Tenor on Track

Tosca, Teatro Regio Torino. (Photo by Edoardo Piva)

Princeton-Raised Jonathan Tetelman is One of Opera’s Rising Stars

By Anne Levin | Photos Courtesy of Jonathan Tetelman

Opera star Jonathan Tetelman spent the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic sheltering at his parents’ house in Princeton. Only a month before, he had sung lead roles in La Traviata and La Boheme on the stage of London’s Royal Opera House.

Upcoming European engagements for the 30-year-old tenor were being canceled. But Tetelman, an American Boychoir School graduate who was born in Chile and raised in Princeton, didn’t seem fazed. “It’s nice to spend some time at home, relaxing, doing my taxes,” he said at the time.

A month later, Tetelman was back at his apartment in New York, waiting for things to settle down and clearly feeling more restless. “I was supposed to go to Italy, Warsaw, Germany, and Seattle, but those dates have been canceled,” he said. “And now Tosca in Buenos Aires was just canceled, with the next scheduled performance not until August. It’s very difficult for freelance artists, and so many others around the world, who aren’t able to work during this pandemic, and have no other means of support for themselves and their families.”

Judging by reviews he has been receiving in publications across the globe, this interruption in Tetelman’s schedule shouldn’t pose much of a problem once the music world returns to some semblance of normal.

“In this production we were lucky to have the extraordinary tenor Jonathan Tetelman, a young figure who already receives excellent reviews and begins his career in the great theaters,” reads a review in the Peruvian newspaper El Comercio. “His presence on stage is difficult not to compare to the young Jonas Kaufmann of the 2000s, just before being today’s superstar, with a voice in the transition from light to dramatic-lyrical repertoire.”

Jonathan Tetelman (Photo by Stephen Howard Dillon)

From GB Opera Magazine: “His voice, bright and luminous, projects itself clearly into the room, with lively lyricism but without tenoristic caricatures of any kind.”

And on Tetelman’s website, there is this quote from the New York Times: “The real treat, however, came in the Duke sung by the tenor Jonathan Tetelman…. The guy’s a total star.”

Adopted when he was 7 months old, Tetelman doesn’t know if his musical talent is genetic. But he always loved to sing, and remembers his mother singing to him when she put him to bed each night. When he was 8 years old, he attended a local summer program led by well-known local vocal music teacher Paul Chapin, who told Tetelman’s parents their son had a unique, natural ability. Chapin suggested they look into Princeton’s American Boychoir School.

“I went to a summer program there, and then entered the school the following year. I just loved it,” Tetelman said. “Just being in that atmosphere — singing with them, rehearsing with them, and then performing with professional orchestras and going on tours all over the world at a young age — it was amazing. And it was like a family. I loved the camaraderie, and made lifelong friends.”

While at the school, Tetelman was one of a few boys chosen to sing on The Lost Christmas Eve album by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. The album went gold, earning the seventh- and eighth-graders Gold Records.

Tosca, Teatro Regio Torino. (Photo by Edoardo Piva)

As he matured, Tetelman was “diagnosed” as a baritone. “I didn’t really have the high notes yet because of my technical inability as a young singer,” he said. “Baritone just felt more natural. And I wanted to be like those lower voiced guys. I thought that was cooler.”

Tetelman’s teacher at the Manhattan School of Music was Maitland Peters, the chairman of the voice department. It was with Peters that Tetelman began to realize he was more suited to a higher vocal range.

“He was always eager to learn and went from a young kid who liked to sing to a consummate artist,” Peters wrote of Tetelman in an email. “He never missed a lesson, and always was curious, diligent, and eager to learn. While he started as a baritone it became clear after a few years of establishing a solid vocal technique that he was destined to be a tenor. We trained carefully and consistently to develop a solid technique that would last a lifetime. I told him that his fame would come about the age of 30 … and it has! He is perhaps the most talented young man I have worked with in 40 years of teaching at the highest level! I am so proud and honored that I was able to teach him for those formative years. He is a wonderful and creative artist and I am certain will go on to have a tremendous career.”

The transition to tenor continued when Tetelman was a graduate student at the Mannes College of Music. “I officially became a tenor when I was about 26,” he said. “I really started to understand what it meant. I noticed that I was gaining the technical ability for a higher register.”

There was more study after graduate school. Tetelman trained in the Young Artist Programs, which are similar to residency training programs, at Opera North, the Martina Arroyo Foundation, Gulf Shore Opera, and the International Vocal Arts Institute, where he began working with two of the top vocal teachers for opera performers, Mark Schnaible and his wife, Trish McCafferty, based in New York City. “They have been guiding me and my voice development for the past four years,” Tetelman said. “I would not be where I am today without the unconditional support they have given me — just like family.”

La Boheme, Komische Oper Berlin. (Photo by Axel Lauer)

But the relentless work became too much. Tetelman stepped away, trading his vocal studies for a stint as a DJ at a Manhattan club.

This “quarter life crisis,” as he jokes, lasted three years. But living paycheck to paycheck got old. “I just kind of woke up a little bit and realized this was not really the work I wanted to do in the future,” he said. “And I missed singing. I knew I had an ability and I had already invested so much time. So I shut myself in my apartment, worked as a waiter, and spent all my time listening to old records.”

He also saw his voice teacher once or twice a week. “Basically, it was what you would do in a conservatory, but in a six-month period,” he said. “It was like singing on steroids. The concentration was there this time. I knew the goal. I actually could see it, rather than have somebody else tell me this was what it could be like. I had focus.”

Tetelman told himself that if he hadn’t started singing professionally in a year, he would go into real estate. “After six months, I got an agent, and after one year, my first Met (Metropolitan Opera) contract,” he said. Since then, he has performed nationally and internationally. Last season, he sang in San Francisco and at the Tanglewood Music Festival. He performed with the Komische Oper Berlin, the English National Opera, the Opera del Teatro Solis in Uruguay, and the Wurth Philarmoniker in Kunzelsau, Germany. Most recently, he sang in Moscow and London.

Gala concert with Krisitine Opolais in Moscow. (Photo by Alexandra Muravyeva)

It was in London last year that Tetelman and his girlfriend, famed soprano Kristine Opolais, sang together at Buckingham Palace. A fundraiser for the Royal Opera House hosted by Prince Charles, the event brought 250 guests for dinner and a performance by the couple of the love duet from Tosca.

“It was just amazing,” Tetelman said. “We were in this huge, gorgeous room. I’ve never seen anything like it. And then we attended the dinner. We got to meet Prince Charles, and he was so nice and very appreciative. It was really a thrill.”

Equally thrilling was getting the chance to perform with Opolais, a full lyric and dramatic soprano. “We bring out the best in each other, which is why we really like to sing together,” Tetelman said. “We do it three or four times a year, but would like it to be closer to five or six. There are a lot of moving parts involved; a lot of back scratching and politics that we’re not in control of. But whenever we get a chance to sing together, it’s heaven.”

Once the COVID-19 pandemic is under control, Tetelman’s busy schedule of globe-hopping from opera house to concert hall is sure to resume. It isn’t an easy life.

“You have to have talent, but also focus, focus, focus, and you can’t give up,” he said. “You have to push yourself. It’s not just a hobby. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears are poured into it. It’s not worth it if you don’t have the passion.”

Gala concert with Krisitine Opolais in Moscow. (Photo by Alexandra Muravyeva)