Yesterday morning, hoping to get in shape for "Bike to the Opera" day on Sunday, I followed Seattle's new heartthrob Jermaine Smith (left, photo by Elise Bakketun) on his daily routine—carrying his bike all the way up the stairs to the top of Queen Anne Hill and then swooping down the north slope to Bikram Yoga in Fremont. Smith has stopped the show at every performance of Porgy and Bess so far with his dazzling "It Ain't Necessarily So." Local critics have written about his "impeccable timing, great acrobatics and fine singing" (The SunBreak), marveled at how his character is "predatory and amoral yet full of joie de vivre, a song-and-dance viper" (Seattle Weekly), and asserted that "the way that man slides and glides around the stage is really something else" (The Stranger). I spoke to Smith about his background, this remarkable character of Sportin' Life, and all he does to keep in shape.
You're new to Seattle Opera…welcome! Can you tell us a little about your background? We'd love to know where you're from and how you became involved in opera.
I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri—I grew up in the 'hood. My introduction to music was in sixth grade, I was a percussionist, a drummer in marching band, jazz band. When I got to high school, I played for the vocal jazz ensemble, and one day, we were coming from a gig, and I was making fun of opera singers, and the director heard me. "Who was that?" I say: "I'm sorry." But he: "You have the potential to be an opera singer!" And I started laughing at him—a black opera singer? Ha ha! And he said, "If I find a program, I'm gonna put you in it." And it just so happened that not long after, Opera Theater of St. Louis started their Artist-in-Training Program, where they have artists who come to schools—my school at the time, Roosevelt High School—and each school chooses five students who have the potential to be opera singers. And I was chosen. I didn't want to do it, I said I wasn't gonna do it, but my teacher said "You're gonna do this program, your grade depends on it!" So I did the program, and my first vocal coach—Denyce Graves.
Wow. Wasn't she the world's sexiest Carmen, in those days?Oh, I know. I remember when she sang for my class, I was listening to this woman, looking at her, right before me, this African-American woman, and she was singing this Italian aria—I don't remember what it was, but I remember I just wanted to jump up and sing back to her! (laughs) It looked so beautiful, just incredible, and that was my first experience of someone singing opera, live, in front of me, and I was like, "Is this real?" And she said, "Yes, and I think you really have potential." So I did the program, this was 1991, the judges were people like Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, and I was stunned when I won the first prize. It blew me away.
You gotta understand, where I grew up...when I used to practice, my mother would say, "That's enough practicing!" So I'd go on the back porch and practice more, and she: "That's enough singing, Jermaine!" So I'd go to my backyard, and practice, and she'd open up the door: "Jermaine Smith! I said that's enough!" So then I had to go to a vacant lot, across the alley, and practice there. And then that night the neighbors come over: "Just want to check on your son, he was in the empty lot, making strange sounds, all by himself..." and I got in trouble! And then when I won first prize in the program, my mother was standing there crying, and I was like: "And you didn't want me to practice!"
So how did you manage to defy everyone like that, and just do your own thing? Was that because the teacher said your grade depended on it? Well, the grade, yeah, I was an honor roll student, I was in the top 10% of the class. My focus was computer science and mathematics—actually I had also won a science fair, written this computer program that solved algebraic equations, it built a volcano and then it erupted at the end, had little people running around...but for me, you know, I loved to make people laugh. You didn't want to dare me to do anything, 'cause I'd do it. It started like that, I never had a problem being onstage. But I got involved with Opera Theater of St. Louis, and eventually they asked me to be in an opera...and then I got really scared. These were people with Master's Degrees, who'd been doing it all their lives, it wasn't a joke any more. But I did it, the first opera I was ever in was Billy Budd, I was in the chorus. The book came in the mail and it was so thick! I was thinking, how can anybody memorize all of that?
Now how did you get started with Porgy and Bess?
