Wednesday, August 9, 2017

'Embrace what makes you unique' - Weston Hurt lives by example

Baritone Weston Hurt is a frequent singer at Seattle Opera, including in roles such as Nabucco, Germont, Talbot and most recently, Sharpless. 

By Lauren Brigolin 

Behind the blue door of Practice Room #1 at Seattle Opera, it might have been easy to miss the soft plunk of piano keys without listening carefully. But what the soundproof walls couldn’t contain after the modest hum of the piano were the rich tones of an accomplished baritone—Weston Hurt

​In addition to appearing as Sharpless in Madame Butterfly this August with Seattle Opera, Hurt just finished teaching a master class at the newly-created Seattle Opera Academy—a three-week voice and performance training program for young adults in Bellingham, Wash. This combination of teaching and performing is his dream. Being a role model to young singers, encouraging them to embrace who they are, is a job he takes seriously.

“What I wish I would have known as a young person is, you are your own product and that your uniqueness is everything,” he says.

As a singer born without a right hand, Hurt’s road to singing in great opera houses across the United States was no walk in the park. And the challenges he faced often had nothing to do with his skill as an artist. ​ 

Weston Hurt, center, as Sharpless with Lianna Haroutounian (Cio-Cio-San) and Renée Rapier (Suzuki). Philip Newton photo
When Hurt was only 6-months old, his parents put him into a program so that he could learn to live with a prosthesis. At age 4, he decided he didn’t want to use the artificial body part anymore. He tried to wear one again at 11 and came to the same conclusion—it simply wasn’t comfortable. In the years that followed, the myoelectric prosthesis arrived. The battery-operated limb allowed the hand to open and close through electrical tension generated every time a person’s muscle contracts. Hurt decided to try one. Of course, this was 1991 and the battery lasted all of about eight minutes.

"And then I was like, 'Forget this.' I’m not going down this path. I am who I am,” says the baritone, who fell in love with opera during his freshman year of college after landing the title role in The Marriage of Figaro at Southwestern University.

Hazel Del Rosario (Sorrow) and Weston Hurt (Sharpless) in Madame Butterfly. Philip Newton photo

After completing his music education and successfully making his way through a number of prestigious young artist training programs, Hurt embarked on a myriad of house auditions. Each time he sang for a company, he’d wear a suit and pin or sew the sleeve of the right arm up. While consistently told he sounded fantastic, he was frequently overlooked.

It wasn’t until he sang at the New York International Opera Auditions that he was finally offered a season-long contract with a company who made their conditions clear. In order to perform, Hurt had to have a prosthesis. ​This company wasn’t the only one who felt this way.

Soon after acquiring a cosmetic prosthesis, he began auditioning and “Boom! I started getting gigs and gigs and gigs."

Weston Hurt teaching a master class at the Seattle Opera Academy. Photos by Rachel Bayne 

During a production of Madame Butterfly earlier in his career, the stage director suggested he perform Sharpless without the artificial limb. This presented the opportunity for Hurt to dive into a character study: His Sharpless became truly human—a man who carries deep emotional wounds after surviving a war; someone who understands loss. After his performance, a confusing review came out in a national opera publication. It said that his voice was amazing even though he only had one hand.

The review had a ripple effect.

​"I had to wear my prosthesis for everything. I felt like I had to fit some mold that administrative people, artistic people, or the audience wanted me to be. I got trapped."

Weston Hurt and his daughter. 
In the last few years, Hurt has done away with his prosthesis unless the character or the director’s vision truly calls for it. He began asking himself, if it makes sense for the character to have one hand, why wouldn’t he portray that? Hurt has created backstories for opera characters who have lost their hand in wars, battles, and developed stories for them in a way only he can. When he wore a prosthesis in the beginning it wasn’t for the character, it was so he could fit that mold. 

“I had lost my own uniqueness and my own individuality,” Hurt says.

Being a singer with one hand has led to spectacular theatrical possibilities. He’ll never forget the audible gasps he received each night during one production where he actually got to remove his prosthesis onstage.

Hurt backstage during Madame Butterfly at Seattle Opera. Genevieve Hathaway photo 
Director of Artistic Administration and Planning Aren Der Hacopian says Hurt having one hand is a non-issue as far as casting is concerned. Echoing the artist’s feeling, Der Hacopian says, “Who’s to say these characters have two hands in the first place?” Instead, Der Hacopian says that Seattle Opera embraces Hurt as a person with one hand because it’s part of the incredible package of personality, experience, artistry, and human being that makes Hurt who he is. 

Seattle audiences can now enjoy Hurt in the role of Sharpless, the American consul and friend to the lead tenor, for Madame Butterfly performances on Aug. 9, 12, 13, 16, 18, & 19, 2017. Tickets & info: