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John Chest Reflects on His Journey to Billy Budd

August 25, 2019

Making his debut in the leading role of San Francisco Opera’s upcoming production of Billy Budd is a big moment for 34-year-old baritone John Chest. The winner of several distinguished awards, including being a finalist in the 2017 Cardiff Singer of the World competition, Chest’s success so far has resulted from a combination of talent, timing, and dedication. This is the young singer’s second time playing Billy Budd — he sang in the chorus for a Santa Fe Opera production, and later played the lead with Deutsche Oper Berlin.

The son of a pastor and music professor at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, Chest got his undergraduate degree there in voice performance, and followed that with a Master of Music from the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. After an apprenticeship at Santa Fe Opera, and a summer at San Francisco Opera’s prestigious Merola Opera Program, Chest became a member of the Opera Studio at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, where he sang over 80 performances, and went on to join Deutsche Oper Berlin’s Ensemble Studio.

Chest currently lives in Salzburg with his wife, opera singer Layla Claire, and their two young children. They met in 2012 while both were singing in a production of Mozart’s La finta giardinera at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, and they fell in love.

I chatted with Chest by telephone about his personal and professional life, and why Billy Budd is such an important role for him.

You were in the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program in 2009. How does it feel to be returning as the lead in Billy Budd?

It’s a total dream come true. I’m thrilled to be going back to this company at all, and to do it with this role, which is so special to me, is a real honor and a privilege. Ian Rutherford has been remounting it and he is brilliant. He was Michael Grandage’s assistant in the original production. The level of knowledge about the turn-of-the-19th-century British Navy has been really revelatory. They really have done an incredible job making it as much like being on a man-of-war in 1797 as they possibly could. It is just going to be a brilliant piece of theater, of singing, and of music.

You originally sang in the chorus for Billy Budd when you were at Santa Fe Opera. Tell me about that.

I had been an apprentice in Santa Fe in 2008, which was my first experience with Billy Budd. It was a special time — it let the piece sink in and get in my bones. I sang in the chorus and covered the role of the boatswain. I was tasked with really knowing the role, knowing the staging, and being ready. I never got to sing it, but I did learn it, and I was exposed to really great singers who were working on it.

Tell me about your experience with Merola.

I had been away from home for two years doing my Masters in 2009, and I knew that Merola was doing Così fan tutte that summer, and I wanted to sing in it. I was lucky that I was able to come here and learn to sing a big role, Guglielmo, and perform it onstage. At Merola, we were thrown into lessons with some really big-name teachers and singers who would coach us. It was new people every week, and we were getting so much input all the time, it was very overwhelming. But they really try to be supportive of people who come through here, and I felt that. I’ve gone back to some of those lessons years later and that’s been really helpful for me.

I understand that you became a coffee aficionado when you were with Merola. Tell me about that.

We had been rehearsing for Cosi on my birthday, and a cast mate took me to Linden Street, which was one of the first two or three Blue Bottle locations, and bought me what was probably a life-changing coffee — it was so delicious. Now, whenever I go to a new place, I look for good coffee. It’s sort of a hunt — I find a cafe and find out where the beans were roasted. It’s fun to come back to San Francisco. You just toss a coin and get a really good coffee shop.

After Merola, you went to Germany to do opera. How did that come about?

It was total chance. In Santa Fe, they do a house audition for the apprentices. Everyone gets to sing one aria and there are really important people in the house — from all the major companies in the States, and lots of managers. That summer, a man from the Bavarian State Opera was looking for people for their opera studio. He heard me, and within weeks, I had an email inviting me to start the process of applying, so the ball started rolling there. Also, my manager heard me for the first time, and he is still my manager 11 years later. One aria changed my life — it was a big moment.

This is your second time doing the lead in Billy Budd — have you discovered or learned anything new that you’ll be bringing to the part?

Absolutely. I had done the same production in Berlin and got to do it twice — in 2014 and a remount three years later. In between, I had a child, and I was about to get married — I was in a different place. When you come back to something, you always find something new. You’re going to find what was there and you’re going to expand on it. And now two-and-a-half years later, all those things are true again. It’s another chance to layer more things in.

Was your interpretation of the role at Deutsche Oper Berlin any different than for this production?

The production I did in Berlin was by David Alden, and it was much darker and more psychological. He wanted it to be more about what was going in the character’s heads, which is a really hard thing to show.

What he wanted was different levels. Billy is totally naive — he represents total innocence, and I was allowed to indulge more. When Billy stammered, he didn’t want it to just be about a physical limitation, he wanted it to be like darkness creeping in. Every time he stammered it was almost violent, physically.

The entire cast is male. Why do you think Britten wrote it that way?

There are a few things that you catch about the opera if you only know about it peripherally, and that’s one of them. Britten was homosexual, and there are some undertones and currents of that in the story. But it’s not overt, because he wrote it at a time when it was a crime to be gay. It was commissioned for the Royal Opera House and performed in front of people who, if he had been open about his sexuality, would have punished him for it.

The story is subversive. Billy Budd is a sailor who comes onto the ship and is described as beautiful and alluring, and also kind and magnanimous. Then he’s caught in this power struggle between John Claggart [the ship’s master-at-arms], and Captain Vere, and there is nothing spoken about what their tension is, but you can sort of imagine that maybe there’s some kind of history between them. Some productions make it really explicit.

Has fatherhood affected the emotional depth of your performances?

Absolutely. When our daughter came into the world, and I saw her for the first time, it was like my heart was outside my body — my world expanded infinitely. It felt like she was part of me, and that we belonged together. I don’t think I’d ever had that sense of belonging in my life. Feeling the amazing joys of fatherhood somehow deepens your emotions.

What it is like raising children with two professional opera singers? How do you manage it?

We met each singing in Aix-en-Provence, and as the relationship developed, we became more sure that we were going to stay together. At the time, we had work booked for a long time — so we had to live out those bookings we had already agreed to. We were ships passing in the night.  We make our decisions differently now. If anything comes in, we have to get the family calendar out.

Any roles you would like to do but haven’t yet?

Probably hundreds — there are whole worlds of repertoire I haven’t tapped yet. I am still relatively young for my voice type, but probably in 10 years, I could start singing Verdi, which is a whole world that I might be suited for. Also, Wolfram in Tannhäuser is interesting and alluring, but maybe that’s five years away.

You are fond of art songs. Tell me about that.

I love to sing German Lied — art songs in German. I enjoy every step of it — listening to the repertoire, choosing pieces, and building a story and weaving it all together. And I love performing it — the experience of just being you and the pianist onstage in an intimate setting, and taking an audience through that journey you have created. I am hopeful that in the future I can build that more into my seasons because it’s a huge part of what I love about singing.

What do you like about being a professional opera singer?

I don’t think I could live without that. If I’m sick and I can’t sing for a while, it feels like part of me is missing. I really do love it. Layla and I joke all the time, that we better keep doing this, because nobody would pay us to do anything else.

Correction: The original article misnamed the role Chest played in Così fan tutte as Guillermo.

Lily O'Brien is a freelance writer and editor with a passion for the performing arts. She has written feature articles and previews for a variety of publications including Downbeat, JazzTimes, Marin Arts & Culture, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Marin Independent Journal, and Strings magazine. She is a singer who has performed professionally in a variety of genres, and an avid world traveler and bicyclist.