By Roger McKinney
Robert Dean Smith is performing through the end of the year in the lead male role in Puccini’s opera “Madama Butterfly” at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
Smith, 55, is no stranger to the Met. This is his third opera there. His first time on the Met stage, in 2008, was unplanned and broadcast to movie theaters nationwide.
Smith — often described with the preface “American tenor” — grew up in Chetopa, Kan., graduating in 1974 from Chetopa High School. He went on to Pittsburg State University, where he graduated with two bachelor’s degrees in music in 1980. From there, he went on to complete his master’s degree in 1982 at New York’s Juilliard School.
Click here to watch a video of Robert Dean Smith performing a piece by Mahler in May at Leipzig, Germany.
Smith said his time at PSU was an important step toward his career. He said there were several professors who were both knowledgeable and inspiring.
“There was a lot of positive influence” at PSU, he said. “It formed my whole way of thinking for my career after that.
“Coming from Chetopa, I knew that there was another world out there — the music world. But I didn’t have any access to it. I was able to find that world or at least able to get started at Pittsburg.”
Smith lives in the Italian-speaking area of Switzerland with his wife, Janice Harper. They met during his first opera, at the end of which his character and Harper’s character were married. He called it a premonition.
“It’s the classic love story,” he said.
When Smith switched from baritone to tenor several years back, he said he asked his wife to be his teacher. He said it has been an ideal arrangement.
“I feel like a professional tennis player who travels with his coach,” he said.
He said his routine on days he isn’t performing is to do about an hour of voice warm-up followed by two hours or more of singing practice. Rehearsals involve two to three hours each morning and each afternoon. On performance days, he does the hour of warm-up before performing.
He said he tries to protect his voice by limiting his talking on performance days and the day before. He avoids going out and socializing much while performing.
In “Madama Butterfly,” Smith’s role is Lt. Pinkerton, an American Navy lieutenant who falls in love with a beautiful Japanese woman, Cio-Cio-San, known as Madama Butterfly, who is performed by Liping Zhang. His military duty calls him away.
“That’s the kind of jerk, cad that he is,” Smith said.
When Pinkerton finds out he has a child with Cio-Cio-San, he returns with his American wife and wants the child. In a tragic ending, she commits suicide.
“The composer, Puccini, touches your heart and soul,” Smith said. “It’s such a joy to be able to be a part of that and sing that, to communicate those ideas and emotions. Everyone feels it differently. That’s the joy of being in a performance. It lives in every single person differently. It speaks to the soul.”
The opera star Placido Domingo is conducting. Smith said though he had met Domingo in the past, he had never performed with him.
“He’s had such a marvelous career,” Smith said. “It’s nice that he’s sung my part before. We have a special communication between us, I think. We exchange glances during the performance. He knows the piece. He knows what it feels like being on that stage at the Metropolitan Opera singing it.”
He said his mother, Patricia Smith, of Joplin, and his two sisters came to New York this month to see him perform. There also have been other familiar faces in the New York audience.
“It’s a big treat for me,” he said. “I really enjoy it. I enjoy sharing my talent with them. I hope they enjoy it too. It’s a great city, a great production.”
His debut performance at The Met was in German composer Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” in March 2008.
It wasn’t planned.
Smith was sought to step in quickly as Tristan, substituting for a tenor who was injured during a performance, who himself was substituting for the original Tristan, who came down with a viral infection. It turned out that Smith’s performance had a nationwide audience as a result of being broadcast to movie theaters around the country.
Smith said performing an Italian opera is a nice change of pace for him. He performs in a lot of Wagner operas. Wagner’s opera “Die Walkure” includes the well-known section “Ride of the Valkyries.”
When rehearsing the opera, he said he knows someone will break the tension with “kill da wabbit!” as sung by Elmer Fudd in the classic Looney Tunes cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc?”
Smith said he doesn’t specifically recall having seen the cartoon as a child in Chetopa, but before attending PSU, his vision of an opera singer always included a helmet with horns — the kind that Elmer Fudd wore in the cartoon.
Robert Dean Smith performs in “Madama Butterfly” at New York’s Metropolitan Opera today; Saturday; Thursday, Dec. 22; Tuesday, Dec. 27; and Friday, Dec. 30.
He performs in Germany in February and at the Vienna State Opera in Austria in March. He returns to the U.S. in May, where he will perform in the Beethoven opera “Fidelio” with the Dallas Symphony.