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Tenor returns home after years on world’s stage

May 24, 2008
Robert Plyler
Our little corner of the world is small and not heavily populated, but the population is filled with vast riches of talented people.

Some years back, I reviewed a production by the Lucille Ball Little Theatre of Jamestown of Frank Loesser’s ‘‘Guys & Dolls.’’ The cast and company did a nice job, but there was one performance which stood out above the rest.

In the second act of the musical, a room full of gangsters is forced to participate in a religious revival service. One of them, a goon named ‘‘Nicely-Nicely Johnson,’’ was ordered by his boss to give testimony of his religious faith. The heroic-sized actor playing the role stood up and sang the show-stopping tune ‘‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat’’ with such flash and power that when it was over, the audience didn’t know whether to leap to their feet in a mid-show ovation or collapse into their seats, exhausted by their investment of emotion.

This wasn’t nice community theater. It was stellar. It’s been approximately two decades since I heard it, but it is still very bright in my memory.

The singer who knocked out that audience was a Jamestown native who had left town for an extensive career as a professional performing artist, and was back in town for only a short while to take care of some family obligations. Not long ago, he moved back to town permanently.

His name is James Beal, and if you ask any member of the congregation at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, they’ll tell you he has become the church’s cantor and has brought a new power and enthusiasm to the church’s adult choir.

I’ve learned bits and pieces of his history in the arts of music and drama, but recently I thought it was time to sit down with him and learn more of his story so I could share it with my readers.

Starting a career

James Beal grew up in Jamestown on the edge of Allen Park. Relatively few boys in our city get the idea that the thing to do with their lives is an international career as an opera singer, but he did it.

But, not right away. ‘‘I guess I’ve always sung,’’ he told me. ‘‘I can remember singing ‘The Holy City’ on a broadcast on a Jamestown radio station when I was 8. My uncle, Charles Magnuson, loved music, and was constantly suggesting places I could sing and new pieces of music I could learn.’’

‘‘I started taking singing lessons at the age of 13,’’ he added. ‘‘I studied with Donald Bube. My lessons were on Wednesday evenings. My teacher would give me my assignments, and I’d go about my normal business for six days.

‘‘Then it would be Wednesday morning and I didn’t want to admit to my teacher that I had wasted my week, so as soon as I got out of school, I would call a woman who lived in my neighborhood. She played the piano, and she would patiently teach me the music I was supposed to have been studying for the whole week, and I’d go to my lesson and seem to have been working.’’

At 16, he was cast as one of the three Wise Men in a production of Menotti’s Christmas opera, ‘‘Amahl and the Night Visitors,’’ directed by R. Richard Corbin. It would be the first of many operatic roles.

After graduating from Jamestown High School, Beal went to Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. There, he would follow far from a traditional path. Blessed with a very high tenor voice — the most attention-grabbing of all the male voice parts and one of the most rare — he was in big demand, not only from the college’s music and theater programs, but from orchestras and performing companies all around southeastern Pennsylvania.

‘‘There were three newspaper music critics in Lancaster in those days. They kept a knowledgeable dialogue going on the subject of music, and gave us a reason to work for a top-quality performance. I’ve never been a scrapbooker, because I’ve always believed that one of the great things about music is that it touches the moment, it lives in the moment, and then it passes into memory,’’ he said.

‘‘If you’re studying to do something, and you get the opportunity to actually do whatever it is, you’re crazy if you don’t take advantage,’’ Beal suggested.

It would take nearly 10 years before he completed his bachelor’s degree at Franklin and Marshall. From there, he went on to a full scholarship to the performing arts program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

‘‘I was studying at a really good time,’’ Beal said. ‘‘There was a lot more government money to support the arts, and symphony orchestras and opera companies were opening, all over the U.S.’’

In Pittsburgh, the conditions of his scholarship required that he sing in various productions and singing ensembles at the university, but he was also able to do professional work in the Pittsburgh area and beyond, including a number of recordings which were much more rare in those days because the evolution of recording equipment made it very expensive and available only to top record labels.

At Carnegie Mellon, he sang the title role of the opera ‘‘Werther,’’ the role of the Duke in ‘‘The Marriage of Figaro’’ and a leading role in a production in the Chautauqua Amphitheater of the musical show ‘‘My Fair Lady.’’

‘‘I had a number of paying church jobs, and got to sing a number of oratorios with orchestras in that area. I remember doing ‘The St. Matthew Passion’ two different places,’’ he said.

Beal participated in the series of auditions which are sponsored each year by the Metropolitan Opera Company and had considerable success, achieving the status of finalist. In 1984, he made his debut as a recital artist at New York City’s famed Carnegie Hall. He was ready to make the full shift from student to professional artist.

Professional career

‘‘It’s difficult to make it as a classical singer in the United States,’’ Beal told me. ‘‘In Europe, even very small towns have an opera house, and people of all ages attend. Some people like opera and some people don’t, but they don’t start teaching children that if they enjoy opera there’s something wrong with them and that it’s punishment to have to listen.’’

In New York City, he earned his living as a messenger, driving to all corners of the big city in a truck. It was at this point in his career that the young Jamestown native made one of the decisions which would shape his life.

