‘Canadian baritone [James Westman] has made the opera his own after many performances

James Westman, performing the role of SHARPLESS, in Opera Lyra Ottawa’s MADAMA BUTTERFLY, is the featured artist on the cover of today’s Arts&Life Section.  Digital copy to follow when it becomes available.  Details about OLO’s upcoming production can be found here.  Opens SATURDAY!


Opera Lyra Ottawa presents Madama Butterfly

When and where: April 19, 21, 23 and 26, NAC Southam Hall.

Tickets: Start at $25, at NAC box office or through TicketMaster (1-888-991-2787)

Information: operalyra.ca

You’ve seen the opera before and you know exactly where things are headed when innocent Madama Butterfly sits on that hill and wonders what’s taking her husband so long to return to her and their son.

But when she figures out that her Pinkerton is not coming back, your eyes well up as if you’ve never seen it before and you start digging for tissues, along with the 2,000 or so others around you who are doing the same thing.

If you’re planning to attend Opera Lyra Ottawa’s production of Madama Butterfly April 19 to 26, get ready for the waterworks, but know that you’ve got company in Canadian baritone James Westman. Westman sings the role of Sharpless, the American consul in Japan who watches helplessly as Pinkerton marries Butterfly and then abandons her to return to the U.S.. Westman has sung Sharpless more than 70 times, but says he still gets misty eyed.

The April 21st performance will mark his 75th performance in the opera, and “there have been few performances where I haven’t been in tears,” he said recently between rehearsals. “You can’t experience Butterfly and not be touched by that beautiful music and powerful story.”

Westman, 41, first sang the role about 20 years ago, and says the tears “usually happen when Sharpless realizes he has to take action, to tell Pinkerton of the existence of his young son. For the rest of the opera, Sharpless not only has a purpose and direction, he has angst, though it’s too late for Butterfly.”

Opera Lyra’s production includes Chinese soprano Shu-Ying Li as Butterfly and Canadian tenor Antoine Belanger as Pinkerton. The production is staged by Canadian director François Racine and conducted by Opera Lyra’s departing artistic director, Tyrone Paterson.

“It’s going to be a beautiful production,” Westman says. “Shu-Ying Li is incredible. I’ve done quite a few Butterflies and she’s the best I’ve had the pleasure of performing with. The whole cast is top-notch.”

Westman, who grew up on a farm near Stratford, still lives in the area with his wife Dini and two sons. His calendar includes coming performances with the Vancouver Symphony and Calgary Opera, a recording with violinist James Ehnes and a debut with the New York Philharmonic next December in Handel’s Messiah. When he sang Germont in La Traviata, another signature role, for Utah Opera early this year, an Opera News critic praised Westman’s “wide dramatic range and superb vocal control. His keen sense of theatrical expression kept the audience riveted to his every utterance.”

Between opera gigs, Westman sometimes sings the national anthem at Maple Leafs games, a dream job for a hockey fan whose two sons, age 12 and 14, both play hockey. He has sung for the NHL since 1997, and sang at Wayne Gretzky’s final game at Maple Leaf Gardens. He has a game puck as a souvenir.

So he’s not doing badly for someone who thought his singing career might be over when he was just 12 years old.

Westman started singing at age five as a way of curing a stutter. A therapist suggested he sing what he wanted to say, and the approach worked so well, Westman says he lost the stutter within weeks.

A few years later, he started singing in children’s choirs and from there was accepted into the American Boychoir. He won an audition to sing the solo in Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 for a U.S. and European tour with conductor Benjamin Zander, including performances in Carnegie Hall and Vienna’s Musikverein. He later sang the same piece with Leonard Bernstein and the Boston Symphony. Along the way, Jamie Westman also made a recording of church hymns and other tunes, several of which are on YouTube, for any Butterfly-goers curious to hear what Sharpless sounded like as a boy.

Westman says he loved every minute of his treble days, but when puberty kicked in and his voice cracked, he assumed his glory days were over. He was singing in the Vienna Boys Choir at the time, and was promptly sent home, where he was shoveling manure the next day. He spent his teen years playing hockey and he says it didn’t occur to him that he might resume singing after his voice changed.

“I just assumed that it was over, and that I would never again have that wonderful feeling that your voice can do anything, the way that I had as a boy.”

In fact, Westman’s voice ripened into a warm and powerful baritone, though he didn’t realize it until he was at the University of Toronto, where he originally enrolled to study politics. He signed up for chorus classes for fun, but Westman was immediately given leading roles. Thanks to the encouragement of teachers there, he says, “I never looked back. It took several years, but I felt so fortunate to be doing what I had loved as a boy.”

Westman won prizes at international competitions, including the audience prize at the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in 1999. He landed spots in training programs with the Canadian Opera Company and the San Francisco Opera, and attracted the notice of soprano Joan Sutherland and mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, who coached him regularly and “taught me so much about singing, stagecraft and communication.”

In March of 2015, Westman will return to Opera Lyra to star as Count Almaviva in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. It will be conducted by Kevin Mallon, one of Westman’s early mentors.

“I love everything about that opera. The music is divine, and I love playing the Count. It’s the story of everyone who is hungry for power and thinks they’re in control, and they’re never in control,” he says with a laugh.

Since last September, Westman has been teaching at Wilfrid Laurier University. He says working with student singers has been enriching.

“I have had wonderful teachers myself, and teaching became such a part of my wellbeing. The students are wonderful. Working with them has helped me become a better person, a better father, a better musician, a better singer. It’s very rewarding.”