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It's all about that bass-baritone Evan Hughes, opera's rising star

It's all about that bass-baritone Evan Hughes, opera's rising star
Photo credit:
Matthu Placek

Mention opera to me and you may as well be trying to explain nuclear science because it's not something that I really understand. To be clear, I don't follow sports either, but each year I watch the Super Bowl and get caught up in its drama. I think the same can be said for opera, and with San Diego having one of the most renown opera programs in the United States I wanted to find out more. 

There may have been no better person to explain it to me than Evan Hughes who is currently performing as the titular character in San Diego Opera's season opener "The Marriage of Figaro" through October 28.  

I recently talked to Evan about his rising career, the fame that comes with it and his personal life which he refuses to give up even as he travels the world. As I answered the phone for the interview what became apparent is Evan is one of those people whose voice matches his strikingly good looks. A little intimidated, I told him about my apprehension for opera and not knowing anything about it. He was reassuring, “I think opera is something that’s not so widely consumed in this country by many younger generations so it’s completely understandable.” 

Relishing that he called me young, I said I feel lost if I don’t know what they’re singing and that keeps me away. Again he understood and offered some advice,  “I think opera works best with a little bit of research before you go because you have to put yourself in another time period not sort of figure out what is the context of this piece, why was it written? What do these people want? What is politically happening you have to kind of figure out why the thing was made in the time it was written.”

He adds, “It’s a tricky thing to connect to.”

Evan won't really admit this, he's not only handsome he's humble, but the 35-year-old is a celebrity in his entertainment field. In fact, there are too many accolades to list here, but if you are really interested you can read his bio which lists Carnegie Hall, The Metropolitan Opera, the Hollywood Bowl, Walt Disney Concert Hall, and Paris’ Philharmonie as some of the places he's making his mark on 21at century opera, concert, and chamber music.

"I definitely don’t feel like a celebrity," he said. "I think that in the world of opera if you’re chasing the feeling of celebrity you’re barking up the wrong tree. But I do feel like I have accomplished more than I ever could have imagined I would have as an opera singer. You know, it was always my dream to be a singer; I grew up in a musical family and the fact that I’ve been able to create a sustainable career past the years of education and the young artist program and start to find my own path in the opera world feels really great. But I definitely would say that I don't feel like a celebrity,” laughs Evan.

I try to point out that maybe people don't readily recognize him in public, but he definitely shouldn't feel like an ordinary citizen. He says that's true, but only in the way that he has to pinch himself after getting a great review or a unique opportunity. 

"Each time one thing is over it’s not like you are all of a sudden ‘I’ve made it!’" he said. "You still are always looking for the next challenge, the next opportunity to grow as an artist. That’s the way that I approach it, but I am also not somebody who is super-ambitious about fame or notoriety or about everyone knowing my name. I love working, I love being engaged in it, but my happiness, my life, my friendships, relationships, and my family are actually the center of my life."

But does all of this work leave him time for a private life? I wondered if dating factored in somewhere between the Mozarts and Stravinskys, there has got to be time for that. And what happens when he tells a date he's an opera singer. In America, people think he means "Phantom of the Opera." 

"It’s funny because it’s so different in Europe, where I’m now living—I live in Berlin. When I tell people 'I’m an opera singer' in the United States, it's often ‘what’s that?’ or ‘what’s opera?’ because it’s unfortunately no longer part of the zeitgeist. In Europe, if I’m at a dinner party or something, I tell somebody I’m an opera singer they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I went to the opera the other day, I hated the production…’ it’s just more a  part of what people do and what people consume. In Europe, it’s also funded and supported by the government.”

The Santa Barbara native started his 2019 season in San Diego for "The Marriage of Figaro." It's described as a comedy, but Evan says it's a little more than that, "It’s kind of a drama masquerading as a comedy. It’s about very, very serious things.”

He says a lot of stage entertainment, especially musical ones were very important in the changing of the times. Figaro was especially provocative at the time as it dealt with abuse of aristocratic power, something that was soon to be upheaved by the French Revolution. In fact, the original Figaro premiered in 1786, the Revolution began two years later. 

Evan explains that the opera is metaphorical, "It’s about servants outsmarting their masters and saying even though you have this power over me because of the aristocratic law that doesn’t mean that that’s right. It’s a human moment of the servants proving to their masters that they have to act with humanity. Even though there are comedic aspects, Figaro is never playing for laughs, there’s always a real circumstance it’s always something real that I’m fighting for."

Figaro is also an opera with a heavy female presence, at least modern interpretations of it. In the past men were given the female roles as women were not allowed on stage. It's a barbaric thought now, but male singers in the Baroque period were actually castrated in order to reach the notes of a female; they were called castratos.

But as the times changed so did the acceptance of women, and in Figaro, there is the character of Cherubino "It’s a girl playing a boy dressed as a girl. So there’s a lot of gender-bending going on."

Which made me think of today's entertainment industry and gay roles being played by straight men and trans roles being played by non-trans actors. It's a bit of a stretch but still deals with people who are not allowed to portray their gender because someone said so. 

“The difference is that we’re in a time when we’re writing new material and we should be giving opportunities to the people who are being portrayed through these TV shows and these plays. Opera is a historical art form. You could try and cast a man with a countertenor range for example to sing Cherubino but because it’s been the convention for a long time for a female to do it--it’s called a pants role--it doesn’t have the same kind of trigger."

As with the French Revolution, I asked Evan if today's art could be ground-zero for social change. He says it's never going to be different, "There are always going to be people who abuse power. There’s always going to be corruption with power, and art has always served the same purpose; to highlight and bring people’s attention to these things in society that need to change; art has always been the mirror. I don’t think that’s going to change. That’s one of the most important things about being an artist.”

After this weekend in San Diego Evan will embark on several years of bookings. He's going to Berlin and Hamburg next in a project he calls extraordinary. "It was written in 2012 and is called Written on Skin by George Benjamin; a very incredible dramatic psychological drama."

As we close our interview he says he has been given a huge gift with his life in the theater and it's become an adventure of a lifetime filled with people who come together for a single purpose. 

“One of the greatest things about being an opera singer is that each time you take on a contract you go into a new group of people creating a piece you may have done before and it’s always going to be different because you have a new alchemy amongst the performers.”

Perhaps the only thing that I need to understand about opera is that the language they are speaking is only a part of it. The stage is filled with people conveying ideas, making statements that are still just as relevant today as they were over 200 years ago.

And maybe all of this can simply be sized up by Evan's five simple words, "I like to make art.”

To read more about Evan Hughes click HERE.

You can catch him as Figaro in San Diego's Opera of "The Marriage of Figaro" through October 28.