‘‘I had good reviews and good word of mouth from the Carnegie Hall debut, and I should have moved right into some decent jobs, but the agent I signed with was a nice person and very talented, but now I realize he just wasn’t pushing my career the way I needed him to do,’’ he said.

Beal decided to spend a few years in Europe, where nearly all young American singers started their careers back then. The value of the dollar was so high, back then, that it was possible to live fairly inexpensively and the large number of companies made it far more likely to get a role which would bring a singer to the attention of the people who did the hiring somewhere else.

He attended the American Institute of Opera Studies in Graz, Austria, and began a period of four years of journeying from city to city, sometimes performing and sometimes just auditioning.

Perhaps one reason he has not felt a need to keep scrapbooks is that he has a spot-on memory, able to spout list after list of performances, operatic roles, oratorio solos, cabaret clubs and more. There was the recital of a song cycle in Danish done in Denmark, and a production of ‘‘Madama Butterfly,’’ in which he had to learn the whole leading role again, this time in German.

He chuckles and reports that for some reason, the Germans will not call the tenor role in that opera ‘‘Pinkerton,’’ as is done in every other country, as far as he knows. ‘‘They insist on calling him ‘Linkerton,’ ’’ he said.

The trouble with auditioning in any performing art is the fact that hiring is so subjective. Often a director has heard someone who has exactly a quality he is looking for, in a role, but the company insists that he go through rounds of auditions, costing dozens of singers time and money when there is almost no change he will hire them, no matter how they do.

A director may be looking for a certain type of voice. ‘‘In the 1980s, it was common to want singers whose voice was strongest in the baritone range, but who could hit the top notes,’’ he said. A singer might be rejected because he didn’t bear any physical resemblance to the singer — already cast — who would be playing his brother, or because he wasn’t tall enough for the soprano, or for hundreds of reasons having little to do with his ability to perform his role.

‘‘Many times the difference between someone who has had a minor career and one who has become a household name turns out to be that he got an unfortunate haircut, or he got a bad cold at precisely the wrong time, or because a company decided to do an opera in which there wasn’t an appropriate role for him, instead of one in which he might have made a triumph.’’

Beal has been married twice, once to a non-singer and once to mezzo soprano Cheryl Laser, although both marriages ended in divorce. He said that a career in performing makes it extremely difficult to maintain a personal relationship.

‘‘Nobody puts on 10 or 12 operas or oratorios, all of which have a perfect role in them for one person, all in the same city,’’ Beal told me. ‘‘It’s necessary to be constantly traveling. Performances are planned specifically to take place on holidays and at times a wife or husband might want you to be home. If you turn down very many offers, the companies move on to hire someone else. You have to sing in the evening, and then there are often receptions for financial backers after the performance. Performers are usually so full of adrenaline, they can’t sleep for hours, so they stay up very late, so then they need to sleep very late.’’

He said that the human voice can be very fragile, and it’s necessary to do whatever is necessary to preserve it, which may mean refusing to stay in windy settings, however beautiful, or going for days without speaking, which can be very annoying to a spouse or companion.

‘‘It’s necessary to convince yourself that you’re talented, you do a good job, and you deserve the recognition and the employment. There’s no other way a person could endure the endless auditions, the rejections, often in favor of other singers one believes is less accomplished than oneself, and the other stresses of a performing career.’’

Back from Europe

In 1988, Beal made the difficult decision to leave Europe and move back to New York City. He decided that his career had achieved a certain degree of success, and numerous repetitions had convinced him that it was unlikely that one more audition or two more would elevate him to a greater success than he was already achieving.

Even despite this level of resignation, he was shocked to find that in the United States, he essentially had to start over again. He couldn’t even enjoy success at the level he had known in Europe.

He was now in his 40s and found the idea of working at an entry-level job and hoping to find a great success to be more than he could put himself through.

He continued to sing whenever an opportunity opened, but began working for a consulting firm. He started as a temporary employee, and in three years had risen to the role of vice president. He enjoyed working for the firm, but when his mother died and willed him his childhood home in Jamestown, he noted that the property tax on his Jamestown house was about equal to one month’s rent on his small apartment in New York City, and he moved back to Western New York.

The tenor still sings whenever the opportunity presents itself. He has done several featured performances with the Jamestown Choral Society. His ringing voice has become a staple with the St. Luke’s choir. He says he was drawn to St. Luke’s by the fact that Corbin, the director of his first opera, was organist and choir master at the church.

Despite the truly impressive list of operatic roles, Beal said he enjoys many kinds of music, including rock and roll, folk music, jazz, gospel and electronic music. He maintains a private voice studio and has given voice lessons to a number of area singers and considers some of them to be very talented.

He lists Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan among his strongest influences, and says they have taught him how to make a song he is singing into his own creation without toying with the composer’s creation.

‘‘I love to teach, and I love to sing, and I’m doing both of them. I earn most of my living by working for a medical technology firm, but there are few events in my life I would take back. Only a very few notes, too,’’ he said.

That’s an outlook, much to be admired.

Article Photos

James Beal



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