglewood with Leonard Bernstein. My introduction to Tanglewood was fairly dramatic. I was in Vermont performing at the Marlboro Festival and came down to Tanglewood to do the Haydn Lord Nelson Mass with the Boston Symphony. I remember we were waiting backstage excitedly for Maestro to arrive, when here came Maestro Bernstein driving across the lawn (which I'm sure no one else was allowed to do) in his Mercedes convertible. He had a cigarette in a long holder, and wore a huge hat and a large red-lined cape, which was artfully draped over the back of the car. It was quite an entrance, and people were literally coming out of the bushes yelling, "Lenny! Lenny!" So that was my introduction to Tanglewood.
You may have mentioned it, but what would you say was your breakout role?
Well, early on at the Met I did roles that were fairly small, and the breakout I guess would have been Ferrando in Il Trovatore, which is fairly short, but has a nice aria. I did that quite a bit over the next few years, but in order to get the really big roles, I had to leave the Met. In retrospect, it was probably too early for me to land at such an elevated space. I should have been seasoned somewhere else before going to the Met, because it was it was truly terrifying, but I did manage to survive. It makes me think of that line, I think it's from The Merchant of Venice, "...how many things by season, seasoned are." I lacked that seasoning my first time out.
I was invited to the New York City Opera in 1986, and landed the title role in Boito's Mefistofele. Boito was Verdi's librettist, and this was a very famous production for the New York City Opera, arguably the most popular production in their entire history. It was originally done for the great American bass Norman Treigle in 1969, and it was one of the first uses of multimedia in opera. It begins with the prologue in heaven and you see the blackness, and then a swirling cosmos, with brass bands in all four corners of the theater playing fanfares. The devil appears, and has a dialogue with God, which is very amusing, based on the Faust legend.
The role of Mefistofele is very athletic. I actually broke my big toe in dress rehearsal and had to perform the whole run with that broken toe. I wasn't quite as athletic as Treigle - he had a lot of dance training and he did these amazing backflips. I did a lot of rolling around. It was crazy, but it was it was great fun. Then later I performed the title role in The Marriage of Figaro at the Met, which is a role that I did in many other theaters as well. So those are two roles that are very close to my heart, but there are many, many others.
Was stage fright ever an issue for you?
Hahaha, stage fright is an issue for just about everybody. It certainly was for me, but I wasn't as bad as some of my colleagues. When I walked through that stage door at the Met, even for rehearsal, there were times that I really felt the weight of that. I'm walking in there, and I'm going to be among giants, and so I have to do my absolute best. And you know, right before you go on, there's this big adrenaline rush.
I'll tell you a little stage fright story. I was making my debut in the title role in The Marriage of Figaro, and it was in the middle of a run. I had participated in all the rehearsals, and now it's five minutes to 8:00. They had just finished putting on my costume and make-up, and I'm warming up when I hear a knock on the door. It's my soprano, Carol Vaness, who is this wonderful, fabulous singer with a wicked sense of humor. She walks right up close to me and looks me straight in the face. I’m off my heels wondering what comes next, and she says, "DON'T (BLEEP) UP."
Did you crack up at that moment?
It took me by surprise, absolutely, but then I was kind of like, "Ok, that was very funny." She knocked those show jitters right out.
It sounds like you have traveled the globe throughout your career.
I've sung all over Europe, Southeast Asia, South America, Canada, Mexico... In addition to opera, I’ve sung with pretty much every major orchestra in the United States and Canada.
So, you weren't focused solely on opera?
No, no, a lot of what I did were concerts with orchestras. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Haydn's Creation, Bach Passions and the B Minor Mass, The Damnation of Faust, and many other works.
What was your favorite role?
Probably Mefistofele. That was that was the one where I got the biggest response from the audience. It was, in part, because it was such a physical role. In later years I was able to perform it again without having a broken toe, which was considerably more enjoyable.
It must be so lovely to play these roles several times over the course of your career.
I sang Mefistofele for a couple of seasons at City Opera, and then two other productions - one in Switzerland and another in Nice, France, which was one of my favorite venues. I sang six productions in Nice, in a beautiful opera house built in 1890, a miniature version of La Scala, which was across the street from the Mediterranean. My dressing room window looked out over the beautiful ocean. Nice is a foodie’s paradise, with wonderful markets, incredible food and restaurants, and the climate is just perfect.
So you've told me some pretty incredible stories. Are there any others that you'd like to share?
