Baritone John Brancy, 25, plays the lead role in the Opera San Antonio production of composer Tobias Picker's "Fantasic Mr. Fox," opening September 23 at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. A bright young man, Brancy is keen on not only Wagner, but healthy eating--with two colleagues, he launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund a new trail mix product of nuts and grass-fed beef jerky. In the below interview, Brancy talks about performing for children, and shares his love of history through an upcoming recital project that focuses on World War I.
Nathan Cone: As a baritone, it’s interesting that you get the lead in this opera! That’s not something that happens quite often.
John Brancy: You’re right! Although there are some operas out there where the lead character is a baritone — Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” comes to mind — in general, it’s normally that the bad guy is the baritone and the hero is the tenor. But I wouldn’t necessarily call Mr. Fox a hero. He’s a special character, and he’s not technically just a baritone. There are some notes in there where he could go either way. He’s a tenor [as well as] a baritone sometimes. It’s high.
Is that when he — spoiler alert — gets his tail shot off?
Yeah, he’s definitely yelping and screaming! But it’s just he way Tobias Picker likes to write I think. He likes to see the tops and the bottoms of the voice. A lot of composers sort of live in the middle range of the voice, and Picker takes it to the extremes, the upper and lower partials, as well as the middle. But that’s what is sort of fun. It’s like a roller-coaster ride, and once it’s in your voice, it’s a special thing to sing. It feels really unique.
So describe the character of Mr. Fox for me.
Well, he’s Fantastic! [laughs]
Of course he is!
He’s a great character, and the way that they have him depicted is he’s very family oriented, but he’s also very self-motivated. And he wants to help his family out, feed them, take care of them, but at the same time, he wants to outsmart the humans. This is his main goal, and he does it! That’s the fantastic thing, that as an animal he has the ability to outsmart the humans who are trying to kill him. He’s not trying to kill them—he’s just trying to survive and feed his family. There’s a lot within that idea. Does nature really have an ever-present ability to communicate? [That idea is] beyond our scope. You can’t just rip up a den out of the ground and expect the animals to die. They have instincts. It’s this amazing underlying story of nature versus humans who are trying to take it away from them.
And there’s parallels to the real world too, when you talk about people being displaced.
Exactly. When you think about it in that way, these big farms and these guys who are all interested in money… and if you think of the fox as less an animal and more a person who lives in the woods with his family and provides for them. They’re pushing him out. That’s a very interesting angle to take as well. But as for Mr. Fox himself... he’s confident, he’s funny, he has a lot of energy. He’s also sort of fabulous in his attire, I think. The way that the opera is designed is so cool, and it really depicts what I felt the fox should look like, and how most of the characters should look. He’s got all these great attributes, and is a really great character to play and see from the audience’s perspective.
I've seen images online of the costume design and sketches, and there’s this kind of patchwork costume that you get to wear as Mr. Fox, which is really wonderful to look at.
Yeah, it’s very unique and special for me to see an illustration by Emily Carew Woodard, turned into an exact costume. She’s not a costume designer. She illustrates for books, from what I understand. So that is super unique to me. And I think it’s going to speak volumes for the production, and I hope and believe that it’s going to be visually stunning. Especially in that smaller space [at the Tobin's Alvarez Theater] because people are going to get so intimate with [the production]. It will look like a storybook come to life. If you want to make opera really accessible for children, the visual aspect is extremely important. But I think this will be a slam dunk for Opera San Antonio.
Is this your first role you’ve sung for a family audience?
No, I actually developed a program for kids, a school program, when I was at Julliard, with some of my friends. We worked for about four years at school composing and writing a piece called “Operation Super Power,” a superhero opera for kids. And it was part opera, part motivational program, part anti-bullying assembly program that we took to schools. We have a lot of really great messages that we have in the show. Of course there’s singing, there’s movement, there’s piano playing, and it really is the sort of bigger than life experience… but to your question, this is not my first time performing for kids. We performed last fall, teaming up with a company called Young Audiences, performing the show 70 times in schools.
When you’re performing for kids, obviously you’re in a role when you’re onstage. But at the same time, is there a tendency to want to gauge their reaction as you perform?
