If we have heard it once, we have heard it a thousand times: The opera singer who hopes to last must learn to say no. Maria Callas never minded admitting that she had not always had that luxury. Neither, at 40, has the American tenor Brandon Jovanovich.
"When you're starting out, you're offered a wide range of roles, and you have to take them all to get work," Mr. Jovanovich said recently backstage at the Metropolitan Opera on his way to rehearse the knife fight for the season premiere of Richard Eyre's staging of Bizet's "Carmen" on Thursday evening. "It's only lately that I've been able a bit more to pick and choose."
When he followed his college girlfriend to New York in the mid-1990s, he thought that his future might lie in musicals or straight theater. "Opera was nowhere on the radar," Mr. Jovanovich (pronounced joh-VAHN-uh-vich) said. Yet his repertory has since run the gamut from Handel's "Semele" to the premieres of Jonathan Dove's "Flight" and David Carlson's "Anna Karenina."
He travels soon to Palermo, Sicily, to open the 2011 season of the Teatro Massimo in "Senso," a new opera by Marco Tutino commissioned for the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy. So far he has had the self-preservative instincts to turn down the marathons of Berlioz's "Troyens" and Wagner's "Meistersinger von Nürnberg," as well as a few beefy Italian roles that he felt were not good fits.
Mr. Jovanovich's unheralded Met debut came in January, midway through the first season of Mr. Eyre's "Carmen." As the dragoon Don José he won the approval of the Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina, who was scheduled for the title role that night but fell ill and joined him only later in the run. "A very fine singer and person as well as a top-notch colleague," Ms. Borodina called him the other day, and she is no easy diva to impress. The Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca, the production's original Carmen, who met Mr. Jovanovich only recently in rehearsal, has quickly become another fan.
"Brandon is great," Ms. Garanca said, "devoted, accommodating, attentive, funny, strong. He literally carries me on his hands, but at the same time he's a very sensitive artist. I'm looking forward very much to singing with him."
Born and bred in Billings, Mont., Mr. Jovanovich is descended from Serbs who emigrated generations ago to work the mines, where many also died. His father, who died 13 years ago, led a roustabout life that might have been scripted by Annie Proulx. His mother, divorced when Brandon was in his teens, still lives in Billings and sells Elizabeth Arden cosmetics at Dillard's department store.
Growing up, Mr. Jovanovich, now 6 foot 3, dreamed of a career as a linebacker, and with a football scholarship at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., he might have been on his way. But the cold there the winter of his freshman year was something else, even after Billings, so when a friend transferred to Northern Arizona University, in Flagstaff, he decided to do the same, this time on a music scholarship. "They wouldn't give me a football scholarship without having seen me," he said.
Starting as a bass-baritone in the chorus of "Carousel," he soon advanced to his first full solo role: the fatherly high priest Sarastro in Mozart's "Magic Flute." (The discovery of his natural upper register was yet to come.) But, 10 o'clock scholar that he was, he missed harmony and theory classes so regularly as to jeopardize his scholarship. The theater department came to the rescue for his senior year, and he graduated with performance credits ranging from Shakespeare (Petruchio in "The Taming of the Shrew") to Sondheim (Anthony in "Sweeney Todd"). It was after a brief stint of auditions in Los Angeles that he rejoined his college girlfriend, Cara Welch, a vocal-performance major, in New York. The two are now married.
Enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music, Mr. Jovanovich also began taking paying jobs around town. His first mention in The New York Times came in a 1996 review of the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players in "The Gondoliers" at Symphony Space. Anthony Tommasini noted Mr. Jovanovich's bright voice and strapping physique, singling out his Luiz as "winningly played," his stiff demeanor "a refreshing contrast to some of the mugging going on around him." But after a student production of "Rappaccini's Daughter," by the Mexican composer Daniel Catán, Mr. Tommasini sounded a note of concern. "Brandon Jovanovich looked dashing as Giovanni," he wrote, "but his light tenor voice was pushed hard by the high tessitura."
His school days over, Mr. Jovanovich shuttled from grand opera with the New York City Opera ("Salome," "Madama Butterfly") to light opera at the Paper Mill Playhouse ("The Student Prince") and Encores! ("The New Moon"), also moonlighting at the occasional wedding. A few seasons later, in 2007, he received the Richard Tucker Award, conferred on American opera singers deemed to be on the cusp of international stardom. His performance at the gala concert seemed inconclusive, that of a solid, personable artist, not a deep or thrilling one.
