A Twist of FateJun 23, 2023 01:06PM ● By Julius Fredrick
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
In a letter to a family friend dated January 15, 1786, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart details a visit to Prague, where his most recent opera, Le nozze di Figaro, had drawn a particularly ravenous following:
“At six o’clock I went with Count to what is called the Breitfeld Ball, where the flower of Prague beauties assemble […] I neither danced nor flirted with any of them—the former because I was too tired, and the latter from my natural bashfulness. I saw, however, with the greatest pleasure, all these people flying about with such delight to music of my ‘Figaro,’ transformed into quadrilles and waltzes; for here nothing is talked of but ‘Figaro,’ nothing played but ‘Figaro,’ nothing whistled or sung but ‘Figaro,’ no opera so crowded as ‘Figaro,’ nothing but ‘Figaro’—very flattering to me, certainly.” (The Letters of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1769-1791)
Some 237 years later, that very name, “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro” echoed through the mind of 25-year-old tenor, Graham Brooks. A combination of talent, dedication, and impeccable timing—like Mozart, when he chanced to meet librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte in a partnership that would yield the maestro’s most popular Italian operas (beginning with “Figaro”)—led to Brooks’ professional debut as Don Basilio/Don Curzio on the Orpheum Theater stage this past March.
“I came by the roles in a fairly unique way; very blessed,” Brooks said. “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time…I moved back to Omaha in August to help my buddy with his specialty landscaping company, and with coming back, I desperately wanted to keep taking voice lessons over Zoom, as well as find a vocal coach in the area.
"So, I found a coach to practice my audition arias; you have five or so arias in four or five different languages. And then in the fall, and this more for the younger artists and apprentice circuit, but you’ll go around and sing your arias and try and get a spot in a program. I reached out to the former head of music at Opera Omaha, Sean Kelly, and he agreed to work with me on my audition repertoire […] I kept working with him and established a good relationship. Then, the former professional singer had to drop the opportunity to sing Basilio/Curzio due a scheduling conflict […] and then Sean messaged me one morning, and I didn’t believe it at first. He’s like, ‘Graham, as my last act as head of music at Opera Omaha, I’d like to offer you Basilio/Curzio in our production of Marriage of Figaro […] I’d like to jumpstart your career.’”
While Brooks was both honored and pleasantly surprised by Kelly’s endorsement, it wasn’t without merit. For the better part of a decade, Brooks has immersed himself in the rewarding, yet challenging and often uncertain, realm of classical and operatic singing. An Omaha native, he initially discovered his voice at Papillion La Vista South High before earning his undergraduate degree at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, followed by securing a coveted spot in the voice program at Florida State University.
“I remember my first favorite type of song to sing was the ‘Neapolitan Art Song,’ the ‘Italian Art Song,’ people like Donati and Tosti are two of the composers I really jive with—a lot of their songs are about the morning, or the sun…” Brooks recalled. “I mean, they’re writing [music] off the coast of Capris, and the western coast of Italy…If I had that every morning, I think I’d be inspired to write some pretty cool music [too].”
Today, Brooks is not only a student of opera (and mathematics), but has grown skilled enough serve as a mentor in his own right.
“I have some students I picked up in Tallahassee that I still teach,” Brooks said. “There’s a lot of physics and anatomy involved in [singing], and that kind of clicks with me. In a sense, it’s all mathematical, right? And I use that in my own teaching method as well.”
However, as Opera Omaha’s Marriage of Figaro curtain call drew ever closer, Brooks’ schedule and focus honed in on memorizing his libretto and attending rehearsals.
“The first musical run-through rehearsal, when everyone shows up to sing through the opera, everything memorized, was March 6th,” Brooks explained. “We had performances March 31st and April 2nd, so we had almost a full month to rehearse, which is actually a pretty big luxury compared to some places. We rehearsed six days a week.”
As for Brooks’ main role, the irksome and salacious Don Basilio, the young singer not only had to perfect his range, but also master his character’s expressions and unique movements. His director, veteran performer Dean Anthony, provided great insight—and a touch of pressure.
“It wasn’t only a professional debut, but a role debut. Many of the other people [in the cast] had already experienced these roles before […] all of these very, very talented people from the across the country” Brooks said. “Our director is a wonderful director, but he had a previous career as a character tenor, and for a couple of decades made a lot of his money off of Don Basilio and Don Curzio…and so he knew the role inside and out, and I was just excited to be a sponge and soak up everything he had to say about the roles.”
When the evening of the 6th arrived, and patrons began filing in beneath the marquee of the Orpheum, Brooks’ chest swelled with a mix of pride and excitement. The words of his librette, “ENTRA BASILIO” finally materialized as he took the stage to perform his terrazio at the end of the first act. It’s an experience he’ll never forget.
“The funny moments were funny, the beautiful moments were beautiful, it was…it was really great,” he recalled. “Our cast just really jelled and our timing was pretty spectacular. And I know we were kind of on a show-high, and everyone was feeling good about it, but a lot of my castmates were like, ‘Yeah, this is probably my favorite ‘Figaro’ that I’ve ever done and the audiences were very receptive as well.”
As for Brooks’ future at Opera Omaha, he said, “I’m doing my best to try and sound my best, trying to act my best, and trying to make everyone else around me better…and I don’t want to say anything for certain, but folks in Omaha may see me on the Orpheum stage next year.”
Visit operaomaha.org for more information.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.