Opera singer and voice instructor Aaron Sheehan ’98 won a Grammy for Best Opera Recording in February for a recording of baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s La descente d’Orphée aux enfers. Sheehan sang the title role with the Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble. A lecturer in the School of Music at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, Sheehan spoke with the university’s BU Today shortly before the Grammy awards show, and we excerpt that Q&A below.
But first, what effect has the Grammy win made on Sheehan’s life? “I have gotten a lot of press and media attention as of late, which is exciting and overwhelming at the same time,” he says. “For someone who is still somewhat introverted, it takes a lot of energy. I am enjoying it all, and trying to let it sink in as much as possible. And I am trying to remember to always stay humble—thank you, Mr. Noble!”
BU Today Q&A with Aaron Sheehan
Known internationally for a tone critics have described as “classy, clear, refined, polished, and lovely,” tenor Aaron Sheehan is best known for his interpretations of the oratorios and cantatas of Bach and Handel. But Sheehan moves easily from recital hall to opera stage, and has a prolific recording career. A seasoned performer who has toured Europe and South America as well as the United States, Sheehan has sung at the Tanglewoood Music Center, New York’s Lincoln Center, the Washington National Cathedral, and Boston’s Jordan Hall, among many other venues.
You have an international reputation as an interpreter of Bach cantatas and oratorios. Did a passion for this music lead you to perform it, or does your voice naturally lend itself to these baroque works?
I am lucky in that I am extremely passionate about Bach and baroque music and the light nature and flexibility of my voice is ideally suited for it.
What makes Bach’s music so endlessly compelling?
He was a genius. Think of the thousands of CDs of Bach’s music. Now think of how many different ways and ideas there are about how to perform his music. It’s incredible, and I would say that almost all of them are relevant in some way.
Your voice is known for its lyricism and beauty; could you describe what you’d like audiences to hear and experience when they listen to you?
I have three things I want my audiences to experience. I want them to understand my text. If they can’t understand what I’m saying, what’s the point of singing? I want them to be moved emotionally. If I don’t move you, for better or worse, then I have failed. And I myself love beauty and a beautiful voice, so I am always striving for my sound to have beauty in it. I hope an audience member comes away saying, “Wow, that was beautiful.”
You’ve been touted for your versatility. Can you give examples of your range as a tenor? Can or do you ever sing countertenor?
In terms of a vocal range, tenors usually have the smallest range, but we generally have to be comfortable between a low C and a high C, a two-octave range. I never sing countertenor, as I have a horrible falsetto, but I do a lot of haute-contre repertoire, which is a specialty of the French baroque.
Which opera roles have been your favorites and why?
Any opera based on the Orpheus legend. I have a special place in my heart for Monteverdi’s Orfeo, maybe because it was my first big role in graduate school, but it has also been an opera I have been lucky to come back to several times in my life. I think the story of love and loss resonates with a wide audience and keeps a 400-year-old opera relevant. It’s also very foreign-sounding to most operagoers, so there is the fun/freak factor as well.
How does performing in Europe and abroad help you develop as a musician and as a performer? Do you have a favorite place to perform?
I think that every musician needs to spend time either studying, or just traveling, in Europe. Almost all the music I perform was meant for the opera houses and great churches of Europe. Any experience a singer can have on stage is part of our development as a musician and a person. Singing in Jordan Hall in Boston is always thrilling. It is my favorite acoustic hall in the United States and the audiences are always appreciative. However, I just had the opportunity to sing in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, which is quite stunning as well.
Which tenors, living or not, have inspired you most?
Aksel Schiøtz and Anthony Rolfe Johnson are the tenors I most look up to.
What are the most important lessons you impart to your voice students here?
There are a couple of things I try to instill in all of my singers. I want my students to exude on stage the love that they have for singing. I want that love to be imparted to an audience. Also, there is never a time to rest on your laurels. There will always be someone there to take your place, so never stop practicing or having lessons. I still try and get lessons whenever I can.
What does it take—beyond practice, practice, practice—to be a successful professional in the world of classical music performance and recording?
I would say patience and persistence, talent, and luck.
Visit Aaron Sheehan’s website to learn more about his career.