But two years later the days of faint praise were over. It wasn't just his voice. Americans looking for a native answer to the imaginative and versatile German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, now in his glory, may well have believed they had found him here.
For some the breakthrough came in April 2009 in Los Angeles, with a rare revival of "Die Vögel" ("The Birds"), by Walter Braunfels. Aristophanes viewed through the prism of "Tristan und Isolde," the piece culminates in a soliloquy of meditative transcendence, to which Mr. Jovanovich brought both serenity and effortless power. (Arthaus plans to release the production on DVD in November.)
That September, in San Francisco, painting in brooding, husky tones, Mr. Jovanovich lent the tormented stevedore Luigi of Puccini's "Tabarro" the sullen charisma of Brando in "On the Waterfront." In Dallas in May there was more Puccini when he revisited the callow naval lieutenant Pinkerton in "Madama Butterfly," a signature role. Against his sunny timbre and Brad Pitt insouciance, what child-bride geisha would have stood a chance?
Dvorak's gothic fairy tale, "Rusalka," presented at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2009 (a version now available on CD from glyndebourne.com), deserves special mention for the sculptural phrasing, shaded dynamics and wide spectrum of colors Mr. Jovanovich lavished on the Prince. That constellation augurs well for Mr. Jovanovich's first Siegmund in "Die Walküre" next June, in Francesca Zambello's production of Wagner's "Ring" cycle at the San Francisco Opera. To clear his throat, Mr. Jovanovich will also play Froh, a minor god in "Das Rheingold," who stands around for long stretches to deliver two or three potentially incandescent phrases. How much arm twisting did it take to get him to do it?
"Not much," Mr. Jovanovich said. "My ego isn't that big yet."
Perhaps because he has had to take his time. "It's pretty obvious, isn't it?" Mr. Jovanovich said. "My ascent has been slow, very slow, but steady." In 1997, when he sang "Rappaccini's Daughter," Mr. Catán predicted that he would grow into his voice only in his mid-30s, warning that the challenge in the meantime was simply not to ruin it.
Speight Jenkins, the general director of the Seattle Opera, who invited Mr. Jovanovich into the first class of his company's young artists program in 1998, remembers his Mozart as lacking in smoothness. "But I thought he had the capacity to be great and kept saying so," Mr. Jenkins said recently by e-mail. "He returned to Seattle in 2008 in 'Tosca' and was brilliant."
On the technical side Mr. Jovanovich gives great credit to the New York voice teacher and coach Neal Goren. "Neal stripped away so many layers of advice I'd gotten over the years," he said, "and boiled everything down to breath support and placement. When all is said and done, singing is a matter of relaxation, of getting out of the way of what your voice can do."
But none of this is simple, said Mr. Goren, who as a young pianist helped Luciano Pavarotti learn his music.
"Luciano used to say that the principles of singing could be taught in three or four lessons," Mr. Goren said. "He said he knew what to do when he was 17, but it had taken until he was 40 until he could do it.
"Coming from a strong American work ethic, Brandon was taught that the harder you work, the greater the result will be. He was pushing like crazy. And the more he pushed, the smaller his voice became. But singing isn't about working hard. It's about coordination. It took years for Brandon to stop pushing and for his real voice to come out. Now it's like a tree trunk, sturdy from the bottom through the middle to the top."
Mr. Jovanovich prefers a different simile. "I think of my voice the way I think of a wine," he said. "When it was young, it did a serviceable job. Now it's matured and settled. It's a decent glass."
It's time now to start saying yes to "Les Troyens" and "Die Meistersinger," Mr. Jovanovich has decided. Both—along with Beethoven's "Fidelio" and the youthful Wagner's rarely heard "Rienzi"—are on his agenda in future seasons, which will include extensive stays in Europe. As the father of three, who used to travel with him everywhere, nomad style, he relishes the prospect of spending all of 2013 there, home-schooling the children.
"The worst part of this job is being away from my family," he said. "Sometimes it feels like I'm raising my kids on Skype."