Jesse Darden remembers the day he donned scrubs and – from a safe distance – watched a surgical team perform a microlaryngoscopy. A screen over his head showed the surgeon making a tiny incision to remove a polyp, then closing the incisions with microsutures.
A self-described “vocal nerd” fascinated by the anatomy and physiology of singing, Darden had chosen The Ohio State University for his master of music degree because of its singing health specialization, which provided opportunities such as this to train musicians and other professionals in the use of the voice. Darden briefly considered becoming a speech pathologist. “I realized that I maybe didn’t have the temperament of a surgeon,” Darden said. “But it was still really fascinating.”
Darden grew up in Chapel Hill, N.C., the second of three sons of supportive parents, both of whom sold insurance. He followed his brother into the North Carolina Boys Choir at the age of eight. He performed in musical theatre throughout high school. He enrolled in the University of North Carolina at Greensboro where his studies in voice increasingly focused on opera.
Since completing his master’s degree, Darden has worked steadily in American opera. As a young artist, he performed for three seasons at the Chautauqua Opera, followed by two seasons at the Santa Fe Opera. Recognition as a regional finalist in the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions and a prizewinner at Chautauqua and the Gerda Lissner International Vocal Competition, plus further post-graduate studies at Boston University paved the way for a career-making relationship with Boston Lyric Opera. At BLO, he rose from the Emerging Artist program to an appointment as the 2019-2020 Principal Artist-in-Residence.
In November 2019, he co-starred in BLO’s production of Fellow Travelers, a Gregory Spears composition based on Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel. His portrayal of Timothy, a young gay man embarking on a passionate relationship during the “Lavender Scare,” persecutions of gay people during the McCarthy era, earned praise from the Boston Globe for his “melting” vocals and ability to express emotion “at the fertile crossroads of religious and carnal ecstasy, pride, and guilt.”
“I don’t think the process of being good on stage is separate from one of self-discovery,” Darden said. “I really think the more you learn about yourself, the more comfortable you are being vulnerable on stage, taking risks on stage. People can always tell in an audience if somebody is phony, if they’re faking it. They can sniff that out.”
Darden enjoys singing Mozart roles such as Ferrando, Tamino, and Belmonte, and 19th-century Italian and French Opera. He also has a strong commitment to modern and contemporary music, having sung the Male Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia at BLO, the title role in Candide at Union Avenue Opera in St. Louis, and covered the role of Robert Wilson in John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, about Manhattan Project scientists, at Santa Fe Opera. He’d like to sing more Benjamin Britten, especially Captain Vere in Billy Budd, and to sing “all of the Mozart tenors.”
Darden is based in New York City. The Covid-19 pandemic cancelled his role as soloist in Les Illuminations with the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston and a June 6 concert performance of the title role in Candide with the Boston-based Chorus pro Musica.
His lockdown routine has included daily practice, language study, and cooking, with weekend bike rides. Like so many other singers whose live performance work is on hold due to pandemic, he is experimenting with online programming, watching other performers create work from home and discussing project ideas with colleagues.
“People are trying to figure out how to make art now,” he said. “So in that sense, there is an odd silver lining to this period. You spend time thinking outside the box. But I do look forward to getting back on stage.”
At this writing, The Fall of the House of Usher, a Boston Lyric Opera production scheduled Nov. 18-22, is still on. Darden plays Roderick Usher.
“I love the process of making the art,” he said. “I love the process of building a role, building the skills required to do a role well and what you learn along the way. I think one way you can tell if you like a line of work is If you like the nuts and bolts, the kind of granular day to day work. And I really do.”
— Andrew Meacham