On a cold March night, the lobby of Lincoln Center was chock-full of people trying to sell tickets. The star tenor of Werther, Jonas Kaufmann, had unexpectedly cancelled, and many said they hadn't heard of Jean-François Borras, his replacement. I had rushed to hear Borras after listening to him the day before in some youtube clips of Sonya Yoncheva. I had no idea that Borras was making both his Met debut AND his role debut in one night! Talk about pressure!
But once Borras crossed the bridge that served as Werther's entrance in the opera, and opened his mouth, jaws around the auditorium dropped. This was no "serviceable cover," this was a beautiful, pure, major-league tenor voice. I wrote my review of the performance here. At the end of the night, the Met audience (which can be cool to unfamiliar names) gave Borras a huge, heartfelt ovation.
Almost two weeks later, I'm still reeling at this beautiful tenor, and also dismayed at the lack of information available online about him. I've found a few youtube clips, but that's it. So I decided to ask Jean-François to talk more about his amazing debut, his career, his future, and why Werther is such a special role for him. Thank you so much Jean-François! (And thank you to a special someone who translated Jean-François's answers from French to English!)
Hi Jean-François, thank you so much for agreeing to answer my questions! I really have so many but I guess I’ll start off with a few most important:
First of all, congratulations for your magnificent performance! Nevertheless it must have been chaotic backstage. For the March 3 performance, when did you get the call you were going onstage? And after you got that call how much time did you have to prepare with the rest of the cast and conductor before the curtain rose?
JFB: I was only told of Jonas Kaufmann’s cancellation on the actual day (March 3) around 3.00 pm. The Metropolitan Opera informed me that Jonas did not feel very well and that he would not sing.
The Metropolitan Opera hired me as the cover for Jonas Kaufmann. I have therefore been in New York since rehearsals began. I was lucky to have many rehearsals with the director Richard Eyre, and also with Alain Altinoglu, the conductor, and especially Sophie Koch, my wonderful colleague.
On the day of the performance, I had no rehearsal. My last rehearsal was fifteen days earlier.
I can’t imagine you not being nervous! Nevertheless, you sang so beautifully from the first note, it didn’t sound like you needed to warm up at all. Did you do anything to ensure that you sounded your best from the very first note?
JFB: There is no doubt that my stress levels rose considerably a few minutes before I stepped on the stage. It was my debut in the US, at the Met, and also my first Werther. (Editor's note: I did not know this was also his role debut!) We often have to face stage fright - it can be useful if it is channeled properly, or it can take over and incapacitate us.
I went to the theatre as for any performance. I put on my costume, warmed up my voice and went to make-up. As I was about to step on the stage, the stress and the joy of singing this role in this house combined and gave way to concentration.
Your voice projected so well in a 4,000 audience house. Did you sing any differently at the Met than you would have in a much smaller house?
JFB: I don’t think I had to modify my way of singing for the Met. The house is large, but the acoustics are excellent. You can achieve anything there, even a pianissimo.
It is very gratifying to sing on this stage, and it is an honour to be able to do it. The greatest singers have sung on this stage and it is important to demonstrate that one is worthy of it.
You seemed to know the blocking and the directions pretty well. As a cover, how much, if any rehearsal time did you get with the cast and crew?
JFB: As I have said before, I have been in New York since the beginning of rehearsals. I was able to work with the cast and crew and Sophie (Koch) and I have a great rapport.
It was your debut here in New York. How did you like the New York audiences?
JFB: The Met public has been wonderful. I know that most people were expecting Jonas Kaufmann, which made the challenge even more daunting. To go on stage and be worthy of taking over the role of one of the greatest tenors of today is scary. But the public reacted in a very positive way by applauding very early on in the performance, and all the way through it. I really felt positive energy from the audience. It was one of the most incredible performances I have ever sung.
I see that you have an upcoming engagement of Werther in Athens, but how long have you had this role in your repertory? Is it a special role for you?
JFB: Is Werther a special role for me? Yes, absolutely, I have already sung some of the roles in the French repertoire: Romeo, Faust, Gerald in Lakme, des Grieux in Manon, but I have always wanted to sing Werther.