In 1996 I got a call asking me to come to New York to audition for the Houston Grand Opera tour of Porgy and Bess. I thought it was a joke, ignored it, until my voice teacher said, "No, that's real, and you gotta do it!" So I learned "I got plenty o' nuttin'" in two days...I had started off as a bass-baritone, and then went to baritone. I flew to New York, sang the audition, and they said, "You got it." Blew me away. They flew me to Houston, and I had three days to learn the entire score and one day for the staging, and then I was off to Paris, where we did eight shows a week.
You started in that production in the chorus, but then began playing characters with names. How many roles have you sung in this opera now?
I've done all the roles for men, except Porgy and Crown. And Daddy Peter, I guess I'm not yet old enough for that. But I've done Jake, and Jim, Mingo, the Undertaker, Robbins, Crab Man, even Lawyer Frazier, whose scene is cut in the Seattle production. In the touring productions, somebody's cover goes on, and there's a scramble, so-and-so has to move over and sing some other role, so you're always learning some new role. And it's always a last minute thing.
Which is your favorite role to do?
Okay, Sport. When did you figure that out? I mean, the first time you were in the chorus of Porgy and Bess, did you say to yourself, "Someday I want to be Sportin' Life?"I just enjoyed the show. In the beginning, I thought this was going to stop at any moment. I'm just riding the wave, you know, I didn't think I was going to have a career. "What, you're going to pay me to come to Paris?" So I saved all that money, bought a house for my mom, moved her out of the 'hood...that was the first thing I did with that. Larry Marshall, who was Sportin' Life in that production, he invited me to join the Barkhymer tour, where I had the opportunity to do these other roles. I covered him as Sportin' Life for the first time in Amsterdam, and that was it.
Lots of people have commented on the acrobatics you bring to Sportin' Life. Where did that come from?
Well...it just came from embodying the character. Sportin' Life is so oily and slick. What I got from Larry Marshall, he would sometimes do these quick little dance moves, and I started with some of that. Believe it or not—this is the funny part, the twist—I grew up around pimps and drug dealers, I was the first one in my family to go to college. I saw all that, growing up. My cousins, they were funny, they would have you in stitches, during the day, and then at night, I'd see them doing the Crown-Bess thing, fighting with women. My mom never wanted me to be anything like that, tried whatever she could to keep me from being like my cousins. And here I am, making a living out of pretending to be my cousins onstage!
But since I've seen it, I know, it's not as simple as: "Sportin' Life is a bad guy." He is very manipulative. My backstory for Sportin' Life is that his father is a preacher—he's a PK, Preacher's Kid, they call 'em. He grew up in the church, played the organ, and here he is in the back room with his father, in the private meetings, listening to what Deacon So-and-So was doing during the week. But on Sunday morning, everything becomes something else. So I sing "It Ain't Necessarily So," what you see is not necessarily the case. And as a kid Sportin' Life gets all these privileges, everywhere he goes, because he's the pastor's son. But he wants to do things himself. I don't see Sportin' Life as a person like Crown, ready to kill people; but the bad side is he'll do anything to make it on his own.
I believe he's been to New York already, took Crown along as muscle, but Crown is too much of a hothead, so I come back and I need a great hook. And I see that in Bess: everybody wants her, all the women want to be her. And I think, I can take that to New York and market that! I'm all about marketing!
Several characters in Porgy and Bess use laughter as a weapon--Crown's raucous laughter, the Police Detective's high-pitched giggle, and Sportin' Life's snicker. Are those laughs in the score? As a performer, how do you develop the right laugh for your character?I've done this opera a lot and I never heard a police detective laugh before. That's Brian Simmons here, with Chris Alexander, the director. We were talking about it, once, in rehearsals, I told him I just try to be really irritating, with my Sportin' Life laugh, and he may have just run with that. As for Crown, that's just Michael [Redding], he just happens to laugh like that. There is a written part where Sportin' Life has to laugh, when the chorus thinks everyone is dead in the hurricane, and I do it on purpose, to be menacing. I think Sportin' Life likes messing with people, like with Maria in that scene. You know, she gets on me, tells me not to peddle happy dust round her shop; but she's selling drinks and booze in there. Everything you say, it ain't necessarily so.