Do you want to hear what was one of the most disastrous nights in Met history which I happened to be a part of? Just remember, it wasn't my fault, okay?
Especially if it wasn't your fault.
In 1982, we were performing the opera La Gioconda by Ponchielli and it's an old-style melodrama. I was coming in during the middle of a run, replacing another singer. I came to the theater and I was getting my make-up on when I heard Placido Domingo come in and say, "Ohh, I don't feel well," and I looked in his room and there were his suitcases. So, after Act 1, Domingo cancels, and his cover (which is opera speak for understudy, a fellow named Carlo Bini) was sitting out in the company box watching the performance. So, they brought him in and started getting him ready to sing. I had rehearsed with Carlo a few days before and he was a very good artist who had done this kind of thing before, but for some reason, he was very, very nervous. He didn't have a chance to warm up. I think he could have asked them to hold the curtain so he could get warmed up properly, but the Met was anxious to proceed because it's a very long opera and if it went past midnight, it was going to cost like $50,000 in overtime. So he goes out, and the first thing he has to sing is this very famous aria, "Cielo e mar." It's very difficult, and in his nervousness, he sang very badly, flat and behind the beat, and since people had just been hearing Domingo at his best, the audience started to go nuts. They were booing and catcalling and it was obviously terrible. He ended his piece on a wobbly high note that was completely off-pitch. They booed and booed until he ran off-stage and locked himself in his dressing room.
As the show continued, Bini had another entrance coming up, and the administrator, who was famous for being present when all such disasters took place was shouting, “Mr. Bini, Mr. Bini, you have an entrance!" Meanwhile, the opera grinds to a halt when his entrance arrives and there's no tenor. Finally, about a minute later, they literally push him out onto the stage like a rag doll, and the audience is cheering and carrying on. And he has just absolutely forgotten the staging. The soprano just grabbed him and flung him in position. The conductor was Giuseppe Patanè, an eccentric Sicilian but a truly brilliant conductor. At one point he turned around to the jeering audience and said, “Please, you no have a’ respect for me, at least a’ have a’ respect for Ponchielli!” and everybody laughed. Then the mezzo-soprano Mignon Dunn came onstage and Carlo is actually trying to run off stage at this point. The mezzo held on to him, and he ended up behind her somehow. As he was rather short, all you saw were his hands on that poor mezzo’s ample bosom, and the audience is just screaming, laughing, yelling, and carrying on. Mercifully, the act finally ends, and I am in the next act. It's important to note that I have never been on this particular set before, so I'm hoping that the assistant director would be helping me, but they're busy dealing with the disaster. So, I found my way on stage and into my aria. At the end of the act is a scene where the tenor is supposed to be having an affair with my wife, and so I've killed her. When I reveal this, the tenor is supposed to rush at me with a knife and then be stopped. Well, this distraught tenor takes this knife, and he's charging across the stage at me like a bull, and I’m thinking, “Oh Jesus, he's gonna kill me!” Fortunately, there was a very experienced supernumerary who stopped him. He grabbed the hand with the knife, wrestled Bini to the floor and wrenched the knife out of his hand, and right then during an orchestral fortissimo, leaned in and hissed in his in his ear, “YOU (BLEEP)ER!”
So at this point, I'm finished with my performance, but there is still another act of the opera left to go. I'm taking off my makeup when the cover conductor, Eugene Kohn, knocks on my door and says, “Hi, can I borrow your score? I think I'm conducting the 4th Act.” And sure enough, Patanè said he was having heart palpitations, and he cancelled. So the cover conductor finished the opera, and this entire calamity ends up on the front page of the New York Times. So that's opera as bloodsport. And its why being a cover can be so difficult, because you can be called in last-minute and they slap the costume on you and the make-up, and then you are on your own.
That is a remarkable story, John. In moving from covers to lead roles, do you remember the moment when you felt like an accomplished performer?
I don't know that I ever felt accomplished. You know, we always have insecurities, but certainly it took several years past my Met debut before I had real comfort with what I was doing.
I was very busy for several years, and as I began to get a little more settled in the field, my wife and I decided that we would like to find a little place in the country. We ended up buying a lovely cottage in Stockbridge near my manager's cottage, which is how we ended up here. I was in the midst of a lot of performing at that point, and we were driving back and forth to New York City. We eventually bought the house we live in now and sold our NYC apartment in 1995.
Was the Berkshire culture scene as vibrant as it is now?
