Can a demo tape or compact disc help you to get more jobs?
Jeffrey Wells says no, and he’s got both a demo tape and a privately-issued album of inspirational songs that show off his resonant bass-baritone voice. After 18 years of singing professionally, he declares, “Tapes, reviews and recommendations don’t help that much. If they don’t know you—if they haven’t heard you in person—they don’t want to hire you.”
Wells’s religious album, entitled “Then Sings My Soul” (Fortress 790-060-8990), was put together in cooperation with a producer in Nashville. It was a big, expensive project involving a 43-piece orchestra and a dozen backup singers. Not having a major label, Wells self-financed this project. “If it’s not on a major label, crossover albums don’t help [an operatic career]—unless you’ve already established yourself in the business,” he says. “It has helped my notoriety among non-opera goers, and broadened my base. People [who wouldn’t otherwise] come to the opera because of it. It’s exposure. But it hasn’t helped me get jobs.”
At 44 and “just hitting my stride,” Wells does a lot of assorted devils in the opera house, along with Olin Blitch in Floyd’s Susannah—a signature role he’s done in about eight productions. “I was raised in the south in the Baptist Church,” he says. “I’m a former youth and music minister; I understand the role.” He’ll soon be doing his first Rheingold Wotan in San Francisco.
But making his album of decidedly non-operatic tunes has helped him vocally, Wells avers. “This recording has been great for me. It taught me about my voice, and what I can do with it when I’m pushed to my limit—and I was pushed to my limit in that recording studio! It’s a very different kind of singing, and it made me realize I could do some of the same things—like using falsetto—with my operatic singing.”
Wells believes that some kinds of recordings—and hype—can help an operatic career. “Some careers are based on hype. Some opera companies will often cast leading roles based on the recording industry’s top names. You can’t blame them— audiences want to hear the people they know from records—and that’s not to say that [those singers] don’t deserve to be where they are, but there are so many talented people who don’t get a fair shake.”
“It’s a tough business; there’s such a wide range between the number-one singers and the number-six.” Not helping matters is what he calls ‘Russian-mania:’ singers from the former Soviet bloc have been enthusiastically welcomed by American critics—and often work for less money than their American equals.
So how do you get hired? “Some of it’s having an agent who cares enough to go out and beat the bushes for me. I’ve had the same wonderful agent for 15 years. Recently he got very excited by the work I did in Billy Budd and The Damnation of Faust. And with this renewed excitement, he’s been going out and getting me job after job after job.
“And part of getting jobs is making yourself available when maybe you don’t want to be available. I’ve found with companies—even at the highest level—that if I scratch their back, they’ll throw me a bone. Sometimes I have to humble myself and perhaps do a role I’m not too fond of. I believe I’m a good actor, and I like to do parts that call for some fire. I’m not a divo, but I truly believe in my talent. I do like to be a part of thefamily. I’m a team player. And in the long run, I believe that pays off.”
Jeffrey Wells is an international opera star having performed with virtually every major opera company in the U.S. and Europe. He is a veteran of 71 roles in six languages including over 300 performances at the Met in over 11 different operas. He has recorded on several labels and appears in three operas available on videocassette. Mr. Wells is also a frequent symphony, choral and concert soloist with major orchestras. He recently released his own CD of Christian music, “Then Sings My Soul” on Fortress Records.