Interview by: Don of Don411.com
Coordinated by: Brett Oberman of Keith Sherman & Associates www.ksa-pr.com
October 30, 2017
1. Was there one single moment you wanted to be involved in opera or was it a series of events leading up to the decision?
(Christiaan Smith) I guess you could say I’ve been involved in music since I was two when my mom had me banging on pots and pans in the living room. I graduated to piano lessons at age 7, got my first guitar at age 10, sang live for the first time in my punk rock band in seventh grade, played acoustic shows and sang in musicals and choir in high school, and then got three degrees in classical singing. Still, if anyone had told me in high school that I’d be an opera singer I would’ve thought, “No way, that’s crazy.” But auditions kept happening, opportunities kept cropping up, and I just kept doing it. There was a really special moment early in 2008 when I was assisting the director of La Bohème at Madison Opera. The high B-flat in the Act III tenor mini-aria “Mimi é una civetta” tore out of Dinyar Vania so perfectly. It was the first time I appreciated all of the preparation that went into it – his 10,000 hours of singing training, all of the people working in management, backstage, and in the orchestra pit to make that moment happen (probably about 100 people in all). All that, just to say the words, “I love her, but I’m afraid.” It really hit me. That’s when I thought, “I need to do that.”
2. In your own Carnegie Hall debut of “Songs We Know,” how much planning and rehearsals was involved to get the program just right to your liking?
(Christiaan Smith) We wanted to do a few test concerts to try out the material before a live audience since nothing like this is has been done before by an opera singer. I’m rearranging popular songs to be sung as art songs, completely in an operatic style. On top of that, I’m writing all the piano arrangements myself, and I’m not a piano player. Casey Robards, my accompanist, has had a lot of helpful tweaks to my arrangements as we’ve gone along. So far, we’ve done the concert in four different venues, going as far back as early March of this year. The concert has been in development for over year.
3. When you choose pieces to perform, is it done by desire or by choice to enhance with a baritone sound? (i.e. improve upon a piece according to your standards.)
(Christiaan Smith) I started with a list of my favorite songs, combined that with a list of the top 40 songs of the century, and hand selected pieces from that master list that I thought would be good for an operatic treatment. I love the original versions of all the songs, so I don’t look at this as an improvement, necessarily. I like to see it as a reinterpretation in a style many people may not be familiar with.
4. What artist would you like a tour with if given an opportunity?
(Christiaan Smith) It’s hard to play favorites because I have so many. Since it’s a new venture for me, I’d just like to see people smiling after Carnegie Hall on Nov. 18th and I’d like my new single, “All The Way,” to make a good showing on iTunes and Spotify.
5. Why the jump from the world of opera to popular music?
(Christiaan Smith) For me, it doesn’t feel like a jump because I’ve been writing songs on guitar since seventh grade. I’ve always traveled with my guitar for every opera gig I’ve done, and I even schlepped it with me for all 326 shows as Gaston in the national tour of Beauty and the Beast. So, pop music and songwriting have always been a part of me, ever since making things up on our piano when I was five before I even started taking lessons. I’ve long wanted to combine the worlds of opera and pop music, mainly to assuage the tension that I’ve felt from both sides. There’s a gap. It seems that oftentimes the pop listeners feel like they can’t understand the operatic style of singing. On the other side it seems, perhaps, that some of the institutions in the opera world don’t think of popular music as having much depth, yet I’ve watched many of my opera colleagues listen to pop artists in their dressing rooms to get ready for a show. The musical landscape we now live in is too diverse for genre-elitism, so I’ve tried to select some popular songs that have gravity and give them a treatment that shows the opera community how meaningful they are, while also showing the pop people that opera singing isn’t this big scary thing.
6. What current projects you are working on?
(Christiaan Smith) Right now I’m about to head to Nashville to do a show, write, and record more songs for my new album, and I’m planning a number of shows leading up to a tour next summer.
7. What advice would you have given your younger self that you know now?
(Christiaan Smith) I actually have a notebook full of tips and tricks for myself. My dad trained as a psychologist, so we tend to be pretty analytical. The best advice I’ve learned recently, though, is the old adage, “Perfect is the enemy of good,” which I’d like to modify to: “Perfect is the enemy of good enough.” It’s similar to a term some of my software friends bat around, “Minimum Viable Product,” from the book Zero to One by Peter Thiel about lean startups. My opera training got me so focused on perfection because I spent so much time in lessons agonizing over my consonants, vowels, tongue position, and whether I’m “breathing” from my diaphragm, my back, or my groin. But I wish I would’ve known how much faster you can progress if you’re not focused on perfection but instead on making great products, like recordings, videos, or live shows and putting them out there. Spend less time perfecting, and more time producing and releasing.
8. What questions would you want asked of you that you haven’t been in the past, and what would be the responses?
(Christiaan Smith) There were a couple good questions asked in interviews when I was playing Gaston that are worth sharing.
Them: Does it ever get boring, doing the same show 300+ times?
Me: Never. There’s always something new I learn, every time I do the show. Every show is slightly different for me. Add to that the fact that every show is different for my colleagues, and you start to see how each show becomes its own unique entity. It’s a treat to be able to dig in and learn so much about one show.
Them: Gaston’s not a good guy, is that type-casting?
Me: Not at all, it took me a while to get comfortable being that aggressive, actually.
Them: Are you especially good at expectorating?
Me: You’ll have to come to the show to find out.
It’s fascinating to see people’s responses when they find out I was Gaston. They usually either guess that I was him once they find out I was in Beauty and the Beast, or say that Gaston makes sense after looking at me. They also either love him or hate him, and I wonder, how does someone love Gaston? I think what people love about him is that he’s a perfect example of what not to do, so much so that it’s comedic. And comedy wins hearts.
I also get asked “what I want to do” because I’m doing such seemingly different things at the moment. I’d like to keep singing for people, whether it’s in a theater, with a band, with an orchestra, or on film.
9. What are some fun things others should know about you?
(Christiaan Smith) I’m a snowboard instructor, I built and raced a go-kart when I was 13, I built a guitar when I was 16 that I still play, and I think turtles are pretty awesome.
10. Do you have any charitable organizations you care about?
(Christiaan Smith) My friend runs Les Couleurs NYC, a charity that brings education to orphans in Haiti. I’ve been part of their events for a while, and I recently had a great time playing one of their fundraisers. Additionally, one of the practice concerts for the Carnegie Hall show was a charity event that raised enough money to get a women’s entrepreneurship initiative off the ground at Bergstrom-Mahler Museum in Neenah, WI. The initiative helps women in shelters make and sell glass art.
Christiaan has sung on concerts which also featured six-time Grammy Award Nominee Frederica von Stade as well as Tony Award Winners Alice Ripley and Randy Graff. He has performed with NEA Jazz Master Richard Davis. Christiaan’s songwriting was featured when he opened for one of President Obama’s campaign speeches, and he has sung opera across the US and in Italy.