Baritone Johnathan McCullough to Make Company Debut as Figaro, Figaro, Fee-gah-roh
When Pittsburgh Opera opens its 2023-2024 season on Saturday, October 14, at the Benedum, the opera performed will be Rossini’s aways delightful The Barber of Seville. Conductor Antony Walker will wave his musical wand over the performances, directed by Gregory Keller. Recently, baritone Johnathan McCullough, who will make his company debut in the delightful role of Figaro, took the time to answer a few questions for an onStage Pittsburgh exclusive.
CC: Tell us a little about yourself.
JM: I’m a baritone from Los Angeles. I went to the Curtis Institute of Music here in Pennsylvania for seven years, where I did undergrad, graduate, and post-graduate work. Then I began freelancing, in Berlin, Switzerland, and England, and around the US, and now I’m here with Pittsburgh Opera for The Barber of Seville.
CC: This is your Pittsburgh Opera debut. Welcome to Pittsburgh. Have you been able to find your way around town?
JM: We have six hours of rehearsal each day, but I have found time to explore the city. There’s some great food here, and the architecture is amazing. I love these old industrial factory-type buildings. Pittsburgh Opera has the coolest office space I’ve seen for an opera company ever. I’m looking forward to seeing more of downtown between show days.
CC: How did you get interested in opera?
Johnathan McCullough, baritone, by Daniel Welch
JM: I did an opera camp when I was 15, in LA. That was the first time anybody told me that this was something I could do as a career. So I ended up applying to music schools, which is how I wound up at Curtis.
CC: You’re involved with the National Youth Opera Academy. Tell us a bit about that.
JM: The youth chorus I was in, the Paulist Choristers of California, was a very small chorus in my elementary school. It’s since expanded from around 30 members to 1,500 members spanning eight-chapter cities all across the US. Now it’s called the National Children’s Chorus. I ran into their director, and I mentioned that I had started stage directing, and they said that they were thinking of starting an opera program themselves. We began collaborating, and created the Vail Opera Camp, which is now called the National Youth Opera Academy, where we train the next generation of stage managers, and opera singers, conductors. We teach our students about design, and behind the scenes stuff in a ‘learn by doing’ atmosphere, modifying the Curtis curriculum for high school students. It had been in Vail, Colorado for the past two years but we’re moving it to Austin, Texas. It’s a two-week program, where we do a fully staged opera with orchestra and costumes, and have master classes and career seminars.
CC: You’re not just a singer, but also a stage director. What’s it like to wear both those hats?
JM: I delineate between whether I’m wearing my singer hat or my director hat. When I’m singing in a show I’m not directing, my goal is to fulfill the vision of the stage director. With this production of The Barber of Seville, stage director Greg Keller is very collaborative. We try something, if it doesn’t work we toss it out and move on. That’s the kind of environment most singers really thrive in.
CC: Tell us a little bit about Figaro the character.
JM: He’s the man about town. He’s not a member of the aristocracy, but nothing happens in that town without his knowledge or him facilitating it. He’s the facilitator that gets things moving in the story. The Count doesn’t know how to approach Rosina; if it wasn’t for Figaro, we’d have a 15-minute opera. He’s smooth, nothing can throw him off his game, he’s always thinking on his feet.
CC: What’s it like playing him in this production?
JM: In this show, he has a lot of props – without giving anything away, it’s pretty prop-heavy right from the beginning. There’s a balance to managing all these props, where you need to find calmness, so that the character comes across as being as smooth as possible instead of scattered.
CC: You’ve sang the role of Figaro before. What’s your favorite thing about the role?
JM: This is my fourth production as Figaro, and my seventh of The Barber of Seville. (I’ve done the Officer role three times.) My favorite thing about the role is that I get to be myself in it. The music is amazing, it’s music we’ve all heard whether you listen to opera or not. The show we did at the Youth Opera Academy this summer was all based on Barber music; then I did a Barber production three weeks ago, and now this production. So, I’ve been around this music every day since June, and I’m still not tired of it.
CC: What does the audience have to look forward to at this show?
JM: What don’t they have to look forward to? This show has something for everyone, whether you are a traditionalist or like things that are a bit new. It stays very true to the story, while also looking at these characters very much as humans that the audience can relate to. The characters are not archetypes, they’re real people – they could be your neighbor, people that you see every day. I really like how Greg brings immediacy and relatability to all these characters who are such titans in the opera world. It gives a modern perspective of ‘these are people that you know’ while still staying true to the legacy of this work.
Find out more about the production, performance dates and get TICKETS at Pittsburgh Opera.
Special thanks to Chris Cox Director of Marketing and Communications for Pittsburgh Opera