I waited until my voice was ready to do it justice. This role is special for me because I obtained my “Diplôme Supérieur de Chant” by singing extracts from Werther, but above all because I would sing “Pourquoi me réveiller” to my father in his last hours. I found the strength to sing it at his funeral as my last goodbye.
So yes, Ivy, Werther is very important to me.
When you prepare a role like Werther, which has been recorded by so many great tenors, do you find it helpful to listen to famous recordings? Or do you prefer to prepare the role on your own without listening to anyone else’s interpretation?
JFB: I have listened to many Werther recordings - Alfredo Kraus, who was an excellent Werther, as well as Roberto Alagna, and I have also watched the superb DVD from Paris featuring Jonas (Kaufmann) and Sophie (Koch). But I have also listened to older recordings, such as the Georges Thill - he was an extraordinary Werther.
To prepare a role, I like to know how it is interpreted by other artists, to get an idea from their performance, and after that I devise my own, It is important to know what is around.
Werther can be played a variety of ways. I’ve seen him played as a dark, obsessive stalker and I’ve also seen him played as a romantic who genuinely believes his feelings for Charlotte are returned. Where do you fall on this spectrum? Do you identify with the character?
JFB: This is an interesting question. My idea of the Werther character is a mixture of knowledge from the Gœthe book and the wonderful Massenet music, with an input from my own emotions. To delve within one’s own experiences to enrich a role is to make it one’s own. But there are also all the requests and instructions from the director which we have to integrate into our performance, hoping they will be communicated to the public.
French has a reputation as a language that’s very hard for non-native singers to master. Why is it so much more difficult to master French than, say, Italian?
JFB: I can confirm that French is a very difficult language to sing - even for French speakers! The language is complicated, there are nasal sounds and mute sounds too. Many " é è ê ai ais" accents are all pronounced differently. The nasal sounds are all very difficult to reproduce as they do not exist in many languages.
As you might have read from my review, I first listened to you in a couple youtube clips of Sonya Yoncheva’s La Traviata, and jumped when I heard the very next night that you’d be singing at the Met. But I’ve heard mixed things from singers about youtube and the fact people judge them from clips of their performances that have been uploaded to youtube. What are your thoughts on this?
JFB: YouTube is a new medium. There are extraordinary things on it but also quite a lot of garbage. You have to be selective. It can be very useful to promote a show or an artist, but today with smartphones and other gadgets anyone can shoot a pirate video which could be prejudicial to the artist. Some of the videos are actually of rehearsals, and people think they are from performances. The Internet makes everything available now, which is a two-edged sword. One is under more pressure than before. In conclusion, YouTube can be helpful to form a first impression or to discover new artists, but there is nothing like a live performance for a proper experience.
As I mentioned in my review, in my opinion your voice is very pure and lyric. Your repertoire reflects that. But the tenor voice often becomes darker and thicker with age. Is there a role you’d like to move away from, and a role you’d like to try in the future?
JFB: At the moment, I am lucky to be able to sing a repertoire I like - Bohème, Rigoletto, Manon, Lucia, Roméo, Lakmé, Traviata...
A role I would like to sing before my voice starts to thicken is Nemorino!
I see what you have planned in the immediate future on opera base, but do you have any more long-term plans? Where are you singing, so people can start planning trips? ;)
JFB: Just after New York I shall sing Werther in Athens, and then I shall be at the Santa Cecilia in Rome for two concert performances of Dialogue des Carmélites. In June and early July I shall be in Masada and Tel Aviv for Traviata and Rigoletto. At the end of July I have a concert performance of Manon in Copenhagen In October I sing Gerald in Lakmé in Toulouse.
For 2015, in April I shall sing my first Macduff in the Théâtre des Champs Elysées and in June my first Ballo in Maschera in Metz.
Do you plan to come back to New York?
JFB: Yes, it would give me great pleasure to come back to New York and the Met.
Thank you again, and congratulations, you were wonderful!
JFB: Thank you very much.