No, it was just starting, and the summers were fun, but there was not a lot in terms of The Arts in the wintertime. There was ski season, of course, and I used to do a lot of cross-country skiing. I would say that winter sports were the big draw in the off-season.
I see that this will be your third season with Berkshire Opera Festival.
I cannot state enough how Brian and Jonathon always create a really wonderful working atmosphere. They bring in truly remarkably people, and generally, it's a joy to do the work and it is deeply rewarding, particularly now that I'm mostly retired. I don't get a lot of performing opportunities these days, so this is a thrill for me. I'm at the age where most people have retired. Very few singers continue into their 70s, with some finishing much earlier than that. You're lucky to get a 30-year performing career, and I'm stretching towards 50 years. There have been exceptions, of course. There have been singers who've gone into their 80s, but that's very rare. But if you're able to keep your voice in good shape, and are careful about what you sing and where you sing, a long career is possible.
How have you kept your vocal capacity all these years? What’s your secret?
I had wonderful teachers and I learned good technique, which is so important. I had a vocal teacher at the School of the Arts in North Carolina, Norman Farrow, who was a member of something called the Bach Aria Group, who taught me so much. And then later I had a teacher named Alice Howland, also from the same school, with whom I also studied in New York. Maintaining my capacity involved constant practice and, of course, performing. I have grown a bit lax these past few years, but still do try to sing several times a week. My church choir helps, but is not enough on its own. I'm not so big on teas or other nostrums, but I have been lucky to stay pretty healthy.
Do you enjoy other genres of music in your down time? Any favorites you would like to share? Any local artists we should watch for that you have noticed?
I enjoy gospel music and some great cabaret singers such as the late Nancy LaMott, who we heard live only a few weeks before her untimely death in 1995. I am a great admirer of Kelli O'Hara, an amazingly versatile classically-trained singer who is comfortable as few are on Broadway, in cabaret, and on the opera stage. I heard her solo concert at the Mahaiwe a few years ago. But most of what I listen to is classical.
Who is John Cheek outside of performing?
Well, I spend a lot of time volunteering with my church, the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, and with Berkshire Interfaith Organizing in Pittsfield. We accompany immigrants going to their court appearances, ICE check-ins, and fingerprinting. We meet them, travel to Hartford and go into the courtroom with them, serving as a witness and a presence, to show the court that somebody cares about them. My Spanish is pretty rusty, but we have someone who's fluent who helps them navigate all the bureaucracy. It can be a fairly lengthy day only to have them say, "OK, come back in five months." So far though, no one has been deported on my trips, so I think our support helps.
I also head a food pantry team here in Great Barrington - the People’s Pantry - once every month or so with the teams from my church and other churches. The food pantry is here in St. James Place in the basement, and it is open on Thursday mornings from 9-1 and also on Monday evenings. When the pantry first started out, we offered little more than canned goods, and now we get donations from Guido's and other fine local markets. When our people bring fresh vegetables right out of the gardens that day, it is just beautiful, pristine food, and so it's great to be able to offer that to people.
And you mentioned that you're a foodie. As a long-time Berkshire resident, what is your favorite restaurant around here?
I love the Old Mill in Egremont. It has been around for 40 years and I've never had a bad meal there. They have a lovely bar where you can wait when it's crowded. Also, Cafe Adam in Great Barrington is wonderful and worth a visit this season.
I also love to cook! My wife, Lee, and I have our own garden. In fact, we just underwent an entire architectural redesign of our garden last spring to make the work easier for older bodies. Cooking with fresh ingredients is a pure delight.
Commendatore, Don Giovanni, Paris 1985.
Photo courtesy of John Cheek.
Monterone in Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi, Berkshire Opera Festival, 2018. Photo courtesy of Ken Howard.
The Commendatore in Don Giovanni, Paris, 1985. Photo courtesy of John Cheek.
Frank Maurrant in Street Scene by Kurt Weill, UMASS Amherst. Photo courtesy of John Cheek.
Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito, New York City Opera. Photo courtesy of Beth Bergman.
The Commendatore in Don Giovanni, Paris, 1985.
Photo courtesy of John Cheek.
Dansker in Billy Budd by Benjamin Britten, Metropolitan Opera. Photo courtesy of John Cheek.
King Phillip in Don Carlo by Giuseppe Verdi, Opera de Nice. Photo courtesy of John Cheek.
Water Sprite in Rusalka by Antonin Dvořák. Photo courtesy of John Cheek.
Billy Budd by Benjamin Britten, Metropolitan Opera. Photo courtesy of John Cheek.