Mastodon Burton Cole talks to Gary Lehman - The Wagnerian

Burton Cole talks to Gary Lehman

Written By The Wagnerian on Thursday 3 May 2012 | 8:37:00 pm

"A lot of the guys I grew up with on the south side of Niles, they didn't understand what I was doing. I didn't really understand what I was doing, either."

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He was a kid from Niles unsure of his direction, a guy who worked his way through school in Macali's grocery store in the Great East Plaza.

Flash forward to 2008 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. That same kid stands on stage taking bows as the curtain falls on Richard Wagner's opera "Tristan und Isolde." He sang the role of Tristan.

Gary Lehman recalls that it was both "my house debut and role debut the same evening, with James Levine in the pit, a legend, and up on the stage some of the greatest singers. You just sort of go, 'Holy crap, what just happened here?'

"It was just one of those out-of-body experiences. You're up till 5 in the morning with a performance high."

Lehman repeated the role with the Mariinsky Opera, St. Petersburg, Russia, in June 2008, with Leipzig Opera in Leipzig, Germany, in January 2009, and gave concert performances with London's Philharmonia Orchestra throughout Europe in August and September 2010.

Further Wagner roles have been Siegmund in "Die Walkure," also at the Met, and a recording of the title role in "Parsifal."

Now considered one of the world's premiere heldentenor repertoire singers, he said his rise to prominence can be directly traced to growing up in Niles.

"I'm sort of like this area. I consider myself more of a blue-collar singer," Lehman said. "You learn the value of an honest, hard day's work. This is how I always approached my singing."

Lehman will take the stage May 15 at Packard Music Hall, not in an opera but as the third guest in the Tribune Chronicle's "It All Started Here" speaker series. He will discuss his career, growing up in Trumbull County and will perform a selection of arias with a pianist.

"I had a great support system here,'' Lehman, a 1982 McKinley graduate, said recently. ''My high school choir director at Niles McKinley (Michael Weiher) was instrumental in pushing me to go into college and go into music. He put me in touch with professor David Starkey, and he took me under his wing. He told me, 'You have the talent to make a career out of this' and put me on the path and opened doors that I didn't know existed."

Still, opera singer isn't the norm for a kid from Niles.

"I got some ribbing from a lot of the guys I worked with at Macali's," he said. "One time, a bunch of these guys came to see me at a show at YSU. They had the Penguin Pub back then and they hit the pub before the show. So those eight or 10 guys sat up front in the center row, and every time I came on stage, they were whooping and hollering the whole show."

It's not exactly the usual demeanor at an opera, he said. "But you always knew they were pulling for you, too."

"A lot of the guys I grew up with on the south side of Niles, they didn't understand what I was doing. I didn't really understand what I was doing, either."

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