01 May 2015

Interview: Justin Hopkins on ‘The Road of Promise’

Bass-baritone Justin Hopkins.

Among the cast of the Collegiate Chorale’s upcoming U.S. premiere of Kurt Weill’s The Road of Promise, the name Justin Hopkins stands out. The bass-baritone will sing the role of the Dark Angel next week, and I first encountered him at Fort Worth Opera, in Glass’ Hydrogen Jukebox, in 2011, where he displayed a commanding voice, keen musicality, and the skill to deliver a long, emotional monologue — spoken, not sung — with more power than most stage actors his age could muster. To The Road of Promise Hopkins brings a couple of credentials that should serve him well: he’s a former winner of the Lotte Lenya Competition, sharing second place in 2012; and as a veteran of the Philadelphia Boys Choir, he knows his way around big choral works.

“I would not have had a career in music without my experience with the Boys Choir,” Hopkins said. “Number one, it established my love and appreciation for the music that I’m singing today.” He points to Britten’s War Requiem, which he’s just sung for the first time as a baritone soloist — but which was the first piece he performed with the Boys Choir, when he was nine years old. With the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch, the Requiem made an impression, and Hopkins remembers being “astonished at the size and scope of this piece, and how it moved things.” He bought a recording of the piece and listened to it “over and over, while my friends were listening to God knows what. The fact that I performed the War Requiem all those years ago informed my performance this year.”

Hopkins also credits the choir’s director, Robert G. Hamilton, for instilling in him the discipline he’s needed to pursue a career in music, lessons he sums up as “You needed to be in constant focus and attention, but you needed to be passionate. I’ve taken that with me, and that informs my drive and my passion for performing today.” The choir also influenced Hopkins’ musical aesthetics. “Dr. Hamilton was in constant search of contemporary composers at the forefront of choral music,” Hopkins says, and the Boys Choir performed a wide-ranging repertory that embraced classical and modern works, as well as show tunes. “I had a great balance of new and old music from a young age,” Hopkins says, and this steered him toward an “ability to — not to grasp but just to engage in both forms.”

That said, modern and contemporary works often address subjects that are more immediate and accessible to him. He cites the War Requiem, which incorporates Wilfred Owen’s poetry from World War I and recalls World War II, in which Hopkins’ grandfather fought; Hydrogen Jukebox takes on a variety of contemporary politics and mores. Hopkins’ upcoming engagement, the world premiere of Jeremy Howard Beck’s The Long Walk at Opera Saratoga, tells of a soldier’s return home from the war in Iraq. These themes offer “an easier or more direct route to identify with the music” and help “to conjure up the emotional relationship” more than is sometimes true of older pieces.

In Hydrogen Jukebox.
Fort Worth Opera, 2011. Photo by Ron T. Ennis.

The Road of Promise offers a modern look at ancient stories, since Weill’s librettist, Franz Werfel, uses tales from the Bible to respond to the persecution of Jews under the Nazis. Hopkins grew up in Mount Airy, Pennsylvania, an exceptionally integrated community where he had Jewish friends (“I attended a lot of bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs”) and tried to learn more about their heritage. Discovering the horrifying history of the Shoah, he could on some level relate that legacy to the African–American experience of slavery and diaspora, he says, locating “a common bond … of racism and oppression.” Now he points to the “great sense of kinship and brotherhood between the two communities,” especially during the early years of the civil rights movement. “The relationship of African–Americans and Jewish–Americans in the United States is very important… I’m actually sad to see that the relationship doesn’t exist as much as it did in the past.”

Kurt Weill himself wrote one of the principal artistic works reflecting the solidarity between Jews and blacks in the 1940s, Lost in the Stars, his final work for Broadway. A protest against South African racism, Lost in the Stars, held a clear message for America, and in 1950, the original production couldn’t go on national tour because it was impossible to secure lodging for black cast members. “It wasn’t that long ago,” Hopkins observes, and now the show’s title number has entered his repertory. “It resonates with audiences much in the way that ‘Ol’ Man River’ does,” he says. “He got it, Kurt Weill — and Kern and Hammerstein — they understood the plight of the community which they were writing about.” And because The Road of Promise incorporates stories that are a part of Hopkins’ own faith, “I feel as if I am able to relate to it on an emotional level that much more.”

For The Road of Promise, Hopkins will be working with conductor Ted Sperling, whom he admires as a performer and as a role model of sorts. “He’s so fluent in so many genres,” and Hopkins would like to see his own career follow a similar path. “I love opera, very obviously, and I love oratorio, in concert performances. I love drama … and I would love to be regarded as a versatile performer who seems as at home on the opera stage as he does on the concert platform and in the musical theater and on the theatrical stage. I’d love to be a jack-of-all-trades, because I love it all. Given the opportunity, I have something unique to offer in each of those areas.” He’ll get no argument from me.

Collegiate Chorale presents
Kurt Weill’s The Road of Promise
Carnegie Hall
May 6 at 8:00
May 7 at 7:00
Click HERE for information and tickets.

1 comment:

Anne said...

Wonderful post Bill.

btw Amazon informs me Madeline is on the way!