Absolutely. More than with adults, because [sighs]... Adults don’t normally…
They’re not as demonstrative!
Yeah! They don’t express their every emotion all the time, but for kids, they really do. They’re either with you 100%, or they’re not really with you. And with an opera piece that’s fully composed and written through… we can’t stop and talk to the kids and audience [like during our school assemblies]. So all I can really do is continue to play, and try to find ways to be more interactive or connect more with the audience. I feel like addressing the audience is going to be important. Maybe not so much verbally, but with my eyes, my actions.
We know that [the audience is] there, because at the beginning [of the opera], there’s a whole introduction. We’ve broken the fourth wall immediately. Mrs. Fox comes out and introduces who we are. We are giving a “show,” we are telling the story to this group of people. So that gives me the flexibility to communicate with the audience directly, look at them in the eye, and bring them into the story.
What are some of your favorite roles?
I haven’t quite gotten the repertoire up to have a favorite role [ed. note: Brancy is 25]. Moreso I think of the roles that I would love to do, like Debussy’s “Pelléas.” That’s an amazing piece, and it’s very much in the range for my voice. Figaro in Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Sivilglia” Things in the future would be Amfortas in Wagner’s “Parsifal.” I saw it at the Met, and it was just life-changing. I’ve seen a lot of Wagner operas, actually. I’ve seen two at Bayreuth, which is a crazy experience to have already. I saw “Meistersinger” and “Tristan und Isolde.” I like “Meistersinger,” but “Tristan” I can’t get into. Maybe at a different point in my life. But “Parsifal” was by far the best experience I’ve ever had seeing a Wagner opera.
It’s the music, it’s the emotions, it’s the character, that inspire me to want to play a role. But at the end of the day, it’s who is going to hire me! [laughs]
Let me ask you about an upcoming project you have that sounds fascinating. It is a series of recitals that are inspired by World War I.
They’re composers who were alive during the war. Most of them in the program actually fought in the war, and some of them died in the war. Obviously we’re in the centennial year of World War I. And I just thought it would be a great way to build a program and connect people to the story of the war, and give them an idea of what it was all about through music. Because music, unlike a news article or history book, gives you a poetic look into that world, that time. Also it takes you back musically, which is amazing, because you are transported into a different time.
I’m doing George Butterworth’s “Shropshire Lad,” and I’m starting the program with that. “The lads that will never be old…” It’s such a heartbreaking melody. There’s going to be tears, maybe even from myself and my pianist, because of how deep we’re going to go with these songs. I want people to appreciate beyond just text or historical fact, or even Hollywood versions of it. I want people to experience it in this true kernel of emotion. This [composer] is someone who experienced the war and had incredible talents to depict it in music and words. It’s going to be an undertaking, and I’m ready for it, because I’ve been doing a lot of recital work, and this is the first program where I’ve taken a theme and I’ve really built it out, spending several months researching to find the perfect setup.
And World War I, beyond being such a giant conflict—this may sound strange—it was a horrible war, but it was nevertheless good for artists in a way because there was a lot of writing that came from people who were in the trenches. And it was a war that touched the entirety of the continent and America as well. There were a lot more people who were responding to this war than previous isolated conflicts around the globe. So there was a lot of art that came out of World War I.
It was really the sort of formation of globalization, right? This was the world coming together, for better or for worse. You have Americans and the British in France, and people and cultures were mixing. Whereas the dictators and the people of power are fighting, and utilizing people to fight against each other. There’s that really special story about the cease fire during Christmas. And since my first recital will be December 10 at the Kennedy Center, it’s too perfect to not [present] those songs [from the Christmas Eve truce, like “Silent Night”]. Within all of this violence and tragedy, there was this kernel of hope, and what was to come in the 20th century. So much changed. War is a terrible thing, we all know, but it brings people together in a weird way. So that is also explained in a lot of the songs as well. I am very excited for this [project], and I hope people get what I’m trying to do.
John Brancy, thank you so much, and we look forward to seeing you in “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and we look forward to your future projects as well.
"Fantastic Mr. Fox" opens at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday, September 23 and runs through Sunday, September 28.
Below: Hear John Brancy singing Mahler.