In these performances she's gotten a lot of applause at that line, "Ain't nobody gonna sell happy dust round my shop!"
That's the first time I've ever heard that.
I was talking with her [Gwendolyn Brown] about that, and it's true that there's a nice high note, but we were thinking they were applauding the sentiment, ie, "Right on! We think people should not be selling drugs."
Right, that's the energy of that applause. I said, "My goodness, Seattle is a drug-free zone! Ole Sportin' Life not gonna make it here, I'm not gonna sell anything in this town!" This is my seventh production, I've sung the role over a hundred times, and I've never heard them clap after that line. I think the way Chris Alexander staged that—you know, she stomps her feet and these three guys scatter—it's brilliant.
Do you have a favorite musical moment in this opera? At least, this week? Maestro told me to be nice, and I've been nice. But sometimes I change "It Ain't Necessarily So" each time, when the chorus has to imitate what I sing. (demonstrates ad lib scat) I love that, when they have to follow me. That's a fun song, I love the energy of that. I also love the confrontation between Sportin' Life and Porgy, he grabs my hand and then I kick out his crutch and hit this high note, singing to Bess: "Your men friends come and they go. Only remember, ole Sportin' Life and the happy dust here all along!"
Do you always kick away Porgy's crutch? Sometimes. Not if he's on a cart. I did in Francesca Zambello's production, too.
That's another 'gasp' reaction from the audience...how could anybody be so evil as to kick away a disabled guy's crutch...I think Sportin' Life is like Iago. Loki. He is the serpent. You know, the devil was an archangel. He knows the Bible. He's worse than Crown, Crown is just muscle, a bully. I don't think Crown is intending to kill Robbins. He doesn't even know what he's done, at first. But Sportin' Life knows what he's doing, it's all on purpose. In some productions, in the first scene I'm trying to get Robbins and Crown drunk and fighting with each other, so I can pry Bess away from Crown.
You're right, that's like Iago, that's a very long-range plan. Speaking of long-range plans, tell us about the role fitness plays in your career. How did you get to be such a fitness lunatic? I'm not a...I just...
You're biking all over town, going to yoga, I hear you're a vegetarian...and your performance is amazingly athletic, both singing and movement...
I just like to be healthy. I'm not a fitness lunatic! I've always been small. And so I always had to do things to be bigger. I used to eat so much, people thought I had a tapeworm. I wasn't heavy; I burned up everything I ate, my metabolism was so fast. But I guess as I got older, well, I went to this Bikram Yoga class, and saw this old timer there, in his 60s or 70s, and he's just doing it, and I thought: I want to stay that flexible. When I'm in my 70s. I performed Porgy and Bess once on tour with this singer as Maria, she was about 76, singing six shows a week. I want to stay healthy. And it feels great, and it's great to the voice. In every position you focus on breathing. And if you can breathe, you can sing.
Have you spent much time in the Pacific Northwest before this summer? Nope, first time.
What have been some of your favorite non-opera Seattle adventures so far? I took a float plane on a tour of the area, that was beautiful. And we're gearing up to go kayaking.
Any last message you have for the troops? I'm volunteering a little bit with a school while I'm here, I like to speak to kids, especially African-American kids who've never experienced opera, and sing and talk to them. I always tell them: You have a box? Step outside your box. Explore something you never experienced before. Broaden your horizons. Someone saw something in me; someone will see something in you, you may not see it, but it's your gift, something that comes easy to you. I've learned that if you open up to what people see in you, to what you haven't ever experience before, you will create a whole new world for yourself. That's what happened to me. I never thought I'd be an opera singer. None of my friends can believe it, still. I've traveled all over the world, singing opera, all because I took a chance.
It seems that nearly everyone is familiar with the music of Porgy and Bess, thanks to countless renditions over the years. Do you have a favorite performance of a song from this opera by a non-opera performer?I loved Sammy Davis, Jr. doing both Porgy and Sportin' Life, in this amazing little clip: