Thursday, June 24, 1999

Lebanon native opera's rising star

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Four years ago, after winning the 1995 Luciano Pavarotti International Competition in Philadelphia, rising opera star Hugh Smith had sung opera only regionally. He had not performed in Europe.

        This week, the Lebanon native makes his Cincinnati Opera debut as Rodolfo in La Boheme, having recently debuted with Chicago's Lyric Opera (Alfredo in La Traviata), sung the title role in Paris Opera's Don Carlo and made his Spoleto USA debut in Jenufa.

        He'll return to Chicago in fall, 2000, to sing Laca in Jenufa, and has a growing resume in Europe, including Cavaradossi (Tosca) with the Netherlands Opera.

        While the search for the next great tenor continues, Mr. Smith is known as “The Fourth Tenor” in St. Louis where he is famed for his “Tribute to Mario Lanza” programs.

        “My life has changed in that I have no life,” laughs Mr. Smith, 30, over lunch at Chateau Pomije in O'Bryonville. “I think my career is going better than I ever could have hoped for.”

        Soft-spoken and with a distinctive look that reflects his part-German, part-Cherokee heritage, the 6-foot-5 tenor turns heads when he walks onstage.

        When he let loose his “stentorian” voice in a recent St. Louis concert, “every word was examined for its dramatic effect and then propelled like a blazing fast ball directly at the audience, which grabbed on for dear life for an exhilarating ride,” wrote one critic.

        Although he considers himself lucky to be in demand, Mr. Smith, who lives in Philadelphia, is slowly adjusting to the idea of being on the road most of the year. “I pay $850 a month for rent, and I was home one month last year. It can be draining financially, and you have no real stability,” he says.

        “I've heard the first five years are tough. I have another year to go!”

        The 1987 Lebanon High School grad, son of elementary school teachers Hugh and Darlene Smith, was headed for a career as a school choral teacher when he went to Bowling Green State University. Midway through his master's degree, he made a career switch to opera. When he turned 30 while performing in Paris recently, he realized with a jolt that his 20s were over.

        “Where did my 20s go? I trained in music education, conducting, voice, opera and got a master's degree. It was really non-stop,” he says. “Between all that, I was singing in restaurants, and finally, singing nationally. I don't know where the time went.” @subhed:Superstar advice @body:

        Mr. Smith keeps in touch with Mr. Pavarotti (“I have his cell phone number.”), and one reason he is so busy is because of a piece of advice the superstar tenor gave him.

        “He said, "Don't make the mistake that I did, and only sing Italian. Make sure you do the German too. You have the voice,' ” Mr. Smith recalls. Consequently, he sings Italian, French and German opera, and is planning to sing his first Lohengrin in 2001 in Los Angeles.

        For his role in Cincinnati (which he will repeat in Hamburg next season), Mr. Smith aims to make Rodolfo “very original, very human and very young.”

        “When (Mimi) has fainted, and Rodolfo is carrying her in, he is happy. It's a bittersweet happiness,” he says. “If you keep that happiness — not showing him crying and worried — but we're going to be OK — when the blow comes at the end that she's died, it's even greater.”

        • What: Cincinnati Opera, Puccini's La Boheme, Sandra Bernhard, director; Edoardo Mueller, conductor; Hugh Smith (Rodolfo); Zvetelina Vassileva (Mimi); Cynthia Haymon (Musetta); Lester Lynch (Marcello); Daniel Mobbs (Schaunard) and Arthur Woodley (Colline). La Boheme, designed by Michael Yeargan, is a co-production between Florida Grand Opera, Palm Beach, Baltimore and Pittsburgh opera companies.

        ›When: 8 p.m., today and Saturday.

        • Where: Music Hall.

        • Tickets: $12-$80 (obstructed views only); 721-8222.


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